If They Mean
To Have A War:
The SS Commando Raids on North America, 1940-41
By Chris Oakley
inspired by the novel "A Clash of Eagles" by Leo Rutman
Of all the mistakes Adolf Hitler made during the Second World War, perhaps his most deadly-- at least where the English-speaking world was concerned --was his decision in late August of 1940 to allow his Gestapo chief, Heinrich Himmler, to send covert operations teams into North America in retaliation for Canada’s 1939 declaration of war on Germany in support of Great Britain and the United States’ decision to aid the British through its Lend-Lease program while officially remaining a non-belligerent in the war between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. These commando attacks by cells of Waffen-SS undercover men were meant in part to frighten Canada into quitting their backing of the British war effort and to deter any inclination by the White House towards getting the US directly involved in the fighting in Europe. As you’re about to see, however, Himmler’s gambit would end up having the opposite effect...
The genesis for Himmler’s ill-fated commando scheme was a report drafted in July of 1940 by one of his top aides, Reinhard Heydrich. In his proposal Heydrich argued that fighting a conventional war with the United States at that time might be more costly than the Third Reich could safely afford-- and might also deprive the Wehrmacht of troops and equipment it would need for the coming war with Communist Russia. Instead, he recommended waging a kind of shadow war on the US using squads of what today would be called "black ops" personnel trained in all types of asymmetrical warfare. The analogy Heydrich liked to use was that of termites eating away at the wood of a house-- eventually America’s will to confront the Nazis would collapse and Roosevelt(or his successor) would accept German dominion over continental Europe as an incontrovertible fact.
Likewise, if enough of such squads could attack Canada’s military and industrial infrastructure with sufficient frequency, the Canadian government would be driven to turn its security focus inward, thus depriving Great Britain of the aid of one of its most important Commonwealth allies at a crucial point in the war. If all went well, Heydrich suggested, it might even be possible to incite armed rebellion among the separatist elements of Canada’s French- speaking Quebeçois community-- distracting both Canada and the United States from German plans for conquest.1
It was at that point, though Heydrich didn’t know it, that the plan started to unravel. Whatever feelings individual Quebeçois might have had towards Canada’s English-speaking majority, they were united in their loathing for the Germans; they saw Adolf Hitler as a monster oppressing their ancestral homeland ten times worse than the English had even thought of doing. Himmler’s top lieutenant had made a severe, and ultimately fatal, miscalculation. But neither Heydrich nor Himmler (nor Hitler, for that matter) would know it until long after disaster had already befallen the operation.
Hitler officially approved Heydrich’s proposal-- code-named Fall Schlange(Case Serpent) --on July 25th, 1940; five days later the first Waffen-SS cell that was to be deployed for the impending covert attack on North America assembled to begin training at an SS camp in the Baltic. Leading this cell was Joachim Peiper, a ruthless figure who was perfectly suited for this type of operation. Peiper chose the Baltic training locale because both the terrain and environment there strongly resembled that of the East Coast seaports where the majority of Fall Schlange’s operations would take place. He also believed that having his men train under the harshest possible climate conditions would make them tougher(as if SS men needed further toughening) and thus better able to handle the raw weather for which North America’s northeastern coastline was notorious.
Their initial training phase lasted six weeks; in addition to acclimating his team to the harshness of the North American coastal weather, Peiper had his team take crash courses in colloquial English and study up on the social nuances of contemporary US and Canadian society. It was of crucial importance to him that his men should be capable of blending in with the general population as seamlessly as possible. That way it would be easier to escape detection until it was time to make their attack.
Once the initial training was completed, Peiper put his men through a two-week advanced training course to hone their infiltration and exfiltration skills. Though the SS commander had little doubt that his team would succeed in their mission and get home, he also gave them instructions in the fine art of committing suicide so that if worst came to worst and they found themselves facing the prospect of capture by US or Canadian authorities, they could swiftly do away with themselves and thus deny the enemy any information he could use to thwart the German commando attacks. While cyanide capsules were the method Peiper most heartily recommended, there was also the option of a pistol shot to the temple or a knife slash across the throat.
Peiper even had his team take lessons in fishing-- if nothing else, he joked, it would help them pass the time while they waited for the U-boat to recover them after their mission was over. But the SS commander had a serious reason for wanting his men to learn how to fish: in the event that they had to go to ground after their mission, it would be important for them to be able to live off the land for an extended length of time.
Finally in late September of 1940 Peiper’s team was ready to carry out their first actual combat mission. Their designated target was an electrical station in Nova Scotia that was part of the power grid for Halifax and Dartmouth; the mission’s objective was to put the station out of commission and trigger a power failure that would(or so Peiper hoped) spark terror in the residents of Halifax and Dartmouth. On September 30th, the commandos boarded a U-boat at the Norwegian port of Trondheim for the journey to the Canadian coast.
Their mission nearly ended as soon as it began; twice en route to Canada, their U-boat came under depth charge attack by Allied naval patrols, with the second of those attacks leaving Peiper unconscious for six hours. But by luck and by the seafaring skills of the U-boat’s crew, Peiper’s commando team reached the shores of Canada just after 3:00 AM on the morning of October 1st, 1940; as soon as they got ashore they made their way to a safe house near Dartmouth run by a Canadian merchant who secretly sympathized with the Nazis and had been spying for them since the late 1930s. While at the safe house, Peiper and his men took the opportunity to review their mission packets one more time and change into the civilian clothes that would enable them to blend in among the general Canadian population.
Knowing that a daylight attack on the electrical station would increase his team’s risk of being detected, Peiper bided his time and waited for nightfall. As soon as it was sufficiently dark outside, he had his assault squad gather up their weapons and board a rental truck which Peiper’s Canadian contact had secured for the final leg of their journey to the target. The truck was rather nondescript-looking, which was how Peiper liked it; the last thing his team needed was to get its cover blown by a vehicle that was too conspicuous.
Sticking to back roads in order to further minimize their risk of detection, the SS commandos reached the electrical plant at 11:45 PM on the evening of October 1st....
To Be Continued
FootnotesAt least three US states border Quebec; in the unlikely event that Heydrich had managed to provoke an uprising among the Quebeçois, it could have posed a danger to America’s northern border that Roosevelt couldn’t afford to ignore.