Otto Skorzeny: The Scar-Faced Commando
Copyright 2002 Rob Vest
Skorzeny's post-war exploits rivaled, and in many ways, surpassed his accomplishments during wartime. He was courted during the Cold War by both the Americans and the Soviets, served as an advisor in the Peron government in Argentina, and helped to relocate and protect several of his fellow Nazis. Skorzeny also developed terrorist tactics used to this day by organizations as diverse as the IRA, PLO, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. This paper will provide a brief overview of Otto Skorzeny's life before, during, and after World War II.
The Making of Scarface
The man who would one day be celebrated as the greatest adventurer of the Third Reich came from a rather unexceptional background. Otto Skorzeny was born June 12, 1908, in Vienna, Austria. Otto's father owned a successful engineering firm, and the family lived quite comfortably until the depression that ravished Austria at the end of World War I. When the teenaged Otto once complained that he'd never tasted real butter, his father's response was prophetic: "There is no harm in doing without things. It might even be good for you not to get used to a soft life." (1)
Otto entered the University of Vienna on his eighteenth birthday, and graduated in 1931 with an engineering degree, after which he started his own firm. Though Skorzeny's skill as an engineer would later prove quite useful in planning his missions of terrorism and sabotage, his time in the Schlagende Verbindungen (dueling society) would prove the most influential part of his college experience. (2) Skorzeny fought his first duel during his freshman year, and in 1928 earned the coveted Schmisse-the "scars of honor," which would earn him the nickname of "Scarface" among the Americans during World War II. Skorzeny would later credit his success in war to his experiences in the dueling society:
"My knowledge of pain, learned with the sabre, taught me not to be afraid. And just as in dueling when you must concentrate on your enemy's cheek, so, too, in war. You cannot waste time on feinting and sidestepping. You must decide on your target and go in." (3)
In 1930, Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party and strongly advocated union with Germany. By 1938 he was very active in the party and was a member of both the SS and the Gestapo. Skorzeny even played a minor role during the Anschluss, the German takeover of Austria on March 12, 1938. In order to prevent a bloodbath, Skorzeny was ordered by Artur Seyss-Inquart, Austria's leading Nazi and its newly-appointed chancellor, to intercept several armed Nazis determined to take the Austrian palace by force. Skorzeny arrived just in time to prevent a shoot-out between the Nazis and Austrian guards, and quite likely saved the life of Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas.
Skorzeny the Soldier
World War II broke out in September of 1939. Skorzeny volunteered for the Luftwaffe, but at 6',4" and thirty-one years of age, was considered too tall and too old for flight training. Instead, Skorzeny's superiors assigned him to train as a communications expert, an assignment he hated. Five months later, Skorzeny transferred to the Waffen SS, the military arm of the SS, where he hoped to become an officer. He was classified as an officer-cadet, and would be commissioned if he proved himself.
Skorzeny was put in charge of keeping his division's (Division Reich) tanks and other equipment operational. He was successful, but his unorthodox methods often got him into trouble. Skorzeny was not above stealing equipment from other divisions, and once even took tires from a depot at gunpoint. His chances for a commission were tabled indefinitely when he shot down a portrait of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (who had denounced Hitler) from the wall of a Dutch café after the owner refused to remove it.
Skorzeny's fortunes turned in April 1941 when his regiment was sent to Yugoslavia to quell a revolt. The rebellion was engineered by Yugoslav military officers who overthrew the government of Prince-Regent Paul on March 26-27 because they felt their ruler was getting too close to Hitler. Three days after the invasion, Skorzeny and his men managed to capture fifty-four Yugoslav soldiers and three officers. Skorzeny marched his prisoners to his regiment's headquarters and was commissioned on the spot.
But fortune would again turn her back on Otto. In June of 1941, Division Reich participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union, where it suffered heavy casualties. One day in early winter of that year, Skorzeny was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel when a Soviet artillery shell struck near his position some 200 yards from the front line. Taken to a nearby aid station, he refused all treatment except for a few aspirin, a bandage, and a glass of schnapps. A few hours later, Skorzeny rejoined his regiment, but his health only deteriorated. By January 1942, he was headed back to Germany on a hospital train, promising to return in a few weeks. By the time he recovered, however, the Third Reich would have other plans for Skorzeny.
After recovering for a few months in an army hospital, Skorzeny was summoned to Berlin in April of 1943 to meet with Walter Schellenberg, head of the SD (the SS foreign intelligence service). Schellenberg needed someone to take charge of the schools being organized to train special agents in sabotage, espionage, and paramilitary skills. Skorzeny, though relatively unknown at the time, had been recommended for the position by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA (Reich Central Security Office), whom Otto had known since his early days in the Austrian Nazi Party. Skorzeny readily accepted the position, and training commenced.
The men of what would become known as Jagdverbande (Hunting Group) 502 were culled from the best of the best of the Reich's various military units. Each member was expected to have a basic knowledge of firearms, grenades, and artillery. They also had to know how to operate automobiles, motorcycles, watercraft, and locomotives. They had to be expert swimmers and be able to parachute from aircraft. Many were also trained in foreign languages, such as English, Italian, Russian, and Persian.
Skorzeny, for his part, studied the techniques found in captured British commando documents, and learned even more from captured British commandos who were willing to switch sides. He also attended a course on espionage taught by an Abwehr (army intelligence) officer.
Jagdverbande 502's first mission, "Operation Francois," took place in the summer of 1943. The group parachuted into Iran, where they made contact with the dissident mountain tribes. These insurgent forces were used to sabotage US and British supplies of materiel bound for the Soviet Union. However, within a few months, interest waned among the rebel tribes. Skorzeny, who remained behind to train more recruits, characterized Operation Francois as "a failure," (4) due mainly to inadequate reinforcements and supplies needed for the mission.
Though Jagdverbande 502 had gotten off to a shaky start, greater things lay in store. While his commandos were implementing Operation Francois in Iran, Skorzeny was ordered to appear before the Fuhrer himself.
The Rescue of Il Duce
Skorzeny appeared before Adolf Hitler on July 26, 1943. The Führer had a special mission for the scar-faced commando: a day earlier, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had been forced to resign and arrested by his own people. Skorzeny's new mission would be to find Mussolini and rescue him before the new Italian government surrendered and offered up Mussolini to the Allies.
The following day, Skorzeny was in Italy, where he and his men spent over a month trying to locate their quarry. On September 8, Skorzeny learned that Mussolini was being held prisoner in a resort hotel sitting some 6000 feet atop the Gran Sasso, the highest peak of the Appenine mountain range, some eighty miles northeast of Rome.
After reconnoitering Gran Sasso by plane, Skorzeny realized that assaulting the peak by glider was his best option. The Luftwaffe experts consulted by Skorzeny warned that such a feat was "technically impossible," (5) due to the high altitude and bad landing conditions, but Skorzeny ignored their advice.
On September 12, 1943, Skorzeny kidnaped Italian general Ferdinando Soleti in Rome. The commando leader feared that Mussolini would be killed by his captors should the Italian guards delay Skorzeny's men for too long. The big Austrian hoped Soleti's presence would ensure that the guards cooperated. That afternoon, the twelve gliders left for Gran Sasso, with Skorzeny's the first to reach its destination.
After a rough landing, Skorzeny, followed by his men and Soleti, rushed into the hotel. They first entered the radio room, where Skorzeny smashed the radio with the butt of his pistol. Soon they were confronted by several armed guards. Seeing Soleti among the invaders, the guard captain ordered his men to hold their fire. Within minutes, Skorzeny had located Mussolini. "Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me to set you free," (6) he said. "I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not abandon me," replied Mussolini, embracing Skorzeny. (7) A small spotter plane was called in and the fascist dictator was evacuated from the mountain. Skorzeny had pulled off the impossible-without firing a shot.
The success of the Gran Sasso raid earned the scar-faced Austrian the eternal gratitude his Fuhrer, who phoned Skorzeny early the next morning: "You have performed a military feat which will become part of history. You have given me back my friend Mussolini." (8)
For his rescue of Mussolini, Skorzeny was awarded the prestigious Knight's Cross and promoted to major. Practically overnight, Skorzeny's reputation reached near-legendary proportions, and many regarded him as a national hero. The operation also brought Skorzeny to the attention of the Allies. Winston Churchill himself described the mission as "one of great daring." (9)
Operation Mickey Mouse
Skorzeny's next major success would take place in Hungary on October 15, 1944. Upon hearing that Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian regent, was negotiating an armistice with the Soviets, Hitler sent his favorite commando to Hungary to resolve the problem. Skorzeny's solution was "Operation Mickey Mouse," named after Horthy's son, Miki, whom many believed to be influencing his father to side with the USSR. Skorzeny entered Miki's apartment, shot him in the arm and, inspired by George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, rolled him up in a rug and put him on a plane to Berlin.
The elder Horthy, despite the kidnaping of his son, refused to cooperate. Two days after the kidnaping, Skorzeny stormed the citadel where the regent resided. Skorzeny had a tank, twenty-five men, and a truck. The citadel was guarded by an entire parachute battalion. Within one hour, the Hungarians had surrendered, with a total of seven lives lost.
Skorzeny's last mission of note came during the last German offensive on the western front. Occurring on the borders of Germany and Luxemburg, the Battle of the Bulge was the Third Reich's last gasp, lasting from December 16, 1944 to Jan 25, 1945. Skorzeny would play a special role in this offensive.
In late October, Hitler put Skorzeny in charge of "Operation Greif." Skorzeny would command the 150th Panzer Brigade, whose mission would be to capture one or more bridges on a stretch of the Meuse River in Belgium, after the First Panzer Division broke through the American defense. Additionally, Skorzeny would command a force of commandos made up of English-speaking soldiers with American equipment and uniforms. The commandos were to slip behind enemy lines and wreak havoc while the 150th Panzer Brigade would secure the bridges.
Operation Greif initially met with some success. On December 17, 1944, US Third Army commander General George S Patton described the situation to Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower:
"Krauts . . . speaking perfect English . . . raising hell, cutting wires, turning road signs around, spooking whole divisions, and shoving a bulge into our defenses." (10)
Patton also notified Eisenhower that a captured German officer had revealed a plot to assassinate Eisenhower, engineered by Skorzeny. Though after the war Skorzeny characterized the plot as merely a rumor, Eisenhower and the Allies took it seriously and the Supreme Commander was forced to spend the holidays under maximum security in Versailles. Eisenhower responded with a no-holds-barred manhunt for Skorzeny, and "wanted" posters featuring the Nazi commando's likeness were distributed throughout the western front.
Though Operation Greif was initially somewhat successful, it was a failure in the long run. As December wore on, fewer and fewer of Skorzeny's commandos were able to bluff their way past security checkpoints. Nor did his 150th Panzer Brigade ever reach the Meuse, as the First Panzer Division failed to break through American lines. By December 28, Skorzeny knew the Battle of the Bulge was lost and left the front.
Werewolves and Buried Treasure
Skorzeny saw little action after the Battle of the Bulge. For a few weeks in January and February, he held off the advancing Soviet army with a ragtag force at Schwedt on the Odur River, but eventually had to fall back. Skorzeny also received orders to blow up a bridge on the Rhine at Remagen, but his frogmen failed due to the icy waters.
Knowing, like many other Nazi leaders, that the war was lost, Skorzeny spent most of his time preparing for the future. Until March of 1945 he helped train several recruits for the underground resistance group known as the "Werewolves," who were to make occupation by the Allies difficult, if not impossible. Skorzeny soon discovered that the number of Werewolf cells had been greatly exaggerated, and would be rather ineffective as a fighting force. Instead, the Werewolves would be used as part of a Nazi "underground railroad," facilitating travel along escape routes called "ratlines" that allowed thousands of SS officers and other Nazis to flee Germany after the fall of the Third Reich.
Since August of 1944, Skorzeny had been employed by various high-ranking Nazis and wealthy German industrialists to transfer and hide large quantities of money, looted property, documents, and other assets. Some of these were buried in the mountains of Bavaria, while other stashes were shipped overseas.
Finally, in May, Skorzeny decided to give himself up to the Americans. Reluctant to go into hiding, Skorzeny felt he could potentially be of use to the Americans in the forthcoming Cold War. On May 16, 1945, Otto Skorzeny emerged from the Austrian woods near Salzburg and surrendered to a lieutenant of the US Thirtieth Infantry Regiment.
After two years in various internment camps, Skorzeny was to face charges of war crimes for his actions in the Battle of the Bulge. Characterized at his arraignment as "the most dangerous man in Europe," (11) Skorzeny was brought before a US military court in Dachau on August 18, 1947. He and nine fellow officers of the 150th Panzer Brigade would face charges of improper use of military insignia, theft of US uniforms, and theft of Red Cross parcels from American prisoners of war.
The trial lasted over three weeks. The charge of stealing Red Cross parcels was dropped for lack of evidence, but Skorzeny did admit to ordering his men to wear American uniforms, and a conviction by the American court seemed eminent. But on September 9, the last day of the trial, a British officer testified that he and his men had engaged in similar tactics during the war. Realizing that to convict Skorzeny would be hypocrisy, the tribunal acquitted the ten defendants.
Despite his acquittal by the Americans, Skorzeny remained a prisoner, as other nations wished to try him for war crimes. During his internment, both before and after the Dachau trial, Skorzeny continued his clandestine activities. An informant for Army Counterintelligence discovered a vast underground network known as ODESSA, (12) which helped Nazi prisoners escape and secure false identity papers. Otto Skorzeny was identified as a leader of this movement, though very little concrete evidence existed.
Meanwhile, while in prison, Skorzeny received offers of employment from the Soviets. He refused all of these, but said nothing of such overtures until early 1948, when he told his American captors, perhaps to prevent his extradition for another trial. In fact, the US had been blocking his extradition to Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia since his acquittal. Unfortunately, by midsummer of 1948 it looked like the Czechs would succeed, as they were now working through the United Nations. By that time, both the US and Skorzeny knew something had to be done to keep him out of Soviet hands.
On July 27, 1948, a car bearing American military license plates arrived at the Darmstadt internment camp where the infamous commando was being held. Three US Army police-one captain and two enlisted men-exited the vehicle and entered the detention center. "We are here to take prisoner Otto Skorzeny to Nuremburg for his scheduled hearing tomorrow," (13) the captain announced. Within minutes, Skorzeny was handed over to the "police"-who were actually SS veterans-and vanished from the camp forever. When questioned years later about the escape, Skorzeny claimed that the license plates and uniforms were supplied by the Americans.
Otto and Evita
Shortly after his escape from Darmstadt, Skorzeny established a base of operations in Madrid, Spain, under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Here Skorzeny started a successful engineering firm, but also engaged in less scrupulous ventures, such as the international arms trade. He also continued to oversee the activities of ODESSA and other Nazi organizations.
In 1949, Skorzeny was known to be in Argentina, where many of his fellow Nazis had fled to the safety of the fascist Peron government. Skorzeny went to Argentina because he was concerned about the Bormann treasure-a vast amount of wealth accumulated by Hitler's right-hand man, Martin Bormann, who for years had been embezzling money from a secret Nazi fund in the Reichsbank in Berlin. This secret fund was derived from the currency, gold, jewels, and other assets taken from the victims of the death camps. Skorzeny had helped Bormann transfer part of this fortune before the war ended.
Martin Bormann had entrusted Juan Peron as caretaker of the Nazi fortune before the end of the war. In 1945, Peron married the social-climbing temptress Evita Duarte, and before long she had arranged to have the entire amount of the fortune deposited in her name in several Buenos Aires banks. The Bormann treasure at the end of 1945 was estimated at over $800 million in bank deposits, 2500 kilograms of gold, 90 kilograms of platinum, and 4600 carats of diamonds and other precious stones. When Bormann failed to appear after the war ended, the Perons acted as if the fortune were theirs alone.
Juan Peron had admired Skorzeny ever since the Mussolini rescue, and welcomed the big Austrian personally upon his arrival in Argentina. Wishing to develop a good relationship with the Argentine president, Skorzeny gave no hint that he even knew the treasure existed. Argentina was a place of great unrest at the time, and Peron readily accepted Skorzeny's offer to help maintain order in the country. One result of Skorzeny's "help" was that the Argentine police became quite versed in Nazi torture and interrogation methods.
Evita's trust had to be won in a more clever fashion. In July, 1949, Skorzeny received word that two navy officers were planning to murder the first lady. The big commando led a police raid on the men's apartment, where he found guns, ammo, and details of the hit. Skorzeny rushed to the Evita's office and warned her of the plot. She did not take the plot seriously, but did invite Skorzeny to accompany her on a visit to one of her charities. On the way, Skorzeny ordered the driver to stop. He jumped out of the limousine and ran into a nearby building. Skorzeny emerged moments later, holding the two would-be assassins at gunpoint. In truth, the two men had been captured and placed in the building earlier by former SS members Skorzeny had dispatched after the apartment raid. He never told Evita that the rescue was staged, however, for he had now gained her trust.
Evita and Skorzeny became lovers, and by early 1950 he had reclaimed roughly one-forth of the Bormann treasure, which he funneled back to ODESSA and other Nazi groups. When Evita died from cancer in 1952, the remainder of the Bormann treasure was inherited by Juan Peron. Skorzeny finally recovered the remainder of the fortune in 1955, when Peron's government fell. Skorzeny helped Peron escape Argentina and arranged for him to live in exile in Spain. Skorzeny received the remainder of the Bormann treasure in return.
Fascists and Fundamentalists
Skorzeny had also been spending time in Egypt. In 1952 the country had been taken over by the CIA-backed General Mohammed Naguib, who was effectively a puppet of Egyptian Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Skorzeny was sent to Egypt the following year by former Nazi 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 officers to train the Egyptian army. Among these die-hard Nazis were General Oskar Dirlewanger, the "Butcher of Warsaw," and Adolf Eichmann, the man who engineered the Final Solution.
Many other Nazis joined Skorzeny in Egypt, attracted to the Naguib/Nasser government's tolerance for fascism and their shared hatred for the newly created state of Israel. The Nazis further fueled Arab antisemitism with translated copies of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
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 initial strikes into Israel via the Gaza Strip in 1953-1954. One of these Palestinians was a young Yasser Arafat, who formed a long-lasting friendship with the Nazi commando.
Skorzeny and the Nazi Hunters
Unlike many of his fellow Nazis, Skorzeny never denounced Hitler or National Socialism, and remained unapologetic for his actions during the war. For nearly thirty years, he devoted much time to thwarting Nazi hunters, though Skorzeny was rarely a target himself.
In 1964, famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal located Franz Paul Stangl, former commander of the Treblinka death camp, in Brazil. However, the Brazilian police refuse to arrest him and Austrian authorities refused to extradite him. For three years, Skorzeny bribed police and Austrian officials until an anti-Nazi governor was elected in Stangl's state, and Wiesenthal was finally able to arrange the war criminal's arrest and extradition.
Skorzeny also used long trial delays as a tactic to prevent his comrades from facing justice. Delays of ten years were not uncommon, due to bribes doled out to judges and prosecutors. He was also very good at hiding his fellow Nazis. When Adolf Eichman was captured by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires in 1960, Skorzeny sent word to other Nazis in the city to seek safer locations immediately. One of these was Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's "Angel of Death," who was responsible for sending tens of thousands to their deaths in the gas chambers, and thanks to Skorzeny and ODESSA, never paid for his crimes.
Protecting his fellow Nazis also involved killing any who attempted to squeal. In 1965 Hubert Curkers, the "Monster of Riga" who helped massacre 32,000 Latvian Jews in 1941, offered to reveal Mengele's location to Jewish agents for $150,000 and a guarantee of his own safety. A few days later Curkers' body was found in Montevideo, Uruguay with his skull crushed.
Death and Legacy
In 1970, a tumor was discovered on Skorzeny's spine. The commando leader underwent back surgery in Hamburg, while fellow ODESSA members stood guard. Two cancerous tumors were removed, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Vowing to walk again, Skorzeny spent long hours with a physical therapist, and within six months was back on his feet.
The years following therapy were hard for Skorzeny, as the cancer was ravaging his body. Some days he felt well, other days the cancer reminded him that his final days were fast approaching. Still he continued his work with ODESSA, though he was not as active as before. Otto Skorzeny finally succumbed to the cancer on July 7, 1975 in Madrid. Over 500 Nazi diehards from all over the world attended his memorial service.
Though dead for nearly thirty years, Skorzeny's legacy remains with us today. His pioneering terrorist tactics live on in the likes of Yassir Arafat and Osama Bin-Laden. His unapologetic fascism and antisemitism live on in politicians like Jorg Haider and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Skorzeny's most powerful legacy of all, however, would be ODESSA. Saving the lives and preventing the capture of so many Nazis certainly ensured the continued survival of fascism. Who knows what fascist, neo-Nazi, and antisemitic enterprises the Bormann treasure has funded and continues to fund? Certainly the escape and survival of so many Nazis (14) served as an inspiration for many of today's fascist, antisemitic, and neo-Nazi organizations, and many of these war criminals became personally involved in cultivating subsequent generations of hate.
1. Glenn B Infield, Skorzeny: Hitler's Commando (New York: St Martin's Press, 1981), 11.
2. Dueling societies were popular in universities throughout the German-speaking world up until the 1930s, when they were banned by the Nazis. Revived after World War II, dueling societies exist to this day in German and Austrian universities.
3. Charles Whiting, Skorzeny (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), 17.
4. Otto Skorzeny, Skorzeny's Secret Missions (New York: EP Dutton and Company, Inc, 1950), 16.
5. Ibid, 85.
6. Infield, 43.
8. John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: Ballatine Books, 1976), 1033.
9. Whiting, 64.
10. Infield, 78.
11. Martin A Lee, The Beast Reawakens (New York: Routledge, 2000), 33.
12. Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehorigen, or Organization of Former SS Members.
13. Infield, 151.
14. Germany's list of wanted war criminals contains over 90,000 names, with only a small fraction of them have ever faced justice.
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Lee, Martin A. The Beast Reawakens. New York: Routledge, 2000.
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Toland, John. Adolf Hitler. New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.
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