Lots of people like spy stories, for some reason. Secret Agent 007 and his friends are really popular – and glamorous. Real spying is seldom so elegant. The following things are usually true about real spies:
- They tend to work in unglamorous settings such as power plants, the better to gather intel and sabotage the enemy.
- They tend to dress in drab clothing and behave as inconspicuously as possible. They avoid driving flashy cars.
- Spies do not often engage in acts of spectacular derring-do. They are more likely to be taking surreptitious snapshots of military installations, embedding messages in internet photos, or throwing the odd spanner into the industrial works.
- Although the motives of spies may be patriotic and even selfless, spying as an act involves betrayal.
This, of course, is assuming the spies in question are dedicated and efficient. What happens if they're not? Then you have something like the story of the Nazi saboteurs back in 1942 who failed to sabotage anyone but themselves. It's a classic tale involving submarines, bags of cash, high explosives, and the FBI. It's partly funny, but ultimately very sad. We might learn something about real-life spying here, which is probably more than we do from all those glamour-spy movies.
The Eight Nazi Spies, and How We Caught Them: The FBI Version
Truth is the first casualty of war.
– Somebody. Take your pick: Samuel Johnson, Hiram Johnson, Arthur Ponsonby, Aeschylus, Sun Tzu...
In 1942, US and British cinema audiences could see this exciting announcement in their weekly newsreels. No doubt they were reassured after being shown the map and told that J Edgar Hoover's dauntless G-Men were fully capable of protecting the United States' '5,000 miles of coast' against foreign menaces. The newsreel also showed the G-Men1 digging up the high explosives the eight saboteurs buried on the beach in Florida after being 'put ashore by submarine'. A satisfied cop held up a money belt as the narrator explained how the Nazi spies filled it with $170,000 in US cash, to be spent on bribery and mayhem. There was a display of typical Nazi dirty tricks the investigators recovered, such as an exploding pencil. Very exciting stuff. Many watching probably applauded when it was revealed that the government was asking for the death penalty: hanging was too good for these war criminals.
It makes us wonder: how many in the newsreel audience doubted the story as it was presented? Because frankly, almost every detail of that 'news' account was inaccurate.
Here are some of the errors in the newsreel:
- The FBI did not singlehandedly watch nearly 5,000 miles of coast 'for sneak enemy invaders'. That was really the job of the US Coast Guard, who in fact played a role in alerting authorities to the submarines. Yes, submarines, plural.
- The explosives seen in the film were buried in the Florida sands – by four Nazi spies. Those were the four that landed in Florida. The other four landed in Amagansett, New York. They also stashed their explosives in the sand dunes. Then they took the commuter train to New York City and checked into two hotels. Florida was sort of underpopulated in 1942, while New York City was not. Wonder why the authorities didn't see fit to mention the submarine approach so close to a populated area?
- The approximately $170,000 wasn't all in one money belt. It was distributed among the spies, with the two team leaders holding over $50,000 apiece. Oh, and about half of that was dumped dramatically onto the FBI's desk by the lead saboteur, with a note that read, 'This money I took from Hitler in the hope that it would be used toward his defeat.' Of course, nobody wanted to hear that. A side note: some of this cash would have raised eyebrows, as it was in the form of pre-1933 gold certificates, no longer in circulation.
- Whether those incendiary pencils were really part of the haul, or just leftover props from somewhere, is not clear. We'll give them the pencils: chief spy George Dasch wasn't really paying attention during training. (He was scolded for that.)
- 'They were apprehended before they could carry out their plan of destruction.' True enough. Although Mr Hoover left out the fact that the FBI would never have found them at all if their leader hadn't turned them in.
One can understand the motivation behind the deception. There was a war on. Making the Nazis think Hoover was cleverer than he was would only help the Allied cause. And it worked: although Operation Pastorius, as it was called, was the second attempt by German spies to infiltrate the American mainland, it was also the last. The embarrassed Abwehr2 sent the mission's planner to the Russian Front3. This is not to excuse the FBI, Hoover, or even Franklin Roosevelt for what happened to the unfortunate 'saboteurs'. Merely to explain their possible motivations.
Now, let's hear from the other side.
How I Saved Civilisation in My Spare Time, and So Can You: George Dasch's Version
I first fell in love with the United States nearly thirty-nine years ago when a baseball... knocked me out cold.
– Opening sentence of Eight Spies Against America by George John Dasch, 1959.
George John Dasch was born poor in the town of Speyer, in the Rhineland Palatinate, in 1903. By the time he was a teenager (and had been hit by the Yankees' baseball), he knew he wanted to go to the United States. In 1924, he stowed away on a transatlantic ship, and became what is known as an illegal immigrant. Dasch stayed in the US for the next 16 years, working mostly as a waiter. He got married. Having settled some legal issues, he was about to become a US citizen when his mother came to see them from Germany. This family visit was to have huge consequences.
Mother Dasch was horrified to find out that her son was only a waiter, and with his education, too. She urged George to come back to Germany, where his uncle could get him a good job with IG Farben. Frau Dasch, who was quite apolitical, brushed aside that Hitler fellow as being more of a nuisance than anything else. This was in 1939. Think it over, she said with a kiss goodbye.
By the time Frau Dasch's ship reached Hamburg, Germany had invaded Poland. Seriously alarmed that his naïve mother was in danger, Dasch decided to return home. His American wife agreed to go, too. As it turned out, Dasch needed to convince the German Bund4 of his sincerity, not hard as they were extremely enthusiastic themselves and expected others to be. They put him on a ship full of 'Sieg Heil'-ing German Americans headed for the Fatherland by way of Japan and the Transsiberian Railway. Dasch's wife followed on another ship headed for Spain. Unfortunately, this vessel was stopped by the British Navy, and the women ended up in internment in Bermuda5.
After a long trip, Dasch finally arrived in Berlin by way of occupied Poland. What he experienced there convinced him he had made a serious mistake in coming back. But by then, it was too late. The lover of all things American, who could barely speak standard German, was co-opted by the Abwehr for his foreign experience. After some months translating radio broadcasts, Dasch was recruited for the sabotage mission. According to Dasch, as soon as he learned of the assignment, he had one thought: how could he sabotage the saboteurs? He bided his time, and tried to take the anti-Nazi temperature of his fellow trainees.
After training at the German High Command Sabotage School at Quentzsee, Dasch and his fellow spies were given cover stories. They travelled to the US coast in two submarines, where they landed and scattered, with instructions to join up later. At least, that was the plan. Things didn't work out quite that way.
Surrender Is Harder Than It Looks
The clever Nazis were actually quite naïve!
– George Dasch, Eight Spies Against America
When they came ashore on Long Island, the spies began burying the containers of explosives in the sand. They also buried the navy uniforms they'd been wearing. They had made a serious mistake by forgetting to send them back to the sub with the landing boats. Almost immediately, they were challenged by a Coast Guard patrolman, who asked if they were fishermen and needed assistance. He looked a bit puzzled when they incautiously spoke German in front of him. Dasch decided to send the young man away before anybody got fancy ideas of eliminating a witness. He was doubly glad he had insisted that real spies didn't need guns. Guns were the last thing they needed on this beach.
Dasch shone his flashlight in his own face. 'My name is George John Dasch. I want you to shine your light in my face so that you'll recognise me when I have you called in Washington.' As if that weren't confusing enough, he then gave the sailor $260 and told him to go away.
He did: he went straight back to his Coast Guard station and told his superiors the whole mad story. But by the time they could notify the local train station, the four spies had taken the commuter train to New York City, got off, and checked into their hotels.
Dasch did two other strange things in New York. One was that he sat down with his companion, Ernst Burger, telling him exactly what he planned to do. To his relief, Burger was completely in agreement with Dasch's plan. Burger, who had actually been in a concentration camp for about 17 months, had no love for the Nazis. He admitted that he'd only gone along with the mission because he secretly believed Dasch to be an American agent who would get him out of the country.
The other strange thing that Dasch did was to go to Meyer's delicatessen, his previous hangout when he lived in New York. There he met with old friends, who believed he had been in Russia. They joked and played pinochle6 far into the night.
Dasch made two attempts to reach the FBI. The first message went astray because the man on the other end of the phone didn't believe him. The second message reached someone responsible. Dasch took the train to Washington, DC, and spent eight long days pouring his heart out to the authorities, wracking his memory for information that would help the Allies win the war more quickly. He gave the FBI the $84,000 he had with him. FBI agent Duane Traynor listened with apparent sympathy. He assured Dasch that the FBI were very appreciative of his voluntary support for the Allied cause. He indicated that Dasch and his colleagues would be treated fairly.
Dasch was about to learn a hard lesson about that staple of the spy trade: betrayal.
Trial and Punishment
'Mr Hoover, aren't you really ashamed of yourself?'
– George Dasch, 1942
J Edgar Hoover had a problem: he didn't want to share any of the credit for resolving the saboteur crisis with anyone, let alone one of the saboteurs. The FBI agents persuaded Dasch to plead guilty, telling him that this was the best way to make the Abwehr believe that such sabotage missions were futile. Dasch, worried about what might happen to his family members at home if Hitler found out what he'd done, agreed. The FBI promised him leniency and help with getting his wife out of the Bermuda internment camp.
Nobody kept their promises. The saboteurs were turned over to a military tribunal at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt, who took special measures to ensure that the military stayed in control of the legal process. FDR signed Executive Proclamation 2561 on 2 July, 1942. This presidential proclamation denied basic access to the court system to 'all enemies who have entered upon the territory of the United States as part of an invasion or predatory incursion... ' A jurisdictional challenge on behalf of some of the defendants went all the way to the Supreme Court, without success7. The men were tried in a military court before a panel of eight generals.
In his memoir, George Dasch refers to this trial as '... surely one of the strangest in American history... ', which only shows that he had too high an opinion of American history. Obviously, he'd never heard of the Aaron Burr trial, or Henry Wirz, or the Lincoln conspirators. The Rosenberg trials were still to come. Ironically, a man who had been sent by the German Abwehr to sabotage the United States seems to have had a stronger belief in the triumph of the rule of law than the officials in Washington.
Dasch was horrified that his fellow spies were being threatened with death sentences. He was well aware of the provisions of the Espionage Act of 19178. He expected that they would all be given prison sentences. Instead, six defendants were executed by electrocution.
Dasch's conviction was based on false testimony. When he realised that the story being presented to the military commission completely omitted his voluntary trip to Washington, he insisted that his eight-day debriefing report be read into the record. When this won him sympathy from the generals, the prosecutor accused Dasch of being a Communist. Dasch and Burger were sent to prison. While they were there, the FBI tried to get Dasch to implicate the executed saboteurs' family members who lived in the United States. He refused – but the government jailed several of them anyway.
Dasch and Burger spent six years in prison. Marie Dasch visited her husband whenever she was allowed, once she herself was released from internment. In 1948, Dasch and Burger were released from prison and immediately deported to Germany. Marie followed her husband there into an uncertain and difficult life. Dasch couldn't return to the United States, and whenever the German press published a new story about Operation Pastorius and its aftermath, they would have to move.
The Sorry Results of All This Spying: The Memorial in the Undergrowth
But I don't regret it [the return to Germany] now since this mistake made possible the one thing I'm really proud of in my life.
– George Dasch, Eight Spies Against America
In 2010, an unauthorised memorial to the six executed spies was removed from a thicket on public land in Washington, DC and placed in a vault somewhere in Maryland by an embarrassed National Park Service. It had been discovered accidentally by an NPS employee. The illicit donors of the granite slab? The National Socialist White People's Party, a neo-Nazi group, probably sometime in the 1970s or 1980s.
George Dasch never got an apology from anyone, and his life in postwar Germany never got much easier. He died in 1992.
Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida boasts a historical marker showing where the four Florida spies landed.
In 1943, a completely fictionalised version of the whole story was produced in the form of the George Sanders film They Came to Blow Up America. It features the usual heavy-handed wartime propaganda. In this version, the character based on George Dasch really is an American agent.
Spying: it's not very glamorous. It's dangerous, it involves betrayal, and even if you behave as ethically as you know how, you're likely to get vilified. We really don't recommend it as a line of work.