Otto Skorzeny and the 150th Panzer Brigade
From the start of the planning for the their Ardennes offensive, the Germans gave great importance to seizing intact the Meuse River bridges. To accomplish that, Hitler ordered a special unit, its English-speaking men wearing American uniforms and using captured US Army weapons and vehicles, to be formed. They would infiltrate through the American lines ahead of the German armored advance to secure the bridges lying between Namur and Liege. Some of the men in the unit, disguised as American officers, would also create confusion by spreading rumors and false information across the enemy rear area. The code name given the sinister plan was “Operation Griffen.”
To lead the bold undertaking, Hitler turned to the most famous commando of World War II, Otto Skorzeny. Considered by British intelligence to be “the most dangerous man in Europe,” he had by 1944 already achieved fame by leading the mission that snatched Mussolini from imprisonment in a mountaintop fortress the year before. Later he kidnapped the son of Hungarian leader Adm. Nicholas Horthy, thereby insuring that regime’s continued loyalty to the Axis. The six-foot Austrian, who wore the Iron Cross around his neck and a dueling scar across his left cheek, was personally briefed by the Führer on his forthcoming assignment on 22 October. He had five weeks to form his new unit, to be designated 150th Panzer Brigade.
|Otto Skorzeny, Commander of the 150th Panzer Brigade.|
Shortly after he began his recruiting efforts, however, Skorzeny said he was ready to consign the entire operation “to the devil.” First, a printed notice was sent (without Skorzeny’s approval) throughout the German armed forces calling for English-speaking volunteers. Thus the security of the operation was compromised from the start. (The Allies did indeed become aware of the volunteer search, but discounted it as nothing more than a trick or propaganda ploy.)
Second, even with the broadside circulated, Skorzeny was able to find few men who spoke English well enough to pass as American. In the end, only 10 could speak American-English perfectly, including appropriate slang. Thirty-five others could speak well, in terms of vocabulary, but had noticeable accents. About 300 could get by if they weren’t required to hold lengthy conversations. Of the rest of the “English speakers” (about another 655 men), they could say actually little more than “yes” or “no.”
Third, there was a lack of usable American equipment and uniforms. Though the operation was planned for the very end of autumn, the troops of the 150th had to be clothed mainly in US summer uniforms, many of which had brightly colored POW designations painted on the back. Steel helmets were particularly scarce, and less than half the needed small arms were available.
Further, by way of US vehicles, there were only two Sherman tanks, two armored cars and 15 trucks. A group of 10 German Panthers and assault guns were disguised with sheet metal add-ons to resemble US M-10 tank destroyers, but Skorzeny later said of them they were likely to fool only “very young American recruits – and even then only very far away and at night.”
Last, when a total of only 1,000 “English speakers” came forward, Skorzeny was forced to request regular, mono-lingual soldiers to flesh out the rest of his brigade. He got two parachute infantry battalions, a company of armored infantry, a mortar company and a signals company.
By the start of the offensive, then, the 150th numbered about 2,500 men, along with a total of about 30 tanks, jeeps, trucks and assault guns, organized into three Kampfgruppen. One KG was assigned to start with both 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions.
After the war Skorzeny described his objectives at the start of the Battle of the Bulge as seizing “at least two of the Meuse bridges from among those located at Amay, Huy and Andenne.” His command was expected to achieve that – quite unrealistically, given the rough terrain and the fact the 150th began its mission intermingled with two panzer divisions on a sparse road net – during the first six hours of the attack.
Skorzeny’s unit in fact spent the first 24 hours of the offensive tangled in the gigantic German traffic jam that developed in the Losheim Gap area. His only achievement on 16 December was to dispatch nine jeepborne commando teams into American lines. Eight of those teams made it into the American rear area.
The evening of the second day of the attack, 17 December, continued to find the 150th still tied in traffic near its start line. Skorzeny, in conference with the 6th SS Panzer Army’s commander, Gen. Sepp Dietrich, agreed the opportunity to fulfill the bridge-capturing mission was already gone. Henceforth, excepting the already dispatched jeep teams, the 150th was merely to be committed as a regular combat unit. Skorzeny pulled in his KGs from the two SS panzer divisions’ columns and got ready to go into action south of the town of Malmedy. As part of the general German assault across that area slated to begin early on 21 December, the 150th was tasked with securing the important crossroads there.
Malmedy had originally been bypassed by KG Peiper on the 17th, only to be reoccupied by US troops moving in behind that spearhead. The place then became vital in the 1st SS Panzer Division’s effort to reestablish contact with Peiper. Malmedy’s capture by the Germans would open a way north and west through American lines while also providing the increasingly beleaguered Peiper with a possible escape route.
Relying on a report brought back by one of the jeep teams that had entered Malmedy on the 17th, Skorzeny thought he’d only be facing slight resistance around his new objective. In fact, though, the town’s initial few defenders, elements of the 291st Engineer Battalion, had been reinforced by portions of the 526th Armored Infantry and 825th Tank Destroyer Battalions, along with the 120th Infantry Regiment from the US 30th Infantry Division. (The 30th was a veteran unit that had engaged the Germans many times from Normandy to the Siegfried Line. Its fighting abilities were so well respected by its enemies the Germans had come to refer to the division as “Roosevelt’s SS.”)
|One of Skorzeny’s Panthers crudely disguised as an M1- tank destroyer. It was knocked out near the bridge in Malmedy. All of its American dressed crew were killed as they tried to escape.|
By the afternoon of 20 December, two-thirds of the 150th Panzer Brigade – KGs X and Y – had been assembled near Ligneuville, with the third component – KG Z – still on its way to the start line. At the start of its first major engagement as a unit, then, the 150th’s unique characteristics made themselves plain. That is, though most of the men wore German uniforms, others had on US/German clothing mixtures, while a few were dressed head to toe in American uniforms. Their equipment was an equally strange hybrid mix from the two armies’ arsenals.
Skorzeny planned a two-pronged attack into Malmedy. KG Y was to move on the right, with KG X on the left, both advancing along secondary roads. Lacking heavy artillery, the commando leader hoped to overturn the defense by infiltrating directly into Malmedy during the operation’s first hour. But surprise eluded the Germans when one of the brigade’s men, captured by the Americans on the 20th, revealed to his interrogators the attack was set for 3:00 a.m. on the 21st. The US infantry manning the defensive perimeter around Malmedy were alerted that night and were therefore fully prepared to meet the assault that morning.
At the planned time, KG Y began moving along route N32 from Baugnez toward Malmedy. Almost immediately it ran into A Company, 1st Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment. A halftrack was first lost to a newly placed American mine. The waiting US infantry thereupon opened fire and the entire German effort came to a halt. Some of the Germans farthest forward in KG Y’s column began to surrender; its commander pulled the rest of his unit back to the start line.
KG X had meanwhile gone forward with a few disguised Panthers and two companies of infantry in the lead. That force struck the positions held by the 120th’s 3rd Battalion along the Route de Falize west of Malmedy at about 4:30 a.m. As the Germans turned off the road, hoping to make contact with the defenders’ flank rather than their front, the entire area was suddenly lit up with a large number of flares. Then a Panther struck another well placed American mine, and again the defending infantry opened up. After two hours of fierce fighting, the Germans of KG X also pulled back, leaving about 100 of their comrades strewn across the field of battle.
Another portion of KG X had meanwhile been trying to reach a bridge over the Warch River by another route. With Panther tanks in the lead, the unit reached the bridge and began to cross when it was brought under fire from a US tank destroyer and some infantry located on the south bank. The battle around the bridge continued to rage as morning turned to afternoon. Only a dozen Americans still survived in the house, but the more than 3,000 shells laid down by their division’s artillery contributed to making the defensive-block position much stronger than it otherwise would’ve been.
With his tanks being picked off one by one by the enemy artillery, Skorzeny decided to withdraw all his troops to the crest of the hills south of Malmedy. During that move, early in the afternoon, Skorzeny himself fell victim to the murderous American cannon fire. He was hit in the face by a piece of shrapnel, almost losing one eye. The next day another German probe was turned back along route N23. More importantly, however, the engineers of the 291st, using over 2,300 lbs. of TNT, blew the bridges the Germans had hoped to capture.
The 23rd began quietly, with no further German efforts toward Malmedy. But about 3:30 p.m. a flight of six B-26 Marauder light bombers appeared in the sky. Those planes mistakenly dropped their bombs directly into the town, killing both civilians and US soldiers. Though the air force was immediately informed of what had happened, the same tragedy was – amazingly – repeated on an even larger scale the next day, Christmas Eve, when 18 US aircraft unloaded more ordinance into Malmedy, practically obliterating the center of the place. Incredibly, more US bombers returned on Christmas day. In all, over 300 Belgian civilians and US soldiers died in the mistaken aerial attacks.
Even so, the 150th was never able to resume its advance, and was taken from the line on 28 December. Soon thereafter it was disbanded, its men returned to their original units on 23 January 1945. Skorzeny reported the 150th’s losses around Malmedy had been roughly 200 killed, wounded and missing, most due to enemy artillery fire.
Special Unit Steilau
As part of the 150th Panzer Brigade, Skorzeny organized a company of “special” (Einheit) teams under overall command of SS Capt. Helmut Steilau. Those 150 soldiers included the best of the brigade’s English speakers outfitted fully with US uniforms and equipment. Their effort was spearheaded by nine jeepborne commando parties.
The overall mission of “Einheit Steilau” was to: 1) use demolition squads of five or six men each to sabotage bridges and US supply depots; 2) use three- and four-man reconnaissance teams to conduct intelligence sweeps, concentrating on Allied movement and concentrations west of the Meuse; and 3) send three- and four-man lead groups directly in front of the main German panzer advance to issue false orders to enemy troops, prevent unwanted bridge destruction, switch road signs, cut telephone lines and create fake minefield markings to hinder US movement. (It should be noted Skorzeny’s Steilau teams weren’t the only American-uniformed Germans in the Ardennes. Several of their first-wave assault divisions organized and sent out their own disguised recon parties in order to conduct similar operations in their areas of operations.)
In certain respects, especially in comparison to the overall failure of the German effort in the Ardennes, the Steilau teams can be considered to have been rather successful. At least one of the jeep teams reached the Meuse River on 17 December, while north of Malmedy the entire US 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division was temporarily sent off in the wrong direction by a switched road sign. One team even prevented the destruction of the bridge over the Ambleve River at Stavelot. However, the greatest success of the Steilau teams didn’t result from what they actually accomplished, but from the confusion and uncertainty generated by their mere existence. In Gen. Omar Bradley’s words: “Half a million GIs were forced to play cat and mouse with each other each time they met on the road.”
The authenticating spot checks that began to be spontaneously carried out at roadside checkpoints proved embarrassing for those Americans unfamiliar with baseball, comic books or the current husband of Betty Grable. Gen. Bruce Clarke was arrested by American MPs when he mistakenly placed the Chicago Cubs baseball team in the American League. Even Bradley, an army group commander, was detained for a while when he couldn’t convince one MP that Springfield was indeed the capital of the state of Illinois (the policeman mistakenly insisted it was Chicago).
By far the most outrageous rumor springing from Operation Griffen was the one centered around what was at first purported to be its central goal: the assassination of Gen. Eisenhower. The Americans became convinced of that when one captured commando “confessed” just prior to his execution that was his real mission. Given the fantastic record of Skorzeny’s previous exploits, the US Army security establishment promptly quarantined Eisenhower in his Versailles headquarters, sending out a look-alike, Col. Baldwin Smith, to decoy the would be killers. In reality the entire Eisenhower murder plot was a hoax. The rumor had begun spontaneously among some of the younger members of Skorzeny’s staff, and seeing its value, the super-commando made no attempt to suppress it.
Gunter Billing, one of Skorzeny’s jeep mounted commandos, being prepared for execution by firing squad after having been convicted as a spy.
In spite of the chaos they created, some of Steilau’s men were successfully challenged early on. On 18 December a group of commandos riding on a captured US self-propelled gun were shot down after explaining they were from a “company” of a nearby cavalry unit. The American guards at the checkpoint knew instantly soldiers from a cavalry unit would always refer to their unit as a “troop,” never a company.
The jeep teams’ overall success rate might have been greater had they been able to secure more vehicles. That is, the US Army of 1944 was awash with transport. Travelling four to six in a jeep, the German commandos immediately looked conspicuous; seldom would so many GIs crowd into those small cars. That characteristic caused the jeep teams to be more easily spotted among the traffic flow once their existence became known. In all, 18 of Steilau’s men were captured and executed as spies by the Americans during the Ardennes fighting. Only three of the jeep teams drove back into German lines. A total of 16 men from the teams managed to regroup near St. Vith by 10 January 1945.