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The Nazi Raid on America

Written by Michael DobbsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michael Dobbs

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42755-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis


In 1942, Hitler's Nazi regime trained eight operatives for a mission to infiltrate America and do devastating damage to its infrastructure. It was a plot that proved historically remarkable for two reasons: the surprising extent of its success and the astounding nature of its failure. Soon after two U-Boats packed with explosives arrived on America's shores–one on Long Island, one in Florida–it became clear that the incompetence of the eight saboteurs was matched only by that of American authorities. In fact, had one of the saboteurs not tipped them off, the FBI might never have caught the plot's perpetrators–though a dozen witnesses saw a submarine moored on Long Island.
As told by Michael Dobbs, the story of the botched mission and a subsequent trial by military tribunal, resulting in the swift execution of six saboteurs, offers great insight into the tenor of the country--and the state of American intelligence--during World War II and becomes what is perhaps a cautionary tale for our times.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
School for Sabotage
(April 11-30)

A chance to rehabilitate yourself, they had told him. A chance to fulfill your obligations to the Fatherland.

He had been ordered to report in uniform to the army post in Brandenburg, a slow two-hour train ride from Berlin's Zoo station.1 Stations with names like Wannsee and Potsdam glided past his window as the train chugged westward, packed with soldiers returning home for a few days' furlough with their families as a respite from the hell of the Russian front. From the train, the Prussian countryside seemed reassuringly permanent and serene, almost undisturbed by two and a half years of war, a collage of sparkling lakes, village churches with high steeples, children riding their bicycles down wooded lanes.

He took a streetcar from the station to the military garrison, whose old brick barracks dated back to the time of Kaiser Wilhelm. The regimental clerk took him to a storeroom, handed him a set of civilian clothes to put in his knapsack, and told him to take the Quenz Lake tramway to the end of the line. The farm was a ten-minute walk from the tram stop, along a road bordered by a drainage canal on one side and vegetable gardens on the other. The lakeside estate was impossible to miss, the clerk had insisted. There were no other farms in the vicinity.

He got off the streetcar as instructed, and walked up a country lane to a brick gatepost, beyond which he could see a two-story farmhouse at the end of a driveway lined by chestnut trees. Signs posted along the high metal fence warned intruders to "Keep out under penalty of severe punishment by the Law."

As he wandered up the driveway, he caught glimpses of the lake shimmering through the woods. It was early spring: the chestnuts were not yet in bloom, but shoots of light green had appeared on the trees. Patches of snow still lay on the ground. To his left, he could see a converted two-story barn with a high sloping roof, along with some stables and outbuildings. The main farmhouse, fifty yards from the lake, was neat and well maintained, reflecting the Prussian virtues of thrift, hard work, and order.

Several men were lounging on the porch of the brick building as he approached. He felt a little out of place. They were all in civilian clothes, while he was still in uniform.

"You must be Burger," said one of the men, a wiry fellow with a thin face and a streak of gray running through his dark hair, as he extended his hand. "My name is Davis. George John Davis."

A housekeeper showed him to a room, on the ground floor of the farmhouse, which he would share with one of the other men. After changing into the clothes the army clerk had given him in Brandenburg, he went outside to join his companions. The man who had introduced himself as Davis suggested they take a walk around the estate.

"You will be part of my group," the man explained, as they strolled down to the lake, still half-frozen after a long, hard winter. "Eleven men have been chosen to take part in this course. Only the best will be selected to go to the United States."

To outside appearances, Ernst Peter Burger had arrived at a working farm on the eastern shore of Lake Quenz. There was an apple orchard, a barnyard full of cows, pigs, and chickens, and a hothouse where vegetables were grown. Between the main building and the road, just north of the driveway, was a one-story house occupied by the people who looked after the farm. There were even a few children running around. But it did not take Burger long to discover that nothing was what it seemed at Quenz Lake.

In the first place, his new acquaintance's name was not Davis at all, but George John Dasch. Like Burger, Dasch was a German-American who had returned to the Fatherland to take part in Hitler's great experiment. Davis was merely the code name that he would use for their mission.

As Burger walked around the lakeside estate with Dasch, it became clear to him that it was not a farm at all. The barnlike building he had noticed as he came up the drive contained a classroom and a chemical laboratory above a garage. Next door was a gymnasium equipped with parallel bars and weight-lifting equipment. Beyond these buildings, on the other side of a bridge leading across a pond, was an area that looked like an abandoned movie set. It included a hundred yards of railway tracks leading nowhere, an observation tower, and a deserted house, pockmarked with bullet holes and traces of explosives. Next to the railroad tracks, bulldozers had torn a large hole in the ground. The pit was reinforced with concrete and was evidently used for setting off high explosives. At the southernmost end of the estate, beyond the explosives pit, was a shooting range.

The meaning of all this was still a puzzle for Burger. He had volunteered for intelligence work in America, for which he believed he was well suited. During the six years he had lived in the United States, he had learned good English, even though he retained a strong German accent. He felt comfortable among Americans. He had received an honorable discharge from the Michigan National Guard, and had become an American citizen. With his swarthy complexion and slightly elongated nose, he could pass himself off as a Jewish refugee. But how he would get to America-and what he would do once he got there-remained unclear.

The mystery unraveled as he talked to Dasch, who explained that Burger was the last of eleven students to arrive at the farm. Over the next three weeks, they would learn how to blow up factories. They would then be sent to America by submarine in two groups, landing somewhere along the eastern coast. Was he still interested?

Burger barely hesitated. Yes, of course, he was still interested.

They ate dinner on the ground floor of the farmhouse, in a large room overlooking the lake. They then set off through the woods for a drink at a nearby tavern. It took about half an hour to reach the place, and once again Burger found himself walking with Dasch, who began quizzing him about his past. Since Dasch was going to be his new chief, Burger thought it better to admit he had been in trouble with the Gestapo. To his relief, Dasch said he was already aware of that. He had studied the files.

"Tell me your side of the story. The other side I know."

There was so much to tell that Burger scarcely knew where to begin. He was thirty-six years old, and his life had been in turmoil since his return to Germany from America nine years previously. Readmission to the Nazi Party. The elation of rejoining the storm troopers and taking part in Hitler's triumphant parades. The Night of the Long Knives. Clashes between the storm troopers and the S.S. Trips to Czechoslovakia and Poland. Marriage. A trumped-up charge. Imprisonment. His wife's miscarriage. Release from jail.

Burger found it difficult to talk about his seventeen months in Gestapo prisons without indignation. He began to curse Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, and "the dirty bastards who beat me up." Dasch cut him short.

"That's enough. Don't say anything more. We'll talk about this later."

They changed the subject. A slip like that could have serious consequences. To Dasch, Burger seemed suddenly fearful, "a man haunted by a terrible past, happy and elated one minute and given to moody spells and silence the next."

Despite the secrecy that surrounded the Quenz Lake camp, little effort was made to hide the identity of the school. Burger was surprised to hear his fellow trainees chatting in English when they visited the local tavern or took walks in the countryside, even though Germany and America had been at war with each other for the past five months, ever since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They would often burst into songs like "Oh! Susannah" and even "The Star-Spangled Banner," which they remembered from their days in the States.

The fact was that the people of Brandenburg-like the people of any small German town-had lost all sense of curiosity after a decade of Nazi rule. They had learned to keep their heads down, refusing to notice the most outrageous things that were being done in their name. On Sunday, April 12, the day after Burger passed through Brandenburg on his way to Quenz Lake, the remnants of the town's Jewish population were herded to the train station by half a dozen Prussian gendarmes on the first stage of a journey to the Warsaw Ghetto. As several dozen Jewish families trudged through the town in their heavy winter overcoats, hauling bags crammed with their possessions, local people simply averted their gaze.

It was not just Germans who preferred to ignore what was happening around them. Beginning in 1940, the local Opel plant, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, had been using slave labor from conquered German territories to replace workers conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Every day, thousands of Poles, Belgians, and Russians were marched through the streets of Brandenburg in long columns to the Opel factory, where they worked fourteen hours a day for starvation wages. Although the American managers knew all about the use of slave labor in their Brandenburg plant, they made no effort to divest themselves of their German holdings, and acted as if nothing were amiss.

It was hardly surprising, then, that nobody would pay much attention when, as Nazi Germany geared up for war in 1939, the country estate of a wealthy Jewish shoe manufacturer on the edge of town was turned over to the Abwehr and transformed into a training camp for saboteurs.

In order to get his chance at rehabilitation, Burger had called in his Nazi Party connections, ties that dated back to his experiences as a street brawler before and after the Munich beer hall putsch of 1923. The coup had been quashed, and Hitler sent to prison, but in retrospect it marked the first big step on the Führer's road to supreme power. The putsch had become part of Nazi folklore. To have participated in the failed street rebellion was a mark of distinction that nobody could ever take away from you. None of the other men, Burger felt sure, could match his knowledge of the inner workings of the Nazi movement.

After his release from jail in July 1941, he had wangled an appointment with Alfred Rosenberg, the party ideologist, and had mentioned his interest in foreign intelligence work. Rosenberg had picked up the phone and called Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr. Canaris passed the message on to a Colonel Schmidt, who introduced Burger to a Lieutenant Colonel Marguerre. The lieutenant colonel called a Major Hotzel, who sent Burger to see a Captain Astor, who in turn introduced him to Lieutenant Walter Kappe.

Kappe, Burger learned, was a former editor of German-language newspapers in Chicago and New York. He had also been a high official in the German-American Bund. Some of the other men at the camp had heard Kappe speak at meetings in Chicago, railing against the Jews and urging his audience to show solidarity with the "New Germany." Fat and jovial, with an eye for the ladies, Kappe was not the kind of man you easily forgot. His flabby face was very distinctive, "a real baby face." According to an unflattering portrait in the files of the American FBI, he spoke English with a strong German accent, which he tried to hide "under an atrocious and unsuccessfully affected phony Oxford accent . . . Kappe likes to play the suave, imperturbable superman but can easily be made to lose his cool."

Kappe had personally screened all the men selected for training at the sabotage school, and had arranged their transfers to Quenz Lake. In Burger's case, Kappe had questioned him extensively about his experiences in the United States. Satisfied with his answers, Kappe made arrangements for Burger to be transferred from guarding a prison camp outside Berlin to a secret military unit known as the Lehrregiment that trained espionage and sabotage agents for the German High Command. The Brandenburg garrison, where Burger was ordered to report en route to Quenz Lake, was an outpost of the Lehrregiment.

Burger arrived at the farm on Saturday, April 11. Since classes were not scheduled to begin until Monday, he devoted the rest of the weekend to getting to know his fellow trainees. They spent much of Sunday lounging around the living room of the main farmhouse, perusing various American newspapers and magazines long banned in Germany, such as the New York Times, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. The publications, most of which were about two months old, were stamped "Property of OKW, to be returned."14 OKW, Burger knew, stood for Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the German High Command. There were also reading materials in Hindi, Arabic, and various other languages.

The other trainees were all German-Americans who had spent varying amounts of time in the United States. Some spoke good English; others retained a thick German accent. Most had worked in menial occupations in America, such as cook, housepainter, chauffeur, odd-job man. They ranged in age from early twenties to mid-forties.

Dasch turned out to be a character, thirty-nine years old, very loquacious, and full of nervous energy. Before returning to Germany in May 1941, he had spent nearly twenty years in America, where he held a variety of jobs, including waiter, traveling salesman, and manager of a brothel. His English was a little rusty, but he had an extraordinary command of American slang, and would sprinkle his conversation with expressions that seemed to be lifted out of a Boy's Own magazine, such as "check and recheck," "scram," and "blow my stack." He referred to his brain as his "noodle" and people he disliked as "a bunch of nuts." Once he began to talk, it was difficult to get him to stop. Burger noticed that Dasch had the habit of waving his long, gangly arms while talking to people and holding his index finger up to his nose, as if to preempt anyone who might try to interrupt him. Dasch had been selected to lead a team of four or five saboteurs that would include Burger.

The leader of the second group was Edward Kerling, alias Eddie Kelly, a heavy-jawed man with thick wavy hair who always seemed to be smiling. Kerling dropped hints that he was a Nazi Party member of long standing, with a membership number of around 70000, indicating that he, like Burger, was one of Hitler's early followers.15 He had lived in America for eleven years, and had had quite an adventure getting back to Germany. In 1939, after Hitler invaded Poland, Kerling and a few friends pooled their savings to buy a small yacht, the Lekala, with the intention of sailing across the Atlantic and offering their services to the Fatherland. But the boat was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, triggering a spate of newspaper headlines about American Nazis making illegal trips to Germany and violating the Neutrality Act. The following year Kerling managed to get his papers in order, and returned home on board a regular ship.


From the Hardcover edition.
Michael Dobbs|Author Q&A

About Michael Dobbs

Michael Dobbs - Saboteurs

Photo © Miriam Lomaskin/USHMM

Now a U.S. citizen, Michael Dobbs was born and educated in Britain, with fellowships at Princeton and Harvard. He spent much of his career as a reporter for The Washington Post, for which he covered the collapse of communism. His previous books include One Minute to Midnight, and Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, a finalist for the 1997 PEN award for nonfiction.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with MICHAEL DOBBS
author of SABOTEURS: The Nazi Raid on America

Q: How did you discover this story and why did you decide to write a book about it?

A: I learned about the case of the Nazi saboteurs while I was researching a story at the
National Archives in early 1991 on another World War II subject. The notion of Nazi
saboteurs landing in America from U-boats immediately whetted my interest. An archivist gave me a tour of the "stacks"—where the records are physically stored—and I noticed dozens of boxes of FBI records labeled George John Dasch, the leader of the saboteurs. My decision to write a book about the saboteurs was based both on the intrinsic interest of the subject and the extraordinary detail of the archival records, many of them only recently released.

Q: How were you able to find so much information about the saboteurs' training in
Germany?

A: Most of the information came from FBI records and the extensive interrogations of the saboteurs, all of whom ended up telling their story to the FBI. Dasch's own statements to the FBI alone amount to nearly a thousand single-spaced typewritten pages. But I also followed in the footsteps of the saboteurs, visiting the farm outside the East German town of Brandenburg where they received training in handling explosives and secret communications. The
farmhouse has now become a hostel for guest laborers from a nearby steelmill, but the site
itself is little changed from 1942.

Q: What kind of sabotage were they instructed to carry out?

A: Their main target was the American aluminum industry, although transportation bottlenecks, such as bridges and railway lines, were also targeted. Hitler understood that Germany was likely to lose the war unless he could find a way of counteracting America's vast military-
industrial potential. Aluminum was the basic material used to make airplanes: if he could slow America's production of airplanes, he could prevent the U.S. Air Force from gaining control of the skies. The Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Goering, was a leading advocate of the sabotage plan.

Q: The portrait you paint of the Nazi saboteurs will surprise many people. Some of them seem comically incompetent.

A: The saboteurs were all German-Americans who had returned to Germany during the runup to World War II out of disillusionment with depression-era America and a desire to help the Fatherland. Many of them had been members of the German-American Bund, the U.S. equivalent of the Nazi party. The Nazis assumed that they would make good saboteurs because (a) they knew America well, and (b) they had demonstrated their devotion to the Nazi cause. Unfortunately for Hitler, several saboteurs saw the sabotage mission not as a chance to serve the Fatherland, but as an opportunity to return to America.

Q: How did they actually arrive on U.S. shores?

A: They arrived on two U-boats, one of which landed in Amagansett, Long Island, the other in Ponte Vedra, Florida. Their journey across the Atlantic was an adventure in itself: I have tried to give readers a sense of what it was like to live on board a German U-boat for several weeks, being tossed about on the ocean and hunted by allied warplanes. Remember this was June 1942—six months after Pearl Harbor—at a time when it was virtually impossible to travel
between Hitler's Germany and FDR's America.

Q: Nazis landing in the Hamptons? What happened when they got to shore?

A: The Hamptons were very different back then to what they have since become. Amagansett, in particular, was much wilder and less developed, even though it had been "discovered" by painters like Max Ernst. The saboteurs had orders to bury their explosives and other sabotage equipment in the sand, and return for it some weeks later. But things started going wrong
almost from the start when they ran into a Coast Guard patrol on Amagansett beach on a
fog-shrouded night.

Q: How were they eventually caught?

A: I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but one of the saboteurs eventually gave
himself up to the FBI.

Q: So if he hadn't turned himself in, would U.S. intelligence have ever found the saboteurs?

A: The FBI had launched a nationwide manhunt for the saboteurs when one of them showed up in Washington and asked to see J. Edgar Hoover. Up until that point, the FBI had been
pursuing false leads. It is difficult to know what would have happened if the sabotage mission had not been betrayed from within. Given better leadership, it is possible they might have
succeeded in blowing up some factories. There is a very fine line between success and failure in such operations—as we were reminded by the events of 9/11.

Q: How were the men dealt with? Did the man who turned them in get a pardon? Oddly, it's hard not to feel just a bit sorry for them.

A: Six of the saboteurs were executed by electric chair. The remaining two were sentenced to long prison terms, but pardoned after the end of the war and sent back to Germany in 1948. As I researched and wrote the book, I felt varying degrees of pity for all of the saboteurs. In the end, they were very ordinary people, caught up in events over which they had little control. While I felt repugnance for their mission and their ideology, I could also feel empathy for them as human beings, particularly when I read the letters they wrote to their loved ones as they were waiting to be executed. I found these letters in the National Archives and quote from them extensively in the book.

Q: Were any legal precedents set regarding trying foreigners accused of sabotage?

A: They were tried by a secret military tribunal. To the dismay of the government, their army-appointed defense lawyer fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Known as Ex Parte Quirin, the Supreme Court ruling is the precedent used by the Bush administration for establishing military tribunals to try Al Qaeda members. (The case was named after Richard Quirin, one of the executed saboteurs.)

Q: What are the implications for how we try terrorists today?

A: The pendulum of legal opinion swings back and forth, depending on whether America is at war or at peace. The Supreme Court had issued a sweeping ruling after the Civil War in favor of habeas corpus, in Ex Parte Milligan, that barred the use of military tribunals when the civil courts were "open and functioning." That ruling was partially overturned by Quirin. After World War II, the pendulum swung back in favor of civil liberties, and many legal
experts argued that the saboteurs had gotten a raw deal. After 9/11, however, the Quirin
decision acquired new respectability.

Q: This book reads like a novel. Were you influenced by any crime/thriller writers?

A: I have used novelistic techniques to tell the story, including the development of characters, the frequent use of dialogue, and a constantly developing plot. The FBI and military tribunal records are a wonderful source of dialogue and physical descriptions of characters and places. I steeped myself in the atmosphere of World War II, reading novels about the cracking of the German Enigma code, as well as Das Boot by Lothar-Gunther Bucheim, which describes life on board a U-boat. But I was also influenced by non-fiction books, such as William Manchester's Death of a President and Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex. In their different ways, both of these writers excel at interweaving background into their narrative through the accumulation of sharply observed detail. They have the novelist's knack of keeping the plot constantly
moving forward, encouraging the reader to keep turning the pages. It is a technique I tried
to use in my 1994 book about the collapse of the Soviet empire, Down with Big Brother.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Dobbs skillfully tells this fascinating and timely story." --The Washington Post

"One of the greatest stories of our time. Michael Dobbs' superb research and exceptional writing add to the drama." --Providence Journal

"Hair-raising. . . . Intricately crafted. . . . A first-rate thriller . . . that is much more exciting for being true, Saboteurs is well worth the price of admission and a sight better than many books about the war." --Winston-Salem Journal

"Dobbs seasons his story with just the right a mount of wryness, letting the farce play out and keeping the details tidy. . . . An entertaining and useful book."--San Jose Mercury News

Saboteurs is a riveting detective story within an engrossing war story. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, this book is that wonderfully rare thing: a first-rate work of history that is impossible to put down.” --Rick Atkinson, author of An Army at Dawn

“Their story has been told before, but never so fascinatingly as by Dobbs.” --Chicago Sun-Times

"Revealing. . . . Dobbs delves, incisively, into the mindset of the different participants, from the saboteurs, with their conflicting back stories, agendas and loyalties, to midlevel FBI operatives, to the legal minds summoned to work the cases. . . . Dobbs fully evokes the relentless pace familiar to readers of traditional thrillers." --The Houston Chronicle

"Fascinating. . . . Must-reading for true crime and World War II enthusiasts. Saboteurs is a compelling story that is meticulously researched and highly recommended." --Tucson Citizen

"Dobbs expertly deploys the wealth of detail he has unearthed to bring this crew to life. . . . [He] has a knack for historical detective work. . . . Dobbs is the first to tell the full story of a riveting episode that casts some interesting shadows on our current moment." --Commentary Magazine

  • Saboteurs by Michael Dobbs
  • February 08, 2005
  • History - Germany
  • Vintage
  • $17.00
  • 9781400030422

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