Otto Skorzeny – Portrait
SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny was the most colourful and the most famous Waffen SS commander during WW2. His daring rescue of Mussolini from Gran Sasso made him world famous and his subsequent missions during the Ardennes Offensive and in Hungary during Operation Panzerfaust gave him the the title among the Allies of “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe” His extraordinary wartime career was one of high risk and adventure …
Otto Skorzeny was born on June 12th, 1908 to a typical middle class Viennese family. Otto’s father owned a successful engineering firm, and the family lived quite comfortably until the depression that ravished Austria at the end of World War I. When the teenaged Otto once complained that he’d never tasted real butter, his father’s response was prophetic: “There is no harm in doing without things. It might even be good for you not to get used to a soft life.”
He attended the University of Vienna to study engineering. Whilst there as a student, he fought 15 ritual sabre duels as a young man. In one of these he received a cut to the face that left him with a permanent scar. Skorzeny would later credit his success in war to his experiences in the Schlagende Verbindungen (dueling society) which would prove the most influential part of his college experience. Said Skorzeny:
“My knowledge of pain, learned with the sabre, taught me not to be afraid. And just as in dueling when you must concentrate on your enemy’s cheek, so, too, in war. You cannot waste time on feinting and sidestepping. You must decide on your target and go in.”
World War II broke out in September of 1939. Skorzeny volunteered for the Luftwaffe, but at 6′ 4″ and thirty-one years of age, was considered too tall and too old for flight training. Instead, Skorzeny’s superiors assigned him to train as a communications expert, an assignment he hated. Five months later, Skorzeny transferred to the Waffen SS, the military arm of the SS, where he hoped to become an officer. He was classified as an officer-cadet, and would be commissioned if he proved himself.
Skorzeny was put in charge of keeping his division’s (Division Reich) tanks and other equipment operational. He was successful, but his unorthodox methods often got him into trouble. Skorzeny was not above stealing equipment from other divisions, and once even took tires from a depot at gunpoint. His chances for a commission were tabled indefinitely when he shot down a portrait of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (who had denounced Hitler) from the wall of a Dutch café after the owner refused to remove it.
Skorzeny’s fortunes turned in April 1941 when his regiment was sent to Yugoslavia to quell a revolt. The rebellion was engineered by Yugoslav military officers who overthrew the government of Prince-Regent Paul on March 26-27 because they felt their ruler was getting too close to Hitler. Three days after the invasion, Skorzeny and his men managed to capture fifty-four Yugoslav soldiers and three officers. Skorzeny marched his prisoners to his regiment’s headquarters and was commissioned on the spot.
But fortune would again turn her back on Otto. In June of 1941, Division Reich participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union, where it suffered heavy casualties. One day in early winter of that year, Skorzeny was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel when a Soviet artillery shell struck near his position some 200 yards from the front line. Taken to a nearby aid station, he refused all treatment except for a few aspirin, a bandage, and a glass of schnapps. A few hours later, Skorzeny rejoined his regiment, but his health only deteriorated. By January 1942, he was headed back to Germany on a hospital train, promising to return in a few weeks. By the time he recovered, however, the Third Reich would have other plans for Skorzeny.
After recovering for a few months in an army hospital, Skorzeny was summoned to Berlin in April of 1943 to meet with Walter Schellenberg, head of the SD (the SS foreign intelligence service). Schellenberg needed someone to take charge of the schools being organized to train special agents in sabotage, espionage, and paramilitary skills. Skorzeny, though relatively unknown at the time, had been recommended for the position by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA (Reich Central Security Office), whom Otto had known since his early days in the Austrian Nazi Party. Skorzeny readily accepted the position, and training commenced.
The men of what would become known as Jagdverbande (Hunting Group) 502 were culled from the best of the best of the Reich’s various military units. Each member was expected to have a basic knowledge of firearms, grenades, and artillery. They also had to know how to operate automobiles, motorcycles, watercraft, and locomotives. They had to be expert swimmers and be able to parachute from aircraft. Many were also trained in foreign languages, such as English, Italian, Russian, and Persian.
Skorzeny, for his part, studied the techniques found in captured British commando documents, and learned even more from captured British commandos who were willing to switch sides. He also attended a course on espionage taught by an Abwehr (army intelligence) officer.
Jagdverbande 502’s first mission, “Operation Francois,” took place in the summer of 1943. The group parachuted into Iran, where they made contact with the dissident mountain tribes. These insurgent forces were used to sabotage US and British supplies of materiel bound for the Soviet Union. However, within a few months, interest waned among the rebel tribes. Skorzeny, who remained behind to train more recruits, characterized Operation Francois as “a failure.”
Though Jagdverbande 502 had gotten off to a shaky start, greater things lay in store. While his commandos were implementing Operation Francois in Iran, Skorzeny was ordered to appear before the Fuhrer himself. Otto Skorzeny had proved his worth – in 1942 he was awarded the Iron Cross, and in April 1943 he was promoted to captain and named ‘Chief of Germany’s Special Troops, Existing or to be Created in the Future’.
When Hitler’s old friend Benito Mussolini was overthrown and imprisoned in Italy at Gran Sasso in 1943, it was Skorzeny who successfully planned and led the daring rescue, winning the Knight’s Cross and promotion as a result.
Hitler intended to put Mussolini back on the seat of a puppet government in the part of Italy occupied by the Germans and he personally ordered Otto Skorzeny to rescue Mussolini. Skorzeny tracked Mussolini across half of Italy for a month and a half until he finally found him at the Hotel Campo, a resort high in the Gran Sasso mountains. On September 8, the Germans intercepted a coded message by the Italians confirming the presence of Mussolini on the Gran Sasso. Skorzeny formulated a daring plan and went right into action.
He took a contingent of his troops up in gliders and crashed them on the steep rocky slopes surrounding the hotel. He and his troops rushed out and stormed the hotel, capturing the place without a shot. After finding the room where Mussolini was held prisoner, Skorzeny entered, knocked down the chair of the radio operator, and destroyed the transmitting equipment. Standing to attention, he exclaimed:
“Duke, the Fuhrer has sent me to set you free!”
Mussolini was promptly loaded onto an aircraft that landed after the assault and flown to Vienna. On the arrival at the Hotel Continental, where a suite had been prepared, they received a hero’s welcome and Hitler telephoned to congratulate.
Operation Mickey Mouse
In November, 1943, Joseph Tito was able to establish a government in Bosnia. In February 1944 , Adolf Hitler sent Otto Skorzeny to kill Tito. The partisan leader was able to escape but Skorzeny was more successful in October 1944 when he kidnapped Miklos Horthy, who wanted to surrender Hungary to the advancing Red Army. Skorzeny’s solution was “Operation Mickey Mouse,” named after Horthy’s son, Miki, whom many believed to be influencing his father to side with the USSR. Skorzeny entered Miki’s apartment, shot him in the arm and bundled him in a rug and put him in a plane bound for Berlin.
The elder Horthy, despite the kidnapping of his son, refused to cooperate. Two days after the kidnapping, Skorzeny stormed the citadel where the regent resided. Skorzeny had a tank, twenty-five men, and a truck. The citadel was guarded by an entire parachute battalion. Within one hour, the Hungarians had surrendered, with a total of seven lives lost.
His reputation thus enhanced, ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ was promoted again and awarded the German Cross in Gold.
Skorzeny’s last mission of note came during the last German offensive on the western front. Occurring on the borders of Germany and Luxemburg, the Battle of the Bulge was the Third Reich’s last gasp, lasting from December 16, 1944 to Jan 25, 1945. Skorzeny would play a special role in this offensive.
In late October, Hitler put Skorzeny in charge of “Operation Greif.” Skorzeny would command the 150th Panzer Brigade, whose mission would be to capture one or more bridges on a stretch of the Meuse River in Belgium, after the First Panzer Division broke through the American defense. Additionally, Skorzeny would command a force of commandos made up of English-speaking soldiers with American equipment and uniforms. The commandos were to slip behind enemy lines and wreak havoc while the 150th Panzer Brigade would secure the bridges.
Operation Greif initially met with some success. On December 17, 1944, US Third Army commander General George S Patton described the situation to Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower:
“Krauts . . . speaking perfect English . . . raising hell, cutting wires, turning road signs around, spooking whole divisions, and shoving a bulge into our defenses.
Patton also notified Eisenhower that a captured German officer had revealed a plot to assassinate Eisenhower, engineered by Skorzeny. Though after the war Skorzeny characterized the plot as merely a rumor, Eisenhower and the Allies took it seriously and the Supreme Commander was forced to spend the holidays under maximum security in Versailles. Eisenhower responded with a no-holds-barred manhunt for Skorzeny, and “wanted” posters featuring the Nazi commando’s likeness were distributed throughout the western front.
Though Operation Greif was initially somewhat successful, it was a failure in the long run. As December wore on, fewer and fewer of Skorzeny’s commandos were able to bluff their way past security checkpoints. Nor did his 150th Panzer Brigade ever reach the Meuse, as the First Panzer Division failed to break through American lines. By December 28, Skorzeny knew the Battle of the Bulge was lost and left the front.
Ten days after the war’s end Skorzeny gave himself up to the Americans who had launched a massive search for ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Europe’. He was put on trial but was acquitted in September 1947. He was handed over to the German authorities but managed to escape from captivity in July 27th 1948. It was on this day that in true commando fashion he escaped.
His whereabouts after his escape remained a mystery as Russian agents, Jewish organizations hunted for him all over Europe but the ex-commando was not in Europe. In fact he had fled to Argentina and became close to Juan and Eva Peron who was interested in recovering all the German gold and money from the days of the Reich.
Otto Skorzeny organized the Police into the most brutal in South America and also acted as Eva Peron`s bodyguard foiling at least one attempt on her life.
His post-war activities included his service as an adviser to Gamal Nasser, dictator in Egypt.
Skorzeny eventually settled in Spain and became a successful engineering consultant for several years. His later years were all spent on helping his SS comrades to escape justice.
He founded a secret organization which helped some 500 former SS members escape the hunt for nazi war criminals. One of the better known people the organization is said to have helped is Adolf Eichmann
Otto Skorzeny – ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Europe’ – died comfortably in Madrid July, 1975 – in his bed.
The most intriguing Skorzeny story that has surfaced in recent years concerns the alleged Churchill-Mussolini correspondence. New light has been shed upon the mystery of a possible unauthorized Churchill-Mussolini correspondence during the war, whether Mussolini kept the documents with him even in exile, the possible involvement of British intelligence in Mussolini’s death, and whether Skorzeny met Churchill in Venice to exchange the Mussolini papers for an unofficial “amnesty” from Allied Nazi-hunters …