One of the most popular genres of WWII literature is espionage, the spy novel, the “thriller.” Books abound on the topic, dealing with undercover operatives, double agents, and breathless derring-do. And when you’re done with all of those hundreds of books, you can turn to film. Bingeing spy movies, let us say from Orson Welles’s The Third Man (1949) through Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), would be a lifetime occupation. You really would have to quit your job and become a monk to get through them all.
But rather than doing that, why not just read the actual history of the war? Consider an Allied espionage operation code-named GREENUP, which in some ways is even more improbable than a Hollywood pot-boiler. Here is the short version: two Jewish refugees to the United States, living in Brooklyn (Frederick Mayer, 23, and Hans Wijnberg, 22) enlist in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the postwar CIA, and parachute deep behind German lines into the Austrian province of Tyrol in February 1945. Their mission: to compile reports on German rail traffic over the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria. Any intel they can glean here will give the Allies hints about how the German Army intends to fight in the war’s endgame, whether it will try to circle the wagons in some sort of “Allied redoubt” for a last-ditch fight. The two men are Brooklyn to the core, and they even overlay a map of their New York borough onto that of Tyrol, to have a whole set of code names for various Tyrolean locales that would utterly baffle the Nazis.
Their little band soon adds a third member: Franz Weber, a Wehrmacht lieutenant who has belatedly come to his senses about the murderous nature of Adolf Hitler’s war. Service on a half-dozen fronts, including the bloody struggle against Marshal Tito’s partisans in occupied Yugoslavia, has opened Weber’s eyes. He can see the reality of Hitler’s plans, which, as Weber puts it, aims to transform the continent into “Concentration Camp Europe.” Weber deserts to the Allies, makes contact with the OSS, and agrees to join the team. By now, those of you have seen Tarantino‘s film should be thinking “Inglourious Basterds.” Mayer, Wijnberg, and Weber are the real thing, the actual “basterds,” and indeed, Mayer himself is once supposed to have said that the three of them just “wanted to kill Nazis.”
They didn’t embark on any sort of killing spree, but they did succeed in their mission. Operation Greenup brought the Allies real material benefits, transmitting dozens of radio messages with detailed accounts of Brenner traffic to the OSS listening station in the city of Bari in the heel of Italy. Data gleaned from these reports helped US intelligence officers explode the myth that the Germans were concentrating men and weapons in the south for the “Alpine redoubt.” Despite being captured by the Gestapo and nearly tortured to death, Mayer was able to make contact with a number of local officials, including Franz Hofer, the Nazi Gauleiter (district leader) of Tyrol. Hofer could see the end coming and had little desire to be tried as a war criminal. He and Mayer negotiated the peaceful surrender of Innsbruck, the Tyrolean provincial capital, to the US 7th Army on May 3, 1945. Compared to dozens of other cities and towns, defended till the last shell and cartridge by German forces, then pulverized by US air power and artillery, Innsbruck survived the war nearly unscathed. There’s no doubt that Operation Greenup saved many thousands of lives, Austrian and American, civilian and military.
The story of Operational Greenup deserves greater attention than it has received. In fact, it deserves nothing less than a movie. And what a cast of characters: emigré Jews like Mayer and Wijnberg, bent on destroying the regime that had persecuted them and their families and, in Wijnberg’s case, had even killed his parents; Lieutenant Weber, a German soldier currently on the run from a death sentence for desertion, then being handed out in the thousands by Nazi officials; not to mention Anna Niederkircher, the mother of Weber’s fiancée. Anna was a Tyrolean hotelier who gave the team shelter, support, and protection from the Nazis at the risk of her own life, and who once cried out, both in despair and defiance, “If Hitler wins the war, then I don’t believe in God anymore.” A film on Greenup would have it all: a righteous cause, victims fighting back, nail-biting chase scenes—it couldn’t help but score big at the box office.
In fact, I think I have an idea for a film. Does anyone out there have Quentin Tarantino’s cell?