German Saboteurs Ordered to Destroy Horseshoe Curve

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German Saboteurs Ordered to Destroy Horseshoe Curve

Horseshoe Curve–Five Locomotives Pulling a Freight Train

Dynamite Horseshoe Curve and You Will Wreck America’s War Effort!

World War Two

Eight German saboteurs put ashore in the US in mid-June of 1942, had been ordered to destroy this this engineering marvel which remains a critical part of America’s railroad infrastructure more than one-hundred fifty years after it was built.



George John Dasch, leader of the group of eight German saboteurs. All the men had been chosen because they had lived in America.

One of the reasons Dasch was chosen as the leader was that he had lived in America longer than any of the others and loved American baseball. He knew the game inside and out which would have been expected of most men in that era when baseball was not only the national sport but a national obsession as well. Erroneously identified as an American citizen on almost every website I have seen with information on this topic, and in several books as well, Dasch stated in his own memoir, Eight Spies Against America, that he was not an American citizen. This is also presented in the trial transcripts of the US Military secret tribunal which were released in the early 1990s.

Dasch ratted everyone out to the FBI who had no idea these men were in the country, although J. Edgar Hoover subsequently took all the credit for their arrest.  Six were executed in August of 1942 in the Municipal Jail of the District of Columbia. One of those six, Herbert Haupt, was a naturalized American citizen.

Dasch and his second-in-command, Pete Burger, were given life sentences and deported to the American Zone in Allied occupied Germany in 1948. Burger was also a naturalized American citizen. He agreed to give up his citizenship as part of the deal to deport him.

The photo above is the famous “Horseshoe Curve” originally built by the Pennsylvania Railroad before the American Civil War. It is located in Blair County, Pennsylvania, outside of Altoona, PA.
While the grade is just over 2%, which doesn’t seem such a big number, it takes a lot of muscle to move a freight train in that situation which is why there are five rail engines in use in the vid above.

Horseshoe Curve was the most critical component of the American rail network on the east coast from the time of its completion in 1854 through the era of World War Two and after. It is still in use today by the successor to the Pennsylvania Rail Road (and a number of other rail companies), Norfolk Southern railway. Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania eliminated a major choke-point for rail traffic on the east coast of the US when it was built. This action both lowered freight costs and contributed greatly to increases in productivity.



Admiral Wilhelm Canaris head of the German Abwehr (spy agency) from 1936 to 1944. He was arrested after the 20 July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life and executed on April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered. 

Canaris, was opposed to Hitler and the Nazi Party and many of the conspirators behind the 20 July attempt on Hitler’s life had positions in Abwehr (or had been officers in the 9th Infantry Regiment, previously a Prussian Guard regiment before and during WW One) .  In fact the explosives used by Colonel Claus von von Stauffenberg were supplied to him by conspirators in  he Abwehr and were British in origin.

How and what Canaris did to help the Allies remains a subject of controversy to this very day. What information did he give the Allies? No one knows. Curiously, his wife was granted a pension after the war by the US Government. I came across this fact in How the Allies Won but the authors did not provide a footnote.

Canaris had scant interest in these wild schemes by Hitler although had they been properly prepared they might have worked. He made little effort to ensure the success of the saboteurs landed in the US. They only received three weeks of training before being sent to the US.

Any competent rail expert, and the German Army and German Abwehr (spy service) had plenty, could look at a rail map and in a minute see that Horseshoe Curve was the key to disrupting American rail traffic in a major way. But Horseshoe Curve was already famous in the world of rail-roading so the Germans didn’t have to engage in lots of discussion before choosing this target.



The Horseshoe Curve in autumn


Originally built with two tracks, the Pennsylvania Railroad added two more tracks within a few years to handle the massive amount of rail traffic. There are actually four trains in this photograph on each of the four tracks.

This massive curved rail line facilitated movement of Union troops during the Civil War and in the even more terrible wars to come. Depending on the era, anyone who lived close-by and enjoyed watching the rail traffic would have seen many a troop train looping around Horseshoe Curve.

Prior to the breakout of the American Civil War, the largest organizations in the United States were the railroads. Corporate executives who ran these huge business concerns were the most highly paid and admired businessmen in the US. Rail lines changed America from a loose knit union of states to an actual country and had a significant impact on the military and vice-versa.



US Military Railroad locomotive “W.H. Whiton” (built by William Mason in 1862) and Lincoln’s presidential car, later his funeral car. Photo from January 1865.

From the time of its formation and for decades thereafter, all cadets from West Point graduated with degrees in Civil Engineering. In fact, West Point was the only engineering school in the US until others were established in the decades following the War Between the States. (Hence the origin US Army Corps of Engineers which has constructed some of the largest public works in the US and continues to do so to this day.)


Excavating for a “Y” at Devereux Station on the orange and Alexandria Railroad. Brig. Gen. Hermann Haupt, Chief of Construction and Transportation, US Military Railroads, is standing on the bank supervising the work.  The “General Haupt,” the engine pulling the train in the photograph, was named in Haupt’s honor. Photographed by Capt. Andrew J. Russell. 


Haupt was given an appointment as a cadet to West Point by President Andrew Jackson in 1831 when he was all of 14 years old. He graduated when he was 18. Shortly after graduating, he resigned and began a highly successful career in the US railroad industry except for a seven year hiatus when he taught mathematics at Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College). He returned to the railroad business in 1847 serving in a series of responsible positions. In 1862 he was appointed chief of the newly created bureau in charge of military rail transport.
He didn’t like army discipline and while he was appointed Brigadier General of Volunteers. he spent lots of time arguing with the War Department over their petty rules which drove him wild. Eventually he left the Union Army in late 1863 but his reorganization and patented inventions made a major impact on the effectiveness of the US Military Railroad.
Writing in his 2009 book, Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways, author Christain Wolmar writes that one of Haupt’s two key principles of operating a military railroad was that freight cars had to be unloaded quickly and returned with all dispatch to their central base so they could be immediately re-employed.  Students of German Army logistics in World War Two will recall that the Reichsbahn constantly carped at the Wehrmacht for not returning boxcars in a timely way.
PRR I1s Horseshoe Curve b 800x

Pennsylvania Rail Road steam locomotive hauling a train up the Horseshoe Curve circa 1945. This would have been a familiar sight to US Army soldiers and logistics personnel during the war. 

“The area around the tracks is covered by cinders from the stacks of thousands of steam locomotives like this I1s climbing the Horseshoe Curve with a freight,” reads the caption from Pennsylvania Railroad Photographs.


Like Haupt, many officers resigned their commissions after graduating from West Point-or after spending some years on active duty–to return to civilian life and pursue careers which paid more than the Army — which didn’t pay very well. These men often went to work for the rapidly expanding railroad companies in the US. From this experience, many of these men learned how to organize, lead, and administer organizations which employed large groups of men.

Indeed, the railroads as a whole employed far more men than were in the ranks of the pre-Civil War US Army. So the only way to get experience in coordinating the duties of tens of thousands of men was to be a railroad executive. The massive expansion of the railroads in the United States which went on for more than a century, caused major changes in American life. Time had to be standardized, for instance.

When the Civil War came, most of these West Point graduates working in civilian life returned to serve in either the Union or Confederate Armies. Failures in command often occurred because many general officers did not have the ability to conceptualize military campaigns in terms of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of men.


Major General George B. McClellan, US Army and the first Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, had left the army in which he had been a railroad expert, in 1857  to serve as chief civil engineer for several of the largest railroads in the country. While McClellan failed to achieve results on the field of battle, his meticulous organization of the Army of the Potomac served the nation well.

This magnificent photograph of the George B. McClellan Memorial was taken and released into the public domain by famed Washington DC photographer, Carol M. Highsmith. The memorial is located in a small public park on Connecticut Avenue NW 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  metro 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.’
Military railroad bridge over Potomac Creek built using Hermann Haupt’s patented “Haupt Truss” configuration to construct the bridge.
photographed in April 1864 by Andrew Russell, (US Library of Congress)

The American Civil War was the first war in history in which rail roads played a major role. Both sides used rail roads extensively. Lacking the capacity to make enough steel rails, the Confederacy lifted under-used tracks in Florida and shipped them to Virginia to repair and expand the rail net supporting General Lee and Confederate forces in the East.

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.

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 engineering wonder, 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 RR engine hauling passenger coaches around the Horseshoe Curve circa 1960.
(photo courtesy of
Given both the complexity of its construction and the time which would have been required to rebuild it, had the 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 were not tracked down and arrested by the FBI as claimed for decades.


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 | 2016-02-02T14:45:04+00:00 February 2nd, 2016|Nazi Germany, 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: