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FRIEND

GI artilleryman
or enemy in
disguise come
to raise fatal
havoc behind
Allied lines? That
was the x the
German ruse
posed in the
Ardennes attack.
This man,
photographed
at Murrigen,
Belgium, was the
genuine item.

OR FOE?

In the fight for the Ardennes, a fiendish


German scheme shattered Allied certainty
about who was real and who was not
BY ANTONY BEEVOR

NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015

53

ON OCTOBER 21, 1944, THE DAY HITLER SUMMONED SS COMMANDO OTTO SKORZENY
to East Prussia for a personal briefing, not even Field Marshals Gerd
von Rundstedt or Walter Model, who would be leading it, knew the dictator was planning a massive attack in the Ardennes. Skorzeny, six feet
four inches tall and with a large scar on his left cheek from his days as a
student duelist, towered over the bent and sickly Fhrer.
Skorzeny, Hitler said, this next assignment will be the most
important of your life.

From ARDENNES 1944: The Battle of the Bulge by Antony Beevor.


Published by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2015
by Antony Beevor.

or this mission Skorzeny had unlimited powers. His


officers had the authority to obtain whatever they
wanted by saying, Order from the Reichsfhrer.
Revealing only that they were going to be undertaking interpreter duties, the high command summoned
English-speaking officers and noncommissioned officers
from all the servicessome were navy men, the rest Waffen
SS, army, and Luftwaffeto Schloss Friedenthal outside
Oranienburg, in northeast Germany.
At Oranienburg SS officers interrogated candidates in
English, explaining that they would be part of a special unit,
the 150th Panzer Brigade, and swearing them to secrecy,
with leaks punishable by death. Like Skorzeny, their commander, the wonderfully named Colonel Friedrich Musculus, had student-dueling scars. Musculus, a tanker, promised
that the 150th Panzer Brigade would have a decisive effect
on the course of the war.

German guards march GIs


captured in the Ardennes on
December 17, 1944. The
POWs motley dress reects a
scarcity of winter clothing.

54

WORLD WAR II

TOP, HEINRICH HOFFMANN/ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES; CORBIS; PREVIOUS PAGE, GEORGE SILK/LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

As a component of
the attack, first called
Operation Watch on
the Rhine and then
Operation Autumn
Mist, Operation Greif (griffin) would be a special venture,
Hitler explained. Handpicked troops operating captured
American vehicles and clad in olive-drab uniforms would
penetrate Allied lines and cause mayhem and confusion
the perfect duty for the Austrian colonel, whom even fellow
officers described as a typical evil Nazi and a real dirty
dog. Of the hulking SS man, a panzer general once said,
Shooting is much too good for him.
Otto
Skorzeny

A GI rests upon a German


Panther tank disguised as an
Allied M10 tank destroyer.
Skorzenys troops used similar
Panthers in sheeps clothing.

HISTORYNET ARCHIVES

GERMANS IN AMERICAN VEHICLES


AND UNIFORMS WERE TO CAUSE
MAYHEM BEHIND ALLIED LINES.
The group moved en masse to a training facility at Grafenwhr, in Bavaria. There, superiors assigned a young navy
lieutenant named Mntz to hunt for American uniforms at
POW camps. Mntz had until November 21 to collect 2,400
complete outfits, including those for 10 generals and 70 officers, as well as genuine American identity cards, pay books,
and other paperwork, to go with the American and British
currency they would be issued. Planners did not know that
the U.S. Army itself was so short on winter uniforms that GIs
were freezing in the Hrtgen Forest, Lorraine, and Alsace.
Nonetheless, bearing an order signed by Hitler himself,
Mntz first went to Berlin to the department of prisoners of
war, whose head, after declaring that Mntzs undertaking
was illegal under international law, provided him with written instructions to show camp commanders. Mntz set off
with a truck and crew.
The POW camp commander at Frstenberg an der Oder
refused the order to strip 80 GIs of their field jackets. The
brigade called off the scavenger hunt and recalled Mntz

lest the Red Cross hear of the row and alert the Allies.
At Grafenwhr, officers gave all orders in English to men
kitted out in the few uniforms Mntz and his men had managed to obtain. Trainees learned to salute in the American
style and other quirks, such as eating K rations with the
fork after laying down the knife. They studied the nuances
of American smoking, including the affectation of pausing
before lighting a cigarette to tap the smoke on the pack. To
absorb idiomatic terms such as chow line and to improve
their American accents, the trainees watched Hollywood
movies and newsreels. Instructors also taught all the usual
commando skills, such as close-quarter combat, demolition,
and use of enemy weapons.

iven more details of Operation Griffin, some men


expressed doubts about fighting in enemy uniform.
An SS lieutenant colonel declared that shirkers
would be sentenced to death. Another blow to morale came
when supervisors issued ampules of cyanide hidden in cheap
cigarette lighters.
On the other hand, Skorzeny inspired. SS men worshiped
him for his exploits: in Italy, he had been among commandos who rescued defeated dictator Benito Mussolini, while
in Hungary he had led a special ops team that kidnapped the
son of Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy to pressure Horthy
into letting a Nazi sympathizer assume power. To those who
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015

55

The dynamic
Skorzeny (with
Benito Mussolini
in 1943) inspired
his men with his
rakehell daring.

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WORLD WAR II

men were divided into demolition groups to blow up bridges


and ammunition and fuel dumps; reconnaissance groups
to scout routes to the Meuse and observe enemy strength;
and teams to disrupt American communications by cutting wires and issuing false orders. Each strike team had a
speaker, chosen for his grasp of American idiom. Three or
four men rode in each jeep. But four in a jeep was a mistake.
The Americans seldom packed a jeep so full.
As the nervous Einheit Stielau commandos waited to set
off, an officer from headquarters tried to assuage them.
American soldiers in German uniform had been captured
behind German lines, he claimed, adding that the army
would take a lenient view and treat the captured GIs, who
by rights could be shot as spies, instead as prisoners of war.

n December 16, 1944, the day the Ardennes attack


began, eight of Skorzenys nine Einheit Stielau jeep
teamsthe best English speakers, some carrying vials
of sulfuric acid to fling in sentries faces if an encounter went
sourslipped through the American lines. Some cut communications wires and carried out minor sabotage, such as
changing road signs. At least one team managed to misdirect
an American infantry regiment.
But Operation Griffins greatest success was to trigger
an Allied overreaction bordering on paranoia. The Griffin
teams impact multiplied thanks to a simultaneous drop of
German paratroopers who generally came to grief but in the
process set GI teeth on edge.
At a bridge on the edge of Lige, American military policemen stopped four men in a jeep. The interlopers were
dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and spoke English with
American accents, but when asked to show the trip tickets
that every GI driver carried they produced blanks. The MPs
ordered them out of the vehicle and found German weapons
and explosives, and swastika insignia under their American
uniforms. The jeep, investigators discovered, had been captured from British forces at Arnhem.
The MPs handed over their prisoners commander, Lieutenant Gnther Schultz, to a mobile field interrogation
unit. Schultz appeared to be cooperating fully. He admitted
serving in Einheit Stielau and told questioners that his commander had said their orders were to penetrate to Paris and
capture General Eisenhower and other high-ranking officers. Schultz was parroting Skorzenys line of palaver, but
it is still not clear whether he believed what he was saying,
was in on the original rumor, or simply was trying to impress
his interrogators to save his skin.
Schultz described an Eisenhower Action carried out by a
special group commanded by an Oberleutnant Schmidhuber operating directly under Skorzeny. The plot to kidnap or
assassinate Eisenhower included about 80 men, he said. Participants were to rendezvous in Paris at the Caf de lEpe or

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loved him the Austrian offered conspicuous friendship.


One wrote later, He was our pirate captain.
The training camp at Grafenwhr reverberated with
rumors about the mission. Some said the action was going
to be an airborne reoccupation of France. Skorzeny later
claimed to have spread a yarn about heading to Paris to
kidnap General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Skorzeny split his 2,400 recruits into two units. The
larger portion kept the name 150th Panzer Brigade. This
much stronger force spread nearly 2,000 men among paratroop battalions, Panzergrenadier companies, heavy mortars, antitank guns, and two captured M4 Sherman medium
tanksaugmented with German Mark IVs and Panthers
unconvincingly masquerading as Shermans, painted olive
drab with the white American star, some of them without the
official surrounding circle. Commanders of other German
units participating in the offensive would exert no control
over Skorzenys troops, who were assigned to secure bridges
over the Meuse at Andenne, Huy, and Amay. Hiding by day,
they would move by night, using side roads and tracks to
outpace the regular army panzer spearheads.
Skorzenys smaller force comprised the 150 best of the
600 English speakers he had rounded up. He called the troop
Einheit Stielau, or Stielaus unit, after the captain who led
it. Mounted mostly in jeeps and in American uniform, the

SO YOU WANT TO

IMPERSONATE AN
AMERICAN

BASED ON OPERATION GRIFFIN


TRAINING METHODS
Subtle cultural touches set Germans and Americans
apart. To pass as GIs, Skorzenys undercover troopers
had to relearn many basic activities and gestures.

STEP 1
Smoke holding cigarette between the rst two
ngers held upright, with thumb toward chin.

Figure 1
German style

Figure 2
American style

STEP 2
Indicate the number three by closing thumb over
pinky nger and raising middle ngers.

Figure 1
German style

Figure 2
American style

ILLUSTRATIONS BY COLIN HAYES

STEP 3
Cut food holding a knife in right hand and fork in
left. To eat, set knife on plate edge, transfer fork to
right hand, spear morsel, and raise to mouth.

Figure 1
German style

Figure 2
American style

the Caf de la Paix, Schultz was not sure which. He claimed


that another German special operations unit, the Brandenburger commandos, also was involved. Despite the improbability of 80 German soldiers assembling in a Parisian caf,
the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) believed Schultz. The
next morning, Eisenhower found his security stepped up
such that he almost was a prisoner.
In like fashion, an alarmed CIC directed General Omar
Bradley not to use a car, nor depart or arrive at the front
door to his billet, the Htel Alfa in Luxembourg. He was
to use the kitchen entrance at the hotels rear and move to
rooms deeper in the building. For now, his vehicles and his
personal helmet would not display generals stars. Bradley
now traveled sandwiched between a machine-gun-mounted
jeep in front and a Hellcat tank destroyer behind.

he idea of German commandos behind American


lines, dressed as GIs and wielding GI-issue weapons,
badly rattled American soldiers. Troops barricaded
every route to interrogate vehicles occupants. Question the
driver because, if German, he will be the one who speaks and
understands the least English, orders read. Some of these
G.I. clad Germans are posing as high-ranking officers. One
is supposed to be dressed as a Brigadier General. Above all
dont let them take off their American uniform. Instead get
them to the nearest PW [prisoner of war] cage, where they
will be questioned and eventually put before a firing squad.
Hoping to trip up fakers, sentries and MPs improvised
questions: quizzes on baseball; the name of the presidents
dog or Betty Grables current husband; and What is Sinatras first name? Stopped by a sentry told to watch for a
kraut posing as a one-star general, one-star Brigadier
General Bruce C. Clarke missed an answer about the Chicago Cubs. Only a kraut would make a mistake like that,
his interlocutor declared, detaining Clarke for half an hour.
Even Bradley was held captive for a short time, despite
having correctly named the capital of Illinois, which the MP
insisted was not Springfield.
Britons moving about in the U.S. Ninth Army rear area
aroused considerable suspicion. Actor David Niven, a reconnaissance officer in British Army uniform, was stopped and
questioned by an American sentry. Who won the World
Series in 1940? the guard demanded.
I havent the faintest idea, the urbane Niven claimed
later to have replied. But I do know that I made a picture
with Ginger Rogers in 1939.
OK, beat it, Dave, the GI said. But watch your step,
for crissake.
With an aide, British Major General Allan Adair, commander of the Guards Armoured Division, stopped at a
checkpoint manned by black soldiers. The aide could not
find his or his chiefs papers. After standing by and watching
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57

At checkpoints across
the battle zone, wary
GI sentries had to
assume every vehicle
could be carrying
German saboteurs.

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WORLD WAR II

WITHIN DAYS, THE STRIKE TEAM


WAS TRIED AND SENTENCED TO BE
SHOT TO DEATH WITH MUSKETRY.
American intelligence officer gasped.
Gerd? the lieutenant said.
Gunther! Unwin said.
The cousins enjoyed a battlefield reunion.
The night of December 17, GIs captured a Skorzeny
strike team at the Belgian town of Aywaille, fewer than a
dozen miles from the Meuse. A search of the trio turned up
German papers and stacks of American dollars and British
pounds. One commando captured at Aywaille repeated the
story about the plan to seize or kill General Eisenhower,
confirming CICs worst fears. Reports described orders
given a group of Frenchmen, formerly of the paramilitary
militia and the SS Charlemagne Division, to sabotage fuel
dumps and railcars while disguised in American coats and
pretending to be escapees from Nazi forced labor.
Within days, the Aywaille three were tried and sentenced
to be shot to death with musketry, the eventual fate of at
least eight Einheit Stielau personnel. One group, slated for

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the two Britons engage in much fruitless searching, the large


noncom in charge finally said, General, if I were you, Id get
myself a new aide.
Another popular security check was to examine for regulation underwear, which led to a dramatic sequence of
events for one Allied soldier.
Like others in his family, Gerald Gee Unwin, a Jewish
soldier in British uniform, had left Germany for England
soon after Hitler came to power. His Anglicized name
replaced his original moniker, Gerhardt Unger. In Brussels
on leave the evening of December 16, Unger/Unwin, who
spoke with a heavy German accent, wound up in a bar drinking with GIs from the U.S. First Army. Hearing their new
friends story, the Americans mentioned their intelligence
officer, Lieutenant Gunther Wertheim. Funny coincidence,
Unwin said; one of his cousins had the exact same name.
In the wee hours of December 17, Unwin accompanied
his new friends to their unit, based near where the Germans
had first broken through. Near Eupen, Unwin and his companions came to a roadblock. In Allied uniform but lacking
paperwork to justify being in the area, Unwin was arrested.
Guards holding him in a school classroom had him drop his
trousers; army issue shorts kept Unwin from being shot but
did not get him released. The next day he was marched into
another room to be interrogated. Seeing his next subject, the

JOHN FLOREA/LIFE PICTURES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

a firing squad, sought a reprieve on grounds that they had


faced certain death if they refused to follow orders. We
were sentenced to death and are now dying for some criminals who have not only us, but alsoand that is worse
our families on their conscience, they said. Therefore we
beg mercy of the commanding general; we have not been
unjustly sentenced, but we are de facto innocent. The Allies
rejected the appeal; Bradley confirmed the sentences.
Three other Einheit Stielau operatives were to be executed on December 23 at Eupen, near where captured
German army nurses were being interned. The doomed men
asked that before they were shot they hear the nurses sing
Christmas carols. With GI riflemen standing by, the women
sang in clear strong voices, a witness said. The guards hung
their heads struck by the peculiar sentimentality of it all.
The officer in charge was half afraid that theyd shoot at the
wall instead of the man when the command was given.
That same day, British troops of the 29th Armoured Brigade were guarding the bridge over the Meuse at Dinant in
heavy fog. An apparently American jeep drove through one
of the road blocks approaching the bridge on the east side
of the river, the commanding officer of the 3rd Royal Tank
Regiment wrote. This road block, as were all the others, was
mined by the 8th Rifle Brigade who had established a movable barrier and arranged for mines to be pulled across the
road should any vehicle break through the barrier without

Military policemen
ready Skorzeny
trooper Gnther
Billing, dressed in
U.S. Army fatigues,
for execution by
ring squad.

stopping. As we were by now in contact with the Americans,


this jeep was not fired on, but as it refused to stop the mines
were drawn across the road and it was blown up, killing two
of the three men in the vehicle, found to be Germans.

long with the Einheit Stielau teams general impotence,


the 150th Panzer Brigade proved a complete anticlimax. Skorzeny, who had known dolled-up German
tanks would not fool Americans except perhaps at night, gave
up all idea of thrusting through to the Meuse bridges when
the 150th bogged down in mud and the immense traffic jams
congealing behind the 1st SS Panzer Division.
The evening of December 17 Skorzeny asked Waffen SS
general Sepp Dietrich for permission to recast his force
as an ordinary panzer brigade. Dietrich, pestered by an SS
panzer corps commanders demands that he withdraw the
Austrians men, who were hindering the operation of the
corps by driving between vehicles and doing exactly as they
pleased, consented, telling Skorzeny to take the 150th
Panzer Brigade to Ligneuville.
On December 21, in a freezing fog, the 150th attacked north
to Malmdy. Skorzenys men forced back a regiment of the
U.S. 30th Infantry Division until American artillery loosed
new proximity-fuzed rounds that exploded as they neared
targets. In that days fighting more than 100 men of the 150th
were killed and 350 wounded. Shrapnel nearly cost Skorzeny
an eye. He withdrew the 150th Panzer Brigade from the
offensive, ending Operation Griffin. By chance, as with Einheit Stielau, the 150th had achieved the goal of sowing confusion. The attack on Malmdy convinced the Americans that
the 6th Panzer Army was preparing a drive north.
The Skorzeny effect lingered well after its perpetrators
had departed the field of battle. Tension at Allied checkpoints remained high, and across the region, both at the
front and behind the lines, anxiety about the infiltrators
persisted. Talk of the commandos methods and disguises
took on a life of its own.
German agents in American uniforms are supposedly
identified by their pink or blue scarves, by two [finger] taps on
their helmets and by the open top button on their coats and
jackets, an aide of Bradleys noted in his diary for December
22, 1944. When Charlie Wertenbaker a Time magazine journalist came this evening, we pointed to his maroon scarf,
warned him of a shade of pink and he promptly removed it.
And at Bastogne, a crossroads town where American
paratroopers had held out against Hitlers besieging forces,
shivering Volksgrenadiers found dead GIs in the forest and
stripped them of coats and boots. When these Wehrmacht
troops finally lost resolve and tried to come in from the cold,
wary GIs, remembering Skorzenys commandos and seeing
olive drab on Germans, considered the men approaching
with hands raisedand shot many of them dead. 2
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