‘A 10 Per Cent Chance of Success’

JOCHEN PEIPER KNEW that ahead of him, and his colleagues of Hugo Kraas’s 12th SS-Hitlerjugend Division, some 870 paratroopers under the command of Freiherr von der Heydte were due to have landed at the Baraque Michel (Michelshütte) crossroads, on Rollbahn ‘A’, today the N68, midway between Spa and Monschau. Baraque Michel was an old coaching inn on the Hohen Venn (High Fens), one of the highest points above sea level in Belgium, and an obvious position to seize. Heydte had experienced enormous trouble simply assembling enough trained jumpers. Some of his volunteers openly admitted they had never jumped out of an aeroplane before, which, as we have seen, prompted Heydte to complain to Model, who ordered him nevertheless to proceed ‘even if the mission has only a 10 per cent chance of success’. Heydte could at least control the preparation of his men and equipment for Operation Stösser, but over the aircraft conveying him he had no authority. In the latter case, pilots had to identify the precise drop zone area and hold the plane steady and level at a fixed height while the jumpers exited.

This was extraordinarily difficult by day, without the threat of hostile aircraft, but even more challenging when conducted by planes flying at night, in formation, without lights, prior reconnaissance or possession of recent aerial photographs. In fact this was the only recorded night-time drop of the Fallschirmjäger. Furthermore, as navigation and piloting was done by the flying branch of the Luftwaffe, the Fallschirmjäger, though wearing the same swooping eagle as their flying brethren, took no part in the navigation. Thus great trust was required between jumpers, pilot and navigator to ensure the troops – and their equipment, which was dropped separately by parachute-canister – landed together and close to their objective. Despite Göring’s personal assurances, in the chaotic state of the Third Reich of December 1944 initially not enough Junkers-52 tri-motors could be found, there was no spare fuel for practice jumps, few of their young pilots had ever flown in formation or combat, let alone at night, and none had ever worked with paratroopers.

The drop was initially delayed when some of the assigned aircraft failed to appear at the appointed aerodrome. A new drop time, as specified in the orders given to Dietrich, was set for 03.00 a.m. on 17 December. Due to 12th SS Panzer Division’s lack of progress, the drop zone remained the Baraque Michel crossroads, seven miles north of Malmedy. Heydte’s mission was to hold it for twenty-four hours until the arrival of the SS formation. Faced with potential investigations by the Gestapo as to why the drop had failed to materialise as originally planned, Heydte pushed hard to continue and eventually sixty-seven Junkers-52 transport planes were assembled (a tremendous achievement for the Luftwaffe in itself), and with around 870 Fallschirmjäger and their supply canisters on board, took off during a powerful snowstorm with strong winds and low cloud cover. Compared to the operations of the Allied airborne divisions on D-Day, who had trained hard for six months beforehand, the results were risible and demonstrated that Hitler’s security paranoia once again compromised what had been a promising idea. Göring’s assurances that he could deliver what he patently could not further exacerbated the problem.

Many planes flew off-course almost immediately; some conveyed 200 Fallschirmjäger to the vicinity of Bonn, where their passengers enthusiastically jumped into German-held terrain, over fifty miles from their objective, and to their chagrin, well behind their own lines; others returned, unable to find their drop zones with their troops still on board. Of those who exited their planes, many found the prevailing strong winds cast them far away from their colleagues. A substantial number made rough landings and were killed or crippled upon impact. Heydte himself, though landing on target, suffered a broken arm and by noon on 17 December had collected less than a quarter of his force, amounting to some 300 paratroops. With most of his supply containers also dispersed, his radios lost, and enough ammunition only for a brief engagement, his men lurked in woods near to their crossroads, waiting for the arrival of the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend Division, and planned to seize their designated road junction just before the latter’s arrival. On the 20th, after three days of waiting for the panzers, with limited food, water and no medical support, the young colonel split his forces into three groups and bid them filter through the lines back to Germany as best they could. Eventually an exhausted Heydte, wounded, frostbitten and suffering from exposure, was forced to seek sanctuary from German civilians in Monschau and, making contact with some nearby GIs, surrendered the following day.

In fact Heydte had achieved more than he realised; because of the dispersal of the drop, Fallschirmjäger were reported all over the Ardennes, and the Allies believed a major division-sized jump had taken place. At the same time, inspired by the British tactic used in Normandy, German aircraft had ‘a trick of dropping parachutes with straw dummies in them to terrorise the civilian population,’ remembered Vincent Petringa of the 505th Military Police Battalion. His battalion recovered nineteen such dummies.1 Real or phoney, the Fallschirmjäger threat diverted substantial numbers (an entire infantry regiment and a combat command totalling about 6,000 men), who spent several precious days on cordon and search duties looking for Heydte’s men. Some paratroopers had died alone when they landed or succumbed to their landing injuries days later; several were found in the lonely Ardennes when the snow melted the following spring. A few continue to be found, and a small museum in Bastogne exhibits the webbing, helmet and weapons found on the remains of one poor soul who died alone and was discovered in the 1970s.

It was all such a far cry from the 1941 battle for Crete where the Fallschirmjäger had made their reputation, if at an excessively high cost in casualties and aircraft. So much more could have been achieved with proper training and rehearsal. Even Dietrich’s refusal to countenance the issue of carrier pigeons had a consequence, for this denial prevented Heydte from sending back vital intelligence about American units, or his own unit’s condition. Looking back at the mission, Heydte and his Fallschirmjäger were committed to support only Dietrich’s Sixth Army. Much better use could have been made elsewhere of the distinguished colonel who had led his men with great ability in Tunisia and Normandy. In Manteuffel’s sector, where the terrain was kinder, there were many more open meadows for drop zones, or landing zones for gliders (which the Americans used when they resupplied Bastogne from the air). After the war, Manteuffel revealed he had discussed the potential deployment of Fallschirmjäger in Fifth Army’s sector at St Vith, Houffalize and Bastogne, but had felt that ‘although the Wehrmacht still had several thousand airborne troops at its disposal, it was not able to commit them any longer with a certainty that they would achieve success’.2 Heydte’s deployment and capture neatly illustrated the consequences of Hitler’s dogged refusal to change even minor details and his obsession in supporting only Dietrich’s Sixth Army, which condemned his loyal Fallschirmjäger to impotence.

Some of the troops rounding up Heydte’s Fallschirmjäger belonged to Colonel George W. Smythe’s 47th Infantry Regiment, known as ‘The Raiders’. On 17 December, as he moved towards the northern shoulder of the Bulge between Elsenborn and Monschau, Smythe, who was part of the US 9th Infantry Division, encountered streams of leaderless American troops from a wide variety of other outfits, including artillerymen, tankers, armoured infantrymen, tank-destroyer crews, cavalry reconnaissance units and service personnel, some with their guns and vehicles, others without and on foot, who had begun to drift to the rear, nervous, frightened, often assuming a panzer was just around the corner. From his jeep, Smythe began to rally the US Army flotsam and jetsam around the centre of his own 47th Regiment, restoring morale, eventually being given unqualified command of all whom he collected. A Washington Star columnist observed that ‘Colonel Smythe in few hours organised what was essentially a complete new division from American units caught and smashed in the breakthrough, and used it to mop up groups of enemy paratroopers in the forest’. His actions, mirrored elsewhere along the front, brought him a Distinguished Service Cross. Smythe had been trained well; his divisional chief of staff was the highly capable Colonel William C. Westmoreland, the future (and controversial) commander of US forces in Vietnam.3

The Fallschirmjäger operation wasn’t the only fiasco. There was another Luftwaffe mission that was to herald the Ardennes attack which also completely failed to materialise. Operation Bodenplatte (baseplate) was designed to coincide with the beginning of Herbstnebel, as a sudden thunderclap against nearby Allied airbases. This was the reason for the Jägeraufmarsch (fighter concentration) that Ultra had identified in November. An unprecedented number of Luftwaffe aircraft were to be deployed in a special mission against airfields in Belgium, hoping to destroy huge numbers of Allied aircraft on the ground, when pilots were off their guard. In the run-up to Christmas and in the generally poor weather, it was expected that USAAF and RAF intelligence would fail to anticipate such a raid. It was a brilliant concept, but the weather precluded the Luftwaffe from playing their part.

Jumping ahead a little, Bodenplatte was resurrected on the first day of January 1945, when it was completely pointless. Some 1,035 fighters were sent on their breakfast swoop against the Allied air forces. They achieved tactical success, destroying an estimated 305 Allied aircraft on the ground (including Monty’s personal transport, a C-47 gifted from Eisenhower with an American crew) and damaging 200 more. However, this came at a heavy price, for 234 of the Luftwaffe’s pilots were killed, wounded or captured – their largest single-day loss in the entire war. Moreover, eighteen of these were unit commanders and fifty-nine were flight leaders – the lifeblood of the Luftwaffe.4 Some were the victims of fratricide on their return, poorly briefed German air-defence crews assuming that large formations of incoming aircraft could only be American.

Monday morning, 1 January 1945, found Flight Lieutenant Derek Lovell, usually flying RAF Typhoon fighters with 197 Squadron, sitting on a thunderbox surrounded by a hessian screen ‘minding my own business. I could suddenly hear b-b-b-b-boom. I peered over the hessian and could see fighters going over the far end of the airfield, which I have to tell you is the most magnificent way of relieving any constipation.’5 Meanwhile, the 403 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Squadron Operations Record Book for that same day noted, in the distinctive language of the period:

The first day of the New Year and what a way to start it off. At about 0830 hours this morning we had a social call from Jerry in the form of about 30 aircraft which strafed the ’drome. They strafed everything in sight, the aircraft, hangars, dispersals and personnel and what a mess they made of things. They didn’t get away that easy. Three of our kites, flown and led by P/O Steve Butte, P/O Mac Reeves and F/S Lindsay respectively were just taking off on a patrol when Jerry appeared over the ’drome. Within minutes of becoming airborne, Butte shot down and destroyed three enemy aircraft, two ME 109s and one FW 190. Mac Reeves shot down and destroyed two FW 190s and Lindsay destroyed one ME 109 and probably destroyed a further ME 109. Considering the odds against them, it was a damn good show.6

Observers on the ground later told Pilot Officer Butte, who was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his triple victory, ‘that I had started shooting before my undercarriage had been retracted, usually the first operation after take-off’.7

Had the Germans analysed their opponents more carefully, they would have realised they needed to target not Allied aircraft, which could be replaced quickly, but their pilots, who could not – only thirty-five Allied aircrew were lost.8 Had they targeted aircrew living quarters instead of aircraft, the Luftwaffe could have irreparably damaged the Allied air effort, at least for a while, for the centre of gravity of any air force is its flying crew. As it was, Operation Bodenplatte weakened that of the Luftwaffe beyond hope of recovery. Its fighter boss, General Adolf Galland, later observed, ‘We sacrificed our last substance’. The Allies replaced the aircraft lost on the ground, in some cases within the day, negating the effect, to the extent that the skies of 1 January 1945 still saw the second largest Allied sortie rate of the battle.9 The RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force, whose airbases had been attacked, nevertheless achieved 1,084 sorties the same day.

To put all this in context, by 16 December 1944 the Luftwaffe had assembled almost 2,400 tactical aircraft in the west, far more than the number dedicated to the May 1940 operation over the same terrain.10 This air armada equated to eighteen fighter wings, a force the Luftwaffe had never possessed before, and could not be disregarded by the Allies, even though the latter had achieved both numerical and qualitative superiority in the air. Hitler, however, misled his Luftwaffe commanders in ordering them to assemble huge fighter forces in the west, without telling them why.

The Luftwaffe assumed it was for the overwhelming counter-air operation, der Grosse Schlag (the Great Blow), for which they had been preparing throughout the autumn – a crippling blow administered in a single day of mass air combat against the bomber fleets of US Eighth Air Force. Hitler, who neither understood air power, nor – as was amply clear – trusted the Luftwaffe’s leadership, in fact needed his air force to support his armies in their advance through the Ardennes. However, the fighter forces defending the Reich in late 1944 were proficient only in air-to-air combat; tactical air-to-ground sorties supporting a blitzkrieg required different (and rehearsed) skills, which were only a dim memory for a few of the Luftwaffe’s older pilots. Consequently, the Luftwaffe built the wrong structure for Herbstnebel, creating a command chain separate from the ground units they were required to support. Unlike the earlier blitzkrieg of 1940, there was no integrated air–land command structure, planning, or operations staff. The lowest level of any coordinated activity was in Model’s Army Group ‘B’ headquarters.11

The Luftwaffe’s training for the Ardennes wasted precious fuel and ammunition rehearsing air-to-air combat, neglecting to pay any attention to fighter–ground attack, with its different munitions and tactics, which they believed was not their remit. Their airfields were located far from the front, to enable the concentration of fighter units and their timely direction towards American bomber formations. No attempt was made to develop tactical forward airfields to support fast-moving ground operations, a skill they had perfected in North Africa in support of Rommel.

As each German division required logistical support amounting to around 500 tons per day, Herbstnebel needed at least 2,000 truckloads per day to sustain the advance. This was exactly the challenge the Allies had encountered in the autumn of 1944 and had overcome with the Red Ball Express. For security and deception reasons, Hitler had directed that much of the fuel and combat supplies for the Ardennes offensive be dumped east of the Rhine, more than sixty miles from the Eifel, so as not to draw unnecessary attention to the concentration areas. After Null-Tag, these stretched traffic routes, channelled by wintry conditions (where off-road progress was a muddy impossibility), with choke points over the Rhine, merely compounded German logistics problems. These factors served to constrict all logistics support to a few roads, exacerbating their vulnerability to Allied air interdiction.

During the early days of the Bulge the two air forces met in the skies over fog-shrouded Belgium between 16 and 19 December, when the Luftwaffe attempted to get under the low ceilings to support the panzers. Major-General Elwood R. ‘Pete’ Quesada’s US Ninth Air Force’s fighters engaged them, claiming 136 kills. Abysmal flying weather closed in on the entire battlespace from 19 to 23 December. Even so, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s Second Tactical Air Force (2nd TAF) still managed 316 sorties, though they were unable to observe their effect.12 During this period, the German land advance enjoyed its greatest rate of penetration, extending to a maximum of fifty miles. Low clouds, snow-covered terrain and the fast-moving battle made navigation and ground target identification challenging for both sides, but Allied radar operators helped their fighters get under and through the weather both in the target areas and at their airfields.13

From the outset, Eisenhower’s air commanders decided on three priorities: air supremacy to prevent the Luftwaffe from supporting the advancing German land forces; close air support to the Allied land units; and air interdiction against the German logistics tail and the facilities it required – the roads, railways, bridges, as well as the combat supplies themselves. A layered air defence policy was developed that Luftwaffe pilots had to negotiate just to get into the combat zone. From 24 December, Eighth Air Force heavy bombers bombed the German forward airbases, and their fighter escorts strafed them daily. Allied fighter sweeps were timed to coincide with returning Luftwaffe aircraft, typically low on fuel and ammunition; forced to engage while landing, many Luftwaffe pilots ran out of fuel.

During 23–27 December, when flying conditions had improved somewhat, the Allied air forces flew more than 16,000 sorties, many of these interdicting the flow of German logistics.14 On the 23rd alone, Coningham’s 2nd TAF and Quesada’s Ninth Air Force managed 2,128 sorties, claiming 96 German aircraft, 220 vehicles and 17 panzers destroyed. Other aircraft resupplied Bastogne by airdropping supplies, IX Troop Carrier Command flying 962 sorties and dropping 850 tons of supplies to the defenders, and losing only 19 C-47 Dakotas.15 In the hours of darkness, night fighters of the RAF’s 85 Group harassed German bombers flying singly to disrupt Allied ground movement. Over the night of 23–24 December, for example, a Mosquito from 488 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), downed two Junkers-88s within minutes and three Kiwi crews from the squadron also claimed kills over Malmedy. The following day, Christmas Eve, Allied aircraft flew 7,380 sorties.16

It was on 23 December, when the skies cleared, that the Luftwaffe changed priorities, dividing their effort equally between ground attack and bomber intercept, executing neither well. The lack of coordinated air–land planning, the relative inexperience of most Luftwaffe pilots compared to their opponents, fuel shortages, the short operational range of their aircraft, and distance of airfields from the Ardennes crippled the German air force’s effectiveness irreparably. To their credit, and against these odds, the Luftwaffe managed to fly as many as 1,200 sorties on some days, but Allied air supremacy was maintained and the Luftwaffe made little impact on Allied ground movement – though those GIs under air attack might disagree.


Underneath this battle, and mostly oblivious to it, lay Hitler’s panzers. At their forefront, that first evening of 16–17 December, was Peiper. Although he was unaware of it, Heydte’s Fallschirmjäger had yet to deploy with Operation Stösser when he was arguing with Oberst von Hoffmann in the café at Lanzerath. It would in any case prove a damp squib and contribute nothing to his tactical activities, or those of his colleagues. The impact of the other Special Forces mission, Operation Greif, conducted simultaneously by Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, was much greater. As we saw, Skorzeny had been ordered personally by Hitler to form a special unit, Panzer Brigade 150, to seize one or more of the bridges over the Meuse before they could be destroyed; they would wear US uniforms and travel in captured vehicles. Faced with shortages of American speakers, uniforms, equipment and vehicles, Skorzeny was forced to scale down his ambitions and recast Panzer Brigade 150 into two distinctly separate entities.

One was a commando unit innocuously named Einheit (Unit) Stielau, containing his best English-speakers: designed as a deep reconnaissance group, these would man captured jeeps and drive through the American lines to capture bridges, alter signposts and create general confusion. To polish their American English, some commandos were actually posted to POW camps to listen to and imitate the latest slang and news from the US – where at least one was rumbled and beaten unconscious. Skorzeny’s other unit was a much larger body, which would travel with the panzer spearheads and, at the last moment, rush ahead to seize vital positions. Some of this latter group would travel in conventional German vehicles to support the commandos. Other crews operating Allied transport possessed an English speaker who was to buy enough time to negotiate a checkpoint, divert forces or issue false orders. They had some, but not enough US transport for their requirements, so various German vehicles had to be altered to look American, complete with phoney unit codes, and all were painted olive drab, with the five-pointed white star, the universal Allied air recognition symbol, prominently displayed.

As the brigade prepared for action, Skorzeny let the latrine rumours spread as to their purpose: most seemed to think they were to break through Allied lines, rendezvous at the Café de la Paix in central Paris, in order to capture General Eisenhower at SHAEF – which Skorzeny was content to let them believe. On 16 December Panzer Brigade 150 moved forward with the 1st and 12th SS Divisions and the 12th Volksgrenadiers, but the slow progress of all three and consequentially fully alert American defenders negated much of the point of Skorzeny’s unit and eventually they were re-employed as conventional combat troops. On the other hand, the deep penetration of US-occupied territory by Einheit Stielau commandos in jeeps was an entirely different matter. Skorzeny boasted later of the success of his four-man jeeps of saboteurs, possibly to boost his post-war credentials as a military ‘consultant’, but the damage done or confusion caused was not his most significant achievement.

Once the word was out that German commandos in US uniforms were prowling around, all vehicles were stopped routinely at every junction and headquarters. Checkpoints sprang up throughout the Allied rear, greatly slowing the movement of all soldiers and equipment. American troops began asking not for passwords, but questions they felt only other GIs would know, such as the identity of Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, or the capital of Illinois. For some this was an amusing way to hit back at senior officers, and this last question resulted in the brief detention of General Omar Bradley; although he gave the correct answer – Springfield – the GI who questioned him apparently believed the capital was Chicago.

One common thread of Allied memoirs from this time is the fear and confusion caused by not knowing passwords. However, as Bill Armstrong of the 263rd Field Artillery recalled, the right questions also had to be asked. Wearing ‘everything he owned’ but still freezing, Armstrong was on sentry duty in deep snow one night, when he heard a jeep crawling along in low gear, coming from the east – ‘where the Germans were!’ As he shouted, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ the vehicle pulled over and he made out three shadowy forms. ‘Give me the password,’ he demanded. After a series of urgent whispers, the GI next to the driver announced, ‘I don’t know the password. (Pause) Do you?’ ‘No,’ replied Armstrong, ‘without thinking of the consequences.’ He remembered his sports questions and tried again: ‘Who won the 1940 World Series?’ Again whispering in the jeep, ‘Hell, I don’t know. (Another pause) Do you?’ ‘No,’ Armstrong responded – this was beginning to look ridiculous. In desperation he asked, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Oakland, California,’ came the reply. Quick as a flash, Armstrong demanded, ‘Where’s the best place to get a hot dog in Oakland?’ ‘Caspar’s on Telegraph Avenue across from the roller rink.’ Armstrong was from Berkeley, the neighbouring city, and the two fell to reminiscing before a growl from the GI in the back seat reminded them this was the war. ‘After they left I realised the driver had not said a word. Just sat looking straight ahead. To this day I’m not sure that they were Americans.’17

According to Skorzeny, forty-four German soldiers wearing US uniforms were sent through the lines, all but eight returning. A point of suspicion, of which the Germans were unaware, was that Skorzeny crewed each jeep with four of his men, whereas GI custom was three to a jeep. A great many innocent travellers were thus ensnared in overloaded jeeps. All American officers carried, in addition to their metal dog tags, a laminated identity card, containing a photo. Curiously, these genuine documents carried an uncorrected spelling error: ‘Not a Pass. For Indentification Purposes Only’. In creating phoney ID cards, the spelling error had been repeated, but echoing the bureaucracy for which the Prussians were famous, one of Skorzeny’s quartermasters had hand-corrected each mistake by hand, in ink, thus drawing attention to what was otherwise a perfect fake. Unfortunately for Skorzeny’s Einheit Stielau commandos, German ‘correctness’ meant that the false officer IDs were easy to spot.18

Tens of thousands of innocent Allied troops were delayed or detained by suspicious GIs as a result – the British were especially at risk for not knowing American towns, cities or the minutiae of Disney characters, Hollywood film stars or baseball. Montgomery in his staff car was detained by American guards who’d heard a rumour the British field marshal with his distinctive beret was being impersonated. When Monty told his potential captors to cease such nonsense and ordered his driver to continue, they shot out his tyres and arrested him. Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton were much amused for days afterwards, and Skorzeny’s bravado instantly grew on them. Slips of language gave away one German team who pulled into an American supply base and asked for ‘petrol’, instead of ‘gas’. ‘The eyes of the GI manning the pump became as big as saucers’ in alarm, the Germans recognised their error, drove off in haste but overturned their jeep and were captured.19 This put every British serviceman in danger, for whom gasoline was indeed (and remains), petrol.

In Paris, Lieutenant-Colonel Baldwin B. Smith, who looked enough like Ike to make passers-by do a double-take, was promoted to five-star general and driven in Eisenhower’s conspicuous staff car each day the thirty-minute route from his villa to SHAEF at Versailles.20 The genuine article, meanwhile, was obliged – under protest – to abandon his sacred villa and move in behind the wire to SHAEF, surrounded by presidential quantities of personal security. Lieutenant Kay Summersby, his British driver and aide (and, some would have it, his mistress), noted, ‘Security even asked General Eisenhower not to walk outside the office, for fear a sniper might have slipped through the toe-to-toe guard. We were prisoners, in every sense of the word. This new, personal tension, coupled with the flood of bad news and rumours from the Ardennes, left most of the headquarters frankly apprehensive and depressed. Ike, the one solely responsible for the success or failure of our counterattack and therefore the only one entitled to the luxury of depression, had to smother his own feelings and act as the eternal optimist.’ 21 The SHAEF appointments diary reveals that Ike was obliged to stay at the Hôtel Trianon Palace, Versailles, throughout the crisis from 16 December until 26 January, with the exception of his Verdun strategy meeting on 19 December and a conference with Montgomery near Brussels on the 28th.22

Forrest C. Pogue, later the highly distinguished scholar of the Second World War, was a thirty-two-year-old military historian attached to V Corps, with whom he had landed on Omaha Beach on 7 June. For him the big news of 16 December was his promotion to master sergeant, although with a doctorate in history from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, he was probably the most overqualified individual at that rank in the US Army. He remembered the First Army quickly issued instructions containing sample questions for sentries, including the pronunciation of ‘wreath’, ‘with nothing’ or ‘hearth hollow’ (all apparently impossible for the German tongue to pronounce without suspicion). ‘We were particularly suspect because our bumper markings were those of Twelfth Army Group, we wore First Army shoulder patches, and we claimed to be with V Corps. Worse still, we claimed to be historians and went about asking questions about casualties, troop dispositions, and the like. I still wonder why they did not shoot us.’23

Among those with the British ‘Phantom’ Communications Regiment, acting as Montgomery’s personal eyes and ears, was a real actor, David Niven. The son of a well-to-do British Army captain killed at Gallipoli in 1915, he had been commissioned at Sandhurst in 1930 before finding fame in Hollywood four years later. Niven re-entered the British Army in 1940 and as a lieutenant-colonel in December 1944 was a frequent traveller between military headquarters, sometimes accompanied by his batman (a military valet), another actor by the name of Private Peter Ustinov. Niven was often pulled over at roadblocks by suspicious GIs, and rarely knew the right password because of the number of units he passed through, but claimed he was always able to respond with his clueless British charm, ‘Simply haven’t the foggiest idea … but I recall I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1939 called Bachelor Mother’ – a technique which apparently never failed to work. ‘On your way, Dave, and Good Luck!’, they would motion him through, thinking of picture houses back home.24

However, many, less famous, personnel were shot and killed by nervous, trigger-happy young soldiers pulling their first guard, because of an accent – a huge proportion of GIs had Germanic surnames and many retained the accent with which they had first stepped off the boat at Ellis Island. The Norwegian Americans who served in the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), which was composed entirely of their fellow countrymen, known as The Viking Battalion, and deployed in the Malmedy–Stavelot areas, found the routine of justifying their guttural accents particularly trying, if life-saving. Soldiers of both sides routinely wore clothing items and boots taken from prisoners or the dead in an effort to defeat the cold. In the case of those under suspicion, such items merely contributed to ‘the case for the prosecution’ and in the chaos of battle, many innocent German prisoners who happened to be wearing a looted US overcoat or GIs who had liberated a set of German boots were undoubtedly the victims of summary execution. Certainly, the number of recorded deaths of ‘saboteurs’ exceeds the number of Skorzeny commandos deployed, and many diaries and memoirs discuss the demise of ‘fifth columnists’ that were not otherwise recorded – nor were Belgian civilians exempt from the whole process.

The number of such deaths ran into the hundreds, if not four figures. The experience of J.R. McIlroy, a 99th Division squad leader, underlined how close to the edge soldiers of both sides were. The Company ‘F’ soldier of the 393rd Infantry was taking two German prisoners to the rear when intercepted by a lieutenant of a different company. The officer challenged McIlroy and asked the password; the answer was correct and the soldier with his two prisoners approached. ‘We’ve been on patrol and captured two Germans. I want to take them to the PW collecting point. Do you know where that is?’ he asked. Why did McIlroy have a German rifle and sub-machine gun, the officer asked. ‘I just took them from the prisoners’ was the response. ‘And where is your rifle?’ the officer continued. ‘One of the guards of the prisoners has it’ came the answer. The guards were trailing behind, out of sight. All seemed fine until the lieutenant noticed the GI was wearing German boots. ‘What company are you with?’ the officer asked quickly and abruptly. Fortunately, McIlroy’s answer came without hesitation, ‘Company “F”, Second Battalion, 393rd Infantry’. The interrogation continued, ‘Your company commander’s name?’ The questioning carried on until the officer had relaxed enough to ask, ‘Where did you get those boots?’ The quick and honest answer, ‘I got them off a dead German – the soles give better traction in the snow’, satisfied the lieutenant who warned McIlroy that as soon as he’d seen the German boots ‘he had almost killed him without further ado’. The shaken GI plodded on with his captives, ‘never as close to death in the Ardennes as at that moment’.25

One of Skorzeny’s teams in US uniforms known to have been captured comprised Oberfähnrich (Senior Cadet Officer) Günther Billing, Unteroffizier Manfred Pernass and Gefreiter Wilhelm Schmidt, detained at Aywaille on 17 December for not knowing a password. They had penetrated the American lines, thirty miles distant, less than an hour earlier, and were found to have £1,000 and $900 in bank notes, German paybooks, two British Sten guns, two Colt .45-inch pistols, a German sub-machine gun and six US hand grenades. Billing had documents identifying him as Charles W. Lawrence, Pernass was Clarence van der Wert, and Schmidt had assumed the identity of one George Sesenbach.26 During his interrogation, Schmidt confirmed that one of their missions was to capture Eisenhower in Paris. Though this was never his assignment, Skorzeny, as we have seen, was content to let this rumour run, so that many of his own unit believed it.

As a result, all senior Allied commanders became virtual prisoners in their headquarters, which strangled their movements just when they desperately needed to be touring the troops, assessing morale and being seen by the jittery French, Belgian and Luxembourger populations. Billing, Pernass and Schmidt, though, were executed by a US firing squad on 23 December after a court-martial. The names of these three have been grafted into most histories of the Ardennes, but reflected the fate of hundreds of unknown Germans, as Patton’s diary indicated on 30 December 1944: ‘On this day four Germans in one of our peeps [jeeps], dressed in American uniforms, were killed, and another group of seventeen, also in American uniforms, were reported by the 35th Division as follows: “One sentinel, reinforced, saw seventeen Germans in American uniforms. Fifteen were killed and two died suddenly … ”’27 A euphemism for an execution if ever there was one. This German stratagem is one of the lasting associations with the Ardennes, but it is extraordinary to consider that such a tactic had not been used routinely by either side before December 1944.28

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