The Brandenburgers: Warrior Spies of Nazi Germany

by Mike Perry

The pre-war German Army rejected Captain Theodore von Hippel’s idea of using small units of highly trained men to penetrate enemy defenses before main actions began. They felt it was beneath the dignity of true soldiers to engage in such renegade conduct and so sent the young Captain packing. Down but not out, he ended up joining the German intelligence agency known as the Abwehr, in whom he found its commander, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a willing listener.

His ideas, much of which were learned from studying World War 1 guerilla leaders, were approved and forwarded to the German High Command (OKW), who agreed to the formation of a battalion of men trained in the arts of combat and espionage. These troops were tasked with capturing bridges and roadways ahead of advances and holding them until relieved.

This first unit became known as the Ebbinghaus battalion. And when it went to war on September 1st, 1939 in the Polish campaign, it performed as expected, slipping across enemy lines, holding vital roads and crossings, as the columns of panzers rumbled triumphantly past, unaware many of those who waved them on had been wearing Polish army uniforms a short while before.

Strange but true, just as they destroyed any lingering doubts to their effectiveness, the order came to disband. Ebbinghaus had been assigned to OKW and no more need was seen of it.

Canaris wanted more units though, but just for the Abwehr. He ordered another unit raised. Called the Lehr und Bau Company z.b.v. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company 800), it was formed in the town of Brandenburg where it soon adopted the name Brandenburg Company.

Hippel brought back many Ebbinghaus veterans in addition to recruiting new members. One thing unique to the Brandenburgers is that Hippel wanted men who looked like the enemy; racial purity was to play no part in selection methods. Even those the Nazi’s considered racially inferior, Slavs and other ethnic groups, soon found themselves training alongside ordinary Germans ranging in specialties from weapons to dog sleds.

Whether operating as a 2-man team or unit of 300, every Brandenburger was required to be fluent in the language of their destinations. They had to know the customs and history of regions so they could blend in and move without being noticed. Even the mannerism of how to properly spit like the locals, for example, was ingrained during training.

After an influx of recruits, the company swelled to a battalion three months after being raised. They went into combat during the campaign against the West in 1940. On May 8, two days before the offensive began, small groups of Brandenburgers slipped across the borders of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. They hit objectives minutes after the campaign began, wearing enemy uniforms as they exchanged fire with similarly attired troops, and sewing confusion throughout the countryside.

Making sure not to be shot as spies if captured, they wore German uniforms underneath.

After the fall of France and the cancellation of planned invasion of Britain, the Brandenbergers, now a regiment, trained to take Gibraltar. Units led by von Hippel shipped out to Libya with the Afrika Korps in early 1941, as others headed to Yugoslavia when Hitler was forced to support Mussolini’s invasion of Greece.

In Libya they were met with resentment by Afrika Korps commander, Erwin Rommel. But after seeing the effectiveness caused by the British SAS LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) to his supply lines, he accepted their methods, hoping to repeat the favor. In action, they proved difficult to provide transportation and resupply for over the vast desert, suffering many casualties and P.O.W.s. To their dismay, one of those captured was von Hippel. As the campaign droned on, the first major failure inflicted on the regiment was realized.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Brandenburgers achieved another explosive success entering Yugoslavia and taking hold of the important dockyards of Orsova on the Danube one day before the invasion began. But these accomplishments were soon overshadowed, as a flurry of final preparations began for a much larger action that would see them used in greater numbers than ever before against the hated communists in the East…

When Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on June 22, 1941, the first across the border were again the Brandenburgers. They took roads and railway junctions and caused chaos with feeble resupply lines. As the campaign moved further towards its objectives, a unit went on to capture a vital bridge in Latvia, allowing Army Group North, consisting of a over a million men and thousands of vehicles, to move without interruption to surround Leningrad.

As the weeks wore on Brandenburgers could be found in action all through the country, blending in with locals, gathering intelligence, laying ambushes and conducting many amphibious raids along the coasts of the Baltic, the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

After the Germans were stopped from taking Moscow and the war in the east passed its first year, Hitler launched Case Blue in August, 1942. This was the southern offensive to take Stalingrad and the Caucus oil fields and end Russia’s ability to sustain itself.

When it launched, the Brandenburgers helped clear the way in many sectors, one of which involved 62 Baltic and Sudeten Germans penetrating further into the Soviet Union than any unit before it, entering the oil town of Maikop on August 6.

They were dressed as the dreaded Soviet secret police, the NKVD, guarding a gaggle of Russian deserters. So convincing were the units masquerade and mannerisms that the Soviet commander gave the Brandenburgers commander, Adrian von Folkersam, a personal tour of the cities defenses. The next day they struck, knocking out the military communications center. Folkersam then made rounds to the bewildered defenders telling them a withdrawal was taking place. On August 9th, main German forces entered without a shot being fired.

By February 1943, most Brandenburgers were returned to Germany to help form the Division Brandenburg. Once again, though in larger groups, they were sent to the ever increasing hot spots in the conquered territories to perform less clandestine roles and act more as a fire brigade of elite combat troops. Back to the Balkans, performing anti-Partisan actions, including a small detachment aiding SS commando leader Otto Skorzeny’s attempt to capture Marshal Tito. And also, back to the Eastern Front, for anti-partisan work and finally, to the Aegean Sea where they performed their last notable action.

On September 14th, 1943, British troops invaded Kos, part of the Dodecanese island chain just off the Turkish coast. Churchill hoped to use this island to launch air attacks against German forces in the Balkans and pressure neutral Turkey into joining the war against Germany. Since Italy had turned to the Allied side in summer 1943, the Italian garrison on the island welcomed the British with open arms.

The Germans began constant aerial attacks on Kos, which lasted until October 3rd when 2 Operation Polar Bear comprising two battalions of Brandenburgers accompanied by an Army battlegroup invaded the island by air and sea, meeting little resistance. Throughout the day they cleared areas, and repulsed a British/Italian counterattack that evening. Initiating their own counterattack they defeated their foes and took control of the island the next day.

Under Hitler’s orders, all Italian officers were executed.

Next was the island of Leros, which underwent similar bombardment until November 12th. “We were watching in agony,” a Brit said. “The glowing bows and the grey tulips up in the sky were becoming dimmer, a sign that the batteries were running out of ammunition. Because of that, the German planes were cawing like birds of prey over the defenders’ heads, asking for their flesh and for the soul of dying Merovigli, where the English headquarters were.”

Operation Leopard brought the Brandenburgers and Army/Luftwaffe units by air and sea to battle the British garrison in close quarters until it surrendered 4 days later. They also captured some of the largest naval guns during the war and used them until their surrender. (As an interesting fact, the battle of Leros became the inspiration for the novel and later movie The Guns of Navarone).

The Dodacanese campaign ended as one of the final German victories of the war.

1944 proved to be the decisive year for the division, as its sponsor Admiral Canaris was implicated and later executed in the July 20th assassination attempt on Hitler. The Abwehr suffered as well, losing most of its power, with the division being turned over to the rival SS intelligence service, the SD. 1,800 men transferred out to Skorzeny’s 502nd SS Jäger battalion, while the rest found themselves being thrown into battle as Panzer Grenadiers, their morale destroyed and specialist skills disregarded as they conducted a fighting retreat against the Red army for months until being annihilated near the East Prussian city of Pillau as the final weeks of the war arrived.

Now, nearly 70 years later, few Brandenburgers remain alive, and most of their accomplishments still remain but a footnote in history. Many stories of them still await discovery, telling of how one of the most elite forces in the world rose and fell within the madness created by Hitler, and through it all managed to be the first boots on the ground in most of the Third Reich’s invasions and major offensives.

Washington's worries about terrorism date all the way back to World War II. Of particular concern were reports that Otto Skorzeny, a notorious Nazi special-operations expert, planned to lead a terrorist campaign against the new governments of a liberated Europe. The goal: push them toward authoritarianism to restore order -- and pave the way for a Nazi revival.

The plot prompted U.S. intelligence to mobilize a counterterrorism corps. At that time the FBI was responsible for some foreign intelligence gathering. When the British offered to share wartime signals intelligence, they proposed Percy "Sam" Foxworth, an experienced FBI hand, as a contact. The idea was to transfer him to the new Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. But FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover nixed the idea since he didn't like Foxworth. Had an FBI agent taken the job, there might have been cooperation between the FBI and CIA rather than the rivalry that ensued.

Recent evidence has come to light that many 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.

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.

Upon return to Vienna, Skorzeny was assigned to the Trost Barracks for training as a military engineer but on 3 Sep 1939 he was turned away due to the lack of instructors to train new recruits, all experienced men having been sent to the front lines in Poland. Skorzeny took the chance to ask to be transferred to flight service, but the request was rejected. Before long, suitable trainers were found, and he completed his engineer training. Shortly after he was posted to the Waffen-SS as an officer candidate in the Signal Replacement Regiment. Frustrated that he did not see any action in the first few months of the war, he used his connections in the Nazi Party to have himself transferred the Lichterfelde Barracks in Berlin, Germany, hoping that his new unit, 2nd Reserve Replacement Battalion of the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte, would see combat sooner. On 1 May 1940, he was promoted to the rank of Unterscharführer and was transferred to an artillery regiment of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf as a mechanic. On 1 Sep 1940, he was promoted to the rank of Oberscharführer and was transferred to the 2nd SS Division Das Reich, stationed in the Langenhorn Barracks in Hamburg, Germany. He complained that his military career thus far was characterized as "We were busily chasing the war!" On 30 Jan 1941, he was promoted to the rank of Untersturmführer.

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's involvement in the operation was largely the selection of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who chose him because of Skorzeny's fame as a daredevil. Because Skorzeny had little actual experience in such missions, he happily delegated large portions of the work to his subordinates, though he kept the intelligence gathering work to himself, thinking that it was the area in the planning stage where, if successful, he would gain the most fame. He personally arrived, with his military counterpart Kurt Student, at Rome, Italy on 28 Jul; his SS men arrived two days later. His intelligence gathering methods were poor due to his lack of experience. In early Aug, he was convinced that Mussolini was being kept at La Spezia, Italy, nearly launching an actual rescue mission there and ruined the entire operation. Later in mid-Aug, he got lucky in learning of Mussolini being at the Villa Weber at La Maddalena from a grocer, but he failed to act in time, and Mussolini was moved to Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome on 28 August. While at La Maddalena, he conducted an aerial reconnaissance mission in a He 111 aircraft; it was shot down by British fighters, resulting in three broken ribs.

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!

During the rescue operation, Skorzeny landed at Campo Imperatore at Gran Sasso and led a charge toward the building. What followed was a nearly laughable attempt at an entry into the building, having first bashed into a room that did not lead into the hotel, followed by being frustrated with Italians blocking the entrance simply by stashing furniture behind the front door. Ultimately, nevertheless, the Germans overwhelmed the Italians without firing a gunshot and extricated Mussolini. Heinrich Himmler used this as propaganda to bolster the military value of the SS organization, and Skorzeny gladly found himself at the center of attention. He earned the Knight's Cross award for the successful rescue; "You have performed a military feat which will become part of history", said Hitler to Skorzeny. "You have given me back my friend Mussolini. I have awarded you the Knight's Cross and promoted you to Sturmbannführer. Heartiest congratulations!"

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.

Operation Scherhorn (in English sources) or Operation Berezino (original Russian codename), Operation Beresino (in East German sources) was a secret deception operation performed by the NKVD against the Nazi secret services in August 1944 – May 1945. It was proposed by Josef Stalin, drafted by Mikhail Maklyarsky and executed by Pavel Sudoplatov and his NKVD subordinates assisted by ethnic German antifascists and communists.

The main objective of Operation Berezino was to create an illusion of a large German armed group operating behind the front line in Russian held territory, and to deplete Nazi intelligence resources through capture and extermination of their field operatives sent to assist these nonexistent troops. The NKVD set up a fake German "resistance pocket" under "command" of lieutenant-colonel Heinrich Scherhorn, a real German prisoner of war forced to cooperate with the Soviets. The German response, Otto Skorzeny's Operation Freischütz (Operation Poacher in post-war English sources) developed according to Soviet expectations. The German commandos sent by Skorzeny were routinely arrested and forced to take part in the Soviet Funkspiel. German support gradually faded, but the German command maintained radio contact with "Group Scherhorn" until May 1945.

According to Pavel Sudoplatov, Operation Berezino was conceived by the NKVD officers Victor Ilyin and Mikhail Maklyarsky as an extension of Operation Monastyr (1941-1944). In 1941 NKVD operative Alexander Demyanov (Soviet codename Heyne, German codename Max), wearing a persona of a disgruntled bohemian socialite, established contact with the German resident in Moscow. The NKVD used this opportunity to expose the undercover network of the Abwehr in the Soviet Union. In December 1941 Demyanov "defected" to the German side and showed up at the Abwehr field office in Smolensk. Three months later he returned to Moscow as a trusted German agent. His apartment became a death trap for scores of genuine German agents but he retained the trust of his German superiors. In the middle of 1942 Demyanov's control officer Willie Fischer expanded the operation into a strategic level disinformation campaign. For more than two years Demyanov supplied Reinhard Gehlen, the head of the Fremde Heere Ost ("Foreign Armies East") department of the German Army High Command (OKH), with carefully scripted "military plans". According to Sudoplatov, the German success in repelling the Soviet Rzhev offensive were, in part, influenced by correct information fed to Gehlen through Demyanov. The intent of feeding the Germans information about an actual operation was to conduct strategic deception to distract the Germans from the simultaneous Operation Uranus in the south. The Germans were indeed surprised by the latter attack, resulting in the encirclement and eventual surrender of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad.

According to Sudoplatov, Josef Stalin personally monitored the progress of Operation Monastyr. The NKVD men engaged in it were highly rewarded but Stalin himself was dissatisfied with the limited scope of the operation. Shortly before the beginning of Operation Bagration he summoned Victor Abakumov, Vsevolod Merkulov, Fyodor Kuznetsov and Sudoplatov and issued a direct written order to launch a new disinformation campaign. Stalin's instructions, recorded by Sergei Shtemenko, shifted the objective towards methodical physical destruction of German special forces and their intelligence capacity. Sudoplatov had to set up a believable "German camp" behind the advancing Soviet troops and call the German command for help. Stalin reasoned that the Germans would expend their best commandos in futile rescue missions. As a side benefit, the fake "camp" would divert German airlift resources from supporting the real pockets of resistance.

The new operation, codenamed Berezino, was drafted by colonel Mikhail Maklyarsky and approved by Stalin, NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. NKVD officers Nahum Eitingon, Willie Fischer, Mikhail Maklyarsky, Alexander Demyanov, Yakov Serebryansky departed to Belarus with a group of ethnic German antifascists. More pro-Soviet Germans, earlier engaged in mopping up Polish and Lithuanian forest brothers, joined them at the base camp some 100 kilometers east of Minsk. The NKVD men screened groups of German prisoners of war captured during Operation Bagration and picked lieutenant-colonel Heinrich Scherhorn as the "front" for their operation. Scherhorn, former commander of the guards' regiment of the 286th Security Division, was taken prisoner in June 1944. According to NKVD veteran Igor Schors, the choice was sealed by the connection between the Scherhorn family and Hitler: in the early 1930s Scherhorn's father made substantial donations to the Nazi Party. Scherhorn and his radio operator agreed to play the Soviet game. German communist Gustav Rebele assumed the role of Scherhorn's aide, watching his "commander" day and night.

The active phase of Berezino began on August 18, 1944 with a wireless message from Max to German Command. Max reported that Scherhorn's detachment of 2,500 men was encircled by the Soviets in the swamps near the Berezina River. According to German sources, colonel Hans-Heinrich Worgitzky of OKH Counterintelligence suspected a Soviet Funkspiel and refused to commit his men to rescue "Scherhorn". Gehlen intervened and demanded full support to "Scherhorn" which he thought would ideally fit Otto Skorzeny's plan of guerilla action behind the front line. OKW Chief of Staff Alfred Jodl instructed Skorzeny to begin the rescue operation.

According to German communist Karl Kleinjung, in the beginning of September Eitingon announced the first success: the German command confirmed departure of a group of four or five commandos. The Soviets mustered a "welcome party" dressed in battered Nazi field uniforms. Some, like Kleinjung, were ethnic Germans, others were NKVD men who did not speak the language. Between 01:00 and 02:00 September 16 a Heinkel He 111 made two runs over the designated drop zone, releasing supply containers and paratroopers. According to the official site of the SVR there were three radio operators; according to Kleinjung there were two SS commandos, one of them a radio operator, and two agents of Baltic descent. The latter two were quietly subdued by NKVD, while the two SS men were cordially welcomed and escorted to Scherhorn's tent. After the meeting the guests were arrested by the NKVD and forced to cooperate in the funkspiel. They reported their safe landing over their own wireless set, persuading the German command that the operation proceeded as planned. They were followed by three more commando teams; according to Kleinjung, the NKVD intercepted all three without arousing suspicion.

Otto Skorzeny, too, wrote about four airborne SS teams. All were dressed in Soviet field uniforms, armed with Soviet handguns and stripped of any personal items that could give away their identities. The first one (Einsatz P) disappeared before the commandos or the aircraft crew could confirm landing. The second one (Einsatz S) made radio contact with Skorzeny after four days of silence. They reported that they safely reached their objective; Scherhorn himself spoke to German command over the wireless. The third team (Einsatz M) disappeared without trace. The fourth one (Einsatz P) reported that they landed far off the drop zone and had to reach it on foot, wandering through the forests infested with NKVD and Soviet deserters. The contact was soon lost. Three weeks later Einsatz P safely crossed the front line in Lithuania, reporting horrors of Soviet atrocities on their way.

"Scherhorn" reported that a rapid breakthrough was made impossible by a large number of wounded. The German command suggested airlifting the wounded to the German rear, which, according to Kleinjung, would have exposed the Soviet ploy. Skorzeny sent an engineer to manage construction of the runway.[note 8] The Soviets responded with staging a believable night fight between "Group Scherhorn" and "Soviet troops" at the very same moment when two transport planes arrived over the properly illuminated airfield. One of the pilots attempted landing despite the commotion on the ground, but immediately before the touchdown the NKVD men extinguished the runway lights, forcing both planes to abandon their mission. Skorzeny received reports that the runway was permanently disabled by a Soviet air raid.

According to Russian sources, execution of this air raid was indeed planned by Colonel Ivan Fyodorov of the 4th Air Army. Before this night attack could materialize, the NKVD changed their minds and decided to use Fyodorov as a pawn in their game with Skorzeny. Fyodorov had to defect to "Scherhorn", fly to Germany with one of Skorzeny's planes, and operate there as a double agent. Fyodorov, one of the few Soviet recipients of the Nazi Iron Cross, was well known to the Luftwaffe and the Abwehr, and could have indeed been a perfect double agent had it not been for his explosive, outspoken personality.

Instead of openly approaching Fyodorov, the NKVD set up a mock ambush. NKVD men impersonating Belarussian nationalists and Russian monarchists kidnapped Fyodorov, took him to their camp in the forest and pressed him to change sides. The recruiters soon realized that Fyodorov was not fit for the job. Major Kopirovsky, author of the failed proposal, suggested liquidating Fyodorov, but Demyanov overruled him. Fyodorov was allowed to "flee" from the camp and return to the Air Force.

Skorzeny and Gehlen remained confident in the existence and combat worthiness of the 2,000-strong group. According to Kleinjung, they instructed Scherhorn to split it: one half had to march 250 kilometers north, to the Latvian-Lithuanian border, another to the south. According to Skorzeny, both detachments were to march north, with the smaller SS vanguard clearing the way for Scherhorn's main force. Scherhorn suggested that their march might bring them in contact with Polish population, and Skorzeny sent him his ethnic Polish agents. They also fell into Sudoplatov's hands and exposed the German network in Poland.

The Germans continuously supplied "Scherhorn" with necessary food and materiel, drawing down the scarce resources of Kampfgeschwader 200. According to the official site of the SVR, the Germans sent a total of 39 flights and dropped a total of 22 commandos with 13 wireless sets. This, according to Kleinjung, created a logistical problem for the NKVD: their once compact team snowballed into a large formation. All German radio operators remained with the group to maintain radio contact with their German controllers, and the number of their NKVD guards and attending personnel grew accordingly.

By January 1945 air supplies dwindled: the front line moved too far west, the Luftwaffe could not afford wasting precious fuel on a remote Army camp. Group Scherhorn increased their radio activity, flooding the German command with pleas for help. To motivate the German command, "Scherhorn" proposed a brisk march towards the Daugavpils area where the ice was thick enough for transport airplanes. Gehlen developed a fixation on the success of the "Scherhorn Raid". On February 20, 1945 he took over the operation from Skorzeny and declared it a matter of prestige that had to be supported at all costs. In March, however, Skorzeny spoke against Gehlen's single-handed management and Gehlen reluctantly backed off. Heinrich Scherhorn remained a national hero and on March 23, 1945 was awarded the colonel's rank and the Knight's Cross.

According to the official site of the SVR, the German command communicated with "Scherhorn" until May 5, 1945; according to Kleinjung and Skorzeny, "Scherhorn" remained in contact with the command until May 8.

After the end of the war Sudoplatov used Heinrich Scherhorn to recruit captive Admiral Erich Raeder and his wife. The attempt failed: according to Sudoplatov, Scherhorn and Raeder were "incompatible with each other". Scherhorn and his group were held prisoners in a camp near Moscow and were repatriated in the early 1950s. Sudoplatov was arrested in the wake of the execution of Lavrenty Beria, and served 15 years in prison. He was cleared of criminal charges in 1992.

Alexander Demyanov (Max) retired from the NKVD after one unsuccessful post-war mission in France. According to Sudoplatov, Gehlen offered Max for sale to the Americans, but by this time the real Alexander Demyanov was out of his reach. He worked as an engineer at the Mosfilm studios and died in Moscow in 1975. Mikhail Maklyarsky also worked for the movie industry as a screenwriter. Neither they, nor any of the NKVD officers engaged in Operation Berezino were ever rewarded for it.

Reinhard Gehlen founded the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the West German secret service, and headed it until 1968. Karl Kleinjung, one of the ethnic Germans attendants at Camp Scherhorn, quickly rose through the East German bureaucracy and became the head of the Stasi's First Chief Directorate (HA I), responsible for foreign intelligence. In 1997 he was indicted in the murders of civilians on the Inner German border and was acquitted in court.

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.


Robert Forczyk, Rescuing Mussolini: Gran Sasso 1943
William Manchester, The Arms of Krupp
Robert Merriam, Battle of the Bulge (Dark December)
Otto Skorzeny, Skorzeny's Special Missions
United States Congress, "Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals"

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.

The most intriguing Skorzeny story that has surfaced in recent years concerns the alleged Churchill-Mussolini correspondence. New light has been shed upon the mystery of a possible unauthorized Churchill-Mussolini correspondence during the war, whether Mussolini kept the documents with him even in exile, the possible involvement of British intelligence in Mussolini's death, and whether Skorzeny met Churchill in Venice to exchange the Mussolini papers for an unofficial "amnesty" from Allied Nazi-hunters.

In the final days of the war Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland. The Duce was carrying a portfolio of documents and three suitcases packed with banknotes and 65 kilos of gold bullion, the total value estimated at the time to be around 90 million dollars. His widow, Rachele, said that he had exchanged secret correspondence with Churchill, letters he was carrying with him when he fled Italy.

Both the documents and the gold disappeared following his capture and execution. After the war, the communists were blamed. A trial was held in Padua with 35 defendants and almost 400 witnesses, but the men who personally knew about the affair had been killed in mysterious circumstances. Near the end of the trial, one of the jurors committed suicide and a mistrial was declared.

Rachele claimed that the reason Churchill came to Lake Garda (the area of Mussolini’s final government) for his first vacation after the war, supposedly to paint, was actually to remove any trace of his contacts with Mussolini.

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.