For the 150.Panzer-Brigade, the second part of Operation Greif left Grafenwoehr on December 13 en route to the front. The brigade’s battle groups were tasked to infiltrate behind the lines disguised as American armored unis. Their mission was to seize the key bridges over the Meuse river in order to allow the armored spearheads of 6.SS-Panzer-Army (the 12.SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend) to continue their attack uninterrupted. The 150.Panzer-Brigade moved into thier bivouac area in the vicinity of Münstereifel, Germany on December 14 and occupied an assembly area in preparation for the forthcoming offensive. Careful to maintain their security screen, no one from the brigade was allowed to move forward to the front to conduct reconnaissance or coordinate with the conventional units. Likewise, no liaison teams were established or exchanged between the troops assigned to the Operation Greif and the conventional unit headquarters.
Moving to their forward attack positions during the dark morning of December 16, the three battle groups of the brigade lined up behind the rear of the attacking divisional spearheads. The disguised vehicles of Battle Groups X, Y, and Z wedged themselves into the tight columns of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division, the 12.SS-Panzer-Division and the 12.Volksgrenadier-Division, and prepared to race on to their objectives.
The 150.Panzer-Brigade failed to accomplish its primary mission; the seizure intact of a bridge over the Meuse River. In fact, it was never even committed to make an attempt for the bridges, but was destined to bleed itself in a conventional attack role. The original mission was aborted by the second day of the offensive. One key reason for this failure was the inability of the conventional attacks to create a penetration of the American lines on the opening day of the offensive. Through no fault of Greif’s units, there was no hole in the defense to slip the brigade through. The planned conditions for the employment of the brigade were never established.
However, the poor coordination between the Greif units and conventional forces, distant and befuddled command and control, and the lack of adequate personnel, equipment, and training precluded the brigade from capitalizing on any windows of opportunity that would appear. The opening day of the offensive came and went without these conditions being met. By the end of December 16, the 6.SS-Panzer-Army had failed to achieve a breakthrough with the first assaults of its infantry divisions. At the close of the day, gains of only about five kilometers had been made. The Germans were still some twenty kilometers short of the Hohen Venn, and the US 99th Infantry Division was still maintaining a viable defense.
The Panzer Divisions were left waiting at their jump off positions, crammed bumper to bumper on the few decent roads in the area. The battle groups of the 150.Panzer-Brigade were jammed in behind them, likewise unable to move at all, but nevertheless enduring American artillery fire. It was during this period that the commander of Battle Group X, Obersturmbannführer Willy Hardieck was killed when passing through an uncleared minefield, and replaced by Skorzeny’s Chief of Staff, SS Hauptsturmfueher von Foelkersam. Skorzeny, apparently not content with fighting the war by radio from Schmittheim, moved forward to assess the situation for himself. He described the situation as follows : [December 16, passed without a decisive success on the front of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army, and even by mid-day it was clear that the divisions would have to be sent in to effect a decisive breakthrough. I drove to Losheim to get a clearer picture of the situation. The roads were simply crammed with vehicles of every kind and, in practice, all officers had to walk beside their cars in order to help in keeping the traffic flowing. By the time I reached Losheim I must have walked at least ten kilometers. Apparently the artillery bombardment had no great effect on the enemy positions at Losheimergraben, the Americans were defending themselves particularly stoutly and the attack was progressing but slowly. The intended collapse of the whole front had not been achieved.]
Already the planned conditions for committing the brigade had passed. Dubious of success even before the operation began, Skorzeny was forced to weigh the merits of continuing with the mission. By his previously established criteria, it looked as if Operation Greif would be unlikely to succeed. Skorzeny, stubborn, proud, and not one to quit, nevertheless considered cancelling the operation on that first day. However, reluctant to give in easily, he decided to continue with the operation, and attempt to seize his objectives during the following day, if a breakthrough was achieved. Skorzeny described his decision on that first day : [I was now faced with a critical decision, as it was already plain that the day’s objectives had not been attained. The logical inference was that I must call off Operation Greif, something which was entirely against the grain, after all our tremendous preparations. I was not in the habit of abandoning my purpose so easily! I reflected that success was still possible if the Panzer Divisions went in that night and decided to wait another twenty-four hours. If the Höhe Venn had then been passed, the attacking wave would probably reach the Meuse and seizing of the bridges by my men could be decisive.]
If the panzer units broke through the Höhe Venn area, Skorzeny would then order his battle groups to infiltrate the American lines and move to the bridges. Skorzeny’s last thought seems to indicate one additional factor concerning the commitment of the brigade. Even if the 150.Panzer-Brigade was able to slip through the American lines and seize the bridges, Skorzeny was not going to do so unless assured that a link-up with the armored forces was possible. It would appear that Skorzeny was not going to launch the brigade on a suicide mission, even if the opportunity presented itself. Knowing the capability of his brigade, and understanding the offensive’s overall lack of success, Skorzeny was not pushing the battle groups recklessly into action.
On December 17, the commitment of the Panzer Divisions gained a breakthrough. The 3.Fallschirmjäeger-Division pushed open a hole through the withdrawing 14th Cavalry Group in the southern part of the attack sector. Kampfgruppe Peiper, the lead attack regiment of 1.SS-Panzer-Division, was side slipped through this hole by the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps, and had, by daylight of the 17, made a penetration of the American defenses at Honsfeld.
By the end of the day Peiper had penetrated almost twenty kilometers to the outskirts of Stavelot, but was still east of the Höhe Venn. Although dramatic gains were achieved, Peiper’s Kampfgruppe was alone in advancing so deeply. The rest of the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps was ensnared in a thirty kilometer traffic jam. Additionally, although some units were captured without a fight; some American units were putting up fierce resistance against the rest of the Panzer Corps. The battle groups of the 150.Panzer-Brigade were no near the fight. Intending to pass around or through the lead spearheads like the Einheit Stielau Commando teams, the brigade could not even reach the front.
While Kampfgruppe Peiper (spearhead of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division – LSSAH) was planning its assault on the little town of Stavelot, Battle Group X, the force designated to pass through Peiper’s unit, was some ten kilometers away, still east of Malmédy and caught among the traffic jam of vehicles all clawing their way along the same road in an attempt to keep up with Peiper. Even if they had wanted to pass through the Kampfgruppe’s forces, they would face a difficult time doing so from so far behind.
The absence of any real coordination between the conventional units and the special operations forces began to show. Although a fleeting opportunity existed for Battle Group X to pass forward and go ahead on the planned mission, Peiper could not direct the battle group to move forward as he lacked command authority over the unit.
It appears even that Battle Group X was clearly out of close coordination with him, and not closely following the Kampfgruppe’s constantly zig-zagging spearhead. Neither unit had established any liaison teams or cells. Peiper vented his frustration after the war during an interrogation. When asked to appraise the Greif’s Group with him he replied : [they might just as well as stayed at home, because they were never near the head of the column where they had planned to be and were they were supposed to.]
Skorzeny jumped from his command post forward with the Corps Hqs to the town of Manderfeld. Once again he too experienced the tremendous traffic jams along the roads and attempted to get traffic moving himself. It must be assumed that he was out of touch with his deputy, von Foelkersan, the nominal brigade commander with Battle Group X, as well as the rest of the Greif force during these moves. Skorzeny, far beyond the front was obviously unable to direct the brigade effectively. Often out of radio contact, frequently on the move, and distanced from the front, Skorzeny and his three-man command post could not effectively control the employment of the battle groups. Although in touch with the 1.Panzer-Corps Headquarters, he had no command authority over the armored units that his battle groups were following nor did they control his battle groups.
Short of attempting to pass an order to commit the battle groups, once he ascertained from the Panzer Corps that the Höhe Venn had been breached, it appears that there was not much that Skorzeny could do to influence the operation. Likewise, the battle groups were not receiving any instructions from the units that they were following. It is unclear who, if anyone, was actively following the status of the brigade’s battle groups and was ready to act on any fleeting opportunities. Given an opportunity to pass ahead of Kampfgruppe Peiper and race for the bridges, the 150.Panzer-Brigade might just have let it slip by. The lack of integrated command and control over the special and conventional elements of the offensive was beginning to doom the operation.
Skorzeny attempted to gauge his situation. He moved to Losheim to the Einheit Stielau command post, and then back to Corps headquarters that evening for a council of war. His assessment of the situation that day revealed : [it was true that surprise had been complete, but the idea of a sweep to the Meuse in a single rush, and the enemy retiring without fighting, had to be abandoned. There was no question of the panic flight which alone would have given Operation Greif a chance. Nor could we anticipate that the Meuse could be reached in our battle sector on the next day, or even the day after. The enemy was already bringing up reserves and throwing them into the fight.]
With this assessment, and a good understanding of the traffic conditions based upon his trips forward, Skorzeny decided the fate of Operation Greif. The conditions for committing the brigade had still not been met. Peiper was still east of the Höhe Venn. American units were still fighting stubbornly. His battle groups were scattered and ensnared in massive traffic jams. The element of surprise had now passed.
In Skorzeny’s eyes what had always been a gamble had now become the impossible. He decided late that evening of December 17 at the council of war, to abort the operation. After ripe consideration, I reported to Army Headquarters my suggestion to renounce our original intentions, and received its approval. Operation Greif was over. But the war was not over for the 150.Panzer-Brigade. After having made his decision to cancel Operation Greif, Skorzeny recommended to the 6.SS-Panzer-Army commander that the brigade be consolidated and employed as a normal army unit. This recommendation was accepted, and as it was still in the area of the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps, Skorzeny put the brigade under the operational control of that corps, for use as ordinary infantry. The brigade was to assemble south of the town of Malmédy. Although his forces were to move and operate within the 1.SS-Panzer-Division sector, the division held no control or authority over the brigade, although Skorzeny claims to have coordinated the brigade’s movements with the divisional HQ in Ligneuville, Belgium.
Skorzeny assumed the personal command of the 150.Panzer-Brigade, and early on December 19, ordered the three battle groups to assemble in the vicinity of Ligneuville. On that day, the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps requested Skorzeny to attack and seize the town of Malmédy, on the northern flank of the penetration, in order to block expected American counter attacks.
As the three battle groups of the 150.Panzer-Brigade were still struggling through the maze of traffic jams and poor roads, Skorzeny could not assemble them for an attack on the 19, and accordingly the operation was postponed until the morning of December 21. Although by now the troops were back in German uniforms, the vehicles of the previous Operation Rabenhugel effort still sported their American disguises. Lacking artillery support, Skorzeny opted for a surprise attack on Malmédy at dawn on December 21. The brigade’s objective was the heights north of the town where a defensive position was to be prepared to fend off the expected counterattacks.
Based upon the reports from the errant Commando team of Corvett Capt von Behr, Skorzeny believed the town of Malmédy to be lightly defended, and only by elements of the 291st Engineers Combat Battalion. In reality, since the report of that team on December 19, the town had been heavily reinforced. Elements of the American-Norwegian 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), attached to the 120th Infantry Regiment (30th Infantry Division), along with units from the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, had joined the stubborn engineers and established firm defenses and roadblocks at the northern, eastern and southern entrances of Malmédy.
Skorzeny prepared for a two prong attack. Battle Group Y was to attack on the right flank, with Battle Group X, the main effort, on the left flank, while Battle Group Z, arriving late on the 20, was to be in reserve upon its arrival. The attack kicked off at 0300, December 21. The battle groups led their attacks with
their phony US tanks and half-tracks, and some real M-8 armored cars. Although the appearance of these vehicles may have deceived some outposts in the dark, the American front had settled and the defenders were anticipating a German attack, they could not confuse the columns of men and vehicles advancing towards them as anything but enemy for very long.
The lead elements of the battle groups both struck mines along the roads they advanced on, and heavy fighting quickly ensued. Despite fierce close quarters combat, some elements of Battle Group X actually, penetrated into the town. However, the determined American resistance, backed up by thousands of artillery shells, eventually halted the attack. Skorzeny, himself wounded by the shell fire, was forced to withdraw the brigade to defensive positions on the hills south of Malmédy (Bellevaux) . For the next several days, the brigade was to continue probing attacks, but despite the unexpected assistance of the US Ninth Air Force bombing Malmédy twice by mistake, the town was never taken. The brigade maintained its defense south of the town and endured the ever increasing American air and artillery attacks, but the expected American drive south never materialized.
On December 28, the 150.Panzer-Brigade was relieved in place by elements of the 18.Volksgrenadier-Division. The brigade moved into a temporary rest area at Schlierbach, Belgium, east of Saint Vith, and then back to Grafenwoehr beginning on January 2. There Brigade was disbanded, and the men returned to their original units by January 23 1945. The losses for the brigade throughout the offensive totalled over 450 men killed, wounded, or missing from the original force of 3000. SS-Oberststurmbannfuhrer Otto Skorzeny returned to his original SS commando unit and was to continue conducting special operations until the end of the war. The 150.Panzer-Brigade had not accomplished its mission. The boldness of the plan and the desperate improvisations to mold the brigade into an effective unit were not enough. Even the success of the Einheit Stielau commandos did not help. The lack of coordination and effective command and control between the Greif units and the conventional forces, and the inadequate preparation of men and equipment, doomed the 150.Panzer-Brigade to failure.
The paratroopers of the Fallschirmjägergruppe von der Heydte were to fare little better. Operation Stoesser, the airborne operation designed to seize a mountain crossroads in order to block American reinforcements along the 6.SS-Panzer-Army’s northern flank, would be the second major special operation of the offensive. On the fifth day of its existence, December 15, the Kampfgruppe von der Heydte received orders that its drop would go in at 0430, December 16. Accordingly the airborne troops began to assemble at the departure airfields of Paderbom and Lippspring. However, by 0400 on December 16, only half of the troops had assembled owing to lack of fuel for the transport vehicles. Consequently, the operation was called off, only to be resurrected later that day. Although the 6.SS-Panzer-Army had not made the expected progress in its attack the paratroopers would still jump into the same drop zone, with the same mission of blocking reinforcements. Although they did indeed jump, the paratroopers of Operation Stoesser would fail in their mission.
Operation Stoesser failed to accomplish its mission of blocking the highway north of Malmédy from American reinforcements. Unlike the forces of Operation Greif, the paratroopers of the Kamnpfgruppe von der Heydte did not have to rely on another unit to create a breakthrough before they were committed. Instead they had to rely on the Luftwaffe. Delivered to their objective area by Luftwaffe transports, the paratroopers were miss-dropped, scattered, and disorganized. Consequently, the battle group was never able to assemble a credible fighting force with which to block the roads. Outnumbered, freezing, and unable to accomplish their mission, the forces of Operation Stoesser eventually melted away. However, their presence behind American lines and limited combat actions were to have an unexpected positive impact in support of the German offensive.
Shortly after midnight, approximately 1000 paratroopers boarded the JU-52 aircraft, and the first lift of transporters started out for the drop zone. Over 150 men of the battle group had to be left behind at the airfields, due to inadequate lift. It was planned that they would link up overland after the 6.SS-Panzer-Army had reached the paratroopers. The official Luftwaffe Kommando West meteorological report had predicted wind speeds of 13 MPH over the drop zone for that evening. The local forecasters at Lippspring had predicted something much higher however.
The drop did not go well. The special measures taken to assist the pilots in locating the drop zone in the dark were of limited help to the inexperienced aircrews. Although the AAA Flak batteries of German searchlights positioned behind the German lines helped guide aircraft part way, there was still a 60 kilometer gap between the last searchlights and the incendiary markers in the immediate vicinity of the drop zone. The Ju-88 night-bomber aircraft guiding the transports from the front lines to the drop zone in that gap had left the area by 0330, by which time only the first lift had dropped.
Numerous aircraft were to have difficulty in locating the drop zone accurately. Soon after crossing the front lines, tremendous American AAA artillery fire was to scatter the aircraft formations and even shoot several planes down. However, the biggest disruptive factor was the higher than expected winds. Not only did these cause a wide dispersion of the jumpers after they exited the aircraft but it sharply increases the number of jump casualties, WIA and KIA, as well as they caused the aircraft themselves to miscalculate their locations due to inaccurate airspeed calculations.
As a result of these difficulties, many aircraft, based on the decisions of inexperienced pilots and equally inexperienced jump masters went off-course and were unable to identify the drop zone. Consequently, they released their loads of paratroopers far from the intended objective area. At least ten aircraft dropped their jumpers not in the Höhe Venn, but rather in the Bonn, Germany, area, over 130 kilometers from the drop zone. In the following days, lost Fallschirmjäger were spotted in Soumage, Herve, Raeren, Butgenbach and in Bullingen, Belgium. Some JU-52 Pilots, entirely lost in the sky, just scattered their men throughout the Belgian countryside.
Of the 106 JU-52 involved in the drop, only 35 were to put their jumpers much or less on the DZ in the Höhe Venn area. Of that 35, only ten planes dropped their loads on or near the planned drop zone. Of the almost 1000 man strong battle group of Operation Stoesser that actually took off on December 17, only 450 landed within the Höhe Venn area, and approximately 100 landed near the drop zone. Oberst von der Heydte, first man out the door, was fortunate to have landed in the correct drop zone. He was able to initially round up only six other jumpers on the drop zone after landing. With this small group he made out for the objectives, both crossroads, Belle-Croix and Mont Rigi.
By 0500, only 25 men had assembled on the objective. The size of the force had increased to 150 by 0800. This collection of paratroopers lacked any heavy weapons, and had lost all their radio sets, ammunition and equipment containers in the drop. Under-strength, under-aimed, and out of communication, von der Heydte was forced to modify his plans. The original Stoesser plan was for the battle group to seize and hold the critical Eupen – Malmedy crossroads (Belle-Croix), and block American attempts at reinforcing or counterattacking southward along these arteries. This action was to limit the buildup of reinforcements ahead of 6.SS-Panzer-Army’s attack as well as protect the northern flank of the advance. German armor was to link-up with the paratroopers within two days, after the primary Army objectives were seized. This plan was to take a radical reversal on December 17.
The Operation Commander, Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, outlined his plan for the morning of December 17 : [with this pitifully small number of men, who had salvaged only a single medium caliber mortar, I had only the slightest chance of success. I decided first of all to remain hidden near the road junction until the sounds of battle approached, then come forth from the forest to open up the road in the last minutes before the arrival of the German tanks. Operation Stoesser had gone from blocking reinforcements and protecting the flank of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army, to making a limited attack to effect a link-up with relieving forces. Von der Heydte, while establishing his hide position in the forest near the crossroads of Belle-Croix and continuing to collect his men, did send out several reconnaissance patrol along the roads leading to North to Eupen, South to Malmedy, and West to Verviers. These patrols, scouting along the roads and capturing messengers, succeeded in providing von der Heydte with a good picture of the enemy situation.]
Unfortunately, this intelligence, no doubt of value to the 6.SS-Panzer-Army, could not be relayed due to the lack of radios, or pigeons for that matter. The fire support team from the long range artillery battery of 12.SS-Panzer-Division, which had somehow survived the jump could not call for fire on the enemy convoys or gun positions located throughout the area. Instead, the Fallaschirmjägergruppe von der Heydte had to content itself with counting the numerous large convoys heading south.
By the evening of December 17, as stragglers and groups eventually reached the objective, the size of the group had reached about 300 men. One the long range radio was recovered, but it had been smashed during the drop and was useless. Throughout that day and the next, as small groups had moved to the assembly site, small teams patrolled the area, ambushed and harassed the American targets of opportunity they encountered en route. Several vehicles had been destroyed along the roads, and over thirty prisoners had been captured. Obviously the jump and this activity did not go unnoticed, and by the afternoon of December 17, American patrols were searching for the paratroopers in the entire area.
In order to avoid American detection of his main body, von der Heydte shifted his positions some three kilometers north of the crossroads during the early morning of December 18 into the dense firs of the Hertogenwald. Although some of the junior leaders recommended an immediate attack to cut the roads with the force at hand, von der Heydte elected to continue his reconnaissance and ambush operations. Still without heavy weapons, with only a quarter of his original force, and possessing enough ammunition for one single strong engagement, the Oberst decided to wait. On December 19, and American patrols located the battle group, and a small, but sharp skirmish produced several casualties. Von der Heydte again shifted the position of his force, this time four kilometers to the east, and closer to the front, in the area of Porfay.
During the night of December 18, a lone JU-88 bomber attempted an aerial resupply to the Stoesser force. Only a few of the ‘Essen bomben’ containers were recovered, and these did not contain any food, ammunition, or weapons. The paratroopers, who had jumped without heavy equipment and only a 24 hour ration, were
beginning to feel the effects of the cold weather and the lack of food. American patrols continued to search for his force, and larger American units became involved in the search for the German parachutists. The battle group did not succeed in blocking reinforcements racing south. Just as the Germans had anticipated, strong forces in the form of elements of the American 7th Armored Division, 30th Infantry Division, and 1st Infantry Division moved through those crossroads to bolster defenses in the south.
The road to Malmédy was never blocked. Thus Operation Stoesser, from the day of insertion, failed to accomplish its intended mission. Oberst von der Heydte realized this, and came to the conclusion that given the state of his force, and the lack of resupply, he would not be able to accomplish the original mission, or even his modified plan of December 17. On December 19, von der Heydte decided to abandon his original mission, and break-out towards the German lines in the east. The baron described his decision to abort his mission as follows : [ on December 19, I realized that I could not hold the Kampfgruppe together for longer than one, or at the most, two days. I could only carry out a single engagement, after which ammunition for the machine guns would be exhausted. In one or two days the men would be badly weakened from hunger and cold. Originally, I had intended to fight this single action to open the Eupen – Malmédy road just before the approaching German armored point reached our hiding place but within the 6.SS-Panzer-Army zone of attack the offensive had apparently bogged down. I decided therefore, to abandon my original mission and to break through to the German lines. The single action would be fought not for the Eupen – Malmédy road, but for the road leading towards the east.]
After releasing their American prisoners, and leaving a seriously wounded paratrooper under their care, the Kampfgruppe headed east on the night of December 19-20. After crossing the Helle River, the Fallschirmjägers came under fire from American positions located in Ternell – Neu-Hattlich – Alt-Hattlich and suffered several casualties in the ensuing fire fight. Uncertain of the enemy situation, von der Heydte decided to break contact, and withdrew back across the Helle River to establish a defensive position on the high ground for the night. Early on the morning of December 20, American infantry and armor began probing for his position. By mid-day this was enough for von der Heydte, given the enemy closing around him, and the poor condition of his men, he decided to disband the battle group. The paratroopers were to split up and escape in small groups of three back to the German lines.
Most groups were successfully in slipping away from the position that evening. Oberst von der Heydte left his wounded with his remaining American prisoners, along with a note to Maj Gen Maxwell D. Taylor, (he believed his old foe from Normandy, was in the area), requesting care for his men. Von der Heydte traveled east on December 21 with his executive officer and runner towards the Belgian – German Border town of Mutzenich, which he assumed was in German hands. It was not. That night the group reached the town and split up into the shelter of the houses. Von der Heydte wound up in a local’s house and learned from them that the town was in American hands on the morning of December 22. Physically and mentally spent, with a broken arm, (he had injured it in an accident prior to the operation and jumped with it tied to his side), and frost-bitten feet, the baron sent a surrender note to the Americans in the town requesting an ambulance. He was captured by men of the 9th Infantry Division, and made a prisoner of war.
About 150 of the paratroopers eventually made it through the American lines and back to the German forces. The remainder were captured, killed, or simply missing. On December 22, Operation Stoesser was completely over. Like Operation Greif, it too had failed in its primary mission. By any standard, it was a costly failure. Even the Germans themselves, some what candidly, acknowledged the failure, describing the mission as ‘Operation Mass Murder’ in their front line soldier newspaper in the end of December 1944. The inadequate training, organization, and coordination of both the paratroopers and the pilots doomed Operation Stoesser to failure. But also like Greif, however, it was to have some positive impact on the German offensive. Although having an impact out of all proportion to their small numbers, the Gemman special operations failed to have a decisive impact on the overall campaign.
Failing to achieve either of their assigned missions, neither Operations Greif or Stoesser enabled the conventional forces to achieve their objectives. However, it remains doubtful that given the 6.SS-Panzer-Army’s lack of success in achieving a clean breakthrough past the Höhe Venn Ridge, that the seizure of the respective Grey and Stoesser objectives would have had any decisive impact in and of themselves. Successfully accomplishing the special operations missions would not have been able to salvage the failed offensive, just as it was possible for Wacht Am Rhein to have succeeded even though the special operations failed.
What impact the Greif and Stoesser missions did have, provided some help to the offensive, but not enough for its success. Operation Greif, although a failure, did chalk up some notable successes, and provide some positive impact to the overall offensive. This was a result primarily of the seemingly isolated activities of the Einheit Stielau, but even the attack of the 150.Panzer-Brigade may have assisted the offensive in small part.
The actions of the Einheit Stielau during the first days of the offensive were to have unexpected results throughout the Allied camp. Their greatest contribution would be spreading confusion and chaos among the American ranks, and adding to the sense of panic among some defenders. The reports of the Recon Commandos, while very valuable, could never be acted upon by the 6.SS-Panzer-Army or the 150.Panzer-Brigade. It was the scattered actions of the teams directed against the American forces that would become notorious.
News of the activities of the teams, whether local sabotage or the miss routing of an infantry regiment heading to the front, spread quickly among the American soldiers fighting their desperate actions in the Ardennes. The word of capture of the two teams on December 17, likewise spread like wild fire. Within days, in one of those ways that can only happen on the lines, American soldiers along the entire front were aware of the ‘German spies’ operating in their rear. The willing talk of some captured Stielau team members confirmed the scattered American reports of German soldiers operating behind the lines in American uniforms attempting to accomplish a variety of missions. Likewise, the capture by the 106th Infantry Division of a conventional force German officer with documents outlining some of the Operation Greif activities on the first day of the offensive, left no doubt in the American command that these commandos were a figment of anyone’s imagination. The American Command took the threat of the commandos seriously. It responded with this message sent to all units on December 23 :
[ Interrogation of prisoners of war indicates from two different SS sources that Skorzeny led small groups through the lines with six vehicles presumably command cars. They were carrying forged letters of recommendation and identification papers wearing American uniforms. Interview with General Eisenhower will be
attempted by the party. They will use the cover story that they have returned from the front and have vital information regarding operations and an attempt on the General’s life. Possibility exists that a change of vehicles and uniforms may be made before reaching Paris for the purpose of covering their tracks. It is possible that they have one officer with them in German uniform, claiming that they are taking him to higher headquarters for interrogation.]
But it was the soldier’s imagination that saw most of the German commandos during the battle. Perhaps there is something in the soldiers psyche that makes him
particularly vulnerable to reports of unexpected activity during periods of tumult along the front. The surprise reports of unexpected infiltration or paratroopers behind the lines has seemed to grip defending soldiers from Normandy to Panama. These activities change the status quo in the soldiers mind. Like any surprise action on the battlefield, its effects are magnified several times. It is an effective ‘combat multiplier’. This is exactly what happened in the Ardennes during December of 1944.
The 36 men of the Einheit Stielau Company that had actually infiltrated the lines were seen and expected everywhere by American soldiers. The continued actions of post Greif commando operations, such as the one killed at a checkpoint near Dinant on Christmas Eve, magnified by the reports of German paratroopers to boot, continued to fuel the commando scare. During the precipitous withdrawals and rapid re-enforcement of numerous units throughout the entire front, soldiers and units became separated, mixed, and miss oriented. In the resulting confusion, if an American soldier did not personally know another, he became automatically suspect of being a potential German infiltrator.
As Gen Omar Bradley put it : [ A half-million GIs played cat and mouse with each other each time they met on the road. Neither rank nor credentials spared the traveler an inquisition at each intersection he passed]. This resulted in everyone from privates to generals having to prove their identity literally every time they encountered a new unit checkpoint, or outpost, as they traveled along the front. As it was known that the captured German commandos had false identity papers, these identity checks usually took the form of questions that only a ‘real’ American could answer. The front-line queries covered everything from sports, to movie stars, and presidents. Failure to answer correctly would result in detention and further questioning. Bradley, the Twelfth Army Group Commander himself, was not above suspicion either as he traveled to the front. He described the situation in his memoirs :
[ three times I was ordered to prove my identity by cautious GIs. The first time by identifying Springfield as the capital of Illinois, (my questioner held out for Chicago); the second time by locating the guard between the center and the tackle on a line of scrimmage; the third time by naming the then current spouse of a blonde named Betty Grable. Grable stopped me, but the sentry did not. Pleased at having stumped me, he nevertheless passed me on.]
Bradley was not the only senior ranking officer moving to the front to be detained. Rumors of Germans posing as high-ranking officers abounded. Gen Bruce Clark, while orchestrating the defense of St Vith on December 20, was arrested and held for a period of time for having insisted the Chicago Cubs were in the American League. Eventually he was released, but only after signing an autograph for one of the detaining MPs. Likewise, even the likes of Field Marshal Montgomery was detained at an American checkpoint as he traveled to the front, and attempted to roll through an American checkpoint. Halted and held at the checkpoint he had to wait several hours for positive identification before proceeding.
The commando scare was not limited to the front after the confession of the Stielau team caught at Aywaille on December 17 indicated that Gen Eisenhower was a target of Operation Greif teams, the Supreme Commander became a virtual prisoner in his own headquarters in Versailles. Transferred to another building, (the
original was von Rundstedts former headquarters too), and forbidden by his security chief to leave the premises, Eisenhower was denied the opportunity to move to the front. An entire battalion secured the headquarters site. Security personnel went as far as having an Eisenhower look-a-like, Lt Col Baldwin B. Smith, driven around the area as a decoy.
Given Otto Skorzeny’s reputation, the American counter intelligence was taking no chances. As it turned out, there was no attempt to kill or capture Eisenhower. Skorzeny claims there never was a plan to do so, and that the idea resulted from the wild rumors of Greif’s Grafenwoehr training days. Although the Supreme Commander undoubtedly chafed at these restrictions, the war went on. For some it was far worse. Unfortunately, numerous American soldiers were killed in acts of fratricide by jittery troops who had mistaken them for German infiltrators. On December 20, two American soldiers were killed in the area of Bellevue, Belgium, by a local defensive patrol from the Engineers in that area. Two more were killed and several wounded as late as January 2 1945, when an armor task force from the 6th Armored Division moving into the Wardin area opened fire on men from the 35th Infantry Division in a case of mistaken identity. It is likely that in the confusion prevailing during the first days of the battle that several other friendly casualties resulted from small incidents that were never reported or realized as fratricide.
While most of these episodes are colorful, they were no doubt of limited significance in and of themselves. None changed the course of the battle, if not the
complexion, in the least However, they prove to illustrate the profound effects that a mere handful of special operators can have on an entire army in a very short period of time. One can only imagine the effect such operations might have on an army on the verge of losing their will to fight. The 150.Panzer-Brigade provided nominal impact on the campaign. The appearance of 150.Panzer-Brigade’s ‘American’ vehicles undoubtedly added just that much more credence to the threat of commando activity, but it was all. Also, it is possible that the conventional attacks of the brigade against Malmédy may have prevented an early American counterattack from the north to cut off the 1.SS-Panzer-Division. The aggressive attacks of the brigade very likely kept the Americans on the defensive. But, it
appears that the Americans did not have the intention to counterattack at that time. The 150.Panzer-Brigade’s contributions were to be left to the area of future ‘what ifs’.
Although Operation Stoesser failed in its primary mission, it too, did provide some positive contributions to the campaign. These took the form of adding to the
uncertainty surrounding German intentions and fueling the commando scare, and most significantly, tying up American reinforcements. The initial reports of parachute drops received by the American commanders indicated multiple drops of German parachutists at several locations. This was in part through the successful use of the air-dropped dummies, and the disastrously poor scattering of the actual paratroopers. The terrible miss-drop on December 17 appeared to the American defenders as a deliberate attempt to spread a large paratroop force throughout the area. The over-estimation of the effectiveness of an airborne drop on the part of the defenders has become typical. News of the German airdrops, like the commando infiltration, spread quickly among the defending Allied units. This no doubt added in no small part to the rumors, stories and fears concerning the Greif commandos, and apparently magnified them.
The threat of airborne troops resulted in many units being put on alert to search for or react to a parachute drop. For the most part these were ‘wild goose chases’. In one example, the 1102, 1107, and the 1128th Engineer Groups were put on alert by the US VIII Corps at the opening of the offensive to respond to airborne drops. These were units that might have been employed elsewhere against real threats. Whether the widespread scare of paratroopers in the rear accomplished anything through these alerts is unclear. But similar to the Stielau commandos psychological impact, it serves to show the effect unexpected airborne activity in one’s rear can have upon defenders. What was real however were the American attempts to locate and eliminate the Stoesser force in the Höhe Venn area. At least two American regiments, and elements of others, were tied up for several days in attempts to find and neutralize von der Heydte’s paratroopers. These were forces that were desperately needed elsewhere during the first critical days of the battle.
(end of this archive)
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