This is Part III of an ongoing series about the Battle of the Bulge, that took place in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, December 1944
GERMAN DECEPTION & SPECIAL OPERATIONS IN THE ARDENNES
Before the offensive, the Allies were virtually blind to German troop movement. During the reconquest of France, the extensive network of the French resistance had provided valuable intelligence about German dispositions. Once they reached the German border, this source dried up. In France, orders had been relayed within the German army using radio messages enciphered by the Enigma machine, and these could be picked up and decrypted by Allied code-breakers to give the intelligence known as ULTRA.
German Wehrmacht soldiers sending an encrypted message via the Enigma machine.
In Germany such orders were typically transmitted using telephone and teleprinter, and a special radio silence order was imposed on all matters concerning the upcoming offensive. The major crackdown in the Wehrmacht after the 20 July plot resulted in much tighter security and fewer leaks.
The foggy autumn weather also prevented Allied reconnaissance planes from correctly assessing the ground situation.
Two major special operations were planned for the offensive. By October it was decided Otto Skorzeny, the German commando who had rescued the former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was to lead a task force of English-speaking German soldiers in Operation Greif.
Waffen SS Obersturmbahnfuhrer Otto Skorzeny - "the Most Dangerous Man in Europe"
These soldiers were to be dressed in American and British uniforms and wear dog tags taken from corpses and POWs. Their job was to go behind American lines and change signposts, misdirect traffic, generally cause disruption and to seize bridges across the Meuse River between Liège and Namur.
By late November another ambitious special operation was added: Colonel Friedrich August von der Heydte was to lead a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) Kampfgruppe in Operation Stösser, a nighttime paratroop drop behind the Allied lines aimed at capturing a vital road junction near Malmedy.
Originally planned for the early hours of 16 December, Operation Stösser was delayed for a day because of bad weather and fuel shortages. The new drop time was set for 03:00 on 17 December; their drop zone was 7 miles (11 km) north of Malmedy and their target was the "Baraque Michel" crossroads. Von der Heydte and his men were to take it and hold it for approximately twenty-four hours until being relieved by the 12th SS Panzer Division, thereby hampering the Allied flow of reinforcements and supplies into the area.
Just after midnight on 17 December, 112 Ju 52 transport planes with around 1,300 Fallschirmjägern took off amid a powerful snowstorm, with strong winds and extensive low cloud cover. As a result, many planes went off course, and men were dropped as far as a dozen kilometers away from the intended drop zone, with only a fraction of the force landing near it. Strong winds also took off-target those paratroopers whose planes were relatively close to the intended drop zone and made their landings far rougher.
Fallschirmjäger exiting a JU 52 in the unique German headfirst technique.
By noon, a group of around 300 managed to assemble, but this force was too small and too weak to counter the Allies. Colonel von der Heydte abandoned plans to take the crossroads and instead ordered his men to harass the Allied troops in the vicinity with guerrilla-like actions.
Wehrmacht Fallschirmjägeren in combat, 1944
Because of the extensive dispersal of the jump, with Fallschirmjägeren being reported all over the Ardennes, the Allies believed a major division-sized jump had taken place, resulting in much confusion and causing them to allocate men to secure their rear instead of sending them off to the front to face the main German thrust.
Operation Greif and Operation Währung
For Operation Greif, Otto Skorzeny successfully infiltrated a small part of his battalion of disguised, English-speaking Germans behind the Allied lines. Although they failed to take the vital bridges over the Meuse, the battalion’s presence produced confusion out of all proportion to their military activities, and rumors spread quickly. Even General Patton was alarmed and, on 17 December, described the situation to General Eisenhower as “Krauts… speaking perfect English… raising hell, cutting wires, turning road signs around, spooking whole divisions, and shoving a bulge into our defenses.”
Checkpoints were set up all over the Allied rear, greatly slowing the movement of soldiers and equipment. Military policemen drilled servicemen on things which every American was expected to know, such as the identity of Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, baseball scores, or the capital of Illinois. This last question resulted in the brief detention of General Bradley; although he gave the correct answer—Springfield—the GI who questioned him apparently believed the capital was Chicago.
The tightened security nonetheless made things harder for the German infiltrators, and some of them were captured. Even during interrogation they continued their goal of spreading disinformation; when asked about their mission, some of them claimed they had been told to go to Paris to either kill or capture General Eisenhower. Security around the general was greatly increased, and he was confined to his headquarters.
Because these prisoners had been captured in American uniform, they were later executed by firing squad. This was the standard practice of every army at the time, although it was left ambiguous under the Geneva Convention, which merely stated soldiers had to wear uniforms that distinguished them as combatants. In addition, Skorzeny was aware under international law such an operation would be well within its boundaries as long as they were wearing their German uniforms when firing.
Skorzeny and his men were fully aware of their likely fate, and most wore their German uniforms underneath their Allied ones in case of capture. Skorzeny avoided capture, survived the war, and may have been involved with the Nazi ODESSA escape network.
Otto Skorzeny addressing his troops in the field.
For Operation Währung, a small number of German agents infiltrated Allied lines in American uniforms. These agents were then to use an existing Nazi intelligence network to attempt to bribe rail and port workers to disrupt Allied supply operations. This operation was a failure.
So great was the confusion caused by Operation Greif that the US Army saw spies and saboteurs everywhere. Perhaps the largest panic was created when a commando team was captured near Aywaille on 17 December. Comprising Unteroffizier Manfred Pernass, Oberfähnrich Günther Billing, and Gefreiter Wilhelm Schmidt, they were captured when they failed to give the correct password. It was Schmidt who gave credence to a rumour that Skorzeny intended to capture General Eisenhower and his staff.
A document outlining Operation Greif's elements of deception (though not its objectives) had earlier been captured by the US 106th Infantry Division near Heckhuscheid, and because Skorzeny was already well-known for rescuing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Operation Oak or Unternehmen Eiche) and Operation Panzerfaust, the Americans were more than willing to believe this story and
Eisenhower was reportedly unamused by having to spend Christmas 1944 isolated for security reasons.
Pernass, Billing, and Schmidt were given a military trial at Henri-Chapelle, sentenced to death, and executed by a firing squad on 23 December. Thirteen other men were tried and shot at either Henri-Chapelle or Huy.
To be continued . . .