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The Griffin that didn’t fly

Otto Skorzeny with his iconic scars which he got in dueling (Photo: Public domain)
Otto Skorzeny with his iconic scars which he got in dueling (Photo: Public domain)

During the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s surprise offensive through the Ardennes launched on December 16, 1944 an important role fell on Hitler’s trusted SS-commando, the infamous Austrian-born German Otto Skorzeny. Also known as “the most dangerous man in Europe”, Skorzeny was the one to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in September 1943 during the famous Gran Sasso raid from the well-guarded Hotel Campo Imperatore on the Gran Sasso mountain where Mussolini was held captive after the capitulation of the Italian armed forces. He kidnapped also Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy’s son in order to force the Regent’s resignation, thus prevent Hungary from surrendering to the Soviets and cut off remaining German forces on the Balkans.

Skorzeny (centre) with the liberated Mussolini after the successful Grans Sasso raid, September 12, 1943 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Skorzeny (centre) with the liberated Mussolini after the successful Gran Sasso raid, September 12, 1943 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

This time, Skorzeny was to carry out a false flag operation named Unternehmen Greif (“Operation Griffin”). The main thrust of Greif was to capture bridges on the river Meuse before the Allies could destroy them, thus speeding up the German offensive. As part of the plan, his English-speaking soldiers, pretending to be retreating U.S. troops chased by German troops, were to operate behind enemy lines wearing American and British uniforms and sow chaos and confusion. Skorzeny knew that under the 1907 Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land any of his men captured in the enemy’s uniforms could be executed as spies.
 
Since he was informed about the upcoming major attack in the Ardennes only on October 22, 1944, Skorzeny had just a couple of weeks to organize his unit, SS Panzer Brigade 150, and was beset by problems from the start. Skorzeny was not impressed at all by the skills of his troops and their equipment and was convinced that they could not fool the Americans. Instead of the planned 300 Allied vehicles (tanks, jeeps, trucks, motorcycles and others) only some 50 could be procured, and had to be supplemented by repainting to olive drab, adding Allied markings and modifying Panther tanks (G model) to masquerade as U.S. M10 tank destroyers (with relatively little success). Among other modifications, the Ersatz (“replacement”) M10 Panthers’ cupolas were removed and sheet metal was added to their hulls and turrets to make them resemble to the M10. External accessories, such as water and gas cans, had to be removed also. Still, masquerading the muzzle break and the overlapping wheels was an impossible task. None of these unique Ersatz M10 vehicles survived the war, they were probably scrapped. The Germans tried also to disguise some StuG assault guns, reportedly to look similar to the M7 Priest self-propelled gun. This idea ended up being even less successful. Avoiding friendly fire was an issue, too. Several methods were introduced to avoid it, such as painting yellow triangles on the rear of the tanks; the crews wearing colorful scarves or not wearing their helmets, etc. His unit has received great amounts of captured Polish and Russian equipment instead of British and American, since, due to the secrecy around the upcoming operation, other units didn’t have a clear idea of what the request was for.

A knocked-out Ersatz M10 Panther (Photo: U.S. Army)
A knocked-out Ersatz M10 Panther (Photo: U.S. Army)

From the approximately 3,300 men requested, only 2,500 were available (1,000 from the army, 500 from the SS, 800 from the air force and 200 from the navy). They were stationed at a training facility in Grafenwöhr in eastern Bavaria. The number of English-speaking German soldiers also fell behind expectations: there were only ten who spoke fluently, and maybe 400 others with less aptitude. Nevertheless, these soldiers attended a special training course where they were drilled on impersonating U.S. troops: they learned slang phrases and how to march, loiter or smoke a cigarette (throwing it away before smoking it down to the stub) like an American. Despite the effort and the seriousness of the training (one soldier was executed when he sent home an overly descriptive letter of his activities), most of the soldiers could only pass the barest of muster and some of them would have incongruous equipment, such as British Sten submachine guns with a U.S. uniform. A smaller unit of 44 men, Einheit Stielau, was created from the best English speakers but only some of them had relevant expertise in undercover operations. In some cases, they had to train with American POWs to refresh their English.  Their main tasks were to destroy bridges and enemy ammunition and fuel storages, to give false orders to U.S. units, reverse road signs and to sabotage radio communications.
 
Within two days of the start of the Battle of the Bulge, it became obvious that the primary goal of securing the Meuse bridges was impossible. The overall assault slowed down and the brigade itself suffered delays due to traffic jams. Thus, the decision was taken to join the 1st SS “Leibstandarte” Panzer Division and fight as a regular unit. They were tasked to take Malmedy on December 21 and planned to attack at dawn to surprise the defenders but a deserted German soldier told them about the upcoming attack, and the Germans were greeted by strong resistance and artillery barrage. Eventually, the wounded Skorzeny and his men had to retreat and were withdrawn from the front lines on December 28.
 
Sadly, this was not the only instance Malmedy was struck by bloodshed during the Battle of the Bulge. On December 17, 84 American prisoners of war were summarily executed by the SS in the Malmedy massacre. A couple of days later, between December 23-25, Malmedy was bombed repeatedly by U.S. bombers mistakenly thinking that the city was still in German hands. Approximately 200 civilians and an unknown number of American soldiers were killed in the bombings.

U.S. soldier views the corpses of POWs summarily executed in the Malmedy massacre (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
U.S. soldier views the corpses of POWs summarily executed in the Malmedy massacre (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

From the 44 German soldiers in American uniforms, 36 managed to get back to their own lines. Another 23 were captured and 18 were executed as spies in military trials either in the coming weeks or later in 1945. The executions were carried out by the U.S. First and Ninth Army. Although the overall operation proved to be a fiasco, the commandos, however, did manage to wreak some havoc and spread paranoia. On the first day, one team persuaded a U.S. Army unit to retreat from its designated area, while another switched around road signs and caused an entire regiment to get lost.
 
Realizing the presence of infiltrators, American soldiers soon grew paranoid and, based on the idea of counter-intelligence officer Earl Browning, started asking each other trivia questions about sports and state capitals, leading to several cases of misidentification. Brigadier General Bruce Clarke was held at gunpoint for five hours because he incorrectly thought the Chicago Cubs were in the American League, and General Omar Bradley was repeatedly stopped at checkpoints, though in his case the guards might have simply enjoyed harassing their superior. At one of the checkpoints, he was asked what the capital of Illinois was, Bradley correctly answered Springfield, but the guard believed it was Chicago.

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An American soldier posing with an abandoned Ersatz M10 Panther (Photo: Pinterest)
An American soldier posing with an abandoned Ersatz M10 Panther (Photo: Pinterest)

Over the course of the Battle of the Bulge, at least four U.S. soldiers were killed by their comrades because of paranoia or mistaken identity. Due to rumors of a capture attempt against General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe had to spend the Christmas in security isolation. This happened when one of the German teams was captured on December 17. Their cover was blown when they failed to give the correct password. During the interrogation, they hinted that Skorzeny intended to capture General Eisenhower in Paris at his headquarters. The members of the team were executed by a firing squad on December 23.
 
British soldiers had even bigger problems when asked U.S.-related questions. On top of this, when he heard about the German commandos, Field Marshall Montgomery decided to visit the American troops in Malmedy to increase his standing with them. What he didn’t know was that, according to some rumors, one of Skorzeny’s commandos was his spitting image and was driving around pretending to be him. As a result, Montgomery had a U.S. guard shoot out the tire of his car when he tried to drive past a checkpoint and ended up being detained in a barn for several hours.

German soldiers wearing white paper targets getting executed by an American firing squad (Photo: U.S. Army)
German soldiers wearing white paper targets getting executed by an American firing squad (Photo: U.S. Army)

Two years after the war, Skorzeny and nine other officers from his unit were tried before a U.S. military tribunal during the Dachau Trials as war criminals for the false flag operation, but were eventually acquitted for two reasons. Firstly, the rules of war technically only forbade going into combat in the other side’s uniform, and it couldn’t be proven that he ordered his commandos to actually fire on Allied soldiers. Moreover, a former British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent called F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas testified on the last day of the trial that he and his operatives had also worn German uniforms behind enemy lines. Condemning Skorzeny would have implied that the British would have also been guilty of war crimes. The tribunal eventually acquitted the ten defendants. It is worth mentioning that Skorzeny’s adventures did not end at all after this. In July 1948, while waiting for a denazification decision, he escaped from an internment camp with the help of three former SS soldiers wearing U.S. Military Police uniforms claiming that they had orders to take him to Nuremberg for a hearing. Following his escape, he hid for 18 months on a farm in Bavaria. In 1950, he appeared in Paris, then moved to Austria followed by Madrid in Spain. He later served as military adviser to the Egyptian government, and was also actively involved in founding neo-Nazi groups and helped former Nazis escape from Germany. At the age of 67, Skorzeny died of lung cancer on July 5, 1975 in Madrid and was buried in Vienna.

Skorzeny after the war (Photo: servimg.com)
Skorzeny after the war (Photo: servimg.com)

In the historically inaccurate 1965 war movie Battle of the Bulge, the viewer can find German paratroopers disguised as American MPs. In the movie, the group is led by Lieutenant Schumacher, played by actor Ty Hardin.

A snippet from the Battle of the Bulge movie (Video: YouTube)
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