Operation Stosser (17-23 December 1944) was the last German airborne operation of the Second World War, and was a failed attempt to capture and defend a key road junction just behind the American front line.
The aim of the attack was to capture a key road junction in the Hohn Venn, just behind the northern sector of the American line that was to be attacked at the start of the Ardennes offensive. The paratroops were to hold the roads for twenty-four hours to prevent the Americans rushing reinforcements to the area being attacked by the Sixth Panzer Army.
The aim was to drop on Baraque Michel, a hill in the high forested marshland of the Hohe Venn, where two main roads that might be used to rush reinforcements to Malmedy and Elsenborn met
This is still a fairly remote area with only a single road across the central part of the uplands. Two roads from the north join just to the north of Baraque Michel at Belle Croix, run south together past the hill, then split again two and a half miles to the south, with one branch heading south-west into Malmedy and the other south-east towards Elsenborn.
The orders for the operation weren’t issued until 8 December. Command was given to Col Friedrich A. Freiherr von der Heydte, a veteran of the attack on Crete who was now serving as commander of the Fallschirm Armee Waffen school. Ironically this was where the few remaining paratroops were being trained to fight as ground infantry. Heydte was ordered to organise a 1,000 strong parachute unit and prepare it to go into action in just five days!
It was clear to Heydte that this wasn’t enough time. He was so concerned about the mission that he actually visited Model to ask for it to be cancelled. Model asked if the mission stood a 10% change of success. When Heydte said yes, he was ordered to carry it out, as the entire operation only had a 10% chance of success!
The Germans had managed to assemble 112 Junkers Ju 52s, but these were war-weary aircraft. Their pilots were largely inexperienced – for half of them the operation would be their first combat mission! As the Allies had discovered repeatedly on Sicily and again on D-Day, even well training pilots struggled to achieve accurate drops in a night time drop – navigation was difficult, and transport pilots weren’t used to coming under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
On night of 15th Heydte and his paratroops assembled ready to be driven to their aircraft at Paderborn , but the trucks that were meant to take them to the airports had run out of fuel! The operation was postponed until the early morning of 17 December. By this point any chance of success had gone – apart from anything else the German armour was meant to have reached the drop zone on the previous day anyway! Even if all of Heydte’s paratroops had landed in the right place, the first US reinforcements were already moving south, so his lightly armed and larged inexperienced troops would probably have been brushed aside as the veteran 1st Infantry Division moved south.
Only the very first part of the operation went as planned. The expert night pilots of NSGr 20 used their ground attack Fw 190s to drop markers along the route to be used by the transport aircraft and at the drop zone, and had completed their mission by 0330 on 17 December.
The transport aircraft ran into heavy winds and heavy anti-aircraft fire and their formation scattered. One group of 200 men dropped near Bonn, fifty miles behind German lines! Others landed in Holland, many miles too far north. Heydte himself was one of the few who actually landed in the right area. However at first he only had 100 men with him, so he was forced to pull back off the road into the woods. Eventually he was able to gather 300 men, but this still wasn’t enough to attempt his mission.
Over the next five days the Germans had to watch three US divisions drive past of the roads they were meant to be blocking. First to pass was the veteran 1st Infantry Division, which went on to help defend the Elsenborn Ridge. They were followed by the 7th Armoured Division and the 30th Infantry, both of which helped stop the German advance.
The only part of the mission that had any real success was a drop of 200-300 dummies just north of Elsenborn. This caused some confusion on the American side, and some time was wasted and a number of troops were ordered to hunt for the paratroops.
After five days, with his supplies running out, Heydte ordered his men to split into groups of three and try to get back to German lines. Heydte, his executive officer and a runner set off towards Monschau, which was meant to have fallen to the Germans on the first day of the offensive. After two days they reached the outskirts, only to find the town still in American hands. Heydte ordered the other two men to continue without him as he was to exhausted to continue, and surrendered.
This final German airborne mission of the war was a total failure in military terms. It did cause some confusion behind US lines, especially when combined with Operation Greif, and rumours spread that thousands of paratroops had dropped and were aiming to kidnap Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, or perhaps even Churchill. As a result a number of rear area units were placed on alert.