The rescue seventy years ago of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity in a hotel lodge situated high on the Apennine Mountains by a contingent of German Special Forces is a feat of military enterprise which is still lauded to this day.
Just as the later mission accomplishments of the British Special Air Services (SAS) Regiment in storming and ending the siege of the London embassy of Iran in 1979 and the liberation of hostages three years earlier by Israel’s Sayeret Matkal at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, the German raid at the Campo Imperatore at Gran Sasso astounded the world; eliciting praise for its precision planning and the deftness of its execution.
Indeed, in commending the audacity of the enemy while speaking before the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill remarked on the mission as having been “one of great daring.” His nemesis Adolf Hitler telephoned one particular soldier who had participated in the raid and informed him that “you have performed a military feat which will become part of history.”
The soldier to whom Hitler spoke was a fellow Austrian and member of the Waffen-SS named Otto Skorzeny.
While the soldiers who partook in the aforementioned British and Israeli missions remained anonymous until a great many years had passed by; save for the posthumous heroic status granted to the fallen Yonatan Netanyahu, Skorzeny was conferred with instant fame.
His name, to the exclusion of others, is the one to which the achievement of the Gran Sasso Raid is inextricably linked, in terms of both its conception and execution.
His reputation as a bold tactician and an expert in the special mission which was capable of changing the currents of war grew to the extent that as the war drew to a close, he was considered by the allied forces to be the “most dangerous man in Europe.”
To his biographers he was “Commando Extraordinary”; the Fuehrer’s favourite commando who transcended the craft of ‘mere’ soldering by displaying an adeptness at fomenting psychological warfare against huge armies.
And even in the post-war years his fame and infamy expanded. He was interviewed by major Western news outlets to whom he disclosed that his services were in demand from all manner of intelligence and military organisations.
He was, it was alleged, at the helm of a vast secret network which smuggled thousands of war criminals out of allied occupied Europe to Spain and South America.
While to some analysts, in the decades which followed his passing, he was nothing less than the ‘father’ of modern terrorism.
That he was composed of an exceptional mindset and imbued with a rare level of determination cannot be denied. As a soldier, Skorzeny was resolute in his belief that he had no choice other than to fight for the Third Reich until the endseig; the illusory ‘final victory’ promised by his Fuehrer.
And because of this commitment, and the results that he apparently produced, he was called upon to execute a range of missions which would have taxed the most exceptional of soldiers.
Beginning with the event which created his celebrity and what could be termed the ‘Skorzeny legend’, he developed an aura as a rare specimen of warrior.
His admirers, many of whom were soldiers and commandos who fought in the armies opposing Nazi Germany, attested to his talents; intimating him to have been an almost supernaturally gifted practitioner of a highly specialised form of warfare.
Yet, amid the broad truths in the depictions of certain acts of bravery and of resourcefulness while acting at the centre of key missions and engagements during the Second World War, lurking in the background was a significant element of state-sponsored propaganda, of myth-making and an incessant tendency toward self-promotion.
And while there is much truth to the old adage of history being written by the victors of war, there is nonetheless a not unfounded allegation that in this case, the reverse applies.
There is much to ponder about the irony of the widely accepted history of Skorzeny; a soldier of a vanquished army, succeeding in creating the conditions in which others would write a hugely favourable account of a life and career that may conceivably have ended on the gallows.
Born into a relatively prosperous Viennese middle class family in 1908 as the Hapsburg-era was drawing to a close, the personality of Otto Skorzeny in his youth and early adulthood was marked by boldness and directness.
As was the family tradition, he joined a duelling fraternity, Schlagende Verbindungen, and in 1928 earned the coveted Schmisse or ‘Scars of Honour’ while a student at the Vienna Technical College.
“My knowledge of pain, learned with the sabre, taught me not to be afraid,” he would later say. “And just as in duelling 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.”
These words summed up his sense of tenacity and a taste for adventure. His affiliation to a fencing society was in fact an inextricable part of the passed down values of the Skorzeny family which would irreparable shape his belief system and, indeed, his destiny. This was a strong immersion in German ultra-nationalist sentiment.
Thus it was that in 1931 Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi party which advocated anschuluss with Germany; an objective which came to fruition in 1938. His involvement with Austrian National Socialism provided the basis for his meeting with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, future head of the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt or Reich Central Security Office (RSHA), who would later become something of a benefactor.
Skorzeny formed an engineering firm soon after graduating in that field and he worked as a civil engineer until the outbreak of war in 1939. His effort of volunteering for the Luftwaffe was rejected; at 31 years of age and possessing a burly 6-foot 4-Inch-frame, he was adjudged to be too old and too tall for the air crew training programme.
So, Skorzeny joined the Waffen-SS as an officer-Cadet. He took a short training course to become a technical officer, but remained a non-commissioned officer.
His background as an engineer was utilised as a maintenance officer and in this posting went into battle in a number of theatres of war: the Netherlands, France and the Balkans.
It was in the Balkans in April of 1941 that Skorzeny became a commissioned officer after his regiment played a key part in putting down a revolt by Yugoslav military officers who had overthrown the government of Prince-Regent Paul for its closeness to the Nazi state.
Two months later he participated in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, as part of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. Skorzeny was injured during the early winter of 1941 while still serving in the Soviet Union requiring a period of convalescence.
It was at this point in time that he began reading about different forms of unconventional warfare with the use of commandos and he did not hesitate to share his views with his superiors on ways of putting them into action.
On recovering, Skorzeny was not re-deployed to his previous role and instead, at the behest of Kaltenbrunner, was earmarked by Walter Schellenberg, head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) or foreign intelligence service of the SS, to direct a number of specially designated schools to be involved in imparting agents with skills in the areas of espionage and sabotage.
Skorzeny was subsequently appointed as the commander of a newly created unit which eventually came to be known as the SS Combat Unit Centre which was based at Freidenthal Castle in Orienberg.
His first major mission codenamed ‘Operation Francois’, a plan which involved parachuting agents into Iran to encourage acts of sabotage on allied supplies headed for the Soviet Union via railway was deemed a failure.
The agents were turned over to the British by dissidents from among the Qashqai mountain tribe when they ran out of the gold they had been using to pay for the services of the rebels.
Then came Unternehmen Eiche, in English, ‘Operation Oak’, the successful rescue of Benito Mussolini. In July of 1943, the Duce had been arrested on the orders of King Vittorio Emmanuelle and placed under arrest after a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism had issued a vote of no confidence in his leadership.
The German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943 and the allied invasion of southern Italy spelled an impending doom for war weary Italy.
But as the Italian government worked feverishly in secret to break its alliance with the Nazi state, German armies, as a protective measure, proceeded to disarm the Italian army and to occupy those parts of the peninsula which had not yet been conquered by invading Allied armies.
The Germans were also keen to rescue Mussolini from his captors in order to prevent the soon-to-defect Italians from handing him over to the allies who they presumed would put him on trial.
The Italians in turn were aware that attempts would be made to snatch the prisoner and he was held in locations which would not be readily accessible starting with the islands of Ponza and La Maddalena on the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Operation Eiche could, of course, only be put in motion after the necessary intelligence was obtained, and Skorzeny was involved in the task of finding out where Mussolini was being held.
In August, Skorzeny escaped death after being shot down near Sardinia when reconnoitring in a Heinkel He 111 bomber. The plane was able to crash-land into the sea and he and the crew swam to a nearby island where they were picked up by an Italian naval vessel.
When Mussolini was again located, this time at the Hotel Imperatore on Gran Sasso, a plan of action was effected. But contrary to popular belief, this was not devised by Skorzeny.
While Skorzeny did carry out preliminary surveillance of the area, Herbert Kappler, the SS figure in Rome who would later be involved in the notorious massacre in the Ardeatine Caves, had earlier provided the location and its topological features.
Furthermore, the actual operation plan was devised by Major Harald Mors, the commander of a paratrooper training battalion of the Luftwaffe, which was supervised and approved by General Kurt Student.
In an interview conducted by the producers of an Austrian-made documentary on Skorzeny which was released in 2010, Mors claimed that there had never been any discussion regarding Skorzeny’s participation in their deliberations and that only after the plans for the operation had been completed did Student inform him that Skorzeny had asked him to be part of the operation since he had “spent weeks searching for the man and he wants to know if he is really there.”
According to Mors, Skorzeny was on the trip without possessing any formal command authority, making him in effect a mere passenger. It was clear that a man like Skorzeny would not be content to remain as a passenger and neither did the SS which as had been the case with other major military and civilian organisations in the Nazi state remained highly competitive with each other.
At various points in the history of the Third Reich, the SS had vied for some aspect of power and influence with the interior ministry, the foreign office, the Abwehr and the Luftwaffe, the key participants in this operation.
A contemporary document has Heinrich Himmler, ever keen to get the upper hand in his rivalry with Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, stating that he expected “SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Skorzeny to exert himself to the utmost.”
Situated at six thousand feet high and accessible only by cable car, Gran Sasso possessed a terrain which was not favourable to landing aircraft. And with a force of around 200 armed carabinieris guarding the deposed leader, carrying out a rescue attempt would be an exceedingly onerous undertaking.
Nonetheless, the plan of attack called for 12 DFS-230 cargo gliders to land on a clear patch of land on the steep mountain ranges after which the fallschirmjager (paratroopers) would race up a set of steep hills and onto the lodge.
As events transpired, the gliders, one of which crashed, did not reach their destination in the pre-planned formation which meant that the one which carried Skorzeny and his crew landed first on the plateau next to the hotel.
Skorzeny seized the opportunity presented by the moment and reached the lodge first catching an astonished sentry unawares. Storming in, he encountered a radio operator at work in front of his set.
As related in his memoirs, Skorzeny kicked the operator’s stool out from under him and he fell to the ground. A well-aimed blow from the butt of his sub-machine gun obliterated the equipment which Skorzeny claimed the operator was about to use to send to an Italian general warning him about the approach of the gliders.
After a few minutes search, he eventually found the Duce, announcing, “Duce, the Fuhrer has given me orders to free you!” to which Mussolini responded, “I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not forsake me”.
Not a shot had been fired.
So swiftly had Skorzeny acted, that the fallschirmjager who were acting strictly according to orders arrived at the lodge’s entrance as Skorzeny was egressing with Mussolini.
It was soon after this that the conduct of Skorzeny, who was in constant radio contact with his superiors at SS headquarters, began to play up the propaganda value so earnestly desired by Himmler and not least by himself.
As film cameras rolled and photo cameras clicked, he did not leave the side of the Duce, and going against plan, clambered onto the light Fieseler Fi-156 Storch airplane which had been designated to ferry Mussolini back to Rome.
After a potentially precarious flight caused by the weight of an unexpected passenger, Skorzeny accompanied the deposed Italian leader on the journey to Vienna and then Berlin. For his efforts, he was promoted to SS-Major and awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Although Luftwaffe personnel such as General Student, awarded the Knight’s Cross, as well as Major Mors and First Lieutenant Baron George Freiherr von Berlepsch, the designated leader of the ground operation, both awarded the German Cross in Gold, received commendations, the propaganda machinery of Joseph Goebbels employed at the urging of Himmler, ensured that
the SS usurped much of the praise for the mission, and, assuredly, the legend of Otto Skorzeny was born.
It was a legend which in different circumstances would not have materialised because Skorzeny had risked the entire mission by embarking for the hotel with very little support when he should have waited for more troops.
Also, the accommodation of two war correspondents and photographers which he had insisted upon reduced the number of troops who would have been needed in the event of a serious fire-fight breaking out with the Italian guards.
Further, his boarding of the light plane which spirited Mussolini away may have led to calamity given the minimal amount of take off space available on the rugged mountain terrain.
Skorzeny’s next major mission occurred just over a year later in Hungary. The background to ‘Untermehmen Panzerfaust’ was the Prince Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy’s attempt to negotiate a surrender to the Soviet Union; a development which would seriously weaken Germany’s already precarious situation on the Eastern Front.
The initiative here had been with the Soviets since the turning-of-the-tide victory in Stalingrad in early 1943 as well as the failed German attempt to stem the tide by engaging the Red Army in the great tank battle of the Kursk.
The defection of Hungary from the Nazi camp, coming after that of Romania, would have cut off the estimated million German troops still fighting in the Balkan Peninsula.
German policemen commanded by an SS-police chief in Budapest, Obergruppenfuehrer Otto Winklemann, were tasked with kidnapping Horthy’s son, who was allegedly influencing his father’s attitudes to the Soviets, and holding him hostage with the objective of forcing Horthy’s resignation.
As Skorzeny looked on from a car parked on a road, Winklemann’s men infiltrated an office building in which the younger Horthy was present, physically apprehended him and rolled him up in a carpet before depositing him in a truck and then transporting him to Vienna.
When the admiral’s resignation was still not forthcoming, Skorzeny proceeded to Castle Hill, the seat of the Hungarian government, with a convoy of German troops as a number of Tiger II tanks and other troops surrounded the heavily fortified hill. Recognizing that resistance would be futile, Horthy ordered his troops to surrender.
Horthy’s subsequent resignation paved the way for the installation of Ferenc Szalasi as the dictator at the helm of a pro-Nazi government. The success of the mission led to Skorzeny’s promotion to Obersturmbannfuhrer.
Athough many renditions of this operation focus on Skorzeny as the key figure in this operation, even his memoirs cannot turn it into the concerto solo which he made out of the Gran Sasso mission.
Skorzeny’s limited role, despite a ‘letter of authority’ he claimed had been given him by Hitler, was played out in the context of a coup which had been planned and executed by a group of German military and civilian officials including Police General von dem Bach-Zelewski, Winkleman, Edmund Veesenmayer and Freiherr Adrian von Folkersam.
Skorzeny’s last major engagement of the war was that of his controversial participation in the Battle of the Bulge. Lasting from December 16 1944 to January 25 1945, this was Hitler’s last gasp offensive in the Western theatre. It was an attempt to smash the allies on the front where they were spread out thinly.
Using the fog of weather and the Ardennes forest as cover, the idea was to capture key bridges in Belgium from where the Germans could race to the sea while replenishing their resources from captured allied fuel depots and weaponry.
Skorzeny’s role during the Ardennes Offensive was to command the 150th SS Panzer Brigade. The brigade was divided into three combat groups each of which was attached to three Panzer divisions who would head towards the three Maas bridges at Angier, Amee and Huy.
An independent batch of commandos, ‘Enheit Stielau’, were tasked with miscellaneous objectives including blowing up those US Army supply dumps which would not be useful to the Germans and to remove any demolition charges attached to the bridges they wanted to cross.
Others would reconnoitre both banks of the Maas in order to sow as much confusion as was possible. This would be achieved, for instance, by reversing road sign posts and re-directing American troops via fake orders.
The plan for what was known as ‘Untermehmen Greif’ would form the basis of the most serious charge to be laid before him at the allied trials that were instituted after the war.
And while one aspect of his role was built up as an exemplar of the usage of psychological warfare as a mechanism for effectively paralysing a formidable enemy, albeit temporarily, an alternate and compelling view posits Skorzeny as an incompetent commander bereft of the basic skills required of a military officer.
Former colleagues were scathing of the route which he had taken into the German military. Wilhelm Walther, a member of the Brandenberg Special Forces Unit who for a time served as his chief of staff, claimed that Skorzeny was not of “officer material” and that he never viewed him as a genuine officer.
It was, of course, a common feature for officers of the Wehrmacht and longer established parts of the German armed forces to complain about the lack of professionalism in the training of Nazi created organisations such as the Sturmabteilung (SA), which Hitler had decimated during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the Schutzstaffel (SS) which had begun as Hitler’s bodyguard but which had developed several arms including its combat wing, the Waffen-SS.
But criticism of Skorzeny’s military background came from the ranks of former SS colleagues. Karl Gabriel accused Skorzeny of lacking even “primitive and strategic tactical thinking” because he had not attained his commissioned status by undergoing a rigorous course at an officer training school.
The plan behind ‘Untermehmen Greif’ was for Skorzeny’s men who entered the battlefield wearing German parachute overalls, was to discard these once the American lines were pierced, and proceed to the bridges dressed in American service uniforms. The idea would be to secure the bridges and also to disrupt American activity by sowing confusion behind enemy lines.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the Panzers did not succeed in breaking through and while batches of Skorzeny’s men penetrated American lines in jeeps and wearing American uniforms, twenty-three were captured of which eighteen were summarily executed by firing squad.
At the time, both the Hague and Geneva Conventions permitted the execution of “spies and saboteurs” disguised in the uniforms of the enemy. Once a battle had commenced, they became unlawful combatants and thus forfeited their right to prisoner of war status.
The axis forces had subjected captured partisans to such procedure on the basis of them being unlawful combatants and allied Special Forces were liable to be summarily executed by virtue of Hitler’s infamous Commando Order which he secretly decreed in 1942.
Skorzeny, of course, bore prima facie responsibility for this and more. In order to furnish his men with American uniforms, equipment and things like chocolate bars, chewing gum and corned beef, he had had to confiscate items from American soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps and intercept Red Cross parcels that had been consigned to American prisoners of war.
The truth is that Skorzeny sent his men into battle ill-prepared. Contrary to the impression given by an oft quoted description given by General Patton to General Eisenhower of “Krauts...speaking perfect English”, no more than ten spoke anything approaching fluent English along with a comfortable acquisition of American dialect and culture.
Perhaps a hundred to one hundred and fifty spoke passable English while the vast majority spoke little or no English. In order to avoid discovery, they were expected to fob off enquiries by saying “sorry” or run off while feigning diarrhoea.
Many were easily picked off for ‘infractions’ such as ordering “petrol” instead of “gas” and using the British expressions “Up your bottom!” (instead of the American “Bottoms up!”) and “Keep your pecker up!”
Another area in which Skorzeny’s training fell short, and which he admitted to in his memoirs, was in regard to the minor details associated with American military custom such as in the use of vehicles.
A contingent of his men drove a US Army jeep with a full complement of four soldiers when in fact Americans traditionally drove two to a jeep. The effect of seeing soldiers travelling along this arrangement was to create an immediate sense of suspicion in any American soldier.
Perhaps the biggest success amid the failure of the offensive was the psychological effect the infiltration had on the allied forces. One of the results of the interviews the US Army conducted with one of Skorzeny’s captured commandos, most likely Wilhelm Schimdt, was that Skorzeny was at the head of a team of commandos en route to Paris to assassinate the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower.
This led to panic among the allies resulting in Eisenhower become a virtual prisoner in his headquarters at the Trianon Hotel in Versailles. Tanks were deployed and machine gun posts set up in readiness.
Guards were increased, barbed wire ringed the area, and, according to the memoirs of Eisenhower’s secretary, “the password became a matter of life and death.” An Eisenhower look-a-like was brought in to walk around in the hope of unmasking any German assassins.
The rumour of a plan to take Eisenhower’s life dated back to the previous year by a comment made to Skorzeny himself by a private on the parade grounds at Friedenthal. It also resurfaced -along with other extravagant rumours- while Skorzeny trained his men at Grafenwohr.
There was, of course, no such plan. Yet, the paranoia enveloping the Americans led to inconvenient cat and mouse games between GIs along with unnecessary and disruptive arrests and detentions.
Angered and shaken by it all, Eisenhower ‘released’ himself from captivity and ordered wanted posters bearing Skorzeny’s visage to be printed. The poster headlined him thus: “Spy, Saboteur, Murderer”.
Skorzeny would milk the praise from those who fell into the idea that it had been a masterstroke of unorthodox warfare. But it is clear that the extent of the confusion it had caused had been unintended.
Furthermore, the successes attributed to Skorzeny’s small group of ‘Enheit Stielau’ are likely inflated because it was not an unusual feature of battles to have camouflaged reconnaissance teams operating.
Another reason is that due to the deterioration over the course of the war in the quality of field uniforms, German infantry soldiers, who were prone to salvaging any items of American clothing which were considered to be more comfortable, could be captured or killed while wearing, for example, a US-issued field jacket.
But it is also pertinent to note that Skorzeny’s planning was hampered by a lack of cooperation from other resource starved army units, an unevenly trained source of manpower who came from diverse areas of the German armed forces: army, air force, and navy as well as a lack of equipment; not only for the planned deceptions, but also in terms of available artillery pieces. Skorzeny himself estimated that around ninety-eight per cent of the 150th Brigade’s equipment consisted only of small firearms.
When the war ended on May 16 1945 he emerged from a forest near Salzburg to surrender himself into the custody of an American army lieutenant, Skorzeny knew that he would have to give an accounting of his war time activities.
His trial for the violation of the laws and usages of war was held before a US military tribunal in Dachau. It would run for three weeks between August and September of 1947.
Because he had been reassigned to fight towards Malmedy with the 6th SS Panzer Division, he had initially been implicated as a suspect in the massacre of over seventy American troops at Malmedy.
However, this aspect of the charges was dropped when SS-Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Pieper stated in his own trial that Skorzeny had had nothing to do with the shootings.
Still, one other major charge hung over his head, namely that of the improper use of military uniforms. He was also charged with espionage and the theft of uniforms, insignia and equipment from prisoners of war.
The charge of “Participating in the improper use of American uniforms and treacherously firing upon and killing members of the armed forces of the United States” was based on the provisions contained in Article 23 of the Annex of the Hague Convention of 1907.
This states that “It is especially forbidden to make improper use of a flag of truce, of the national flag or of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy.”
A number of issues worked in favour of Skorzeny’s defence. One concerned the interpretation given to “improper use”. It was accepted at the trial that armies were entitled to employ ruses of war as an important element of battle strategy.
The key point of contention related to separating ruses which were linked to the use of enemy uniforms during actual fighting and in operations which did not involve fighting.
The contemporary experts in international law diverted in their interpretations. While some felt that the use of enemy uniforms was illegitimate at any point, others felt that legitimacy continued until battle commenced and that once this happened, the soldiers carrying out the ruse were under an obligation to reveal their true national uniform.
Arguments were made that the convention was outdated by the time of the Second World War, but given that it formed the basis of this prosecution, a minimal interpretation had to be that the convention accepted by implication that enemy uniforms could be used although their “improper use” would be a violation of the rules of law.
The precise evidence arrayed against Skorzeny was not particularly strong. First Lieutenant William J. O’Neill testified that while engaging in a battle on December 20th, he saw his opponents wearing American uniforms with German parachute overalls.
When captured, O’Neill could only recall that they belonged to the “First or the Adolf Hitler or the Panzer Division”.
The second piece of evidence, contained in an affidavit by an accused German soldier named Wilhelm Kocherscheid, related that while undertaking reconnaissance in American uniforms, he and his men encountered an American military police sergeant and that fearing they would be recognised “fired several shots” at the sergeant.
O’Neill’s evidence carried little weight since his impreciseness made the court unable to tie the soldiers with whom he had been fighting to the brigade commanded by Skorzeny, while the evidence provided by Korcherscheid fell short because there was no proof that the sergeant at whom he shot died or was even wounded.
The aspect of the trial which has tended to get the most attention was the introduction by Skorzeny’s defence attorney of an elite British commando, Wing Commander Forrest Yeo-Thomas.
Yeo-Thomas claimed that he had knowledge of Soviet, American, French and Polish forces having used captured German uniforms to deceive the enemy. When asked why they would do this, he answered, “to bump the other guy off!”
Yeo-Thomas expressed the view that it would be unfair to reach a finding of guilt and sentence Skorzeny to death when the allies did not prosecute those of their soldiers who conducted similar missions.
The evidence of Yeo-Thomas came to be seen as decisive in securing Skorzeny’s acquittal. There was a resonance that a commando would come to the rescue of a fellow commando who had fought for an enemy army; lacing his testimonial with warm words describing Skorzeny as having been a gentleman.
But this need not be construed as such. The post-war trials were filled with instances of siegerjustiz, that is, ‘Victor’s Justice’, by which the allies tried Germans for crimes which they themselves had committed.
Skorzeny was also acquitted of the other charges inspite of the fact that his former adjutant, Karl Radle, had testified that Skorzeny had forced himself into an American prisoner-of-war camp and obtained materials at gunpoint.
Although the court did not give reasons for its findings, it is presumed that given that Skorzeny had been acquitted of the main charge against him, the judges opted to apply the legal maxim de minimis non curat lex, which translates to mean that “the law cares not for small things.”
In 1948, Skorzeny escaped from an internment camp in Darmstadt where he was awaiting denazification. He also faced the prospect of being extradited to other allied nations for crimes allegedly committed on their territories.
He settled in Spain, then under the regime of General Franco and acquired a Nansen Passport for stateless persons, which was issued to him by the Spanish government.
During the 1950s, he is said to have worked as an advisor to the Peron regime in Argentina and also in organising the secret service of Egypt where he worked for General Neguib and Neguib’s successor Colonel Nasser.
The Skorzeny legend has been bolstered by his supposed masterminding of what came to be known as the ODESSA network. Although popularised through popular culture via a film based on a Frederick Forsyth novel, The Odessa File, much doubt has been cast on its existence.
Why, it is argued, would a supposedly clandestine group indulging in the sensitive business of smuggling former Nazis go by an acronym standing for Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehorigen –Organisation for former SS members?
Documents of the US Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) dating to the 1940s noted the existence of a small group in an SS internment camp in Auerbach which employed the word ‘Odessa’ as a codeword associated with the mundane objective of obtaining better camp privileges.
The word was used in a range of other camps and in certain towns as a means of bolstering group solidarity in the aftermath of defeat and while they endured captivity.
One document mentions the existence of a POW organisation at Dachau named ODESSA which was allegedly run by Skorzeny and which could arrange escapes to Argentina using forged Portuguese papers. However, the veracity of the informant was evidently not put to the test.
Few believe that Skorzeny, who would have been under intense scrutiny at the time, was capable of running such an organisation and even fewer believe that given his lack of discretion, he would have been capable of running the more elaborated version which would later capture the public imagination.
Former Nazis who escaped from Europe such as Reinhold Kops, Alfred Jarschel and Eric Priebke poured scorn on the idea of the existence of ODESSA. The truth is more likely that escape networks, in which Skorzeny may have played a part, operated in a looser, more improvised fashion and on smaller scales.
They came with names such as ‘Scharnhorst’, ‘Sechsgestirn’, ‘Konsul’, ‘Leibwache’ and Lustige Bruder’ and certainly were not organised on the scale of the ‘ratlines’ overseen by the Vatican or the intelligence services of the Western allies.
A final element in the myth-building around Otto Skorzeny has been the attempt to label him as a sort of progenitor of modern terrorism. Key to this view point was his formation of the Paladin Group in Albufera, near Alicante in 1970.
The Paladin Group was an anti-communist organisation which according to SAS-founder, David Stirling, was Skorzeny’s long-held idea of setting up an “international directorship of strategic assault personnel” whose objectives would enable it to “straddle the watershed between paramilitary operations carried out by the troops in uniform and the political warfare which is conducted by civilian agents.”
With recruits from a membership emanating from a disparate group of sources including former members respectively of the SS, France’s Service Action Civic (SAC) and the disbanded Organisation de l’Armee Secret (OAS), Paladin turned out to be a guns-for-hire body which catered to the provision of mercenaries to right-wing dictatorships. It provided training not only to the security agencies of authoritarian regimes, but also to a range of guerrilla organisations.
Thus, when he declared to the Madrid daily Informaciones, in November 1973 that he had “never become involved in the military or political affairs of any country”, this was not true.
The Paladin Group’s clients included the Greek military junta, South Africa’s State security agency BOSS and Spain’s Direccion General de Seguridad then waging a clandestine war against the Basque separatist group ETA. It also had alleged links to Waddie Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which would have been ironic given the Marxist credentials of Haddad.
Skorzeny was also behind a shadowy international arms supply body known as Arms co which made illegal supplies of arms and ammunition to countries such as Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya.
He was a personal friend of Italian neo-fascists Prince Junio Borghese and Stefano Delle Chiaie, both of whom spent time in Spain as exiles but who were influential in the era of 'la strategia della tensione.'
While these do amount to a fair body of connections, painting Skorzeny as a major figure in the birth of international terrorism amounts to a gross distortion.
There are far better candidates.
The superpowers involved in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, for instance provided sustenance to a range of liberation or terroristic organisations which they trained and armed.
The American Central Intelligence Agency sponsored or otherwise had links with a host of terrorist organisations including Aginter Press, an extremely influential training ground for neo-fascists, which was run by Yves Guerin-Serac, a former member of the OAS which had violently opposed General de Gaulle’s decision to grant independence to Algeria.
Guerin-Serac’s organisation which was based in Portugal served as a finishing school for right-wing urban guerrillas who were taught the dark arts of bomb making, infiltration, counter-insurgency and black propaganda.
His ideological underpinnings, which were rooted in something which could be termed as ‘Christian Fascism’ along with his rendition of the techniques of waging guerrilla warfare which are preserved for posterity in a series of manuals discovered at the time of the fall of the Salazar regime, are more tangible and have more depth than anything the notoriously anti-intellectual Skorzeny could muster.
Whereas Skorzeny’s poor record in producing effective commandos from his training school in Friedenthal is clearly evident, Guerin-Serac, a decorated paratrooper from an era which produced many French soldiers with fascinating talents and expertise in covert work and so-called black-ops, through Aginter Press, developed tentacles reaching out across Europe, Latin America and Africa where the methodologies of politically motivated violence advocated in his manual were employed.
Certainly, he and his agents are credited to a major degree with the shaping of the anni di piombo or ‘Years of Lead’ which blighted the Italian political landscape for close to twenty years.
His is a legacy more torrid and lasting than that of Skorzeny’s Paladin Group which the French Nouvel Observateur magazine in 1974 described as a “strange temporary work agency of mercenaries”.
What then to make of the legacy of Otto Skorzeny? While there is no question as to the bravery, cunning and resourcefulness of this larger-than-life commando, his story as consistently retold over the decades has, nonetheless, being replete with a host of falsehoods and exaggerations.
Starting with the propaganda onslaught formulated by Josef Goebbels’ ministry in the wake of the mission which rescued Mussolini, there was more than a whiff of a carefully constructed myth that surrounded Skorzeny.
And once he had attained the status of National Socialist hero and the notoriety as ‘Europe’s most dangerous man’, the myth-making continued; nourished by a man who himself was prone to embellishment as well as a by a fawning group of former soldiers, military historians and writers.
His competence both as an instructor and a battle commander have since come under scrutiny. Men under his command consistently fell short in the trying circumstances of battle. Instances include the failed attempt to supply a group of encircled troops via barges during the siege of Budapest and the attempt to blow up American-held bridges at Remagen. The failures of his soldiers during the debacle of the Battle of the Bulge can be traced to the shoddiness of the preparations which he oversaw.
While it is true that he was never implicated in the cold blooded murder of civilians or of partisans, he was not the pure and honourable warrior as is often portrayed.
Skorzeny was behind a suggestion that German missiles be adapted to accommodate suicide pilots; a line of thinking which did not appear to offend his sense of honour or whatever remained of the tenets of his Catholic upbringing.
He was not merely a German patriot or conservative. He remained an unabashed admirer and believer in National Socialism and its leader Adolf Hitler whose creed of racial struggle and the need for the so-called Aryan race to subjugate untermenschen led to so much upheaval and suffering.
While he was not one to dogmatically express himself through the raw doctrines of National Socialist thinking, his underlying beliefs could be garnered through statements such as one he made while speaking at the Delkey Literary Historical Debating Society in Ireland in 1960.
On the question of inferior races, Skorzeny said, “There should not be talk of inferior or superior races. It is clear, however, that some races are without proof of culture.”
Late in his life in the 1970s, he said in a filmed interview that the time was “not yet ripe” to make the assessment that National Socialism had been the wrong course for the German nation to take; indeed, he took the opportunity to go on record as saying that he did not regret his involvement and that if he had to do things again, he would do it “exactly the same way today.”
At the end of his memoirs, Skorzeny referred to what he termed the “Skorzeny legend” and affected to wearily refer to the “figment of imagination” of the many “fairy tales” which he claimed had been invented about him.
But his admission that he had kept “several thousand” newspaper and magazine clippings arguably present the man as he really was: one with a total obsession with himself and his image; an image that has over the course of time been exposed as been over-inflated and largely unwarranted.
The time surely has come to bring him down from his pedestal.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2013)
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