Otto Skorzeny
12 June 1908(1908-06-12) – 6 July 1975 (aged 67)
Otto Skorzeny at the rank of SS-Sturmbannführer.
Place of birth Vienna, Austria
Place of death Madrid, Spain
Allegiance Flag of Germany 1933 Nazi Germany
Years of service 1931–1945
Rank SS-Obersturmbannführer
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Iron Cross
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross

Otto Skorzeny (June 12, 1908 – July 6, 1975) was an SS-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 yearsEdit

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.[1] 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 the feared commando that he became[1]. 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.[2]

The Eastern FrontEdit

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.

Skorzeny went to war in Russia with the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and subsequently 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 of Moscow. His mission was to seize important buildings of the Communist Party, including the NKVD headquarters at Lubyanka, and the Central Telegraph and other high priority facilities, before they could be destroyed. The mission was canceled as the German forces failed to capture the Soviet capital.[3]

In December 1942 Skorzeny was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel from Russian Katyusha artillery rockets. He refused all first aid except for a few aspirin, a bandage, and a glass of schnapps. A few hours later Skorzeny rejoined his unit but his health deteriorated, and continuous headaches and stomach pains forced him to evacuate for proper medical treatment. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire and sent to Vienna to recover. While in Vienna, he read all the published literature he could find on commando warfare, and forwarded to higher command his ideas on unconventional commando warfare.

Skorzeny's proposals were to develop units specialized in such unconventional warfare, including partisan-like fighting deep behind enemy lines, fighting in enemy uniform, sabotage attacks, etc. In April 1943 Skorzeny's name was put forward by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the new head of the RSHA, and Skorzeny met with Walter Schellenberg, head of the SD (the SS foreign intelligence service). Schellenberg charged Skorzeny with command of the schools organized to train operatives in sabotage, espionage, and paramilitary techniques. Skorzeny was appointed commander of the recently created Waffen Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal stationed near Berlin. (The unit was later renamed SS Jagdverbände 502, and in November 1944 again to SS Combat Unit "Center", expanding ultimately to five battalions.) [4]

Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal's first mission was in summer 1943. Operation Francois saw Skorzeny send a group by parachute into Iran to make contact with the dissident mountain tribes and used to sabotage Allied supplies of materiel being sent to the Soviet Union. However, commitment among the rebel tribes was suspect and Operation Francois was deemed as a failure.

Operations by SkorzenyEdit

The liberation of MussoliniEdit

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-567-1503C-15, Gran Sasso, Mussolini vor Hotel

Skorzeny with the liberated Mussolini – Sept. 12 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. [5]

Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place to frustrate any rescuers. Mussolini was first held in a villa on La Maddalena, near Sardinia. Skorzeny was able to smuggle an Italian speaking commando onto the island, and a few days later he confirmed Mussolini was in the villa. Skorzeny then flew over a Heinkel He 111 to take aerial photos of the location. The bomber was shot down by Allied fighters and crash-landed at sea, but Skorzeny and the crew were rescued by an Italian destroyer. Mussolini was moved soon after.

Information on Mussolini's new location and its topographical features were finally secured by Herbert Kappler. Kappler reported Mussolini was held in the the Campo Imperatore Hotel hotel at the top of the Gran Sasso mountain, and only accessible by cable car from the valley below. Skorzeny flew again over Gran Sasso and took pictures of the location with a handheld camera. An attack plan was formulated by General Kurt Student, Harald Mors (a paratrooper battalion commander), and Skorzeny.

Twelve DFS 230 assault gliders, carrying 81 paratroops, Skorzeny and 25 of his men, were to be towed to the target and released over Gran Sasso. Each glider pilot would then attempt to land on a tiny patch of open ground next to the ski hotel at the summit. The troops would storm the ski hotel, surprising the guards and the mountain summit secured. A secondary force would secure the lower cable car station at the bottom of the mountain. Mussolini would then be flown off the Gran Sasso in a Feisler Fi 156 Storch light aircraft by Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach, General Student's personal pilot.

On September 12, "Operation Oak" (Unternehmen Eiche), was carried out perfectly to plan.Mussolini was rescued without firing a single shot. Flying out in the Storch, 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 JumpEdit

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J07994, Berlin, Skorzeny, Reinhardt, Zschirnt, Körner

Skorzeny, October 3 1943

"Operation Long Jump" was the codename given to the unsuccessful plot to assassinate the "Big Three" (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) at the 1943 Tehran Conference[6]. The plot was masterminded on Hitler's orders and headed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner. German intelligence had learned of the time and place of the conference in mid-October 1943, after breaking a US Navy code. Otto Skorzeny, as the man who always seemed to have luck on his side, was chosen by Kaltenbrunner to head the mission. Also involved was German agent Elyesa Bazna (better known under the codename "Cicero"), who transmitted key data from Ankara, Turkey concerning the conference.

However, Soviet intelligence quickly uncovered the plot and neutralized several of the important players. 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, persuaded SS Sturmbannfuhrer Hans Ulrich von Ortel - who was described as "talkative" and "a drinker"[7] to tell him about the operation while drunk.

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 as 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.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101III-Alber-183-25, Otto Skorzeny

Skorzeny in 1943

Vartanian's group located the party of six German radio operators who had dropped by parachute near Qum, 60 km (37 mi) from Tehran, and followed them to Tehran where the German spy network had provided a villa for them. They established that they were in contact with Berlin via radio and recorded their communications; when decoded, these revealed that the Germans planned to drop a second group of operatives led by Skorzeny for the actual assassination attempt on the "Big Three". Skorzeny had already visited Tehran to reconnoiter the situation and had been followed by Vartanian's group.[8]

Following that, all the German transmissions were intercepted by Soviet and British intelligence. However, one of them transmitted a message to the effect that they were under surveillance and the plot was called off; Skorzeny himself considered the intelligence coming from Tehran was inadequate and did not believe the complex scheme could be accomplished.[9]

Vartanian was awarded the Gold Star Medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union in 1984 for his wartime service. He was not declassified until 2000, when he and his wife Goar (who had been a member of his group), were awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, the Order of the Red Banner, and the Order of the Red Star.[8]

Operation RösselsprungEdit

File:Marsal Tito.jpg

In the spring of 1944, Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal was redesignated SS-Jäger-Bataillon 502 with Skorzeny staying on as commander. They were assigned to Operation Rösselsprung, a commando operation meant to capture Yugoslav Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito at his headquarters near Drvar. Hitler knew that Tito was receiving 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 hinder this, it would give a badly needed boost to the morale of Axis forces in the Balkans.

Skorzeny was involved in planning Rösselsprung and was intended to command it. However, he argued against implementation after he visited Zagreb and discovered that the operation had been compromised through the carelessness of German agents in the NDH (the satellite Independent State of Croatia).

Rösselsprung was put into action nonetheless, but it 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 headquarters Escort Battalion, a unit numbering fewer than a hundred soldiers. The second wave of paratroopers missed their target and landed several miles out of town. Tito was gone long before paratroopers reached the cave; a trail at the back of the cave led 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 twelve-mile (nineteen-kilometer) forced march and attacked the Waffen-SS paratroopers, inflicting heavy casualties.

The July 20 1944 plot against HitlerEdit

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 PanzerfaustEdit

Main article: Operation Panzerfaust
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-680-8283A-30A, Budapest, Otto Skorzeny, Adrian v. Fölkersam

Skorzeny (left) and Adrian von Fölkersam (right) in Budapest, 16 October 1944 .

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 EisenhowerEdit

Main article: Operation Greif
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R81453, SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny an der Oder retouched

Skorzeny in Pomerania, February 1945.

As part of the German Ardennes offensive in late 1944 ("The Battle of the Bulge") Skorzeny's English speaking troops were charged with infiltrating Allied lines dressed and equipped as American soldiers in order to produce confusion to support the German attack. For the campaign, Skorzeny was the commander of a composite unit; the 150th SS Panzer Brigade.

As planned by Skorzeny, Operation Greif 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.[10]

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. He was then sent on an inspection tour along the rapidly deteriorating Eastern front.

Operation Werwolf and surrenderEdit

With German defeat inevitable, Skorzeny played an instrumental role in selecting and training recruits for a stay-behind Nazi organisation, the Werwölfe (Werewolves), who would engage in guerrilla warfare against the occupying Allies. However, Skorzeny quickly realized that the Werewolves 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 or dropped in the lakes 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.

Otto Skorzeny

Waiting in a cell as a witness at the Nuremberg trials – Nov. 24 1945.

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 Panzer Brigade 150 were charged with improperly using American uniforms to infiltrate American lines. Skorzeny was brought before a US military court in Dachau on 18 August 1947. He and nine fellow officers of the 150th Panzer Brigade would face charges of improper use of military insignia, theft of US uniforms, and theft of Red Cross parcels from prisoners of war. The trial lasted over three weeks. The charge of stealing Red Cross parcels was dropped for lack of evidence. Skorzeny admitted to ordering his men to wear American uniforms. On the final day of the trial, 9 September, Allied Wing Commander F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, winner of the Military Cross and the Croix de guerre, and a former Allied Special Operations Executive agent, testified that he had worn German uniforms behind enemy lines. Realising that to convict Skorzeny could expose their own agent to the same charges, the tribunal acquitted the ten defendants, the military tribunal drawing a distinction between using enemy uniforms during combat and for other purposes including deception. They could not prove that Skorzeny had given any orders to actually fight in US uniform.[11]

Skorzeny was detained in an internment camp at Darmstadt awaiting the decision of a denazification court.[12]. 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.[13]

Post World War IIEdit

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.[14]

Skorzeny was photographed at a café in the Champs Elysées in Paris on 13 February 1950, 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.[15] 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[16][17] 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 President Juan Perón, his aim to foster the growth of a fascist "Fourth Reich" centered in Latin America.[18][19][20]

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.[21]

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 200-acre (0.81 km2) farm in County Kildare in 1959. He also had property in Mallorca.[22]

Paladin GroupEdit

Main article: 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 guerrillas, 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.[23]


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.[24] He was cremated. His ashes were later brought to Vienna and interred in the Skorzeny family plot at Döblinger Friedhof.


  1. Art Kramer
  2. Wagner, Dieter; Gerhard Tomkowitz (1971). Anschluss: The Week Hitler Seized Vienna. St. Martin's Press. pp. 170. 
  3. Nagorski, Andrew (2007). The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II. Simon & Schuster. pp. 202. ISBN 0743281101. 
  4. Mitcham, Samuel W. (2006). Panzers in Winter: Hitler's Army and the Battle of the Bulge. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 29. ISBN 0275971155. 
  5. Otto Skorzeny's Memoirs: "Skorzeny's Special Missions: The Memoirs of the Most Dangerous Man in Europe" ISBN 978-1853676840
  6. How ⌠The Lion And The Bear■ Were Saved - Russia Beyond the Headlines
  7. Havas, p. 164
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Tehran-43: Wrecking the plan to kill Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill". RIA Novosti. 16/ 10/ 2007. 
  9. Havas, Laslo (1967). Hitler's Plot to Kill the Big Three. Cowles Book Co.. 
  10. Lee, Martin A. (1999). The Beast Reawakens: Fascism's Resurgence from Hitler's Spymasters to Today's Neo-Nazi Groups and Right-Wing Extremists. Taylor & Francis. pp. 32. ISBN 0415925460. 
  11. "Trial of Otto Skorzeny and others", Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals IX: 90–94, 1949,  "The ten accused involved in this trial were all officers in the 150th Panzer Brigade commanded by the accused Skorzeny. They were charged with participating in the improper use of American uniforms by entering into combat disguised therewith and treacherously firing upon and killing members of the armed forces of the United States." "All accused were acquitted of all charges"
  12. "Token from Der Fuhrer", TIME, 9 August 1948,,9171,794446,00.html 
  13. Lee, p. 42-43
  14. Lee, pp. 43-44
  15. Lee, p. 45
  16. "Otto Skorzeny, Nazi Commando, Dead". The New York Times. July 8, 1975. 
  17. "Nazis: The Deadly Spider". Newsweek. July 21, 1975. 
  18. "Barbie's Postwar Ties With U.S. Army Detailed", Boston Globe, 14 February 1983 
  19. Infield
  20. Wechsberg, pp. 81, 116
  21. Lee, p. 186
  22. Snyder, Louis Leo (2005). Hitler's Henchmen: The Nazis who Shaped the Third Reich. David & Charles. pp. 315. ISBN 0715320335. 
  23. Lee, p. 185
  24. "Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopädie", Band 9 Schmidt - Theyer, K.G. Sauer, München 1998, ISBN 3-598-23169-5


External linksEdit

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