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
Summary: In Part 1 of this series, we looked back at Adolf Hitler’s decision to authorize SS commando raids on the United States and Canada in July of 1940 and the preparation by an SS team under the command of Joachim Peiper for the first such raid, an attack on an electrical station in Canada’s maritime province of Nova Scotia. In this chapter we’ll witness that attack as it unfolded and see how the Canadian government and people responded to it; we’ll also review the first SS terror attack on US soil.
The first order of business for Peiper’s strike cell was to neutralize the security guards protecting the electrical station. And by "neutralize", Peiper meant kill. His men performed this task with swift and gruesome efficiency, slitting most of the guards’ throats with their knives and using silencer-equipped pistols to eliminate the rest. Once the guards had been disposed of, the SS commandos proceeded to murder the workers who were on duty at the time Peiper’s team had infiltrated the station. After that there was nothing left for the SS commandos to do but plant their explosive charges and escape.
Those charges were rigged with a time delay designed to allow Peiper and his men the maximum amount of time to get clear of the electrical station before the explosives detonated. Peiper’s team made their getaway by boat, watching in satisfaction as gigantic plumes of fire swiftly arose from within the electrical station and the roar of the explosive charges going off echoed through the air. Within minutes after the first charges exploded, an entire block of Halifax went into total darkness; by the time the last charge detonated, all of Halifax and most of Dartmouth were without electrical power.
News of the attack on the electrical plant near Halifax and the subsequent blackouts in Halifax reached the prime minister’s office in Ottawa at 1:45 AM on October 2nd; by then, Peiper’s assault team had been picked up by the U-boat assigned to return them to Germany and Halifax policemen and fire brigade officers were swarming the ruined power plant in response to phone calls from residents who’d seen the smoke from the fires set off by the detonation of the SS commandos’ demolition charges. Though as yet no one knew the destruction at the power plant had been the work of Nazi agents, the prime minister was quick to suspect something was something was amiss, and at 2:30 AM he summoned his top police and intelligence officials to his office for an emergency meeting. Many of his senior civil defense aides were also present at that meeting.
The special session lasted almost five hours, during which time two sharp-eyed police officers at the scene of the attack discovered a 7.92 mm slug lodged in the skull of one of the power plant workers who had been killed by the SS. While the science of crime-solving was considerably more primitive in those days than it is now in the era of DNA testing and national criminal computer databases, it was certainly sophisticated enough to establish within days that the slug came from a gun of German manufacture.
At 10:00 AM on the morning of October 2nd, 1940 the PM declared a national state of emergency in Canada. Upon confirmation that the 7.92 mm bullet found at the ruined power plant was indeed of German origin, he ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to start a coast-to-coast search for other Nazi terror cells on Canadian soil. While that search was underway, German diplomats in the still-neutral United States were organizing a propaganda campaign aimed at inciting a rebellion among French-Canadians. This propaganda barrage was orchestrated mainly from the German consulate in New York, though the embassy in Washington was also heavily involved in the operation; leaflets urging the French-Canadian citizens of Quebec to rise up in rebellion against the Anglo- dominated federal government in Ottawa were printed up on mimeographs at the New York consulate, then brought to safe houses at border towns in Maine and Vermont before being mailed to French-Canadian homes in Montreal and other major Quebec cities.
The reaction of the Quebecois to these leaflets was not quite what Berlin had expected-- or hoped for. Far from being inspired to revolt, most French-Canadians were disgusted by the leaflets; they’d been following news reports of the Nazi conquest of France and heard accounts of the abuses the conquerors had perpetrated after the French government surrendered in June of 1940, and they considered it an intolerable insult to be solicited for political support by the very regime that had enslaved the nation from which their ancestors had come. Even most of those who supported the idea of an independent Quebec were put off by the Nazis’ blatant attempt to curry favor with the province’s French-Canadian population.
Those few French-Canadians who backed the Nazis’ calls for an armed uprising in Quebec soon found themselves pariahs at best and targets for the wrath of Canadian justice at worst. In Sherbrooke, a meeting of a French-Canadian fascist fringe group known as Action Quebecois was raided by Quebec provincial police and its members all arrested on sedition charges; in Montreal two French-Canadian men suspected of being Nazi sympathizers were killed while in the act of resisting arrest by the RCMP.
English-Canadians known or suspected to have pro-fascist views also came under the scrutiny of the authorities. Two weeks after the Halifax power plant attack, RCMP detectives in eastern Ontario got an anonymous tip that a York University graduate school professor who’d visited Germany before the war had secretly contacted the Gestapo and offered them his services as a collaborator should the Nazis invade and conquer Canada. This same individual had in the past published a number of letters advocating the separation of Canada from the British Empire and the establishment of a Canadian-German alliance against the United States; before long, he was under arrest and being interrogated on suspicion of treason and espionage. He eventually committed suicide after illicit photographs of a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter base were discovered in his possession.
In Washington, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover read the reports of the Halifax power plant attack and the secret Nazi propaganda campaign in Quebec with a certain degree of alarm. Though it would take several months for his agency to definitively establish a link between the bloodshed in Nova Scotia and German diplomatic personnel in the United States, Hoover had already begun to suspect Berlin was engaged in at least a modest level of covert activity aimed at destabilizing the US and Canadian governments. He would see the true extent of SS covert operations in North America in early November of 1940 when he met with the Canadian ambassador to the United States for a debriefing on what RCMP investigations had learned about the Halifax power plant raid and the leaflet campaign in Quebec.
During that briefing the Canadian ambassador showed Hoover the transcript of an RCMP interrogation of a Gestapo agent captured three weeks after the Halifax power plant raid. It revealed that the Nazis, working in conjunction with Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund and the Canadian Union of Fascists, had been secretly establishing a network of terror cells stretching from New Brunswick to Virginia as a means of supplementing the Waffen-SS covert attacks on North America. Among the terror network’s major targets in the US: Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Chrysler Building in New York City, the Charlestown Navy Yard near Boston, and Hoover’s own FBI headquarters office in Washington. Strictly speaking, half of the targets on the network’s list had no military value to speak of; however, they had considerable psychological value as symbols of the American way of life and the ideals of the American people. If any of them could be destroyed or even severely damaged, the Nazis’ logic went, it would deal a serious blow to the Americans’ confidence in their ability to make war against the Third Reich.
Shortly after his meeting with the Canadian ambassador, Hoover issued a directive instructing FBI field offices in every major city in the US to actively recruit anti-Nazi German and Austrian immigrants for undercover work infiltrating known and suspected Nazi terror cells inside America. But even as this recruitment was in progress, the SS was preparing to mount its first major covert attack on American soil. The target: Penn Station, one of New York’s most important railroad facilities. An eight-man demolitions team commanded by Otto Skorzeny, a former Heidelburg University fencing champion, was quartered at a safe house in New Jersey awaiting further instructions from Berlin. At a pre-arranged code signal, Skorzeny’s team would cross the Hudson and make their way to Penn Station; once they arrived at Penn they would plant time-fused bombs at key points throughout the station, then make their getaway just after arming those bombs.
Skorzeny aimed to cause as much destruction and chaos as humanly possible. If they did their jobs particularly well, he told his team, the Penn Station attack would terrify American society to the core and leave Washington too intimidated to do anything other than acquiesce to the Third Reich’s demands. In his more optimistic moments, Skorzeny even envisioned the possibility of Franklin Roosevelt being removed from office and replaced with a president who was more friendly toward Germany. Yet even as he was making these boasts, the SS commando chief barely realized the attack would have precisely the opposite effect of what he had intended....
The mission to attack Penn Station started going awry at almost the exact minute Skorzeny’s team arrived at the station. First it was discovered that two of the bombs the team had intended to set off at Penn were duds. Then Skorzeny learned the Gestapo agent who had been his main contact in the New York City area was under arrest, albeit on charges unrelated to the planned Penn Station attack, and being held at a police station in Glen Cove. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the SS men on Skorzeny’s team injured himself while arming his bomb; the injury would hamper his comrades’ getaway plans. Last but by no means least, Skorzeny himself had the misfortune to have an observant NYPD patrolman overhear him issuing instructions in German to one of his other commandos.
In the end, Skorzeny would only succeed in planting and setting off three of the eight bombs he had intended to use in the attack on Penn Station. While those bombs would indeed inflict noticeable damage on the venerable railroad facility and kill at least thirteen people when they detonated, it was hardly even close to the devastating blow the Nazis had hoped to inflict on the American psyche. If anything, it essentially handed Roosevelt the perfect tool with which to motivate his fellow countrymen to abandon the last traces of the isolationism which had since September of 1939 kept the United States from becoming involved in the Second World War.
Skorzeny and his comrades were hunted down like dogs once they left Penn Station. For the next 48 hours after the Penn bombing, New York City was more or less in a state of siege as local, state, and federal law enforcement agents combed the five boroughs of the city looking for the SS commandos; Skorzeny’s team was finally cornered in the hold of an otherwise deserted ferry at the Staten Island docks. In a gun battle lasting more than 45 minutes, NYPD officers killed two of Skorzeny’s teammates and seriously wounded Skorzeny himself; after a thwarted suicide attempt by Skorzeny, he and the surviving men in his cell were taken into custody and incarcerated at the notorious Rikers Island prison on the banks of the East River.
The next day Skorzeny and his team, along with his New York Gestapo contact, were arraigned in a Manhattan federal court on charges ranging from terrorism to illegal immigration.1 All of the major New York City newspapers trumpeted the SS commandos’ arrest and indictment, but perhaps the most memorable headline came from the now- defunct New York World-Telegram: "BIG APPLE COPS BITE NAZI WORMS." The SS men were segregated from the rest of the prison population, placed in solitary confinement cells under armed guard; this was done partly to keep the defendants from becoming victims of vigilante justice at the hands of anti-Nazi inmates at Rikers, but it was also intended to minimize the risk of Skorzeny’s team making contact with pro-German inmates who might help the commandos carry out an escape plan.
To further tighten security for the duration of the Skorzeny trial, a contingent of US Marshals was detailed to Rikers a week after the arraignment. The marshals all toted wicked-looking submachine guns while on duty, which made the SS men somewhat wary; even the normally cold-blooded Skorzeny couldn’t help but tense up in their presence. This tension, and the marshals, would stay with the SS men throughout the rest of their incarceration at Rikers.
Fritz Kuhn and his cohorts at the German-American Bund went into panic mode when Skorzeny’s team was arrested. The Bund had taken great pains to conceal its co-operation with Berlin in Reinhard Heydrich’s "black ops" war against the United States, yet the Justice Department was gradually getting wise to the full extent of the Bund’s links with the SS terror plot in America; Kuhn feared it was just a question of time before the US government uncovered the full extent of his group’s co-operation with Skorzeny in carrying out the Penn Station attack.
Sure enough, two days after Skorzeny’s arrest federal agents searching his New Jersey safe house found incriminating papers and telegrams linking the Bund with the conspiracy to bomb Penn Station. American anger toward Nazi Germany, already white-hot to begin with, reached volcanic levels when the Justice Department went public with news of the papers’ existence; while security and legal considerations kept J. Edgar Hoover or then-US Attorney General Robert H. Jackson from disclosing much of the specific contents of those papers, the very fact of their existence stirred up anti-Nazi sentiment in America to the point where even many of those who had previously espoused an isolationist stance on the war in Europe were advocating some sort of military action against the Third Reich.
On November 11th, 1940-- six days after Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third term as President of the United States and eight days after the Penn Station bombing attack --Hans Thomsen, the chargé d’affaires for the German embassy in Washington since 1938, was called to the State Department by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and bluntly informed Washington was severing diplomatic relations with Berlin as of 12 noon US Eastern Daylight Time the next day. All U.S. diplomatic personnel would be recalled from Germany and all German diplomats were ordered to leave the United States. As a Japanese consular official would later say to Thomsen following Thomsen’s return to Germany, the SS terror bombing in New York City had "awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve"...
To Be Continued
 The illegal immigration charge stemmed from the forged visas Skorzeny and his team had used to enter the United States.