Quentin Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds, about Jewish soldiers inserted into German-occupied Europe during World War II, was a great revenge fantasy. It had a real-life parallel: Operation Greenup. Overseen by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor, Greenup inserted Jewish-American soldiers into the Third Reich. The real-life Inglourious Basterds were not as murderous as the movie ones. Nonetheless, they wreaked havoc behind German lines, then engineered a mass surrender of Wehrmacht troops in the war’s dying days.
The Real-Life Inglourious Basterds
Greenup’s leader and key operative, Frederick “Fred” Mayer, was born in 1921 into a Jewish family in Germany. His father had fought in World War I and won an Iron Cross during the Battle of Verdun. Mayer’s dad hoped that his heroism in service to the fatherland would shield him and his family from the anti-Semitism that became national policy when the Nazis took power in 1933. It did not. Young Fred frequently fought Germans who picked on him because he was a Jew, and it was near-miraculous that he did not get killed or jailed.
Finally, the elder Mayer accepted that Nazi Germany was no place for Jews, and in 1938, the family emigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn. Fred, as feisty and unwilling to take crap from anybody in the US as he had been in Germany, bounced between dozens of jobs. On one occasion, an employer cracked an anti-Semitic joke that Mayer did not find funny. He delivered a critical review of the would-be comedian by punching his lights out and quit on the spot.
He enlisted in the US Army when America joined WWII and exhibited drive and initiative that attracted the attention of intelligence recruiters. Such as the time during a training exercise when he infiltrated opposing lines and captured several officers, including a general. When the general protested that Mayer had broken the rules, he got the reply: “The rules of war are to win.” Between that and his knowledge of German, French, and Spanish, Mayer was a shoo-in for the OSS, who trained him in infiltrating enemy lines, raiding, sniping, hand-to-hand combat, and demolition.
Greenup’s second key member was Hans Wijnberg, a Dutch Jew born in Amsterdam in 1922, whose father sent him and his twin brother to the safety of America in 1939. The kids lived with their dad’s business partner and studied in Brooklyn until 1943 when Hans joined the Army. Back in the Netherlands, the Nazis sent Wijnberg’s father, mother, and younger brother to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. His opportunity to hit back arrived when an OSS recruiter asked him: “We understand you speak German, Dutch and English. Would you like to help your country?” Wijnberg volunteered on the spot.
The last key member was Franz Weber, a Wehrmacht officer born in 1920 near Innsbruck in Austria’s Tyrol region. His home was about 18 miles north of the vital Brenner Pass that linked the Third Reich with northern Italy, where hundreds of thousands of Germans were fighting the Allies. Weber served on various fronts, including brutal anti-partisan sweeps in Yugoslavia. A conscientious Catholic, he deserted when he could no longer stomach the horrible nature of the Nazi regime. So he fled to the Allies and contacted the OSS. His intimate knowledge of his native country Austria proved vital to the success of Operation Greenup.
Infiltrating Into the Third Reich
By early 1945, with the Red Army smashing its way into the Third Reich from the east while the Western Allies did the same from the west, it was a foregone conclusion that Germany would lose WWII. The only question was how much killing and destruction it would take before that happened. One thing that worried the Western Allies was rumors of an “Alpine Redoubt.” Supposedly, the Germans planned to withdraw into the mountains of Bavaria, Austria, and northern Italy, for a last-ditch stand that could prolong the war for months and shed rivers of blood.
So the OSS sent infiltrated teams into the Alpine redoubt zone to find out what was going on, report back, and wreak what havoc they could while they were at it. Thirty teams were sent in, of which the most successful was the one that included Fred Mayer as the leader and key agent, Hans Wijnberg as a radio operator, and Franz Weber as a local guide. The plan initially called for parachuting them near Innsbruck, close to the Brenner Pass. However, all the good drop zones were occupied by the Wehrmacht.
Since the mission took place in winter, Mayer decided to parachute onto a mountain lake 10,000 feet up into the Alps, which he figured would be frozen. He and his team made the jump on the night of February 26th, 1945. They landed in a good-news, bad-news situation. The good news was that the lake was, indeed, frozen, and nobody was drowned or hurt. The bad news was that all of their supply containers but one were lost. The lost containers included the team’s skis, so they had to trudge for miles through the Alps in waist-deep snow.
After many hardships, they reached Weber’s family, who helped the team get on its feet. By then, Mayer and Weber had become Brooklyn to the core. They overlaid a map of their borough atop that of the Tyrol to come up with a set of code names that would throw the Nazis for a loop if they heard them. Instead of referring to a Tyrolean locale by its actual name, they would refer to it by the Brooklyn street address that corresponded with the location on the Tyrol map beneath that of the NYC borough.
Over the next couple of months, Mayer posed as a German Army officer and even lived in the officer’s barracks in Innsbruck. He collected a treasure trove of information, which he relayed back to Wijnberg, who radioed it to the OSS. Mayer’s team also organized anti-Nazi resistance and recruited Wehrmacht officers, police detectives, and even members of the Gestapo to assist US forces in liberating Austria. They also spied on factories and war infrastructure and collected vital information about German troop movements. The intelligence was greatly appreciated by the US Army Air Forces. It allowed American airmen to bomb dozens of German military trains and block the Brenner Pass. The OSS men even tracked and kept the Allies apprised of the whereabouts of Hitler and Mussolini.
A Miraculous Reprieve and Saving a City
Fred Mayer’s fortunes took a nosedive when a black market trader with whom he dealt was caught by the Gestapo. He promptly snitched on the OSS man to save his skin. So the Gestapo picked up Mayer. He claimed to be a French electrician who knew nothing of spies and was only passing through Innsbruck while trying to escape the advancing Red Army. The Gestapo decided to torture him to make him talk. Historian Tom Moon described what came next:
“In the dark room, the Gestapo officers slapped and punched the spy in the face. His cover wasn't holding water, and so the tall one stripped him from head to toe. Despite the agent's bullish strength, the SS men brutally manhandled him, shoving him to the floor. Cuffing his hands in front of him and pulling his arms over his bent knees, they forced him into a constricting fetal position, then shoved the barrel of a long rifle into the tiny gap behind his knees and his cuffed hands. With a man on each side of the rifle, they lifted his naked, rolled-up body and suspended the human ball between two tables, like a piece of meat on a skewer. Uncoiling a rawhide whip, the tall one put his full weight behind each swing, mercilessly thrashing the agent's body like a side of beef.”
The Gestapo wanted to know where his radio and radio operator were, but Mayer stuck to his story – until the snitch who had dimed him out was brought in. With no more use pretending, Mayer admitted that he was an American officer. However, he was not about to try and save himself by revealing the whereabouts of Wijnberg, his radioman, and insisted that he worked alone. All was up with Mayer, who was about to get executed as a spy when fate intervened.
The Gestapo was interrogating another captured American agent, Hermann Matull, and showed him a picture of Mayer’s bloodied face to see if he could identify him. Quick on his feet, Matull lied and claimed that Mayer was a high-ranking US intelligence official and that the Americans would execute any who harmed him. With Germany’s looming defeat clear to everybody, that warning gave the Gestapo pause. Matull convinced them that somebody as high-ranking as Mayer should only be interrogated by a similarly high-ranking German official, and the nearest such was Franz Hofer, the Gaulieter of Tyrol.
Mayer’s torturers did an about-face and became all sweetness and sunshine as they delivered him, bruised and battered, to Hofer. The Gaulieter, well aware that the Third Reich’s days were numbered, preferred to surrender his region and the military forces therein to the Americans rather than to the advancing Soviets. Once Mayer was convinced of Hofer’s sincerity, he agreed to send a message to the nearest OSS station, located across the border in neutral Switzerland. It, in turn, contacted Greenup’s overseers in Italy: “Fred Mayer reports he is in Gestapo hands but cabled ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m not really bad off.’”
Operation Greenup’s last act was to save Innsbruck from becoming a battlefield and getting wrecked, along with thousands of inhabitants, defenders, and attackers. On the morning of May 3rd, 1945, the US 103rd Infantry Division was gearing up to attack the city when leading elements were approached by a car flying a white bed sheet as an improvised peace flag. Out of the vehicle jumped a young man, his face all busted and swollen. He identified himself as Lieutenant Frederick Mayer of the OSS and stated that he was there to arrange for the surrender of Innsbruck and the German forces in the region.
In reality, Mayer was just a sergeant. He figured that promoting himself to officer status would lend him more credibility and get him taken more seriously by both the Germans and the approaching US forces as he arranged a mass surrender. It worked, and Mayer is the main reason why the US Army captured Innsbruck, the largest city of Nazi Germany’s so-called Alpine Redoubt, without a shot fired. It spared the picturesque city from getting reduced to rubble and saved thousands of lives, both German and American.
After the war, Fred Mayer worked in a power plant until he retired in 1977. He then settled in Charleston, West Virginia, and was a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels for 38 years, until just three weeks before his death in 2016. Hans Wijnberg became a renowned chemistry professor and supervised dozens of Ph.D. students, including Nobel and Spinoza Prize winners. After his retirement, he founded a chemical compounds company and became a prosperous businessman. He died in 2011. Franz Weber became Innsbruck’s police chief after the war, then headed Tyrol’s farmer union, before going into politics and winning multiple elections to the local and national legislatures. He died in 2001.
Sources and Further Reading
Bostiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies – No Sleep Till (Inns) Brooklyn: OSS Operation
Globe and Mail, November 7th, 2012 – “Operation Greenup: A Story Better Than Inglourious Basterds, and True”
Mayer, Fred – Moment of Truth (2010)
Moon, Tom – This Grim and Savage Game: OSS and the Beginning of US Covert Operations (2000)
National WWII Museum – “Operation Greenup: The Real Inglorious Basterds”
O’Donnell, Patrick K. – They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany (2009)Schwab, Gerald – OSS Agents in Hitler’s Heartland: Destination Innsbruck (1996)