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Otto Skorzeny

Otto Skorzeny

Otto Skorzeny (June 12 1908July 6 1975) was an Obersturmbannführer in the German Waffen-SS during World War II. After fighting on the Eastern Front, he commanded a rescue mission that freed the deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity. Skorzeny was also the leader of Operation Greif, in which German soldiers were to infiltrate through enemy lines, using their opponents' uniforms and customs. At the end of the war, Skorzeny was part of the Werwolf guerrilla movement.

Although charged with breaching the 1907 Hague Convention in relation with Operation Greif, the Dachau Military Tribunal acquitted Skorzeny after the war. Skorzeny fled from his holding prison in 1948, first to France, and then to Franco's Spain. A German court denazified him in 1952.

Prewar years

Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna into a middle-class Austrian family which had a long history of military service. In addition to his native German, he spoke excellent French and English. In his teens, Otto once complained to his father of the austere lifestyle that his family was suffering from by mentioning he had never tasted real butter in his life due to the depression that plagued Austria after its defeat in World War I. His father prophetically replied, "There is no harm in doing without things. It might even be good for you not to get used to a soft life." Thus his underprivileged upbringing helped make him what he became--a feared commando He was a noted fencer as a university student in Vienna. He engaged in thirteen personal combats. The tenth resulted in a wound that left a dramatic scar - known in academic fencing as a Schmiss (German for "smite") - on his cheek.

In 1931 Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party and soon became a member of the Nazi 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 by Austrian Nazis.

The Eastern Front

After the 1939 invasion of Poland, Skorzeny, then working as a civil engineer, volunteered for service in the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe), but was turned down on grounds of age. He then joined Hitler's bodyguard regiment, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler as an officer-cadet.

In 1940, as an SS Untersturmführer, he impressed his superiors by designing ramps to load tanks on ships. He then fought in Holland, France, and the Balkans, where he achieved distinction by forcing a large Yugoslav force to surrender, following which he was promoted to Obersturmführer in the Waffen-SS.

On February 21 1940, Skorzeny went to war in Russia with the 2nd SS Division Das Reich and fought in several battles on the Eastern Front. In October 1941 he was in charge of a "technical section" of the German forces during the battle for Moscow. His mission was to seize important buildings of the Communist Party, including the NKVD headquarter Lubyanka, the Central Telegraph and other high priority facilities, before they could be destroyed. The mission was cancelled as the German forces failed to capture the Soviet capital.

In December 1942 he was wounded in the back of the head by shrapnel and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire and sent to Vienna to recover. While in Vienna, he learned that Hitler had decided to form a new unit similar to the British Commandos; he quickly volunteered for this and was accepted.

Operations by Skorzeny

The liberation of Mussolini

After Skorzeny had recovered from his wounds, Ernst Kaltenbrunner recommended him as a possible leader of the "commando" forces German dictator Adolf Hitler wanted to create. Taking command of Sonder Lehrgang Oranienburg Skorzeny was authorised to form SS-Jäger-Bataillon 502 in June 1943. In July 1943, he was personally selected by Hitler from among six German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) special agents to lead the operation to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been overthrown and imprisoned by the Italian government.

Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place to frustrate any rescuers. Information on Mussolini's location and its topographical features were finally secured by Herbert Kappler and aerial reconnaissance by Skorzeny himself. On September 12, Skorzeny took part in "Operation Oak" (Unternehmen Eiche), a daring glider-based assault on the Campo Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso. Mussolini was rescued without firing a single shot. Skorzeny escorted Mussolini to Rome and later to Berlin. The exploit earned Skorzeny fame, promotion to Major and the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Mussolini created a new Fascist regime in northern Italy, the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana).

Operation Long Jump

Operation "Long Jump", the failed plot to assassinate the "Big Three" (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) was masterminded on Hitler's orders and headed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Otto Skorzeny, as the man who always seemed to have luck on his side, was chosen by Kaltenbrunner to head the mission. However, the plot was discovered.

The first tip-off came from Soviet intelligence agent Nikolai Kuznetsov, under the alias of Wehrmacht Oberleutnant Paul Siebert, from Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Kuznetsov, a legendary Soviet spy, tricked an SS man named Ulrich von Ortel into telling him about the operation.

In the autumn of 1943, fate thrust 19-year-old Gevork Vartanian into the centre of the operation. Vartanian was an intelligence agent and the son of a Soviet intelligence agent who worked in Iran by posing a wealthy merchant. He received his first assignment and the cover name Amir in 1940. He was to form a group of spies. The seven he recruited were all about the same age – Armenians, a Lezghin and an Assyrian – and they communicated in Russian and Persian. Vartanian managed to thwart the Nazi plot. Vartanian was awarded with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.

Operation Rösselsprung

On May 25 1944, he was assigned to Operation Rösselsprung, a commando operation meant to capture 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 might land in Dalmatia with support from the communist NOVJ, the Partisan People's Liberation Army Of Yugoslavia. Killing or capturing Tito would not only have hindered this scenario, but also given a badly needed morale boost to the Axis forces in the Balkans. Skorzeny was involved in planning Rösselsprung and was supposed to command it. However, he argued against it after he visited Zagreb and discovered the operation had been compromised by the carelessness of German agents in NDH or the Independent State of Croatia. The Operation went ahead anyway and was a complete disaster. The first wave of paratroopers, following heavy bombardment by the Luftwaffe, jumped between Tito's hideout in a cave and the town of Drvar. They landed on open ground and many were promptly shot by members of the partisan HQ Escort Battalion, a unit numbering less than 100 soldiers. The second wave of paratroopers missed their target and landed several miles out of town. Tito was long gone by the time the paratroopers reached the cave. At the cave's exit a trail lead to the railway tracks where Tito boarded a train that took him safely to Jajce. In the meantime, the Partisan 1st Brigade, from the 6th Partisan Division Lika, arrived after a forced march and attacked the Waffen-SS paratroopers, inflicting heavy casualties.

The July 20 1944 plot against Hitler

On July 20 1944, Skorzeny was in Berlin when an attempt on Hitler's life was made. Anti-Nazi German Army officers tried to seize control of Germany's main decision centers before Hitler recovered from his injuries. Skorzeny helped put down the rebellion, spending 36 hours in charge of the Wehrmacht's central command centre before being relieved.

Hungary and Operation Panzerfaust

In October 1944, Hitler sent Skorzeny to Hungary after receiving word that Hungary's Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was secretly negotiating with the Red Army. The surrender of Hungary would have cut off the million German troops still fighting in the Balkan peninsula. Skorzeny, in a daring "snatch" codenamed Operation Panzerfaust (known as Operation Eisenfaust in Germany), kidnapped Horthy's son Miklós Horthy, Jr. and forced his father to resign as head of state. A pro-Nazi government under dictator Ferenc Szálasi was then installed in Hungary. In April 1945, after German and Hungarian forces had already been driven out of Hungary, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross Party-based forces continued the fight in Austria and Slovakia. The success of the operation earned Skorzeny promotion to Obersturmbannführer.

Operation Greif and Eisenhower

On October 21, Hitler, inspired by an American subterfuge which had put three captured German tanks still displaying German colours to devastating use at Aachen, summoned Skorzeny to Berlin and assigned him to lead a panzer brigade. As planned by Skorzeny, Operation Greif would involved about two dozen German soldiers, most of them in captured American Jeeps and dressed as American soldiers, who would penetrate American lines in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge and cause disorder and confusion behind the Allied lines. A handful of his men were captured and spread a rumour that Skorzeny personally was leading a raid on Paris to kill or capture General Eisenhower, who was not amused by having to spend Christmas 1944 isolated for security reasons. Eisenhower retaliated by ordering an all-out manhunt for Skorzeny, with "Wanted" posters distributed throughout Allied-controlled territories featuring a detailed description and a photograph.

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

Werewolves and surrender

With German defeat inevitable, Skorzeny played an instrumental role in selecting and training recruits for a stay-behind Nazi organisation, the Werwolfs, who would engage in guerrilla warfare against the occupying Allies. However, Skorzeny quickly realized that the Werwolfs were too few in number to become an effective fighting force and instead used them to set up the "ratlines", a secret "Underground railroad" that helped leading Nazis escape after Germany's surrender.

Besides organising the "ratlines," which would form the basis of the supposed ODESSA network after the war, Skorzeny had been employed since August 1944 by high-ranking Nazis and German industrialists to hide money and documents, some of which was buried in the mountains of Bavaria, and some shipped overseas.

Skorzeny surrendered on May 16, 1945, feeling that he could be useful to the Americans in the forthcoming Cold War. He emerged from the woods near Salzburg, Austria and surrendered to a lieutenant of the US 30th 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 in 1947 for allegedly violating the laws of war in the Battle of the Bulge. He and officers of the 150th Panzer brigade were charged with improperly using American uniforms to infiltrate American lines. All the defendants were acquitted, the military tribunal drawing a distinction between using enemy uniforms during combat and for other purposes including deception; it could not be shown that Skorzeny had given any orders to fight in US uniform. A surprise defence witness was F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, GC, MC & Bar, Croix de Guerre, a former Allied SOE agent who testified that he had himself worn German uniforms behind enemy lines.

Skorzeny was detained in an internment camp at Darmstadt awaiting the decision of a denazification court.. On July 27 1948 he escaped from the camp with the help of three former SS officers dressed in US Military Police uniforms who entered the camp and claimed that they had been ordered to take Skorzeny to Nuremberg for a legal hearing. Skorzeny afterwards maintained that the US authorities had aided his escape, and had supplied the uniforms.

Post World War II

Skorzeny hid out at a farm in Bavaria which had been rented by Ilse Lüthje, the niece of Hjalmar Schacht (Hitler's former finance minister), for around 18 months, during which time he was in contact with Reinhard Gehlen, and together with Hartmann Lauterbacher (former deputy head of the Hitler Youth) recruited for the Gehlen Organization.

Skorzeny was photographed at a café in the Champs Elysées in Paris on 13 February 1945, and the photo appeared in the French press the next day, causing him to retreat to Salzburg, where he met up with German veterans and also filed for divorce so that he could marry Ilse Lüthje. Shortly afterwards, with the help of a Nansen passport issued by the Spanish government, he moved to Madrid, where he set up a small engineering business.

Using the cover names of Robert Steinbacher and Otto Steinbauer, and supported by either Nazi funds (or according to some sources Austrian Intelligence), he set up a secret organization named Die Spinne which helped as many as 600 former SS men escape from Germany to Spain, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, and other countries. As the years went by, Skorzeny, Gehlen, and their network of collaborators gained enormous influence in Europe and Latin America, Skorzeny travelling between Franquist Spain and Argentina, where he acted as an advisor to the dictator Juan Perón, his aim to foster the growth of a fascist "Fourth Reich" centered in Latin America.

Skorzeny also acted as an advisor to the leadership of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which had been established in 1966, and which counted him as one of its founding fathers.

Like thousands of other former Nazis, Skorzeny was declared entnazifiziert (denazified) in absentia in 1952 by a West German government arbitration board, which now meant he could travel from Spain into other Western countries. He spent part of his time between 1959 and 1969 in Ireland, where he bought Martinstown House, a farm in County Kildare in 1959. He also had property in Mallorca.

Paladin Group

In the 1960s Skorzeny set up the Paladin Group, which he envisioned as "an international directorship of strategic assault personnel [that would] straddle the watershed between paramilitary operations carried out by troops in uniforms and the political warfare which is conducted by civilian agents". Based near Alicante, Spain, the Paladin Group specialized in arming and training guerillas, and their clients included the South African Bureau of State Security and Muammar al-Gaddafi. They also carried out work for the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 and some of their operatives were recruited by the Spanish Interior Ministry to wage clandestine war against Basque separatists. The Soviet news agency TASS alleged that Paladin was involved in training US Green Berets for Vietnam missions during the 1960s, but this is considered unlikely.

Death

In 1970, a cancerous tumor was discovered on Skorzeny's spine. Two tumors were removed in Hamburg, but the surgery left 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 were hard for Skorzeny, as he realised his final days were approaching.

Otto Skorzeny finally succumbed to cancer on 7 July, 1975 in Madrid at the age of 67. He was cremated. His ashes were later brought to Vienna and interred in the Skorzeny family plot at Döblinger Friedhof.

Cultural references

References

Bibliography

  • Annussek, G. Hitler's Raid To Save Mussolini, De Capo Press, 2005. ISBN 0-306-81396-3
  • Foley, Charles, Commando Extraordinary (Arms & Armour, 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 Schiffer Publishing, 1995) ISBN 0-88740-718-8
  • Skorzeny, Otto, Skorzeny's Special Missions (Greenhill Books, 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" (DaCapo Press, 1998) ISBN 0-938289-94-2

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