Though history remembers him as one of the bad guys, there is little doubt that a German named Otto Skorzeny played an influential role in demonstrating the power small specialized units could play on the battlefield.

Once called ‘The Most Dangerous Man In Europe’, his participation in planning and executing risky, even outlandish, operations earned admiration from friend and foe alike. In fact, some of his missions acted as precursors to common procedures in use by Special Forces today.

Budapest, Otto Skorzeny, Adrian v. Fölkersam

Standing 6’3″, with a thin moustache and a fencing scar running the length of his left cheek down to his chin, Skorzeny’s first successes came as the Third Reich rode the wave of its early victories in 1941.

In Russia, as a junior officer in the Waffen SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ he headed a small unit tasked with capturing key buildings of the Communist party when the assault on Moscow commenced. Then he was to capture the gates of the Moscow-Volga canal and, per Hitler’s wishes, use it to turn Moscow into an artificial lake. None of it came to fruition though, since the Soviets counterattacked and drove the Germans back from the outskirts of the capital in December.

Wounded in December 1942, Skorzeny convalesced in a hospital studying unconventional warfare literature and submitting proposals up the chain of command. He had hopes of creating small teams to operate behind the lines, striking high value targets, wearing enemy uniforms, and waging guerilla warfare. Events would find him demonstrating these three specialties with varying degrees of effectiveness in the coming months.

Recommended to Walter Schellenberg, head of the SS foreign intelligence service in early 1943, Skorzeny was placed in command of schools training operatives in the crafts he espoused. In June, he received command of the newly created Friedenthal unit, an SS Special Forces group, which then transformed into SS-Jaeger (Hunter) Battalion 502.

With permission to recruit beyond the SS, Skorzeny incorporated 150 Army and 50 Luftwaffe personnel along with 100 SS men to form 1 headquarters and 2 combat companies.