Sunday, March 30, 2014

Operation Greif

Otto Skorzeny Tries to Turn the Tide of World War II

Operation Greif
Joachim Peiper during the Ardennes Offensive. Note the signpost to Malmédy, site of a brutal German massacre of American prisoners.

Operation Greif was a well-known German false flag operation during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Operation Greif was lead by the notorious Waffen SS commando, Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny was Hitler's private commando, someone who "got things done" that others couldn't do.

Operation Greif
Benito Mussolini freed from the Gran Sasso jailhouse

Skorzeny was already famous by this point in the war for organizing the jailbreak to spring Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini from imprisonment in September 1943. Skorzeny wasn't all talk - he personally flew a Storch light plane onto the mountaintop where the hotel was located, picked up the startled Mussolini as his accompanying troops held back the jailers, and then took off with Il Duce to bring Hitler's fallen crony back to Berlin. Skorzeny's other exploits during the war - and after - are legendary, and he is basically the father of all modern commando operatives.

Otto Skorzeny
Otto Skorzeny in Pomerania visiting the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, February 1945.

Skorzeny’s notoriety would be elevated even further with Operation Greif, though somewhat ironically it was one of his least successful operations. In this particular event, Hitler asked him personally at a meeting held on October 21, 1944 to help him turn the tide on the Western Front. Skorzeny was to organize English-speaking German troops so that they would infiltrate American forces and cause chaos.

Disguised Panther
Ersatz M10 (Pz.V Panther Ausf. G) of Pz. Brigade 150 - Malmedy, Ardenne, Belgium - Dec. '44. A German Panther, disguised to look like a US M10 tank destroyer.

Dressed as American MP’s (military police), some would cross behind American lines to sow discord and do whatever they could to bollix things up. This involved switching sign posts to direct columns the wrong way and spreading outlandish rumors about casualties and defeats to lower morale.

Operation Greif
A Panther tank given American markings as part of Operation Greif. There were so many tanks of different generations and makes floating around in the ETO that sometimes even tank veterans could get momentarily confused as to whose side a tank was on (as apparently happened at the Cologne Cathedral shootout). However, the German tanks masquerading as American in the Ardennes were quickly unmasked.

Contrary to popular perception, though, that was just a by-product of Operation Greif. The operation had a very concrete main task. Under a command designated the 150th Panzer Brigade, the main body of commandos was to seize a bridge or two over the River Meuse. This would enable Hitler's tanks to advance out of Germany and quickly take the key Allied port of Antwerp before American reserves could react. Some captured American equipment was available for the commandos to use to help the operation achieve success.

Operation Greif
False-flag tank used in Operation Greif

Furnished with uniforms and proper ID cards, Skorzeny’s commandos were armed with their deadliest weapon yet; accent-free English with which they went about their work to sabotage and terrorize at will. Skorzeny had his commandos spread the rumor that General Dwight Eisenhower was the target of their plans. This wreaked havoc on American communications as Eisenhower was confined in his chateau unable to visit the front lines and assess the situation for himself, thus hindering American operations towards Germany.

Operation Greif
Captured Operation Greif commando. The penalty for capture? Death by firing squad.

Skorzeny was no dummy. He knew the operation had a very small chance of any success, and his preparations confirmed this. There weren't many English speakers available, and very little captured American equipment. Actually, there was plenty of American equipment, but the fighting units found it better than German equipment and refused to surrender much of it. However, Skorzeny did what he could and actually got the operation rolling on time. For this subterfuge, Skorzeny earned the nicknames of “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe” and perhaps more menacingly “Scarface” due to his numerous battle scars.

Operation Greif
German saboteurs under arrest

The operation, for all its notoriety, had limited impact. The commandos were Germans, not Americans, and it wasn't all that difficult to tell them apart from real GI's who spoke current slang and usually hated authority. Many of the commandos had not been to America in years, and they were not caught up on current events there. It became a cliché in American depictions of the event for the inevitable unmasking of the saboteurs to be accomplished by getting false or evasive answers to questions such as "Who won the World Series last year" or "who plays centerfield for the Brooklyn Indians." That wasn't really necessary, as the commandos were fairly obvious to spot.

Operation Greif
The commandos about to be shot for being spies

It was a clever plan, and did fit into a larger German plan to forge Western currency to destabilize their economies and otherwise use spies to win the war. However, that was the problem for the participants in Operation Grief - since they were dressed in the enemy's uniform, they were indistinguishable from real spies and could be treated as such. The penalty for spies? Summary execution. Everybody understood that going in.

Operation Greif
German commando Gunther Billing in US Army fatigues as US Army MPs tie his hands behind him before facing the firing squad. Billing was one of a group of German commandos who infiltrated US lines during the Battle of the Ardennes (Dec 1944) wearing US Army uniforms.

Those Operation Greif participants caught by the Americans were stood up by real American MPs and shot. Skorzeny? He escaped to Spain in another daring maneuver as the war ended, barely reaching the coast of Spain after a long flight from Norway, and lived to a ripe old age.