Operation Grief

The Story of Otto Skorzeny and the 150th Panzer Brigade

                   By: Nick Jacobellis                     

            On September 16, 1944, Adolf Hitler shocked his subordinates when he announced

that Germany would launch an offensive in the Ardennes during the upcoming winter.  The

purpose of Operation Watch on the Rhine (Wacht Am Rhein) was to seize a series of bridges on

the Meuse River and capture the port city of Antwerp.  In doing so, Hitler hoped to deny the

Allies the use of a major port and reduce the Allied threat from the west.  Hitler also believed

that a successful offensive in the Ardennes had the potential to weaken the Allied coalition

and bring about a separate peace with the Americans and the British.  If this happened, Germany

would be free to concentrate all of its resources on fighting the Soviet Army. 

Operation Grief was a critical component of Watch on the Rhine and involved the use of

German commandos operating behind the Allied lines while wearing American and British

uniforms.  When it came time to select an officer to lead this special unit Hitler summoned

Germany’s greatest commando, SS Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Otto Skorzeny.  

After successfully completing a very important mission in Hungry, Major Skorzeny was

ordered to report to the Fuhrer’s headquarters.  On October 16, 1944, a grateful Adolf Hitler

presented Skorzeny with the German Gold Cross and promoted him to Obersturmbannfuhrer (SS

Lt. Colonel).  As soon as Skorzeny finished giving the Fuhrer a rundown of his escapades in

Budapest, a cordial and friendly Adolf Hitler turned serious and proceeded to brief Germany’s

most famous commando on the role that he and his men would play in the Ardennes offensive.      

According to Hitler’s plan, once the offensive began, German commandos dressed like 

American soldiers would mix in with retreating American units and create chaos and confusion

behind enemy lines by miss-directing traffic, changing road signs, destroying communications,

creating panic and spreading rumors.  The German commandos were also given the mission of

seizing and holding three bridges across the Meuse River at Engis, Amay and Huy. 

The special commando unit that would receive the designation of the 150th Panzer

Brigade included some 3300 men.  Although the brigade had one primary mission it consisted of

two components and was divided into three attacking forces identified as Battle Group X, Y

and Z.  While one element consisted of a smaller number of German commandos masquerading

as American MPs, the bulk of the force would use subterfuge to travel through enemy lines

disguised as a mechanized unit of the 5th Armored Division of the U.S. Ninth Army.  Once the

offensive began, the commandos wearing the American uniforms would pave the way to the

bridges, while the rest of the 150th Brigade would use a column of captured American tanks,

armored cars, trucks and jeeps to spearhead the advance to the Meuse River crossings for the

Sixth Panzer Army. 

The purpose of using captured U.S. Army vehicles was meant to help facilitate

movement behind enemy lines and limit hostile contact with the Americans.  The Germans were

banking on the fog of war to create an atmosphere whereby the retreating Americans and any

pockets of resistance would automatically assume that the 150th Panzer Brigade was an

American armored unit because the disguised column consisted of easily identifiable U.S. Army

vehicles.

            From the moment Skorzeny was briefed by Hitler in October of 1944, he was given less

than two months to prepare his men for battle.  From the very beginning, Skorzeny was promised

everything that he would need to mount an elaborate covert operation.  For starters, Skorzeny

was told that he would receive an adequate number of English speaking German soldiers. 

Skorzeny was also given the distinct impression that his commando force would consist of men

who could easily pass for American soldiers, men who knew the “lingo,” habits, folklore and

mannerisms of the average G.I.  In addition, Skorzeny was promised an ample supply of

American uniforms, weapons, ammunition and vehicles for his commando unit to use in their

penetration of the Ardennes. 

Even though the German dictator had previously ordered the execution of captured Allied

Commandos, there was some discussion about the legality of German soldiers engaging in

commando operations while wearing enemy uniforms.  As far as Hitler was concerned, the use

of German commandos in enemy uniforms was simply a case of tit for tat.  According to

Skorzeny, he investigated this matter further and was told by a member of General Winter’s staff

that it was only a violation of international law to be captured while wearing an enemy uniform

and bearing arms.  Skorzeny documents in his autobiography that General Winter’s staff officer

also advised him of the risks that a small group of commandos were taking as opposed to a larger

force and suggested that the soldiers of the 150th Panzer Brigade should wear their German

uniforms under the Allied attire and make a quick change before engaging the enemy in combat.

Regardless of the advice he received, Hitler valued Skorzeny enough to order him to lead his

commando unit from a distance and not travel behind enemy lines. 

Shortly after being briefed by Hitler, Skorzeny became infuriated when he learned that

the German Army High Command (OKW) sent an un-coded message to all Wehrmacht units

requesting that English speaking German volunteers should report to Skorzeny’s training base in

Friedenthal near Berlin.  This signals blunder was covered up, even though all German military

personnel familiar with the plan faced the penalty of death for any breaches of security.  Despite

this breach in security Operation Grief was not canceled.

            As documented by several historians and authors, including Lt. Colonel Skorzeny,

operational problems became worse when out of 3300 men Skorzeny found ten who could speak

English fluently with some knowledge of American slang, thirty to forty who had a very good

command of the English language, but no familiarity with American slang, 120 to 150 who

spoke English fairly well and another 200 that were only capable of speaking a few words of

English.  Of all the men in his new command, Skorzeny found that his best English speaking

commandos were Germans who lived in the United States before the war and those who served

as navy personnel and merchant seamen. 

            Another problem facing the Operation Greif commandos involved their indoctrination

and training as German soldiers.  While a German soldier would click his heels and snap to

attention in the presence of a superior officer, the average American G.I., especially in a front

line combat unit, was more likely to present a casual stance and depending on the area of

operation, a salute was not expected to be presented to a superior officer. According to Skorzeny,

he corrected his commandos whenever they instinctively acted like good German soldiers and

failed to behave like Americans. Simple behavior or mannerisms like the way an American

flicked open his Zippo lighter, smoked a cigarette and chewed gum was difficult for the average

German volunteer to master in the short amount of time that they had to train before going

operational.  American soldiers also used a great deal of profanity. As a result, it was necessary

to teach the German commandos to curse more often, especially if the occasion called for it. 

The Operation Grief Commandos were also at a disadvantage because they had little or

no knowledge of American trivia.  During the Battle of the Bulge American soldiers used facts

and information about sports, movie stars and comic strip characters to challenge anyone

wearing a U.S. Army uniform who was coming through their lines.  Although some of

Skorzeny’s men were able to effectively communicate with the American troops they

encountered, other Operation Grief commandos were not that lucky.  Even Germans that had

some command of the English language and thought they were familiar with certain American

and British slang phrases and euphemisms were prone to repeat the phrase wrong and bring

suspicion upon themselves.

            To complicate things even further, Skorzeny received a miss-matched pile of American

and British uniforms, many of which were soiled and taken from Allied Prisoners of War.  In

addition to the lack of American uniforms, or the poor condition of the clothing they did receive,

Skorzeny’s unit was only issued enough American weapons and ammunition to arm the

commando company.  A bad situation was made worse, when Skorzeny’s unit was not issued

enough American vehicles and was forced to use German vehicles.  This meant that the lion’s

share of the 150th Panzer Brigade would have to infiltrate the American lines armed with German

weapons, while riding in a convoy that included a large number of German tanks and trucks that

were camouflaged to look like American vehicles. 

The success of Operation Grief rested on the ability of the entire German 6th Army and

Skorzeny’s commando force to move into position according to a strict timetable that

did not allow for unnecessary delays.  In order to be successful, the German commandos riding

in jeeps and wearing U.S. Army uniforms had to infiltrate the American lines at the right time, in

order to take advantage of the chaos created by the surprise attack on the enemy positions.  As

far as Skorzeny was concerned, Operation Grief had to be launched no later than by nightfall on

the first day of the offensive.  Victory depended on the ability of Skorzeny’s commandos to pass

as American MPs and travel freely through the American lines in the disguised armored column

of the 150th Panzer Brigade without having to fight their way to their objectives.  In order to

insure that his mechanized commando unit was able to use the element of surprise to facilitate a

quick advance to the three bridges, Skorzeny counted on using a convoy that consisted entirely

of captured American vehicles. 

After asking for twenty captured American tanks and being issued two, Skorzeny made

due by having metal plates welded onto 12 German Panther tanks to make them look more like

American Sherman tanks from a distance.  According to one reference source, 22 Panthers and

14 Sturmgeschutz III Ausf Gs (StuG tank destroyers had a fixed gun) were assigned to the 150th

Panzer Brigade.  In an effort to deceive the enemy all German vehicles assigned to Skorzeny’s

column were painted green and stenciled with American makings.  Unfortunately, as far as

Skorzeny was concerned, despite the best efforts of his men to disguise and camouflage the

German vehicles in the 150th Panzer Brigade, the altered equipment would only fool the most

inexperienced American soldiers and only from a distance.  Skorzeny was also concerned about

the amount of fuel his brigade was allocated.  As best as he could determine, the 150th Panzer

Brigade had just enough gasoline to reach the Meuse River, providing that the three battle groups

did not become heavily engaged, or make any unnecessary detours along the way.            

Skorzeny’s original plan called for the use of two tank companies consisting of ten

American Sherman tanks each, three reconnaissance companies consisting of thirty American

armored cars and enough U.S. Army trucks and jeeps to carry three mechanized infantry

battalions, three rifle companies, one heavy machine gun company, a mortar unit,

intelligence unit, anti aircraft company, two panzer defense units, one commando company and

staff personnel.  When the time came to launch the offensive, the 150th Panzer Brigade was

equipped with ten British and American scout cars/half tracks, of which only four American

vehicles proved serviceable, approximately 30 American jeeps, 15 American trucks, a

compliment of German Ford trucks and two Sherman tanks, one of which broke down while

assembling in the Eifel.  Despite the fact that Hitler told Skorzeny that the Ardennes offensive

was the most important campaign of the war, German Army Quartermasters were unable to

provide Germany’s most famous commando with most of the specialized equipment he

requested. 

            One of the most interesting aspects of Operation Grief was the effort that was made to

create recognition signals.  Skorzeny and his superiors were well aware of the confusion that

would reign supreme once German commandos found themselves operating behind enemy lines,

while regular German forces advanced through a sea of retreating and fighting American units. 

As documented by one World War II veteran turned historian, German commandos

wearing American uniforms wore colored scarfs and kept the second button on their outermost

garment or blouse unbuttoned to let regular German soldiers know who they really were.  In

addition, the Operation Grief commandos would tap on their helmet twice to alert another

German soldier to their true identity.  When challenged by regular German forces at night, the

Operation Grief commandos would hold up a red flashlight in their right hand to convey their

true identity.  Vehicles were also marked with the letters C,D,X, W or Z and tank barrels were

kept pointed to the left at a forty five degree angle as a signal to all regular German units that the

vehicles belonged to the 150th Brigade.

According to Skorzeny, a few days before the offensive, at a briefing at Field Marshal

Model’s headquarters, it was agreed that Operation Grief commandos were to hold up their

helmets when challenged by regular German units during the day and fire a Verey pistol for

recognition at night.  Clearly, every effort was made by the German Army to protect Skorzeny

and his commandos from becoming victims of friendly fire.     

            Skorzeny was also very concerned about the make up of the 150th Brigade, since many

of his men were volunteers from different units and branches of the service.  As risky as it was to

send a mixed group of volunteers into combat for the first time, it was twice as dangerous to

deploy an untested unit behind the lines while wearing enemy uniforms and driving American

marked vehicles.  Once Skorzeny expressed his concerns to General Burgdorf, two Luftwaffe

Parachute Battalions, a Panzer company and a signal corps unit were assigned to his formation to

strengthen the combat effectiveness of the 150th Brigade.  In addition, three veteran battalion

commanders were assigned to help Skorzeny carry out his mission.  Even with this additional

assistance, Skorzeny had his doubts if the plan would work using the men and the equipment he

was given.  Skorzeny was also very concerned about what American intelligence knew. 

            On December 8th the 150th Panzer Brigade was moved by train to Wahn where they

received a few more vehicles and made as many as possible roadworthy.  Four days before the

offensive the Americans captured a high ranking German officer who was carrying a message

outlining the recognition signals for a German commando unit.  Although this message did not

include any specific details regarding the objective of Operation Grief, it did confirm that

German commandos wearing American uniforms would be operating under the command of Lt.

Colonel Otto Skorzeny.  

            After traveling on crowded roads and dealing with disabled vehicles the brigade arrived

in the woods outside of the Blankenheim on December 14, 1944.  At 5:30 AM on Saturday

morning December 16, 1944, the ground shook along an eighty five mile front when over 2000

thousand German artillery pieces, mortars, rockets and railroad guns fired shells of all sizes at

the American positions in the Ardennes.  When the barrage finally lifted a deafening silence fell

over the Ardennes.  Then, almost as suddenly as the opening salvos of the offensive were fired,

German searchlights flickered to life and illuminated American positions and bounced off the

clouds to cast an eerie effect on the battlefield.  Moments later, hordes of German soldiers

followed by a wave of armored vehicles penetrated the thinly defended American lines.  As all

hell broke lose, visibility was further hampered by a thick fog that hung over the ground and

made it difficult to get a clear shot at certain targets.  Despite the confusion and chaos many

Americans stood their ground and defended their positions.  These valiant holding actions

prevented the Germans from reaching their main objectives and caused the enemy advance to

stall long enough to throw off the timetable of the entire offensive.

Thanks to a stalwart resistance put up by American soldiers in the Losheim Gap; that

included destroying a vital rail road bridge near Losheimergraben, Skorzeny’s brigade, along

with the rest of the 6th Panzer Army came to a crashing halt.  After pulling his men off the

crowded and congested roads, Skorzeny decided to send three teams of commandos ahead to

scout for a break in the lines and carry out as much of their mission as possible.  According to

one historian, Skorzeny sent a total of 44 commandos behind the American lines while the rest

of the column waited with elements of the 6th Panzer Army until it was clear to advance. 

            During their escapades behind enemy lines, the Operation Grief commandos dressed as

American GIs were able to contribute to their mission even when they were captured.  Once real

American MPs started picking up Germans dressed as Americans it was no longer a case of

wondering if the intelligence information and rumors were true.  Fearing that thousands of

Germans had infiltrated the American lines and were headed to Paris to kidnap or kill General

Eisenhower, every American G.I. became an MP of sorts and was on the lookout for “Krauts”

masquerading as the real Mc Coy.  Real MPs were so cautious that they arrested a number of

their own soldiers, including several high ranking officers who failed to give the right response

to a particular question and appeared suspicious.  History records that American MPs drove

General Eisenhower crazy by restricting his movements and telephoning him constantly in his

heavily guarded office to make sure that he was all right. 

To add insult to injury, on December 17, 1944 German commandos representing the

“master race” were interdicted by African American MPs.  According to the historian who

documented this incident in detail; African American MPs stopped a jeep containing three men

on a bridge across the Ambleve River.  When the real MPs searched the jeep they found several

hundred dollars in American and British money, pistols, grenades, a radio transmitter and other

items that aroused suspicion.  Once a personal search of the three men produced German pay

books and the commandos admitted to belonging to an elite German unit, they were placed under

arrest.  Manfred Pernass, Gunter Billing and Wilhelm Schmidt were treated as spies and were

executed by firing squad several days after being captured.

            According to Otto Skorzeny of the nine teams that he sent into action six to eight actually

operated behind enemy lines.  Skorzeny explains his inability to be more precise because he

questioned some of the reports that he received from some of his men.  Skorzeny also documents

in his memoirs that two of his teams were captured and five others submitted reports that were

later verified and confirmed that these units had in fact conducted themselves behind the

American lines.  The two remaining commando teams submitted reports that Skorzeny found to

lack credibility. 

            In giving more details about the activities of his men, Skorzeny reports that one team that

made it to the bridge at Huy on the Meuse River and had free reign of the area.  Because the

team leader spoke fluent English he was able to pass out misleading information and send an

American armored column in the wrong direction.  This same Grief unit destroyed telephone

lines, removed sign posts and returned to the German lines in the Losheim area to give a detailed

report on the enemy positions and the general state of confusion on the American side of the

battle.  Another team made it to the Meuse River with no difficulty and also operated very

effectively behind the American lines.  This team made a detailed reconnaissance of roads in the

area, laid mines and spread false information to passing American troops. 

A third team was able to destroy a portion of an ammunition dump and some telephone

lines.  This team ran into trouble on the way back to German lines when it tried to run the

gauntlet of fire as the Americans attacked the town of Chevron.  One Operation Grief officer

from this team was killed, but his three comrades made it safely to Lt. Colonel Joachim Peiper’s

group and were back in Germany by Christmas Eve.  A fourth team arrived in a village

southwest of Engelsdorf on December 16th and was immediately confronted by an American

officer who asked the German commando wearing American sergeant stripes to fill him in on

what was happening at the front.  According to Skorzeny, his men told the Americans that they

were completely cut off on two sides by the “Krauts.”  As a result of this false report the real

American unit withdrew. 

When it became apparent that the armored portion of the 150th Panzer Brigade would not

be able to complete its original mission, Skorzeny asked that his unit be put into the line to fight

as regular troops.  Even though heavy artillery support was nonexistent, Skorzeny decided to

launch a two pronged attack on Malmedy at dawn on December 21, 1944.  The objective of the

150th Armored Brigade was to secure Malmedy and the high ground north of town.  Regardless

of the shortage of artillery and other resources, Skorzeny was hoping that the intelligence

information he received from one of his commando teams, about the area being lightly defended,

would prove to be true.  As it turned out, Skorzeny was completely unaware that between the

time his commandos arrived in Malmedy on December 18th and found the town lightly defended

and December 21st, several American infantry battalions, along with artillery units, anti tank

units and combat engineers from the famous 291st Engineer Combat Battalion under Colonel

Dave E. Pergrin were waiting for the Germans to attack.  In addition to the presence

of overwhelming American firepower in Malmedy, Skorzeny’s plan also failed because U.S.

forces captured a German soldier on December 20th who was carrying information about the

attack.  

Because Skorzeny was ordered by Hitler to stay out of direct action he was forced to

direct the attack from a safe distance.  Believing that the town had no special defenses, the 150th

Panzer Brigade attacked Malmedy using the last ten tanks they had that were still operational. 

German attempts to retake Malmedy failed when the American defenders were able to repel the

attack and hold the town.  One historian who documented this battle in great detail reports, that

of the 500 Germans killed in the battle most wore complete or partial American uniforms.  

According to Skorzeny, none of the men in his battle groups fought while wearing American

uniforms.  However, Skorzeny does acknowledge that some German soldiers did wear pieces of

American clothing for warmth, because late war issue German uniforms did not offer adequate

protection from the elements.

While it is clear that German commandos wore U.S. Army uniforms and operated

captured and disguised vehicles for the purpose of infiltrating the American lines, it is unclear

how many German soldiers engaged in combat operations while wearing bits and pieces, or

complete enemy uniforms.  After the war, Skorzeny admitted that he and nine other Operation

Grief officers were lucky they were not captured wearing U.S. Army clothing.

            After failing to take Malmedy, Skorzeny returned to his headquarters at the Hotel du

Moulin in Ligneuville where he was wounded above the right eye when three shells landed close

by.  On December 28th the 150th Panzer Brigade was relieved by an infantry division.  The

Brigade was temporarily billeted at Schirbach before it was dissolved.  In the meantime, a total

of eighteen of Skorzeny’s Operation Grief commandos were captured and executed by U.S.

Army Military Police. 

According to Skorzeny, some of his men were captured because they mistakenly

overloaded the captured U.S. Army jeeps that were assigned to the 150th Panzer Brigade. 

Skorzeny and his men were unaware that, unless they were being used for a special purpose,

most American jeeps were generally only used to carry an average of two soldiers.  Again,

according to Skorzeny, four Operation Grief commandos were assigned to each jeep primarily

because the German Army was short on transport and had a tendency to utilize vehicles

differently. 

After avoiding capture, Otto Skorzeny turned himself in to the Americans after the war in

Europe was officially ended.  During his incarceration Skorzeny’s war time actions were

investigated and found to be no different than what was done by Allied commandos.  Skorzeny

avoided other charges by escaping first to Germany then to Spain, where he was eventually given

de-Nazification status by a German court.  In his own words Skorzeny referred to the killing of

unarmed American POWs at the now famous Malmedy Massacre by saying, “To my mind it was

inconceivable that any German soldiers could have deliberately committed such a crime.” 

            Although Operation Grief had no major impact on the outcome of the Ardennes

offensive, the rumors about German infiltrators and the subsequent capture of German

commandos in American uniforms did create some confusion and significant security concerns

for the Allies.  Even though the German commandos were responsible for inflicting some

minimal damage behind the American lines, Operation Grief proved to be more of an annoyance

than anything close to a military success.  

Of the 600,000 Americans who served in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge,

a total of approximately 80,000 were listed as killed in action, missing in action, wounded and

taken prisoner.  Of the 55,000 British troops who participated in this battle 1400 were casualties. 

Approximately 500,000 German troops in 28 divisions participated in The Battle of The Bulge.

(One reference source reports a total of 30 German divisions participated in the battle, while

another states that 28 Divisions plus 3 brigades served) The best estimates put the number of

Germans killed, wounded and captured as 100,000 plus.  Even though the Germans lost the

Ardennes offensive and the war, history has not forgotten the exploits of Lt. Colonel Otto

Skorzeny and the German commandos who volunteered to serve in Operation Greif.

The following sources were used as reference material for this article: Skorzeny’s Special Missions – The Autobiography of Hitler’s Commando Ace by Otto Skorzeny, Skorzeny – Hitler’s Commando by Glenn B. Infield, A Blood Dimmed Tide by Gerald Astor, A Time For Trumpets by Charles B. Mac Donald, Battle – The Story of the Bulge, Ardennes 1944 Peiper and Skorzeny by Jean Paul Pallud, Battle of the Bulge by James R. Arnold, Nuts! Struggle for Europe by Chester Wilmot, The Battle of the Bulge by Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine V. Dillon and J. Michael Wenger.  Also see: The History Channel for programs on The History of Military Police, The Dammed Engineers, Clash of Titans – Bradley vs Model, Our Century-The Battle of the Bulge and the KUAT Special Presentation: The Battle of the Bulge.   Bulge map courtesy By User:Matthewedwards – Map data, operation lines, etc. taken from File:P23(map).jpg, a US military source. Also incorporate elements from File:France_blank.svg (User:Sting), File:Maps template-history patch-en.svg (Sting and User:Yug), File:P23(map).jpg (US Military), and File:Wacht am Rhein map.svg (User:Grandiose), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18377138

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