German Saboteurs Ordered to Blow Up Horseshoe Curve – Part 2

/, ww2/German Saboteurs Ordered to Blow Up Horseshoe Curve – Part 2

German Saboteurs Ordered to Blow Up Horseshoe Curve – Part 2

Part 1Part 2


This magnificent photograph of the George B. McClellan Memorial was taken and released into the public domain by famed local photographer Carol M. Highsmith. The memorial is located in a small public park on Connecticut Avenue NW, California Street * and Columbia Road in Washington, DC.

The bronze equestrian statue was sculpted by Frederick William MacMonnies and the memorial was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.   It was placed in this location because Union troops encamped here during the Civil War.  The statute is one of eighteen Civil War monuments in Washington, DC according to the National Park Service, which maintains the memorial.

Carol M. Highsmith, who took the beautiful picture is a photographer, author, and publisher who has photographed in all the states of the United States, as well as the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. She photographs the entire American vista (including landscapes, architecture, urban and rural life, and people in their work environments) in all 50 US states as a record of the early 21st Century.
Highsmith is donating her life’s work of more than 100,000 images, copyright-free, to the Library of Congress, which established a rare, one-person archive.
You can view more of her truly magnificent, fascinating and astoundingly beautiful work on her web page here:  Carol Highsmith website .  While I live in DC, I don’t know her, although I wish I did, so I have no financial or personal motives to promote her work. You can learn more about her here:
*A note on the names of the roads which form the boundaries of the park. All roadways in the District of Columbia named after states are ‘avenues’ except for California, which is a ‘street,’ and Ohio, which is a ‘drive.’ I have no idea why but street names in Washington can be quirky. For instance, in the grid of the “alphabet streets” there is no ‘J’ street since the letter ‘J’ was not in common usage in English when Pierre L’Enfant designed the city and its street grid. People used ‘g’ for ‘j’  instead which is why the English say ‘jail’ but spell it, ‘gaol.’
civil-war-081 USMRR courtesy of US National Archives
US Military Railroad engine “General Haupt,” built in 1863, which was a wood burning railroad engine that was part of the US Military Rail Road system built to supply and transport Union troops.

After McClellan left the army in  had the advantage of being schooled in the military and upon leaving the service then achieved success in the rail road business, brought their understanding of the critical role rail roads could play in supplying and transporting troops to the business of war.


Thus, the American Civil War was the first war in history in which rail roads played a major role. Both sides used rail roads extensively, the Confederacy even pulling up under-used tracks in Florida and shipping them to Virginia to repair and expand the rail net supporting General Lee.

On several occasions reinforcements sent by rail provided the margin which turned the tide of several battles. Soldiers sent by rail could move very quickly for the era and often these troops disembarked directly from the boxcars and went straight into the fight. Sometimes they were shooting from the open doors of the boxcars before the trains even stopped.


Depot of the US Military Railroads, City Point, VA, 1864, showing the engine “President.” 111-B-4860.

Many of the general officers who had been railroad executives adjusted far better to the demands of commanding military units which often contained one hundred times the number of soldiers ever assembled in American military formations until that time. The only organizations in the United States which involved the “command and control” of thousands of employees were the railroads.

photograph of the Horseshoe Curve


the statistics on the Horseshoe Curve are as follows:

Length of curve is 2375 feet

Degree of curvature 9 degrees, 25 minutes

Central Angle 220 degrees

Elevation at lower or east end 1594 feet

Elevation at the upper west end is 1716 feet

122 feet total elevation climb

The grade is 1.8% or 1.8 foot rise per 100 feet.

figures from the railroadcity the world-famous-horseshoe-curve website

The Pennsylvania Railroad was for decades one of the best known and best run corporations in America. It was incorporated in 1846 and as the years went on it became the largest American railroad by tonnage and revenues.
The “Pennsy,” as it was known in the slang of the time, listed many achievements in its corporate history. It destined and built the famous  Horseshoe Curve ; carried President Lincoln to his inauguration; implemented the ‘line and staff’ organizational structure used by business today; built Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan; and electrified the route between New York and Washington, among its many achievements.” (This is why it is one of the railroads on the original Monopoly Board).


Pennsylvania Railroad engine pulling a passenger train around the Horseshoe Curve circa 1960

Given both the complexity of its construction and the time which would have been required to rebuild it, had Horseshoe Curve been destroyed, it would have caused major delays and disorders in the entire rail net of the United States for months. German intelligence agencies in the Third Reich were well aware of the strategic importance of Horseshoe Curve.

Eight German saboteurs were landed in two different locations in the US between June 12 and June 16. Four at Amagansett on Long Island and four at Ponte Vedre Beach outside of Jacksonville. They weren’t actually found by the FBI as claimed for decades. The leader of the group, George John Dasch, turned them all into the FBI.


Nazi_saboteur_trial in Washington DC July 1942 US Army Signal Corps

Not so secret military tribunal during trial of German saboteurs

(US Office of War Information)

Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the secret military tribunal which tried the men in July and August of 1942. It is now declassified. (Curiously, while the proceedings of the secret tribunal were secret, the fact that it was going on was not secret.)

The following was dictated by George John Dasch to Ellen E. Harrison, Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the presence of Special Agent Duane L. Traynor:
“The attack on the railroad system which came into consideration was to be carried out by fixing an exact spot in the rails of a trunk line, whether a tunnel, a bridge, or a big curve like the big Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania. The attack on a railroad was to be done by high explosives. A small fuse was to be put where the two rails come together and this little fuse would, when the front wheels of the locomotive touched it, ignite the whole works and with the momentum of the oncoming train would wreck everything.”



Transcript of Proceedings before the Military Commission to Try Persons Charged with Offenses against the Law of War and the Articles of War, Washington D.C., July 8 to July 31, 1942

The 3,000 word transcript was transcribed and put online in 2004 by students from the University of Minnesota.
Editors. Joel Samaha, Sam Root, and Paul Sexton, eds.
Transcribers. Students, University of Minnesota,

By | 2016-02-02T14:37:48+00:00 April 8th, 2013|World War Two, ww2|0 Comments

About the Author:

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: