In June of 1942, two teams of Nazis were dropped off the coast of Long Island and Florida by U-boats. Dubbed Operation Pastorius after Francis Daniel Pastorius, Quaker, anti-slavery activist and founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683 (now a neighborhood of Philadelphia), the saboteurs’ mission was to damage US industrial and transportation infrastructure by planting bombs in aluminum and magnesium plants, railways, major canals, waterways and locks. While they were at it, they were to blow up Jewish-owned stores too, because it’s just not a Nazi party if you don’t target some Jews.
We’ve known about the plan since the saboteurs were caught within weeks of their arrival, but a newly declassified MI5 report reveals new information about just how incompetent these clowns were, despite their months of training at a sabotage school outside of Berlin. They supposedly were taught everything from bomb-making to secret writing to how to use disguises to blend in like chameleons. The saboteurs also memorized a long list of target locations, their vulnerabilities and detailed instructions on how to damage them.
The operation failed almost immediately, mainly because the would-be spies were just awful at it. The leader of the Long Island team, George John Dasch, had gotten drunk in a Paris bar and boasted that he was a secret agent before even stepping foot on the submarine that would transport him to the US. Then when they landed on a beach near Amagansett, Long Island, June 13, 1942, they barely had time to strip off their German uniforms and bury them in the sand along with all their sabotage equipment (bombs, detonators, weapons, ammo) before a Coast Guardsman found them. One of the guys hadn’t even had time to put on his civilian clothing; he was still in his bathing suit.
Dasch offered to pay the Coast Guardsman $300 if he forgot he’d ever seen them, which of course only made him more suspicious. He was unarmed and outnumbered, so he seemingly accepted the bribe but then hightailed it to headquarters to report the shady activity. By the time the Coast Guard got back to the spot, the saboteurs had taken a train into the city.
Four days later, the Florida team managed to land south of Jacksonville and disperse according to plan without bumping into any Coast Guard patrols, but neither of the two teams ever accomplished a single destructive act. Dasch was so scared he couldn’t pull this cockamamie scheme off and that one of his colleagues would turn them all in to get a deal, he decided to do it first. One day after landing, he phoned the FBI.
Both teams were eventually arrested after the team leader, George John Dasch, called up the FBI from a New York hotel “saying that he was a saboteur and wished to tell his story to [FBI chief J. Edgar] Hoover.” His request was refused, but Dasch did come to an FBI building where he told the whole story — a confession that took five 10-hour days.
One of the men in the Florida team [, Peter Burger,] “assisted authorities in causing his own arrest by going into a FBI office when ‘Wanted’ notices were already out for him, pretending that he had just arrived from Mexico and wanted to clear up his military service papers,” the report said.
The MI5 author of the report said it was possible Dasch had planned his surrender as soon as he was given the assignment in Germany and used the operation as his personal escape route from Germany. Each saboteur was caught and sentenced to death, except for Dasch and another operative who had turned on the team. Both were later deported back to Germany, the file said.
When they were arrested, the FBI found $174,588 on them, which means that these eight saboteurs with their months of training in chemistry and timing devices and maps had spent exactly $612 among them, most of it on clothes, food, lodging, travel, and $260 bribing the Coast Guard. Despite the evidence of his cravenness and incompetence, when Dasch died in 1992 he still claimed that he was a hero who had deliberately defied Hitler’s dastardly orders to save American lives.
You can download the entire report from the National Archives website for the next 28 days free of charge. There were scores of other MI5 records released along with this one. There’s an interesting podcast about the release on the National Archives website as well.