(German Special Operations – 1944 Ardennes Offensive – Major Jeffrey Jarkowsky)
(Setting the Stages) : I have just made a momentous decision. I shall go over to the counterattack, that is to say here, out of the Ardennes, with the objective Antwerp ! With a sweep of his hand, Adolf Hitler had just laid the foundation for the German counter offensive that would become more known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The German generals and field-marshals surrounding the large situation map in the Fuehrer Headquarters war-room were momentarily stunned, and with good reason. Assembled at Hitler’s military headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, they had only moments before heard the all too familiar litany of reverses and losses briefed by Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, CoS (Chief of Staff) Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW). The fortunes of war were not looking favorable for Germany on September 16 1944. Strategically, the Germans were on the run. The Allied advance across western Europe following the breakout in Normandy had carried right to the vaunted West Wall (Siegfried Line) defenses of Germany’s border. American units had already penetrated on to German soil near Aachen.
On the Russian front, the Soviet summer offensive had crossed into East Prussia. Allied bombing was crippling German industry and devastating her cities.
The once mighty Axis alliance was falling apart, as one by one Germany’s allies, save an isolated Japan, defected, surrendered, or were over-run. German losses in men and material were tremendous, and worse, non-recoverable. Combined German military losses during June, July, and August 1944, totaled at least 120.000 dead, wounded, and missing. Everywhere the German military was on the defensive. It was a period of crisis, and of desperation, for Germany.
With this back-drop in mind, Hitler would try one last gamble : a surprise attack upon the unsuspecting Allies on the Western Front. Hitler was betting that a successful operational level offensive in the west would have strategic results. The stakes were : staving off defeat just long enough for the German secret weapons to turn the tide of the war, or the destruction of the last remnants of German combat power and the hastening of her defeat.
The operational situation of the Allies in the west actually presented the conditions that would favor a large scale enemy counter offensive. Although advancing ceaselessly throughout August and into September, the Allied armies were on the verge of outrunning their supply lines. The Broad Front strategy of the Allies already had the advancing army groups competing for supplies. Strains within the alliance, though personality driven, were emerging. The German West Wall Defense, the infamous Siegfried Line, would serve to fix and hold the Allies as they gathered their strength over the winter months.
By November of 1944, the Allies had reached their operational culminating point. The beginning of December, the originally planned – time for the German offensive, saw the Allied armies settled into a static front, positioned along or astride the West Wall. Although limited offensive operations were continuing, by and large, the Allies were gathering their strength for a full scale resumption of their offensive in the coming months. They expected the Germans to attempt a defense of the West Wall coupled with the usual local counter attacks. They did not anticipate a full scale counter offensive, and especially in the Ardennes area.
The German operational situation, though bleak, offered the glimmer of a brief respite by November 1944. German Army units had been in full retreat across the occupied countries since late July. However, now they were on German soil and fighting for German survival. Throughout the battered ranks this was well understood, as German fighting spirit began stiffen. Furthermore, the recent German success in Holland, where they defeated the Market Garden attacks, and the American repulse in the entire area of the bloody Hürgten Forest fighting, reduced the sense of shock from the great German rout of August. Perhaps most importantly, the German Army had fallen back on its lines of communication, and had occupied excellent defensive terrain along the German border. Additionally, there was the West Wall. Although the much vaunted Siegfried Line was a mere shell of its former self by November of 1944, it did present a formidable obstacle to the advancing Allies.
As German Army units settled into their aging bunkers, just a step ahead of the Allies, their High Command steeled themselves for a defense of the West Wall. They would defend for as long as possible, attempt to rebuild their depleted strength, and delay what was now considered the inevitable defeat.
Coupled with the Allied over extension and pause at the border, the German defensive activity brought a quiet along the line of opposing Armies. By December, the area of the Ardennes could be called a Ghost Front, as both sides settled in for a long, cold winter. Both, German and American Armies alike, viewed the Ardennes as a quiet non vital sector, where troops could be rotated in for a stretch of rest in the Wehrmacht’s case, or for seasoning of green units like the 106th Infantry Division or the 99th Infantry Division in the case of the Americans.
The prevailing weather and terrain of the Ardennes both aided this mutual impasse. The winter Ardennes weather could be expected to be unfavorable for large scale operations. Extremely cold weather and wet conditions would make life miserable for soldiers. Snow, sleet, or freezing rain grain would be anticipated almost every other day. Overcast skies were normal, and fog was not uncommon. If the ground was not frozen solid and covered with snow, then it was a quagmire of mud.
The winter of 1944 would be one of the coldest Europe was to see for years, and secret German weather stations forecast a period of cold, fog, and low clouds for December.
The terrain was equally challenging. The Ardennes is an area of dense, coniferous forests traversed by several ranges of low mountains and hills. Although hills and trees predominate, the terrain is interspersed with the fields of local farmers. Several water courses crisscross the region Most are characterized by steep gorges and banks, and deep, swift waters. An extremely limited and restrictive road network serves to link the numerous towns and villages that dot the area. In essence, the Ardennes is rugged campaigning country. The prevailing weather and terrain would serve to negate the tremendous American advantages of overwhelming air power and masses of material. Conditions in the Ardennes, at once, would offer the Germans the conditions for a stubborn defense, and the possibility of a surprise attack.
They had done it before. The German Army had swept through the Ardennes unexpectedly in May of 1940 during the invasion of Belgium and France. Perhaps it was this that put the idea in the Fuehrer’s head, but Hitler obviously saw the inevitable defeat of Germany, given its current situation. His strategic concept : a bold, unexpected offensive that would split the advancing American and British Army Groups on the ground, and also split what he saw as a strained Anglo-American political alliance.
The goal was to delay the Allied advance and enable Germany to apply the power of her Wonder Weapons against the enemy. It was reasoned that this might result in a negotiated peace in the west, allowing Germany to turn her full might eastward for the ensuing defeat of Russia. The sleepy Ardennes front offered the ideal spot. The American sector was very lightly held as green units were stretched thin defending over-extended frontages. The Allies would never expect a major attack in the Ardennes as the sector was not considered favorable for a large-scale offensive. Besides, most intelligence reports indicated that the German Army was beaten, and not capable of an attack. The Americans were thinking Home by Christmas.
The plan conceived by Hitler and his staff was deceptively simple. Under the cover of darkness and poor weather, the Germans would launch a massive surprise attack at the weakest point in the Allied lines – the center of the Ardennes. The main effort would penetrate the center of the line and reach for operational objectives, while supporting attacks were made on the flanks to hold the shoulders of the breakthrough, fix allied forces, and protect the flanks.
Within the main effort, attacking infantry divisions would first create the penetration of American lines. Then, operational-level, forward detachments, would race forward through the gaps to secure deep objectives to ensure the unhindered advance of the main attack. These critical objectives took the form of the Meuse river bridges. The main body Panzer formations would pass through these detachments and then continue the attack to the decisive objective – Antwerp. One key problem existed; the Meuse bridges were almost 75 miles behind American lines. Surely, the Americans would react and deny use of the bridges through destruction or defense before the forward detachments might get to them, or counter attack the exposed flanks of the penetration.
The solution was unconventional and equally as bold as the offensive itself a pair of operations to snatch the bridges right from under the American’s noses, and block American reinforcements. German special operation forces would operate ahead of the army forward detachments to seize the critical crossings intact, before the stunned defenders could react. They would hold the bridges long enough to hand them over to the forward detachments.
Fallschirmjäger Troops (Airborne) would parachute in at night behind the lines to seize key crossroads to block the expected American counterattacks. The entire plan was constructed on a delicate timeline. Speed was all important to the success of each part of the operation. The offensive had to reach its initial objectives before the Allies could react. Likewise, achieving initial surprise was equally critical. Although many senior German leaders had their doubts about the entire operation, this offensive could presumably change the course of the war. The idea of employing special operations to support the main Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (Operation Watch on the Rhine) also sprang from Adolf Hitler.
Several issues motivated Hitler to consider the special operations that were to support the offensive. Most important was that of operational necessity. The Meuse River was the most formidable water obstacle between the offensive’s jumping off points and the decisive operational objective. A major, and unfordable watercourse, it posed a natural line of defense that a withdrawing army could rally upon and renew its strength, and use to delay an advancing opponent.
In the summer of 1940, the assault crossing of this river was a major event for the Germans in their first offensive through this area. It would take time to cross this river, which was over 75 miles behind the front-lines. Despite the most rapid German advance, the Americans would have adequate time to defend, and very likely, destroy the bridges over the Meuse before the armored spearheads could hope to reach them. The tempo of the offensive was fast paced, and the operational objectives would have to be seized within a week so that the Allies could not effectively react. It was vital to capture the Meuse crossings intact in order to maintain the momentum of the attack. A delay at the river could spell disaster for the offensive. Additionally, the strong American forces pushing eastward the Aachen sector posed the threat of immediate counter attack from the north. Delaying this counter attack would allow the spearheads to reach the Meuse unimpeded.
Another reason for considering the employment of special operations were the precedents established by the Germans earlier in the war. Special operations forces had been used several times to conduct deep operations in pursuit of operational campaign objectives.
The seizure of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael is an excellent example of this technique. In May of 1940, a glider-borne commando detachment swooped down on the impregnable fortress in a surprise air assault operation ahead of the main German forces. The commandos, members of an elite special military unit, the Brandenburgers, paved the way for the conventional spearhead to continue its attack unimpeded. The small force of 86 men had accomplished a task which had significant operational-level impact.
Likewise, Hitler and the German military witnessed the Allies employ just this sort of tactic successfully against them in almost every campaign of the war. The month previous to the formulation of the offensive plans, September 1944, saw the concept carried to the extreme as the Allies attempted to size the multiple bridges that lay in the path of the British XXX Corps’ advance during the airborne phase of Operation Market-Garden. Additionally, up through October of 1944, elements of the German military had displayed a certain flair for conducting unorthodox, unilateral, strategic-level special operations as well.
Of the most notable German special operations, it is of no small coincidence that a certain Otto Skorzeny was involved in them. The success and dramatic rescue of Benito Mussolini from atop the Gran Sasso in Italy, the daring, but costly, airborne raid to capture Marshall Tito in Bosnia, and the abduction of Admiral Horthy’s son in order to keep Hungary in the war on Germany’s side, all serve to illustrate Germany’s ability to conduct unique special operations when the situation warranted such an approach. Countless other smaller and less significant special operations were conducted by the Germans against both the Allies and the Soviets. Bold and daring, often conducted against the odds, the reports of these operations never failed to thrill Hitler and capture his imagination. So did the apparent American use of special operations teams in the recent successful operations to seize Aachen, Germany, just that October of 1944.
German intelligence had reported to Hitler that operatives of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had conducted operations during the advance to that city clothed and posing as German soldiers. This and similar operations of the American OSS and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) did not go unnoticed by German intelligence services nor Hitler. Hitler, always enamored with secret weapons and daring operations, and at ways willing to go ‘tit-for-tat’ with the enemy, grasped the potential utility that such covert forces offered. A force operating behind enemy lines in the guise of the enemy presented numerous opportunities to have an impact on the defenders out of all proportion to their size. This coupled with more orthodox paratroopers operations might also be a useful economy of force measure against the numerically and materially superior Allies. Although the ultimate success or failure of the offensive would not hinge upon the special operations, they would offer the potential for great increasing its probability of success.
Finally, one last reason for attempting the special operations existed. For Germany, this was a time of desperation. Wacht am Rhein was a military gamble with very high stakes. The survival of Germany was at risk, and every resource that could be marshaled and thrown at the Allies was required in order to ensure a winning hand. It was hoped by Hitler that the unfolding German special operations would be one of the needed wild-cards.
(Operations Greif – Hohes Venn – Stösser)(OCMH) … During the last days before the great offensive which would send the German armored spearheads plunging west, Hitler belatedly set about replicating the winning combination of rapid and deep armored penetration, paratroop attacks in the enemy rear, and infiltration by disguised ground troops which had functioned so effectively in the western campaign of 1940 and the Greek campaign of 1941.
To flesh out this combination, a special operation named Greif was hurriedly organized as an adjunct to the armored operation assigned to SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke’s 1.SS-Panzer-Division (Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler) of the I.SS-Panzer Corps (SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess).
The plans for the ground phase of Greif consisted of three parts : (1) the seizure intact of at least two bridges across the Meuse by disguised raiding parties; (2) the prompt reinforcement of any such coup de main by an armored commando formation, and (3), an organized attempt to create confusion in the Allied rear areas through sabotage carried out by jeep parties clad in American uniforms. Later it would be rumored that a feature of Operation Greif was the planned assassination of Allied leaders, notably General Eisenhower, but there is no evidence of such plotting in the plan.
The idea for the ground operation was probably Hitler’s one and the leader, SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, was selected. Skorzeny had achieved a considerable reputation as a daring commando leader. In Italy, during the month of September 1943, his Waffen-SS commando and a Fallschirmjaeger Group led by Major Otto-Harald Mors rescued the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini during the Gran Sasso raid (Operation Eiche – ‘Oak’).
On October 15 1944, (Operation Panzerfaust), Otto Skorzeny, a small Kampfgruppe and four Panzer Mark VI King Tiger II led by the former special forces commander SS-Sturmbannführer Adrian von Fölkersam, were sent to Budapest with the instructions to remove the Hungarian Regent Admiral Miklós von Nagybánya Horthy while he was negotiating secretly and Armistice with the Russian forces.
For Operation Greif, Skorzeny formed the special 150.Panzer-Brigade (Brandenburger) numbering about two thousand men, of whom one hundred and fifty could speak perfectly English. Captured Allied equipment (particularly M-4 Sherman tanks and Willys jeeps), uniforms, identification papers, and the like were hastily collected all over the front lines and sent to Skorzeny Panzer-Brigade’s headquarters. The disguised jeep parties did go into action with varying degrees of success on December 16 1944, but the Brandenburger Brigade would be engaged as a unit only in a single and abortive skirmish near Malmedy (Belgium), five days later, opposed to elements of the 30th Infantry Division and attached troops.
The airborne phase of Operation Greif, whose code name was Operation Hohes Venn, seems to have been completely an afterthought, for the orders setting up the operation were not issued until December 8. Hitler, like most of the higher German commanders, had lost confidence in airdrop tactics after the many casualties suffered by the German Fallschirmjaeger in the Crete jump.
Then too, in late 1944, the necessarily lengthy training for paratrooper units was a luxury denied by the huge drain of battlefield losses. Apparently it was Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model who suggested and requested that paratrooper tactics be tried once again, but undoubtedly Hitler seized upon the proposal with alacrity although there was no longer a single regular Fallschirmjaeger Regiment still active in the Wehrmacht nor the Waffen-SS.
Model wanted the jump to be made in the Krinkelt area, and one may wonder what effect such a vertical attack might have had on the fight put up at the twin villages by the American 2nd Infantry Division and the 99th Infantry Division. Hitler, however, had one of his intuitive strokes and ordered the jump to be made north of Malmedy.
His choice for commander devolved on Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, a distinguished and experienced paratroop officer then commanding the Fallschirmjaeger-Armee Waffen School where the nominal parachute regiments were being trained as ground troops. Oberst von der Heydte was ordered to organize a thousand-man parachute formation for immediate use.
Four days later von der Heydte received his tactical mission from the 6.SS-Panzer-Army commander, SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich during an uncomfortable session in which the army commander was under the influence of alcohol. The paratroopers were to jump at dawn on DDay (December 16 1944), first opening the roads in the Hohes Venn leading from the Elsenborn-Malmedy area toward Eupen for the armored spearhead units, then blocking Allied forces if these attempted to intervene. Oberst von der Heydte was told that the German armor would reach him within twenty-four hours.
The preparations for Operation Hohes Venn were rushed to completion. The troops received their equipment and a little jump training (many had never attended jump school); 112 war-weary, Junkers troop-carrier planes were gathered with an ill-assorted group of pilots, half of whom had never flown combat missions; 300 dummy figures were loaded for drops north of Camp Elsenborn to confuse the Americans (this turned out to be about the most successful feature of the entire operation); and the pilots and jump-masters were given instructions – but no joint training. It must be said that these preparations for what would be the first German paratroop assault at night and into woods left much to be desired.
On the evening of December 15, Oberst von der Heydte formed his companies to entruck for the move to Paderborn, where the planes were assembled. The trucks never arrived – they had no fuel. Now the jump was ordered for 0300 on December 17. This time the jump was made on schedule, although not quite as planned and into very bad cross winds. One rifle company was dropped behind the German lines fifty kilometers away from the drop zone, most of the signal platoon fell just in front of the German positions south of Monschau, and the bulk of the command and the weapons packages were scattered almost at random.
Despite this bad beginning about one hundred paratroopers reached the rendezvous at the fork in the Eupen road north of Mont Rigi (Belle-Croix). Since this group was obviously too weak for open action, Oberst von der Heydte formed camp in the woods and sent out patrols to pick up information and harass the Americans in the vicinity. These patrols gathered in stragglers until some three hundred paratroopers had assembled, but it was now too late to carry out the planned operation. On the night of December 21, the paratroopers were ordered to find their way back to the German lines believed to be at Monschau. Oberst von der Heydte who had jumped using a special triangular parachute canopy because of a broken arm, exhausted and almost frozen, surrendered two days later in the German town of Mützenich, some 1500 meters ahead of their hiding positions located in Alt-Hattlich (Belgium). The tactical effect of this hastily conceived and ill-executed operation proved to be almost nil although American commanders did dispatch troops on wild-goose chases which netted little but a few paratroopers, empty parachutes, and dummies…
(Special Operations Planning) : Well done Skorzeny, very well done ! I’ve promoted you to SS-Obersturmbannführer and awarded you the German Cross in Gold, a jubilant Adolf Hitler proclaimed Otto Skorzeny, commander of the Waffen-SS Jagdverband commandos, had just returned from his latest triumph, Operation Panzerfaust, the successful kidnapping of the son of the leader of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, and the storming of his residence on Castle Hill.
Skorzeny met with the Fuehrer in the Führerhauptquartiere (Wolfsschanze) (Code Named : Askania Nord, Wolf’s Lair) Kętrzyn (Rastenburg) East Prussia (Poland), and thrilled him with the exciting details of the planed mission, for by then Otto Skorzeny had become one of the Fuehrer’s trusted favorites as a result of his daring exploits throughout the war. But on this day, October 21 1944, Hitler had summoned the SS-Obersturmbannführer to his headquarter for an additional purpose. The Fuehrer turned serious as he spoke next : I have perhaps what will be the most important job in your entire life. So far very few people know of the preparation for a secret plan in which you have a great part to play. In December, we will start a great offensive, which may well decide our fate.
A startled Otto Skorzeny attentively listened as Hitler continued speaking and presented the following mission guidance : One of the most important tasks in this offensive will be entrusted to you and the units under your command, which will have to go ahead and seize one or more of the bridges over the Meuse River between Liege and Namur.
You will have to wear British and American uniforms. The enemy has already done us a great deal of damage by the use of our uniforms in various commando operations a few days ago. I received even a report that the use of our uniforms by an American force had played no inconsiderable part when they captured Aachen our first city to fall into their hands. Moreover, detachments in enemy uniforms can cause the greatest confusion among the Allies by giving false orders and upsetting their communications with a view to sending bodies of troops in the wrong direction. Your preparations must be complete by December 2, and you can settle all the details with General Jodl. I know that the time is very, very short, but you must do all that is humanly possible.
Such was an example of the type of initial planning guidance given to Otto Skorzeny for his upcoming role in the great offensive. With this, the special operations planning to support Wacht am Rhein began. Eventually, two operations would be planned to help the offensive reach its objectives. The guidance given in terms of specific missions and intent would be fairly clear, and planning would begin immediately.
The planning conducted for the operations would suffer from problems. Inadequate intelligence, faulty assumptions, and poor coordination would result in plans that were to become nu-executable on the ground. The primary reasons for these planning deficiencies were the incredibly short amount of available planning time and the unusually strict operational security blanket thrown over the entire offensive. These problems would plague what were to become the two special missions of the offensive, Operations Greif and Stoesser. Although these problems would not be immediately apparent during the initial planning for both operations, they would soon manifest themselves during the extensive preparations required for both missions that would soon follow.
Operation Greif, (Griffin), named after the mythological winged lion, was to be the primary special operation of the offensive. It was to offer the greatest potential positive impact to the success of the overall campaign. Consisting of forces masquerading as American soldiers, the men of Operation Greif were to infiltrate into the American rear areas in order to seize the critical crossings over the Meuse River, and cause confusion throughout the enemy’s defense. The commander of Greif was to be SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny which, at that time, had become Germany’s number one special operator. As commander of his group of specially trained Waffen-SS commandos, the Jadgverbande Skorzeny, had successfully conducted numerous strategic and operational level operations.
Operation Stoesser, was planned as a parachute operation in which an airborne battle group would drop behind American lines in order to secure vital crossroads along the flank of the German line of advance and block the movement of Allied reinforcements. The commander of Stoesser was to be Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, one of the premier paratroopers commanders still alive in the German Army. He was among the best of the remaining airborne commanders to choose from. He had commanded an airborne regiment into the jump on Crete and led it through the bitter fighting that followed. He led the regiment through campaigns in North Africa and in Normandy, where he had the opportunity to come face to face with American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division. Perhaps, in contrast to Skorzeny, von der Heydte was noted for his calm and steady approach to fighting. His personal bravery and coolness under fire were beyond reproach. Like Skorzeny for Greif, von der Heydte was the right man for the job of leading Stoesser.
Newly promoted SS-Obersturmbannführer Skorzeny coordinated the details of his new mission with General Jodl, CoS-OKW. Hitler had explained to Skorzeny why he let him in on the plan so relatively early : I am telling you all this so that you can consider your part in it and realize that nothing has been forgotten.
Given the mission guidance received from Hitler, Skorzeny was left to plan the specifics of the Operation Greif’s mission analysis, if conducted in accordance with the current US Army Doctrine, would have started off with Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) followed by an assessment of his own forces and higher Headquarters missions. Additionally, the guidance given, and tasks assigned to him by Hitler, would have been broken down into specified tasks implied tasks, mission essential tasks, and limitations. An analysis of this would lead to a mission statement for the operation, an intent and a concept of operation. Skorzeny would find out that he was not only fighting the Americans, but also fighting against time, terrain, and amazingly, the German military system.
Skorzeny’s area of operations was in the zone of attack of Sepp Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army, which initially was the offensive’s main effort. The area consisted of typical Ardennes countryside. Rugged ground in the eastern half of the zone was bisected by a handful of east-west running roads twisting through the hills. The dominant Hohe Venn Ridge formed a north-south running spine that lay half-way to the Meuse. Closer to the river, the terrain gradually opened up some and consisted of less severe elevation. Numerous towns dotted the area, while several rivers crisscrossed through the valleys. The terrain in the area favored the defenders.
The American defenders in the area consisted of elements of General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps. The defense consisted of a crust of infantry divisions and cavalry forces holding an extended frontage, with some armored formations positioned in depth as a reserve. Recon conducted by the German units in the line, and signals intelligence from specialized units were able to paint a fairly clear picture of the front line defenses.
November 28 1944 : the situation in the American rear areas, as well as information regarding the important bridges over the Meuse River, was not so clear. Skorzeny requested all available intelligence concerning them, and even asked that air reconnaissance photos be taken of the bridges. These were eventually received by Skorzeny for only the bridges at Huy and Amay in late November. Although they showed anti-aircraft positions near the bridges, they did not indicate any other special defensive measures. Skorzeny was forced to assume that some type of local defenses would be established at the Meuse crossings, even if only initially by rear area troops. He also fully realized that the bridges would be more heavily defended, if not out-right destroyed, if he did not reach them within the first critical days of the offensive.
One key planning assumption was that the initial conventional attacks would achieve a clean breakthrough on the first day of the offensive. It was assumed that the defenders in the area would be in disorderly flight on the first day, thereby allowing the Greif force to infiltrate to the bridges unhindered. This critical assumption upon which the nature and concept of the operation were founded was ultimately to prove faulty, and would even spell doom for the success of the mission. Skorzeny anticipated that if he was successful in seizing the bridges, it was very likely that his forces might be cut-off and isolated for a short period by Allied counter attacks until the main body of the German advance could reach him. Very importantly, Skorzeny’s assessment of the terrain and forward defenses led him to believe that his special units would not be able to break through the Americans lines on their own, but would have to exploit a penetration achieved to some significant depth by the conventional forces making the initial attacks. He knew that the available preparation time was short, he had less than five weeks to prepare for this new mission.
In fact, he had voiced his concern over the lack of adequate planning and preparation time to the Fuehrer personally. The unique nature of the mission would require special equipment and soldier in the form of captured American equipment, and English speaking troops with a knowledge of American slang and idioms. His own SS commando unit, of less than a battalion strength, could provide some expertise, manpower, and leadership, but the force would bave to essentially be established and trained from scratch. His original designs for the force proposed a unit of over 3300 men dressed and equipped to pose as an American outfit. His initial task organization for the unit proposed a full sized, robust, brigade. The creation of such a force, with such a unique and unorthodox mission, would take some time to do properly.
Additionally, Skorzeny was keenly aware of the operational time line for the offensive, and knew that once committed, his forces would have only one day to reach and capture the bridges. Skorzeny also realized the limitations imposed upon his forces by the terrain. He identified the critical importance of the defensive advantage offered by the Hohe Venn Ridge along the enemy’s forward defenses. The restricted nature of the Ardennes provided little maneuver space, and confined his force to the few good roads that ran directly to the bridge targets on the Meuse. His freedom of maneuver and action with any sizable combat force was dictated by the available road network behind the American lines as much as by any possible enemy counter action. The specified tasks assigned to Skoneny were to seize a minimum of two bridges over the Meuse River between Liege and Namur to infiltrate enemy lines covertly, posing as American soldiers; and to cause confusion among the enemy by disrupting his communications and rear areas. The implied tasks that Skorzeny derived for his mission were : conduct coordination with the conventional forces of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army; conduct a forward passage of lines through the attacking divisions west of the Hohe Venn Ridge; exploit the confusion and disorganization within the enemy’s ranks, conduct deep reconnaissance of the bridge targets on the Meuse River for the commando force; seize the bridges at Andenne, Amay, or Huy through a surprise ‘coups de main’ attack; defend and hold two or more of the bridges until relieved by 1.SS-Panzer-Division; conduct a link-up with the 1.SS-Panzer-Regiment at the bridges; increase confusion and panic behind the lines among the defenders by circulating false reports, removing sign posts, cutting telephone lines, and blowing up ammunition dumps; conduct tactical reconnaissance forward of the Skorzeny force and the conventional armored spearheads
Two key limitations that Skorzeny was operating under were the requirement for strict secrecy and operational security (OPSEC) and the accepted laws of war. Hitler’s desire for utmost secrecy prevented Skorzeny from briefing his forces on their real mission or coordinating with the associated conventional units until only days before the offensive. Also, by wearing American uniforms his force would give up their protected status as prisoners of war (POWs) and if captured, would face execution as spies. Hitler directed that Skorzeny’s commandos were to wear their German uniforms under the American clothing, and were not to fight in American uniforms, i.e. they were to take off the American clothing before fighting. Although no record of a formal mission statement exists, if presented in current US Army fashion, Skorzeny probably would have looked something like this : On order, Battle Group Skorzeny infiltrates in zone to seize bridges over the Meuse River at Andenne, Amy, and Huy, in order to ensure the uninterrupted advance of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army across the Meuse, and conducts unconventional warfare operations to disrupt enemy defenses in the area of operations.
Skorzeny, after the war, presented a less formalized description of his mission : the mission of the Brigade was to seize undamaged at least two Meuse River bridges from among the following possibilities : Amay, Huy, or Andenne.
The concept of the operation was not particularly complex, but it was not necessarily easy to execute either. Skorzeny’s forces would follow immediately behind the lead spearheads of the I.SS-Panzer-Korps attacking divisions as they pushed through the initial penetration created by the infantry divisions. Once west of the Hohen Venn Ridge, Skorzeny’s battle group would side-slip or pass through the lead panzer regiments and advance to the Meuse. Special reconnaissance teams would race ahead of the main body by jeep once a penetration was achieved, conduct reconnaissance of the routes, and place the bridge targets under surveillance. The main body of Skoneny’s force, split into three smaller Kampfgruppe, would advance west along three separate directions of attack directly to the bridges, now called Objectives X, Y, and Z. One of the Kampfgruppe would each move behind the lead elements of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division, 12.SS-Panzer-Division and 12.Volksgrenadier-Division.
This was to have occurred by the end of the first day of the offensive. Tactical reconnaissance teams would advance immediately forward of the attacking divisions and these groups to report on local enemy defenses. Independent teams of commandos would conduct small scale acts of sabotage ahead of and behind the main body to disrupt enemy communications and create disorganization within the defenders. Resistance would be bypassed and reported, as speed was essential and the limited combat power of the battle groups was to be preserved for seizing and defending the bridges. Once captured, the bridges were to be defended, then turned over to I.SS-Panzer-Korps. Skoneny’s force would then be prepared to continue acts of sabotage, and deep reconnaissance in support of the main attack. This was all to have occurred not later than the second day of the offensive. However, Skorzeny’s force would not be operating behind American lines completely on its own.
Concerned over the threat of reinforcement posed by the large American forces to the north of 6.SS-Panzer-Army, FM Walter Model, the commander of Army Group B, the operational headquarters for the offensive, on December 4, proposed to Hitler another special operation. It would consist of an airborne force dropped behind American lines in the area of Krinkelt, Belgium to block enemy moves south against the northern flank of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army. Although dismayed of airborne operations after the heavy casualties sustained during the invasion of Crete, Hitler seized upon the idea and approved it. However, he changed the drop location to an area north of Malmédy, Belgium, deeper behind the American front lines than Model’s original concept. This would put the paratroopers beyond the immediate reach of their panzer counterparts until a penetration was made of the American lines. The plans for this new operation were hastily drawn up on December 8, by Army Group B Headquarters. Although getting the paratroopers force would eventually pose a problem, getting the commander for this operation did not.
(End of Part One)
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