OTTO SKORZENY – OPERATION GREIF AND THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE

In October 1944, Adolf Hitler summoned a 6 foot 3 inch Austrian with scars on his face to his lair in East Prussia. The tall man was Otto Skorzeny, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Waffen-SS and the person the British called “The most dangerous man in Europe”. Hitler was planning a last great offensive in the West and he wanted to spread deceit and confusion among Allied ranks so his armies could sweep them aside. He needed ruthless and unorthodox men for his last gamble and Skorzeny was his favorite. Adolf Hitler invited Otto Skorzeny in and gave him the plans for a mission that Hitler told him would be “the most important of your life.”

Otto Skorzeny had distinguished himself with daring and unconventional raids. He led the glider rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and the kidnapping of the son of Hungary’s Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy which forced the admiral to resign.



Otto Skorzeny

SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny

Skorzeny’s new mission was called Operation Greif. He was given five weeks to organize a new unit designated Panzer Brigade 150. The Brigade’s objective was to infiltrate American lines ahead of the German Army wearing captured American uniforms, driving American jeeps, trucks and tanks and be staffed with English speaking Nazi soldiers. They would cut communication lines, spread false rumors, issue false orders and seize at least two of the three bridges over the Meuse river at Amay, Huy or Andenne. When these objectives were complete, the men of Panzer Brigade 150 were to join the main German battle force when the Sixth Panzer Armee reached the Hohes Venn area near Spa, Belgium.

Skorzeny organized his force into three battle groups called Kampfgruppe X, Y and Z with one assigned to each of the advance divisions. A special jeep team made from 150 of the unit’s best English speakers were to be organized into nine commando teams under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Steilau. They were to sabotage bridges and supply dumps, report on allied troop movements, create fake minefield markings, issue false orders and prevent the demolition of bridges.

A few days after his meeting with Hitler, Skorzeny was shocked to find a notice being distributed all over the Western Front which read : Secret Commando Operations. The Führer has ordered the formation of a special unit of approximately two battalion strength for use on the Western Front in special operations. The leaflet mentioned the men would be under Skorzeny and would report to a training center on November 10. Afraid the Allies would get wind of the plan, Skorzeny urged for the mission to be aborted. Luckily for the Germans, when Allied Intelligence heard of the notice they discounted it as fake propaganda. The Allies could not believe the Germans would be so stupid as to advertise a real secret plan so blatantly.

The training camps for the commandos were set up at Grafenwöhr and Friedenthal and nicknamed the “American School”. The first batch of commando applicants left Skorzeny without much confidence. Only ten men, most from the German navy, could speak English perfectly and understand American slang. Thirty five more could speak fluently but with heavy accents and got lost when hearing American slang. Three hundred of the men could pass if they did not have to say very much, while the majorities were only able to answer “yes” or “no.” Skorzeny, himself fluent in English remarked that most of his commandos “could certainly never dupe an American- even a deaf one!”



The men were given training in how to talk and act like Americans. They were taught gestures, to chew gum, slouch and how to cuss. Men not fluent in English were schooled in typical American responses to challenges by authority. When questioned with “Who goes there?” the answer was: “It’s okay Joe, don’t mind me”. The response for a password challenge was “Aw, go lay an egg” or “So is your old man, buddy”. If neither of these worked the German was taught to swear a lot, say he was in a hurry and pretend to lose patience.

Even with the power of requisition given to him by the Führer, most of the American uniforms available to Skorzeny were summer uniforms with POW written on the back of them. US helmets, weapons and ammo were also in short supply. German High Command had envisioned a force of 3,300 men, 15 Sherman tanks, 32 armored cars, 198 trucks and 147 jeeps. By November 27, the force had only 1,000 men, 2 Sherman tanks (one of which broke down from transmission trouble), 6 armored cars (only 2 American made) 6 German halftracks, 74 trucks (only 15 US) and 57 jeeps.

Five German Panther tanks and 5 assault guns were covered with sheet metal to make them look “American” to which Skorzeny remarked they were likely to only “fool very young American recruits- and then only from very far away and at night.”

Otto Skorzeny

One the the fake German tanks of Panzer Brigade 150 made to look like an American M-10 Tank Destroyer.

All the vehicles were marked as belonging to the US 5th Armored Division. To add to his worries, Skorzeny was afraid his men would be shot as spies if caught in American uniform. The German High Command’s idea of “taking off their uniforms before firing” did not seem realistic to him.

Otto Skorzeny

Another view of the fake American tank. Otto Skorzeny claimed these tanks could only “fool very young American recruits- and then only from very far away and at night.”

To add to Skorzeny’s 1,000 men, he received the 7th Panzer Grenadier Company, a mortar and signal company, two battalions of paratroopers from Kampfgeschwader 200 and SS Jadgverbande Mitte and SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion 600. By the time of the operation the brigade amounted to about 2,500 men and a dozen armored vehicles.

When the Ardennes offensive was launched on December 16th, Skorzeny and his brigade found themselves caught in the massive traffic jam of German vehicles that delayed the German advance. Seeing he could not advance, Skorzeny rested the majority of his men but sent his best English speaking jeep commando teams ahead. By the end of the day, 8 jeeps consisting of 44 men were able to penetrate American lines. The bulk of Panzer Brigade 150 remained stuck in traffic. Seeing no chance for a quick breakthrough Skorzeny received permission to use his main force as a regular combat unit.

Skorzeny’s Panzer Brigade 150, minus the 44 men operating behind enemy lines entered combat on December 21st when it attacked the US 30th Infantry Division’s 120th Regiment at Malmedy and the 99th Infantry Division on a railway embankment between Malmedy and Pont de Warche. The battle ended when the Germans were forced to retreat, with Skorzeny being wounded in the battle. Another attack was made the next day, but the Germans were unable to push the Americans back. Panzer Brigade 150, having lost 15% of its strength was taken out of the line and left the Ardennes battle area on December 28th.

The 44 men who penetrated American lines achieved much more success than the rest of Skorzeny’s Brigade. They were organized into four reconnaissance teams, two demolition groups and six lead commando teams. They cut communication, spread rumors of German success and caused as much confusion as they could. Some of Skorzeny’s men succeeded in misdirecting the entire American 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division by moving a signpost.



Otto Skorzeny

A soldier from Otto Skorzeny’s commando team before his execution by US Forces

Realizing they had disguised Germans among them, paranoia spread through the US lines. Americans challenged one another on topics ranging from baseball, comic books to Hollywood starlets.

In one instance, General Bruce Clarke of the US 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command B was challenged by a Military Policeman. When Clarke identified himself, the MP replied “like, hell,” arrested Clarke and said he had heard the Germans were passing off a fake one star general. Clarke further showed his guilt by placing the Chicago Cubs baseball team in the American League rather than the National League. “Only a Kraut would make a mistake like that” the MP assured Clarke. General Omar Bradley also ran into trouble when another MP did not believe that Springfield was the capital city of the state of Illinois.

Another problem was caused by the GI’s hobby of taking German equipment and weapons as souvenirs or to use themselves. At least two Americans are thought to have been killed by other US troops in cases of mistaken identity.

The most far reaching effect was a rumor spread by captured commando Wilhelm Schmidt. Before his execution, Schmidt told his interrogators that the mission’s real goal was to assassinate General Eisenhower in Paris, which caused chaos with Allied security.

Despite the commando’s success, many of the Germans were killed or captured. US mass production helped in the capture of some. Incredibly to the Germans, the Americans had so many jeeps that it was rare for more than two men to ride in one together. The three to four man German commando teams in a single jeep quickly attracted the American’s suspicions. Another reason was the German’s lack of knowledge of US military organizations. On December 18th, a group of disguised Germans came out of the woods near abandoned 14th Cavalry positions and were challenged by men of the US 7th Armored Division. The Germans, unaware that cavalry groups used “troop” instead of “company” for their units, stated they were from E Company whereupon the Americans opened fire and killed them.

Otto Skorzeny

Commandos captured in American uniform are prepared for execution

As Skorzeny had feared, men of his unit captured in American uniform were shot as spies. 18 of the commandos were captured and executed as spies before a firing squad. 16 men eventually returned to German lines.

Despite their losses and Germany’s failure in the Ardennes offensive, Skorzeny and Panzer Brigade 150 were a great success. Despite only 44 of them being able to carry out the mission they were intended for, they set off unheard of panic in the American Army and earned themselves and Otto Skorzeny a lasting place in history.



For More on Otto Skorzeny Check Out:

Hitler’s Commando: The Daring Missions of Otto Skorzeny and the Nazi Special Forces


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