The Battle of the Bulge began on December 16, 1944, when two Panzer armies, comprising most of the German armored reserve, crashed into a lightly defended sector of the American lines in the Ardennes Forest. 

The overly ambitious plan by Adolf Hitler was to split the American and British armies in two and race to the port of Antwerp. Hitler’s generals knew the plan had zero chance of ever succeeding. While the Germans made big gains in the opening days, punching a “bulge” deep into the American lines, tremendous resistance at the Elsenborn Ridge in the north and Bastogne in the south slowed the advance to a crawl. 

One of the other ambitious parts of the German plan was “Operation Greif.” It is a German special operation designed to seize bridges over the Meuse River, destroy American ammunition and fuel dumps, and reroute Allied units by having German soldiers posing as American troops while wearing American uniforms.

Operation Greif was commanded by SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Otto Skorzeny, who was already known as “the most dangerous man in Europe.” The actual accomplishments of Operation Greif were few. However, the panic that Skorzeny caused among the Allies on the Western Front was vast and continued for several months afterward. 

Skorzeny – The Ultimate Nazi Special Operator: 

Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna in 1908. He lived in a lower-middle-class family in Austria, although his forebears originally came from Poland. While pursuing an engineering degree, Skorzeny developed a fearsome reputation in the dueling societies that gave him the characteristic scar on his cheek. He fought in at least 15 duels. 

In 1938, during the German unification with Austria, Skorzeny came across Nazi roughnecks trying to kill Austrian President Miklas. He stopped them, and soon word spread in Germany about the 6’4 Austrian who possessed the makings of a fighter that they could rely on. 

When war broke out in 1939, Skorzeny joined the Waffen SS and fought with distinction on the Eastern Front after the invasion of the Soviet Union. He was wounded in the head by shrapnel and sent to Berlin to recuperate and became a staff officer. 

While there, he worked on concepts to create a German unconventional commando unit. He led the training and was named the commander of the unit. In 1943, he led the daring commando raid in Italy at the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski resort at Campo Imperatore in Italy’s Gran Sasso massif, high in the Apennine Mountains. His mission was to rescue Benito Mussolini, who had been deposed and held prisoner. 

Skorzeny’s men landed by glider in a dangerous move on top of the mountain and captured all 200 guards without firing a shot. In just 10 minutes, Mussolini was freed, and Skorzeny accompanied Mussolini to Germany for an audience with Hitler. 

Hitler personally selected Skorzeny to lead Operation Greif (which means Griffin in German). The word went out to all German units calling for volunteers that could speak English and knew American slang. At this point in the war the German Army may have been running short of English speaking troops or those that did speak English weren’t all that keen to “volunteer” for a risky operation, the result was that Skorzeny’s unit did not draw nearly enough English speaking troops as he had hoped. Skorzeny would end up with only ten men who spoke English like native speakers. In desperation, Skorzeny would send some of his men to POW camps holding American prisoners to brush up on the English.

This later proved to be a fatal flaw in Operation Greif, 

The Plan: 

Skorzeny’s men (the 150th Panzer-Brigade) were split into teams with a demolition group responsible for blowing bridges, ammo, and fuel dumps, a reconnaissance element reporting enemy troop movements, and a lead commando group who would be in charge of cutting telephone wires, disrupting enemy communications, and reversing road signs. The concept of the plan was for Skorzeny’s men to wear American Army uniforms employ captured U.S. jeeps to go behind U.S. lines and sow chaos and confusion.  Skorzeny’s men knew that under the rules of war if they were captured by the Americans in these uniforms they would be summarily executed.  There was also the very real risk that they would be shot at by their own side as well if they came back into contact with SS troops who mistook them for actual American soldiers in the fog of battle.

Getting the necessary uniforms, weapons, and equipment was a huge issue. So was the procurement of American tanks and other vehicles. The Germans disguised Panther tanks to resemble American M-10 tank destroyers since only one Sherman tank was available. 

His men were assigned to the 1st SS Panzer Corps under the command of Joachim Peiper. His men were to follow the Panzers into battle and then break off and surge ahead to their different targets. Peiper would later face war crimes charges for the massacre of eighty-four American prisoners at Malmedy.

German Panther tank camouflaged to appear to be an American M-10 tank destroyer. Photo; US Archives

The Operation: 

The Battle of the Bulge began in the early morning hours of December 16. Following a massive artillery bombardment, the heavy German units easily cut through the thinly defended American lines. Confusion on the American side lay supreme as they were caught completely unprepared. The road net soon became a tangle of combat units rushing to meet the Germans being met by rear-echelon support units caught in the offensive trying to get back to the rear of the fighting where they could support the counterattack. These units were generally artillery, quartermasters, field hospitals, and the like.  The narrow, two-lane roads were jammed.

German Tanks Were Made to Look Like Americans During the Battle of the Bulge

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Skorzeny’s men were easily able to infiltrate the American lines in the confusion of the early hours of the battle. One of his units was able to drive right into an American-held town and scout out all defenses. On the way out of town, he redirected an American convoy of armor and supplies to a different road. Two of his other units misdirected Allied convoys of supplies and reinforcements. They added to the general chaos among the Americans in the early hours of the battle. 

But the Allies soon learned that German soldiers were operating in American uniforms and sent out a warning to check out the identification and behavior of any suspicious troops. It was here that Skorzeny’s men accomplished far more than they did on the ground. Near panic ensued as GI checkpoints were posted everywhere. 

Troops initiated questions about American sports, celebrities, and slang as a means to ferret out Nazi infiltrators. General Bruce Clarke of the 7th Armored Division was held after telling MPs that the Chicago Cubs were in the American League. British Field Marshall Montgomery was briefly held when he said he “had no idea” who won the World Series. 

Rather than impede Skorzeny’s actions, this overreaction only caused to slow down the Allied response behind their lines and caused far more confusion than the threat itself. One of his men was captured by the Americans and under interrogation made up a story that Skorzeny was en route to Paris to kidnap General Eisenhower. Thus the Allied HQs became a fortress with tanks, machine guns, and troops posted everywhere. According to Eisenhower’s naval aide, Captain Harry Butcher, “He is a prisoner of our security police and is thoroughly but helplessly irritated by the restriction of his moves.”   Several actual U.S. soldiers were killed at check points by jittery guards who suspected they were Skorzeny’s men. One sharp-eyed sentry figured out that the forged identity cards the Germans were using had corrected the misspelled word “Indentification” used on the actual U.S.-issued ID cards. Anyone caught with an ID with the corrected spelling of “Identification” was arrested.

With the stiffening American resistance, soon the Germans knew that the offensive would fail in its ultimate goals, and the 150th Panzer-Brigade was withdrawn by the end of December. Out of the forty-four men Skorzeny sent behind U.S. lines in disguise, just eight were lost. As the initiative in the battle shifted back over to the Americans, the Germans still behind U.S. lines changed back into their German uniforms and slipped across American lines again. The Allies were particularly fierce in the treatment of German soldiers caught in American uniforms. Many were caught, imprisoned, and then executed. 

German troops caught wearing American uniforms during Operation Greif are executed by firing squad. Photo; US Archives

But the search for Skorzeny in Paris continued until February. 

As the war ended, Skorzeny was tried for war crimes but was exonerated on all charges. One charge that nearly stuck was one of improperly wearing US uniforms. But a witness for the defense, F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, a former British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, testified that the Allies had done the exact same thing. He was acquitted. Although he was still held in a POW camp awaiting a de-Nazification hearing, Skorzeny escaped. He later worked as an adviser to Egyptian President Nasser and even the Mossad, helping track down German rocket scientists working for the Egyptians. Skorzeny died of cancer in 1975.

Although Operation Greif never accomplished its stated goals at the outset of the operation, the confusion and panic it caused among the Allies was a success. It ultimately proved to be a successful special operation by the Germans in their failed offensive.