Sensational press accounts were just plain rabid about this man from the time he “escaped” a post-WWII “Officers'” holding camp, until the start of the Vietnam conflict. All he ever really wanted to be was a Mechanical Engineer and to serve his country honorably. Most of us would never have heard of this Commando’s successes were it not for the British desire to explain WWII in detail to the world (in terms of their victorious achievements). This man was Otto Skorzeny.
In the frantic change of the Austrian government on 12 March 1938, Skorzeny was a member of the Gymnastic Club which was trying to support the police and keep antagonistic political factions from breaking into rioting. He was a big man with a strong sense of duty, an energetic attitude, and a loud, commanding voice. It is reported that he personally prevented two armed groups from coming to blows at a critical moment. Then the war came on 1 September 1939, and he tried to get into the Luftwaffe, but, at the age of 31, was labeled “too old” to be a pilot — so he ended up in the Army.
In his regular army training regimentation, Skorzeny saw individuality and personality broken in most of the younger men by the time-honored methods heralding back to 19th century Prussia. Sent on a tour of France after its surrender as an officer-cadet (~E5) he amazed superiors by obtaining the cooperation of Dutch workers to construct a ramp that he designed for loading heavy tanks on to ships in preparation for the invasion of Britain. Later when his trucks needed new tires to complete a mission, he threatened the NCO of a supply depot with harm if he (without written authorization) didn’t get what he needed to carry out his verbal orders. He was reprimanded by a general for being aggressive and transferred to a unit in Yugoslavia.
When he was leading his first combat patrol, a larger group of enemies walked right into his area. Instead of opening fire, Skorzeny jumped up and demanded their surrender — and got it, without firing a shot. He brought in 63 prisoners, including three officers, and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on the spot. He thought his next assignment would be in the battle for North Africa, and picked up a copy of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence for reading on the train. The train stopped short and his unit was instead offloaded to participate in Operation Barbarossa and an extremely bloody Axis invasion of Russia, which began 22 June 1941.
He fought well and hard in the endless Russian forest and plains for the next six months, including during the Russian winter of 1941, when the German Army had no winter uniforms. Skorzeny developed colic, was invalided home to Vienna, and assigned as an Engineering Officer to a reserve regiment in Berlin. In the autumn of 1942, Waffen SS divisions were being converted into armored divisions, so he applied for a transfer and became the regimental Engineer of the 3rd SS Armoured Division. In mid-April 1943, he was sent to Waffen SS headquarters and informed that a technically trained officer was required for a special unit.
Why reserve 1st Lt. Skorzeny? What was going on?
British commandos were causing a problem, so Hitler wanted to develop a commando team. Here was a reserve officer with combat experience, but not quite an exemplary service record. For the General Staff, Lt. Skorzeny was perfect — suitable, presentable, technically trained, and non-political. (It might be noted that Hitler’s Commando Order of 18 October 1942 clearly stated that all Allied commandos captured “should be killed immediately without trial.”)
Skorzeny was promoted to captain and told to get to work on creating a special operations unit or two. Firstly, however, he had to be introduced to the “secret” side of the German military and was introduced to Admiral Canaris of the Military Secret Service (Auslands-Abwehr). He tried to get a number of junior officers transferred to his new unit — and was turned down. LTC Schellenberg of the General Staff advised him that he needed to collect all the information he could and start a School for Espionage and Sabotage while looking for men and equipment. His new command was already penciled in to take over a mission in Iran that was going badly.
Fortunately, the platoon of men he inherited were all combat veterans. Added to their number was a platoon size group of legal specialists from the Political Intelligence Section that knew how to gather surplus equipment and personnel. Finally, he was in contact with the Director of the State Security Department who he had known in his student days in Austria. This was the source of many enlightening discussions about Reichführer Himmler, who eventually became the sabot in all Military and Political machinery.
Fighting furiously against red-tape, Skorzeny located a 19th-century hunting lodge in a tract of forest and meadowlands at Friedenthal (Valley of Peace), close to Berlin. He then requested after-action reports on the British Commando attacks perpetrated since 1940 and received a vast dossier, which had been meticulously collected, but not well-reviewed. He learned from the apparent British mistakes. Immediately he realized that all training should be conducted at night because that is when small groups can beat larger formations. Everyone was to be trained to competency on every weapon and piece of equipment the units might carry into battle. Other training included parachutes and operation (and repair) of all sizes of transportation vehicles.
On 26 July 1943, Skorzeny took an afternoon off for lunch and a quiet chat with an old university professor — and the whole world changed. Checking with his admin office in mid-afternoon, he was advised that a plane would be at the aerodrome at 1700 to take him to the Führer’s Headquarters [FHQ]. He directed his XO to gather his uniform and meet him at Tempelhofer. No one in his office knew what or why. Upon arrival, he and five other officers — all more senior than him — were led into the command center of the Wolf’s Den and lined up according to rank. All made short statements about their military careers; his was the shortest. The Führer began asking about their knowledge of Italy and their thoughts on the Axis partner. The other five spoke the “party line,” but Skorzeny stated, “I am an Austrian my Führer.”
In order to understand that comment, it should be mentioned that as a result of WWI Italy took a portion of Austria — South Tyrol — that it could not win by combat. Hitler was also Austrian and understood what Skorzeny meant. The five other Commanding Officers of Special Force units were dismissed. Hitler personally charged Skorzeny with the rescue of Mussolini who had been arrested by Italian police in preparation for Italy’s surrender to the Allies and its change of sides. The location of the Duce was unknown.
Furthermore, Hitler did not want the German Army Commander in Italy or the German Ambassador in Rome to know of the operation. Skorzeny and his force were transferred to the Luftwaffe and reported directly to General Student. While discussing the situation with General Student, Himmler showed up to dominate the conversation with a short history of Italian vacillation since the Allied invasion of Sicily, and a ranting monologue of names of reliable Italians and traitors, and how to deal with each.
During a pause in the performance, Skorzeny requested to step out and call his commandos to put them on alert status. While waiting to have his call put through, he lit a cigarette to think of the scope of the assignment. Himmler came down the hall and chewed him out for smoking and declared him possibly unfit for the job. One of Hitler’s Staff Officers who overheard the remarks assured him that this was a trait of Himmler and General Student would fix everything once the operation got rolling. So began one of the great commando stories and the start of an amazing two years that ended with Skorzeny being declared “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.”
Skorzeny’s phone call to his Chief-of-Staff was short and terse. Fifty of his best men and officers needed to be ready not later than 0500 for extended action in Tropical Uniform, with parachute gear, six days of emergency rations, and a teletyped list of equipment. Due to the mission’s classification, he could not tell them what they would do, or where and why they would be deployed. As he thought about a short nap, he realized that he had never made out a will. That was resolved immediately. He took a shower around 0600 and met General Student at 0730 at the aerodrome.
The tale of the 12 September 1943 rescue of Mussolini is one of great adventure for both Skorzeny, as a leader, and his commando team. There was even a delayed-and-failed first effort due to confusing intelligence. (The Nazi Propaganda machine created a motion picture of the event to splash across the theater screens and demonstrate Nazi invincibility when the General Staff knew they were losing.)
Because of the mission’s success, he was rewarded by being allowed to recruit from the Brandenburg Division. This was the original German Army Special Force. The Division would slip behind the enemy front line and carry out sabotage or prevent vital bridges from being destroyed. By 1943 however, the German Army was on the defensive or preparing for the next Allied invasion. These highly-skilled and qualified soldiers were being used as gap-stopping cannon fodder in Africa and Eastern Europe. The now-famous Skorzeny, as a Division Commander, began to “borrow” supplies and equipment from every depot within reach, based solely on his relationship with Hitler. While training the enlarged command, he was called upon to plan the abduction of other well-known figures who seemed to be potential or actual problems. First on the list was Marshal Pétain, the Vichy France Head of State. Skorzeny and his commandos made plans and practiced to perfection while waiting for the order to go. After over a month of waiting, they were told to stand down and returned to the Valley of Peace in time for Christmas.
Next on the list was Marshal Tito of the Yugoslavian Partisans. Skorzeny dispatch his division intelligence team to the area. A great deal of work was expended to locate Tito’s constantly shifting HQ — then in western Bosnia. Skorzeny sent his Chief of Staff to meet with the German Army Commander in the area to work out last-minute details. The liaison did not go well. Out of the blue, Skorzeny’s intel team reported that the local Army Corps was preparing their own operation against Tito, which would commence on 25 May 1944. Skorzeny realized that if his people knew about it in advance, so did Tito. The operation failed. (If you are interested in the details of this failure see KOMMANDO by James Lucas.)
Skorzeny brought his intel team home and began to train for the next problem proposed by the High Command. Off and on during the first half of 1944, he had been working with the Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS, led by Commander Junio Borghese, on special weapons for sinking ships. He received an order to report to Vice Admiral Heye who was forming up the Naval Small Battle Units (Kleinkampfverbånde) and was ordered by Himmler to assist in the training of the “K-men.” He also got involved with Luftwaffe Squadron 200, Hanna Reitsch, and the concept of piloted V-1 buzz bombs. Yet, most of his effort was spent dealing with entrenched bureaucracy. Once again, he was asked to train special pilots, but could not get any flight fuel for the effort.
The Western Front became active on 6 June 1944 and Skorzeny’s Commando Battalion 502 was put on alert. He was on his way to observe some frogmen exercises in Vienna on 20 July, when word of the attempted assassination of Hitler came. He was pulled off the train at the last station in Berlin and told to return to Berlin to deal with a military revolt. Confusion ran rampant and rumors were faster than speeding bullets. He was somehow detailed to protect the HQ of the Commender-in-Chief, Home Forces. High ranking officers were committing suicide or were being executed in the parking lot. Fear was gripping the staff at the Headquarters, and, according to Skorzeny, he took responsibility and got all the clerks back to work. Whatever he did, it raised his standing, and that of his battalion, in the eyes of Himmler and the political leadership. The Military Section D — the Counter-espionage unit — was attached to his command.
On 10 September 1944, he received a call to report to FHQ at a newly constructed Wolf’s Den in Berlin’s vicinity. After a three-day round of conferences and situation reports, he was briefed on his next mission. With Russian Armies breaking through Hungary’s defenses, the designated Hungarian head of state, Admiral Horthy, commenced secret negotiations with the Allies for surrendering. If successful, it would mean the loss of many German Army Divisions and Austria would become the next battleground.
Multiple German units were to be placed under Skorzeny’s command and he was directed to Budapest to see what could be done to prevent Hungary’s break away from the Axis camp. He was given a document that stated that he was on a personal and confidential mission for the Führer, and all political and military authorities were to assist him. It was essentially a Carte Blanche, personally signed by Hitler. The object this time was not to rescue anyone but to keep Hungary as a functioning Axis partner. Skorzeny sent in his command intel section and started quietly gathering his forces in and around Budapest. His favorite group was a battalion of cadets from the southern Austria Wiener–Neustadt Kriegsakademie. This may have been the first time he realized that he had become a legend.
Intelligence discovered that the son of Admiral Horthy was meeting with delegates from Tito’s partisan Army who was working for Russia as well. Another meeting was scheduled for the morning of October 15th. Working with great efficiency Skorzeny’s team rushed the meeting while others were fighting the Royal Hungarian Military guards. Within five minutes the son of Horthy and the Yugoslavians were captured, rolled up in carpets and loaded on a truck to the aerodrome, then flown across the border to Vienna. At 2 o’clock that afternoon a special announcement came over Hungarian radio: “Hungary has concluded a separate peace with Russia!” Orders for the German response “Operation Panzerfaust” were issued and German forces immediately took up planned positions around the Hungarian Government Citadel.
What occurred that evening and the next morning seems like a scripted scene from “Mission Impossible.” Skorzeny, with literally a handful of highly trained commandos, captured the whole Government Complex and Citadel and took the necessary steps to keep Hungary and its armed forces in the fight for the Axis. The whole action took less than thirty minutes and resulted in the death of three Hungarian soldiers and four Germans. Skorzeny was greeted by Hapsburg Archduke Frederick.
On October 18th, Skorzeny, now a LTC, escorted Admiral Horthy to meet with the Führer. He immediately returned to Budapest for joint ceremonial burial service. He would not see Admiral Horthy again until both were war-crime prisoners at the Nuremberg trials. Allied Intelligence took note of this event.
That evening, returning to Berlin with his primary commando officers, Skorzeny was given a written order to report to FHQ. After explaining details of the Hungarian Operation to Hitler, he was informed of the secret plan for December called the “Ardennes Offensive.” The big picture was to score a success in the West and work an armistice with Britain and the United States. Then Germany could send all remaining forces to fight Russia and thereby “save” Europe. His mission would be simple “just rush in to capture and hold three essential bridges, and, dressed in captured uniforms, have commando teams cause confusion behind Allied lines. All this was to be held in the strictest secrecy. Within a week, German High Command posted an order for English-speaking soldiers to be sent to LTC Skorzeny at Friedenthal for “Secret Commando Operations.”
Skorzeny, his Chief of Staff and one of his Battalion Commanders, held tight to the actual mission. Meanwhile, rumors were running wild through the collected gaggle of volunteers. Only half of about 400 English-speakers could communicate in that language. Captured American transportation equipment, which was promised, never materialized, and there was practically no ammunition for the larger U.S. guns. They only had one working Sherman tank, so a dozen Panther tanks were painted olive-drab with big white stars.
In the final phase of training, the rumor mill of the organization decided that the “real” mission would be to make a rapid dash to Paris and capture the Allied Headquarters and Eisenhower. Some of the junior officers and NCOs worked on various plans to get the organized groups to an assembly point in Paris — the Café de la Paix. Allied Intelligence and Security teams would spend the better part of December and January focused on that area.
There was a series of delays in commencing the operation and a series of final briefings at the Wolf’s Den. At some point, Hitler personally forbade Skorzeny from going behind enemy lines. This completely dismayed him. He was directed to coordinate the action by radio and stay with the 6th SS Armoured Army battle headquarters. His commando teams would operate in the battle area of the 1st SS Armoured Regiment under Colonel Peiper. At 0500 on Saturday, 16 December, the attack, known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge, began.
The primary mission of his battalion-sized “brigade” was to capture and protect three bridges across the River Meuse so that the Panzer Divisions could stream into Holland on their second day of the attack. When German forces failed to even make their first day goals, it became obvious to Skorzeny that making it to the Meuse wasn’t going to happen. His “brigade” was now used as a regular infantry unit.
However, he had sent half a dozen teams of English-speaking commandos in American uniforms to create confusion by changing or removing road signs and cutting phone lines between American front-line units. A rumor got out that Germans dressed like G.I.s were everywhere. The rumor took on a life of its own and a couple of hundred soldiers were arrested behind the lines, roughed-up to get information, and left in jail for a week — or more.
General Bradley was stopped numerous times by over-zealous MPs while trying to visit his front lines. General Montgomery could no get through to discuss the situation with his American counterparts. In Paris, Eisenhower became a virtual prisoner of his own Intel and MPs for five critical days of the battle. An officer resembling Ike was dressed up and driven around Paris trying to trick “Kraut Commandos” into making their move. The rumors’ results would haunt Skorzeny for decades.
The Battle of the Bulge ended in German defeat. It was supposed to impress the Allies of the German Army’s viability and hopefully lead to negotiations about a separate peace treaty on the Western Front. It was the last straw for any German commando action. The remaining German forces were thrown into the losing battles — usually in the East. All that remained was the relentless closing in of the Russian Eastern Front and the Allied Western Front until Berlin was taken.
To cover faulty intel about Skorzeny’s activities, in December the U.S. Army circulated a “Wanted Poster” describing him as a “SABOTEUR, SPY, ASSASSIN” and declared him “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.” He was tried in Nuremberg by the “Hanging Judge” but saved by the testimony of a British Special Operations Officer who claimed that everything Skorzeny was charged with (in violation of the pre-WWI “Rules of War”) had been done by Allied commando teams against the German Army. He spent years in courtrooms and prisons until finally cleared of all charges and false accusations.
He continued to be held in a detention center because the new German government was afraid to let him go. Finally, he told the warden he had enough and escaped. Not wanted for any crime, he quickly ended up in Spain and started a new life as a Mechanical Engineer.
A number of books were written about his actions: Charles Foley’s “Commando Extraordinary” was published in 1955. Ballentine’s illustrated history, compiled by Charles Whiting, and titled “Skorzeny,” was out in 1972. (Special forces were in the news then and back in vogue.) Skorzeny also released his own memoirs “Skorzeny’s Special Missions” which was written in 1957, immediately translated in English and published in London.
Editor’s note: This article was written by LCDR Sankey Blanton USNR (retired) and submitted by Robert Adams.