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Today's London Telegraph relates one of the untold stories of World War II, nearly sixty years after it happened. The few survivors of uber-commando leader Otto Skorzeny's final secret mission have decided to tell the story of how they were recruited to impersonate American soldiers, go deep behind enemy lines, and capture or assassinate the Supreme Head of the Allied Expeditionary Force -- Gen. Dwight Eisenhower:
They were the decisive days of the Second World War and the Nazis faced defeat. Allied troops were on French soil and Hitler, desperate to prevent an invasion of Germany, hatched a final extraordinary plan: infiltrate the US army and take Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, dead or alive. The German leader entrusted Operation Greif to the Austrian SS Obersturmbahnfuhrer Otto Skorzeny, who had rescued Mussolini from imprisonment by the Italian government in 1943, flying him off a mountaintop in a tiny aircraft.
Skorzeny assembled a "crack unit" which would pose as GIs to launch their attack on Eisenhower at Fontainebleu, the Allied headquarters near Paris.
Yet, as one of the mission's survivors has now revealed, Operation Greif rapidly descended into farce. Of the 600 men who were to masquerade as Americans, only 10 could speak fluent English. Scores were caught by the Americans, exposed as Germans, and shot.
For amateur historians of WWII such as myself, this intriguing story fits right into the pattern of Nazi delusional patterns that came to the surface during the latter half of 1944, after the successful invasion of Fortress Europe by Eisenhower and the Allies. By the time this operation went into effect (October 1944), the Germans had been pushed back almost all the way out of France and the Low Countries and faced the prospect of fighting on German soil for the first time since Napoleonic times. (Germany collapsed in WWI before any ground fighting occurred there.) Operation Greif was launched in tandem with the preparations for the secret Winter Offensive, which was to culminate in the Battle of the Bulge, an equally audacious but unavoidably suicidal strategic mistake of catastrophic proportions.
The Greif commandos were trained on American speech, American military dress and drill, and even American smoking habits. However, as the few survivors of Greif now admit, their training was hopelessly inadequate and their fallback strategies laughable:
According to Fritz Christ, then a 21-year-old Luftwaffe lance-corporal, many of his comrades were hopelessly ill-equipped.
"Those with no English were instructed to exclaim, 'Sorry', if they were approached by Americans, and then to open their trousers and hurry off feigning an attack of diarrhoea," he told The Sunday Telegraph last week.
Mr Christ was transformed into "Lieutenant Charles Smith" from Detroit. The troops were trained to salute, shoot and even smoke like GIs, but there were fatal gaps in their coaching.
Many turned up at US army supply depots and asked for "petrol" instead of "gas". They mistakenly rode four to a Jeep instead of two, as was standard US army practice.
As Germans out of uniform and mostly wearing American ones, they were quickly apprehended and summarily shot as spies. Christ, fortunately and ironically, survived because he managed to convince his own Luftwaffe that he was American:
L/Cpl Christ survived only because he was attacked by his own side. His lorry, marked with white US army stars, was strafed by Luftwaffe fighter planes shortly after it set out from Belgium towards American army lines on December 16, 1944.
"I jumped off the lorry and hid in a ditch before the vehicle exploded in a ball of fire," Mr Christ said. "Nobody had told the Luftwaffe what was going on."
Those familiar with Third Reich history would know why the Luftwaffe had been left out of the planning, even if you discount the need for secrecy. By October 1944, Luftwaffe Air Marshal Hermann Goering had collapsed into a hedonistic, disinterested, and defeated drug addict, more interested in his stolen art, jewelry, and various playthings stolen from all over Europe rather than face the systematic destruction of his storied air force.
Hitler himself, having barely avoided assassination himself less than three months earlier, had allowed his megalomania to overwhelm him, believing that he alone could command the armies of Germany to victory over both the Eastern and Western fronts. In fact, Hitler implemented his Western winter offensive by stripping the Eastern front of its reinforcements and reserve units, and thought that by giving the Allies a bloody nose on the frontiers of Germany, he could force them to a negotiated peace -- and then ally with them to push the Russians back into Russia.
Small wonder that such thinking generated the "strategy" of capturing Eisenhower as a means to halt the Allied advance. Unlike the hidebound Nazi command structure, Eisenhower's loss would simply have meant another American general would have taken his place -- probably Walter Bedell Smith or Omar Bradley -- and strategy recalculated for the possibility of Eisenhower's knowledge falling prey to Gestapo interrogation techniques. Eisenhower, while brilliant, was not the only key to victory, which he himself would acknowledge freely.
In fact, one of the great questions of the fall and winter of 1944 is why Eisenhower held up his lightning offensive and switched to defense, making the Allies much more susceptible to the Nazi Winter Offensive than they otherwise might have been. Had the Nazis been successful in their ludicrous mission, they may have wound up hastening the Nazi collapse by another four months. But in the fantasy world of Nazi leadership in 1944, the notion of pulling 600 men off the already too-thin battle lines to participate in a playground-mentality mission must have made more sense than reaching political solutions, as German generals had been urging since July of that year.
Read the whole article, and if you haven't yet read the lengthy but fascinating account of Nazi Germany, William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, be sure to do so soon.Sphere It View blog reactions
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