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All Posts, Frontline Books, Military History

Author Guest Post: Norman Ridley

Otto Skorzeny; Hitler’s favourite Commando

On 26 July 1943, the tall and powerfully built Captain Otto Johann Anton (Scarface) Skorzeny was summoned to the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, to meet the Führer and get his instructions in person. The mission was one for which Skorzeny, a special forces commando, was uniquely qualified; to find the deposed Italian Duce Benito Mussolini, whereabouts unknown, before the Allies got him first.

Skorzeny was a Viennese of Polish descent who had joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1931 after studying mathematics and physics at university. During his time at university, he had been involved in no less than 14 Mensuren (fencing duels) and bore his Schmisse (duelling scar) as a badge of honour. Turned down for flight crew by the Luftwaffe in 1939 because he was too tall, he joined instead the Waffen SS. He saw action in Holland in 1940 and then in the Balkans a year later. When he took part in the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he took a bad head wound and was forced to take a desk job in Berlin.

Otto ‘Scarface’ Skorzeny

Frustrated and bored, Skorzeny volunteered for special duties with the newly formed commando unit, Amt VI, designed to carry out sabotage and subversion operations. He was quickly promoted to Hauptsturmführer leading the section Amt VI-S which comprised two battalions of highly trained men drawn from the SS and Parachute Regiments. He took personal charge of recruitment choosing for preference, men who had a reputation for criminality and improvisation.

Mussolini had been removed from power by a vote of the Italian Grand Council of Fascism and arrested by the Carabinierie. It was unclear whether Italy would continue to fight with the Nazis or turn against them. On 7 September German intelligence intercepted an Italian signal which indicated that Mussolini was being held in the Gran Sasso Hotel on a mountain peak on the island of Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia. Skorzeny prepared for his mission with customary care ‘We developed each phase of our raid, being careful to omit no detail and to foresee all eventualities,’ he later wrote. In ‘Operation Oak’ Skorzeny took about fifty of General Kurt Student’s XI Paratroop Corps to Rome and reconnoitred the island from the air. It had been Student’s men who had landed by glider on top of the Eben Email fortress to open up the Belgian front to German panzers on 10 May 1940. Skorzeny led twelve gliders landing near the hotel on 12 September and took Mussolini without a shot being fired. Skorzeny had planned to fly Mussolini out in a Fieseler 156 Storch but almost caused it to crash by insisting on getting his substantial frame in also and overloading the aircraft. For this successful rescue, Skorzeny was promoted to Sturmbannführer and awarded the coveted Knight’s Cross.

Delighted with the success of ‘Operation Oak’, Hitler planned other adventures for Skorzeny. First he sent him to France to capture Marshall Petain but the Frenchman could not be located. Next up was ‘Operation Knight’s Leap’ to capture Marshall Tito, commander of Yugoslavia’s guerrilla resistance but, again, after coming close to Tito’s headquarters, they were unable to get to him. He was more successful in September 1944, during ‘Operation Armoured Fist’ when he got to the Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy and prevent him defecting to the Soviet side. For this Skorzeny was again promoted this time to Obersturmbannführer. Two months later, Skorzeny was assigned to work with the chief of German military intelligence on the eastern front, General Reinhard Gehlen, to create resistance groups. This was another failure with more than eighty of the hundred agents sent into the field being captured by the Soviet forces.

Reinhard Gehlen Master Spy

At the end of the war, Skorzeny was brought before a court at Dachau charged with contravening the Geneva Convention. The charges were eventually dropped but, even though the Soviet Union wanted to try him for war crimes, he was neither handed over to them nor released and was sent to a denazification camp instead. Along with Gehlen, the rocket scientist Werner von Braun and the Nazi Finance Minister Hjalmar Schacht, Skorzeny began working for US Intelligence but Soviet insistence was making his extradition inevitable so he was allowed to escape from US custody. He worked for a while with Gehlen, who had now set up an anti-Soviet spy ring in East Germany. While working in Paris he was photographed and recognised forcing him to flee to Spain where he set himself up as an arms trader with Egypt and then organising Die Spinne escape routes for Nazi war criminals holed up in the Obersatzburg hoping to get to South America.

Before the war’s end, Skorzeny had worked with Hitler’s number two Martin Bormann moving large quantities of money to Argentina and it was to that country that Skorzeny went in 1949. He was employed there by the Argentinian secret police training them in Gestapo methods of control. A few short years later, under instructions from Gehlen and, indirectly, the CIA, Skorzeny went to Egypt with other Nazis, General Oskar Dirlwanger and Adolf Eichmann where they acted as military adviser to General Mohammed Naguib and arranged for protection squads for German rocket scientists and engineers who were working for the Egyptian government. Skorzeny also trained members of the Palestinian PLO and Al Fatah organisations. There are unconfirmed rumours that the CIA then assigned him to work with Israeli Intelligence to pass on information about the Egyptian military.

In the 1960s, Skorzeny organised the Paladin Group in Alicante operating in the grey area between Spanish civilian security departments and paramilitary groups training guerrillas in a clandestine war against the separatist group ETA. He was also founder and an advisor to the leadership of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE which was established in 1966. When he died on 7 July 1975 in Madrid, over 500 Nazis attended his funeral giving the Nazi salute.

Hitler’s Gold is available to order here.