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peration Greif, was the second of two major special operations performed by the Germans during the Battle of the BulgeOperation Stosser being the first (Read the article about Operation Stosser here). As the text in the photo below states, “The uniform is American – but the corpse is that of an S.S. trooper…”, Greif was a strategic commando raid based on deception. It was a so-called “False Flag” operation, executed by a German elite special force. The mission was to capture one or more of the bridges crossing the River Meuse before the Allied Forces could destroy them, as well as causing severe confusion behind the lines.

Scan of original glass plate restored

Photo shows:- The uniform is American – but the corpse is that of an S.S. trooper, killed in the fighting in Belgium. He failed to deceive the U.S. troops, who have encountered a considerable number of Nazis in U.S. uniform during the Battle of the Bastogne Bulge. US Jan. 1st 1945 PN”. Courtesy of Peter Deleuran

The operation was conceived by Hitler himself and was led by none other than the infamous Waffen-SS commando soldier Otto Skorzeny. A personal favourite of Hitler’s, he had also been in charge of Operation Panzerfaust (kidnapping the son of Hungary’s Regent) as well as the successful and daring Operation Eicher, liberating Mussolini from captivity.

Otto Skorzeny – The most dangerous man in Europe

Born into a militant Austrian middle-class family, Skorzeny had been politically active within the extreme right wing since the age of 14. 

As an avid fencer and duelist, he had been marked with a very distinctive facial disfigurement, a character trait that later earned him the very apt nickname “Scarface” by the Allies.

William Stevenson wrote in his book, The Bormann BrotherhoodSkorzeny was a giant of a man with a chalk-line scar scribbled from the left temple to the corner of his mouth, above a massive chin”.

He joined the Austrian Nazi party early in 1931, and soon after became a member of the Nazi SA (Sturmabteilung) as well as the SS (Schutzstaffel).

In 1938, during the November Pogroms (Kristallnacht), he personally directed the destruction of 2 synagogues in Vienna and subsequent violent and brutal attacks on its Jewish citizens. 

Skorzeny was, indeed, a giant of a man. His 6 foot 4 inches frame, made him ineligible for the Luftwaffe, so instead, he chose to join Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the LSSAH (Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler).  

In late December of 1942, he was injured, taking a piece of shrapnel to the back of the head. During his convalescence in Berlin, his ideas of the elite special forces and unconventional warfare started to evolve. 

Skorzeny had, for many years, been a very close friend of Ernst Kaltenbrunner. The two men had many things in common. Kaltenbrunner, also a fierce anti-semite and Hitler loyalist, was the same height as Skorzeny and bore the same facial scars from his own fencing days. It was said that even Heinrich Himmler feared him. 

Kaltenbrunner took over the RSHA (Reich Main Security Office) after Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination in 1942, and, in turn, promoted Skorzeny’s many unconventional ideas. There is no question he was the man responsible for Skorzeny’s career advancement. 

Only 3 months after taking over RSHA, Kaltenbrunner had his friend transferred and gave him the command of its new Department “VI S”, responsible for the training of elite soldiers in all aspects of counter-resistance, sabotage and commando operations. 

The RSHA was a centralised intelligence agency with Heinrich Himmler at the helm in control of all security and police forces (including Gestapo and SiPo). It had a direct line to Hitler and the RSHA “held the power of life and death for nearly every German and was essentially above the law”. 

With lobbyism, loyalty, and connections of that kind, it is no wonder that Skorzeny rapidly became Hitler’s favourite and his most trusted problem solver. 

After the war, many cited Skorzeny as “probably the most effective Special Forces Commander of World War II”, while the Allied and the press at the time, simply referred to him as “the most dangerous man in Europe”.

Briefing

Hitler called upon Skorzeny shortly after his return from Operation Panzerfaust. They met in Hitler’s top-secret hideout, Wolfsschanze (The Wolf Lair), on the 22nd of October 1944. Here Hitler instructed him to create the Panzer Brigade 150. By this time Hitler was consuming (and injecting) an impressive concoction of drugs, (as recently documented by Norman Ohler in his eye-opening book “Blitzed”), and the scheme clearly had traces of being hatched by an intoxicated madman.

For one, the plan, in its conception, controversially and explicitly, went against the Hague Convention of 1907. Hitler’s words to Otto were: “My dear Skorzeny, I want you to create special units wearing American and British uniforms. They will travel in captured Allied tanks. Think of the confusion you could cause! I envisage a whole string of false orders which will upset communications and attack morale!”.

Panzer Brigade 150

At first, Skorzeny was reluctant, because he knew the chances of failure were high, and that wearing these uniforms meant he and his men if taken, could be killed as spies. Duty, however, prevailed and he was given 6 weeks and full support to assemble this new brigade. 

He asked for 3300 men and received a total of 2500 from all corners of the Armed Forces. Both Army (Heer), Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen SS contributed, which, in itself, made the whole assembly unique.

A request was sent out to recruit all soldiers with proficiency in English as well as American dialect and slang. Requests were also sent out for a large amount of US-issued uniforms, vehicles, and weapons. 

Problems occurred, when large quantities of both Polish and Russian uniforms ended up in the unit, as no one really knew what US issue clothing looked like. Language abilities were also a problem as only about 300 men of the 2500 men had moderate English. 

Acquiring enough original hardware proved quite difficult too, so they simply resorted to painting and disguising German tanks and vehicles to look the part. Many variations of vehicles had been produced throughout the war and even specialists, sometimes, found it hard to tell friend from foe.

Needing a way to distinguish real from fake enemies, a somewhat ingenious system was invented. It involved covert paint insignias, specific tank gun positions, and different coloured scarves and torchlight signals.

Additionally, captured US dog tags from fallen soldiers and POWs were used and papers were forged to lend credibility to the identity of the insurgents.

A disabled german tank disguised as an American tank (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The mission

The brigade was divided into 3 groups, each with a primary objective to take a specific bridge over the Meuse. Massive traffic congestion at the start of the mission made it impossible, and it was decided that rather than splitting up they should fight as one force. 

The bulk of the brigade’s 2500 men, ultimately, made little difference to the covert nature of the operation, and failed to assume control of any of the bridges, thus going into action quite conventionally and unsuccessfully. 

A small unit within the brigade, however, known as “Einheit Stielau”, consisting of just 44 men who had the best English, were responsible for causing the majority of the confusion and disruption.

Many incidents occurred, some rather hilarious, had it not been for the deadly seriousness of the situation.

Blasting around in US jeeps, wearing GI uniforms, the Germans were attempting to cause havoc wherever they were going. They were changing signposts, misdirecting traffic, and spreading false stories all over the line. In one instance, they managed to direct an entire American Regiment (around 1500 men) in the wrong direction. 

An enraged George Patton reported to Eisenhower in the early hours of the attack:

Ike, I’ve never seen such a goddamn foul-up! The Krauts are infiltrating behind our lines, raising hell, cutting wires, and turning around road signs!

Skorzeny also let a fake document be intercepted by the Allies, purporting to outline the mission. The letter apparently was so well forged that even his own men believed it to be true. It stated an elaborate and highly detailed plan to capture none other than Eisenhower himself. 

As Skorzeny’s reputation preceded him, this was taken very seriously, resulting in Eisenhower spending the entire Christmas of 1944 (and several days after), in solitary confinement for his own safety. In the end, he furiously marched out of his office and declared that if anyone wanted to kill him – they could have at it! 

Straight out of isolation, Eisenhower produced a large stack of good old-fashioned Wild West “Wanted” posters with Skorzeny’s face and the words “Assassin, Spy & Saboteur” blazoned across it, which were immediately distributed across Europe.

Bernard Montgomery, the hero of the Desert War, was arrested by his own men and detained for hours, as rumours had been circulated that Skorzeny had planted a Montgomery doppelganger behind enemy lines! He was questioned incessantly until he could prove that he was in fact, the “real” Monty.

The Allied leaders, Bradley, Eisenhower & Monty (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, another American general, Bruce Clarke, was held for nearly 5 hours, while being thoroughly drilled in all manner of American baseball trivia as surely “every red-blooded American knew it was the Chicago White Sox who were in the American League, and the Chicago Cubs that were in the National League”.

While these disruptions were a somewhat small nuisance, in the grand scheme of things, they nonetheless tied up most of the senior members of staff for days – men who were desperately needed at the front for command. 

Large portions of valuable manpower were likewise indisposed, unable to participate in the fighting, mostly due to misdirection and occupied by telling friend from foe. 

While a virtual cat-and-mouse game might have seemed a relatively harmless (and maybe even welcome) distraction for the soldiers at the front, sadly, it quickly became serious. Several US soldiers were wounded or killed by their own, as a direct result of mistaken identity.

After a while, the Allies finally caught on, and eventually, most of the Germans in the “Einheit Stielau” were identified and captured. Out of the 44 men in the unit, 17 are known to have been executed and only 8 men are known to have returned to ranks safely. 

Three German officers, Pernass, Billing, and Schmidt were captured on the 17th of December 1944, failing to provide the correct password at a roadblock. On them, they had 1000 GBP and 900 USD in notes, fake identity papers, German paybooks, two British Sten-guns, two Colt pistols, two German sub-machine guns, and six US hand grenades! They were swiftly court-martialed and shot on the 23rd of December on the clear instructions of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Execution photos of Pernass, Billing & Schmidt

Execution photos of Pernass, Billing & Schmidt

Courtesy of:
(https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/german-commandos-captured-american-uniform-1944/)
Courtesy of:
(https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/german-commandos-captured-american-uniform-1944/)
Courtesy of:
(https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/german-commandos-captured-american-uniform-1944/)
Courtesy of:
(https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/german-commandos-captured-american-uniform-1944/)

The Allied even made a video of the execution of the captured commandos Billing, Pernass and Schmidt:

Years later in an interview with the journalist Jack Bell, Skorzeny stated gruffly: ”I would never have surrendered, because of my pledge as a German officer. But when Hitler died, that pledge ended. By killing himself, Hitler saved thousands of lives. That relieved us of our oaths as soldiers.

 Aftermath

Where August Von Heydte (read the “Operation Stosser” article here on History Of Yesterday) had been the “redheaded stepchild” of the family – a questionable, leftist aristocrat, disgraced by relation to Stauffenberg, Skorzeny was the prodigious golden child – a fierce right-wing, antisemite with unwavering loyalty to Hitler and “the cause”. 

Both were to carry out a mission on the same day in a similar irregular warfare fashion, but with quite different prerequisites. Heydte had just 8 days to prepare, Skorzeny was given 6 weeks. Heydte was given the bottom of the barrel while Skorzeny had “carte blanche”. Although he did not get what he initially was promised, it was not due to lack of allowances, but more ignorance and miscommunication in the ranks that left him short.

In the end, though, both missions failed and were, in many ways, microcosms of the impending downfall of Hitler’s Third Reich. Both missions had been desperate final attempts, in the same way the overall Ardennes Counteroffensive had been.

The early war images of the “Nazi War Machine”, completely mechanized, with its advanced technology, superior equipment, and invincible, “superhuman soldiers” (drugged) had cracked and revealed a very different picture. In reality, only 10% of the German army had, in fact been mechanized, the rest were on horseback or simply had their boots to carry them forward, (or backward), as the immense clashes on two fronts had seriously weakened the spirits of the “master race”. While engineering had advanced, production, supply, and logistics were hopelessly inadequate, especially, towards the end of the war.  

The Ardennes Offensive had been costly for both sides, but Germany had ultimately failed. Their last reserves were depleted, the Luftwaffe annihilated, and the Army on the run. The vice was closing from East and West, and the inevitable defeat was on the horizon.

Geneva convention breach and trial

After the war ended, Skorzeny and nine other officers of the Panzer Brigade 150, were charged as war criminals at the 1947 Dachau Trials.

They were tried for, “Entering into combat disguised therewith and treacherously firing upon and killing members of the armed forces of the United States” as well as “participation in wrongfully obtaining U.S. uniforms and Red Cross parcels consigned to American prisoners of war from a prisoner-of-war camp”.

All ten were acquitted on a technicality, as Skorzeny had been well instructed by his German legal council. For them to be found guilty, the court would have to prove that they had given direct orders to the men to enter into combat wearing US uniforms. 

If that could not be proven and no admissions were made, it would be deemed as a “legitimate ruse of war”. One witness for the defence was a former British Special Ops (SOE) agent, who admitted that he and his operatives had done exactly the same, merely behind German lines.

For an extremely detailed report on the subject please read “International Law on Use of Enemy Uniforms As a Stratagem and the Acquittal in the Skorzeny Case”. 

Skorzeny post-war

After the trials, Skorzeny was held in an internment camp. In 1948, in keeping with his character, he managed to escape. He transitioned from Germany to France until he settled in Spain, protected by the Francoist regime.

Five years later, he was hired as a Military Advisor to Egypt’s President and enlisted a host of his “old friends” from the Waffen-SS to train the Egyptian Army. He was an advisor for the Argentine President Juan Peron as well as a bodyguard for his wife, Eva Peron, with whom it is claimed he had an affair.

Wild stories started to emerge about Skorzeny, elevating him to an almost supernatural entity. This was, partially, fueled by himself and his need to market himself to potential employers as somepolitically neutral soldier who had initiated a new form of unconventional and irregular warfare”. 

The tabloids, especially, continued to add to his already bizarre and vulgar resume, with fables of him working for the Mossad, performing special interrogations and assassination operations. There were stories of Fidel Castro consulting him for his memoirs, sources connecting him to the death of Nikola Tesla, rumours of him running armies in Congo and India, and even claims of him being close to finding the Holy Grail in France! 

Although formally “denazified” in 1952, in absentia by the West German government, it is claimed that he was a main instigator of the famous Odessa Organization, which helped hundreds of Nazi war criminals flee Europe. It was proven that he continued to both initiate and advise several Neo-Nazi groups in various countries. 

In the ‘60s further charges were raised against him for numerous murderous atrocities performed during the war, but these were eventually dropped due to “lack of evidence”. Popular culture has often used his person, directly or indirectly, as a foundation for the creation of several supervillain characters, most famously he was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s antagonist Auric Goldfinger.

Skorzeny eventually died of lung cancer in Madrid, in 1975, just four months before the death of Francisco Franco.

He continues to be a widely discussed personality, and evidence attesting to his many deeply horrible and vile actions seems to continously emerge.

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