Panzer-Brigade 150 and Operation Grief

By Christian Ankerstjerne

Creation of Panzer-Brigade 150

Panzer-Brigade 150 was created as part of the preperation for operation Wacht am Rhein (watch on the Rhine), the planned offensive through the Ardennes. The purpose of the unit was to capture the bridges across the Meuse river, which were essential to reaching Antwerp. This was to be done by disguising the soldiers of the brigade as American soldiers, by using captured equipment and vehicles, slipping through the front line in the expected confusion at the beginning of the offensive.

SS-Sturmbannführer (major) Otto Skorzeny was chosen as the commander. Skorzeny had previously commanded the bold rescue of Mussolini, and the kidnapping of the son of the king of Hungary. He was given little over a week to gather the manpower and materiel.

Organization

The original plan called for three battalions with a total of 3300 soldiers. The soldiers were taken from other units. English-speaking Germans and American equipment was being searched for throughout the German army. This alerted the Allies to the plans as early as November, compromising secrecy.

Despite the wide search, only small amounts of equipment was turned in. About a third of the required trucks and cars were found, and of these, only two-thirds were operational. Two Medium Tank, M4's were located, but were not operational. Only two of the eight armored cars were American. Minor equipment, such as uniforms and helmets, were also in short supply, in part because German soldiers preferred to keep the superior American winter uniforms.

Less than 50 soldiers were fluent in English, and of these, only ten were able to fake American English. An additional 350 spoke some English, while the remainder spoke no English at all. As a result, the number of battalions was reduced to two.

On 25 November 1944, the planned organization was as follows, under the code name Rabenhügel (Raven Hill):

In the end, five Panthers and five Sturmgeschütz III's were assigned to the unit. These armored vehicles were camouflaged as American vehicles by welding additional steel plates on them. The Panthers were intended to resemble the M10 tank destroyer. The intended resemblance of the Sturmgeschütz III's is unclear. German half-tracks were used for the Panzer-Grenadiere. The vehicles were painted olive drab, with American stars.

The final headcount of Panzer-Brigade 150 was 2500. The soldiers were drawn from many different units; 500 were from the Waffen-SS, 800 from the Luftwaffe, and 1500 from the Heer.

A small commando unit, Einheit Stielau, gathered the 150 best-speaking soldiers, as well as most of the functional American equipment. The rest of the brigade was largely equipped with German weapons and vehicles. These soldiers were divided into three Kampfgruppen (battle groups):

Each Kampfgruppe had three infantry companies, two Panzer-Grenadier and two anti-tank platoons, two heavy mortar platoons, and one engineer and one signals platoon, and one maintenance section. In addition, Kampfgruppe X was given the five Panthers disguised as M10's, and Kampfgruppe Y was given the five Sturmgeschütz III's.

Tactics and Plan

To prevent friendly fire incidents, a number of measures were taken to allow other German soldiers to recognise soldiers of Panzer-Brigade 150. White dots were placed on trees and houses which the unit had passed. Vehicles were marked with a yellow triangle. Soldiers were to wear blue or pink scarfes, and were ordered not to wear their helmets, the latter part solving the issue of the shortage of helmets. Colored lights were used for nighttime recognition.

The plan for the Kampfgruppen was to capture at least two of the three bridges at Amay, Andenne, and Huy. They were attached to 1. SS-Panzer-Division "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler", 12. SS-Panzer-Division "Hitler Jugend", and 12. Volksgrenadier-Division. They were to move behind their respective units until the objective for the first day, Hohes Vess, was captured, after which they would move through the front.

Einheit Stielau was to cause confusion for the retreating Allied forces, destroying ammunition and fuel dumps, cutting lines of communication, spreading misinformation, and provide reconnaissance.

Combat History

Panzer-Brigade 150

Like large parts of the German offensive, the three Kampfgruppen became entangled in the traffic jams on the narrow roads of the Ardennes. As a result, they were unable to make it to the front at the specified time. In addition, SS-Obersturmbannführer Hardieck was killed by a mine, after which SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) von Foelkersam took command of Kampfgruppe X. Being delayed for two days, the plan of advancing ahead of the German army was dropped, and Panzer-Brigade 150 was changed to a regular unit, under command of 1. SS-Panzer-Division.

The brigade was ordered to clear the roadblock at Malmédy, which held up 12. SS-Panzer-Division. The roadblock had originally been held only by the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. By the time Panzer-Brigade 150 attacked, however, 30th Infantry Division had moved up, and reinforced the roadblock by the first and third battalion of 120th Infantry Regiment, the 99th Infantry Battalion, the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion, the 740th Tank Battalion, and two platoons of the 823rd Tank Destroyed Battalion.

Unaware that he was greatly outnumbered, and without Kampfgruppe Z, which was still held up in traffic jams, Panzer-Brigade 150 attacked on the morning of 21 December.

Kampfgruppe Y attacked the roadblock, held by first battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment, directly. The roadblock had been alerted by a deserted, and the Kampfgruppe was unable to penetrate, and was ultimately forced to retreat.

Kampfgruppe X attacked Malmédy directly, under cover of a fog. A minor section encountered 99th Infantry Battalion at a railroad embankment. Its Panthers was destroyed by mine, blocking the road. The unit suffered heavy casualties trying to take the embankment, and was forced to retreat.

The rest of Kampfgruppe X, directly commanded by von Foelkersam, triggered a booby trap, and came under fire. The Kampfgruppe's Panthers destroyed the four M10's of 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and forced parts of the American force to retreat. Despite being shelled by the Panthers, about 30 American soldiers, mainly from K Company, 3rd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment held the Malmédy paper mill.

Private Francis Currey ran from the paper mill, grabbing a Bazooka and some rockets, and returned to the mill. From there, private Adam Lucero knocked out one of the Panthers. After this, Currey left the mill again, using the Bazooka against a house occupied by German soldiers. He then forced the three Panthers to retreat using rifle grenades, and fired at the house occupied by German soldiers using the a machine gun from a half-track. For his action that day, Currey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As the fog lifted, the 99th Infantry Battalion opened was able to open fire on the area from the railroad embankment, knocking out another Panther. American artillery then began to the shell the area, forcing the German units to disengage and slowly retreat.

Kampfgruppe Y attempted another attack the next morning, but was again held off by elements of the 120th Infantry Regiment.

Einheit Stielau

According to Skorzeny, 44 soldiers of Einheit Stielau were sent through American lines, of which 36 returned, performing reconnaissance and sabotage operations. The actual actions carried out by these units are not clear. The psychological impact was, however, significant.

Because Allied intelligence was aware of the unit's existence, but not its size, American units became paranoid. There were many reports of suspicious activity, many of which are likely only rumors. When one unit was captured because they didn't have the proper password, Gefreiter Wilhelm Schmidt claimed that their mission was to capture General Eisenhower.

Aftermath

Panzer-Brigade 150 remained at the front until 28 December, but did not again try to re-capture Malmédy. It was relieved by 18. Volksgrenadier-Division. After returning from the front, its soldiers were returned to their original units.

Wilhelm Schmidt, along with 17 other German soldiers, were executed by firing squad. The reason why this number is greater than the eight soldiers claimed lost by Skorzeny might either be that German soldiers often used captured American equipment, being mistaken for soldiers of Einheit Stielau, or that Skorzeny was exaggerating his claims.

Otto Skorzeny was tried as a war criminal for his involvement with Panzer-Brigade 150 in 1947. He was acquitted of the charges, but was detained for denazification. In 1948 he escaped, ironically with the help of former SS officers dressed in American uniforms. Escaping to France and then Spain, he later worked with other former SS officers to train Egyptian forces to fight against Israel in the fifties, and to help high-ranking Nazis escape to South America, where he also worked as an advisor to Juan Perón.

Sources

  1. 150 ("Rabenhügel"). 1944. 1 p.
  2. PALLUD, Jean-Paul, PARKER, David & VOLSTAD, Ron. Elite Series 11 - Ardennes 1944 : Peiper & Skorzeny. Oxford : Osprey Publishing, 1987. 64 p. ISBN 0-85045-740-8.
  3. QUARRIE, Bruce. Order of Battle Series 4 - The Ardennes Offensive : VI Panzer Armee. Oxford : Osprey Publishing, 1999. 96 p. ISBN 1-85532-853-4.