A chilling forerunner to the September 11 attacks
This year the world will mark the 10th anniversary of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center that killed almost 3,000 people. But long before al Qaeda, the Nazis also had Manhattan in their sights.
We will probably never find out whether the September 11 terrorists knew about the plans of the Third Reich to attack New York with long-range bombers and raze Manhattan to the ground. We do know that, between 1940 and 1942, Hitler came dangerously close to reaching this goal. A prototype of the Messerschmitt Me 264, with a range of just under 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles), had already flown. Had cities on the US east coast ever actually been attacked, the first atomic bomb in history would probably have fallen on a German city.
Hitler wanted to rule the world. In his second book, written in 1928 and unpublished during his lifetime, he outlined what he believed would be the final struggle for world domination against the US. “Fire,” wrote Albert Speer in his Spandau Diaries, put Hitler into a state of “deep arousal.”
Inside the Reich Chancellery, Hitler watched films of London burning, of Warsaw in a sea of flames, of convoys exploding. Speer recorded that every time the Nazi leader saw such images, he was consumed by a kind of lust. “I never saw him so completely beside himself as toward the end of the war, when in his delirium he envisioned to himself and us the destruction of New York in firestorms. He described how the skyscrapers would be transformed into gigantic, burning torches; how they collapsed onto one other and how the glow of the bursting city brightened the dark sky.”
Beginning in the mid-1930s, Nazi officials drew up plans for monumental construction in the five “Führer Cities” of Berlin, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Munich and Linz. On Hitler’s orders, they were to stand in direct competition with, and even outstrip, comparable landmarks in the US: a skyscraper in Hamburg to rival the Empire State building, a bridge over the Elbe like California’s Golden Gate Bridge, and a train terminal in Munich to dwarf Grand Central Station.
Attacking New York with long-range bombers someday was a done deal among the Nazi leadership even before the outbreak of World War II. German industry also knew it. In a speech to aviation industry managers at his villa Karinhall, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, announced his wish that the industry develop an aircraft that would “fly to New York and back with a five-ton bomb payload. I would be absolutely delighted by such a bomber,” he continued, “to finally muzzle some of the arrogance coming from over there.”
In terms of technology, the Nazis were completely in step with the times. This was the age of larger-than-life aviators, the successors of Charles Lindbergh. In the US, Russian pilots who flew nonstop from the Soviet Union to California were being celebrated as heroes at the time.
In 1937 Hitler ordered two long-distance aircraft from aviation designer Willy Messerschmitt that were supposed to be operational by 1940; a V1 as a courier craft and a V2, the “Führer Plane.” Hitler intended to transport the Olympic flame personally from Berlin to Tokyo with this airplane, popularly nicknamed the “Adolfine.” Hitler’s ally Mussolini got wind of these plans and had a rival plane built in Italy, the “Savoia.” During World War II it flew several nonstop flights between Rome and Tokyo.
When war broke out in September 1939, the plans for long-rang aircraft changed. Military use became the only priority, and the Führer Plane, the Me 261, was developed further into the Me 264 Amerika, the “USA bomber.” The Me 261’s maiden flight was delayed by the outbreak of war and took place the day before Christmas, 1940.
The tender for the successor model, the Me 264, called for a “four-engine long-distance aircraft with two tons of payload for disruptive sorties to the USA.” The plane was to be built in six versions, the heaviest of which would be a bomber with a 14-ton payload and a range of 11,500 kilometers. That would have sufficed to attack New York, as the direct distance between Brest (in occupied France) and the city on the Hudson totals 5,500 kilometers.
Hitler declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Why he did so is a matter that puzzles historians to this day.
A secret report by the Messerschmitt Company from December 1941 states explicitly that “the aircraft can be used for special cases even before testing is completed.” Yet Messerschmitt, an engineer of genius and friend of the Führer, had promised too much. The Me 264 would complete some 70 test flights, but the first took place in December 1942, a year behind schedule – luckily for America and the world.
Just how seriously the Allies took the threat of the “Amerika” bombers became evident after they learned of the plans. They launched massive bombing raids on the Messerschmitt plant in Augsburg to destroy the prototypes. After the war, the test pilot was arrested by the British and, during questioning, attested that the plane had “absolutely first class” flying qualities.
The danger to the US east coast cities and arms industries located around the Great Lakes was, it appears, very real. Throughout the war, the Me 264 continued to figure prominently in Hitler’s plans.
During the days when Hitler still believed he could subdue the Soviet Union in a blitzkrieg, the airplane was frequently mentioned. German navy briefings include an entry dated Nov.14, 1940 that says the Führer was planning to “attack America in case of war” from the Azores, so as to force the US to build up an air defense system instead of supplying the British with flak batteries.
Similar entries can be found in the war logs of the German army, the Wehrmacht, compiled by Percy Ernst Schramm, a major and later a Göttingen-based historian, as well as the logs of Army Adjutant Gerhard Engel. He recorded a remark by Hitler to him on March 24, 1941, that terror attacks on US east coast cities were necessary to “teach the Jews a lesson,” as American financiers were clamoring for war. Therefore, Hitler said, he hoped for the prompt availability of long-range bombers, which meant the Me 264.
When Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka visited Hitler in April 1941, the latter told him to expect a “vigorous fight” against the Americans with submarines and planes. In a briefing with navy brass a few weeks later on May 22, Hitler fantasized about capturing the Canary Islands and the Azores to use “the long-range bombers” against the Americans, which would become possible that fall, he believed.
At the time Hitler was counting on a speedy victory against the Soviets. Then he could keep the Americans away from the European theater and force them into adopting a defensive strategy.
Hitler made his calculations without Churchill’s Britain and Stalin’s Soviet Union, which kept on fighting despite appalling losses. As early as May 22, 1941, the Führer confided to his friend Walter Hewel that if the eastern campaign failed, “it’s all over anyway.”
Back home, meanwhile, the war and the Third Reich’s chaotic bureaucracy helped ensure that the Me 264 would never be mass-produced. In August 1944 the Messerschmitt works abandoned their final attempt to launch production. Yet right to the bitter end, the plane continued to soar through Hitler’s imagination. In the bunker of the Reich Chancellery, he ordered a rival of Speer to implement Messerschmitt’s design for a four-engine bomber. “With the range of this plane we can avenge the destruction of our cities a thousandfold over America!” he was quoted as saying.
In July 1945 the Americans interrogated the military leadership – the former generals and admirals Hermann Göring, Karl Dönitz, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Herbert Büchs and Walter Warlimont – about German plans to attack the Panama Canal and the US. The defeated officers shook their heads, saying they had never heard of such plans.
Only Warlimont, who had worked as a general in Hitler’s HQ and was the sole general staff member who knew the United States, admitted years later in correspondence with the present author that the planned terror attacks would have caused substantial fear in the US. Just a few planes would have sufficed. And, above all, Hitler’s Germany would have gained some time. Luckily, reality took a different turn.