Chapter XI — The 1st SS Panzer Division's Dash Westward, and Operation Greif

The bulk of the fourteen divisions under First U.S. Army command on 16 December were deployed north of the Belgian Ardennes. Behind them, roughly in the triangle formed by the cities of Liège, Verviers, and Spa, lay the supply installations built up through the autumn to support the advance toward the Rhine. At Spa, which had served the German Emperor as headquarters in World War I, the First Army had established its command post surrounded on every side by service installations, supply dumps, and depots. Liège, twenty miles northwest of Spa, was one of the greatest American supply centers on the Continent. Verviers, an important and densely stocked railhead lay eleven miles north of Spa. (See Map I.)

General Hodges' First Army headquarters, set up in the déclassé resort hotels and casinos of the once fashionable watering place, was remote from sound of battle on the morning of 16 December, but in a matter of hours the slashing thrust of the 1st SS Panzer Division roughly altered its ordered existence. The nature of the ground along which the Americans would attempt to defend the myriad headquarters and service installations, railheads, and depots, must be explained. Southeast of Spa runs the Amblève River, the creation of a series of tributaries flowing south from the springs and swamps of the rugged Hohes Venn. The Amblève, bending westward, is joined by the Salm, a north-flowing tributary, at the town of Trois Ponts, then angles northwest until it meets the Ourthe River and finally the Meuse at Liège. The Amblève and the Salm are narrow and rather minor streams; the valleys through which they course are deep-cut, with long stretches of steep and rocky walls. A line on the map tracing the course of the Amblève River and its initial tributaries will pass from northeast to southwest through three important bridgeheads and road centers, Malmédy, Stavelot, and Trois Ponts. From the first two, roads led north to Spa, Verviers, and Liège. Although both Malmédy and Stavelot were administrative centers of importance (Stavelot contained the First Army map depot with some 2,500,000 maps), the most important item hereabouts was the great store of gasoline, over two million gallons, in dumps just north of the two towns.

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The 1st SS Panzer Division (SS Oberführer Wilhelm Mohnke) was the strongest fighting unit in the Sixth Panzer Army. Undiluted by any large influx of untrained Luftwaffe or Navy replacements, possessed of most of its T/O&E equipment, it had an available armored strength on 16 December of about a hundred tanks, equally divided between the Mark IV and the Panther, plus forty-two Tiger tanks belonging to the 501st SS Panzer Detachment. The road net in the Sixth Panzer Army would not permit the commitment of the 1st SS Panzer as a division, even if two of the five roads allocated the army were employed. The division was therefore divided into four columns or march groups: the first, commanded by Colonel Peiper, contained the bulk of the 1st Panzer Regiment and thus represented the armored spearhead of the division; the second was made up from the division's Reconnaissance Battalion; the third and fourth each comprised armored infantry and attached heavy weapons; the heavy Tiger detachment was left to be fed into the advance as occasion warranted.

Kampfgruppe Peiper on the Move

On the morning of 16 December Colonel Peiper journeyed to the advance command post of the 12th Volks Grenadier Division, whose troops were supposed to make the gap in the lines of the American 99th Infantry Division north of the Schnee Eifel through which his armor would be committed.{140} To Peiper's disgust the infantry failed in their assigned task and the day wore on with Peiper's column still waiting on the roads to the rear. The blown bridge northwest of Losheim increased the delay; for some reason the engineers failed to start repair work here until noon or later. This was not the end. In mid-afternoon the horse-drawn artillery regiment of the 12th Volks Grenadier Division was ordered up to support the infantry, hopelessly clogging the approaches to the bridge. Peiper himself took over the job of trying to straighten out this traffic jam but more time was lost. It was not until 1930 that the armored advance guard was able to reach Losheim, the village which gave its name to the gap at the northern terminus of the Schnee Eifel. At this time Peiper received a radio message saying that the next railroad overpass was out, that the engineers would not get up in time to make repairs, and that he must turn west to Lanzerath in the 3d Parachute Division sector. This move was completed by midnight, although a number of tanks and other vehicles were lost to mines and antitank fire while making the turnabout at Losheim. At Lanzerath Colonel Peiper discovered that the 3d Parachute also had failed to punch any sizable hole through the American line, although the 1st SS Panzer Division had taken Krewinkel and so helped the 3d Parachute forward. Irritated by the hours frittered away, Peiper took an infantry battalion, put two of his Panther tanks at the point of the column, and at 0400 attacked toward Honsfeld. Opposition had evaporated. Honsfeld was surprised and taken with ease.{141}

The original route assigned Peiper's kampfgruppe ran west to Schoppen. This was a poor road, bogged with mud from the winter rains, and since the 12th SS Panzer Division had not yet come up Peiper pre-empted the latter's paved route through Büllingen. Also he had been told that there were gasoline stores in Büllingen, and a great deal of fuel had been burned during the jockeying around Losheim. Sure enough, the gasoline was found as predicted. Using American prisoners as labor, the Germans refueled their tanks. They scooped up much other booty here and destroyed a number of artillery planes on a nearby field. When American gunners commenced to shell the village the column was already moving on, although it suffered some casualties. By this time Peiper and his staff believed that the breakthrough was complete; no American troops appeared on the sensitive north flank, and only an occasional jeep scuttled away to the west of the column.

It was between noon and one o'clock of 17 December, on the road between Modersheid and Ligneuville, that the German advance guard ran into an American truck convoy moving south from Malmédy. This was ill-fated Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The convoy was shot up and the advance guard rolled on, leaving the troops to the rear to deal with the Americans who had taken to the woods and ditches. About two hours after, or so the dazed survivors later recalled, the Americans who had been rounded up were marched into a field where, at a signal, they were shot down by machine gun and pistol fire. A few escaped by feigning death, but the wounded who moved or screamed were sought out and shot through the head. At least eighty-six Americans were massacred here. This was not the first killing of unarmed prisoners chargeable to Kampfgruppe Peiper on 17 December. Irrefutable evidence shows that nineteen unarmed Americans were shot down at Honsfeld and fifty at Büllingen.{142}

The Malmédy massacre would have repercussions reaching far wider than one might expect of a single battlefield atrocity in a long and bitter war. This "incident" undoubtedly stiffened the will of the American combatants (although a quantitative assessment of this fact is impossible); it would be featured in the war crimes trials as an outstanding example of Nazi contempt for the accepted rules of war; and it would serve a United States Senator as a stepping-stone toward a meteoric career. But the Malmédy massacre and the other murders of 17 December did not complete the list chargeable to Peiper and the troops of the 1st SS Panzer Division. By 20 December Peiper's command had murdered approximately 350 American prisoners of war and at least 100 unarmed Belgian civilians, this total derived from killings at twelve different locations along Peiper's line of march.

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So far as can be determined the Peiper killings represent the only organized and directed murder of prisoners of war by either side during the Ardennes battle.{143} The commander of the Sixth SS Panzer Army took oath in the trials of 1946 that, acting on Hitler's orders, he issued a directive stating that the German troops should be preceded "by a wave of terror and fright and that no human inhibitions should be shown." There is conflicting testimony as to whether the orders finally reaching Peiper specifically enjoined the shooting of prisoners. There is no question, however, that some of Peiper's subordinates accepted the killing of prisoners as a command and that on at least one occasion Peiper himself gave such an order. Why Peiper's command gained the bestial distinction of being the only unit to kill prisoners in the course of the Ardennes is a subject of surmise. Peiper had been an adjutant to Heinrich Himmler and as a battalion commander in Russia is alleged to have burned two villages and killed all the inhabitants. The veteran SS troops he led in the Ardennes had long experience on the Eastern Front where brutality toward prisoners of war was a commonplace. On the other hand Peiper's formation was well in the van of the German attack and was thus in position to carry out the orders for the "wave of terror" tactic—which might be excused, or so Peiper claimed, by the rapid movement of his kampfgruppe and its inability to retain prisoners under guard.

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The speed with which the news of the Malmédy massacre reached the American front-line troops is amazing but, in the perfervid emotional climate of 17 December, quite understandable. The first survivors of the massacre were picked up by a patrol from the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion about 1430 on that date. The inspector general of the First Army learned of the shootings three or four hours later. Yet by the late evening of the 17th the rumor that the enemy was killing prisoners had reached as far as the forward American divisions. There were American commanders who orally expressed the opinion that all SS troops should be killed on sight and there is some indication that in isolated cases express orders for this were given.{144} It is probable that Germans who attempted to surrender in the days immediately after the 17th ran a greater risk than would have been the case during the autumn campaign. There is no evidence, however, that American troops took advantage of orders, implicit or explicit, to kill their SS prisoners.

The point of Peiper's column reached Ligneuville sometime before 1300, in time to eat the lunch which had been prepared for an American detachment stationed in the village. Here the road divided, the north fork going to Malmédy, the western leading on to Stavelot. Although it was agreed that the armored columns should have considerable leeway in choosing the exact routes they would follow, a general boundary line gave the 1st SS Panzer Division the southern part of the zone assigned the I SS Panzer, while the 12th SS Panzer Division advanced in the northern sector. The 12th SS Panzer Division, of course, was still back at the line of scrimmage, nor would it break into the clear for many hours to come, but all this was unknown to Peiper. He did know that the Americans thus far had shown no disposition to throw punches at his north flank. Furthermore, the 3d Parachute Division had a clear field to follow up and protect his line of communications, while the 2d Panzer Division—so Peiper understood—was moving fast in the south and roughly abreast of his own advance.

Peiper had a precisely defined mission: his kampfgruppe was to seize the Meuse River crossings at Huy, making full use of the element of surprise and driving west without regard to any flank protection. The importance of this mission had been underlined during the initial briefing at the command post of the 1st SS Panzer Division on 14 December when Peiper had been assured that his command would play the decisive role in the coming counteroffensive. There seems to have been some hope expressed among the higher German staffs that the advance guard elements of both the 1st SS Panzer Division and the Fifth Panzer Army's 2d Panzer Division would reach the Meuse within twenty-four hours of the time of commitment. The distance by road, on the 1st SS Panzer Division axis, was between 125 and 150 kilometers (about 75 to 95 miles). Peiper himself had made a test run on 11 December to prove that it was possible for single tanks to travel 80 kilometers (50 miles) in one night. Whether an entire tank column could maintain this rate of progress for a day and a night in enemy country and on the sharp turns and grades of the Ardennes road net was a matter of guesswork.{145}

Whatever schedule Peiper was using, if indeed he had any precise timetable in mind, the kampfgruppe of the 1st SS Panzer Division was making good progress and the element of surprise, as shown by the lack of any formal resistance, was working to German advantage. His path lay straight ahead, through Stavelot, Trois Ponts, Werbomont, Ouffet, Seny, Huy—a distance of some 50 miles, from where the head of the 1st SS Panzer Division column stood in Ligneuville, to Huy and the Meuse. Only a few short miles to the north lay Malmédy and the road to Spa and Liège. Malmédy and the Meuse crossing sites in the vicinity of Liège, however, were in the zone assigned the 12th SS Panzer Division. Peiper stuck to his knitting.

About 1400 the column resumed the march, taking some time to negotiate the sharp turns and narrow streets in Ligneuville. At the western exit the point of the column ran onto the trains belonging to CCB, 9th Armored Division, which was preparing to move east in support of the combat command then engaged in the St. Vith sector. A couple of Sherman tanks and a tank destroyer made a fight for it, demolishing the leading Panther and a few other armored vehicles. Peiper's column was delayed for about an hour.

Advancing along the south bank of the Amblève, the advance guard reached Stavelot, the point where the river must be crossed, at dusk. Looking down on the town the Germans saw hundreds of trucks, while on the opposite bank the road from Stavelot to Malmédy was jammed with vehicles. Although the Germans did not know it, many of these trucks were moving to help evacuate the great First Army gasoline dumps north of Stavelot and Malmédy. March serials of the 7th Armored Division also were moving through Stavelot en route to Vielsalm.

The small town of Stavelot (population 5,000) lies in the Amblève River valley surrounded by high, sparsely wooded bluffs. Most of the town is built on the north bank of the river or on the slopes above. There are a few scattered buildings on the south bank. Like most of the water courses in this part of the Ardennes, the Amblève was no particular obstacle to infantry but the deeply incised valley at this point offered hard going to tanks, while the river, by reason of the difficult approaches, was a tougher than average tank barrier. Only one vehicular bridge spanned the river at Stavelot. The sole approach to this bridge was by the main highway; here the ground to the left fell away sharply and to the right a steep bank rose above the road.

Stavelot and its bridge were open for the taking. The only combat troops in the town at this time were a squad from the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion which had been sent from Malmédy to construct a roadblock on the road leading to the bridge. For some reason Peiper's advance guard halted on the south side of the river, one of those quirks in the conduct of military operations which have critical import but which can never be explained. Months after the event Peiper told interrogators that his force had been checked by American antitank weapons covering the narrow approach to the bridge, that Stavelot was "heavily defended." But his detailed description of what happened when the Germans attacked to take town and bridge shows that he was confused in his chronology and was thinking of events which transpired on 18 December. It is true that during the early evening of the 17th three German tanks made a rush for the bridge, but when the leader hit a hasty mine field, laid by American engineers, the others turned back—nor were they seen for the rest of the night.

Perhaps the sight of the numerous American vehicles parked in the streets led Peiper to believe that the town was held in force and that a night attack held the only chance of taking the bridge intact. If so, the single effort made by the German point is out of keeping with Peiper's usual ruthless drive and daring. Perhaps Peiper accepted the word of his leading troops and failed to establish the true situation for himself. Perhaps he was interested at this moment only in closing up his third column, which in march formation extended for fifteen miles. Perhaps, as he says, Peiper was waiting for his infantry. Whatever the reason—and it never will be known—the German kampfgruppe came to a halt on the night of 17-18 December at the Stavelot bridge, forty-two miles from the Meuse.

During the night the First Army fed reinforcements into Malmédy, for it seemed impossible that the Germans could forfeit the opportunity to seize the town. As part of the defense being organized here a company of the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion and a platoon of 3-inch towed tank destroyers were ordered to outpost Stavelot. Maj. Paul J. Solis, commanding this detachment, began moving his troops into position just before daybreak: two platoons on the south bank of the river (with a section of tank destroyers at the old roadblock); one platoon with three 57-mm. antitank guns and the second section of tank destroyers in reserve around the town square north of the river.

Before the riflemen could organize a defense the German infantry attacked, captured the tank destroyers south of the river, and drove the two platoons back across the bridge. Taken by surprise, the Americans failed to destroy the bridge structure, and a Panther made a dash about 0800 which carried it onto the north bank. More tanks followed. For some while the Germans were held in the houses next to the river; an antiaircraft artillery battery from the 7th Armored Division wandered into the fire fight and did considerable damage before it went on its way. A company from the 202d Engineer Combat Battalion entered the town and joined in the fray. By the end of the morning, however, the German firing line had been built up to the point where the Americans could no longer hold inside the village proper, particularly since the hostile tanks were roving at will in the streets.

Solis ordered his detachment to retire to the top of the hill above Stavelot, but in the confusion of disengagement the remaining antitank weapons and all but one of the rifle platoons fell back along the Malmédy road. With German tanks climbing behind the lone platoon and without any means of antitank defense, Solis seized some of the gasoline from the Francorchamps dump, had his men pour it out in a deep road cut, where there was no turn-out, and set it ablaze. The result was a perfect antitank barrier. The German tanks turned back to Stavelot—this was the closest that Kampfgruppe Peiper ever came to the great stores of gasoline which might have taken the 1st SS Panzer Division to the Meuse River. Solis had burned 124,000 gallons for his improvised roadblock, but this was the only part of the First Army's POL reserve lost during the entire Ardennes operation.

While the engagement in Stavelot was still in progress, Peiper turned some of his tanks toward Trois Ponts, the important bridgehead at the confluence of the Salm and the Amblève. As Peiper puts it: "We proceeded at top speed towards Trois Ponts in an effort to seize the bridge there....If we had captured the bridge at Trois Ponts intact and had had enough fuel, it would have been a simple matter to drive through to the Meuse River early that day." One company of Mark IV tanks tried to reach Trois Ponts by following a narrow side road on the near bank of the Amblève. The road was almost impassable, and when the column came under American fire this approach was abandoned. The main part of the kampfgruppe swung through Stavelot and advanced on Trois Ponts by the highway which followed the north bank of the river. Things were looking up and it seemed that the only cause for worry was the lowering level in the panzer fuel tanks. Missing in Peiper's calculations was an American gun, the puny 57-mm. antitank weapon which had proven such an impuissant answer to German tanks.

Trois Ponts gains its name from three highway bridges, two over the Salm and one across the Amblève. The road from Stavelot passes under railroad tracks as it nears Trois Ponts, then veers sharply to the south, crosses the Amblève, continues through the narrow valley for a few hundred yards, and finally turns west at right angles to cross the Salm and enter the main section of the small village. A number of roads find their way through the deep recesses of the Salm and Amblève valleys to reach Trois Ponts, hidden among the cliffs and hills. Most, however, wind for some distance through the gorges and along the tortuous valley floors. One road, a continuation of the paved highway from Stavelot, leads immediately from Trois Ponts and the valley to the west. This road, via Werbomont, was Peiper's objective.

Company C, 51st Engineer Combat Battalion, occupied Trois Ponts, so important in the itinerary of the kampfgruppe. Quite unaware of the importance of its mission, the company had been ordered out of the sawmills it had been operating as part of the First Army's Winterization and Bridge Timber Cutting Program, and dispatched to Trois Ponts where it detrucked about midnight on 17 December. Numbering around 140 men, the company was armed with eight bazookas and ten machine guns. Maj. Robert B. Yates, commanding the force, knew only that the 1111th Engineer Group was preparing a barrier line along the Salm River from Trois Ponts south to Bovigny and that he was to construct roadblocks at the approaches to Trois Ponts according to the group plans. During the night Yates deployed the company at roadblocks covering the bridge across the Amblève and at the vulnerable highway underpass at the railroad tracks north of the river. On the morning of 18 December a part of the artillery column of the 7th Armored Division passed through Trois Ponts, after a detour to avoid the German armor south of Malmédy; then appeared one 57-mm. antitank gun and crew which had become lost during the move of the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion. Yates commandeered the crew and placed the gun on the Stavelot road to the east of the first underpass where a daisy chain of mines had been laid.

A quarter of an hour before noon the advance guard of Peiper's main column, nineteen or twenty tanks, came rolling along the road. A shot from the lone antitank gun crippled or in somewise stopped the foremost German tank, but after a brief skirmish the enemy knocked out the gun, killed four of the crew, and drove back the engineers. The hit on the lead tank checked the German column just long enough to give warning to the bridge guards, only a few score yards farther on. They blew the Amblève bridge, then the Salm bridge, and fell back to the houses in the main part of town. In the meantime one of the engineer platoons had discouraged the German tank company from further advance along the side road and it had turned back to Stavelot.{146}

Frustrated by a battalion antitank gun and a handful of engineers, Kampfgruppe Peiper now had no quick exit from the valley of the Amblève. With but one avenue remaining the column turned northward toward La Gleize, moving through the canyons of the Amblève on the east side of the river. At La Gleize there was a western exit from the valley, although by a mediocre, twisting road. Nearby, at the hamlet of Cheneux, the Germans found a bridge intact over the Amblève. This stroke of good luck was countered by bad when the weather cleared and American fighter-bombers knocked out two or three tanks and seven half-tracks, blocking the narrow road for a considerable period. When night came the armored point was within some three miles of Werbomont, an important road center on the main highway linking Liège and Bastogne.

Then, as the Germans neared a creek (the Lienne) a squad of Company A, 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, blew up the only bridge. Reconnaissance north and south discovered other bridges, but all were too fragile to support the Tiger tanks which had come forward with the advance guard. During the evening one detachment with half-tracks and assault guns did cross on a bridge to the north and swung southwest toward Werbomont. Near Chevron this force ran into an ambush, set by a battalion of the 30th Division which had been sent to head off Peiper, and was cut to pieces. Few of the Germans escaped. Since there was nothing left but to double back on his tracks, Peiper left a guard on the bridge at Cheneux and moved his advance guard through the dark toward the town of Stoumont, situated on the Amblève River road from which the abortive detour had been made during the afternoon. Scouts brought in word that Stoumont was strongly held and that more American troops were moving in from Spa. There was nothing left but to fight for the town.

All through the afternoon of the 18th, liaison planes from the First Army airstrip at Spa had been skidding under the clouds to take a look at Peiper's tanks and half-tracks. One of these light planes picked up the advance at Cheneux and called the Ninth Air Force in to work over this force. By the evening of 18 December Peiper's entire column, now spread over many miles of road, had been located and the word flashed back to First Army headquarters. The element of surprise, vital to the German plan of a coup de main at the Meuse, was gone. American forces from the 30th Infantry Division were racing in on Peiper from the north, and the 82d Airborne Division was moving with all possible speed to the threatened area.

It is doubtful that Peiper realized how the American net was being spread for a cast from the north, but he had experienced enough reverses on 18 December to feel the stiffening of opposition in his path. Radio contact between Peiper and the higher German headquarters had broken down, the armored sending apparatus failing to carry over the Ardennes terrain, and the Sixth Panzer Army was forced to follow Peiper's progress through intercepted American radio messages. Peiper, on the other hand, had little or no information as to what was happening behind him and where the following kampfgruppen of his own division were located. A Luftwaffe ultrahigh-frequency radio set was rushed to Peiper by liaison officer late this day, but its possession did not alter the relative independence and isolation of Peiper's command.

Sometime during the night of 18-19 December the radio link with the headquarters of the 1st Panzer Division was restored. By this means Peiper may have learned what he already must have suspected, that the 30th Infantry Division was on the move south from the American Ninth Army sector. German reconnaissance and intelligence agencies opposite the U.S. Ninth Army had been alert from the first hours of the counteroffensive for any sign that troops were being stripped from the Roer front for intervention in the south. The first two divisions to leave the Ninth Army area, the 30th Infantry and 7th Armored, actually were in reserve and out of contact, but when the two started moving on 17 December the word was flashed back to OB WEST almost at once. Again American radio security had failed.

Operation Greif

During the last days before the great offensive which would send the German armored spearheads plunging west, Hitler belatedly set about replicating the winning combination of rapid and deep armored penetration, paratroop attacks in the enemy rear, and infiltration by disguised ground troops which had functioned so effectively in the western campaign of 1940 and the Greek campaign of 1941. To flesh out this combination, a special operation named Greif (or Condor) was hurriedly organized as an adjunct to the armored operation assigned the 1st SS Panzer Division.{147}

The plans for the ground phase of Greif consisted of three parts: the seizure intact of at least two bridges across the Meuse by disguised raiding parties, the prompt reinforcement of any such coup de main by an armored commando formation; and an organized attempt to create confusion in the Allied rear areas through sabotage carried out by jeep parties clad in American uniforms. Later it would be rumored that a feature of Operation Greif was the planned assassination of Allied leaders, notably General Eisenhower, but there is no evidence of such plotting in the plan.

The idea for the ground operation was probably Hitler's and the leader, Lt. Col. Otto Skorzeny, was selected personally by Hitler. Skorzeny had achieved a considerable reputation as a daring commando leader, had rescued Mussolini from the Italians, and had seized the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós von Nagybánya Horthy, when the Hungarian regime began to waver in its loyalties. For Operation Greif, Skorzeny formed the special Panzer Brigade 150 (or Brandenburger) numbering about two thousand men, of whom one hundred and fifty could speak English.{148} Captured Allied equipment (particularly tanks and jeeps), uniforms, identification papers, and the like were hastily collected at the front and sent to Skorzeny's headquarters. The disguised jeep parties did go into action with varying degrees of success on 16 December, but the Brandenburger Brigade would be engaged as a unit only in a single and abortive skirmish near Malmédy five days later.

The airborne phase of Operation Greif, whose code name was Hohes Venn, seems to have been completely an afterthought, for the orders setting up the operation were not issued until 8 December.{149} Hitler, like most of the higher German commanders, had lost confidence in airdrop tactics after the many casualties suffered by the German paratroopers in the Crete jump. Then too, in late 1944 the necessarily lengthy training for paratroop units was a luxury denied by the huge drain of battlefield losses. Apparently it was Model who suggested that paratroop tactics be tried once again, but undoubtedly Hitler seized upon the proposal with alacrity although there was no longer a single regular paratroop regiment active in the Wehrmacht. Model wanted the jump to be made in the Krinkelt area, and one may wonder what effect such a vertical attack might have had on the fight put up at the twin villages by the American 2d and 99th Infantry Divisions. Hitler, however, had one of his intuitive strokes and ordered the jump to be made north of Malmédy.

His choice for commander devolved on Col. Friedrich A. Freiherr von der Heydte, a distinguished and experienced paratroop officer then commanding the Fallschirm Armee Waffen school where the nominal parachute regiments were being trained as ground troops. Colonel von der Heydte was ordered to organize a thousand-man parachute formation for immediate use. Four days later von der Heydte received his tactical mission from the Sixth SS Panzer Army commander during an uncomfortable session in which Dietrich was under the influence of alcohol. The paratroopers were to jump at dawn on D-day, first opening the roads in the Hohes Venn leading from the Elsenborn-Malmédy area toward Eupen for the armored spearhead units, then blocking Allied forces if these attempted to intervene. Colonel von der Heydte was told that the German armor would reach him within twenty-four hours.

The preparations for Operation Hohes Venn were rushed to completion. The troops received their equipment and a little jump training (many had never attended jump school); 112 war-weary, Junkers troop-carrier planes were gathered with an ill-assorted group of pilots, half of whom had never flown combat missions; 300 dummy figures were loaded for drops north of Camp Elsenborn to confuse the Americans (this turned out to be about the most successful feature of the entire operation); and the pilots and jump-masters were given instructions—but no joint training. It must be said that these preparations for what would be the first German paratroop assault at night and into woods left much to be desired.

On the evening of 15 December Colonel von der Heydte formed his companies to entruck for the move to Paderborn, where the planes were assembled. The trucks never arrived—they had no fuel. Now the jump was ordered for 0300 on the 17th. This time the jump was made on schedule, although not quite as planned and into very bad cross winds. One rifle company was dropped behind the German lines fifty kilometers away from the drop zone, most of the signal platoon fell just in front of the German positions south of Monschau, and the bulk of the command and the weapons packages were scattered almost at random. Despite this bad beginning about one hundred paratroopers reached the rendezvous at the fork in the Eupen road north of Mont Rigi. Since this group was obviously too weak for open action, Colonel von der Heydte formed camp in the woods and sent out patrols to pick up information and harass the Americans in the vicinity. These patrols gathered in stragglers until some three hundred paratroopers had assembled, but it was now too late to carry out the planned operation. On the night of the 21st the paratroopers were ordered to find their way back to the German lines believed to be at Monschau. Von der Heydte was taken prisoner two days later. The tactical effect of this hastily conceived and ill-executed operation proved to be almost nil although American commanders did dispatch troops on wild-goose chases which netted little but a few paratroopers, empty parachutes, and dummies.{150}

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