Operation Stösser (English: Operation Auk) was a paratroop drop into the American rear in the High Fens area during the Battle of the Bulge. Their objective was to take and hold the "Baraque Michel" crossroads until the arrival of the 12th SS Panzer Division. The operation was led by Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte. He was given only 8 days to prepare the mission. The majority of the paratroopers and pilots assigned to the operation were untrained and inexperienced. The mission was a complete failure. It was the German paratroopers' only nighttime drop during World War II.
Oberst Freiherr Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, hero of the legendary if ill-fated airborne assault on Crete,:88 was summoned on December 8 and told to prepare for a mission, but not given any details. Von der Heydte was given only eight days to prepare. He wanted to use his own regiment, but this was forbidden because their movement might alert the Allies to the impending counterattack. Instead, he was provided with a Kampfgruppe of 800 men. The II Parachute Corps was tasked with contributing 100 men from each of its regiments. Instead of contributing their best men as ordered, the regiments sent their misfits and troublemakers. Von der Heydte could not afford to resist too strongly. A cousin of Claus von Stauffenberg, a central figure in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, von der Heydte was under scrutiny.:218
In loyalty to their command, 150 men from von der Heydte's own unit, the 6th Parachute Regiment, went against orders and joined him.:130 To avoid alerting the Allies, the Germans planned to conduct the drop without prior reconnaissance or current aerial photographs.
Lack of training
The men had little time to establish any unit cohesion or train together. Many of the men assigned to von der Heydte had never jumped out of an airplane before.:88 Von der Heydte later commented, "Never in my entire career had I been in command of a unit with less fighting spirit.":130
On December 13, von der Heydte visited the headquarters of Army Group B near Münstereifel to complain that the resources allocated to him for the operation were wholly inadequate. Field Marshal Walter Model, who had tried to persuade Hitler to attempt a less ambitious counterattack, replied that he gave the entire Ardennes Offensive less than a 10% chance of succeeding. Model told him it was necessary to make the attempt. "It must be done because this offensive is the last chance to conclude the war favorably.":132
Assault delay and mis-drops
The drop was delayed for a day when the assigned aircraft did not show up. The new drop time was set for 03:00 on 17 December; the drop zone was 7 miles (11 km) north of Malmedy. Their objective was to seize the crossroads and hold it for approximately twenty-four hours until relieved by the 12th SS Panzer Division, hampering the Allied flow of reinforcements and supplies into the area.:130
Just after midnight on 17 December, 112 Ju 52 transport planes with around 1,300 Fallschirmjäger took off during a powerful snowstorm with strong winds and considerable low cloud cover. The Luftwaffe was very short of experienced pilots. Many of the Ju 52 transport pilots had never flown them before, half had never flown in combat,:130, nor were they trained to conduct drops at night or to fly in formation.:88 Pathfinders from the Nachtschlachtgruppe 20 were supposed to lead the way, but the pilots were so inexperienced that they flew with their navigation lights on.:132
Many planes went off course. Two hundred and fifty men were dropped near Bonn, 50 miles (80 km) from the intended drop zone.:89 Some landed with their troops still on board.:161 Strong winds deflected many paratroopers whose planes were relatively close to the intended drop zone and made their landings far rougher. Only a fraction of the force landed near the intended drop zone. Since many of the German paratroopers were very inexperienced, some were crippled upon impact and died where they fell. Some were found the following spring when the snow melted.:218
Confusion among Americans
Because of the extensive dispersal of the drop, Fallschirmjäger were reported all over the Ardennes, and the Allies believed a major division-sized jump had taken place, causing the Americans much confusion and convincing them to allocate men to secure the rear instead of facing the main German thrust at the front.:88 An entire U.S. infantry regiment of 3000 men (U.S. 18th Infantry) along with an armored combat command of 300 tanks and 2,000 men searched several days for the German force.:136 The 12th SS Panzer Division, unable to defeat the Americans at Elsenborn Ridge, never arrived.
By noon on 17 December, von der Heydte's unit had scouted the woods and rounded up a total of around 300 troops. With only enough ammunition for a single fight, the force was too small to take the crossroads on its own. Oberst von der Heydte first planned to wait for the arrival of the 12th SS Panzer Division when they would suddenly seize the crossroads just before their arrival. After three days of waiting, he abandoned these revised plans and instead converted his mission to reconnaissance. General Model had scoffed at von der Heydte's request for carrier pigeons, and none of the unit's radios survived the drop, so he was unable to report the detailed information he gathered.:89
Withdrawal to Germany
With only a single day's food supply and limited water, on 19 December von der Heydte withdrew his forces towards the German lines. He used their limited ammunition to attack the rear of the American lines. Only about one-third of his weary men reached the German rear. Oberst von der Heydte, wounded, frostbitten, suffering from pneumonia, and exhausted, knocked on doors in Monschau until he found a friendly German family. The next morning he sent a boy with a surrender note to the Allies.:90
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