As the Allies approached each other from east and west, the strain on this unholy alliance would grow insuperable. Canada, he predicted, would be the first to yank its troops from the theater. “World historical events have their ups and downs,” the Führer declared.
Rome would not be thinkable without a Second Punic War.… There would be no Prussia without the Seven Years’ War.… The palm of victory will in the end be given to the one who was not only ablest, but—and I want to emphasize this—was the most daring.
Toward that end he had a plan, originally code-named WACHT AM RHEIN, Watch on the Rhine, but recently renamed HERBSTNEBEL, Autumn Mist. This he would now disclose on pain of death to any man who betrayed the grand secret.
It had come to him as in a fever dream, when he was bedridden and yellow with jaundice in September. Brooding over what Jodl called “the evil fate hanging over us,” the Führer had again been hunched at his maps when his eye fixed on the same unlikely seam through the Ardennes that German invaders had already ripped twice in this century. A monstrous blow by two panzer armies could swiftly reach the Meuse bridges between Liège and Namur, carving away Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in the north from the Americans in the south, and eradicating the enemy threat to the Ruhr. Destroying thirty divisions in the west would wipe out a third of the Anglo-American force, requiring Churchill and Roosevelt to sue for peace; conversely, exterminating thirty Bolshevik divisions in the east, among more than five hundred, could hardly deal a decisive blow. Therefore Germany’s destiny must, he proclaimed, be “sealed in the West.” As for the offensive’s ultimate objective, Hitler in a conference with his senior generals had abruptly blurted out a single word: “Antwerp.”
Crows or starlings might have been mistaken for German parachutists near Spa, but more than a thousand actual airborne troops were due to be dropped north of Malmédy on Null Tag to further disrupt American defenses.
Nothing went right for the enemy. Airdromes designated for training proved not to exist, half the Ju-52 pilots had never flown in combat, and many paratroopers were either novices or had not jumped since the attack on Holland in 1940. “Don’t be afraid. Be assured that I will meet you personally by 1700 on the first day,” General Dietrich had told the mission commander, Colonel Friedrich von der Heydte. “Behind their lines are only Jewish hoodlums and bank managers.” After confusion and blunders delayed the jump for a day, a howling crosswind on Sunday morning scattered paratroopers up to fifty kilometers from the drop zone. Two hundred jumpers were mistakenly dropped near Bonn, and American gunners shot down several planes. With a single mortar, little ammunition, and no functioning radios, von der Heydte rounded up three hundred men, who stumbled into a losing firefight before fleeing in small groups for the Fatherland; the colonel surrendered after briefly hiding outside Monschau. Two-thirds of the original thousand were killed or captured. That was the end of what proved the last German airborne operation of the war.
Operation GREIF, or “condor,” proved no more competent. Under the flamboyant Viennese commando officer Otto Skorzeny, 2,000 men had been recruited into the 150th Armored Brigade for behind-the-lines sabotage, reconnaissance, and havoc. Their motor fleet included a dozen Panthers modified to resemble Shermans, German Fords painted olive drab, and a small fleet of captured U.S. Army trucks, jeeps, and scout cars. Some 150 men who spoke English—only 10, mostly former sailors, were truly fluent in the vernacular—would lead raiding parties X, Y, and Z to seize three Meuse bridges. They were issued captured or counterfeit identification documents, as well as GI uniforms, many of which had been purloined from American prisoners under the pretext of disinfection. To mimic American cigarette-smoking techniques and other mannerisms, the men studied Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
All for naught. Sixth Panzer Army’s troubles on the north shoulder disrupted Skorzeny’s timetable, and a set of GREIF orders discovered on a dead German officer alerted the Americans to skullduggery. First Army MPs on Monday, December 18, stopped three men in a jeep near Aywaille who were unable to give the day’s password; a search revealed German pay books and grenades. Four others on a Meuse bridge in Liège included a GI imposter who carried both the identification card of a Captain Cecil Dryer and the dogtags of a Private Richard Bumgardner. He and his comrades were found to be wearing swastika brassards beneath their Army field jackets. In all, sixteen infiltrators were swiftly captured in American uniforms and another thirty-five were killed without effecting a single act of sabotage on the Meuse. Most of Skorzeny’s brigade eventually was dragooned into battle as orthodox infantry near Malmédy, where inexperience and a lack of artillery led to heavy casualties. Skorzeny himself suffered a nasty head wound.
The sole accomplishment of GREIF was to sow hysteria across the Western Front. A voluble, imaginative German lieutenant captured in Liège claimed to be part of a team sent to kill Eisenhower. Colonel Skorzeny, he said, had already infiltrated American lines with 60 assassins. The ostensible figure quickly grew to 150, and rumors flew that they could be posing as GIs escorting several captured German generals to SHAEF headquarters. Soon hundreds of jeeps carrying suspected killers and blackguards had been reported crisscrossing France; more than forty roadblocks sprang up around the Café de la Paix in Paris, where Skorzeny and his henchmen were expected to rendezvous. Police bulletins described Skorzeny as six feet, eight inches tall—a considerable exaggeration—with “dueling scars on both cheeks,” supposedly incurred while brawling over a ballerina in Vienna. It was said that some infiltrators carried vials of sulfuric acid to fling in the faces of suspicious sentries; that many spoke English better than any GI; that they recognized one another by rapping their helmets twice, or by wearing blue scarves, or by leaving unfastened the top button of a uniform blouse. It was said that some might be costumed as priests, or nuns, or barkeeps. The Army official history dryly recorded that “Belgian or French café keepers who for weeks had been selling vin ordinaire, watered cognac, and sour champagne to the GIs were suddenly elevated by rumor, suspicion, and hysteria to captaincies in the Waffen SS.”
MPs at checkpoints sought to distinguish native English speakers from frauds with various shibboleths, including “wreath,” “writhe,” “wealth,” “rather,” and “with nothing.” Some asked the identity of the Windy City, since an intelligence report advised that “few Germans can pronounce Chicago correctly.” Other interrogatories included: What is the price of an airmail stamp? What is Sinatra’s first name? Who is Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend? Where is Little Rock? Robert Capa, burdened with a Hungarian accent and an ineradicable smirk, was arrested for failing to know the capital of Nebraska. Forrest Pogue, when asked the statehouse location in his native Kentucky, carefully replied, “The capital is Frankfort, but you may think it is Louisville.” When the actor David Niven, serving as an officer in 21st Army Group, was asked, “Who won the World Series in 1940?” he answered, “I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.”
Cooks, bakers, and clerks were tutored in the mysteries of bazookas, mortars, and mines. Trigger-happy GIs gunned down four French civilians at a roadblock, and an Army doctor was shot in the stomach after answering a sentry’s challenge with, “You son of a bitch, get out of my way.” Promiscuous gunfire could be heard in Versailles near the Trianon Palace, now entombed in concertina wire, and a fusillade behind Beetle Smith’s house one night brought the chief of staff out in his pajamas, cradling a carbine. “We deployed into the garden and began shooting right and left,” Robert Murphy, a visiting diplomat, later recounted. “The next morning a stray cat was found in the garden riddled with bullets.”
With Skorzeny and his cutthroats presumed to be still at large, Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to move from the St.-Germain villa to smaller quarters near his office. Each day his black limousine continued to follow the usual route to and from SHAEF headquarters, but with the rear seat occupied by a lieutenant colonel named Baldwin B. Smith, whose broad shoulders, prominent pate, and impatient mien made him a perfect body double for the supreme commander.