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.
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.
It didn’t have to wait long for an assignment; this one would go down in history as one of the first and boldest special unit actions in history. One that would help give birth to Skorzeny’s infamous nickname.
On July 25th, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist leader and good friend of Adolf Hitler, was deposed and arrested, shuttled around the country to secret locations to avoid capture, before ending up at a reclusive ski resort high on an Apennine mountaintop called Gran Sasso, some 80 miles northeast of Rome. Here in a place accessible only by cable car, it was thought Mussolini was safe from rescue.
After the Germans decoded a message as to his whereabouts, Hitler personally chose Skorzeny to lead a mission to free his old comrade. And soon, with a plan finalized, on September 12th, just after an air raid, 9 light assault gliders lumbered aloft behind their towplanes bound for the barren peak. Skorzeny was aboard as an observer of a 14 man entry team of the 502nd, wearing khaki clothing reinforced by Luftwaffe paratroopers wearing their trademark camoflauge smocks.
With the objective in sight, the tow lines were released and the gliders veered toward the peak. The guards at the resort were shocked to see these silent aircraft aiming directly toward them. The gliders set down and skidded along the bumpy plain, injuring some of the men before coming to a halt just short of the hotel.
Troops poured from the craft racing for the building. The guards, seeing what was unfolding before them fled their positions.
SS men entered and began searching the rooms. Skorzeny kicked away an enemy radio operator before he could send a message, and then bashed the transmitter with the butt of his submachine gun. Then climbing a stairwell to the top floor he opened a door to one of the rooms, found a surprised Mussolini and proclaimed “Duce, the Fuehrer has sent me, you are free!”
“I knew my friend would not forsake me.” He replied.
Mussolini and Skorzeny boarded a light airplane and departed for Vienna.
The following days, Skorzeny was feted in a Germany desperate for good news when the war had taken a terminal spiral downward. His memorable face appeared in film newspapers and magazines as he prepared for his next missions.
In October, he planned Operation Long Jump, the objective: To kill the Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin meeting in Tehran. However this proved logistically unfeasible and so was cancelled.
Operation Knights Move came next with the 500th SS Parachute Battalion again operating with Luftwaffe paratroopers, attempting to seize Yugoslavian partisan leader Joseph Broz, aka Marshal Tito, located in a cave near the town of Drvar.
This undertaking ended in disaster with Skorzeny excising himself before the operation launched due to feeling the mission’s secrecy had been compromised.
Gliders landed and paratroopers leaped from planes around the town, only to become involved in heavy fighting which inflicted hundreds of casualties on the Germans. In the end, the total prize for their sacrifice was recovering Tito’s jacket, as he had departed Drvar long before their arrival.
On October 15, 1944, Hitler again ordered Skorzeny to lead a mission into Hungary to kidnap ally Miklos Horthy’s son, Miklos Jr., who had been secretly negotiating with the Russians. Skorzeny’s men located, arrested, then beat him into submission before whisking him off to a concentration camp.
Horthy resigned as leader of Hungary.
The final mission which Skorzeny received notoriety for was Operation Grief, where he used English speaking Germans to infiltrate American lines to sow confusion and terror. This came as part of the last great offensive on December 16th by the German military, which later became known as the Battle Of The Bulge.
Now in control of a special unit called Panzer Brigade 150, a unit tasked with capturing bridges during the attack, it had to give up trying to achieve these objectives and fought alongside infantry units intending to take the town of Malmedy. Heavy casualties drained the unit, forcing it to retreat. Skorzeny himself was wounded, and the formation was relieved on December 28th.
Its English speaking teams achieved little, although they did worry the Americans, including having Eisenhower kept under heavy guard during Christmas because of assassination fears. He retaliated by putting up wanted posters of Skorzeny throughout liberated Europe in the coming weeks.
In all, 44 English speaking Germans managed to return alive after the battle, with 8 being killed and another 18 captured and executed as spies.
With the war winding down, Skorzeny, now a Lieutenant Colonel, attempted to organize guerilla groups known as Werewolves to fight the coming Allied occupation. But these proved too few in number, so he used them as contacts or ‘ratlines’ to help high ranking and suspect Nazi’s escape abroad. This effort became known as Odessa, and thousands used it to escape justice long after the war ended.
Skorzeny was arrested and placed in prison after hostilities ceased but escaped in 1948, eventually settling in Madrid. There, he set up an engineering company as a front to aid Odessa.
He traveled extensively during the post war years. First, to the Middle East as a military advisor to Egypt, before creating another organization called Die Spinne (The Spider), another ratline exclusive to the SS. Then he went to Argentina where he served as an adviser to Argentinian dictator Juan Peron and as bodyguard for Eva Peron.
He also helped found CEDADE, a Spanish neo-nazi group, and started the Paladin group, dedicated to paramilitary operations with such clients as Muammar Gaddafi and South Africa.
Skorzeny died in 1976 at the age of 67. He left a legacy still being challenged to this day.
Recent evidence has come to light that much of Skorzeny’s accomplishments were embellished, especially by himself and that he was not the cunning warrior history has made him out to be, and that political connections and loyalty to the Nazi cause were the real reasons for his fame.
It may never be known.
Whatever the truth, Skorzeny’s skill or not as a commando is overshadowed by the fact that he failed as a human being, helping provide escape via an underground railroad to some of the most evil people the world has ever known.