Operation Greif: SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny and Nazi Germany’s Trojan Horse:To Kill or Kidnap General Eisenhower---or Not?
During the hard-fought Battle of the Bulge in contested Belgium late in 1944, an American Army jeep with four soldiers in it stopped at a gasoline pump manned by GIs and the driver politely asked for “Petrol, please.” The GI at the pump eyed the quartet of clean-cut soldiers nervously, in turn asking, “Tell me, do you know where you are?”
The driver---a German soldier wearing a GI’s uniform over top of his own as stipulated by international law---panicked, floored the pedal and sped off in flight, but lost control of the vehicle on the icy road and crashed into the lead truck of a convoy coming the other way. The jeep flipped over and the “Americans” were captured, their subterfuge thus discovered.
The men were members of the eighth unit belonging to an elite, all-volunteer outfit called the 150th Panzer Brigade, commanded by SS Col. Otto Skorzeny, the man whom the Allies called “the kidnapper of Mussolini,” “spy, saboteur and murderer,” and “the most dangerous man in Europe.” This incident is recounted in detail in his 1975 work entitled My Commando Operations: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Daring Commando.
As he noted therein, “Under intense questioning, one of our comrades ADMITTED what he thought was true: a special unit under my command was supposed to kidnap Gen. Eisenhower and cause the commanders of the British and American armies to disappear, as well as their staffs.”
This stunning bit of information dovetailed perfectly with a previously intercepted and filed captured enemy directive---OKW (High Command of the Armed Forces) Order 0012759---that had called for a thousand men in the German Army who spoke English to volunteer to form a new, top-secret unit under the personal command of the most dreaded enemy commando on the Western Front: Skorzeny. Ignored by US Army Intelligence at first, now it seemed to make perfect sense.
Immediately, the Military Police and security forces guarding the top commanders of the multi-Allied armies---Dwight David Eisenhower, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and Omar Nelson Bradley---went into high gear. Eisenhower himself was virtually a prisoner in his own headquarters outside Paris and Bradley was personally halted and quizzed on all things American by wary GIs until he could prove his own identity.
In fact, again according to Skorzeny, so terror-stricken were the Allies by the swift successes of the first few days of German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s surprise winter offensive that had caught the Americans and British napping in the Ardennes, that Monty seriously advised his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that a second reimbarkation of all of His Majesty’s ground forces---ala 1940---might have to be undertaken, except that Dunkirk itself was still in enemy hands since D-Day.
As the three major German drives sliced forward through all American resistance---taking thousands of prisoners and murdering many at a crossroads at Malmedy in Belgium---Col. Skorzeny’s men were causing havoc behind Allied lines in a new type of war not seen before on the European Continent, all by preset design, it seemed.
As for the shadowy, giant, scar-faced SS man, Skorzeny was rumored to be at several Allied command locations---including both Paris and Versailles---seeking to carry out his top mission of either kidnapping or killing Gen. Eisenhower, but was he? In his memoirs, he denied it, and in fact, he wrote, his mission assigned by Hitler himself had nothing to do with martial terrorism and creating confusion behind enemy lines, but rather with seizing strategically important bridges.
Here is how it all evolved, and came to be called Operation Greif , after the mythical griffen bird.
In the fall of 1944, American Army Rangers wearing German uniforms had been instrumental in helping to take the first German city to fall to the Allies, Aachen, and from this the German warlord had gotten the idea of using the same stratagem against the Allies themselves in his upcoming attack in the Ardennes, in the words of Gen. George S. Patton, Jr, “The first winter offensive of the German Army since Frederick the Great.”
That Oct. 20th, the Fuhrer called in his favorite undercover warrior for a top-secret briefing, explaining the basic premise of the overall so-called “Rundstedt Offensive” (by the Allies), which was to split the Allied camps in two, capture the resupply port city of Antwerp, terrorize the enemy, indeed force a second Dunkirk evacuation on the British, defeat the Americans and hopefully win a political end to the war that would allow the Germans to concentrate on their main enemy in the East: Josef Stalin’s Red Army. Who knows? Hitler mused, but that the defeated Allies might even join Nazi Germany in defeating the Russian colossus now driving down on Berlin.
What Hitler needed from Skorzeny, he explained, was a Nazi version of the famed Trojan Horse, a device that would penetrate the enemy lines by stealth, seize key bridges in their rear in advance of the charging German armored spearheads and thus materially aid the main German thrusts led by Gens. Erich Brandenburger and Baron Hasso von Manteuffel of the Regular Army and the Waffen (Armed) SS commanded by his favorite field commander, Josef “Sepp” (Joe) Dietrich. Had the Germans won the Battle of the Bulge, the latter might well have been named the first SS field marshal of the Second World War, but he didn’t.
The SS colonel’s 150th Panzer Brigade started off with 3,300 men, two American Sherman tanks, six armored cars and four British, plus 15 jeeps and all manner of American uniforms, light weaponry and ammunition.
The overall attack began on Dec. 16, 1944, but all the objectives were not reached as hoped for, and soon got bogged down in massive traffic jams on the muddy Belgian roads---just as during the Waterloo Campaign over a hundred years earlier. Recalled Skorzeny, “The enemy had undoubtedly been surprised by this unforeseen offensive, but they clung to their ground, whereas we had hoped to see them retreat without fighting.”
Thus, he was forced to abandon his original mission—which was approved by the German 6th SS Panzer Army staff---but there had also been some unexpected gains as well. Noted British author James Lucas in his 1985 work Kommando: German Special Forces of World War II, “Some reversed road signs had confused an American tank battalion moving towards the front. A unit had been bluffed into withdrawing from a village which it held. Telephone wires had been cut and an ammunition dump had been blown up…There had, however, been a psychological result.
“The realization among American soldiers that there were Germans in US uniform active behind the front line produced in some of the non-combattant detachments an outbreak of spy mania. Sentries posed catch questions and the unfortunate who was challenged and did not know, for example, that Harry James was a trumpet player or failed to have a detailed knowledge of the leading baseball teams, was liable to be arrested, beaten up or threatened with execution as a spy.”
Of Skorzeny’s teams, seven infiltrated US lines and one even made it to the sought after Meuse River. The other men were caught, and soldiers from one---Einheit Strelau---were tried and convicted as spies, then shot by firing squad. Skorzeny protested this later, both at his own Dachau war crimes trial and also in his memoirs, citing the vagaries of international law in their defense---and his.
According to the late American author Glenn B. Infield in his 1981 biography, Skorzeny: Hitler’s Commando, “Did Skorzeny try to assassinate Eisenhower? This question has never been answered satisfactorily…In 1945, Skorzeny denied that he had ever intended to assassinate Eisenhower…’I realized that it would be impossible to stop all the rumors’…”
What was happening “on the other side of the hill” in the words made famous by the Duke of Wellington? According to her own postwar memoirs Eisenhower Was My Boss by Ike’s Irish-born driver and mistress, Lt. Kay Summersby Morgan, “Security officers immediately turned headquarters into a virtual fortress. Barbed wire appeared. Several tanks moved in. The normal guard was doubled, tripled, quadrupled. The pass system became a strict matter of life and death, instead of the old formality.”
The sound of loud car exhausts brought calls to Ike’s office to see if he was still alive and unwounded, but the Supreme Commander himself refused to worry, growling that instead he had a war to fight. He did agree, however, to move into a more sheltered compound, but still his guards worried lest he be shot while out smoking and walking by an unseen enemy sniper.
On Dec. 22nd, a report arrived that Skorzeny’s undercover SS troopers had made it to Paris at the Café of the Peace, but Ike stormed out anyway: “Hell’s fire! I’m going for a walk. If anyone wants to shoot me, he can go right ahead. I’ve got to get out!” His US Naval aide, Capt. Harry C. Butcher, later recalled in his 1946 memoirs, My Three Years with Eisenhower, the general was irked by all the extra attention he was receiving, particularly in being followed by a jeep full of armed MPs.
There was still more, too, according to Skorzeny’s 1955 biographer, Charles Foley, in Commando Extraordinary: The Remarkable Exploits of Otto Skorzeny: an Eisenhower lookalike decoy---ala Winston Churchill in the superb 1975 film The Eagle Has Landed---one Lt. Col. Baldwin B. Smith. “Daily the colonel drove in the Supreme Commander’s car between his house at St. Germain and Versailles---saluting with that quick flash for which ‘Ike’ was known---and waiting for a bullet or pistol-fired grenade…”
In his own 1948 memoirs, Crusade in Europe---one of the best on the American side, I feel---Ike recalled a Dec. 27th train trip to Brussels thus: “I found that a squad of soldiers was accompanying me. At every stop…these men would jump out of the train and take up an alert position to protect us.”
Concluded Mr. Foley, “Months after the Ardennes battle, MPs still carried Skorzeny’s picture…while all the French police had a notice to say that this was a most dangerous man…”
Of particular interest to American Army MPs also were Nazi spies said to be masquerading as British generals, even one as Field Marshal Montgomery! (Patton must have loved that!)
But by Dec. 23rd, the tide of battle had already turned against the Germans and tilted toward that of the Allies in the form of good flying weather: the Allied air forces returned to the skies to bedevil the Nazis on the ground once more. Noted Skorzeny afterwards, “We had continually to stop and throw ourselves into the ditches at hand: at such times we would lie flat on our bellies, our noses buried in manure.”
His 150th Panzer Brigade was relived by a regular infantry division on the 28th, settled into billets east of Saint-Vith, then joined in the general retreat following the defeat of the overall Rundstedt Offensive. On the other hand, his silent “terrorist” attack HAD been an unqualified success, as detailed here by author Foley: “Soon, half the Army was waiting for Skorzeny. The air was full of hostile spectres, in and behind the lines. Anyone might be an enemy. Those trucks beside the road could be an ambush; that quiet stranger in the bar---was he a saboteur? Such fancies did nothing to steady the defenders as they strove to recover from the Ardennes punch.”
Gen. Bradley---at his Army Corps headquarters at Luxembourg---mused aloud about “Half a million GIs…playing cat and mouse with each other every time they met…The rear areas were being panicked by disguised Germans.” There were road-blocked generals everywhere, with rank badges meaning nothing to ordinary GIs who saw closet Nazis universally, and all passwords now distrusted.
If the Battle of the Bulge was rightly called the largest ever fought by the standing US Army, so, too, was the disinformation campaign spawned by Hitler’s stratagem and at Skorzeny’s direction the most devious it had ever also encountered.
Wrote “Brad” in A Soldier’s Story after the war, he proved his nationality “The first time by identifying Springfield as the capital of Massachusetts (my questioner held out for Chicago); the second time by locating the football guard between the center and tackle on a line of scrimmage; the third time by naming the current spouse of a blonde called Betty Grable.”
Monty’s British officers had tommy guns thrust in their faces and were asked, “Who is Pruneface?” (Dick Tracy’s nemesis); “Where does Lil Abner live? (Dogpatch)” “ Who works with Jiggs?” (I forget!)
For his part, British Prime Minister Churchill on Jan. 6, 1945 wrote to Soviet dictator Generalissimo Josef Stalin asking for a relieving offensive on the Eastern Front
from the Red Army; secretly, the PM feared that Stalin might cut another political deal with Hitler, as they’d done before, in 1939. Most historians since the war have opined that Hitler’s bold gamble could not have worked, but I disagree. So did British military writer Capt. Basil H. Liddell Hart in 1955, who thought that it was “brilliantly conceived…The Allies came to the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of the battle,” and this was due in no small measure to SS Col. Otto Skorzeny’s 150th Panzer Brigade and their failed Operation Greif.
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