Einheit Steilau, Operation Greif

Moving to the front lines

Infiltrating American Lines

16 December 1944

In the opening hours of the Battle of the Bugle, German commandos, under the command of the notorious Otto Skorzeny, dressed as American soldiers infiltrated Allied lines. Operation Greif, as the German high command called this action, left a lasting impact on the psyche of Allied soldiers for the rest of the Second World War and was immortalized in postwar movies like Battleground (1949), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Hart’s War (2002).

This operation has taken on near-mythic proportions and deserves a closer, historical, examination—especially by those who intend to portray or discuss Operation Grief at Living History events. Authors who have written about Operation Grief have discussed the difficulty of researching this operation. As Steve Anderson writes in Sitting Ducks, “These were amateur agents at best and hardly commandos. The propaganda-perfect Skorzeny had little real military expertise. It was an ill-conceived if not foolish operation in most respects, one small but odd cog in Hitler’s last fighting gamble.”[1] Given that the secret and slap-dash nature of this operation, and the ultimate fate and legacy of most of the participants who were accused of breaking the laws of war, very few good primary-source documents exist and many of them must be taken with a grain of salt. [2]

Preparation for Operation Greif began in late October 1944 when Hitler asked Skorzeny to create and lead a Brigade of English-speaking troops. Passing as American soldiers, equipped with American uniforms, vehicles, and weapons, Hitler hoped to break through Allied lines and seize key bridges, supply depots, and other objectives in the early stages of Operation Wacht am Rhein, now known as the Battle of the Bulge. To Skorzeny’s frustration, a message was sent throughout the German Wehrmacht requesting “Officers and men who speak English are wanted for a special mission […] the formation of a special unit for use on the Western Front in special operations and reconnaissance.” [3] Some of the men who volunteered, like 21-year-old German Corporal Fritz Christ, thought “Wonderful! Interrogate Allied prisoners of war, and continue to stay clear from the fighting.” [4] While some may have been diehard Nazis, that was by no means universal among these men.

In early November, Skorzeny began seeking “15 tanks, 20 armoured cars and 20 self-propelled guns; 100 jeeps, 40 motorcycles and 120 trucks, as well as both British and American uniforms.” [5] Few of these vehicles materialized, and even fewer were in working condition. German vehicles painted Olive Drab (OD) and with American insignia reinforced the 4 scout cars, 30 jeeps, and 15 trucks German high command were able to scrape together. Unsurprisingly for the retreating German army, American weapons, helmets, and uniforms were also in short supply—enough to equip only a fraction of the unit. [6]

Altogether, including other specialist units of engineers and drivers, the number of Germans assembled for this operation in the town of Grafenwöhr was only about 2,500, some 800 less than had been hoped. About 500 came from the ranks of the Waffen-SS, about 800 from the Luftwaffe, and the rest were former Heer or sailors. [7]

Only 10, mostly sailors, spoke “perfectly and with some notion of American slang.” [8] Sailors also made up much of the so-called Category Two: These men spoke perfectly, but with no knowledge of American slang. They were 30 to 40 strong. Category Three had between 120 and 150 men who spoke English “fairly well,” while Category Four, about 200 strong, included those who’d had some English at school. “The rest,” Skorzeny noted, “could just about say ‘yes.’” [9]

Faced with the reality that he would never receive anything near the requested number of perfect American English speakers nor the required stocks of American uniform and equipment, Skorzeny chose to split the 2500 man formation into two distinct units, Einheit Stielau and Panzer Brigade 150. Einheit Stielau comprised of the best English speakers and were assembled into Jeep and truck teams. They were provided with the best Allied equipment and weaponry available and were instructed to infiltrate American lines and sew chaos and confusion by disrupting supply convoys, destroying or modifying road signs as well as provide information on enemy troop movements back to their headquarters via radio. The Jeep teams also engaged in sabotage, targeting supply depots and telephone cables. “One team cut a cable that linked Gen. Courtney Hodges’ U.S. First Army HQ and Gen. Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group, impeding communications for several hours at a critical early stage of the German attack.” [10] Jeep Teams also laid minefields, felled trees to disable roads and posed as American MPs. “Wearing MP insignia, one false flag commando sent a U.S. infantry regiment down the wrong road and delayed it’s deployment to the front lines.” [11] Another jeep team “persuaded an American unit to retreat by telling them they were about to be encircled.” [12] The Jeep teams comprised of four men manning a Willy’s Jeep. The driver, who often spoke zero English, one “perfect” English speaker, often the highest ranking and two others who spoke little to some English.

These Jeep teams would become the most notorious and recognizable element of Operation Grief. As they infiltrated American lines, the jeep teams wore Fallschirmjäger smocks in order to avoid friendly fire incidents (see left picture), and would rapidly discard them once behind American lines. As one German survivor of this operation reported after the war, as they drove between the German and American lines, it was “high time to get rid of our German Paratrooper Overalls. For our driver this was a real feat of acrobatics, as it was impossible to stop and he had to carry out his undressing act while we were on the move.” [13] In order to prevent any further friendly fire incidents whilst behind the lines, Einheit Stielau also utilized a number of personal identification methods, they wore pink or blue scarves, rapped their knuckles against their American helmets and unbuttoned the top button or the second button of their American field jackets. Their Jeeps also bore distinct markings. [14]

Though Einheit Stielau saw only a small amount of success in the first days of Wacht am Rhein, Skorzeny decided to send more Jeep teams out. However, he sent these men to their doom. “On Dec, 16 an American soldier named William Shakespeare… captured a German Captain. The captain carried a map case. Inside were the Stielau commandos’ recognition signals, as well as a detailed plan of attack for all of Operation Grief. Suddenly things made more sense to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps.” [15]

The CIC acted quickly to put countermeasures into action. They vowed that every soldier and sentry down the line would be ready. MP roadblocks were increased, and sentries were instructed to check for dog tags, ask for US army Serial numbers as well as to interrogate the Jeep driver as well as ask for his trip ticket as the CIC discovered that the jeep driver often spoke the worst English.

The biggest tell the CIC and sentries on the ground discovered was that the Jeep teams nearly always had four men riding in a single Jeep. American jeeps almost never carried more than three people.

Due to the supply problems experienced within Einheit Stielau, many men continued to wear their German boots. This can be seen in photographs of captured Einheit Stielau men. “Near St. Vith and the front lines, a self-propelled gun approached a U.S. Sergeant. It bore markings of the 14th Cavalry but the American GIs riding on it wore strange boots, the Sergeant noticed. The sergeant started for them, to find out who they were…” [16]

The particularities of American English also eluded many members of Einheit Stielau. At one fuel depot, “‘Petrol, please,’ The Jeep’s driver said. The gas pumper’s eyes widened… Any American he’d ever met had said ‘gas’ and never ‘petrol,’ and wouldn’t be saying please if in a hurry… The driver froze a moment. He sped off but ice coated the road. A convoy rolled in from the other way. The jeep rammed a truck and flipped over.” [17]

Of the 44 trained Stielau commandos, only 30 actually infiltrated American lines. “Far fewer came into actual contact with Americans. Skorzeny claimed not to know how many made it over. As for those lost, Skorzeny claimed eight, while U.S. Army reports suggest about seven killed in action. […]The Americans tried and executed about 18 captured Stielau commandos over the rest of December.” [18]

[1 -4] Anderson
[5-6] Pallud
[7-18] Anderson


Anderson, Steven. Sitting Ducks. Kindle. Kindle Single, 2011. https://www.amazon.com/Sitting-Ducks-Kindle-Single-Anderson-ebook/dp/B006P5FQGC.

Pallud, Jean-Paul. Ardennes 1944: Pieper & Skorzeny. Kindle. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1987. https://www.amazon.com/Ardennes-1944-Peiper-Skorzeny-Elite-ebook/dp/B01BY3AMJA/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.

For anyone interested in the American sources I found, please follow this link: https://www.facebook.com/100787008613413/posts/311491767542935/

We discovered after this photoshoot that we should have likely had Sten Guns or Carbines, not worn leggings, and likely should have had overcoats.

🚩Note: This post is not meant to endorse any political ideologies 🚩

A big shoutout to a friend who asked not to be tagged (due to the German smock) who got me interested in this fascinating history and helped me research and write this piece!

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