Operation Greif (16 December 1944 onwards)

Operation Greif (16 December 1944 onwards) was a German special mission during the Battle of the Bulge that failed in its main objective of capturing the Meuse bridges, but partly achieved its secondary objective of spreading confusion behind American lines.

The basic aim of the mission was to form a new Panzer brigade equipped with captured American vehicles, and operated by men in American uniforms, and use it to capture three key bridges of the Meuse intact. Command of the new unit, Panzer Brigade 150, was given to Otto Skorzeny, who had gained great fame after rescuing Mussolini. He was given the task of raising an entirely new brigade, gathering the required equipment and planning for the operation.

The operation ended up with two aims. The first was to use a disguised raiding party to capture at least two of the Meuse bridges intact, and hold them until Skorzeny’s main armoured force could arrive. The second was to dispatch a number of parties of American speaking troops disguised in US uniforms and using US equipment behind enemy lines in jeeps to cause as much confusion as possible. This second mission was added after Skorzeny realised that he didn’t have many fluent English speakers, and decided to concentrate the best of them in a special 150-strong commando unit, ‘Einheit Stielau’.

The brigade was to be made up of two battalions. A shortage of suitable American tanks meant that the main equipment of the first battalion was to be 22 Panthers, while the second battalion had 14 StuGs. By the time of the attack the brigade had been organised into three kampfgruppe, possibly only equipped with five Panthers and five StuGs between them!

The number of tanks in Skorzeny’s unit is somewhat unclear, with some books giving him up to seventy! However the original plan appears to have been to have 15 US tanks, 20 US armoured cars and 20 US self propelled guns, a total of 55 armoured vehicles of varying types. Two Shermans were found, although didn’t take part in any combat.

According to Skorzeny American equipment was limited to four scout cars, thirty jeeps, fifteen US trucks and enough American weapons to equip the 150 commandoes. Only two Sherman tanks had been found, of which only one was serviceable on the day of the attack.

Panzerbrigade 150

The plan for Panzerbrigade 150 was to wait until the SS Panzer Divisions had reached the high ground of the Hohes Venn, the area north of Malmedy, just behind the American front lines on the front to be attacked by Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army. Skorzeny’s men were to go into action on the night after that area was captured and join US forces fleeing from the battle in an attempt to reach at least two of the three key Meuse bridges, ideally without getting into combat.

The brigade assembled near Munstereifel on 14 December. On 16 December the three kampfgruppe took up position behind the three divisions that were expected to achieve the breakthrough – 1st SS Panzer Division, 12th SS Panzer Division and 12th Volksgrenadier Division. However Dietrich’s men failed to make any breakthrough on the first day of the battle, and Skorzeny’s men ended up stuck in a massive traffic jam at Losheim. Skorzeny is said to have seen the chaos early in the day and gone back to sleep. When he re-emerged that evening the situation still hadn’t improved. His entire plan was based on being able to slip through gaps in the American lines, but with no gaps there was no chance of getting started. Even so the day did cost him the commander of one of the Kampfgruppe, killed by a mine.

After two days only Peiper’s Kampfgruppe from the 1st SS Panzer Division had made any progress, but Peiper was already dangerously isolated. On the night of 17 December Skorzeny attended a staff conference at Dietrich’s HQ, where he suggested cancelling the operation and turning his brigade into a normal army unit. Dietrich agreed, and allocated Skorzeny’s brigade to the 1st SS Panzer Division.

Skorzeny’s brigade was given the task of capturing Malmedy, as part of a larger 1st SS Panzer Division attempt to open up ‘Rollbahn C’. If Malmedy fell, then the American position further east on Elsenborn ridge would be endangered. By what turned out to be an unfortunate coincidence one of Skorzeny’s commando teams had actually got into Malmedy on 17 December, when it was only held by part of the 291st Engineers. However the Americans were able to rush reinforcements to the area, and by the time Skorzeny attacked the town was defended by the 120th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division and the 99th Infantry Battalion, a battalion partly manned with Norwegians and not part of any larger regiment.

Skorzeny’s armoured brigade didn’t get into combat until 21 December. On the previous day they had assembled at Ligneuville, five miles south of Malmedy although only two of the three Kampfgruppe arrived in time. Skorzeny planned a two-pronged attack, with Kampfgruppe Y on the right attacking on the road from Baugnez and Kampfgruppe X on the left on roads coming from Ligneuville. He hoped to catch the defenders by surprise by attacking early in the day, under cover of darkness, but one of his men had been captured on the previous day and told the Americans about the upcoming attack.

The attack on the right ran into the 120th Infantry Regiment, came under heavy artillery fire, and soon had to retreat.

On the left the five Panthers were committed, but as they advanced they ran into American trip wires which set off flares. The lead Panther hit a mine and was destroyed. The remaining four overran a tank destroyer unit, whose men were dangerously vulnerable in the thinly armoured vehicles. However a second Panther was taken out by a bazooka. Early morning fog then lifted, allowing the American artillery to fire around 3,000 shells at the attacks. The Germans were unable to make any progress, and by the afternoon were forced to retreat.

Skorzeny’s man made one more attempt to advance east of Malmedy early on 22 December, but that was also repulsed by the 120th Infantry. After this the brigade remained in the line for a few more days, before being withdrawn and disbanded, and its men returned to their original units.

‘Einheit Stielau’

The other half of the operation involved 150 English speaking Germans who set out in 30 captured jeeps, in US uniforms and with fake papers, with orders to cause chaos behind US lines.

The very nature of this part of the mission makes it difficult to be entirely sure what these sabotage parties actually achieved. Some of their activities are very well documented, others rely on later interviews with Skorzeny or claims made by the men after they were captured. Yet more appear to be simple rumours.

The commando teams were given three different missions. Demolition squads of 5-6 men were to destroy other bridges, ammo and fuel dumps (a little odd given that part of the German plan relied on capturing those very dumps!). Reconnaissance squadrons of 3-4 men were to try and get to the Meuse, report back on what they found, and spread confusion by passing on fake orders. ‘Lead’ squads of 3-4 men were to support the main Panzer divisions, advancing just ahead to give out false orders and disrupt American communications.

According to Skorzeny’s post-war interview three ‘lead’ squadrons, four reconnaissance groups and two demolition groups were send out in the first few days of the attack. He claimed that 44 men had been sent through US lines, and all but 8 returned. The last groups in US uniforms were sent out on 19 December, and any mission after that was in German uniforms.  However it appears that 17 of the men were captured, court-martialled and executed. Three were executed at Huy on 13 January. Most of the rest were all executed at Henri-Chapelle – three on 23 December, three on 26 December and seven on 30 December.  The team leader, Gunther Schulz, was tried in May 1945 and executed on 14 June 1945.

A vast array of achievements are credited to these commando teams, many of them with little or no evidence. However some are more credible, including the below.

Skorzeny claimed that one unit had entered Malmedy and another had convinced a unit to withdraw from Poteau.

A Belgium reported seeing a German dressed as a US officer at Ligneuville on 16 December.

A member of the 291st Engineers reported that Germans had changed the road signs at Mont-Rigi on 17 December.

One team, consisting of Oberfahnrich Gunther Billing, Gefreiter Wilhelm Schmidt and Unteroffizier Manfred Pernass, were captured at Aywaille, just over ten miles to the south of Liege, having got to an area that the main part of the attack never reached. They had the biggest impact of any of Skorzeny’s men, after claiming that one part of their mission was to capture Eisenhower and his staff. The plan was to assemble at the Café de la Paix in Paris, proceed to SHAEF HQ at Versailles and either capture or assassinate Eisenhower. Billing and his team were amongst the groups to be executed for fighting in US uniforms.

One team was said to have been killed near Poteau on 18 December after claiming to be from ‘E Company’ of a US cavalry unit – the correct term would have been ‘E Troop’.

After the war two veterans of the mission, Leutnant Collonia and Feldwebel Heinze Rohde, claimed to have reached the Meuse.

Less credible stories include a post-war claim to have prevented the detonation of a bridge at Stavelot, and the claim that one team actually spend a day ‘guarding’ one of the Meuse bridges and spreading rumours and disinformation.

Although the actual achievements of Skorzeny’s commando teams may have been fairly minor, the stories they spread and that were spread about them caused much more confusion. In Paris a curfew was imposed and an ambush was set up around the Café de la Paix! Eisenhower was almost a prisoner in his own HQ for several days, until eventually he couldn’t take it any more and stormed out. Lt Colonel Baldwin B. Smith, an Eisenhower lookalike, was used as decoy, driving between Eisenhower’s quarters and HQ each day!

Behind the lines MPs took to stopping anyone and asking questions only an American would know the answer to. Bradley ran into one problem when his questioner asked what the capital of Illinois was – Bradley correctly answered Springfield, but the GI believed it was Chicago! Montgomery was also detained for some time while attempting to visit the front. Tragically this also lead to a number of friend fire incidents, when trigger happy soldiers shot other Americans who hadn’t answered quickly enough or to their satisfaction.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (29 March 2021), Operation Greif (16 December 1944 onwards), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_greif.html

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