Skorzeny attempted to coordinate Operation Greif with the various players involved. However, this coordination was at the highest command levels, and not with the actual commanders of the lead units his men would be working with. This would prove to have serious repercussions later. In an attempt to get better support and coordinate some tactical details, Skorzeny met with Feldmarschall von Rundstedt at his headquarters in November. The Feldmarschall’s support for the Operation Greif was apparently lacking, as after briefing him on the Operation, Skorzeny noted his reactions as disappointing. He appeared to be like-warm to the special operation, and was particularly concerned over the use of enemy uniforms.
A similar meeting with Feldmarschall Model’s Chief of Staff, General Hans Krebs, was slightly better. Skorzny’s plans for Greif were approved and he received the promise of full support, though this would prove to be long in coming.
Prior to the offensive, Skorzeny attended one last high level meeting at Model’s headquarters (December 12) where the final orders were issued to the corps and division commanders. Model asked Skorzeny to brief the assembled commander’s on Operation Greif. At this meeting the detailed measures to avoid fratricide between Skorzeny’s Americans and real regular German soldiers was discussed as the danger of inadvertently shooting Greif forces was high. As aids to identifying the Grey forces as friendly Germans, several special recognition signals were employed. So, in order to identify themselves as disguised, German soldiers of Operation Greif would remove or tap their helmets when approaching German lines or forces. Additionally, the second button of their shirts would be unbuttoned, and they would wear pink or blue scarves.
At night, a blue flashlight held up in the left hand would serve as a challenge, while a red flashlight held aloft in the right hand would serve as the reply. All of the brigade’s vehicles were to display a small yellow triangle painted on their rear. Jeeps bore the letters C, D, X, Y, or Z in white letters on their hoods, while tanks were to keep their gun tubes pointed in the nine o’clock position when near German forces. These procedures seemed to work as no incidents of friendly fire casualties to the Grey.forces were reported, despite the high probability of them occurring.
These recognition signals did produce one significant drawback. Despite the counter-productive wall of secrecy surrounding the offensive, the details were distributed in writing form to front line units after the meeting with Skorzeny. Although by their nature, all units would need to know the recognition signals, and hence the existence of Operation Greif, details about the mission were not essential and should never have been carried forward of the line. Nevertheless, despite orders to the contrary, this is exactly what occurred, and inevitability as always seems to happen in these cases, the instructions were captured on the first day of the offensive.
A note distributed within the 62.Volksgrenadier-Division was captured in the vicinity of Heckhusheid (Belgium) on December 16, and compromised Operation Greif soon after the first commando teams had infiltrated the lines. The note outlined the recognition signals, described the use of American vehicles, equipment, and uniforms, and even outlined the three routes the Greif forces would travel along. After months of painstaking security effort, the cat was out of the bag, and this, already on the first day of the offensive.
Although the training and equipping of the Greif force fell far short of what Skorzeny and the other leaders may have felt was required, the men of the 150.Panzer-Brigade and the Einheit Stielau were motivated to fight. Skorzeny described his men as clearly animated by the most glowing patriotism. Skorzeny would rely on this motivation, and the audacity and initiative of these men to overcome the deficiencies in training, equipment and organization that confronted the Greif force. Midway through the preparations for Greif, just as these deficiencies caused Skorzeny to alter his task organization, it likewise forced him to modify his commander’s intent. He explained it in his own words :
When we realized in the middle of November that the camouflage outfit of the brigade would be very far from complete, we were forced to consider certain changes to our plans. In the absence of camouflage for everybody we must try to obtain the same results by expedients, cunning, and above all, bluff … My colleagues and I fully appreciated that we should have to rely on improvisation.
Likewise, lacking precise and detailed intelligence about the enemy, Skorzeny was unable to assign exact missions other than the bridge and route reconnaissance to the commando company. Rather, in typical German military fashion, he relied on giving the Einheit Stielau teams mission-type orders to conduct reconnaissance and learn about enemy dispositions, create confusion among the enemy, disrupt communications, and delay or disrupt reinforcements. We must leave them as much as possible to their own initiative stressed Skorzeny. Thus improvisation, boldness, and initiative were to be the hallmarks of Operation Greif. In comparison to their comrades of Operation Stoesser, the men of Greif were well prepared.
Operation Stoesser would have far less time compared to Operation Greif to organize, equip, and train itself in preparation for its part in the offensive. Like Greif, the necessary coordination for the mission would also be lacking. Oberst von der Heydte would have less than one week to organize, train, and prepare his airborne battle group for action during the Operation Stoesser and accomplish his mission of blocking the Eupen – Malmédy road.
Like the Greif commanders, he too was misled about the actual location and nature of his mission until only days before the offensive. Denied his immediate request to employ his former command, the 6.Fallschirmjaeger-Regiment, as an intact force, the baron would have to create a unit from scratch in just a matter of days. His request was disapproved by Heersgruppe H because it was felt that the secrecy of the offensive might be compromised by the movement of an entire parachute regiment out of the line. The 1200 man battle group would be created by each regiment in the 11.Fallschirmjâeger-Korps giving up one hundred of it’s best and most experienced paratroopers to von der Heydte. However, he would be able to choose his own company commanders and officers.
Von der Heydte organized his scratch force into a simple battle group consing of four light infantry companies, a heavy weapons company, and a signal and supply platoon, in addition to a small group headquarters and staff. The promised personnel were to assemble at von der Heydte’s headquarters in Aasten on December 9 1944. As perhaps as is the case in all armies, von der Heydte did not expect to receive the best men that the parachute regiments had to offer. Rather he received the usual deadbeats and trouble makers that battalion commanders normally manage to transfer to other commanders on such occasions. Von der Heydte was to say of them, never during my entire fighting career had I been in command of a unit with less fighting spirit. But then who gives up his best soldiers to another unit ?
Out of all the men that arrived at Aalten, fewer than 300 were veterans with combat jump experience. The baron was buoyed by the fact that out of those with combat experience, approximately 150 of them were veterans from his old 6.Falschirmjäeger-Regiment, that had managed to sneak their way into the battle group. The soldiers who lacked even a minimum of fighting spirit were replaced with dependable volunteers that were picked from the jump school at Aalten. Some of these men, however, had yet to make their first parachute jump. Although there were adequate numbers on paper for the mission, the battle group was far from an experienced and cohesive combat force.
During his previous meeting with the 6.SS-Panzer-Army commander, von der Heydte had attempted to coordinate several issues. The lack of concern or support for Operation Stoesser, and Dietrich’s drunken state, had prevented all of the issues from being raised, but von der Heydte was able to get two items resolved. Upon inadvertently learning of Skorzeny and Operation Greif, von der Heydte requested a boundary between Skorzeny’s forces and his own men to de-conflict the two operations and avoid any fratricide. Part of his rationale seems to also stem for a distaste for the nature of the operation, the SS, and Skorzeny himself and perhaps a desire to avoid being caught up in potential war crimes.
The request was approved and a boundary was drawn separating the two units, keeping the Greif forces away from Stoesser. Additionally, von der Heydte requested and received a forward observer team from the 12.SS-Panzer-Division with long range radios. This team would be able to call for much needed fire support from the division’s long range artillery battery when it got within range, as well as coordinate the link-up of force. This request was likewise approved.
One that was not was von der Heydte’s request for back-up communications. Having observed American paratroopers employ carrier pigeons in Normandy, the baron requested that these be obtained for his Kampfgruppe in the event the radios were lost or damaged. Dietrich’s reply was typical of the tone of the entire coordination meeting : I am leading a Panzer-Army without pigeons and I am not running a zoo; you should be able to lead your Kampfgruppe without pigeons. Much to his later regret, von der Heydte never got the pigeons. Anyway, the required weapons, clothing, and equipment became available, and were issued to the companies by the December 13. Long-range radio sets were issued to communicate with the 6.SS-Panzer-Army headquarters and with the firing batteries of the 12.SS-Panzer-Division artillery. Parachutes for the jump were being assembled at a camp near the departure airfields for the mission. Other than being denied pigeons for back up communications, and being an inherently light force, the Stoesser units did not have significant equipment problems.
Then, on December 13, the Stoesser battle group was ordered to move to their holding area at the Senne Lager. As a result of security precautions, the paratroopers were apparently unexpected at the camp; there was no room for them. Amazingly, von der Heydte was forced to contact an old civilian friend and arrange for billeting in houses in the nearby village of Oerlinghausen. To add to the confusion, von der Heydte was told he would be flying out of two airfields, Senne I and Senne II. However, these airfields were only a dream in some staff planners head, as they had yet to be built. The Stoesser battle group was not able to conduct any type of training or rehearsals for its mission in the few days available before the offensive. There was barely enough time to organize the companies and issue equipment. Many of the soldiers were recent transfers from the Luftwaffe’s ground elements, and lacked even basic infantry skills. Von der Heydte described the training status of his battle group :
In the last five days before the operation began, many men had to be taught the most rudimentary elements of infantry combat and behavior under fire. My company commanders were constantly amazed at the lack of knowledge of the troops.
The men of the battle group finally learned of their real mission just over 24 hours before H-Hour, after they had been assembled for the jump at the departure airfields, now at Paderborn and Lippespringe. Despite von der Heydte’s problems, his supporting Luftwaffe transport squadrons were in far worse shape. The Ju-52 transport aircraft of the Luftwaffe unit assigned on December 13 to support von der Heydte, Transport-Geschwader 3, were available in sufficient numbers to transport and drop almost the entire battle group in one lift. However trained pilots were not.
Most of the pilots were fresh from flight school. Seventy percent of them were not even qualified on the Ju-52 aircraft. There had been almost no training on formation flying or conducting airborne operations for the air units, not to mention night flying and navigation. As a result of security considerations, the commanders of the hastily formed air group were told they would be supporting a training jump, and not a combat operation over enemy lines. They did not discover the truth until their first coordination meeting with von der Heydte on December 13. There was no time to conduct joint training or rehearsals for this critical part of the Operation. However, several measures were coordinated to aid the Luftwaffe pilots in navigating to the drop zone.
First, the route from Paderborn airfield to the front would be lit by ground searchlights to guide the transports on the first leg of their flight. Near the front; tracer fire from anti-aircraft batteries along the flanks would substitute for the searchlights. Additionally, the transports themselves would drop flares to illuminate their own positions and allow the pilots to form into column. A special Ju-88 bomber from a night-flying squadron would precede the transports by 15 minutes and mark the drop zone with incendiary bombs.
The transports would travel the last leg with their navigation lights on, and would continue to drop flares over the drop zone itself once the drop commenced. It was hoped that the measures would overcome the handicaps of the air units and permit an accurate drop. As an added touch to assist Operation Stoesser and cause confusion as to the size and nature of the operation, over 300 dummies would be dropped after the paratroop jump, as a deception effort over the areas around Camp Elsenborn, Spa, and Stavelot. It was anticipated that these dummy paratroopers would initially draw some attention away from the real Stoesser force.
Despite these measures, the Kampfgruppe von der Heydte and the supporting Lufwaffe units were not prepared to execute the Operation Stoeser with any degree of success. Similar to the Operation Greif, a concept that sounded great at the planning map had turned into a potential disaster. The commanders of the Operations Greif and Stoesser both attempted to abort their planned missions prior to the start of the offensive. Both perceived a very low probability of success for accomplishing their missions. As a result, Skorzeny and von der Heydte both approached their higher headquarters and requested cancellation of the missions. Skorzeny was infuriated when he learned that on October 25, an OKW message requesting English speaking volunteers for special duty under his command had been distributed to all front-line units in the Western Front.
He correctly assumed that the message would inevitably fall into enemy hands and thus compromise and doom his mission, (the 1st Canadian Army learned of the request on November 30 1944, but surprisingly, the Allied intelligence apparatus did not react to it). He dictated a violent protest to the FHQ and recommended calling the whole thing off. His request never made it directly to Hitler. Some time later Skorzeny got the opportunity to mention the incident to Hitler. He claims to have been told by Hitler : it’s idiotic, but it has been done; we cannot hold up your operation now.
During the preparation for Greif, after the personnel and equipment deficiencies had all but rendered the original 150.Panzer-Brigade mission moot, and the possibility of mission compromise was high, Skorzeny summed up his attitude when he stated that we realized we were being asked the impossible, but we had stressed the point to the Fuehrer when the plan was first mooted and so our consciences were clear. Operation Greif would go onward. Likewise, upon learning of his real mission, and assessing the combat effectiveness of his force and that of his Luftwaffe support, Oberst von der Heydte decided to request the cancellation of the Operation Stoesser. After getting no where through Luftwaffe channels, he went directly to Army Group B headquarters at Münstereifel to speak to Feldmarshall Model, his operational commander. Von der Heydte described his visit as follows :
the felmarshal was still asleep after having worked throughout the night meanwhile, his chief-of-staff, Gen Krebs, acquainted me with the plans and objectives of the attack. When I told him that the commander of my transport groups as well as myself had serious doubts about the success of a parachute drop, he woke up the feldmarshal. After listening to my report, Feldmarschall Model asked me whether I gave the parachute drop a ten percent chance of success. When I answered in the affirmative, he stated that the entire offensive had not more than a ten percent chance of success. However, it was necessary to make the attempt since it was the last remaining chance to conclude the war favorably. The feldmarshal concluded that if the most were not made of this ten percent chance, Germany would be faced with certain defeat.
Operation Stoesser, like Operation Greif, would be conducted. Both lacked cohesive, well prepared combat teams, thanks to the lack of time and the ad hoc nature of their organizations. Rather than the elite, top-notch special operations units envisioned, and required, for the demanding and high-risk missions that were to follow, the forces involved in both operations were generally under-manned, ill-equipped, and poorly trained. Likewise, the special operations were not properly coordinated with their conventional counterparts. All of the problems encountered during the planning and preparation for both operations would come to a head once the offensive was to begin.
On the morning of December 16 1944, the great offensive commenced : a thunderous roar from thousands of guns announced the opening of the preliminary bombardment of the enemy positions at 0530. It was short, the range was lengthened and the German infantry moved to the attack. The earliest reports arrived just before seven and they were not too favorable, although they could obviously take a turn for the better at any moment … Up to midday, the only news was of violent fighting, without any considerable gain of ground. The intended collapse of the whole front had not been achieved.
So began the opening of Wacht Am Rhein. In Skorzeny’s own words this opening stage was described as something less than desirable. The problems and difficulties encountered on the first day of the offensive were to have significant impact on the conduct of the German special operations. Handicapped by faulty preparation and planning, Operations Greif and Stoesser were soon to be doomed by the events of the first day of the offensive.
By December 18 1944, both Operations failed to accomplish their primary missions. Both operations, in light of the specific campaign plans, were failures. Although the special operations did have some favorable impact on the campaign, they were unable to assist the conventional forces in realizing any of the key campaign objectives. In coordination with the 6.SS-Panzer-Army, Otto Skorzeny had co-located his command post with that of the I.SS-Panzer-Corps headquarters at Schmittheim, Germany, on the day before the offensive, December 15 1944. Skorzeny, barred from taking front line command of the operation by Hitler months ago, settled for a location where he could monitor the progress of the offensive and gauge the right moment to launch his 150.Panzer-Brigade three battle groups towards their objectives. Skorzeny would never get the chance to issue this order. Although the commando company was to prove successful in infiltrating American lines and gaining valuable intelligence, the other part of Operation Greif, the 150-Panzer-Brigade, a captive of the opening day’s events, would never see its objective.
The actions of the Einheit Stielau, the Commando Company, were to prove the most successful of the German special operations. Tasked to conduct deep reconnaissance of the Meuse River bridges and spread confusion behind the lines through acts of sabotage, most of the disguised commando teams accomplished their objectives with a high degree of success and according to the plan. A total of nine Stielau Commando teams were actually sent through the American lines on December 16 as the opening phase of Operation Greif. These consisted of four teams of Recon Commandos, two teams of Demolition Commandos, and three teams of Lead Commandos, totaling 44 men.
Per their plans, the Recon Commandos drove deep to the Meuse along multiple routes and began gathering intelligence about the Meuse River bridges for the 150.Panzer-Brigade, and the 6.SS-Panzer-Army. The Demolition Commando teams set about conducting acts of sabotage behind the lines, and providing intelligence concerning the local enemy situation. One team each of Lead Commandos traveled with the 1.SS-Panzer-Division, the 12.SS-Panzer-Division, and the 12.Volksgrenadier-Division, all part of 1.SS-Panzer-Corps, and started paving the way for the German spearheads.
The American forces defending their extended fronts were taken by surprise by the German attack. Capitalizing on the confusion, shock, and somewhat expedient withdrawals of some of the American forward units, at least seven teams initially infiltrated tough the American front lines during the initial 24 hours of the offensive. Skorzeny estimated that six to eight teams really got behind the enemy lines. He stated his rationale for this quite candidly in his autobiography :
it may sound odd that even to this day I cannot give the exact figure, but I was honest enough to have my doubts about the reports I received. One can well understand that some of these young soldiers were too ashamed to admit that when faced with their real trial – the penetration of enemy held territory – their courage and resolution had left them. The actual facts are that two teams were certainly captured and five others put in reports so clear and unambiguous that there could not be the slightest doubt that they had done what they said they had done. In the two remaining cases their reports seemed exaggerated.
The teams infiltrated the American lines both day and at night mounted in jeeps and wearing American garb. Two simple methods were used to infiltrate behind the lines. In the first technique, the jeep team would follow closely behind an attacking armored unit. When that unit engaged the Americans or penetrated their lines, the jeep team would swing off the main road and move around the battle using side roads and trails until they were behind the withdrawing or defending American troops.
The other technique was quite simply to travel along small trails in the heavily wooded areas through gaps in the American defenses until the jeep team got behind the lines. They would then move onto the improved roads – and proceed with their missions. The infiltration attempts were not without risk; nor were the commando teams ignored by the Americans. Almost every team was confronted by Americans as they traveled to their objectives. Feldwebel Heinz Rohde, alias Sgt Momis Woodahl, a member of one of the Recon Commando teams infiltrating behind the 12.SS-Panzer-Division, eloquently described his penetration of the lines in a post war interview :
after moving barely fifty meters the tank which we had been closely following in our jeep came to a stand still. The leading tanks made it known that we were now in no man’s land. High time to discard our para-suits. For the driver this was a real feat of acrobatics as it was impossible for us to stop and he had to carry out his undressing act while we were on the move. Our jeep jumped around like a young deer, and while the driver kicked frantically at the accelerator pedal, the co-drive tried to steer the vehicle around the obstacles with desperate wrenches of the wheel. The first burning American truck suddenly appearing behind us. It was now that we first ran up against the strong defenses of the Yankees; none to soon, as directly in front of us a group of American infantry was trying to place an anti-tank gun in position. How relieved we were to find that apart from being splattered with mud nothing else hit us.
A sergeant tried with shouts and signals to bring us into action; which was a quite unreasonable demand, as we had strict contrary orders and certainly didn’t come under his unit. So we swept past him, only to catch sight of a military police post on the road in front of us a few minutes later. An Ami as tall as a tree was standing there. The white stripes on his helmet, with the MP legend, left no doubt as to his genuineness. With a motorcycle carelessly thrown down beside him, he pulled us on to a side road and the artillery fire falling on the main road ahead left us in no doubt that his efforts were directed towards protecting us from it. I don’t know how we managed to negotiate the bend in that situation, but somehow or other we succeeded in getting away.
Another commando summed up the situation during the infiltration : Naturally we thought at first that every Ami could spot us as Germans from a thousand meters away; but the shelling, the poor light, and the confusion of the opposition helped us through those first tense hours … gradually our nerves started to settle down.
The five teams that successfully infiltrated the lines are credited with having accomplished a great deal within the first two days of the offensive. Teams from each of the commando groups gathered valuable intelligence, spread confusion, and disrupted command and control. Two teams were eventually compromised and captured, but in their own way, they were to add to the sense of panic and confusion behind the American lines.
One Recon Commando team succeeded in reaching their objective over 100 miles behind the lines. Following the tail of a withdrawing American convoy and passing through numerous checkpoints, this team entered Huy, Belgium, on the evening of December 16. There they conducted a successful reconnaissance of the bridge over the Meuse River, which was one of the primary Greif objectives for the 150.Panzer-Brigade, as well as for the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps. The team conducted both mounted and dismounted reconnaissance of its target. Discovering the bridge guarded only by a sentry detachment, they radioed their reports back to the Stielau command post now near Losheimmergraben, Belgium. This team maintained surveillance of the bridge throughout the night and into the 17 of December. Fearing compromise as American searchlights had begun to sweep the banks of the river, the team requested permission to exfiltrate. Granted permission to withdraw on the 17 of December by the Stielau headquarters, the team successfully weaved their way through the columns of withdrawing American vehicles and re-entered German lines in the 5.Panzer-Army area. Along the way back they tore up telephone cables and removed unit signposts. After briefing 5.Panzer-Army personnel about their trip, the team members returned to the commando company and rendered a full report, which included in addition to information about the general enemy situation, convoy movements and artillery positions, and the location of a munitions depot near Huy.
While in Huy, this Recon Commando team claims to have miss-directed an American armored column moving to the front. The team leader, Fritz Bussinger, while conducting a foot reconnaissance in the town of Huy, stated that the leader of the American column asked him for directions to the town of Marche. Advising them that the Germans had captured several roads in that area, Bussinger claims to have directed the convoy on a wide detour in the wrong direction.
Skorzeny states in his autobiography that German signal intercept units monitored American transmissions indicating that this unit was miss-routed out of the battle area for a period of time. Another of the Recon Commando teams is claimed by Skorzeny to have infiltrated to the vicinity of Liege, Belgium, site of another principle bridge target over the Meuse River. According to Skorzeny this team reached the Meuse and discovered that the Allies had taken no special security measures at the Meuse bridges. Additionally, it reported on the general situation around Liege. Here the team observed movement of American forces south from Liege into the battle area. They also confirmed that the Americans appeared to have evacuated their airfields east of the Meuse River. This is this team that, according to Skorzeny, located a large munitions depot near Liège (in fact the huge 1st Army Ammunition Depot alongside the Railroad tracks Liège – Aachen and located in Soumagne).
It was quite likely this team that also miss-routed a regiment of the 84th Infantry Division as it moved southward to reinforce the front. Wearing Military Police insignia, Wilhelm Giel, the team leader, directed one American infantry regiment down the wrong road, thereby delaying its arrival to the battle area. American accounts reinforce this claim. On its way back to German lines, in addition to gaining information about enemy movements and defenses, this team slowed down long enough to lay mines, drop trees across roads, and emplace dummy minefield markings in order to slow the movement of American reinforcements. The Lead Commando teams were equally active.
On December 16, one team is reputed to have encountered an American force of two companies defending the crossroads town of Poteaux, Belgium. Accosted by an American officer wanting to information about the situation forward, the team leader presented a story indicating that the town was already bypassed on both flanks, and isolated by the Krauts. Fearing encirclement, the American force withdrew to the west, abandoning the village. This event can not be confirmed by American sources, but accounts of American activity there indicate the only presence of the 18th Cavalry Squadron from December 18 onward.
It is certain that one team actually did miss-route an American infantry regiment moving to the front. Posing as American Military Police at the Mont Rigi road junction, along the N-27 highway from Liege, this team changed the road signs and miss-directed traffic for a period of several hours on December 17. As the 16th Infantry Regiment (1st Infantry Division), was moving in convoy to bolster the front in the south, the commandos miss-directed the entire regiment to Malmédy, rather than its planned destination of Waimes. As a result, the regiment was delayed in reaching its new defensive positions for that day. When real American MPs appeared later to sort out the confusion, they detected the commandos at the road junction. The commando team beat a hasty withdrawal, and as their jeep disappeared from the area, it was reported that one of the MPs was still standing on the jeep’s front bumper, clinging to the wire cutters, from where he had been directing traffic!
One unidentified team located a gasoline dump, which was reported to the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps headquarters by Skorzeny for possible use by the German armor. Kampfgruppe Peiper did refuel from a captured American fuel dump at Bullingen on December 17, but there is no confirmation that this was the dump that the commando team is claimed to have located.
At least one of the Demolition Commando teams appears to have conducted several significant sabotage activities. The team is reported to have discovered an ammunition dump, and blown up a large part of it on the evening of December 16. Additionally the team cut a large telephone cable at several points. This cable is reputed to have been the link between the US 1-A Headquarters in Spa, Belgium, and the 12th Army Group in Namur and was out for several hours, disrupting communications between Gen Hodges and Gen Bradley during a critical time of the opening battle.
This team may also have directly assisted the advance of Kampfgruppe Peiper. During the evening of December 17, elements of the 5th Belgian Fusilers Battalion and members of 291st Engineer Battalion observed strange American soldiers preparing to blow up the bridge over the Amblève River at Stavelot, Belgium. Although a collection of engineers from the 202d Engineer Combat Battalion had actually prepared the bridge for demolition, they did so with numerous stragglers in their midst. A pair of soldiers spotted by the Belgians near the bridge were considered suspicious, but were never challenged. It is unconfirmed by Skorzeny if these were commandos from this team neutralizing the prepared demolitions on the bridge. However it is a fact that when Peiper’s tanks began to approach the bridge a day later, the explosives charges failed to go off when the Americans attempted to blow up the span, and the bridge was captured intact by the Germans. This action allowed Peiper’s forces to quickly seize Stavelot and continue to proceed with their advance westward.
It appears that this Demolition Commando team was the only element of the Einheit Stielau to sustain a combat fatality during the Operation Greif. While attempting to re-enter German lines on December 18, the team ran into an American unit moving to counter attack Kampfgruppe Peiper. In the attempt to race past the Americans in their jeep, the team came under heavy fire and an officer on the team was fatally shot. The remaining three team members continued on, and were eventually able to link-up with Peiper’s forces near Wanne, Belgium, on Christmas Eve. Some other teams were not as fortunate.
The Lead Commando team supporting the 1.SS-Panzer-Division successfully infiltrated American lines on the December 17, and by noon-time penetrated forty kilometers to the village of Aywaille, Belgiurm. Stopped by an MP checkpoint in the village, the team was queried to give the password for the day. They were unable to do this and were promptly detained.
At first Pfc Lawrence, Pfc Sensenbach, and Pfc van der Werth seemed unremarkable. However, a quick examination of their jeep soon proved that these three were no ordinary GIs. Wads of counterfeit money, explosives, and a German automatic in the jeep prompted a more detailed search of the trio. Their German Army pay books, which they carried on their person, identified them as Oberfahnrich Billing, Gefreiter Schmidt, and Unteroffizer Pemass. The team was arrested and sent to the rear for interrogation.
It appears that this team was primarily responsible for creating the spy scare within the American army. During interrogation, the team members revealed their mission of Recon and detailed the attempts to reach the Meuse River bridges. They confirmed that additional teams were already behind the American lines. Pressed for every bit of information they held, they soon blurted out the various wild rumors that had circulated throughout Grafenwoehr during their training.
Unsure of the missions of all the elements under Greif the commandos may have believed some of the rumors to be true. The Allies believed one of them too. This team told their captors that part of Skorzenys mission was to infiltrate to Paris and capture Gen Eisenhower. The news of this plot, as well as the fact that numerous German spy teams were operating behind American lines, spread like wild fire throughout the Allied camp. It was not long before Allied security was tightened in a way that no one traveling the snowy roads of Belgium was above suspicion.
The third Recon Commando team did not fare well either. Although penetrating the American lines and infiltrating close to its target; the bridge over the Meuse River between Huy and Namur, the team was halted at an American checkpoint short of the bridge. Unable to produce a valid trip ticket, the Military Police arrested the four man team. A quick search revealed they were wearing German uniforms beneath their American battle dress, and their jeep was laden with German weapons and explosives. The team leader, Lt Gunther Schultz, was to talk freely to his captors. The rumors of Grafenwoehr were again to come into play with amazing effects. The news of the capture of this team was to also spread quickly, and it rapidly fueled the spy mania that had begun to grip the American rear areas.
One Recon Commando team and one Demolition Commando team are unaccounted for in records and accounts of Greif’s opening days, and they appear to have not accomplished any part of their missions. It is probable that these are the two teams that Otto Skorzeny referred to whose courage and resolution had left them. Although dispatched through the American lines they seem to have been inactive in comparison to the exploits of the other teams. They succeeded in re-entering German lines and eventually linked-up with the rest of the Commando company.
However, it appears that one of these teams had entered the town of Malmédy on December 17. The team leader, an elderly naval officer, Corvett Capt von Behr, apparently had not intended to get into the American lines, but had become lost and passed through Malmédy by mistake. He did not observe any significant defensive preparations in the town. Von Behr’s subsequent oral report to Skorzeny on December 19, after the team re-entered German lines, was to have deadly repercussions for the fate of 150.Panzer-Brigade. Skorzeny, still at Schmittheim with the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps Hqs, never received any of these reports directly by radio, as the weather and terrain disrupted effective, long range communications. He was to learn of much of this information only after the exfiltration and link-up of the teams, such as the report of von Behr.
After December 18, no more commando teams were sent behind American lines as part of Operation Greif. As the opportunity to employ the 150.Panzer-Brigade began to wane with the stiffening of the American defense, Skorzeny regarded the special task of the commando company at an end. After Operation Greif was over, the 6.SS-Panzer-Army still employed several teams to conduct similar clandestine missions on a local basis from December 19 onward in support of the continued German offensive.
The Einheit Stielau was to continue local reconnaissance operations even into January 1945, long after the demise of Wacht Am Rhein, but not under Skorzeny’s command. Skorzeny, however, did not consider these activities a part of Operation Greif. A number of small units spontaneously employed Recon teams consisting of ordinary German soldiers in recently captured uniforms and vehicles. Also, many a German soldier equipped himself with some recently liberated, and warm, American clothing to supplement his kit.
Although having nothing to do with Greif, to the Allies, this must have appeared as a part of a continued German plan. The Einheit Stielau remained at the front until it was eventually withdrawn and disbanded at the end of January 1945. Several of its captured soldiers were executed by the Americans as spies, as a result of wearing American uniforms. Lt Wilhelm Wiesenfeld; Feldwebel Manfred Bronny; Stabsgefreiter Hans Reich; tried and executed on December 26 1944. Lt Arno Krause; Lt Günther Schilz; Unteroffizier Erhard Miegel; Obermaschinenmaat Horst Görlich; Obergefreiter Norbert Pollack; Obergefreiter Rolf Benjamin Meyer; Obergefreiter Hans Wittsack; tried and executed on December 30. Gefreiter Otto Struller; Gefreiter Alfred Franz; Obergefreiter Antoni J. Morzack; tried and executed on the January 13 1945 (at Huy). Lt Günther Schulz was tried and executed on June 14 1945.
Of the 44 commandos sent through the American lines, according to Skorzeny, eight failed to return. These would appear to be the two captured teams and the one fatality. Although eighteen German soldiers were tried and executed as spies, Skorzeny was to claim after the war that the majority of them were not from the Einheit Stielau unit or part of Operation Greif, but rather unlucky participants in local operations. Given less than two days for their tasks, those 44 men were able to accomplish the missions assigned them with a great degree of success.
Two of the three key bridge targets were reached and reconnoitered by the Recon Commandos, and valuable intelligence was obtained. Numerous acts of sabotage by the teams added to the confusion spreading through the American ranks. The psychological impact of the commando operations would have profound effects. The Stielau commandos, while not perfect, were able to accomplish the missions that Skorzeny had planned for them. The boldness of their infiltration plan, and the high degree of independent initiative shown by the commando team leaders combined to achieve this success. The commandos had blazed a path for 150.Panzer-Brigade to follow. It would be up to the other half of Operation Greif to seize upon this, and prevent it from being an isolated success.
(End of Part 3)
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