Operation Greif: special forces in the Ardennes

(To Paolo Palumbo)

During the winter between 1944 and 1945, the German Reich came to the brink of force, receiving the aid of two precious allies: bad weather and Otto Skorzeny. The first intervention was quite random: no one at the OWW hoped at such a time that for weeks had paralyzed Eisenhower's aviation. The second, certainly less fortuitous, involved Otto Skorzeny one of the most well-known SS officers in the whole Reich, a man close to Adolf Hitler who, just to him, trusted the mission to release his friend and ally Mussolini, of the King at Campo Imperatore on the Gran Sasso. The Duce's liberation brought fame and glory to Skorzeny even though much of the merit belonged to the parachutists of the Lehr Bataillon of Harald-Otto Mors.

Despite Skorzeny's zeal and the fanatical warfare fought by the Waffen-SS, Germany was on the brink of the precipice, although many still confided in the heavily decanted Wunderwaffe, the "secret weapons" promised by the Führer. However, the use of these new devices was time-consuming and since the Red Army was almost unstoppable, it was necessary to strike hard at least for Anglo-American troops. After the landing in Normandy, the Eisenhower armies began their slow and cautious march towards the German territory, demonstrating all their fragility. American Angloans could overcome the number, but as a tactical determination and tactical approach, the German army still had something to teach. The lesson learned from Monty and his entourage it was very hard: it was enough to ask the British paratroopers of Colonel Frost that in Arnhem they took a baton from which it was not easy to get back. The forefront line progressed lazily and the only general who could "play" them to the Germans, Texan George Patton, was kept cautiously apart. As British historian Max Hastings argues, Americans and Brits were far from agreeing on the conduct of the war and if it had not been for Ike's great ability, the results would have been worse.

For the Western counteroffensive, the Germans chose the Ardennes sector. The operation, initially baptized Wacht am Rhein (Guard on the Rhine) had to split the allied armies of Bradley and Montgomery into two, aiming rapidly towards the Meuse and then onto Antwerp, whose docks were indispensable for the Allied supply lines. The capture of the bridges that crossed the course of the Meuse was the most important node and for this Hitler decided to entrust the operation to a special unit, led by Otto Skorzeny. In this circumstance the Panzerbrigade 150 which aimed to open the way to VI Armed Panzer SS of Sepp Dietrich, but above all to ensure the control of the bridges between the towns of Lüttich and Namur. The main combat group would be preceded by small commando cores in American uniforms sent over enemy lines with sabotage tasks. Once the various steps had been reached, the Germans would stop allied signs to fight with their national uniforms.

The chosen group was also gathered in great secrecy because a large number of non-German material was needed - without too much clamor - to move. Skorzeny's exigent claims were overturned because of a worrying resource shortage, but nevertheless, some Sherman wagon cartons were recovered, a few bare-bones and numerous uniforms taken by prisoners of war. Some Panther Germans underwent modifications with structural simulacra to resemble the American tanks, while on the selection of the men a more lively attention was placed. The military chosen to infiltrate the American lines were selected directly by Otto Skorzeny who - as he remembers in his memoirs - questioned about 600 volunteers among whom only 10 were able to hold a conversation with a fluent Englishman, some spoke it but with one strong German accent while others either understood it only or could only say yes or no. The margin of error was therefore very high and as the SS official himself admitted, the Americans were not stupid and would not be easily deceived. The special group - called Einheit Stielau - he was gathered in Friedenthal to train in complete isolation, obliged to maintain the utmost resentment to those that were the purposes of the mission.

The offensive of the Panzerbrigade 150 started 16 December following three attack guidelines marked with XY and Z letters1. The sudden breakthrough of the American lines was however only an initial victory of Pyrrhus: the breaking of the Ardennes front, as well as the heroic resistance of 101st in Bastogne, is a widely known subject, traceable in very detailed works including the latest masterpiece by Antony Beevor on the Battle of the Bulge. Among the various war events, the one that most fascinates, and is still surrounded by some questions, concerns the incursion from the German units to the bridges over the Meuse. As Hastings recalls, the Americans had a bad memory of the experience that caused an embarrassing panic among the soldiers and in the offices of the command of General Omar Bradley. To the initial surprise was added the scarecrow that the German commandos could kidnap none other than Ike Eisenhower. Indeed, the infiltration of the men of Skorzeny is to be counted among the most daring special operations of the Second World War, even if the final result had been a complete failure.

The first units of the Einheit Steilau penetrated to the front line of Jeep Willis on the same day as the main force broke out the sloppy American defenses. Transposition on the big screen of Battle of the Bulge - we remember above all the timeless Bastogne of the 1949 and the Giants battle of the 1965 - provides a truthful example of what happened, showing American units skidded and cheated by the disguised Germans who lost the compass to entire motorized columns. In some cases the Germans were unmasked almost immediately, mainly because of their lack of knowledge of American military use. The December 18, for example, near Poteau, a group of men emerged from the thick fog near an abandoned artillery piece of the 18th Cavalry Reconnaisance Squadron. Sergeant John S. Meyers took with him five patrol men to identify who they were and as soon as he approached the group they asked what department they belonged to. The fake Americans replied that they were from the "E Company" of the same regiment, and that in cavalry they used the term "Troop" to identify themselves and not company. A conflict came into being and the entire German commando was killed. Other Americans, especially the men of Military Police, used much more subtle methods to ascertain the identity of suspects, appealing to knowledge in the field of baseball, rather than American geography.

Eighteen men of the special unit were captured before reaching the goal; the sentence was issued without hesitation: sentenced to death by firing because judged as spies. The failure of Skorzeny was subsequent to the end of the German push in the entire sector, thwarted by the appearance of the sun and the reinvigorated allied air support. Despite the debacle general, some of the military unity arrived at the points set by the general plan: a team settled on Huy's deck, able to divert an American armored column away from the front line, while others, as we have seen, were also able to cause panic and turmoil among Americans. The German panzer were locked, left behind with fuel, while the famous Kampfgruppe Jochen Pieper stopped his march from the air by the American air strikes. In a meeting with the commander of VI SS-Panzer Armee, Sepp Dietrich, held around the December 19-20, Skorzeny admitted that he was no longer able to advance his Kampfgruppe suggesting the commander to employ his men as conventional troops2. Meanwhile the shooting of the Germans of the Einheit Steilau, it created an unfortunate precedent: some prisoners of war, belonging to regular units of the Wermacht who did not even know of the infiltrated units, were passed by weapons only because they had padded coats and boots of the American army used simply to protect themselves from the cold3.

Under process: the Skorzeny case

Before embarking on the mission beyond American lines, the SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny had a talk with Lieutenant General August Winter, Head of Operations Office of the OCW. The SS officer was informed of the implications that such an act would have had in the event of any capture. The 23 article of the Hague Convention, signed in 1907, was specifically devoted to this issue by forbidding any military to "use unduly the parliamentary flag, the national flag or military insignia or the uniform of the enemy, as well as the distinctive signs of the Geneva Convention ". However, the following article, 24, stated: "The tricks and the means to procure information on the enemy and on the ground are considered as legitimate." General Winter correctly interpreted international law by adding that "deception among fighters is not forbidden in principle. The infiltration of enemy lines with uniforms used by the enemy is admissible as long as combat does not start: as soon as it comes into contact with the opponent only then the infiltrated units must wear their uniforms, revealing their nationality ".

At the end of the war things went differently and the whole operation Greif he went on trial to create one of the most interesting court cases after the most famous trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo4. Otto Skorzeny, but also General Sepp Dietrich, Jochem Peiper and many other officers of the SS Waffen were translated as Prisoners of War in the concentration camp of Dachau waiting to be tried for various crimes committed during the advance allied to the West, including the terrible and controversial massacre of Malmedy. Obviously the use of a former concentration camp was not accidental: inside the concentration camp - as Skorzeny himself remembers - the Americans built a new bunker with several very narrow cells capable of hosting just two prisoners.

From 18 August to 9 September 1947, the German-most feared allied officer, ended up in the bar for the following charges: improper use of enemy uniforms in order to participate in the fights and infidelically shoot the allied soldiers and embezzle material belonging to the American and Red Cross prisoners destined for them. The facts presented by the US Attorney were, however, only supported by two trials and not quite ascertained: the first concerned testimony made by Lieutenant O'Neil, who, shortly after the offensive began, sustained a conflict with a handpiece German in American uniform. Some of them were captured and the emerging interrogation that belonged to 1a SS-Panzer Division "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler ". In the second case, the accusation relied on the spontaneous declarations of a German soldier who told that during the attack on Malmedy he and his men - in American uniform - fired at an American sergeant who was trying to expose them5.

The drafting of a sentence consistent with international law was not simple, not at all discounted, because Skorzeny's defenders had several cards in his favor. The SS officer could not be treated like a war criminal or a vulgar assassin of defenseless people. The arguments put forward by the defense were supported by some prestigious texts of law, including the well-known volume International Law: A Treatise written by German lawyer Lassa Francis Lawrence Oppenheim, published in two volumes in 1905 and 1906. The content - a cornerstone for the interpretation of the norms of international law - was then taken up and annotated in the 1935 by the member of the International Court of Justice Hersch Lauterpacht who, on the subject "misuse of enemy uniforms" asserted that "As regards the the use of the national flag, the military insignia and the uniforms of the enemy, the theory and practice are unanimous in prohibiting such use during actual fighitng belligerant forces, ought to be certain of who is friend and who is foe "6. Lauterpacht therefore reiterated the validity of the 23 article of the Hague Convention, but only for military actions that included a conflict in focus or situations in which it was legitimate to know who to deal with certainty. Otto Skorzeny and the Panzerbrigade 150 had received clear instructions to approach the various American uniform goals, but once subjected, any clash with the enemy would have to be done with the German uniform. The writer is not a lawyer, but it is clear that the accusatory system was very flaky.

Skorzeny's defense also appealed to other jurists, such as Thomas Joseph Lawrence, who in The Principles of International Law (1895) stated that in War they could wear uniforms of the enemy "to creep unrecognised or unmolested in his position" or even William Edward Hall - Treatise on International Law who legitimized "to use the distinctive emblem of an enemy in order to escape from him or drawn his forces into action"7. The two incriminating trials were disassembled at the hearing: Lieutenant O'Neil's testimony, which was never smoky, did not disturb a direct link between the men he captured in American uniforms and Skorzeny himself. As far as the German statement was concerned, there was no obvious evidence that he had killed or hurt the MP sergeant, or at least had not disclosed it. None of the soldiers involved in the "Einheit Steilau of Skorzeny could also be accused of posing for espionage because the 31 article of the Hague Convention guaranteed their inviolability: "The spy who, having reached the army to which he belonged, is later captured by the enemy, is treated as a prisoner of war and does not bear any responsibility for his acts of spying before. "

The judgment issued by US Judge Colonel Gardner on behalf of Skorzeny was the acquittal for the disputed offenses since the US General Military Court in the German area "did not consider it improper for the German officer to wear enemy uniforms while trying to occupy enemy military objectives and There was no evidence that they had used their weapons while so disguised "8. For a SS man, acquittal did not mean freedom anyway because belonging to that organization led to "automatic arrest" even without evidence of crime. Gardner's decision did not weigh the testimony of a British officer, the famous colonel of SOE Forest-Yeo Thomas said, "The White Rabbit," which revealed that under some circumstances the British special forces resorted to the same expedient to inflict losses on the enemy . As soon as the proceedings were completed, the English colonel sent a message to Skorzeny for whom he had a great admiration: "You did a good job during the war! If you are looking for a place to stay I have a home in Paris ... Escape! "9.

Eight Skorzeny spent the last years of his life in Spain, in Madrid, protected by the Franco regime, where he died in 1975 as a mere technical clerk. By browsing the pages of his biography, though at times apologetic, it is not difficult to admit the extraordinary nature of this man who, although he wore one of the most hated uniforms in history, knew how to fight as only a few soldiers knew how to do it. Skorzeny can be defined in so many ways, but certainly not a war criminal, if that were the case would be long even among many allied special forces men.

1 - In Panzerbrigade 150 the unit destined to break through, Otto Skorzeny incorporated a company of his own SS-Jagdverband Mitte and two companies of the SS-Fallschirmjaeger Bataillon 600. In addition, two Luftwaffe paratroopers battalions and army soldiers joined.

2 - M. Reynolds, The Devil's Adjutant. Jochen Peiper, Panzer Leader, Staplehurst 1995, p. 110.

3 - G. Williamson, German Special Forces of World War II, Oxford 2009, p. 36.

4 - Although the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials were the most famous, few know that 1945 to 1947 Americans sent 1.672 alleged German war criminals divided into 468 cases all held in the former concentration camp of Dachau . Such processes had a very different legal value from those in Nuremberg or Tokyo, and the judgments were not so deserved. D. Riedel, The US War Crimes Tribunal at the Former Dachau Concentration Camp: Lesson for Today, 24 Berkley J. Int'l Law, 554, 2006. URL: http://scholarship.law.berkley.edu/bjil/vol24/iss2/8

5 - Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals, vol. IX, pp. 90-94.

6 - Ibid, p. 92.

7 - Ibid, p. 93.

8 - ICRC - Costumary IHL - Rule 62. Improper Use of the Flags or Military Emblems, Insigna or Uniforms of the Adversary, URL: https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule62

9 - Otto Skorzeny, My Commando Operations. The memoirs of Hitler's Most Daring Commando, Schiffer, Atlgen PA, 1995, p. 453. 

(photo: web)