he photo above shows Lieutenant-Colonel Friedrich August Freiherr Von der Heydte laid up and injured. Above him stands two US medics. While you might not be familiar with the name, Herr Heydte was, in fact, the cousin of the famous Claus Von Stauffenberg, the main instigator of the 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. The 20 July Plot is more commonly known as Operation Valkyrie, now the center of a motion picture starring Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg. It has been suggested that Heydte himself played a part in the plot.
Before addressing Operation Stosser, it is important to understand the circumstances leading up to it, and the reasons for its failure.
It is also important to try and understand the person Heydte, from a more humanistic perspective, as a very atypical and contradictory personality, far from the “conventional” interpretation of the “archetypical Nazi officer”. A man who has been recognized by many historians as, arguably, the most infamous German paratrooper ever.
Heydte and Stauffenberg were both of noble birth. Heydte was a Freiherr (Baron) of the German Empire, while his cousin Stauffenberg was a Count. Born into a family of devout Roman Catholics, Heydte attended a Catholic school and left with high grades. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the Reichswehr in 1925 but was released from service in 1927 to pursue an education in Law and Economics. While of noble birth, his family had huge financial problems, so he supported himself, primarily, as a private tutor.
He obtained a degree in both his degree studies and during his student years, he developed very distinct liberal views. This, however, did not dissuade him from signing up with the NSDAP (Nazi Party) in 1933, as well as the SA (Sturmabteilung, better known as the “Brownshirts”).
While studying in Vienna, he bizarrely got into trouble for beating up a Nazi who had insulted the Catholic church in his presence. Allegedly, that was why he rejoined the Army – to evade being arrested by Gestapo.
In 1935, he was promoted to Lieutenant within the Wehrmacht, but once again, he was released from service to continue his studies.
After a further 2 years of education, he was recalled and participated in the Invasion of Poland as well as the Battle of France, earning an Iron Cross First Class. In May 1940, he was promoted to Captain and requested a transfer from an unfulfilling supply posting to the Luftwaffe, and became a company commander in the 3rd Fallschirmjager (paratrooper) regiment.
In the Battle of Crete in 1941, the first large-scale paratrooper invasion in history, he led the 1st Battalion and was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
He continued to serve on the Russian Front and in North Africa, with the Ramcke Parachute Brigade, until its famous escape from the German disaster at El-Alamein.
In early 1943, he was transferred to the 2nd Fallschirmjager Division and after the Fall of Sicily, he was introduced to Pope Pius XII and befriended the pope’s assistant Alois Hudal, who later helped many Nazis escape the post-war trials.
Shortly after, Heydte crash-landed on Elba during a mission and was badly injured. He recovered and in 1944 he was given command of the 4500 men of the 6th Fallschirmjager Regiment.
In June of 1944, he led his paratroopers in the Battle Of Carentan against the 101st Airborne (now famous from Band of Brothers, Episode 3 of the same name).
Heydte was given strict orders by Erwin Rommel to defend Carentan at all costs, as the town was a vital intersection between the Allied forces landing positions at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.
While the fighting was extremely fierce, Heydte ultimately withdrew after 2 days, to avoid being surrounded. He thereby ignored a Fuhrererlass (Fuhrer Decree) from Hitler himself to all Commanders, to hold out to the last man.
Brigade Fuhrer Otto Baum was furious and wanted Heydte arrested, but his connections in high places ended up saving him, and not for the last time.
Heydte participated in several other operations and fought against the Allied in the failed Operation Market Garden before he was finally ordered to commence Operation Stosser.
Heydte was, without doubt, a highly intelligent, well-educated, and liberal man of noble descent, yet he was an active force within the most despicable, fascist, military regime the world had ever seen.
He was an early adopter of numerous right-wing and paramilitary groups but later conceded that while he had at first “enthusiastically agreed to many of the ideas of National Socialism”, he ultimately had irreconcilable differences with “the Nazi worldview and my religious and scientific convictions“.
He also later stated that he was ‘only’ a professional soldier, as it was, at the time, “the only non-political profession”.
While the membership of many of the groups he had been in was undeniable (personal applications were mandatory, which left a paper trail), he claimed he never actively applied for membership in the SS but was simply included by default, due to his position. In 1965, the Social Democratic University Association was expressly forbidden from making accusations about Heydte’s membership in the SS.
So what was Heydte’s part in Operation Valkyrie? Was he really for or against Hitler? Did he shoot a conspirator to avoid suspicion himself?
Most sources only briefly touch upon this, and simply state that “he was loosely connected to the ring of officers who tried to organize the resistance against Hitler”. Other sources have this identical statement verbatim: “Count von Stauffenberg had a cousin who was a high-ranking German Paratrooper officer and was loosely connected to the ring of officers who sought to bring down Hitler”.
One news article from the Australian periodical “The Bulletin” from April 10th, 1946, (Vol 67, No. 3452), writes the following of the events in the aftermath of the assassination attempt: “Led by Colonel Von der Heydte, a number of officers went to the room where Beck and his group were sitting and demanded an explanation. Threatened with arrest, they drew their revolvers, shots were exchanged and Stauffenberg fell, wounded in the back”.
So, does this mean that Heydte took part in the wounding and apprehending of his cousin?
According to his memoirs, he had been a member of “Widerstand Gegen den Nationalsozialismus” (German Resistance to Nazism) since early 1942. He states that he was, indeed, involved in Operation Valkyrie and, had it succeeded, his objective was to occupy the SS headquarters in Berlin.
He further states in his memoirs, that he only avoided being targeted after the coup had failed, due to “a mix-up of names”. Is the ‘mix-up’ of names what the article above from “The Bulletin” refers to?
In that case, not one other source mentions a different man by the explicit name of “Colonel Von der Heydte”, nor does any other later historical work suggest that he had any involvement at all. All evidence suggests that he was the man that participated in the shooting of his cousin and that he never, actively, took part in the plan to kill Hitler.
At any rate, Stauffenberg himself would have been privy to this information, yet kept silent, as he was not executed until later. The practical circumstances of the upcoming Operation Stosser, nevertheless, suggest that suspicions were still harboured towards Heydte by the German High Command, and, very possibly, by Hitler himself.
Battle of the Bulge AKA Ardennes Counteroffensive
The Battle of The Bulge or the Ardennes Counteroffensive was Germany’s last desperate attempt on the Western Front before the war ended. They needed to get to Antwerp and halt the Allies’ reparations of the deep-water port, to prevent supplies and reinforcements from coming in.
Previously, the German Army had success going through the dense and uneven forest terrain of the Ardennes and planned to do so again.
Part of the plan involved an elite paratrooper drop behind enemy lines. It was a daring plan, involving the first and only night jump by the Germans and what was also to be the final one of the war.
They were to parachute in, take and hold the crossroads at Belle Croix near Malmedy for 24 hours until they would be relieved by the 12th SS Panzer Division. The codename of the mission was Operation Stosser (Operation Falcon).
Preparation for Operation Stosser
On the 8th of December, Heydte was given only eight days to prepare for a mission but was given no further information. He wanted to use his own elite regiment but was expressly forbidden, as it was believed this mobilization might alert the Allies.
He was allowed a total of 800 men, 100 of the best from each of the regiments of the 2nd fallschirmjäger division, but instead received every single troublemaker and misfit available. Most had little or no experience at all, “paratroopers” and pilots alike. Adding injury to insult, the jump was to be done without prior aerial reconnaissance and at night, to further avoid Allied suspicions of an incoming counterattack.
Heydte was, by now, clearly under scrutiny and nervous about his position, due to his kinship with Stauffenberg and his supposed association with Operation Valkyrie. He attempted a somewhat feeble protest to Field Marshal Walter Model, who himself had little faith in the whole counteroffensive, but to no avail. Hitler wanted it done, however, minute the chance of success.
Later, Heydte tersely expressed his feelings about the men he had been given: “Never in my entire career had I been in command of a unit with less fighting spirit”. Additional men from his own regiment went against orders and followed him, but made little difference.
Further suspicions were aroused when issues with transport logistics delayed the original jump date 24 hours, and a formal investigation into Heydte was initiated. There were serious speculations about whether Heydte was deliberately sabotaging the operation.
On the night of the 17th of December, 1300 men (300 of them straw-filled dummies, to further confuse the Allies) were loaded into 112 JU 52 planes. They took off in a fierce snow blizzard, heavy winds, and almost zero visibility. With little or no experience in night flight, navigation, flight formation, or combat experience, the whole operation was doomed before it began. It almost seemed like a purposely-intended suicide mission.
Landing and mobilization
Most of the planes never even got close to the drop zone. Over 250 men were dropped over Bonn, 80 km away, and many men were still on the planes when they landed again. Nearly 200 men died that night from being crushed against trees and other obstacles, attempting to land with over 60 km/h side winds. Many more were immobilized on the ground with severe injuries. A later German article, infuriated with the poor preparations, simply referred to the incident as “Operation Mass Murder”.
Further issues, caused by the men’s lack of training, meant heavy weapons and radio equipment had to be dropped in separate containers, as they were unqualified to do the jump with them. As a result, most that managed to survive had no firepower, nor any means of communication to reassemble.
Ironically, the inexperience, the lack of precision, and bad weather conditions inadvertently helped the Germans momentarily confuse the Allied forces, and made them think that a much larger company had dropped behind the lines. The many small and scattered groups meant reports of enemies were coming in from all over, and a total of 5000 Allied soldiers and a combat command of 300 tanks were tied up for days, looking for a large force that was never there.
Heydte, himself, made it to the landing zone, miraculously, with his left arm and shoulder in a splint from a previous injury, though the jump caused him further abrasion. (The brace is quite clearly visible in the photo of him on the stretcher).
By the early morning hours, Heydte had only managed to gather 125 soldiers, though later the next day the number was closer to 280. Most had no weapons, many had injuries and all radios were in containers, 80 km away in Bonn. By this time, however, the mission had officially failed, and the window for blocking the crossroads had passed. Later, they would know that their success would have been futile, as the 12th SS Panzer Division, likewise, failed to overcome the Americans at Elsenborn Ridge, and never would have come to their rescue.
With the Americans closing around them, Heydte chose to send the worst of the wounded and a few captured men over to the Allied side.
A last attempt was made to break through the line, but many died and Heydte, finally seeing the writing on the wall, paired up the remaining survivors in small groups of 2-3 men, with instructions to get back to the German side. By then, none of them had eaten for almost 5 days. Believing Monschau was still in German hands, Heydte entered the town alone on the 21st of December. Monschau however had been occupied by the Allies.
Wounded, frostbitten, starving, and suffering from pneumonia he knocked on every door. A schoolteacher gave him shelter for one night, but he finally gave himself up on the 22nd of December, having the teacher’s son carry a letter of surrender to the town commander.
“To the American Commander of the Military Government of Monschau,
I tried to meet German soldiers near Monschau. As I could find there no German troops, I surrender because I am hurt and ill and at the end of my physical resources. Please be kind enough to send a doctor and ambulance because I cannot go further. I lie in the bed of Herr Bouchery and await your help and orders.
Freiherr von der Heydte
Oberstleutnant Commando of the German Fallschirmjäger troops, region Eupen – Monschau”.
A video even exists of him being carried out into an ambulance in Monschau.
It is estimated that approximately 80 men out of the original 1000, made it out alive.
Von der Heydte’s personal summary of the operation was: “The airborne operations connected with the Ardennes offensive were definitely a failure. The force committed was far too small … The training of parachute troops and troop-carrier squadrons was inadequate; the Allies had superiority in the air; the weather was unfavorable; preparations and instructions were deficient; the attack by ground forces miscarried. In short, almost every prerequisite of success was lacking… At that time the Wehrmacht was so hopelessly inferior to the enemy in manpower and materiel that this operation can hardly be justified and is to be regarded only as a last desperate attempt to change the fortunes of war”.
Captivity in Trent Park
Heydte became a Prisoner of War and from February 23rd, 1945 he was held in Trent Park POW camp near London. Here it was revealed, through intercepted conversations between him and other inmates, that he had known about the concentration camps as well as the gas chambers, and supposedly, personally, shot a prisoner in Normandy.
It was also disclosed that he had made many appeals on behalf of the Allies to the exiled Crown Prince of Bavaria, though unsuccessful.
Later interrogations established him as an intelligent Anglophile and though an initial supporter of National Socialism, had become disaffected with Nazism. He served the rest of his prison time in Belgium, until his release on July 12th, 1947.
Following his release, Heydte once again dedicated himself to academic pursuits, and in 1951 he became a Professor of Constitutional Law and International Law at the University of Mainz. He also served as a professor in numerous other institutions, though simultaneously, he continued his military career within the West German Army.
It seemed a bizarre turn of events that a man who had very recently been a high-ranking German Nazi officer would now be closely aligned with the West in the ensuing Cold War against the Soviet Union. Many factors could have influenced this, as previously discussed, as to why the Allied forces believed they could trust Heydte, but clearly, the consensus was that it was best to have him on their side.
In 1972 he published a very important work with the title Modern Irregular Warfare: In Defense Policy and as a Military Phenomenon.
As a military insurgency specialist and a professor of law and politics, he had a unique perspective on the confines of how to wage war in the modern world. He felt that irregular warfare was gradually replacing “large-scale” warfare.
As an alternative to the more conventional way that war had been conducted, he presented the application of irregular warfare as a strategic model.
As Johann Hindert argues in his thesis about the book: “The purpose of irregular war ‘is not only a military victory but also a total political victory’. Perhaps most important, von der Heydte argued that irregular war is ‘real war’, and as such, long preceded the current concept of conventional war that is restricted by, and tied to, international law. Irregular warfare can include multiple types of violence, not all of which are military in nature. After all, ‘It was not the military which created war—it was war which led to the development of the military”.
The book was extremely innovative for its time and remains very relevant to this day. A reprint in 1986 added a section where he argued for its continued relevance, “Considering current violent Russian aggression in Ukraine, Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea, and radical Islamic groups’ attacks in the West, it is apparent that irregular warfare is the global tool of choice”.
What Heydte referred to as ‘irregular warfare’ was, in fact, similar to our modern term ‘terrorism’. He literally wrote the book on it.
His later years were somewhat tumultuous as well. In 1962 he was involved in the serious Spiegel Affair, where he accused the editors of the newspaper Der Spiegel of treason, allegedly revealing sensitive information to the Russians. Later, in 1985, he was the accused party in the Flick Affair where speculations of money laundering forced him to appear before the court.
Much can be said about Freiherr Von der Heydte. Whether you see him as a Catholic, intellectual aristocrat simply caught in a violent period in time or a natural-born killer with a penchant for academia, there is no doubt that he was a complex man. No matter what he was involved in, he seemed to have an instinct for survival, and an ability to somehow convince whoever was on the opposite side, that he was in fact on theirs.
Heydte is a great example of how any war and its participants cannot be observed retrospectively with any clearcut, dualistic distinction of “good and evil”, but must be approached with an ontological holism. Rather, a kaleidoscopic grid of convictions, actions, and attitudes, combined, giving a more nuanced and wholesome comprehension of the complexity of humankind.
Heydte died in 1994 after a long period of illness. He was 87 years old.
As a postscript, the Medic on the right in the photo with Heydte, named Albert J. Haft, was awarded the Silver Star for his service with the 9th Infantry Division in Tunisia in 1943.
From the official U.S. Army Medical Department:
“HAFT, ALBERT J.
First Lieutenant, U.S. Army
Medical Detachment, 9th Infantry Division
Date of Action: World War II
Synopsis: Citation Needed
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Silver Star to First Lieutenant Albert J. Haft, United States Army, for gallantry in action while serving with the Medical Detachment, 9th Infantry Division during World War II. First Lieutenant Haft’s gallant actions and dedicated devotion to his fellow man, without regard for his own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
General Orders: General Order number 67, Headquarters, 9th Infantry Division, 1943”.
THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES OF ARTICLES FROM AN UPCOMING BOOK “PICTURES OF THE PAST” WHICH IS BASED ON SEVERAL HUNDRED RARE AND UNSEEN WWII NEGATIVES, DONE IN COLLABORATION WITH TOPFOTO.CO.UK.
Previously a teacher of music, arts, drama, English, P.E. and martial arts. Studied Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Southern Denmark as well as Multimedia Design and Marketing. Author of the trilogy “Letters From The Past” and several other books, primarily about WWII. Photographic image restoration for TopFoto.co.uk, an avid musician, antiques dealer and a great lover of single malt whiskey!