Otto Skorzeny as commander of the SS unit "Friedenthal"
"The Long Jumper" after rescuing Benito Mussolini in 1943
"The Most Dangerous Man in Europe" after the Battle of the Bulge
12 June 1908|
5 July 1975
|Years of service||1931–1945|
|Commands held||SS Panzer Brigade 150|
Iron Cross (First and Second Classes)
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross
Otto Skorzeny (12 June 1908 – 5 July 1975) was an Austrian SS-Obersturmbannführer  (lieutenant colonel) in the German Waffen-SS during World War II. After fighting on the Eastern Front, he accompanied the rescue mission that freed the deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity. Books and papers written about him prior to the 2013 release of records pursuant to the Nazi War Crimes Declassification Act incorrectly refer to him as "Field Commander" of the operation. Skorzeny was the leader of Operation Greif, in which German soldiers were to infiltrate through enemy lines, using their opponents' languages, uniforms, and customs. At the end of the war, Skorzeny was involved with the Werwolf guerrilla movement.
Although he was charged with breaching the 1907 Hague Convention in relation to Operation Greif, the Dachau Military Tribunal acquitted Skorzeny after the war. Skorzeny fled from his holding prison in 1948, first to France, and then to Spain. He later lived in Ireland.
- Pre-war years 1
- Eastern Front 2
Operations by Skorzeny 3
- Liberation of Mussolini 3.1
- Operation Long Jump 3.2
- Raid on Drvar 3.3
- 20 July 1944 plot against Hitler 3.4
- Hungary and Operation Panzerfaust 3.5
- Operation Greif and Eisenhower 3.6
Post World War II 4
- Dachau Trials 4.1
- Escape from prison and alleged ODESSA involvement 4.2
- Middle East 4.3
- Die Spinne 4.4
- CEDADE 4.5
- Spain and Ireland 4.6
- Paladin Group 4.7
- Death 5
- Awards and honors 6
- In Fiction 7
- See also 8
- References 9
- Bibliography 10
- External links 11
Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna into a middle class Austrian family which had a long history of military service. His surname is of Polish origin and Skorzeny's distant relatives came from a village called Skorzęcin in Greater Poland region. In addition to his native German, he spoke excellent French and was proficient in English.
In his teens, Skorzeny once complained to his father of the austere lifestyle that his family was suffering from, by mentioning he had never tasted real butter in his life, because of the depression that plagued Austria after its defeat in World War I. His father prophetically replied, "There is no harm in doing without things. It might even be good for you not to get used to a soft life."
He was a noted fencer as member of a German-national Burschenschaft as a university student in Vienna. He engaged in fifteen personal combats. The tenth resulted in a wound that left a dramatic dueling scar—known in academic fencing as a Schmiss (German for "smite" or "hit")—on his cheek.
In 1931 Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party and soon became a member of the Nazi SA. A charismatic figure, Skorzeny played a minor role in the Anschluss on 12 March 1938, when he saved the Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot by Austrian Nazis.
After the 1939 invasion of Poland, Skorzeny, then working as a civil engineer, volunteered for service in the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe), but was turned down because he was considered too tall at 1.92 metres (6 ft 4 in) and too old (31 years in 1939) for aircrew training. He then joined Hitler's bodyguard regiment, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) as an officer-cadet.
In 1940, as an SS Untersturmführer (second lieutenant), he impressed his superiors by designing ramps to load tanks on ships. He then fought in the Netherlands, France and the Balkans, where he achieved distinction by forcing a large Yugoslav force to surrender, following which he was promoted to Obersturmführer (first lieutenant) in the Waffen-SS.
Skorzeny went to war in the USSR with the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and subsequently fought in several battles on the Eastern Front. In October 1941, he was in charge of a "technical section" of the German forces during the Battle of Moscow. His mission was to seize important buildings of the Communist Party, including the NKVD headquarters at Lubyanka, and the central telegraph office and other high priority facilities, before they could be destroyed. He was also ordered to capture the sluices of the Moscow-Volga Canal because Hitler wanted to turn Moscow into a huge artificial lake by opening them. The missions were canceled as the German forces failed to capture the Soviet capital.
In December 1942, Skorzeny was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel from Soviet Katyusha artillery rockets. He refused all first aid except for a few aspirin, a bandage and a glass of schnapps. A few hours later Skorzeny rejoined his unit but his health deteriorated, and continuous headaches and stomach pains forced him to evacuate for proper medical treatment. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire and was hospitalized in Vienna. While recuperating from his injuries he was given a staff role in Berlin, where he read all the published literature he could find on commando warfare, and forwarded to higher command his ideas on unconventional commando warfare.
Skorzeny's proposals were to develop units specialized in such unconventional warfare, including partisan-like fighting deep behind enemy lines, fighting in enemy uniform, sabotage attacks, et al. In April 1943 Skorzeny's name was put forward by Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal stationed near Berlin (the unit was later renamed SS Jagdverband 502, and in November 1944 again to SS Combat Unit "Center", expanding ultimately to five battalions).
Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal's first mission was in summer 1943. Operation François saw Skorzeny send a group by parachute into Iran to make contact with the dissident mountain tribes to encourage them to sabotage Allied supplies of material being sent to the Soviet Union via the Trans-Iranian Railway. However, commitment among the rebel tribes was suspect, and Operation François was deemed a failure.
Operations by Skorzeny
- Operation François – Co-ordination of guerilla operations in Iran.
- Operation Oak (Unternehmen Eiche, September 1943) – The rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
- Operation Long Jump – A rumoured attempt to assassinate the "Big Three" (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) during the 1943 Tehran Conference.
- Operation Knight's Leap (Unternehmen Rösselsprung, May 1944) – An attempt to capture Josip Broz Tito alive.
- Operation Armoured Fist (Unternehmen Panzerfaust a.k.a. Unternehmen Eisenfaust, October 1944) – The kidnapping of Miklós Horthy, Jr., son of Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, to force Admiral Horthy to resign as head of state in favor of the pro-Nazi leader of the Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi.
- Operation Griffin (Unternehmen Greif, December 1944) – A false flag operation to spread disinformation during the Battle of the Bulge.
- Suicide squads – A secret unit of German suicide bombers, many of whom were unclear as to the nature of their appointment, organised early in 1944, but discontinued on orders of Hitler.
- Werewolf SS – A planned Nazi underground resistance movement in Allied-occupied Europe.
Liberation of Mussolini
In July 1943, he was personally selected by Hitler from among six German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and German Army (Heer) special agents to lead the operation to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been overthrown and imprisoned by the Italian government.
Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place to frustrate any rescuers. There was a failed attempt to rescue Mussolini on 27 July 1943. The Ju 52 that the crew was aboard was shot down in the area of Pratica di Mare. Otto Skorzeny and all but one of his crew bailed out safely.
Mussolini was first held in a villa on La Maddalena, near Sardinia. Skorzeny was able to smuggle an Italian-speaking commando onto the island, and a few days later he confirmed Mussolini was in the villa. Skorzeny then flew over in a Heinkel He 111 to take aerial photos of the location. The bomber was shot down by Allied fighters and crash-landed at sea, but Skorzeny and the crew were rescued by an Italian destroyer. Mussolini was moved soon after.
Information on Mussolini's new location and its topographical features were finally secured by Herbert Kappler. Kappler reported Mussolini was held in the Campo Imperatore Hotel at the top of the Gran Sasso mountain, and only accessible by cable car from the valley below. Skorzeny flew again over Gran Sasso and took pictures of the location with a handheld camera. An attack plan was formulated by General Kurt Student, Harald Mors (a paratrooper battalion commander), and Skorzeny.
On 12 September, Gran Sasso raid (a.k.a. Operation Oak and Unternehmen Eiche), was carried out perfectly according to plan. Mussolini was rescued without firing a single shot. Flying out in a Storch airplane, Skorzeny escorted Mussolini to Rome and later to Berlin. The exploit earned Skorzeny fame, promotion to Sturmbannführer and the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
Mussolini created a new Fascist regime in northern Italy, the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana).
Operation Long Jump
"Operation Long Jump" was the alleged codename given to a plot to assassinate the "Big Three" (Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt) at the 1943 Tehran Conference. Hitler supposedly gave the command of the operation to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA, who in turn gave the mission to Skorzeny. Knowledge of the whole scheme was presented to the Western Allies by Stalin's NKVD at the Tehran conference. The Soviets said they had learned about its existence from counter espionage activities against German intelligence. Their agents had found out the Nazis knew the time and place of this meeting because they had cracked a US naval code. According to the NKVD the assassination plot was foiled after they identified the German spies in Iran forcing Skorzeny to call off the mission due to inadequate intelligence.
Following Tehran, the story was treated with incredulity by the British and Americans who dismissed it as Soviet propaganda. Skorzeny supported this view by stating in his post-war memoirs that no such operation ever existed. He said the story about the plans being leaked to Soviet spy Nikolai Kuznetsov by an SS Sturmbannfuhrer named Hans Ulrich von Ortel was a complete Soviet invention; Hans Ulrich von Ortel never existed.
Skorzeny always maintained his name was used only to add credibility to the story because the NKVD knew his renowned record as an SS commando would make the existence of such an operation more plausible.:193
Raid on Drvar
In early 1944, Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal was re-designated SS-Jäger-Bataillon 502 with Skorzeny staying on as commander. They were assigned to Operation Rösselsprung, known subsequently as the Raid on Drvar. Rösselsprung was a commando operation meant to capture the Yugoslav commander-in-chief, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who was also recently recognized by the Allies as the Yugoslav prime minister. Marshal Tito led the Yugoslav Partisans resistance army from his headquarters near the Bosnian town of Drvar, in the center of a large non-occupied area held by the Partisans. Hitler knew that Tito was receiving Allied support and was aware that either British or American troops might land in Dalmatia along the Adriatic coastline with support from the Partisans. Killing or capturing Tito would not only hinder this, it would give a badly needed boost to the morale of Axis forces engaged in occupied Yugoslavia.
Skorzeny was involved in planning Rösselsprung and was intended to command it. However, he argued against implementation after he visited Zagreb and discovered that the operation had been compromised through the carelessness of German agents in the Independent State of Croatia (a German puppet state on occupied Yugoslav territory).
Rösselsprung was put into action nonetheless, but it was a complete disaster. The first wave of paratroopers, following heavy bombardment by the Luftwaffe, jumped between Tito's hideout in a cave and the town of Drvar; they landed on open ground and many were promptly shot by members of the Tito Escort Battalion, a unit numbering fewer than a hundred soldiers. The second wave of paratroopers missed their target and landed several miles out of town. Tito was gone long before paratroopers reached the cave; a trail at the back of the cave led to the railway tracks where Tito boarded a train that took him safely to Jajce. In the meantime, the Partisan 1st Brigade, from the 6th Lika Partisan Division, arrived after a twelve-mile (nineteen-kilometer) forced march and attacked the Waffen-SS paratroopers, inflicting heavy casualties.
20 July 1944 plot against Hitler
On 20 July 1944, Skorzeny was in Berlin when an attempt on Hitler's life was made. Anti-Nazi German Army officers tried to seize control of Germany's main decision centers before Hitler recovered from his injuries. Skorzeny helped put down the rebellion, spending 36 hours in charge of the Wehrmacht's central command centre before being relieved. He arrived at the Bendlerblock - the plotters' HQ - only 30 minutes after Claus Von Stauffenberg and the other main conspirators had been executed on the orders of General Friedrich Fromm.
Hungary and Operation Panzerfaust
In October 1944, Hitler sent Skorzeny to Hungary after receiving word that Hungary's Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was secretly negotiating with the Red Army. The surrender of Hungary would have cut off the million German troops still fighting in the Balkan peninsula. Skorzeny, in a daring "snatch" codenamed Operation Panzerfaust (known as Operation Eisenfaust in Germany), kidnapped Horthy's son Miklós Horthy, Jr. and forced his father to resign as head of state. A pro-Nazi government under dictator Ferenc Szálasi was then installed in Hungary. In April 1945, after German and Hungarian forces had already been driven out of Hungary, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross Party-based forces continued the fight in Austria and Slovakia. The success of the operation earned Skorzeny promotion to Obersturmbannführer.
Operation Greif and Eisenhower
As part of the German Ardennes offensive in late 1944 (Battle of the Bulge), Skorzeny's English-speaking troops were charged with infiltrating American lines disguised in American uniforms in order to produce confusion to support the German attack. For the campaign, Skorzeny was the commander of a composite unit, the 150th SS Panzer Brigade.
As planned by Skorzeny, Operation Greif involved about two dozen German soldiers, most of them in captured American Jeeps and disguised in American uniforms, who would penetrate American lines in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge to cause disorder and confusion. A handful of his men were captured and spread a rumour that Skorzeny personally was leading a raid on Paris to kill or capture General Dwight Eisenhower, who was not amused by having to spend Christmas 1944 isolated for security reasons. Eisenhower retaliated by ordering an all-out manhunt for Skorzeny, with "Wanted" posters distributed throughout Allied-controlled territories featuring a detailed description and a photograph. In all, twenty-three of Skorzeny's men were captured behind American lines and eighteen were executed as spies for contravening the rules of war by wearing enemy uniforms.
Skorzeny spent January and February 1945 commanding regular troops in the defence of the German provinces of East Prussia and Pomerania, as an acting major general. Fighting at Schwedt on the Oder River, he received orders to sabotage a bridge on the Rhine at Remagen. His frogmen tried but failed. For his actions in the East, primarily in the defence of Frankfurt, Hitler awarded him one of Germany's highest military honours, the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross. He was then sent on an inspection tour along the rapidly deteriorating Eastern Front.
Post World War II
Skorzeny was held as a Croix de guerre, and a former British Special Operations Executive agent, testified that he and his operatives wore German uniforms behind enemy lines. Realising that to convict Skorzeny could expose their own agents to the same charges, the tribunal acquitted the ten defendants. The tribunal drew a distinction between using enemy uniforms during combat and for other purposes including deception. They could not prove that Skorzeny had given any orders to actually fight in US uniforms.
Escape from prison and alleged ODESSA involvement
Skorzeny was detained in an internment camp at Darmstadt awaiting the decision of a denazification court. On 27 July 1948 he escaped from the camp with the help of three former SS officers dressed in US Military Police uniforms who entered the camp and claimed that they had been ordered to take Skorzeny to Nuremberg for a legal hearing. Skorzeny afterwards maintained that the US authorities had aided his escape, and had supplied the uniforms.
Skorzeny hid out at a farm in Bavaria which had been rented by Countess Ilse Lüthje, the niece of
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- Eastern Front Medal/Ostmedaille
- Anschluss Medal
- Spange Prager Burg (The Prague Castle bar)
- Flugzeugführer- und Beobachter-Abzeichen in Gold with diamonds, 16 September 1943
- Order of the Holy Crown of Hungary, Commander Grade with War Decoration and Swords
- NSDAP Long Service Award (Dienstauszeichnung der NSDAP in Bronze or Silver)
Wound Badge (Verwundetenabzeichen)
- in Black
- in Silver
- Allgemeines Sturmabzeichen/General Assault Badge
- Honour Roll Clasp of the Army, 5 February 1945
Iron Cross (1939)
- 2nd Class (26 August 1941)
- 1st Class (12 September 1943)
- German Cross in Gold (16 October 1944)
- Deutsches Reichssportabzeichen
- Honour Badge of the National Socialist German Students Federation
Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, 13 September 1943
- Oakleaves, 9 April 1945 (826th)
Awards and honors
Skorzeny died of lung cancer on 5 July 1975 in Madrid. He was 67. He was given a Catholic funeral on 7 August 1975 in Madrid, but was afterwards cremated, and his ashes were later brought to Vienna to be interred in the Skorzeny family plot at Döblinger Friedhof.
In 1970, a cancerous tumour was discovered on Skorzeny's spine. Two tumours were removed in Hamburg, but the surgery left him paralyzed from the waist down. Vowing to walk again, Skorzeny spent long hours with a physical therapist, and within six months he was back on his feet.
In the 1960s Skorzeny set up the Paladin Group, which he envisioned as "an international directorship of strategic assault personnel [that would] straddle the watershed between paramilitary operations carried out by troops in uniform and the political warfare which is conducted by civilian agents". Based near Alicante, Spain, the Paladin Group specialized in arming and training guerrillas, and its clients included the South African Bureau of State Security and Muammar Gaddafi. It also carried out work for the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 and some of its operatives were recruited by the Spanish Interior Ministry to wage a clandestine war against the terrorist group ETA.
Skorzeny also owned property on Majorca.
Like thousands of other former Nazis, Skorzeny was declared entnazifiziert (denazified) in absentia in 1952 by a West German government arbitration board, which now meant he could travel from Spain into other Western countries, on a special Nansen passport for stateless persons with which he visited Ireland in 1957 and 1958. In late 1958 he qualified for an Austrian passport and in 1959 he purchased Martinstown House, a 165-acre (0.67 km2) farm in County Kildare. Although Skorzeny could not be refused entry without due cause, he was refused a residency visa by the Irish government and had to limit his stays to six weeks at a time, during which he was monitored by G2. He rarely visited after 1963 and sold Martinstown House in 1971.
Spain and Ireland
Skorzeny was a founder and an advisor to the leadership of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which had been established in 1966.
Using the cover names of Robert Steinbacher and Otto Steinbauer, and supported by either Nazi funds or, according to some sources, by Austrian Intelligence, he set up a secret organization named Die Spinne which helped as many as 600 former SS men escape from Germany to Spain, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, and other countries. As the years went by, Skorzeny, Gehlen, and their network of collaborators gained enormous influence in Europe and Latin America. Skorzeny traveled between Francoist Spain and Argentina, where he acted as an advisor to President Juan Perón and as a bodyguard for Eva Perón, while fostering an ambition for the "Fourth Reich" to be centered in Latin America.
Skorzeny later provided intelligence to the Mossad about ex-Nazi scientists working for the Egyptian government. Skorzeny agreed to cooperate with Israel on the condition that Simon Wiesenthal erase his name from the list of wanted Nazi war criminals and act to have an arrest warrant against him cancelled. Though Wiesenthal rejected this request, Skorzeny decided in the end to cooperate with the Mossad anyway.
In 1952, when the country had been taken over by General Mohammed Naguib, Skorzeny was sent to Egypt the following year by former General Reinhard Gehlen (who was now working for the CIA) to act as Naguib's military advisor. Skorzeny recruited a staff made up of former SS and Wehrmacht officers to train the Egyptian army. Among these officers were SS General Wilhelm Farmbacher, Panzer General Oskar Munzel, Leopold Gleim, head of the Gestapo Department for Jewish Affairs in Poland, and Joachim Daemling, former chief of the Gestapo in Düsseldorf. In addition to training the army, Skorzeny also trained Arab volunteers in commando tactics for possible use against British troops stationed in the Suez Canal zone. Several Palestinian refugees also received commando training, and Skorzeny planned their raids into Israel via the Gaza Strip in 1953-1954. One of these Palestinians was Yasser Arafat. He would eventually serve as an adviser to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Skorzeny was photographed at a café on the Champs Elysées in Paris on 13 February 1950. The photo appeared in the French press the next day, causing him to retreat to Salzburg, where he met up with German veterans and also filed for divorce so that he could marry Ilse Lüthje. Shortly afterwards, with the help of a Nansen passport issued by the Spanish government, he moved to Madrid, where he set up a small engineering business. According to some allegations it served as a front for his supposed operations with the ODESSA network as he had become the Spanish coordinator. On April 1950 the publication of Skorzeny's memoirs by the French newspaper Le Figaro caused 1500 communists to riot outside the journal's headquarters.