Unternehmen Elster (Operation Magpie in English) was a Nazi German mission to gather intelligence on military and technology facilities during World War II. The mission was commenced in 1944 with Nazi agents sailing from Kiel, Germany on the U-1230, coming ashore in Maine on November 29, 1944. Within a month the operation ended, resulting in espionage convictions for the agents. Widespread claims that this mission was intended to sabotage the Manhattan Project are without foundation in the documentary record.
The idea of landing spies in the United States originated with Nazi Germany's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and this particular operation was developed by the Schutzstaffel (SS). Originally intended to gather information gauging the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in the United States, the objective was later widened to include the gathering of technical engineering information, generally from public sources. Of particular interest was intelligence on shipyards, airplane factories, and rocket-testing facilities.
Chosen for the mission were William Colepaugh, an American defector to Germany, and Erich Gimpel, a German radio operator who had been engaged in spying operations since the start of the war. Colepaugh was not deemed to be particularly reliable, but was judged to be necessary for the operation to succeed, because Gimpel spoke no English.
Claims that Gimpel had a secret mission (not disclosed to Colepaugh) to sabotage heavy water works related to the Manhattan Project appear to be without foundation in the documentary record. Promoted by Richard Gay, a former US intelligence operative, the thesis is that Gimpel was to sabotage a heavy water research facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, no such program existed (beyond relatively small-scale research), and official files concerning the activities of Colepaugh and Gimpel contain nothing to substantiate the claim.
After completing training in The Hague, Gimpel and Colepaugh boarded U-1230 to sail for the United States. The landing site, located near Coordinates: on the west coast of Hancock Point in the town of Hancock, Maine, was chosen because of its remote location, and because it was one of a small number of places on the Maine coast where the submarine would be able to approach relatively close to the shore.
On the evening of November 29, 1944, after spending eight days resting on the ocean floor off the coast of Maine to avoid American patrols, the U-1230 passed into Frenchman Bay and Gimpel and Colepaugh were put ashore by an inflatable rubber raft crewed by four sailors. The landing was delayed in part because the submarine had received reports that another U-boat, engaged in a similar mission, had been sunk nearby and its spies captured. After discussing a number of alternative landing sites along the coast of New England as far south as Newport, Rhode Island, the decision was made to use the originally-chosen landing site.
Gimpel and Colepaugh made their way from the rocky beach to a local road, hiked 5 miles (8.0 km) to United States Route 1, and were with great fortune able to flag a cab that was making its way to Bangor. The men were spotted twice while on foot, with both observers noting with suspicion their city garb, suitcases, and lack of hats on the snowy night. The FBI was immediately alerted, and their tracks were traced back to the landing site.
From Bangor the pair made their way to New York City. Using the aliases Edward Green (Gimpel) and William Caldwell (Colepaugh), they set about procuring parts for the radio Gimpel was expected to build, and gathering intelligence. Colepaugh quickly took up womanizing and drinking, and on December 21 deserted Gimpel, taking US$48,000 ($646,300 today) of the currency they had brought to continue his partying. Colepaugh turned himself in to the FBI five days later, hoping for immunity. Gimpel was subsequently arrested on December 30. During his arrest, Colepaugh claimed to be a cousin of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, producing genealogical evidence. Roosevelt dismissed this, however.
In February 1945, the pair were convicted of espionage by a military tribunal and sentenced to death. This was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment by President Harry S. Truman. Gimpel was paroled in 1955; Colepaugh was paroled in 1960.
Revelation of robot bombs
During their interrogation, Colepaugh said that U-1230 was shadowed by a U-boat pack equipped with V-weapons, to be launched at New York City and Washington D.C. Washington was familiar with the weapons, since they had been launched at London previously. During this period, American intelligence had detected an increase in German radio activity in the North Atlantic. Although the Americans took the threat seriously, it never materialized.
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