The most dangerous man in Europe

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Otto Skorzeny, major Waffen SS and security service, decorated with the Knight’s CrossUnknown author / Public domain

Otto Skorzeny was mentioned the other day and in the process of investigating something else I stumbled across his story. What a lad, his fearsome reputation didn’t quite match up to reality. He was in fact, a bit of a bullshitter. Probably his most famous exploit was rescuing Benito Mussolini from the hotel where he was being held captive after being deposed. I remember reading that he was not the most popular among the rescuers but as usual, managed to make sure his face was foremost in the pictures. His real forté then was PR, especially his own. We have had our own share of such people over the years.

Otto was born in Vienna, Austria in the year 1906, the son of a relatively wealthy family. Both his father and brother were engineers and those were the footsteps Otto wanted to follow. He qualified in 1931 to be a certified engineer and became the manager of a small building firm.

In the summer of 1932 he heard Josef Goebbels speak in Vienna and was convinced to join the Austrian Nazi Party. For all his faults, and he had many especially his fanatical anti-semitism, Goebbels was a genius at publicity. Otto claims his ardour died down and his membership lapsed in 1933 just as the Party was banned in Austria. In 1935 he joined the German Gymnastic Association, a para military organisation. In 1938, on the eve of Adolf taking over Austria, the Anschluss, Otto led a small contingent of his Gymnast Association to protect President Wilhelm Miklas claiming that this action could have avoided violent incidents during the annexation. This was noticed by the Austrian Nazi Party leader, Arthur Seyss-Inquart who placed some SS men under Otto’s command to beef up his group. This effectively placed all security in the presidential palace in Otto’s charge for several days. When conscription was introduced Skorzeny immediately volunteered for the Luftwaffe.

Stage 1 of Otto’s military career was to be sent for training as a military engineer but because there were not enough instructors he unsuccessfully asked to be transferred to flight service. Soon enough instructors appeared and he completed his engineer training. He was then sent to the Waffen-SS Signal Replacement Regiment as an officer candidate. After pulling a few Nazi strings he went to the 1st SS Division where he hoped to see combat. In 1940 he was promoted and transferred to an artillery regiment of the 3rd SS Division as a mechanic. Again in 1940 he was promoted and transferred to the 2nd SS Division in Hamburg. Still no action but early in 1941 be was promoted to Untersturnführer.

In April 1941 he was part of the invasion of Yugoslavia and eventually during the invasion of the Soviet Union he was sent to the front. Once more there was no direct combat for him, he supervised mechanics keeping fighting vehicles in order. On 26 Aug 1941 was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class for recovering a damaged vehicle under enemy fire. In December that year he became ill and was sent back to Germany where, after his recovery, he was appointed as an instructor of vehicle repairs but still in the SS. In April 1943 he was transferred to the newly created armoured part of the SS Totenkopf Regiment.

Later in April 1943 he was placed in command of the Oranienburg Special Training Unit. This was the first attempt by the SS to create a commando unit. He then began to study British espionage methods. His efforts at creating such a force did not really succeed but he was contacted in July 1943 by Adolf’s minions about rescuing Mussolini who had just been arrested in Italy. They flew him to Adolf’s infamous “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia where he met the Austrian Corporal personally.

Hitler was rather taken by the desire to rescue his dear friend Benito, Italy’s greatest son and the incarnation of the ancient grandeur of Rome. You might think only Hollywood scriptwriters would come up with language like that but apparently Adolf occasionally did. Otto was also promised promotion if he managed to extricate Benito from the mire. Skorzeny had been selected by Himmler who had heard of Skorzeny’s reputation as a dare devil. Up until then there seems to have little of the dare devil in his CV. Perhaps he had been up to more than is known or more likely, his own PR was working well.

As the reader will recognise, Otto was ill equipped to handle such a mission and so had to delegate most of the work but kept hold of the intelligence gathering part for himself. He arrived in Rome on 28 July with Kurt Student, the Luftwaffe General in charge of the paratroopers and his SS commandos followed 2 days later.

By early August Otto was convinced Mussolini was being held at La Spezia and almost launched a raid to free him. Fortunately for the hapless Skorzeny he held off because Mussolini was nowhere near La Spezia. Then he heard that Benito was in La Maddalena, this turned out to be true, but he failed to act in time because Mussolini was moved to Lake Bracciano. Otto went up in a Heinkel 111 for recce  but was shot down by British fighters and he ended up with three broken ribs.

Eventually, by September, they had located Mussolini’s prison at the Hotel Campo Imperatore by using £100,000 in forged notes as a sweetener. The rescue was carried out by 74 paratroopers and 16 SS commandos who were landed in gliders. The actual raid was a bit Fred Karno with a first attempt on a door that did not lead into the hotel and the Italians barricaded the doors with piled up furniture. However it was all over in 10 minutes and Mussolini was flown out in a Fiesler 156. Otto insisted on flying with Mussolini which left the little plane rather overloaded and made the flight on the dangerous side.

There are somewhat famous pictures of a confused looking Mussolini sitting in a plane with the large form of Otto looking over him. This supposedly caused some ill feeling with the troops who actually did the rescue because Otto was merely present rather than heavily involved. The old PR tricks were working. The SS took the lion’s share of the credit, a rather nice present for Himmler. Otto himself was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and promotion to Sturmbannführer. He also acquired the image of the most dangerous man in Europe, that lasted to the end of his life.

The first attempt at using his commando troops was in Iran where some were parachuted in to try and coordinate guerrilla activity against the oil supplied to the British. It failed. After rescuing Mussolini there was a plan to assassinate the big three, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt during the 1943 Tehran Conference. The plan come to nothing. Then they tried to capture Tito alive but that failed. Then one that worked, they captured the son of the Hungarian Regent so he could be forced out and replaced by a pro-Nazi. Then another partially successful operation during the Battle of the Bulge where Skorzeny had English speaking commandos wearing American uniforms infiltrated behind the lines to spread confusion. For his swansong in WW2 Otto was put in charge of creating the Werewolves, an underground resistance movement to counter the Allies. Again this was only partially successful but sometimes highly effective due to the fanaticism of the werewolves.

After the war Otto was interned for two years before being tried as a war criminal at the Dachau trials. The troops out of their own uniform was the charge but it was countered by detailing Allied troops having done the same and the lack of proof that Skorzeny had ordered it. In mid 1948 he escaped from prison and hid in Bavaria for 18 months. He was photographed in the Champs Elysee in 1950 causing him to hurriedly move to Salzburg where he married the Countess Ilse Lüthje after a quick divorce from his little mentioned first wife. The Spanish then issued him with a stateless person’s passport and he moved to Madrid where he created a small engineering company.

In 1952 Skorzeny was sent to Egypt as a military advisor where he recruited former SS and Wehrmacht officers who were to train the Egyptian Army. Included in this number were some people with a very dubious history such as Leopold Gleim, former head of the Gestapo Department for Jewish Affairs in Poland. In addition to training the Army, Skorzeny also trained Arab volunteers in commando tactics for potential use against British troops in the Suez Canal zone. He also trained some Palestinian refugees including one Yasser Arafat and planned their raids into Israel.

There are also stories he went to Argentina and acted as an advisor to Juan Peron and was bodyguard for Eva Peron. The mind boggles about what he got up to as Eva’s bodyguard, he liked to put it about a bit. Then again, this may be complete fiction and just more favourable PR.

In the early sixties Otto was recruited by Mossad to help them discourage the German scientists who were working on the Egyptian missile program. Skorzeny never denounced Nazism and although he was not involved in the Final Solution it must have been galling to say the least for Mossad to have recruited him. His price was, among other things, a Tony Blair style “comfort letter” promising him immunity from prosecution. Perhaps he did have a few dark secrets in his past, the Israelis only went after those Nazis involved in the Final Solution. For example, Martin Bormann was supposed to be in South America for years after the war finished but he was never an Israeli target for that very reason.

On the 5th July 1975 Otto died in Madrid from lung cancer. His funeral was attended by many military veterans of the Third Reich, many of these gave the “Hitler salute” at the Skorzeny family plot in Vienna. During my time in Spain most German restaurants were “invitation only” on the 20th April when those wearing the “old jacket” used to get together and reminisce away from prying eyes. The restaurant owners may not have been veterans but many of their customers certainly were.

Was he really the most dangerous man in Europe? Probably not, he was a chancer who picked the winning side most of his life and hitched his wagon to it. His rise to fame was rather fortuitous, his personal military exploits were on the whole nothing special but he kept on getting the credit for other people’s work. At 6′ 4″, 18 stone and a highly visible scar on his face Otto was not someone who would go unnoticed. A lot of glad handing can go a long way. He longed for a fourth Reich but didn’t spot that the EEC/EU was the Trojan horse that would try to implement it. The third Reich people were wedded to the idea of expansion by military means rather than the financial methods used by the next manifestation of German hegemony.

© well_chuffed 2020

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