At 5:15 a.m. on this day in 1944, a surprise and massive German attack drove through the complacent and thinly spread American front lines along the freezing, densely forested Belgian border. The Ardennes Offensive had sparked the Battle of the Bulge. It was total war distilled to all its bloody, bitter and monstrous elements.
Amid the bloodletting, one obscure mission was more absurd than most. Hitler had ordered a unit formed that would impersonate American troops behind the lines, capture crucial bridges, and wreak general havoc. The overall plan was called Operation Greif. The angle: Find German soldiers who could speak English, dress them up like American GIs and officers, and send them over in captured American vehicles. It was cowboy stuff, a guerrilla swindle. At this late stage in a lost war, the crippled German military could only depend on shock and deception.
In ensuing legend, this desperate last-ditch measure was a frightening and deadly ploy. The reality was far different, the operation more or less a disaster. Among the Germans taking part in Operation Greif, most could barely speak English and the few who could well enough had been waiters, dancers, writers, and students and were far from ideal soldiers let alone crack terrorists. Hitler and his commanders had resorted to throwing disguised dupes at the overwhelming enemy. On Germany's home front, millions had started believing in miracles, the wonder weapon that would still save them. This was the actual Wunderwaffe, their own form of kamikaze attack.
The would-be Greif commandos were never really a threat apart from the panic they caused. Regardless, wartime and postwar accounts as well as popular histories have played up these reputedly notorious teams of false flag agents. The mantra has been rehashed in articles, books, movies. In the star-studded 1965 epic Battle of the Bulge, they are perfectly trained, American-speaking Teutonic machines.
The other day I discovered another gem: an American TV dramatization from 1964 for the Kraft Suspense Theatre. Titled "Operation Greif," it lives up to most misconceptions about the mission and goes further to include a summertime French setting (instead of wintery Belgium) and correspondingly bogus stock footage:
Sure, it's one-dimensional but not too bad, considering that this same era brought us Hogan's Heroes. It could have been far more campy. It has decent acting — from Robert Goulet and Claude Akins especially, but also offers a degree of realism. The plot is not all pat. The transformed hero isn't the obvious one. It's more along the lines of the hard-edged series Combat!. And yet, I suspect that these kind of shows spoke more to those who didn't quite reach the front lines, who just missed prolonged combat. For those vets who had been the real GIs "up on the line" (a tiny percentage of those near the front, in WWII or any war for that matter), nothing could ever come close to the true horror. Twenty years before, deep in the dark and the cold shit of their foxholes, they had not called it the "meat grinder" for nothing.