The Special U-Boot Missions In North America, Iceland and Canada 1942-44
by Alberto Rosselli
During the Second World War, the German Naval Force and the secret services (Kriegsmarine and Abwehr) planned and performed several special naval missions and offensive operations along the coasts of North America, Iceland and Canada. These actions, all performed by Admiral Doenitz’s U-boats, were planned for different purposes, mainly strategic, tactical and propagandistic. Being not able to directly hit or damage the great American war machine (the hugeness of the Atlantic Ocean
and the strict aero-naval patrolling of the Allies could not actually allow any airplane or vessel to the American coastlines), the strategists of Berlin thought to employ their submarines, as these means had guaranteed - since the very beginning of the conflict - an almost interrupted series of successes against the cargo and military fleets of the allies. Nevertheless, both the small dimensions of the hulls and the reduced armament on board could not allow these vessels to be employed for coastline
bombing operations. Yet some German U-boots (as well as some Japanese submarines, which were been deployed along the north American coasts as from January 1942) succeeded in perform some sporadic and risky bombing missions against north-eastern targets such as Jacksonville, Florida, which was attacked in winter 1942. As a matter of fact, the German high command did not want to be a simple spectator, especially after the Japanese attack to Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941.
So it soon began to plan some projects finalised to sabotage industrial and military facilities by means of commandos and secret agents, who had to be brought to the other coast of the Atlantic Ocean by special long range U-Boots.
On 12th December 1941 (the day after the German declaration of war to the United States of America), Hitler had a meeting with admiral Karl Doenitz (commander in chief for submarine fleet) and admiral Wilhelm Canaris (chief of Abwehr and of the Military Secret Service) in order to be updated about the actual possibilities of success of such missions in the north American continent. Doenitz – who disliked the jeopardising of professional crews and good vessels in risky and relatively useless
missions – tried at first to dissuade Hitler from giving its approval. On the contrary, admiral Canaris supported without hesitation the project: even though he had never been a convinced Nazi, he felt that it was very important to try at least some attempts to damage the powerful American industrial organisation which – being far and safe from the Axis’ bombing attacks - was the fundamental support for the whole allied forces. As a consequence, admiral Doenitz was compelled to make some fifteen
submarines available, which were to be technically transformed for the long range special actions’ purpose. Canaris, on his hand, committed himself to supply the necessary personnel to perform intelligence and sabotage operations. He could rely on the huge network of German spies built up by Abwehr since before the outbreak of the war (at the end of 1941 in North, Central and South America there were some tens of German agents, ready to enter in action if needed). In April 1942, the first trial mission along the southern coasts of Iceland (two men of Abwehr got off an U-boot and for a couple of days succeeded in collecting some precious information about the military installations on the island, coming back onboard the same submarine which brought them there) led Doenits and Canaris to inform the Führer that they were ready to operate directly in the US territory. The results obtained and the great expertise and knowledge acquired by the U-boots already deployed since the end of
1941 against the allied vessels in northern, southern and central Atlantic, happened to be very useful. In order to fit the hulls for the new missions, the technicians of Kriegsmarine worked hard and to modify the submarines. Some of them, for instance, were deprived of part of the torpedo weaponry, while at the same time were provided with a more powerful anti-aircraft system. Beyond this, the Germans launched also several special submersible supply units (the so-called milk cows) (1) to support the submarines during the attacks and those ones employed in peculiar missions (the milk cows happened to be very precious also for the supply of those U-boots deployed in far areas such as the Indian Ocean).
As far as the crews were concerned, Doenitz found easily – although reluctantly – the men suitable for daring actions along the north American coasts. Since February 1942 many German oceanic submarines had been sinking tens of allied cargoes, even at only less than a mile from the coast. The first special mission against the United States was scheduled in June 1942. It consisted in the landing of some saboteurs whom, once reached the US territory, should have to contact other German agents,
in order to be taken nearby the industrial plants and facilities to sabot.
For the planning of this aspect of the mission, admiral Canaris appointed Walter Kappe, a thirty-five aged agent who had lived for 12 years in the United States. Kappe had been enrolling in Abwehr’s lists since 1939 and, given his proven skill and loyalty to Nazism, he granted also suitable ideological characteristics. After he had checked the files of the Ausland Institute (the organization for the repatriation of German emigrants), Kappe selected eight skilled agents and divided them into two groups: the first, commanded by John Dasch, was made of Ernest Peter Burger, Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin. The second one was under the command of Edward Kerling and composed by Hermann Neubauer, Werner Thiel and Herbert Hapt The eight members were sent at the beginning of April 1942 to a Abwehr’s training camp, where they learnt all the secrets of explosives. On May 23rd, John Dasch and Edward Kerling were called by Walter Kappe who reported them about the details of the operations. Dasch’s team should have been given the extremely difficult task to destroy the power plants of Niagara Falls and three important factories of Aluminium Company in Illinois, Tennessee and New York. The task of the second team appeared to be as dangerous and difficult as the first one: Kerling should have to mine the railway gateway of Pennsylvania Railroad in Newark, the St. Louis’ and Cincinnati’s canal sluices and – in alternative – the main supplying water pipes of New York City. In addition, both the teams should have to mine some shops owned by Jude retailers, in order to cause panic amongst the peaceful American citizens.
The eight agents were transferred by train to Brest (France), from where they sailed on board of two oceanic submarines of the local flotilla. Kerling’s team was on the U-584
(VIIC type) (2) under the command of captain Joachim Deecke. This U-boot sailed on the night of may 24th 1942 to an isolated shore near Jacksonville (Florida). The day after, Dasch and his men sailed with the U-202
(VIIC type), commanded by captain Hans-Heinz Lindner, heading to a natural harbour southbound of Long Island, close to East Hampton. After an only 15-days trip, both the teams got off the submarines with their cargo of explosives. Things did not went the way they expected: Dasch’s group was discovered pretty soon afterwards, while they were digging holes to hide out the explosives. A young coastguard denounced them all, after having denied a considerable amount of money offered to him by Dasch himself, in exchange of his silence. Dasch and Burger, to save themselves, confessed everything to the FBI.
In the meantime, Kerling’s team landed safely at Ponte Verda Beach (25 miles south-east from Jacksonville), buried the arms and head for the targets, just as the FBI – fully aware about the whole operation – was ready to catch the saboteurs in a trap. Between July 4th and 10th, all the eight German spies were arrested and tried summarily: six of them were condemned to death, while Dasch had thirty years and Burger hard labour for life.
In the same period as the unlucky mission of Dasch and Kerling was planned, the high command of Kriegsmarine carried out another transoceanic mission, lesser in importance but difficult as well. On April 25th, 1942 a lonely agent belonging to a special department of Abwehr – Marius A. Langbein, a former navy’s officer – sailed at Lorient (France) on a minelayer VIID type subarine (perhaps the U-217
of captain Amelung von Varendorff) to reach the coast of New Brunswick, where he landed after a three-weeks trip (3). Scope of the mission was to control the allied traffic of military and cargo vessels in the port of Halifax. After the usual burial of his equipment in a shore near St. Martin, Langbein – who have lived in Canada for a period before the war – changed his mind. He reported actually some information on the ships’ traffic but, after a few months, he changed identity (as Alfred Haskins) and he deserted.
Once he reached Ottawa – where he enjoyed his stay for a period thanks to the money supplied by Abwehr – Langbein in December 1944 gave him up to the Canadian authorities, which were particularly benevolent with him. Langbein was acquitted, as the jury stated that he did not commit any hostile act against the Canadian State.
After quite a long period of inactivity, both Kriegsmarine and Abwehr decided to start planning again operations in North America, in spite of the poor results obtained from the previous missions. This time, the targets and the goals seemed to be more original and daring. On 18th September 1943, the U-537
(IX C40 type) of captain Peter Schrewe sailed from Kiel to Bergen (Norway) with a particular cargo (4): there was in fact on board Professor Kurt Sommermeyer, a scientist specialized in meteorological equipments, together with two assistants of his. Sommermeyer was put in charge by admiral Canaris for the installation of a special automatic station for atmospheric surveys, to be placed in a fit position along the western coast of Labrador. This device – a Wetter-Funkgerat (WFL) built on purpose by Siemens – was at that time a state-of-the-art patent. Produced only in 21 units, the Siemens device – provided with a 150 watt Lorenz 150 FK type transmitter, powered by 10 boxes of dry nickel-cadmium high voltage batteries – could have been able to report in large advance (through transmitted radio impulses) the weather conditions of the north-west Atlantic area to all the U-boots heading to that zone. On October 9th, once provisions and bunker were loaded, the U-537
left the base of Bergen and – after a fairly good trip – arrived on the 22nd to Martin Bay, at the northern end of Labrador, cautiously remaining underwater to avoid bad surprises.
Sommermeyer, helped by one assistant and ten seamen, loaded onboard four tenders the device’s dismounted and packed components. They waited for a providential bank of fog and soon afterwards the flotilla covered the 300 meters to the dry land. The U-boot’s crew on the bridge was on the alert – ready to enter in action with the 88 mm gun and the Vierkling four-gunned machine (20 mm) – as the area was covered by Anglo-Canadian air patrols and the danger to be spotted was very high. The
Germans managed to unload and carry the 100 kg Siemens’ machine on the top of a rise. There, the technicians assembled, tried and camouflaged it and came back to the submarine. The whole operation lasted about four hours. As per the instructions received, captain Schrewe waited underwater for 24 hours, to be sure about the correct working of the transmitter. On October 23rd, at 17.40 hours, the U-537
sailed on the route to Lorient, where it landed on December 8th (a couple of weeks later, captain Schrewe’s submarine sunk in Atlantic Ocean while it was circumnavigating Africa to reach Penang in Far East).
Even though this mission was carried out successfully, the Germans never took advantage of this installation: the station in fact worked and transmitted only for a few days, then fell silent definitely. Notwithstanding the fact that the equipment turned into a failure, the documents found by Franz Selinger of Siemens in 1970 testify that Sommermeyer tried again the exploit in spring-summer 1944. This time the U-boots employed were three. The first two vessels (unfortunately no details of these came
to us) managed to land a couple of devices on the central-eastern coast of Greenland and in the Svalbaard Islands (5). The two equipments followed the same destiny of the first one, even if they were more technologically advanced.
An odd episode is linked to the Greenland’s station. Albert Speer – in his Memories of Third Reich – writes about the existence of a "not better identified meteorological station in Greenland […] A few days before the final collapse, I was contacted by a Luftwaffe’s officer who suggested me to take off on a six-engined Blom-Voss to reach that far base in Greenland…". It goes without saying that the officer was not aware of the type and characteristics of the German meteo base, whose dimensions were
similar to a dog’s bed. However, Speer preferred to remain in Germany.
Let’s go back to the missions. The third and last submarine, the U-867
(IX D2 type) (6) sailed at the beginning of July 1944 from Bergen, heading to Labrador to substitute the device installed the year before but, unluckily, the U-boot was sunk half way to the destination by an US antisubmarine assaulter.
The last mission carried out jointly by Kriegsmarine and Abwehr against U.S.A. was the well-known Pastorius, which saw the famous German spy Erich Gimpel charged of the crazy goal to find out and destroy the laboratories where the atomic bomb was under construction. On 26th September 1944, Gimpel – together with the English-born agent William Colepaugh, recruited in Abwehr’s staff – sailed from Kiel on the U-1230
, commanded by captain Hans Hilbig. On board the submarine, the two agents
had arms, explosives, 60,000 dollars cash and the same value in diamonds.
The plan provided a first call at Horten (Norway), probably to confuse the efficient English intelligence service. On October 8th, the U-boot sailed again heading to Maine’s coast. After a difficult 51 days’ trip due to the bad weather conditions, the submarine arrived to Cape Cod’s roads. Hilbig followed the route to Frenchman’s Bay, where he arrived on October 29th. Late at night – thanks to the favour of a snowfall – the captain surfaced and reached the distance of a hundred meters from the shore. The two agents onboard a tender landed 15 minutes later, together with two seamen who helped to unload the weapons and explosives. Hilbig did not sail back off the coast but remained there to patrol the area. A few days later, in fact, he intercepted and sank the Canadian cargo Cornwallis. He then headed back to Germany, avoiding safely an U.S. anti-submarine ship and an air patrol taken off from the aircraft carrier Bougue. After a mission lasted almost 90 days, the U-1230
landed in the Norwegian base of Kristiansand on 13th February 1945. The American intelligence service succeeded also this time to undercover and arrest the two German saboteurs, also thanks to the incautiousness of Colepaugh, who visited some American friends his during the stay. He was caught by the police on December 26th and confessed the whole plan to the FBI’s agents. Gimpel was arrested four days later in New Yourk City. Both the spies were tried and while Colepaugh was sentenced to death by hanging, Gimpel had a more benevolent destiny. Condemned to death, he had his verdict commuted, as president F. D. Roosevelt died. In the United States in fact they use to suspend all the capital sentences on the occasion of the president’s death. The successor Henry Truman commuted the judgement into hard labour for life. In the middle 50s’, Gimpel was graced and came back to Germany.
With the failure of Mission Pastorius the German attempts to penetrate by naval means the north American territory during the Second World War definitely ended. Even though it seems that a few days before the end of the war a couple of oceanic submarines sailed from Bergen, this time carrying onboard several staff officers of the Nazi party and a huge quantity of cases filled up with gold and diamonds.
Nobody knows anything about the final destination of that precious cargo. The Israeli intelligence service – usually well-informed on these matters – deems that at least on of the two submarines reached safely the coast of Argentina. But this is another story.
1. The VII type U-boot (dwt 1084/1345 tons) belonged to the category of supplying submarines, four of which started their activity between May and August 1943. The central compartment was utilized for 25 torpedoes, while the normal reserve consisted of other 14 arms. Other models derived from VII and IX types were transformed in milk cows, i.e. units able to supply other U-boots – apart from weapons – also with gasoil, food, medicals and fresh water.
2. This unit, rather light, displaced 769/1070 tons, had a 8500 miles/10 knots range and was armed with five tubes for 14 torpedoes, an 88 mm aft gun and a single or four 20 mm machine guns. It was crewed with 44 men.
3. This unit (dwt 965/1285 tons) had a 11200 miles/10 knots range, In its central section, aft the false tower, there were five vertical wells capable of three mines each. The bunker capacity of this model was more than the other patterns. The first vessel of this series (U-boot 213) was launched on 24th July 1941.
4. 1144/1545 dwt, 13850 miles/10 knots range. The weaponry consisted of six tubes for 22 torpedoes, one 105/45 mm gun, one 37 or 20 mm machine gun. Crewed with 49 men.
5. As from 1940, the Kriegsmarine deployed two meteorological vessels in North Atlantic and in the Greenland Sea, m/v Mfinchen and m/v Laurensberg, carried out for several months surveys and data transmissions. Between summer and fall 1941 the two units were captured (with their precious codes) by the English Royal Navy. The high command in Berlin – with the loss of these two important landmarks – decided to install a new permanent base on the Svalbard Islands, whose coal mines and
meteo-bases had been evacuate and destroyed on 25 August 1941 by the British Navy. At about the end of August a couple of large Blom-Voss and Dornier hydroplanes, supported by two special Junkers Ju52 equipped with supplementary tanks, disembarked at Spitsbergen a group of 10 Luftwaffe’s specialists with equipments, weapons and supplies. As from the middle of November 1941, it seems that on the archipelago there were two meteo and one radio stations, with about twenty scientists, technicians and soldiers. There is no sure information about the fate of this extreme German base and all the men who worked on it.
6. A 1616/2150 tons dwt boat; 31500 miles/10 knots range; same weaponry as IX C40 type. Crewed with 57 men.