Otto Skorzeny

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SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

Otto Rolf Skorzeny (b. 12 June 1908 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary; d. 6 July 1975 in Madrid, Spain) was a German officer of the Waffen-SS during World War II, finally SS-Standartenführer der Reserve and recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. After fighting on the Eastern Front, he is known as the commando leader who rescued Italian leader Benito Mussolini from imprisonment after his overthrow. He also was the initiator of Operation Greif, for which he was judged after the war: this special operation involved false flag tactics, that is wearing the uniform of the enemy to confuse him and advance into his lines. He also helped train the Werwolves, a para-military stay-behind organisation which tried to engage in guerrilla warfare against the Allies, and organized German escape routes, which formed the basis of the fictive ODESSA network after the war, which helped exfiltrate National Socialist party officials and military officers to Francoist Spain and other friendly countries (in particular South America). After creating the Paladin Group in 1970, he died a few months before Franco himself, in July 1975.


Major Otto-Harald Mors, Otto Skorzeny and Italian leader Benito Mussolini happy after the perfect freedom operation on 12 September 1943; even the Italian guards seem relaxed and relieved.
Otto Skorzeny beim Kabarett im Berliner Nachtklub „Atlantis“ im Jahre 1943.jpg
Skorzeny Porträt.jpg

Pre war time

SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny with officers (in front: SS-Sturmbannführer Sigfried Milius) of the SS-Jagdverband Mitte defending the bridges at the river Oder in February 1945
Otto Skorzeny im Familiengrab, Wien.jpg

Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna into a Austrian family which had a long history of military service. He naturally spoke German, as well as excellent French and English. He was a noted fencer as a student in Vienna in the 1920s. He engaged in fifteen personal duels. The tenth resulted in a wound that left a dramatic scar (known in academic fencing as a Schmiss) on his cheek.

He joined the Austrian National Socialist Party in 1931 and soon he joined the party's military wing the SA. A charismatic figure, Skorzeny played a minor role in the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when he saved the Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot.


The Eastern Front

After the 1939 invasion of Poland, Skorzeny, then working as a civil engineer, volunteered for service in the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) but was turned down because he was over the age of 30. Failing that, he turned to the Waffen SS. On February 21, 1940, Skorzeny went off to war with one of its most famous units, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and fought with distinction in the campaigns against the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942 before being wounded and returning to Germany in December of 1942, a winner of the Iron Cross for bravery under fire.

Operations (overview)

The liberation of Mussolini

After Skorzeny had recovered from his wounds, Ernst Kaltenbrunner recommended him to the "German military leadership" (Oberkommando des Heeres) as a possible leader of "commando" forces which Adolf Hitler wanted to create. In July 1943, for this role, he was personally selected by Hitler. Skorzeny was selected from among six German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) special agents. He was selected to lead the operation to rescue Hitler's friend, Benito Mussolini, who had been removed from power and imprisoned by the Italian government.

Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place in order to frustrate any would-be rescuers. Information on Mussolini's location and its topographical features were finally found by Herbert Kappler and air reconnaissance by Skorzeny himself. On 12 September 12 Skorzeny took part as a guest in Operation Oak (Unternehmen Eiche), a daring glider-based assault on the Campo Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso, a mountain in central Italy. Mussolini was rescued without firing a single bullet. Skorzeny escorted Mussolini in a Fieseler "Storch" to Pratica di Mare (near Rome), from where they went to Vienna in a Heinkel He 111 and later to Munich. From there Mussolini went to Rastenburg in East Prussia where he meet Hitler on 14 September. The exploit earned Skorzeny worldwide fame, promotion to Major and the Knight's Cross, a higher order of the Iron Cross.

Operation Rösselsprung

On May 25, 1944, he was assigned to Operation Rösselsprung (Unternehmen Rösselsprung), a para trooper commando operation aimed at capturing Yugoslav Partisan leader Tito at his headquarters near Drvar. Hitler knew that Tito was getting allied support and was aware that either British or American troops could land in Dalmatia with support of the communist NOVJ, the "partisan" "People's Liberation Army" Of Yugoslavia. Hence, killing or capturing Tito would not only have prevented this scenario, but also given a badly needed morale boost to the frustrated Axis forces in the Balkans. Skorzeny was involved in the planning of operation Rösselsprung and was supposed to command it but gave up on it after visiting Zagreb. Skorzeny became aware that the secrecy of the operation was compromised and that a serious leak of information occurred due to the incompetence of German partners in NDH or the Independent State of Croatia.

The Operation turned out to be a partial failure. The first wave of paratroopers, following heavy bombardment by the Luftwaffe, fell in between the area of the cave, Tito's hideout, and the town of Drvar. The paratroopers landed on open ground and many were gunned down by members of the partisan HQ Escort Battalion, a company numbering less than 100 soldiers. The second wave of paratroopers missed their target and landed a few miles out of town. Tito was long gone when the paratroopers captured the cave. Right next to the cave's exit there was a path leading to a railroad where Tito boarded a train that took him to safety to the town of Jajce. Tito's HQ was destroyed and the German Special Forces of the Brandenburgers could secure vast top secret material and weapons. Tito lost over 6,000 men and needed many months to regroup.

The 20 July 1944 conspiracy against Hitler

On 20 July 1944, Skorzeny was in Berlin when an attempt on Hitler's life was made, with plotters trying to seize control of Germany's main decision centers before Hitler recovered from his injuries. Skorzeny helped put down the rebellion in Berlin, spending 36 hours in charge of the German army's central command center before being relieved.

Hungary and Operation Panzerfaust

In October 1944, Hitler sent Skorzeny to Hungary when he received code that Hungary's Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was secretly negotiating with the Red Army. The surrender of Hungary would have cut off a million German troops fighting in the Balkan peninsula. Skorzeny, in another daring "snatch" codenamed Operation Panzerfaust, seized Horthy's son Miklós Horthy, Jr., who was commiting treason against his own people and the Germans, by negotiating with the bolsheviks, and forced his father to abdicate as Prime Minister. A pro-German, government under Prime Minister Ferenc Szálasi was then installed in Hungary. In April 1945, even after the German and Hungarian forces were driven out of Budapest and Hungary, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross Party-based forces continued to fight in Austria and Slovakia.

Operation Greif and Eisenhower

On October 21, Hitler, inspired by an American subterfuge which had put three captured German tanks flying German colours to devastating use at Aachen, summoned Skorzeny to Berlin and assigned him to lead a panzer brigade. As planned by Skorzeny in Operation Greif, about two dozen German soldiers of the SS-Jagdverband Mitte, most of them in captured American army Jeeps and disguised as American soldiers, penetrated American lines in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge and sowed disorder and confusion behind the Allied lines. A handful of his men were captured by the Americans and spread a rumour that Skorzeny was leading a raid on Paris to kill or capture General Eisenhower. The effect of this disinformation had Eisenhower confined to his headquarters for weeks and Skorzeny was labelled "the most dangerous man in Europe".

Skorzeny spent January and February 1945 commanding regular troops in the defence of the German provinces of Prussia and Pomerania as an acting major general. Fighting at Schwedt on the Oder River, he also received orders to sabotage a bridge on the Rhine at Remagen, but his frogmen failed. For his actions there, primarily in the defence of Frankfurt, Hitler awarded him of one Germany's highest military honours, the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross.

Werwolves and Surrender

With the defeat of Germany approaching, Skorzeny trained, until March 1945, recruits for the stay-behind para-military organisation, the Werwolves, which engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Allies.

Skorzeny surrendered to the Allies. On May 16, 1945, he emerged from the Austrian woods near Salzburg and surrendered to a lieutenant of the US Thirtieth Infantry Regiment. He was held as a prisoner of war for more than two years before being tried as a "war criminal" at the Dachau Trials for his false flag actions in the Battle of the Bulge. However, Skorzeny was acquitted because although he had ordered his men to use American uniforms as a ruse, it could not be proven that he had given orders to fight in them. Nevertheless he was detained until he escaped from a prison camp on July 27, 1948.

After World War II

He settled in Spain with a passport granted by its leader, Francisco Franco, and resumed his prewar occupation as an engineer. In 1952, he was declared entnazifiziert (denazified) in absentia by a German government arbitration board, which let him travel abroad. Before the declaration, he could have been interned in Germany or Austria until he had convinced the authorities that he had seen the error of his beliefs.

From 1959-1969 he lived in Ireland where he bought Martinstown House, a 200 acre farm in County Kildare.

Protected by Franco, Otto Skorzeny was a key figure in the never existing organization of the secret escape network ODESSA. According to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, he was a key figure in organizing one of ODESSA's largest bases, which was allegedly located in Spain.

He also founded the Paladin Group in 1970, a neo-fascist organisation which gathered former French members of the OAS, of the SAC, etc., and considered it the spearhead of the anti-Communist struggle. Later, he worked as a consultant to the Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and the Argentine President Juan Peron.


In 1970, a tumor was discovered on Skorzeny's spine. Two cancerous tumors were removed in Hamburg, 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 reminded him that his final days were fast approaching.

Otto Skorzeny finally succumbed to the cancer on 7 July 1975 in Madrid, a few months before Franco himself. Comrades said goodbye with German greeting to him. He was cremated, his ashes were later brought to Vienna and interred in the Skorzeny family grave at Döblinger Friedhof.

Awards and decorations

See also

Further reading

  • Annussek, G. Hitler's Raid To Save Mussolini, De Capo Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-306-81396-3
  • Foley, Charles, Commando Extraordinary, Arms & Armour pubs., 1987, ISBN: 0-85368-824-9
  • Infield, Glenn, Secrets of the SS, Stein and Day, 1981, ISBN: 0-8128-2790-2
  • Skorzeny, Otto, (David Johnson transl.), My Commando Operations: The Memoirs of Hitler's Most Daring Commando reprint by Schiffer Publishing, 1995, ISBN: 0-88740-718-8
  • Skorzeny, Otto, Skorzeny's Special Missions, Robert Hale Ltd., London, (reprinted by Greenhill Books, U.K., 1997, ISBN: 1-85367-291-2)
  • Tetens, T.H., The New Germany and the Old Nazis Random House/Marzani & Munsell, 1961, LCN 61-7240
  • Wechsberg, Joseph The Murderers Among Us -- The Simon Wiesenthal Memoirs, McGraw Hill, 1967, LCN 67-13204
  • Whiting, Charles, Skorzeny:The Most Dangerous Man in Europe, De Capo Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-938289-94-2

External links