Wolf’s Lair HQ, East Prussia, Germany October 21, 1944

On this date in 1944 Adolf Hitler summoned SS-Obersturm­bann­fuehrer (Lt. Gen.) Otto Skor­zeny to Fuehrer head­quarters deep in the East Prus­sian wilder­niss near Rasten­berg (present-day Kętrzyn, Poland). The scar-faced 6-ft, 4-in Skor­zeny had made a name for him­self par­ti­ci­pa­ting in a derring-do opera­tion that succeeded in rescuing Italian dicta­tor Benito Musso­lini from capti­vity high in an Apen­nines redoubt on Septem­ber 12, 1943. At the Wolfs­schanze Hilter told his fellow Austrian that his next assign­ment would be the most impor­tant of his life: it was to cap­ture bridges over the Meuse River in Belguim by mem­bers of the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) masquer­ading as U.S. soldiers and sow con­fusion behind Allied lines during the upcoming Ardennes Offen­sive (Battle of the Bulge), eventually slated to kick off in mid-December.

Skorzeny prepared for his mission of sabotage, code­named Unter­nehmen Greif (Opera­tion Griffin), by drawing on as many English-speaking men as pos­sible from the Kriegs­marine, the German Army, the Waffen‑SS, and the Luft­waffe. The 2,676 mostly volun­teer men of the new 150th SS Pan­zer Brigade, a unit of Josef “Sepp” Dietrich’s Sixth Pan­zer Army, were told their efforts would have a deci­sive effect on the war. Dozens of the recruits were out­fitted in Amer­i­can uni­forms collected from POWs (offi­cers and enlisted men) held in German camps. At a heavily guarded mili­tary encamp­ment in Grafen­woehr, Bavaria, the men were taught how to salute like Amer­ican soldiers, took their orders in English, learned Amer­i­can slang by watching Amer­i­can movies and news­reels, polished their accents, and ate K‑rations. The usual com­mando skills were empha­sized as well. The secret brigade-in-training did not, how­ever, remain secret from Allied code­breakers at Bletchley Park in England, who inter­cepted the German High Command’s decision to set up a special volunteer force in the west whose ranks had a “know­ledge of English and American idiom.” Later, a docu­ment outlining Opera­tion Greif’s ele­ments of deception, though not its objectives, fell into U.S. hands.

Eventually 150 men out of 600 English-speakers in Kampf­gruppe (combat group) Skor­zeny were formed into Einheit Stielau, the com­mando unit assembled from the parent 150th Panzer Brigade. The men wore U.S. Army uni­forms, com­bat boots, and dog-tags, were armed with captured U.S. Army wea­pons, and drove captured Army Jeeps. Some com­mandos were directed to destroy bridges, ammu­ni­tion dumps, fuel depots, field tele­phone cables and radio stations, and with issuing false orders. Others scouted routes to the Meuse River, observed enemy strength, and sowed havoc by reversing road signs, removing mine­field warnings, and cordoning off roads with warnings of nonexistent mines.

On the start date of Germany’s Ardennes onslaught, Decem­ber 16, 1944, the 150th Panzer Brigade followed in the spear­heading tracks of three Panzer divisions. Within days Skor­zeny’s men had changed U.S. soldiers’ behavior toward one another as troops began asking other soldiers Amer­ican trivia ques­tions in order to flush out enemy infil­trators. Even British Field Marshal Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery was caught in the Amer­ican drag­net when soldiers shot out the tires of his staff car and detained him for seve­ral hours until a British soldier was called in to vouch for the real (fuming) Mont­gomery; a rumor circu­lated that Skor­zeny had found a Mont­gomery double. In all, 44 Ger­man soldiers wearing U.S. uni­forms were sent through U.S. lines, with the last men being sent on Decem­ber 19. With Skorzeny’s “Trojan Horse trick” having been exposed and Amer­ican near para­noia ebbing (though not with­out several tragic cases of mis­taken iden­tity), the 150th Panzer Brigade was seconded to the 1st SS Panzer Division and used as a regular panzer brigade.

German Saboteurs Spread Confusion at Start of Ardennes Offensive, December 1944

Ardennes on eve of Battle of the Bulge, 1944

Above: The Ardennes Forest (hashed area to the east of the heavy north-south front line) on the eve of the German offen­sive, known in the West as the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945). The offen­sive was Hitler’s failed gamble to split the Western Allies and prevent their invasion of Germany’s heavily populated and industrial Ruhr district (top of map).

SS Major Otto Skorzeny (1908–1975), December 1942Military execution of three German spies, December 23, 1944

Left: SS-Sturmbannfuehrer (Major) Otto Skorzeny with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and Helmet as com­mander of the 300-man SS unit “Frieden­thal.” Skor­zeny took more than a dozen men of his unit to Italy in 1943 when he helped snatch the deposed Italian dicta­tor Benito Musso­lini from cap­tivity. Photo from Decem­ber 31, 1942. Hitler selected Skor­zeny (1908–1975) to be the leader of Operation Greif. Admired by Hitler and almost wor­shiped by Waffen-SS men for his legen­dary exploits, Skor­zeny was loathed by regular German Army officers as a “typical evil Nazi” who employed “typical SS methods,” an “Austrian crimi­nal,” “a real dirty dog . . . shooting is much too good for him.” (Quoted in Antony Beevor, Ardennes 1944, pp. 91–92.) Skor­zeny and nine officers of the 150th Panzer Brigade were tried as war crimi­nals at the post­war Dachau Trials for allegedly vio­lating the laws of war during the Battle of the Bulge. The charge: impro­perly using Amer­ican uni­forms “by entering into com­bat disguised there­with and treach­er­ously firing upon and killing mem­bers of the armed forces of the United States.” Acquitting all defen­dants, the U.S. mili­tary tribu­nal drew a distinc­tion between using enemy uni­forms during com­bat and for other pur­poses, including decep­tion; also, it could not be shown that Skor­zeny him­self had given any orders to fight in U.S. uniforms.

Right: On December 19, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, three of Skor­zeny’s Trojan horse com­mandos, Sgt. Man­fred Pernass, Sgt. Guenther Billing, and Lance Cpl. Wilhelm Schmidt, were captured behind U.S. lines in Amer­i­can uni­forms. The three were given a mili­tary trial two days later, found guilty of espio­nage, and exe­cuted by firing squad on Decem­ber 23. Three more commandos were also tried on the same day and shot on the 26th. Seven more were tried on Decem­ber 26 and exe­cuted on the 30th. The next day three others were tried and exe­cuted on Janu­ary 13, 1945. Members of the British 29th Armoured Brigade defending bridges over the Meuse River in Belgium killed two Skor­zeny comman­dos riding in an Ameri­can Jeep on the night of Decem­ber 23/24. Opera­tion Greif’s leader, Guenther Schulz, was tried by a mili­tary commis­sion in May 1945 and exe­cuted near the German city of Braunschweig on June 4, 1945.

German Panther tanks on way to Ardennes, 1944German Panther tank disguised as a U.S M10 tank destroyer

Left: German Mark V Panther tanks aboard railway flatbeds en route to the Ardennes, late 1944.

Right: A knocked-out Mark VG Panther tank, one of a hand­ful of German Mark IVs and Panthers assigned to the 150th Panzer Brigade and disguised to look like a U.S. M10 tank destroyer in Opera­tion Greif. Thin steel plates were welded to this Panther’s 45–ton hull and turret, minus its cupola, to mimic the silhou­ette of the Amer­ican tank hunter. Manned by a crew of five, the German tanks were painted U.S. olive drab and applied with U.S. markings. How­ever, the Panther’s distinc­tive inter­leaved wheel­train remained unchanged, so that these counter­feit M10s were readily recog­nized by U.S. troops and destroyed. Skor­zeny later strongly criti­cized the use of these con­verted Panthers, saying they could only deceive some­one at night from a distance or maybe a raw recruit up close.

Line of Fire Documentary: The Battle of the Bulge (May skip first 30 seconds)