As the Battle of the Bulge entered its second day, it was pretty clear that a lot of things were unclear.
For the Allies, confusion reigned as commanders struggled to come to grips with what was really happening on what was supposed to be a “Ghost Front.” There was talk of English-speaking Germans in American uniforms…there were rumors that some of these men had already been captured. Weather conditions and heavy cloud kept Allied reconaissance (in the best case) ineffective or (in the worst case) grounded altogether. Communication lines with front-line officers had been cut in the initial bombardment, so giving and receiving orders was, in places, completely impossible. And men not prepared to fight had suddenly been awakened from a “war-footing” slumber with a desperate enemy breathing down their necks.
The men wearing the other uniforms were not asleep. On the contrary, they were ready to jump off. But the fog of war served to make its own confusion. The German High Command had laid out a series of simple goals: make for Antwerp and Brussels and seek to divide the enemy. But the implementation of those goals was largely dependent on good timing and good fortune. Personnel had to achieve their goals within a certain time (and before the Allied forces could regain their footing) or, like a house of cards when the breeze kicks up, it would all come tumbling down.
And for the Germans, the “tumbling down” process was already happening, in just the offensive’s second day.
As a perfect example, consider paratroop Colonel Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte. Less than two weeks before Watch on the Rhine (the German name for the Battle of the Bulge) began, he was informed that he would be receiving 1,200 elite paratroopers for a secret mission (he didn’t know what) against targets (he didn’t know where) to disrupt the enemy (he didn’t know who). It wasn’t until the 14th (two days before the jumpoff) that he and his 1,200 men – which, far from elite, turned out to be mostly the rag-tags and troublemakers other commander didn’t want. Only a couple hundred had any real jump experience at all – got word that their mission would be to drop into the Ardennes, capture the crossroads leading to Verviers, Eupen, and Malmedy, and tie up American reinforcements.
And in the early morning of December 17, 1944, Baron von der Heydte’s jumped off…one day later than scheduled and all over the place. High winds and inexperienced pilots meant drop zones got badly missed. More than 100 planes took paratroopers into the sky, but just 35 of them got their cargoes to the right spot. Some missed by more than 100 miles, many dropping behind their own lines in Germany. For the Colonel, this was far worse than the debacle he had experienced in Crete. At least Crete was an island, and the men were confined to well-defined space. But try to find your men when your search territory is Europe! It was a pretty bad predicament.
As dawn broke, von der Heydte had gathered four privates, a lieutenant, and an injured sergeant. When they reached the crossroads, another 20 men had joined them. As they swapped stories and struggled to shake off the numbing cold, trucks filled with American infantry came around the corner and began passing the men. With no time to think or even plan a defense, the Germans could do nothing but watch. But rather than firing, the Americans simply waved as they passed, probably thinking they were friendly forces.
The slowly-growing group of Germans watched the first of many convoys pass, as the U.S. 7th Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division made their way east. Had von der Heydte been equipped with his full 1,200-man roster, he could have done some serious impeding and delaying. As it was, his group (which grew to over 100 men) was basically spectators.
Confused Germans, wondering what had happened to their comrades, watching confused Americans, wondering what was happening to theirs.
Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War