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Hitler Targets New York City

A squadron of "America Bombers" unleash their deadly cargo onto New York City. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2008)

Hitler wanted nothing more than to avenge the American bombing of German cities with Nazi attacks on the American homeland cites, like New York. He failed, but how close did he come?

In March, 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Seven months later Hitler's armies marched into the Sudetenland, and by March of 1939 they occupied all of Czechoslovakia. In September, the Germans invaded Poland. By April of 1940, Denmark and Norway had fallen. One month later Hitler's troops entered France and by June a surrender was signed in Paris. Then, with most of the European continent under his control, Hitler began preparation for the invasion of the British Isles.

Even as his bombers pounded English cities during the Battle of Britain, Hitler was planning his next attacks against other nations. His unsuccessful campaign against the Soviet Union is well documented. What has remained unknown for decades, however, was that Hitler also had intentions to target the United States' homeland for war, so he ordered his military planners and researchers to create the weapons needed for a deadly attack on America.

The" America Bomber"

While searching military archives at Potsdam, German researcher Olaf Groehler came across something that historians had thought either never existed, or had been lost in the confusion at the end of the war: a plan for the transatlantic bombing of the United States. The plan was completed in April of 1942 and included maps with projected flight paths and targets. The list of targets included a number of businesses which manufactured vital military equipment including the Pratt & Whitney plant at East Hartford, Connecticut, which made aircraft engines; the Sperry Gyroscopes factory in Brooklyn, New York, which built instrumentation for aircraft; and the Curtiss Wright Corp. works at Caldwell, NJ, which machined airplane propellers. In all, 21 factories up and down the east coast were listed as potential targets of military value.


The Siverbird Space Bomber

Attacking New York City with a rocket-powered bomber was proposed by Dr. Eugen Sanger in 1942. His idea was a reusable, manned craft that would drop a single, TV-guided bomb on the city from near space. His plane, the "Silverbird", launched from Europe, would have been shot down a 2-mile long track driven by a rocket sled. The sled would stay on the ground but the bomber would use the momentum it gained to climb to 5,550 feet where its own engine would ignite and push the plane to a height of 90 miles. From there it would be able to extend its flight by bouncing off the denser atmospheric layer at 25 miles above the ground like a stone skipping across a pond. Over NYC it would drop its single 8,800 pound bomb, then reenter the atmosphere and land in Japanese controlled territory in the Pacific.

Though the idea was ingenious, Sanger underestimated the heat that would have been generated by friction with the atmosphere. The craft, if built as designed, would have burned up. More heat shielding would have solved the problem, but would have drastically decreased the bomber's payload.

To reach these targets, however, the Germans needed more than plans. They needed planes. Specifically, long-range bombers capable of reaching the North American continent from Europe. As early as 1938, Hermann Goring, the head of Luftwaffe, recognized this gap in his air force's armaments. In a speech to aircraft manufacturers he said, "I completely lack the bombers capable of round-trip flights to New York with a 5-ton bomb load. I would be extremely happy to possess such a bomber which would at last stuff the mouth of arrogance across the sea."

The desire of the Nazi high command to strike at the United States only increased as the war went on. American bombers based in Britain were pounding German factories and cities into rubble. While the Germans could attempt to hit the British airfields where those bombers were based, they could not take direct revenge on U.S. targets in North America.

Back in 1937, German aircraft manufacturer Willy Messerschmitt began thinking about building a long-range bomber. The airplane was designated the Me 264 and designed with four engines to give the craft a range of 12,428 miles carrying a bomb load of 11,000 pounds. According to historians, Hitler himself was very enthused about the project when shown a mock-up of the plane early in its development.

Despite this, the Me 264 and other long range bombers only got intermittent support from the Nazi government in the late 30's. In the philosophy of German military planners, the air force was meant to support the work of an advancing army. With the airfields never far behind the front lines, only medium range bombers were needed for this type of mission. Most German generals saw no need for strategic bombers that could strike deep into the enemy's heartland,. especially when they saw they could build two and a half medium range bombers for the price of one long-range bomber. Their philosophy worked well as long as Hitler's armies continued advancing quickly through Europe in a Blitzkrieg (or "lightning war"). However, when the conflict dragged on and turned to a war of attrition with each side trying to win by reducing the others ability to resupply their armies, this philosophy began to fail.

It wasn't until August of 1940 that the priority of the Me 264 project changed when it was determined that German objectives in Africa required a bomber with a range of at least 3,728 miles. Soon after that the air ministry got serious about attacking the United States from France and issued requirements for a bomber that could make a round-trip of 7,457 miles. In 1941, Messerschmitt got the contract to build six prototypes of the Me-264 and was told that if he met requirements, the German government would order an additional 24 planes for use against the United States. At the same time Messerschmitt started planning a six-engine version of the craft to further increase the payload and range of the plane.

A Junkers 390: the largest bomber of the war.

Messerschmitt wasn't the only manufacturer working on an "America Bomber." The Junkers Company, which was controlled by the Luftwaffe, had a successful medium-range bomber in the Ju 290 and scaled it up to produce the Ju-390. The plane was powered by six 1,700-horsepower engines. With a length of 110 feet and a wingspan of 181 feet, it was the largest bomber built by either side during the war. Heinkel, another aircraft company, scaled up their medium bomber, the He 177 to create the He 277 four-engine aircraft. Focke-Wulf designed a six-engine bomber (the Ta 400) and Horten planned a "flying wing" bomber powered by six turbo jet engines, the Ho 18.

Three prototype Me 264s, two Ju 390s and as many as eight He 277s were actually built. Neither the Ta 400 or the Ho 18 made it past wind tunnel tests with scale models. Fortunately for the United States, as the war progressed the Germans were under pressure to build as many defensive aircraft as possible and this kept the America Bomber programs from having the priority to move forward at anything but a snail's pace. The war ended before any actual missions were ever conducted, though it is rumored a Ju 390 flew a test flight that came within 12 miles of New York City and photographed the Long Island coastline.

Missile Attack

Hitler's plans also included the use of new "miracle" weapons to win the war. In June of 1944, Germany deployed the world's first cruise missile to be used in combat: the V-1. The V-1 was a small, pilotless plane launched from a long ramp and powered by a pulse-jet. The craft could carry its nearly 2,000 pound warhead a distance of 150 miles to a remote target. The Germans initially launched the V-1 from locations in France with most landing in the vicinity of the city of London. The British found the V-1 difficult to stop. It flew too fast for most anti-aircraft guns to target and too fast for most fighter planes to overtake. Even if the craft was hit by gunfire, it wouldn't necessarily go down. Without a pilot or complex engine there were few points on the missile vulnerable to a single shot. During the course of the war almost 23,000 people were killed by the V-1 and while defensive measures got better with time - faster fighters, better anti-aircraft guns - the threat to London was not completely removed until the Allied troops overran theV-1's launch points.

Three V-2s launch from their uboat-towed canisters in Project Prufstand XII. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2008)

The introduction of the V-1 was followed by the V-2 (sometimes referred to by its development name, the A-4). The V-2 was the first ballistic missile ever used in war. The rocket stood 46 feet high and could carry a 2150 pound warhead 200 miles. Unlike the V-1, there were no defensive measures that could ever be devised against its threat. With an incoming velocity of nearly four times the speed of sound, nothing could catch it or stop it. It caused 2,745 deaths in London before its launch sites were overrun.

In the autumn of 1943 the Germans began to develop a plan that would have allowed them to attack American cities using the V-2 weapon. The idea came from Dr. Bodo Lafferentz, one of the Third Reich's most brilliant engineers. Lafferentz proposed building sealed canisters big enough to contain a V-2 and towing them behind a submarine to within 100 miles of the United States coast. It was estimated one submarine could tow up to three of these hundred-foot-long, torpedo-shaped canisters. Upon arrival the submarine would surface and remote controls would be used to flood the back end of the canisters to bring them from a horizontal position to a vertical one with just their tops clearing the surface of the ocean. The exposed end of the canisters would then be opened and technicians would enter the floating silos to prepare the V-2s for flight. The Germans estimated that within thirty minutes the V-2s could be readied and launched. With the rockets on their way, the U-boat could then cut its connection to the canisters and flood them with water to sink them to the bottom. The submarine could then return to Germany while the three missiles continued on to plow into New York or some other American metropolis.

The project, given the name "Prufstand XII," was approved and construction of three prototype canisters was started early in 1945. The canisters were still under construction when the Soviets captured the shipyard where they were being built in April of 1945.

Hitler's Lost Opportunity

Hitler's desire to strike at the United States by submarine might have easily been fulfilled by ignoring the more glitzy (but complicated) V-2 and using the V-1. The Americans tested this idea with their version of the V-1 , the Loon, in 1947. A short ramp and hanger was added to the back of the submarine USS Cusk (above) and it was able to successfully launch the V-1 clone, track it by radar and guide it by radio to a target. Surprisingly, the Germans never attempted to do this, though the head of Hitler's navy, Admiral Karl Admiral Donitz, did attend a test firing of a V-1 in 1943. His presence there may have been related to this approach. It is clear that if the Germans had spent even a little time developing this idea there is no doubt they could have used such an arrangement to send a few V-1s into the heart of New York, or any other American east coast city.

Would the scheme have worked? Perhaps. The plan's biggest weakness, beyond the difficulty of towing some huge objects underwater for thousands of miles, was the inability of the Germans to guide the V-2 to a specific target. With a little luck the rocket could hit something as big as the city of London from a fixed base 200 miles away. Given the difficulty of precisely positioning the canisters at sea, it seems very unlikely that a target of any real military value could be struck, though the device might still serve as a terror weapon against highly-populated areas.

The New York Rocket

The Germans were also working on other ways to launch missiles at the Americans beyond the idea of towing them within range behind submarines. As early as 1941, engineers were thinking of how to extend the range of the V-2 /A-4. The easiest change was to add two wings to the rocket (renaming it the A-4B). This would allow the device t not to just simply plunge straight down when its fuel was exhausted, but operate as a high-speed glider.

While this improved the distance it could travel to nearly 400 miles, it was still very short of the range needed to cross the Atlantic. To solve this problem the German engineers came up with the idea of adding a booster stage to the A-4. This large rocket, designated the A-10, would carry an A-4 on top of it. The A-10 could boost the A-4 to an altitude of 35 miles, then would drop away, allowing the A-4's engine to take over and carry it the rest of the way. A new version of the A-4 (called the A-9) was planned to operate with the A-10. Like the A-4B it had wings, but these were envisioned to be extensions of the two rear stabilizer fins that ran the length of the craft. One German scientist, Walter Dornberger, estimated that the A-9/10 combination would "cover 2,500 miles in about 35 minutes," making it the first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Guiding such a missile to a target, even a city-sized target, though, would be even more difficult than it was with the V-2. One way to solve this problem was to make the A-9 manned. The pilot would point his high-speed glider toward its final target, usually thought of as the Empire State Building, then bail out to be recovered and brought back to Germany by a lurking submarine. An alternative proposal would have involved using U-boats to plant a series of floating radio beacons in a path across the Atlantic with the final one placed in a New York hotel by German spies. The rocket could then simply follow the radio signals to the target.

Fortunately the war ended before any of these ideas could be tried. Would they have worked? The Germans thought so. In 1944 aerial photographs showed seven large concrete structures of unknown purpose being built in France. It was later determined that these bunkers were to be used for the launching of rockets - thought to be either the V-1 or V-2. Most of these bunkers were oriented facing London or Bristol. The Americans became alarmed, however, when one of the seven, located at Wizernes, was found to be facing New York City. Though the bunkers were never used for their intended purposes, when the one at Wizernes was captured, it was found to have bombproof doors twice the size needed for the V2/A4. Though no records exist as to why this was so, historians speculate that this was supposed to be the launch site of the A10/A9 New York rocket.

Given time, such a project might well have succeeded. A postwar study by the US Navy evaluated the A9/A10 launch system and concluded it was "scientifically possible and undoubtedly would have been realized had time permitted." Skeptics of this viewpoint only need to remember that many of the Nazi scientists working on the A10/A9 were recruited by the United States and the Soviet Union after the war. Under their new nationalities they successfully built the first nuclear tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles which made the threat of global thermo-nuclear war possible.

Impact if Successful

What would have been the result if one or several of these plans had actually worked? It seems impossible that it would have changed the final outcome of the war. The attacks, if directed against factories, would have been too few and too sporadic to actually have significantly lowered the production of war materials. Attacks on cities would have killed a small number of civilians and frightened the population, but some historians argue that this would simply have outraged the Americans and caused them to deal even more harshly with German cities during bombing raids toward the end of the war.

There is a chance, however, that such attacks could have led to the war being lengthened. A successful attack on the United States would have greatly boosted the moral in Germany in the same way that the successful American air raid against Japan in 1942, led by Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle, raised American spirits. Doolittle's 16 B-25 bombers did negligible damage to the Japanese war machine but caused the Japanese to recall some of their fighter units back to the home islands for defense and change important war strategies.

In the same way attacks on the U.S. east coast might have caused a public outcry forcing the U.S. military to devote more of their resources toward homeland defense. This, of course, would have tied up men and ships that were actually used to push the war in Europe quickly to a close. Such a change in plans might well have had the effect of lengthening the Third Reich's rule of terror.

An A-10 booster drops away as an A-9 ignites its engine to carry it on its way to a strike on New York City. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2008)

A Partial Bibliography

Target America: Hitler's Plan to Attack the United States by James P. Duffy, The Lyons Press, 2004.

Luftwaffe over America: The Secret Plans to Bomb the United States in World War II by Manfred Griehl, Greenhill Books, 2006.

Germany's Secret Weapons in World War II by Roger Ford, Zenith Press, 2000.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2008. All Rights Reserved.