By the fall of 1944, it was increasingly obvious that Germany faced invasion and defeat. That fate would come at the hands of the British, Americans and their allies coming from the west and via the Russians moving from the east. Only the most deluded of Nazis, including Hitler, refused to accept the realities of the military situation.
The D-Day landings in France in June 1944 had seen the Allies subsequently make steady progress across France, heading for Germany. A last toss of the dice by the Germans came with December 1944’s Battle of the Bulge, a massive German attack in Belgium and France. Despite initial successes, however, the assault was broken. At best, it delayed the arrival of foreign troops on German soil by a matter of weeks.
On the Eastern Front, meanwhile, the Russians had also started to roll back the Nazi forces – with the June 1944 Operation Bagration. That action smashed the German Army Group Center. The victory was then rapidly followed by Nazi withdrawals from Poland and the Ukraine and then retreats from Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia.
It was then that Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s trusted Nazi ally and head of the SS, came up with his idea of the Werewolves. Himmler is most remembered by history as the man who put into practice Hitler’s plans to exterminate all European Jews. A committed Nazi, Himmler had been happy to undertake this hideous task.
So, in the late summer of 1944, with the enemy encroaching, Himmler ordered Unternehmen Werwolf – or “Operation Werewolf.” He gave direct responsibility for the operation to SS Obergruppenführer Hans-Adolf Prützmann. Prützmann was another fanatical Nazi and had organized the wholesale murder of Jews in Latvia.
Given the grand-sounding title of General Inspector of Special Defense, Prützmann was told to create formations of troops who would conduct operations behind enemy lines. This initial plan saw these formations as being uniformed men who would operate like the commandos used by the Allies. Prützmann took inspiration from the Soviet partisans who had operated to the rear of the German lines in Russia.
Nazi Party leaders in Germany’s regions were to be the recruiting agents for the new secret formations. Some 5,000 fighters were subsequently given instruction in guerrilla warfare, with most of those drawn from the Hitler Youth and the SS. However, these soldiers were hamstrung by the same problems facing the rest of the German army. Namely, they had a critical lack of supplies and equipment.
The training of the would-be Werewolves involved instruction in making improvised bombs, assassination and arson attacks. One somewhat bizarre tactic that the die-hard Nazis were to learn was the ability to leap into a guard post and kill the occupant in a single silent action. The weapon for this deadly activity was to be a yard of string.
In fact, it was apparent to some Nazis that the whole Werewolf operation was almost certainly doomed to failure. For example, SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, a battle-hardened soldier, was tasked with training the Werewolves in early 1945; moreover, he was of the opinion that these units would never be capable of posing a real threat to the invading enemy.
And those on the Allies’ side seemed to recognize that the German units were intending to fight in enemy territory. At least, an August 1944 report in the British News Chronicle theorized as much. It read, “The war will go on – underground. Allied military patrols will be ambushed… administrators assassinated… commanders will die mysteriously. Hitler and the Nazis – particularly Himmler – have learned from their own bitter experience how effective the underground resistance can be.”
What’s more, the American press also played its part in the rumor mill. In January 1945, for instance, Collier’s magazine published a piece about secret Nazi resistance plans. That story was, furthermore, supported by a quote from Nazi propaganda head Joseph Goebbels. This read, “The enemy (invading German territory) will be taken in the rear by the fanatical population, which will ceaselessly worry him, tie down strong forces and allow him no rest or exploitation of any possible success.”
And in March 1945 Goebbels would go on to reaffirm his belief in such a tactic. Specifically, in his so-called “Werewolf speech,” he demanded that the German people all join forces in battling the enemy. This was, though, something of a radical departure from the original Operation Werewolf plan, which asserted that only organized military forces should oppose the Allies on German soil.
Then, mere weeks after Goebbels’ proclamation, Radio Werwolf was established, its broadcasts introduced by the noise of a howling wolf. Its first transmission, furthermore, chillingly stated that “every Bolshevik, every Englishman, every American on our soil must be a target for our movement… Any German, whatever his profession or class, who puts himself at the service of the enemy and collaborates with him will feel the effect of our avenging hand.”
The Allies were familiar with Radio Werwolf, however, and the content of the station’s broadcasts was duplicated in both British and American newspapers. Meanwhile, American station Armed Forces Radio attempted to counteract the propaganda from the Germans. In one of its transmissions, it even went so far as to assert that “every friendly German civilian is a disguised soldier of hate… In heart, body and spirit, every German is Hitler.”
What’s more, invading troops did eventually uncover some evidence of clandestine attempts to resist the occupation of Germany. For example, in April 1945 a U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant seized a troop of German soldiers and officers disguised in civilian clothing. The men had been concealing themselves in tunnels; and these passages were later revealed to contain a tranche of documents detailing a terrifying hit list for the Germans. Indeed, among their targets was one General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
However, another Counter Intelligence Corps officer, Major John Schwartzwalder, deemed himself to have been relatively unconcerned by Operation Werewolf. In his 1946 book, We Caught Spies: Adventures of an American Counter Intelligence Agent in Europe, he wrote, “The only remaining fraction of the Werewolf that was of any importance was a residue of veterans of the last war who were physically ineligible for service in this one and who had weapons concealed here and there.” He continued, somewhat wryly, “These [people] were not too hard to dispose of.”
But regardless of Major Schwartzwalder’s personal skepticism, the legend of Operation Werewolf persisted – even after V.E. Day. Yes, the power of Goebbels’ propaganda efforts meant that some believed there was effective German resistance even after the war had been definitively won.
And, in fact, a wide variety of acts went on to be credited to the Werewolves – some rather erroneously. One action that does seem more likely to have been part of Operation Werewolf is, however, the assassination of the then-new mayor of the German city of Aachen. SS troops carried this out in March 1945 under direct orders from Himmler.
But there’s also said to have been one outcome from Operation Werewolf that the Germans may not have bargained for. Namely, that the resistance plan ended up making Allied and Russian treatment of the conquered Germans harsher than it might otherwise have been. It’s a claim made by historian Ian Kershaw, who has asserted that the fear of reprisals from Werewolves may have inspired subsequent atrocities carried out by the Allies. It’s also true that the Russians went on to arrest thousands of young men suspected of being Werewolves. These youths were then either imprisoned or executed.
Some historians, moreover, have asserted that Operation Werewolf never even had a fleshed-out plan of action in the first place. And, in retrospect, the notion that the Germans were in any position to mount a successful guerilla war against Allied forces seems at best one of optimism, at worst one that was utterly delusional.