spies

How a Failed German Spy Mission Turned into J. Edgar Hoover’s Big Break

The Nazi Saboteur trial taking place in a converted Department of Justice room, 1942. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

On June 13, 1942, four Nazi spies disembarked their U-Boat on a beach near Long Island, New York. Four days later, a similar group landed on Ponte Verda Beach, Florida. Their goal: to harm American economic targets in the hope of turning the war back in favor of Germany. The men had been extensively trained at a sabotage school near Berlin and carried enough explosives, primers, and incendiaries to support two years worth of destruction. They carried plans with them that outlined attacks of New York’s Hell Gate Bridge, hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls, aluminum plants in Philadelphia, the canal lock systems in Cincinnati and St. Louis, and other targets.

Herndon’s Laura Ratcliffe: A “Very Active and Cunning Rebel”

It is generally an accepted practice of militaries around the world to not tell the enemy what you plan to do. It’s also a good idea to avoid passing secrets to enemy spies, especially if you know they are enemy spies. Apparently, however, Union troops stationed in Herndon, Virginia didn’t get the memo. Either that or they were too mesmerized by local belle Laura Ratcliffe to think straight. She was a smooth operator to be sure.

In February 1863, Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby was riding with his soldiers near Ratcliffe’s home scouting the enemy position and hoping to best whatever Union troops came his way. Mosby had wreaked havoc on the Yankees before but this time they were ready for him. They set up a picket on Centreville Road near Frying Pan Church and then hid a much larger force in the woods around it, hoping draw the Gray Ghost into an ambush.