How being a “grammar Nazi” literally got people killed

I was struck by this piece of history at ÆtherCzar’s blog.

The original grammar Nazis were real-life, actual Nazis, and their excessive attention to spelling led to a gruesome end. Here’s the story.

It was December 1944. The Nazis had the men and resources for one last counter-offensive in the west. In the Battle of the Bulge, they broke through allied lines, and aimed for the port of Antwerp. They hoped to force the allies to a negotiated peace. The Nazis had a trick up their sleeves. Otto Skorzeny, who also led the raid which successfully rescued Mussolini from captivity, was tasked with leading a unit composed of English-speaking Nazi soldiers in American uniforms. His “Operation Greif” aimed to sow confusion by changing signs, spreading rumors, and committing sabotage behind American lines.  They succeeded. General Eisenhower spent his Christmas enveloped in heavy security on the false rumor that his assassination was one of the unit’s aims. Roadblocks set up to screen for the infiltrators slowed traffic and caused havoc. Nazi forgers prepared documents and papers to allow the infiltrators to pass as American soldiers. And the infiltrators spoke English, but in many cases were unfamiliar with American culture and idiom. Clever MPs asked who was Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, or who plays center field for the Yankees. They asked obscure cultural questions to distinguish infiltrators from real American soldiers. General Omar Bradley answered an MP’s question, telling him that the capital of Illinois was Springfield, only to find himself arrested by the MP who was convinced that the correct answer was Chicago. Another general was arrested for placing the Chicago Cubs in the American League.

But one of the more dramatic encounters happened when a battalion staff officer examined an “American” officer’s identity card. Here’s a sample of a World-War-II-vintage identification card (photograph provided in original).

Examine this carefully. Take your time. The German forgers did. See that top line? “NOT A PASS – FOR INDENTIFICATION ONLY.” INdentification. Not Identification. So what did the Nazi forgers do? Why they corrected the obvious misspelling in the sample identification cards they had. No Nazi infiltrator would be caught dead with a misspelled INdentification card.

There’s more at the link.

The ‘corrected’ forgeries were, of course, identifiable by the ‘correction’ – which led to the execution of several of the intruders.  Details are at the original article, and are worth reading.

I knew about Operation Greif, and the activities of Skorzeny’s commandos, but I hadn’t heard about the ‘corrected’ identity card before.  I wonder if the surviving commandos ever did anything to the forger who so ‘helpfully’ fixed that?



  1. Something like the thief's knot used by cooks on ships. It's a mis-tied square knot, an loose granny knot, which apparently a sailor snagging some food out of the reefer late at night is near incapable of tying, naturally tying a square knot.

  2. Kinda reminds me of that scene in Inglorious Bastards where the British(?) officer is betrayed by the way he signifies 3 when he's ordering some beer. Apparently many or most Germans use thumb, index, and middle finger, while this guy used index, middle, and ring fingers.
    I have seen other Europeans use the thumb, index, and middle as well.

    – Charlie

  3. I met a man who ranged behind Russian lines with Skorzeny and later spent five years in Russian camps. In his case it was what was missing that saved his life. Most of those he served with had identification numbers tattooed on their arm. He did not. The Russians executed everyone with that kind of a tattoo as a member of the SS. Better safe than sorry. I wish I could remember now why he missed getting tattooed when serving in a unit guarding Hitler's Eagles Nest.

  4. I recall reading somewhere about German counterfeiting of British money and making a similar mistake, though can no longer find a reference to that. I may be confusing facts, fiction, and multiple different instances of the same theme. Anyone help a forgetful idjit out?

  5. Knowing a few Germans, yeah, that typo would be the sort of thing to just drive them right up the wall. There's just no way that forger could sleep at night knowing there was a typo there.

  6. m4
    Fredrick Forsyth made reference to that in the Odessa File, where the Germans were trying to counterfeit the British Pound. The intent was to release it in neutral countries to devalue currency, and cause the damage to the British economy thru inflation.

    Having seen what runaway inflation does to a paper currency, if the Germans had been successful, it could have changed the way the war went, as it would have crashed the British economy. At the very least, they would have had to change their currency in the middle of a war, world-wide.

    In the real event, the only documented use of the counterfeit currency was in Egypt, to pay a member of the British Embassy (traitor) for classified files giving notice of British plans. This was part of what contributed to Rommel's success, prior to the leak being "stopped". The German officer who wrote about it after the war, wondered what happened to the traitor, as outside of a few pieces of gold jewelry, everything he was "paid" was worthless counterfeit currency.

    — Steve

  7. I've also heard that when the Germans created ID cards, they put a full name, including middle, on the ID card but since some of the cards they had captured had "NMN" on them, they also used it – not knowing that NMN meant 'no middle name' and shouldn't have been on a card with a middle name.

  8. Sherm… Likely, it wasn't an identification number that gave the SS guys away–It was that they'd taken to having their blood types tattooed to their bodies, to save time at the aid station.

  9. During the war, two German spies were sent to London to gather valuable intel. To immerse themselves in the local culture they walk into a local pub and walk up to the bar. The first German says to the barman in an impeccable English accent:
    "May I have two Martinis please?"
    "Dry?" asked the barman.
    The German replied angrily, holding up two fingers. "Nicht drei! Zwei!"

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