23 December, 2011

23 December 1944


438th AAA AW BN
APO 230 % Postmaster, N.Y.
23 December, 1944

Dearest Sweetheart –

Another Saturday, another weekend coming up - and so what? At least it’s one less to sweat out, dear. We got to reminiscing last nite and thinking of the various bars around town – the Merry-Go-Round, Statler etc. I thought about the Sheraton Roof, the Vendome – yes and of Nile’s Oasis. Oh well – they’ll all be there when I get back and we’ll visit them all – in one night.

By the way, sweetheart – I hope you’re not letting some of the news you’re hearing get you down. As usual – this outfit retains the good luck – so please don’t worry. Everything is fine right here and don’t forget, we still have the best damned Army in the world.

Mail is nihil, darling, but it’s sure to start up again one of these days. Anyway – I love you, you love me and that is all that matters.

Best regards

My deepest love, darling –

Route of the Question Mark

(A) Stolberg, Germany to (B) Failon, Belgium (68 miles)
also showing
(C) Bastogne, Belgium (38 miles from Failon)

December 23... Failon, Belgium. We took up our position to hold back the Nazi push and we took part in the Battle of the Bulge. The cold, miserable Christmas there, and the dinner that we ate sitting on our helmets in an unheated barn. The Cafe where the communications section established itself, and Capt RENKIN's hideaway in the milkroom of a barn. Mr. BROWN drew pictures on the ceiling of one of the houses and Chaplain TURGEON had a service on Christmas Eve in the village church. T/5 SARACINO asked a British soldier, "Do you speak English?" The soldier replied, "A little, I'm Scotch!!!"


about "Einheit Steilau"

From the start of the planning for the their Ardennes offensive, the Germans gave great importance to seizing intact the Meuse River bridges. To accomplish that, Hitler ordered a special unit of English-speaking men wearing American uniforms and using captured US Army weapons and vehicles to be formed. They would infiltrate through the American lines ahead of the German armored advance to secure the bridges lying between Namur and Liege. Some of the men in the unit, disguised as American officers, would also create confusion by spreading rumors and false information across the enemy rear area. The code name given the sinister plan was "Operation Griffen."

To lead the bold undertaking, Hitler turned to the most famous commando of World War II, Otto Skorzeny. Considered by British intelligence to be "the most dangerous man in Europe," he had by 1944 already achieved fame by leading the mission that snatched Mussolini from imprisonment in a mountaintop fortress the year before. Later he kidnapped the son of Hungarian leader Nicholas Horthy, thereby insuring that regime’s continued loyalty to the Axis. The six-foot Austrian, who wore the Iron Cross around his neck and a dueling scar across his left cheek, was personally briefed by the Führer on his forthcoming assignment on 22 October 1944. He had five weeks to form his new unit, to be designated 150th Panzer Brigade.

Otto Skorzeny

As part of the 150th Panzer Brigade, Skorzeny organized a company of "special" (Einheit) teams under overall command of SS Capt. Helmut Steilau. Those 150 soldiers included the best of the brigade’s English speakers outfitted fully with US uniforms and equipment. Their effort was spearheaded by nine jeepborne commando parties.

The overall mission of "Einheit Steilau" was to: 1) use demolition squads of 5 or 6 men each to sabotage bridges and US supply depots; 2) use 3- and 4-man reconnaissance teams to conduct intelligence sweeps, concentrating on Allied movement and concentrations west of the Meuse; and 3) send 3- and 4-man lead groups directly in front of the main German Panzer advance to issue false orders to enemy troops, prevent unwanted bridge destruction, switch road signs, cut telephone lines and create fake minefield markings to hinder US movement.

The greatest success of the Steilau teams didn’t result from what they actually accomplished, but from the confusion and uncertainty generated by their mere existence. In General Omar Bradley’s words: "Half a million GIs were forced to play cat and mouse with each other each time they met on the road." The authenticating spot checks that began to be spontaneously carried out at roadside checkpoints proved embarrassing for those Americans unfamiliar with baseball, comic books or the current husband of Betty Grable. General Bruce Clarke was arrested by American MPs when he mistakenly placed the Chicago Cubs baseball team in the American League. Even Bradley, an army group commander, was detained for a while when he couldn’t convince one MP that Springfield was indeed the capital of the state of Illinois (the policeman mistakenly insisted it was Chicago).

In spite of the chaos they created, some of Steilau’s men were successfully challenged early on. On 18 December a group of commandos riding on a captured US self-propelled gun were shot down after explaining they were from a "company" of a nearby cavalry unit. The American guards at the checkpoint knew instantly soldiers from a cavalry unit would always refer to their unit as a "troop," never a company.

The jeep teams’ overall success rate might have been greater had they been able to secure more vehicles. That is, the US Army of 1944 was awash with transport. Travelling four to six in a jeep, the German commandos immediately looked conspicuous; seldom would so many GIs crowd into those small cars. That characteristic caused the jeep teams to be more easily spotted among the traffic flow once their existence became known. In all, 18 of Steilau’s men were captured and executed as spies by the Americans during the Ardennes fighting.

On 22 December 1944 four men from Otto Skorzeny's Einheit Steilau who had been captured in American uniforms had been tried and condemned as spies. One, who had informed on the others, was granted a stay of execution. General Hodges awaited written authority from Eisenhower through Bradley before ordering the execution to proceed in Eupen on 23 December 1944.

The condemned Gemrmans took the news bravely.

“Do you have a last request?” they were asked.

“Yes. You have some German womenprisoners. We would like to hear Christmas carols.”

The request was granted. With the sound of the women's voices still in their ears, Skorzeny's spies were shot.

Two more captured spies were shot on the 26th and seven on the 30th. In all, 18 of Steilau's commandos were shot by their captors during the Battles of the Ardennes.

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