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If They Mean To Have A War:

The SS Commando Raids on North America, 1940-41


By Chris Oakley


Part 3


inspired by the novel "A Clash of Eagles" by Leo Rutman




Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we looked at Adolf Hitler’s decision to authorize commando raids on the United States and Canada in 1940 and the consequences of the initial wave of those raids. In this segment, we’ll examine how the Penn Station bombing hastened the United States’ entry into World War II.


The Skorzeny team’s bomb attack on Penn Station effectively shattered the Axis powers’ last hope of keeping America neutral in the Second World War. Almost as soon as the first corpse was taken away by ambulance to be identified by the New York City coroner’s office, the American public began clamoring for the White House to strike back at the Nazis by any means available. By the time Hans Thomsen was expelled from Washington, Congress had officially passed a declaration of war against Nazi Germany and President Roosevelt had turned the US Atlantic fleet loose to confront the Kriegsmarine.

Hermann Goering once famously alleged that American factories could only produce iceboxes and razor blades; American industrialists would dramatically prove him wrong as they retooled their production facilities to produce the weapons the U.S. armed forces would need to confront the might of the Third Reich. Recruiting offices throughout the country were jammed with men seeking to enlist in the armed forces to, as one Brooklyn volunteer put it, "give that little paper-hangin’ runt a swift kick right where he deserves it".1

Even longtime known isolationist and accused German sympathizer Charles Lindbergh was now urging the Roosevelt Administration to go on the attack against the Nazis. In a telegram sent to the White House three days after the Penn Station blasts, the aviation pioneer offered FDR this blunt recommendation: "Bomb Berlin back to the Stone Age and let Wilkie2 go fly a kite." Lindbergh, who had visited Germany in 1937 and befriended some of its leaders, regarded the Penn Station bombing as a personal betrayal; his views on the German government did a 180-degree turnaround in the wake of the attack and he was now vehemently denouncing the Nazi regime at every opportunity.

At the Japanese embassy in Washington, the news of America’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany was viewed with a certain degree of trepidation. While some members of the Imperial government welcomed it as a way to divert US attention from Japan’s own expansionist agenda in the Far East, others-- including the Japanese ambassador to the US and at least one prominent Imperial Navy flag officer --feared that Washington’s declaration of war against Hitler could all too easily expand to encompass the Japanese Empire as well. As the Nazis’ chief Asian partner, Japan was deemed by Roosevelt’s senior diplomatic and military advisors to be nearly as much of a threat to U.S. national security as the Third Reich. Even as NYPD and FBI investigators were sifting for clues in the debris littering the floor of Penn Station, a leading national magazine published an ominous hypothetical scenario about how Japanese air and naval forces might successful carry out an attack on US military installations in the Philippines.


While American military forces were preparing to confront the Axis overseas, the Justice Department was solidly laying the hammer down on Nazi collaborators on America’s own shores. Members of Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund, now outlawed as a terrorist organization, were being arrested left and right and Kuhn himself had become number one on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list; there was a $1,000,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. His face was plastered on post office walls and police station desks up and down the East Coast.

The long arm of the law finally caught up with him on December 2nd, 1940 at a train station near Atlanta. He was in disguise, seeking to purchase a cross-country ticket under an assumed name, when three college students returning to school after a weekend trip to Alabama recognized his profile from the official FBI "Wanted" poster and went to call the police. A desperate Kuhn tried to flee the station only to be tackled and subdued by three Atlanta cops. He was turned over to agents of the FBI’s Atlanta office that afternoon, booked on multiple charges that evening, and by 10:00 AM the next morning was officially under indictment for terrorism, espionage, and treason(to name just a few of the criminal counts against him).

Overnight, Kuhn became the most despised American traitor since Benedict Arnold. He had to be escorted to and from his indictment by no less than two dozen federal marshals and an equal number of Georgia state police to keep vigilantes from exacting mob justice on him-- and at least fifty Atlanta cops were on hand to guarantee that the state and federal officers didn’t surrender to their own hidden desires for vengeance. He was also placed in solitary confinement when he went to prison so that the other inmates didn’t tear him to pieces. He even had to take his meals by himself to prevent one of his fellow inmates from trying to stab him to death in the prison cafeteria.

Back in Germany Joachim Peiper, mastermind of the first SS terror attack on North American soil, was preparing his team for their second(and as it turned out, final) mission: a raid on the Charlestown Navy Yard near Boston. With the true extent of Fall Schlange having been exposed by US and Canadian authorities, the Boston raid amounted to a suicide mission. But Heydrich showed no sign of having any second thoughts about going through with the operation-- if anything, he was hoping it might rattle the Americans’ cages enough to blackmail them into releasing Skorzeny’s team from prison. On this score he was, of course, to be proven catastrophically wrong.

Peiper’s team left Germany for Boston on December 16th, 1940. They arrived at the New England coast just after Christmas and came ashore near the mouth of the Little Mystic Channel in Boston Harbor; unlike the Halifax raid, where he and his team had been able to make use of the services of a local Nazi collaborator, Peiper would have to rely strictly on himself to get to the target, fulfill his mission, and get out. And when his squad finally did reach their designated target, they would find a rather nasty surprise waiting for them-- or more accurately, dozens of nasty surprises. The US federal government had learned some harsh but important lessons from the Skorzeny bomb attack against Penn Station and taken steps to substantially increase security at critical military installations like the Navy Yard; also, given that the United States was now in a state of war with Germany anyhow, Marines now patrolled the yard around the clock with rifles at the ready and guard dogs sniffing the air for potential troublemakers.

And as if those measures weren’t enough to give Peiper and his commandos second thoughts about their mission, the Massachusetts State Police and Boston Police Harbor Patrol had their own security details stationed near the yard to provide additional manpower to secure its perimeter. When Peiper’s team finally reached the Navy Yard, they were met with furious volleys of rifle, shotgun, and machine gun fire; two of Peiper’s men were killed almost immediately and Peiper himself was severely wounded. The remaining men of Peiper’s squad put up a highly ferocious struggle, but they were outnumbered and by 3:00 AM the next morning all but one of the SS commandos were dead. The lone surviving member of Peiper’s squad was incarcerated at Boston’s Charles Street Jail pending transfer to military custody.


The casualties of the failed Charlestown Navy Yard attack would not be confined to Peiper and the men on his team. When word that the attack had become a costly fiasco reached SS headquarters in Berlin, an enraged Heinrich Himmler summoned Reinhard Heydrich to his office and berated him in a harangue that would have left even Hitler at a loss for words; at the end of Himmler’s tirade, in which he basically blamed Heydrich for everything that had gone wrong with Fall Schlange, he fired Heydrich and had him arrested for dereliction of duty; his mind shattered and spirit drained by this humiliation at the hands of one of the men who he admired most in the world, Heydrich would commit suicide on December 29th, 1940.3

The raid’s failure also ensured that Fritz Kuhn would never see the light of day again. When the sole German survivor of the botched attack was questioned by U.S. authorities, he corroborated much of the evidence that had previously come to light about the German-American Bund’s secret co-operation with Heydrich in implementing Fall Schlange on American soil. The transcript of those interrogations would soon be entered into evidence at Kuhn’s trial, and when they were they sealed the Bund leader’s fate: on January 16th, 1941 Kuhn was convicted of treason, terrorism, and a host of other charges and sentenced to death by hanging. He wouldn’t be going to the gallows alone; nine of Kuhn’s deputies were also hanged for their complicity in the Bund plot to aid SS terror attacks on the United States.

Otto Skorzeny wouldn’t be long for this world either. Scarcely two weeks after Kuhn’s conviction, Skorzeny was shot and killed while attempting to escape from Rikers Island4; the gun that fired the fatal bullet would later be donated to the Smithsonian Institutions, and although the identity of the guard who wielded said gun had to be kept hidden for security reasons until after the Second World War was over, that guard received commendations from New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in a private ceremony held at LaGuardia’s office.

Except for SS commander-in-chief Heinrich Himmler, the men who’d collaborated with Reinhard Heydrich on Fall Schlange would ultimately share in Heydrich’s disgrace in the aftermath of the Charlestown Navy Yard disaster; determined not to let the taint of that fiasco infect the rest of the SS, Himmler ordered the campaign terminated in early February of 1941 and had every surviving Waffen-SS man who’d been even peripherally involved with Schlange either cashiered or put to death. He would spend the rest of the war trying to distance himself from the failed "black ops" campaign, telling anyone who would listen that it had strictly been Heydrich’s pet project from the start, even though Himmler had signed off on many of the most crucial elements of Fall Schlange and personally approved the main list of designated targets. So desperate was Himmler to avoid being associated with the failed terror plot he had once so enthusiastically backed that in the final months of the Second World War, with nearly every sector of the German military critically short on gasoline, he would have several gallons of fuel confiscated from a Wehrmacht panzer unit to be used to burn top secret SS documents in a frantic last-minute attempt to erase any evidence of his involvement with Schlange.


Perhaps the most notable effect of the Charlestown Navy Yard attack’s failure would be felt not in Germany, but at the Imperial Japanese Army’s general staff headquarters in Tokyo. Through coded dispatches from the military attaché’s office at the Japanese embassy in Berlin, the Imperial Army’s intelligence bureau had been keeping tabs on Fall Schlange from the beginning to see what lessons could be gleaned from it for Japan’s own covert defense operations. Since the Nova Scotia power plant raid Japanese spymasters had been considering mounting their own version of Schlange against U.S. industrial and defense facilities on the West Coast and in Hawaii as a way to deter the United States from further interference in Japan’s campaigns of conquest in Asia.

But after learning of the costly debacle that had befallen their German allies in the Navy Yard operation, Japanese counterintelligence officials became exceedingly cautious about mounting commando raids of any kind no matter how urgent the need might be to neutralize the U.S. threat to Japan’s interests in the Pacific. Then one young Imperial Navy officer, inspired by the story of the legendary kamikaze("divine wind") which had saved Japan from a Mongol invasion in 1281, proposed a daring strategy which he thought could at the very least buy time for the Japanese Empire to prepare its next move. His idea was to use ‘flying boat’ aircraft to drop incendiary bombs on targets vital to U.S. defense operations in the Pacific region...


To Be Continued



[1] “Men Of 5 Boroughs Enlist To Fight Hitler”, New York Post, November 12th, 1940.

[2] A reference to Wendell Wilkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1940 GOP presidential elections; before the Penn Station bombing, Wilkie had sharply opposed any U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Ironically, by the time Lindbergh’s telegram went out Wilkie had reversed his stance as a result of the Penn Station attack and was calling for a massive expansion of the US Army to meet the possible threat of a German invasion of North America.

[3] In typical Nazi fashion, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels covered up the suicide by falsely claiming Heydrich had been assassinated by Czech spies trained in Britain; the coverup itself, and the destruction of a Czech village in order to maintain the coverup, are explored in further detail in the book Lidice: How An Entire Czech Town Was Wiped Out To Conceal The Heydrich Suicide by Professor Steven Payne(copyright 2005 Oxford University Press).

[4] The jail where Skorzeny and his commando team were incarcerated after their arrest in connection with the Penn Station bombing; see Part 2 for additional details.


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