This was a German airborne operation, otherwise known as ‘Hohes Venn’ and part of the ‘Greif’ (iv( component of ‘Wacht am Rhein’, to disrupt the Allied rear area near Belle Croix in Belgium and to take bridges near Malmédy (15/16 December 1944).
This was the last airborne operation undertaken by the German airborne arm, and the plan called for Oberstleutnant Friedrich-August Freiherr von der Heydte, previous commander of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, and the 1,200 men of his Kampfgruppe ‘von der Heydte’ to drop on and hold the main road junction 8.8 miles (11 km) to the north of Malmédy, and thus cut the roads over which Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army could otherwise rush reinforcements to check the advance of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee.
The undertaking was the German airborne arm’s only night drop in World War II, and its difficult task was further reduced in terms of the possibility of a successful outcome by the lack of surface or air reconnaissance as demanded by the security tightness imposed on ‘Wacht am Rhein’.
As the operation was launched, the combination of Allied anti-aircraft fire and poor visibility resulted in difficult flying and navigation conditions, and the drop was widely dispersed. Some men landed 50 miles (80 km) behind the German front line, and others landed as far away as the Netherlands and inside the German lines. The wide dispersal of the drop confounded the Allies as much as the US and British paratrooper dispersal on D-Day had confused the Germans.
The Kampfgruppe ‘von der Heydte’ could therefore pose only the most limited of threats. Only an initial 125 men, later increased to 300, made it to the designated drop zone, and these men lacked weapons and also the radio equipment they needed to communicate with the supposedly advancing German forces. Cut off and lacking supplies, the German party was compelled to hide, and then von der Heydte, who had a broken arm, ordered his men to attempt to break through the Allied lines and reach the German front. On 24 December, however, he had a farmer’s son send a surrender note to the Allies even as his men watched impotently as three US divisions moved over the roads the German airborne force had tried to cut.
Despite the utter failure of this operation, the reputation of the German airborne arm was still so high that a ‘paratroop scare’ had been flashed to all Allied formations coming to grips with the crisis around the ‘Bulge’. Unfounded reports of new paratroop drops added mightily to the chaos and confusion of the first week in the Ardennes. Thus it was that this last fiasco did resurrect a flicker of the triumphs of 1940 and 1941. The decisive difference was that by December 1944 the German ground forces had already lost the war.