On October 21, Otto Skorzeny reported to the Wolf's Lair following his latest successful commando mission, the seizure of the government quarter in Budapest. The Fuehrer greeted him warmly, awarded him the German Cross in Gold, and promoted him to SS lieutenant colonel. Hitler, obviously delighted, listened intently as Skorzeny described the operation in detail. When he finished his story and prepared to leave, Hitler said, "Don't go, Skorzeny. I have perhaps the most important job of your life for you. . . . In December, Germany will start a great offensive which may well decide her fate." He noted that "the world thinks Germany is finished, with only the day and hour of the funeral to be named. I am going to show them how wrong they are. The corpse will rise and hurl itself at the West." Then, with great relish, he described Watch on the Rhine to the tall Austrian in considerable detail, concluding by saying, "One of the most important tasks in this offensive will be entrusted to you and the units under your command, which will have to seize one or more of the bridges over the Meuse between Liege and Namur." To accomplish this task, Skorzeny and his men would wear captured American uniforms and would be equipped with captured American vehicles. At the same time, several groups of small commandos, also under Skorzeny, would infiltrate American lines, disrupting their communications and spreading fear and confusion wherever and whenever possible. Hitler told Skorzeny that his preparations were to be completed by December 2; the details he was to discuss with General Jodl, the chief of operations at OKW.
Because the time involved was so short, Skorzeny tried to protest, but Hitler brushed his objections aside. "I know that the time is very, very short, but you must do all that is humanly possible. . . . I forbid you to pass beyond the front line in person. In no circumstances must you let yourself be taken prisoner!"
Skorzeny was then taken to Colonel General Heinz Guderian, the chief of staff of OKH, and later to Jodl. 9 His large unit, which was to seize the Meuse River bridges at Engis, Amay, and Huy, was designated the 150th Panzer Brigade; his small commando company was called Einheit Steilau. They were located at Friedental, a training base near Berlin, which was turned over to Skorzeny. Security around Friedental was excellent. It was cut off from the outside world and was guarded by Ukrainians who could not speak German. Once at Friedental, a member of Skorzeny's operation (codenamed "Greif," after a mythical bird) could not leave the base or even be hospitalized for any reason.
The 150th Panzer was a fairly standard armored brigade of about 3,300 men and consisted of two tank companies, three panzer grenadier battalions, and three panzer reconnaissance companies, as well as flak, engineer, and support units. It was surprisingly short of captured American equipment, probably because the combat units that had it were reluctant to give it up. Skorzeny asked for 20 Sherman tanks but received only 2 (1 of which had a blown engine that could not be repaired). He asked for 30 American armored cars but got only 6. He asked for jeeps and got none at all-the German feldgrau liked their captured jeeps. He sent out foraging parties, however, and they located and seized 15 jeeps.
When he inspected Einheit Steilau units, Skorzeny was surprised and disturbed by the shortage of volunteers who were fluent in American slang. He found only 10, and they were mostly ex-sailors who had spent some time in America. Another 30 to 40 spoke English fairly well, and about 150 could speak some English with difficulty. Skorzeny divided his commando company into nine teams and instructed them to speak as little as possible. He also set up an ad hoc "School for Americans," in which the commandos were taught American habits, slang, and folkways. They also had to learn behavior modification. When an officer entered a room, the Germans habitually snapped to attention-unlike the American GIs. The Germans did not slouch like American soldiers and went to parade rest when told to relax, unlike the Americans, who actually relaxed. It took some effort to teach them how to behave like Americans. They were also taught how to spread fear and panic behind enemy lines.
Skorzeny also discovered that a strong hint concerning Operation Greif had already been leaked. The Wehrmacht sent a memo to all units, calling for volunteers who were fluent in English. They were to report to Friedental, where they would be incorporated into Skorzeny's commandos! This memo had received such widespread distribution that there was no hope that the enemy would not see it. This was a terrible security breach. Skorzeny feared the secret had been hopelessly compromised and even considered asking that the entire mission be scrubbed.
Enemy intelligence had, in fact, seen the memo. Fortunately for Skorzeny and his men, they ignored it.
On December 17 1944, Manteuffel, Dietrich, and a group of their officers met at Manderfeld, the headquarters of the I SS Panzer Corps (and the former command post of the U. S. 14th Cavalry Group). They decided to abandon the idea of driving to the Meuse in one fell swoop. Operation Greif, Skorzeny's reckless thrust to the river, was cancelled, because the mass panic it needed to succeed simply was not present. Skorzeny therefore recommended that Dietrich renounce his original plan of using the 150th Panzer to seize the Meuse crossing and employ the brigade as a regular tank unit. Dietrich agreed. The most important part of Operation Greif was over before it had begun.
In the other part of Operation Greif, the commando teams of the Einheit Steilau were almost unbelievably successful in spreading confusion, fear, and panic in the American rear. Skorzeny estimated that six to eight of his nine teams successfully made their way behind U. S. lines, and they did damage out of all proportion to their numbers. One team switched road signs and sent an entire American regiment rushing in the wrong direction. Others blocked off key road junctions and thoroughly disrupted traffic simply by using white tape--the engineers' standard warning for minefields. One team member told an American officer such a horrifying tale of German successes just down the road that he abandoned the town he was holding. Two groups were caught: one after it had reached the Meuse, the other near Liege. Even then they continued to do damage. Under interrogation, one member "revealed" that Skorzeny and a special commando party were on their way to Paris. There they would rendezvous at the famous Cafe de la Paix and proceed to SHAEF Headquarters at Versailles, where they would assassinate Dwight D. Eisenhower himself! General Eisenhower was virtually held prisoner by his own security people for the next few days while they tried to chase down Skorzeny, who was not even in the same country as Ike.
Elsewhere, the Americans developed their own code system, by which they asked questions no German was likely to know, such as who won the World Series, what was the name of Mickey Mouse's girlfriend, or what was the name of Li'l Abner's hometown. One American brigadier general (Bruce C. Clarke) incorrectly stated that the Chicago Cubs baseball team was in the American League and was held in custody for five hours. The American Military Police (MPs) who held him ignored his pleas, informing him that only a Kraut would make a mistake like that!
Not even British Field Marshal Montgomery was exempt from the new system. He was halted by an U. S. guard, but arrogantly told the young man that he would not put up with such nonsense, and ordered his driver to proceed, regardless of what the guard said. As his car began to speed away, the angry guard opened fire and shot out his tires. Naturally, General Eisenhower got a great deal of pleasure from the incident and even went so far as to proclaim that this was the best thing for which Skorzeny had ever been responsible.
The captured commandos, of course, were executed as spies. Before their executions, one team had a last request. They wanted to hear a group of captured German nurses, who were being held in a nearby cell, sing Christmas carols. The request was granted. They were shot the next day. Their last words (spoken by Gunter Billing) were "Es lebe unser Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler" (Long live our Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler).
Infiltration Group - Einheit Steilau
40 US Army Jeeps with English-speaking SS troops dressed in US Army uniforms. (Circa 120 men)
According to Gerald Astor-A Blood Dimmed Tide, Greif units had following identifying measures:
-Pink or blue scarves
-Second button of the blouse unbuttoned
-If they were challenged by day, Greif men would tap his helmet twice. In night blue torch in the left hand issued a challenge, while red torch in the right affirmed his belonging to German side
-In Jeeps they had C, D, X, Y or Z letters in hood
-In tanks they did keep their guns pointed to 9 o'clock when not in action.