When conscription was introduced in Austria, now within German borders, instead of waiting for his conscription notice Otto Skorzeny went to the recruiting office requesting to join the German Luftwaffe. When the European War began, he was on vacation at Lake Wörth, Austria.
In April 1941, Skorzeny participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was sent to the front, but he did not see any direct combat as he was tasked with supervising mechanics to keep fighting vehicles in working order. On 26 August 1941, he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class for recovering a damaged vehicle under enemy fire at the Yelnya bridgehead. In December 1941, he was ill with stomach colic and was evacuated back to Germany in January 1942. While in Germany, he became an instructor of vehicle repairs in a SS replacement battalion. In November 1942, he was transferred to the newly-created armored regiment of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, again as a supervisor in a vehicle repair unit. On 28 April 1943, he was promoted to the rank of Hauptsturmführer and was given command of the Oranienburg Special Training Unit, which was the first attempt by the SS to create a commando unit. It was at this time that he began to study British espionage methods. He became greatly impressed with the British Sten submachine guns for the simple design and the cheap cost. He went as far as using fake radio communications (posing as French resistance fighters) and other deceptive methods to get one to reverse engineer. He recommended weapons of similar design to his superiors, but his efforts were not accepted.
On 26 July 1943, Adolf Hitler's office made a call to Skorzeny's office to discuss the rescue of Benito Mussolini, who had just been ousted in Italy and placed under arrest. Skorzeny missed the call as he was on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, drinking at Hotel Eden with a friend, something he was reputed to be doing fairly frequently (he would note in his memoir that he was "drinking war-time coffee" with the friend rather than alcohol, however). He was brought by a Ju 52 aircraft from Tempelhofer airfield in Berlin to Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Germany to help plan the operation. As he met Hitler for the first time, he was surprised by Hitler's personal involvement, his seemingly personal attachment to Mussolini, and his Austrian accent. Skorzeny recalled Hitler speaking to him at the first meeting.
I have a very important commission for you. Mussolini, my friend and our loyal comrade in arms, was betrayed yesterday by his king and arrested by his own countrymen. I cannot and will not leave Italy's greatest son in the lurch. To me the Duce is the incarnation of the ancient grandeur of Rome. Italy under the new government will desert us! I will keep faith with my old ally and dear friend; he must be rescued promptly or he will be handed over to the Allies. I'm entrusting to you the execution of an undertaking which is of great importance to the future course of the war. You must do everything in our power to carry out this order; if you do, promotion will reward you!
Skorzeny met with Hitler again in late August. Hitler said to him:
If the enterprise fails for any reason, it may be that I shall have publicly to disavow your action. I should then say that you had concocted an insane plan with the commanders on the spot and acted without authority. You must be prepared to be thrown over in the interest of our cause and for Germany's sake!
In May 1944, the SS attempted a similar mission to Yugoslavia, this time to capture the partisan leader Josip Tito. Skorzeny failed this attempt with Tito escaping in the nick of time; this failed operation led to serious casualties in the SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion. Many of his other commando missions failed as well, including a plan to kidnap Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and another plan to assassinate Allied leaders during the Tehran Conference.
On 20 July 1944, Skorzeny was on a train heading out of Berlin when the assassination attempt on Hitler's life took place. While the train made a regular stop at Anhalt station, which was the last before leaving the Berlin metropolitan area, a junior officer alerted him to the plot, and Skorzeny headed back into the city. In Berlin, he visited Lichterfelde Barracks and various other locations and played a small role in calming officers to not escalate incidents; in his words, he was working to avoid the plot from turning into a civil war.
In August 1944, Skorzeny was assigned to plan the destruction of bridges at Basle, Switzerland in case the Allies invaded the neutral country for a southern entrance into Germany. Shortly after, he conducted an infiltration of German factories and placed mock explosives that would have destroyed the plants; he used the experience to show factory managers how to properly secure the grounds against saboteurs. In Sep 1944, his men located a missing battle group under Lieutenant Colonel Scherhorn north of Minsk, Byelorussia; he sent men to reinforce the battle group in an attempt to eventually break the group out, but the attempt ultimately failed.
The only successful commando operation that he was involved in after the rescue of Mussolini was the kidnapping of Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy's son Miklós Horthy, Jr. on 15 October 1944, a mission he described as an action-packed gun fight that he personally participated from the thinly-protected position behind an open car door; while attempting to extricate Miklós Horthy, Jr., he ran across Hungarian troops, but he was able to bluff his way through. Later on the same day, he led a small unit in the attack on Castle Hill in Budapest, Hungary; while this assault was a joint operation, as usual he claimed a large share of the credit for the SS, downplaying the involvement of rival branches.
When Hitler gambled with his major offensive across the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), Skorzeny was selected to head up Operation Greif, an operation that focused on disrupting Allied intelligence and transportation. Skorzeny questioned Hitler's decision to have the commandos don captured Allied uniforms, but Hitler claimed that he had been informed that American troops had been doing so while fighting in the Aachen, Germany area. In early December, Hitler ordered Skorzeny to not personally participate in the attack. During the operation, paratroopers under his command pinned several Allied units in the rear, contributing greatly to the initial confusion among Allied ranks. With Skorzeny's reputation as a daring commando, even Dwight Eisenhower was advised by his security detail to travel with an excessive guard force in fear that Skorzeny would send a team to kidnap or assassinate him. As the German military might dwindled, the need for commando missions also diminished, thus Skorzeny was assigned back to lead a conventional unit at Schwedt on the Oder on the Eastern Front, which was bypassed by the advancing enemy troops, and he saw little action. He was relieved from this command on 28 February. In mid-Mar 1945, he was given another chance to lead a commando operation, this time to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany; nothing resulted from his planning.
On 9 April 1945, Skorzeny was awarded Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross for his loyalty. On 10 April, he briefly observed the fighting in Vienna, Austria. Not long after being rewarded for being loyal, however, he fled under the pretense of travelling to Bavaria to set up Werwolf resistance groups while Himmler had already canceled Werwolf plans prior to Skorzeny's departure. He hid in a Bavarian cottage until he surrendered to the Allies after the European War ended.
After the war, Skorzeny was tried for his deceptions during the Battle of the Bulge. It was argued that, by having his troops wearing Allied uniforms, he was violating the laws of war. He was acquitted based on two major arguments. The weaker argument, but equally effective on his defense, was that the British special agents were known to have worn German uniforms on their missions as well, and the trial's prosecution did not wish to venture into setting a precedence for the trial of British personnel. The main reason for the acquittal of Skorzeny and other accused Germans was the vague nature of the law of war itself. International Law, Vol. II, paragraph 163 noted that it was illegal to engage in combat while display enemy flag or uniforms with the intention to confuse the enemy. However, the rules for wearing enemy uniforms were not clear when in non-combat situations, and Skorzeny's defense leveraged the fact that when actual combat took place, Skorzeny's men either took off the American uniforms or were visibly wearing German paratrooper overalls over the American uniforms. Treatise on International Law even stated that it was "perfectly legitimate to use the distinctive emblem of an enemy in order to escape from him or draw his forces into action", which helped the defense as well.
After the acquittal, Skorzeny remained in prison; part of the time he spent in captivity, between December 1947 and February 1948, he helped American military historians record events of the war from a German perspective, particularly regarding to the rescue of Mussolini. He escaped from prison on 27 Jul 1948 and made his way to Spain where Francisco Franco granted him a safe haven. He was granted amnesty by the German government in 1952, declaring admittance to the mistakes of his past, including the abandonment of his Nazi ideals. He became a military and engineering consultant to several governments around the world, including secretly being the liaison between President Juan Perón of Argentina and the German manufacturing firm Fried. Krupp. Skorzeny passed away in Madrid, Spain a very wealthy man.
C. Peter Chen
The Train Robbers
On August 8, 1963 a British hoodlum named Ronald Biggs participated in what came to be called "the Great Train Robbery," sharing more than $7-million in cash and valuables stolen from a Glasgow-to-London mail-train.
Apprehended, and sentenced to 30 years, Biggs escaped from prison in 1965. Fleeing to France, he relied upon an international criminal network to obtain plastic surgery and passage to Australia. Tracked by the police as the "most wanted" man in the world, Biggs subsequently found his way to Rio de Janeiro (where extradition is, at best, a rarity).
Piers Paul Read's The Train Robbers is of interest. Read undertook to write the book more than a decade after the robbery, and long after several other books had already been published on the subject. What made these unpromising circumstances auger well, according to Read, were two things: first, he had the cooperation of most of the men who'd pulled off the robbery. Previously, only Ronald Biggs had given an account, and Biggs was considered an outsider by those who had conceived and executed the plan. Second, and even more importantly, the gang confided important new information to Read. This was that the train robbery, and several of the subsequent escapes, had been financed and finessed by Gen. Otto Skorzeny. Among other things, this explained why it had never been possible to account for more than half of the money stolen in the robbery.
An unrepentant Nazi, Skorzeny had been Hitler's favorite commando. After the war, he had re-established himself in Madrid as an arms-dealer and, with even greater secrecy, as the mastermind behind Die Spinne---the underground railroad that obtained forged documents and plastic surgery for war criminals and others requiring safe-havens in South America and the Middle East. As the proprietor of a de facto intelligence agency with connections throughout the world, Skorzeny made millions as a consultant to countries and organizations whose politics were compatible with his own (e.g., Nasser's Egypt and the Secret Army Organization in Algiers).
Train-robber Buster Edwards and his wife gave Read a detailed description---names, dates and places---of how Die Spinne had smuggled him from England to Germany to Mexico. A woman named "Hannah Schmid," whose father had served with Skorzeny in the Second World War, saw to it that he received plastic surgery and the documents necessary to travel. Edwards recuperated for nearly a month in the home of a Prussian aristocrat, "Annaliese von Lutzeberg," and was then sent on his way to Mexico---but not before he'd purchased shares (under an assumed name) in a business that Skorzeny owned.
While in Mexico, Edwards and two of the other train-robbers reunited with Schmid, who "proposed that they should run guns to the Peronists in Argentina; or train troops for a planned putsch in Panama..." Edwards and his friends declined: it just wasn't their scene.
In checking Edwards' story, and the stories of the other robbers, Read found that every verifiable detail was confirmed. Before finishing his book, however, it was left to him to interview Ronald Biggs in Rio. Accordingly, he got on a plane.
Finding Biggs was not that difficult but what he had to say, however, was in flat contradiction to the accounts of everyone else. According to Biggs, there were no Germans. Read was flabbergasted. Had he been hoaxed? Or was Biggs lying on behalf of what Read suspected were his Nazi protectors? Read couldn't be sure.
At best (Biggs) wished me to disbelieve the Skorzeny connection so that he himself could break it to the world and reap the benefit; at worst he was still in the care of Skorzeny's organisation and had been told to persuade me that it did not exist.
The more I pondered this last possibility, the more convinced I became that this was the explanation---for it still seemed inconceivable to me that June (Edwards) had invented her meeting with Skorzeny in Madrid, or could have discovered that he was a friend of the Reader's Digest editor who spoke fourteen Chinese dialects. I suddenly realised how thoughtless and foolhardy I had been to come to a country (Brazil) known to be a nest of ex-Nazis. Clearly Biggs had been saved from extradition not because of his child, but because of neo-Nazi influence in government circles. The woman who had been with him at the airport, Ulla Sopher, a German-Argentinian with blonde hair and blue eyes, was part of their network. All the strands of the story came together to form a noose around my neck.
And yet, despite this cogent explanation for what had happened, and despite the evidence that Edwards and the others had provided, Read demurred. Over drinks in a sidewalk cafe, "I began to believe that Biggs was telling the truth."
A bizarre turn-about that occurs at the very end of the book, Read's conversion to Biggs' account makes no sense at all. Biggs's own fugitivity, which (like Edwards's) was facilitated by plastic surgery and forged documents provided by an unnamed criminal syndicate, is the best argument against the story he tells.
Otto Skorzeny and the Castle of Montségur
In 1991, a somewhat strange book appeared making some extraordinary claims about a treasure supposedly recovered by the Nazis from the south of France in 1944.
Written by Howard Buechner, a medical doctor and veteran of World War II, Emerald Cup - Ark of Gold states that a famous German commando, Otto Skorzeny, was sent to France to recover the treasure of the Cathars, supposedly smuggled out of the mountain fortress of Montségur a few days before its eventual fall to an army of crusaders in 1244.
Although Otto Skorzeny wrote several books detailing his war time exploits, he never mentions the alleged recovery of the Cathar treasure. However, his books do mention how he and his men fought in US military uniforms during the battle of the bulge to sow fear and confusion through the allied lines - a war crime that he could have been executed for. He was only cleared of these charges when Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas, a member of the Special Operations Executive, testified that allied troops had also fought in enemy uniforms.
It would seem that although Skorzeny was perfectly happy to write about his war crimes, he took the secret of the Cathar treasure to his grave.
SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, once called "the most dangerous man in Europe" lived out the rest of his life in Spain after being cleared of war crimes. He died in a car crash, or from cancer (depending on source) in 1975, a multi millionaire, having never mentioned the the Cathar treasure to anyone.
Why? Because in all probability he didn't know anything about the Cathar treasure, let alone been in charge of its recovery.
Scar faced Skorzeny has become one of recent history's universal bad guys, need someone to blame for anything odd, untoward or underhanded going on anywhere in the world from 1939 to 1975? Otto Skorzeny is your man, Scotland Yard even seriously investigated claims that he was the master mind behind the 1963 "Great Train Robbery."
To call Buechner's story "questionable" is probably being overly charitable.
Did Nazi Commandos recover the Ark of the Covenant and/or the "Germanic Grail" from Montségur in 1944? Probably not, but it is an entertaining story, and to a great many people that seems to be all that matters.