World War II: Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny

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Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny. Photograph Courtesy of Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R81453

Otto Skorzeny - Early Life & Career:

Otto Skorzeny was born June 12, 1908, in Vienna, Austria. Raised in a middle class family, Skorzeny spoke fluent German and French and was educated locally before attending university. While there, he developed skills in fencing. Taking part in numerous bouts, he received a long scar on the left side of his face. This along with his height (6'4"), was one of Skorzeny's distinguishing features.

Unhappy with the rampant economic depression prevalent in Austria, he joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1931 and a short time later became a member of the SA (Stormtroopers).

Otto Skorzeny - Joining the Military:

A civil engineer by trade, Skorzeny came to minor prominence when he saved Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot during the Anschluss in 1938. This action caught the eye of Austrian SS chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Skorzeny attempted to join the Luftwaffe but instead was assigned as an officer-cadet in the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (Hitler's bodyguard regiment). Serving as a technical officer with the rank of second lieutenant, Skorzeny put his engineering training to use.

During the invasion of France the following year, Skorzeny traveled with 1st Waffen SS Division's artillery. Seeing little action, he later took part in the German campaign in the Balkans.

During these operations, he compelled a large Yugoslav force to surrender and was promoted to first lieutenant. In June 1941, Skorzeny, now serving with the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, took part in Operation Barbarossa. Attacking into the Soviet Union, Skorzeny aided in the fighting as German troops neared Moscow.

Assigned to a technical unit, he was tasked with seizing key buildings in the Russian capital after its fall.

Otto Skorzeny - Becoming a Commando:

As the Soviet defenses held, this mission was ultimately called off. Remaining on the Eastern Front, Skorzeny was wounded by shrapnel from Katyusha rockets in December 1942. Though injured, he refused treatment and continued fighting until the effects of his wounds forced his evacuation. Taken to Vienna to recover, he received the Iron Cross. Given a staff role with the Waffen-SS in Berlin, Skorzeny began extensive reading and research into commando tactics and warfare. Enthusiastic about this alternative approach to warfare he began advocating it within the SS.

Based on his work, Skorzeny believed that new, unconventional units should be formed to conduct attacks deep behind enemy lines. In April 1943, his work bore fruit as he was selected by Kaltenbrunner, now the head of the RSHA (SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt - Reich Main Security Office) to develop a training course for operatives that included paramilitary tactics, sabotage, and spying. Promoted to captain, Skorzeny quickly received command of Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal. A special operations unit, it was redesignated 502nd SS Jäger Battalion Mitte that June.

Relentlessly training his men, Skorzeny's unit conducted their first mission, Operation Francois, that summer. Dropping into Iran, a group from the 502nd was tasked with contacting dissident tribes in the region and encouraging them to attack Allied supply lines. While contact was made, little resulted from the operation. With the collapse of Benito Mussolini's regime in Italy, the dictator was arrested by the Italian government and moved through a series of safe houses. Angered by this Adolf Hitler ordered that Mussolini be rescued.

Otto Skorzeny - The Most Dangerous Man in Europe:

Meeting with a small group of officers in July 1943, Hitler personally selected Skorzeny to oversee the operation to free Mussolini. Familiar with Italy from a prewar honeymoon trip, he began a series of reconnaissance flights over the country.

During this process he was shot down twice. Locating Mussolini at the remote Campo Imperatore Hotel atop Gran Sasso Mountain, Skorzeny, General Kurt Student, and Major Harald Mors began planning a rescue mission. Dubbed Operation Oak, the plan called for the commandoes to land twelve D230 gliders on a small patch of clear land before storming the hotel.

Moving forward on September 12, the gliders landed on the mountain top and seized the hotel without firing a shot. Collecting Mussolini, Skorzeny and the deposed leader departed Gran Sasso aboard a small Fieseler Fi 156 Storch. Arriving in Rome, he escorted Mussolini to Vienna. As a reward for the mission, Skorzeny was promoted to major and awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. Skorzeny's daring exploits at Gran Sasso were widely publicized by the Nazi regime and he was soon dubbed the "most dangerous man in Europe."

Otto Skorzeny - Later Missions:

Riding the success of the Gran Sasso mission, Skorzeny was asked to oversee Operation Long Jump which called for operatives to assassinate Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin at the November 1943 Tehran Conference. Unconvinced that the mission could succeed, Skorzeny had it cancelled due to poor intelligence and the arrest of the lead agents. Moving on, he began planning Operation Knight's Leap which was intended to capture Yugoslav leader Josip Tito at his Drvar base. Though he intended to personally lead the mission, he backed out after visiting Zagreb and finding its secrecy compromised.

Despite this, the mission still went forward and ended disastrously in May 1944. Two months later, Skorzeny found himself in Berlin following the July 20 Plot to kill Hitler. Racing around the capital, he aided in putting down the rebels and maintaining Nazi control of the government. In October, Hitler summoned Skorzeny and gave him orders to go to Hungary and stop Hungary's Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, from negotiating peace with the Soviets. Dubbed Operation Panzerfaust, Skorzeny and his men captured Horthy's son and sent him to Germany as a hostage before securing Castle Hill in Budapest.

As a result of the operation, Horthy left office and Skorzeny was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Otto Skorzeny - Operation Griffin:

Returning to Germany, Skorzeny began planning Operation Griffin. A false-flag mission, it called for his men to dress in American uniforms and penetrate US lines during the opening phases of the Battle of Bulge to cause confusion and disrupt Allied movements. Moving forward with around 25 men, Skorzeny's force had only minor success and many of his men were captured. Upon being taken, they spread rumors that Skorzeny was planning a raid on Paris to capture or kill General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Though untrue, these rumors led to Eisenhower being placed under heavy security. With the end of the operation, Skorzeny was transferred east and commanded regular forces as an acting major general. Mounting a tenacious defense of Frankfurt, he received the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross. With defeat on the horizon, Skorzeny was tasked with creating a Nazi guerrilla organization dubbed the "Werewolves." Lacking sufficient manpower to build a fighting force, he instead used the group to create escape routes out of Germany for Nazi officials.

Otto Skorzeny - Surrender & Later Life:

Seeing little choice and believing he could be useful, Skorzeny surrendered to US forces on May 16, 1945. Held for two years, he was tried at Dachau for war crime tied to Operation Griffin. These charges were dismissed when a British agent stated that Allied forces had conducted similar missions. Escaping from an internment camp at Darmstadt in 1948, Skorzeny spent the remainder of his life as a military advisor in Egypt and Argentina as well as continued to aid former Nazis through the ODESSA network. Skorzeny died of cancer in Madrid, Spain on July 5, 1975, and his ashes were later interred in Vienna.

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