** World War II -- German spy rings in America

World War II Abwehr Spy Rings: The United States

Figure 1.--The first NAZI spy ring in America recruited from Friends of the New Germany. The FBI broke the ring, but most of the conspirators escaped. The FBI was still inexperienced at dealing with spies. The trial was a senational 1938 news event. Up until this the Hollywood studios had refused to address the growing NAZI threat in films, in part becasuse of the lucrative German film masrket. Thus 'Confessions of a NAZI Spy' was the first of the Hollywood anti-NAZI films. And surprisingly, it was reasonably accurate. Here one of the conspirators in the film is attempting as ordered to get blank U.S. passports. Several youngsters who are boot blacks compete with each other to clean his shoes. While he waits for the Western Union messenger with thge package of passports.

America like many other countries attempted to remain neutral as Europe headed toward war and for over 2 years after the War began. Hitler made a variety of different statements about the United states, but from the beginning sensed the United States with its massive industrial power was a danger. He thus persued a range of policies aimed at keeping American neutral such as distanting the NAZI Government from Fritz Kune and the German American Bund and later ordering U-boat commanders to avoid incidents with American ships. German military planners were more than aware of the role the United States played in World war I and thus assumed that eventually America would comed into the War to support the British. Thus even before the War, the Abwehr organized a network in America. In World War I the focus as on sabatoge, because the United States did not have importanrt war industry with secrets to steal or before 1917 a substantial army. This was different in World War II when the focus became military intelligence. The NAZI effort proved much less sxuccessful than the Soviet espionage effort. Hollywood tends to depict these German spies as rabid NAZIs, as the Abwehr conducted the operations they tended to be German nationalists rather than NAZI activists. Korvetten-Kapitaen Pheiffer, a veteran of World War I, returned to active duty as an Abwehr officer in 1935. He began collecting information on the United States. Pheiffer was in charge of the naval section of Nest Bremen and as such in a position to establish close contacts with the extensive German shipping interests centered in that port. At first he worked through the "Aussenhandelstelle," or foreign trade office, where German businessmen going overseas were registered. He began interviewing retunrning businessmen. After a while he began recruiting agents. The German espionage and sabatoge r\effort in the United states proved largely inefectual and in mny cases amateurish. We know of now importasnt success achieved by the effort, although the resulting news reports and movies helped confirm the negarive opinion most Americans had of the NAZIs.

Dr. Ignatz Griebel (1936-38)

Ignatz Griebel served in the Germany Army during World War I. He emigrated to America after the War and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He graduating from Long Island Medical College and set up a medical practice in New York City. He joined the U.S. Army as a medical reserve officer. He became the president of the Friends of the New Germany which became the German-American Bund. He was arrested by the FBI and during interogation revealed a great deal of information about a German spy ring. A Federal grand jury subpoenaed him to testify in the espionage trial of the first German spy ring uncovered in America. Before actually testifying, Griebel managed to stowaway on the German liner Breman (May 10, 1938). Some believe the Germans spirited him away. He apparently had an intelligence code with him. FBI agent Leon G. Torrou at Hofmann's trial testified that Griebel was an 'informer' and had provided information on his fellow spies. The FBI did not, however, indict him. He denied that the Bureau had been involved in Griebel's flight. Gribel reached Bremerhaven where German authorities arrested him for traveling without a passport. He was only fined 60 marks. One might have thought the Gestapo would have treated him more severely as an informer. Soon after the NAZIs annexed Austria in the Anschluss. He set up a medical practice in Vienna, taking over the office of a Jewish doctor. After the War Austria and Germany were in ruins. Griebel apparently had the idea of returning to America as he was an American citizen. He went to the offices of U.S. occupation troops in Salzburg (august 19, 1945). He identified himself as an American citizen, showing his medical school diploma. He requested repatriation. Capt. H.J. Downey who he spoke with remembered the Griebel case and instead arrested him. Downey reported that Griebel behaved like a misbehaving schoolboy and admitted his brush with the FBI. We are not sure what happened to him after that.

First Ring (1936-38)

Members of the Friends of New Germany along with Abwehr agents organized the first German spy ring in America. The Abwehr agents traveled back and forth on German oceanliners. We do not yet have details on the operations, but there were operatives found in defense plants. The ring was uncovered when a Scottish mailman notice all the foreign letters arriving at the home of a woman on his route. It was an Abwehr mail drop. In addition one of the conspirators was very amateurish leading to his arrest and interogation by the FBI. FBI Special Agent Leon G. Torrou led the investigation. It led to a highly publicized German spy trial held in New York before the War (November-December 1938). Eighteen individuals were accused of spying. Apparently the FBI was not yet geared up for prosecuting spies. The FBI only suceeded in bringing four of the conspirators to trial. The others escaped or were spirited out of the United States by German agents. Among the Abwehr agents were Johanna Hofmann, a hairdresser on the German liner Europa. Dr. Ignatz Griebel provided the FBI information about her. All four were convicted. Warner Brothers decided to produce a film on the German spy ring, a coirageous decesion at the time. The studio sent writer Milton Krims to New York to cover the trial. The result was "Confessions of a NAZI Spy" (1938). It was the first of the anti-NAZI film turned out by Hollywood. And surprtisingly for Hollywood, it was fairly accurate. It was controversial because at the time, the primary concern of most Americans was keeping out of the developing war in Europe. German-American Bund leader Fritz J. Kuhn tried to block the release of the film by filing a $5 million libel suit against Warner Brothers and requested a temporary injunction against the film's exhibitors. Propaganda Minister Goebbels, a film buff, was outraged with the film. His outrange was because no Hollywood studio until this had dared attack the NAZIs in their films, in part because of the lucrative German film market. Goebbels issued an official warning to Hollywood studios and actors that the Reich would ban all future films that used cast or crew members employed in the film. Some actors attempted to disguise their identity in the credits. Goebbels also ordered the German film industry to produce a series of "documentary" films highlighting American unemployment, gangsterism, and judicial corruption in retaliation. The Germans after occupying Warsaw (September 1939), hanged theater owners who had shown the film.

Duquesne Spy Ring (1939-41)

The Duquesne Spy Ring was a better organized German attempt to obtain information on the rapidly expanding American arms industry and military preparations. It proved, however, to be a disasterous failure because of one critical recruitment failure. The network was run by Frederick 'Fritz' Joubert Duquesne, a smooth-talking South African-born naturalized citizen. He had fought with the Boers in the Boer War, becoming intensly anti-British. He escaped from British POW camps on Bermuda and made it to America. Alpthough he became an American citizen, he worked against Anmeria because Ameriuca was supporting Britain. He worked for German intelligence in World War I. He attemoted to do the same in World War II. We are unsure about German priorities. Hitler's primary concern at the time was to keep America neutral, at least until he had completed the conquest of the Soviet Union. The trial of the conspirators proved to be the largest espionage case in United States history that managed to secure convictions. German agents recruited the network. The network failed because of William Sebold. He was a newly naturalized American citizen who had returned to Germany to care for his ailing mother (1939). German intelligence through the Gestapo contacted Sebold and coerced him to join the Duquesne dpy ring. They threatened not only him, but his family in Germany as well. They picked the wrong person. Sebold proved loyal--to his adopted country. Even before returning, he informed American diplomats that he planned to work with the FBI. Sebold was key because he was the communications specialist. He ran the radio used for communication. Thus the FBI in effect controlled the delivery of messages to and from Germany. The network was composed of individuals of German ancestry who had obtained jobs throughout the United States that could provide useful information. The FBI conducted an intensive investigation. They brought 33 individuals to trial (September-December 1941). Eventually 19 of the accused pleaded guilty to espionage. The remaining 14 pleaded 'not guilty', but the jury found them all guilty. (The verdict was delivered days after the Pearl Harbor attack and Hitler's declaration of war.) The judge handed out lengthy prison sentences. An Abwehr officer would later say that the FBI's round up was the 'death blow' to German espionage efforts in the United States. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that the FBI operation was the greatest spy roundup in U.S. history. The Hollywood movie, 'The House on 92nd Street' (1945) was loosely based on the Duquesne Spy Ring

Nicolaus Mexico Ring (1940-42)

The Nicolaus spy ring was one of several in Latin American countries. Most were associated with Germans living in the various countries. We include it with the German U.S. spy rings because it was primarily involved in obtaining information on the United states, only from the safety of Mexico. Georg Nicolaus was a German World War I veteran. He worked for several years in Colombia. He returned to Germany (November 1938) and was re-commissioned in the Army and assigned to Ast Hanover of the Abwehr (January 1939). The Abwehr ordered him to return to Mexico to set-up an espionage network. From Mexico he maintained links with German agents in South America and tried to obtain useful information from across the border in the United States. Much of what they did was to obtain American publications and abstracting or photographing the contents. Other information was obtained by U.S. contacts. He was arrested (1942).

German San Francisco Consulate

The Germans ran an espionage operation out of their San Fancisco Consulate. One of the targets was the Atlas Powder Company, a San Francisco explosives manufacturer. Part of the operation was a deep-cover portal in El Paso. Confederates in Mexico would murder the wife and daughter of an Atlas executive. They were murdered in Mexico, setting off a huge investigation that never tracked down the killers. [Richmond]

Four Groups (1941-43)

Four groups of agents operated independently in the United states for 2 years. The AZnwehr began planting trained agents rathef than recruiting untrained German Americans. Ernest Lehmitz, Grace Buchanan-Dineen, and Wilhelm Albrecht von Rautter were recruited by the Abwehr in Europe (1939 and 41). They were trained and inserted into America before Pearl Harbor (December 1941). While in America, they recruited a few assistants from the Germamn ethnic community. They collected informartion on shipping, war production, and various military matters. They vsent reports in secret writing to addresses in neutral countries from which the information could be forwarded to Germany. Their reports were under the control of United States counter-intelligence agencies soon after the went operational. The existence of these operations were revealed because the addresses were compromised. It took some time, however, to fifure out who was sending the reports. Thousands of handwriting samples were assessed. The FBI arrrested the agents (late-1943 to early-44).

U-boat Landings

The German U-boat fleet provided the means to land agents along the coast. We do not know of abny agents landed before America entered the War, but we are not sure our list here is complete. The fact that the Germans were the largest single Amnerican immigrant group meant that Germans who spoke English without an accent could easily move around the United States. An Hitler was especilly interested in somehow striking at the Americans. We'll include the related Canadian operations.

New Brunswick (May 1942)

U-213 landed an Abwehr agent near St. Martins's in Bay of Fundy (May 1942).

Operation Pastorius (June 1942)

Operation Pastorius was a plan to land saboteurs from U-boats The agents were landed soon after America entered the War (June 1942). This was a project Hitler himself was personaslly interested in developing. He wanted to demonstrate to Americans thst despite the Atlantic Ocean thast they were not safe cfrom attack. He ordered the Abwehr to conduct sabotage operation against targets in the United States. The Abwehr had the capabilities to do this and had previously carried out operations in other countries. The Abwehr operated a sabotage school near Brandenburg to train their agents. The Abwehr officer chosen to plasn the operation was 37-year old Walter Kappe. Abwehr Chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris named it after Francis Daniel Pastorius, the leader of the first organized German settlement in America. U-boats landed two groups of agents in New York and Florida. U-584 landed four agents on Amagansett, Long Island, New York (June 13, 1942). U-202 landed four agents on Ponte Vedra Beach, south of Jacksonville, Florida (June 17, 1942). Their assignment was sabatoge and the targets were strategic U.S. economic targets. Two of the agents, Ernst Burger and Herbert Haupt, were American citizens. The others, George John Dasch, Edward John Kerling, Richard Quirin, Heinrich Harm Heinck, Hermann Otto Neubauer, and Werner Thiel, had worked in the United States for a time before the War. Two of the eight saboteurs gave themselves up and helped the FBI track the others down. All eight agents were tried by a military court. The court handed down six death sentences, one life imprisonment and one 30-year sentence. President Truman granted executive clemency on condition of deportation to the two surviving agents who were deported to the American Occupation Zone of Germany after the War (1948).

Werner Janowski (November 1942)

U-518 landed Werner Janowski on the southern shore of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, Canada (November 1942). He was apprehended within a few hours when he thoughtlessly threw away a box of Belgian matches in his hotel room. He aroused the suspicions of civilians and finally voluntarily surrendered.

Weather Station Kurt (Fall 1943)

A German U-boat landed a team that erected Weather Station Kurt in Labrador, Newfoundland (Fall 1943).

Oscar Mantel (August 1944)

U-boats could at first operate off the U.S. coast wiuthout much fear of detection, let along being engaged. The Americans, Btitish, and Canadians directed massive resources at anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The result was a major shift in the North Atlantic campaign (Mid-1943). After this, the Allies began to sink sizeable numbers of U-bosts. Thus assignments to approach the U.S. coast and put ashore agents became more dangerous. By 1944 it was actually dangerous for U-boats to even enter the North Atlantic, let alone approach the U.S. coast. And after D-Day, the Germans lost their Atlantic coast bases in France (June 1944). U-1229 under the command of Arnim Zinke left Trondheim on its third voyage (July 26, 1944). Zinke's orders were to put Abwehr agent Leutnant Oskar Mantel ashore along the Maine coast. He was to carry out sabatoge operations. After three and a half weeks it was approaching the Maine coast. U-1229 was found an attacked on the surface by aircraft from the USS Bogue (CVE-9), one of the jeep cariers the U.S. Navy deployed for ASW operations. The U-boat sank off the coast of Maine (August 20, 1944). Among the survivors was Oscar Mantel. Mantel was a well-trained and experienced agent and hadsuccessfully completed assignments in Spain and France. Before the War he had lived in New York City for 12 years. It was obvious that he was an Abwehr agent because he had a large sum of U.S. currency on him when he was rescued.

William Curtis Colepaugh and Eric Gimpel

Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris was heavily involved in anti-Hitler resistance asctivities. As a result, German intelligence operations after the July Bomb Plot (July 1944) attack on Hitler was transferred to the RHSA, a SS unit. It was thus the RSHA that bmade one last try at insering saboteurs into America. The U-1230 landed William Curtis Colepaugh and Eric Gimpel with $60,000 (November 29, 1944). They managed to get to Boston and New York. Colepaugh was an American with a failed life experience. He jumped ship in Lisbon and offered to assist the Germans. Gimpel had been repatriated to Germany from South America. After reaching New York, Gimpel claims to have learned something of the extent of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and that the Americans were making real progress. [Gimpel] [Note: He claims this in his book. We have not seen any confirmation that he actually obtained setails on the Manhattan Project.] He managed to relay this and information on port traffic back to Germany. It was not of much value as the 8th Air Force and RAF Bomber Command was methodically ripping the heart out of the Reich's industrial cities very effectively with conventional weapons. We do not know if the Germans shared this information, if in fsct it was rally sent, with their Japanese Allies. The FBI arrested Gimpel in Time Square on New Years Eve (December 1944). Colepaugh after about a month and spending most of his money living the high life had surrendered. This is what led to Gimpel's arrest. A military tribunal found both guilty of espionage and sentenced them to death. They were the last agents Germany attempted to land in the United states. President Truman 3 days before their scheduled execution issued an amnest\y. mm , President Roosvelt had died and Gimpel benefited from the amnesty President Truman granted prisoners on death row. Gimpel was released from Leavenworth (1955). He returned to Germany and wrote a book about his wsar-time experiences. [Gimpel]


Gimpel, Eric. Spion fuer Deutschland (1955).

Richmond, Clint. Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America (2014), 384p.


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Created: 7:49 AM 12/5/2010
Last updated: 4:22 AM 9/17/2016