Heinrich Gerhard Scherhorn

A major deception scheme organized by Soviet counterintelligence, Operation Scherhorn (also known as Berezino and Bennstrecke) began in the late summer of 1944. Acting on the orders of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet General Staff sought to persuade its German counterpart to divert scarce resources to units trapped behind Soviet lines. Presumably these units would be able to inflict considerable damage on the rear of the Red Army and then be able to rejoin the main body of the Wehrmacht.

The scheme centered on the commander of an obscure unit, Heinrich Gerhard Scherhorn, who had been captured outside Minsk on 9 July 1944 (his unit was part of a larger force of 1,800 German soldiers defending a position near the Berezino River, which had been de- feated after a two-week battle). Following the recruitment of Scherhorn, Alexsandr Dem’ianov[1] was engaged as an intermediary, sending fabricated information via radio that had been prepared by the NKGB (Soviet State Security). Scherhorn was depicted as a valiant commander trapped in the Berezino forest, unwilling to surrender, but urgently needing relief supplies and assistance.


Despite initial suspicions by the Germans, this Funkspiel worked flawlessly from September 1944 to May 1945. According to an NKGB evaluation, Soviet counterintelligence captured 25 German agents and intelligence officers, 13 radio sets, 225 cargo packs (con- taining uniforms, ammunition, food, and medicine), and more than 2 million rubles. To add to the credibility of the deception, the messages contained mixed signals; while one boasted of having successfully attacked a Soviet supply column, others asked that some scheduled airdrops be canceled due to the approach of enemy troops. At one point, the rescue of Scherhorn by Otto Skorzeny and his commando team was contemplated—with Adolf Hitler’s approval—but soon abandoned. On 23 March 1944, however, Hitler not only announced the promotion of several officers singled out by Scherhorn for recog- nition but advanced him to the rank of colonel and awarded him the Knight’s Cross. With the general collapse on the eastern front, the Armed Forces High Command notified Scherhorn on 5 May 1945 that his efforts could no longer be supported. He remained in Soviet captivity until 1949, when his return to Germany was approved.


Otto Skorzeny Writes in his Memoirs

Work had also been found for us in the east. In August, 1944, I received an urgent summons to FHQ, where Colonel-General Jodl referred me to two staff officers, who gave me the following information:

After the collapse of the Centre Army Group in June, a reconnaissance commando (a formation from the Intelligence Units detailed to serve with each army) had received a wireless message from a Russian agent, who had been in German service since the beginning of the war, to the effect that in the forest region north of Minsk there was a body of German troops which had not surrendered. This information was confirmed by some German soldiers who managed to get back, and supplemented by the agent himself when he got through to our lines. He said that the isolated force was a battle group of about two thousand men under the command of a Lieutenant-Colonel Scherhorn, and he was able to give a fairly close description of exactly where it was.

The staff officers added that various attempts had been made by the reconnaissance commando to get in touch with the missing battle group, but without success. GHQ now wanted every effort to be made to find the Scherhorn group, and get it back to our lines. Could I do it?

I replied that we could certainly do what was at all possible, as I knew that our most suitable officers and men for the job—Balts—would jump at the chance of rescuing their countrymen.

A plan was quickly worked out at Friedenthal and given the code name of “Freischütz”. Its execution was entrusted to Battalion “East”, which I had just formed. The essential features of the scheme was that there should be four groups, each of five men, of whom two would be drawn from Commando East, and the other three would be Russians. Each group would have a wireless transmitting set, parachute rations for four weeks, tents, etc., and Russian machine-pistols. It goes without saying that all the men had to be disguised as Russian soldiers. All the necessary papers and passes were prepared and, as far as we could tell, no detail was forgotten. The men even had to get used to the Russian “machorka” cigarettes, had their heads shaved and forgot about washing and shaving in the days immediately preceding the raid. They were given a supply of Russian black bread and tinned stuff, which they could produce even if they did not eat it.

Two of the groups were to be put down near Borisov and Cervenj, east of Minsk, and search the area to the west. If they did not find the Scherhorn group, they were to try and fight their way back through the Russian lines. The third and fourth groups were to be dropped near Djerzinsk and Viteika respectively, and make a concentric approach to Minsk. If they did not contact Scherhorn they too were to get back as best they could.

We appreciated that our plan could only be a basis for the operation and that once on Russian soil the groups might have to be left to their own devices and to act as the situation required, though we hoped we should be able to keep in wireless contact with them and issue further instructions in any emergency. Our idea was that if the Scherhorn group was found, a temporary landing strip could be constructed and we could gradually get the men out by air.

At the end of August the first group, commanded by Sergeant P., was dropped by a He III of Squadron 200. Waiting for news of the return of the aircraft was an anxious business, for at that time the Vistula was the front line, the dropping zone was five hundred kilometres away to the east, fighter escort was impossible and the flight could only be made at night in the prevailing weather.

That night we heard that it had passed without incident and the group had been duly dropped at the appointed spot. Early next morning the reconnaissance commando got a wireless message from P.’s group: “We made a bad landing. Trying to regroup under machine-gun fire.” … At that point the message broke off. It looked as if the group had had to bolt and leave the transmitter behind. Night after night, our wireless man remained glued to his receiver, but nothing more came through from the group. Not a very encouraging start!

At the beginning of September, the second group set out under the command of Ensign Sch. On their return, the air-crew reported a smooth and successful drop. For four days we heard nothing at all from the group and began to fear the worst and wonder what had happened. On the sixth night, an answer was received to the call signal. The correct password was given and also the secret codeword indicating that the speaker was not being held by the Russians. Then came the splendid news that Scherhorn’s group had been found!

Next evening, Lieutenant-Colonel Scherhorn spoke to us himself. His few simple, soldierly words of thanks were ample reward for what we had done.

The third group was dropped on the night after the second. We never heard from it at all. It was swallowed up in the vast distances of Russia.

The fourth and last group, under the command of Sergeant R., was dropped a day later. For the first few days it reported fairly regularly. The men had all landed together, but they had lost direction a bit, as they had to keep out of the way of Russian police troops. They had met some Russian deserters, who took them for deserters also. The people of White Russia were friendly.

On the fourth day the wireless messages suddenly stopped, so we were no longer able to let R. know the approximate position of Scherhorn’s group. The nerve-racking waiting for news began again. I asked for a daily report from Adrian von Foelkersam, who was specially concerned in the affair, both as Chief-of-Staff of the commando formations, and as a countryman of the Balts employed in it. Always the same answer came back: “No news from groups R., M. and F.”

But three weeks later a telephone call came from a corps, which was somewhere on the Lithuanian frontier: “Group R. has turned up, and without loss.”

What Sergeant R. had to say was of the greatest military interest, as he was one of the few Germans who had actually seen what was going on behind the Russian front. He told us what the Russian leaders really meant by “total war”! Every woman and child was roped in to work for the army, if occasion required. Where transport was lacking, the civil population was employed in carrying petrol containers right up to the front line and shells were passed from hand to hand to the artillery positions. We had a lot to learn from the Russians!

Sergeant R. had even had the audacity to enter an officers’ mess disguised as a Russian lieutenant. Lest my readers be surprised at my use of the words “officers’ mess”, I should remind them that, in the course of the war, the Russian army revived many of the old traditions—the broad Czarist shoulder-strap, for instance. The guest spoke such perfect Russian that his hosts had not the slightest suspicion who he was. A few days later he returned to our lines and naturally played a most active part in our further efforts to help the Scherhorn group.

The most urgent requirements of this group were medical supplies and a doctor. The dropping ground indicated was lit so badly that the first doctor we put down broke both legs and a later message reported that he had subsequently died. The arrival of the second was more than welcome. Next on the list came food, and then small arms and ammunition. As a result of their privations, the health of the men was so bad that there could be no question at the moment of an attempt to find their way back.

Squadron 200 flew a supply plane every second or third night, but we received complaints that the dropping was inaccurate and much was being lost. Each lost consignment had to be replaced.

Then we worked out with the squadron’s technical experts a plan for bringing out Scherhorn’s group. A landing-strip must be laid down from which the casualties first, and then as many men as possible, could be evacuated. We fixed the dark nights o£ October as the most suitable time.

An aerodrome technician was put down by parachute. Unfortunately, we learned by wireless that the construction of the landing-strip and take-off was soon discovered by the Russians and made impossible by gunfire, so we had to think up a new idea, which met with Scherhorn’s approval. The group was to find its way to a lake region 250 kilometres to the north, on the former Russian-Lithuanian frontier near Dvinsk. These lakes usually froze over towards the beginning of December and could then be used as aerodromes.

To facilitate the march of so large a formation behind the Russian lines, Scherhorn divided it into two sections. He was to take over the command of the southern party himself, while the advance party of the northern would be led by our Ensign Sch.

For this march the men needed warm clothes and a mass of other things. Formidable quantities were involved. In addition, we had to supply nine more wireless sets—and Russians to work them—to maintain wireless communication between the two sections if they got widely separated.

It was a great day for me when I sent Ensign Sch. the notification of his promotion to lieutenant and of the award to him of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. The receipt of my congratulations was very warmly acknowledged.

In November, 1944, the two columns started off. The wounded were taken in Russian panje carts. Progress was slower than we had hoped—not more than 8 to 10 kilometres a day. As occasional stops for a day or so proved necessary, it was found that 30 to 40 kilometres a week was the usual rule. Then the wireless messages spoke increasingly of clashes with Russian police troops and all of us who knew the country began to shed our illusions. There was very little chance of the Scherhorn force getting back.

It was true that our supply aircraft had not so far to go, but the dropping zones, which were constantly changing, were becoming more difficult to find, even though they were indicated and plotted on our squared maps, and Verey lights were fired at the moment appointed. I have no idea how much of the stuff we dropped was picked up by the very efficient Russian Security Police.

But that was not our only worry. Every week fuel supplies were getting shorter. From time to time, I managed to extract a special ration of four or five tons for “Operation Freischutz”, but it became more and more difficult. I can well believe that, in their desperation, Scherhorn and his men were quite at a loss to account for our behaviour, though I did my best in personal messages to convince him that we were doing all we could.

In February, 1945, I was commanding a division on the eastern front. Although we were engaged in fierce action every day, I was still in charge of all the commando operations. News of “Freischutz ” arrived almost every night and it got more and more depressing. The only cheering feature was that the Scherhorn group had joined up with P.’s commando, which had been missing for months. The trouble was that the distance was now nearly 800 kilometres and we could not send a plane more than once a week. I racked my brains to devise some other method, but all in vain.

At the end of February we were refused any more petrol—a development which made me furious when I remembered what vast stores of oil were falling into the hands of the advancing enemy every day. There were hundreds of tons of it on the airfields in the Warthegau, now in Russian occupation.

About this time Lieutenant Sch. wirelessed: “My advance guard has reached the lake region. We shall starve if we don’t get some food at once.” The despairing cry was heard time and again, but we were helpless. At the very end he was asking merely for enough juice to charge the batteries of his wireless accumulators. “All I want is to remain in touch with you and hear your voices,” he said. But the war was rushing to its close and the relevant authorities far too bewildered to pay any attention to us. It was the end. We must abandon thoughts of bringing the Scherhorn group back, or even reaching it.

Yet the retreat and constant changes of position did not prevent our wireless men from listening patiently every night. They still got occasional contact. Then came the 8th of May and “Operation Freischütz” was over.

When I became a prisoner, I spent many a sleepless night thinking about it. None of Scherhorn’s or my own men ever got back. I wondered whether the Russians were having a game with us all the time. Of course we had taken precautions against the possibility. Every wireless operator was given a special keyword, which he must use to show that he could speak freely. But, during my captivity, I learned so much about methods of detection that I have my doubts. I had a wholesome respect for the skill of the Russians and their allies. Perhaps the puzzle will be solved some day.

Otto Skorzeny, 1957

[1] In the most famous game, codenamed “Monastery,” the Soviets allowed their principal agent, Aleksandr Demyanov, to be captured and then recruited by the German military intelligence, who then parachuted him into Soviet occupied territory to act as their agent. Demyanov, under Soviet control and operating with the alias “Max,” then created a fictional political resistance movement in Moscow and provided the German armed forces with false and misleading information for years. At critical moments before the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and the June 1944 Red Army offensive in Byelorussia, Monastery provided misleading “feed” material generated by the Soviet general staff as part of strategic deception. German military intelligence never realized that it had been deceived. In books written by German military intelligence veterans after the war, “Max” is cited as an important and verified source.

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