|Born||12 Jun 1908|
|Died||5 Jul 1975|
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseOtto Skorzeny was born into a relatively wealthy family in Vienna, Austria. In his memoir, regarding his school years, he noted "I recall that I found realistic subjects like mathematics, geometry, physics and chemistry quite easy, while I had to struggle with the foreign languages, French and English." He wanted to be an engineer like his father and brother, he added, thus he enrolled in the Technical University of Vienna starting in the fall of 1926. During the winter of 1928 to 1929, he took and passed his first state examinations. "The only political activity in which I participated during my school days was the official demonstration in favor of union with Germany", he noted in his memoir, but he did join a student organization that was soon absorbed into Heimwehr ("Home Guard"), which he said he was disappointed to see becoming a political party. In 1931, he received a degree in engineering and passed the final state examinations to be a certified engineer, quickly finding a job as a manager of a small building business.
ww2dbaseIn the summer of 1932, Skorzeny heard German Nazi Party leader Josef Goebbels speak at the Engelmann Arena in Vienna, which convinced him to join the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party at once. He admitted that his ferver soon died down, however, and did little in the following year. His membership in the Nazi Party expired in Jun 1933 as the party was banned by the Australian government. In the early 1930s, he claimed to have taken his honeymoon in the Abuzzi region of Italy, near Gran Sasso; it was to have importance later in his career. In 1935, he joined the German Gymnastic Association, which was a para-military organization. On the eve of the German annexation of Austria, Anschluß, in 1938, he led a small German Gymnastic Association contingent to protect President Wilhelm Miklas, claiming that this action could have avoided violent incidents during the German annexation; this action was his small entry onto the political stage, as he was noticed by Austrian Nazi Party leader Arthur Seyß-Inquart, who placed a small group of SS men under his command to bolster his contingent of German Gymnastic Association men, and effectively placed him in charge of all security in the presidential palace for several days. When conscription was introduced in Austria, now within German borders, instead of waiting for his conscription notice he went to the recruiting office requesting to join the German Air Force, Luftwaffe. When the European War began, he was on vacation at Lake Wörth, Austria.
ww2dbaseUpon return to Vienna, Skorzeny was assigned to the Trost Barracks for training as a military engineer but on 3 Sep 1939 he was turned away due to the lack of instructors to train new recruits, all experienced men having been sent to the front lines in Poland. Skorzeny took the chance to ask to be transferred to flight service, but the request was rejected. Before long, suitable trainers were found, and he completed his engineer training. Shortly after he was posted to the Waffen-SS as an officer candidate in the Signal Replacement Regiment. Frustrated that he did not see any action in the first few months of the war, he used his connections in the Nazi Party to have himself transferred the Lichterfelde Barracks in Berlin, Germany, hoping that his new unit, 2nd Reserve Replacement Battalion of the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte, would see combat sooner. On 1 May 1940, he was promoted to the rank of Unterscharführer and was transferred to an artillery regiment of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf as a mechanic. On 1 Sep 1940, he was promoted to the rank of Oberscharführer and was transferred to the 2nd SS Division Das Reich, stationed in the Langenhorn Barracks in Hamburg, Germany. He complained that his military career thus far was characterized as "We were busily chasing the war!" On 30 Jan 1941, he was promoted to the rank of Untersturmführer.
ww2dbaseIn Apr 1941, Skorzeny participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was sent to the front, but he did not see any direct combat as he was tasked with supervising mechanics to keep fighting vehicles in working order. On 26 Aug 1941, he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class for recovering a damaged vehicle under enemy fire at the Yelnya bridgehead. In Dec 1941, he was ill with stomach colic and was evacuated back to Germany in Jan 1942. While in Germany, he became an instructor of vehicle repairs in a SS replacement battalion. In Nov 1942, he was transferred to the newly-created armored regiment of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, again as a supervisor in a vehicle repair unit. On 28 Apr 1943, he was promoted to the rank of Hauptsturmführer and was given command of the Oranienburg Special Training Unit, which was the first attempt by the SS to create a commando unit. It was at this time that he began to study British espionage methods. He became greatly impressed with the British Sten submachine guns for the simple design and the cheap cost. He went as far as using fake radio communications (posing as French resistance fighters) and other deceptive methods to get one to reverse engineer. He recommended weapons of similar design to his superiors, but his efforts were not accepted.
ww2dbaseOn 26 Jul 1943, Adolf Hitler's office made a call to Skorzeny's office to discuss the rescue of Benito Mussolini, who had just been ousted in Italy and placed under arrest. Skorzeny missed the call as he was on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, drinking at Hotel Eden with a friend, something he was reputed to be doing fairly frequently (he would note in his memoir that he was "drinking war-time coffee" with the friend rather than alcohol, however). He was brought by a Ju 52 aircraft from Tempelhofer airfield in Berlin to Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Germany to help plan the operation. As he met Hitler for the first time, he was surprised by Hitler's personal involvement, his seemingly personal attachment to Mussolini, and his Austrian accent. Skorzeny recalled Hitler speaking to him at the first meeting.
ww2dbaseSkorzeny's involvement in the operation was largely the selection of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who chose him because of Skorzeny's fame as a dare devil. Because Skorzeny had little actual experience in such missions, he happily delegated large portions of the work to his subordinates, though he kept the intelligence gathering work to himself, thinking that it was the area in the planning stage where, if successful, he would gain the most fame. He personally arrived, with his military counterpart Kurt Student, at Rome, Italy on 28 Jul; his SS men arrived two days later. His intelligence gathering methods were poor due to his lack of experience. In early Aug, he was convinced that Mussolini was being kept at La Spezia, Italy, nearly launching an actual rescue mission there and ruined the entire operation. Later in mid-Aug, he got lucky in learning of Mussolini being at the Villa Weber at La Maddalena from a grocer, but he failed to act in time, and Mussolini was moved to Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome on 28 Aug. While at La Maddalena, he conducted an aerial reconnaissance mission in a He 111 aircraft; it was shot down by British fighters, resulting in three broken ribs.
ww2dbaseSkorzeny met with Hitler again in late Aug. Hitler said to him
ww2dbaseDuring the rescue operation, Skorzeny landed at Campo Imperatore at Gran Sasso and led a charge toward the building. What followed was a nearly laughable attempt at an entry into the building, having first bashed into a room that did not lead into the hotel, followed by being frustrated with Italians blocking the entrance simply by stashing furniture behind the front door. Ultimately, nevertheless, the Germans overwhelmed the Italians without firing a gunshot and extricated Mussolini. Heinrich Himmler used this as propaganda to bolster the military value of the SS organization, and Skorzeny gladly found himself at the center of attention. He earned the Knight's Cross award for the successful rescue; "You have performed a military feat which will become part of history", said Hitler to Skorzeny. "You have given me back my friend Mussolini. I have awarded you the Knight's Cross and promoted you to Sturmbannführer. Heartiest congratulations!"
ww2dbaseIn May 1944, the SS attempted a similar mission to Yugoslavia, this time to capture the partisan leader Josip Tito. Skorzeny failed this attempt with Tito escaping in the nick of time; this failed operation led to serious casualties in the SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion. Many of his other commando missions failed as well, including a plan to kidnap Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and another plan to assassinate Allied leaders during the Tehran Conference.
ww2dbaseOn 20 Jul 1944, Skorzeny was on a train heading out of Berlin when the assassination attempt on Hitler's life took place. While the train made a regular stop at Anhalt station, which was the last before leaving the Berlin metropolitan area, a junior officer alerted him to the plot, and Skorzeny headed back into the city. In Berlin, he visited Lichterfelde Barracks and various other locations and played a small role in calming officers to not escalate incidents; in his words, he was working to avoid the plot from turning into a civil war.
ww2dbaseIn Aug 1944, Skorzeny was assigned to plan the destruction of bridges at Basle, Switzerland in case the Allies invaded the neutral country for a southern entrance into Germany. Shortly after, he conducted an infiltration of German factories and placed mock explosives that would have destroyed the plants; he used the experience to show factory managers how to properly secure the grounds against saboteurs. In Sep 1944, his men located the missing battle group under Lieutenant Colonel Scherhorn north of Minsk, Byelorussia; he sent men to reinforce the battle group in an attempt to eventually break the group out, but the attempt ultimately failed.
ww2dbaseThe only successful commando operation that he was involved in after the rescue of Mussolini was the kidnapping of Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy's son Miklós Horthy, Jr. on 15 Oct 1944, a mission he described as an action-packed gun fight that he personally participated from the thinly-protected position behind an open car door; while attempting to extricate Miklós Horthy, Jr., he ran across Hungarian troops, but he was able to bluff his way through. Later on the same day, he led a small unit in the attack on Castle Hill in Budapest, Hungary; while this assault was a joint operation, as usual he claimed a large share of the credit for the SS, downplaying the involvement of rival branches.
ww2dbaseWhen Hitler gambled with his major offensive across the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), Skorzeny was selected to head up Operation Grief, an operation that focused on disrupting Allied intelligence and transportation. Skorzeny questioned Hitler's decision to have the commandos don captured Allied uniforms, but Hitler claimed that he had been informed that American troops had been doing so while fighting in the Aachen, Germany area. In early Dec, Hitler ordered Skorzeny to not personally participate in the attack. During the operation, paratroopers under his command pinned several Allied units in the rear, contributing greatly to the initial confusion among Allied ranks. With Skorzeny's reputation as a daring commando, even Dwight Eisenhower was advised by his security detail to travel with an excessive guard force in fear that Skorzeny would send a team to kidnap or assassinate him. As the German military might dwindled, the need for commando missions also diminished, thus Skorzeny was assigned back to lead a conventional unit at Schwedt on the Oder on the Eastern Front, which was bypassed by the advancing enemy troops, and he saw little action. He was relieved from this command on 28 Feb. In mid-Mar 1945, he was given another chance to lead a commando operation, this time to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany; nothing resulted from his planning.
ww2dbaseOn 9 Apr 1945, Skorzeny was awarded Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross for his loyalty. On 10 Apr, he briefly observed the fighting in Vienna, Austria. Not long after being rewarded for being loyal, however, he fled under the pretense of travelling to Bavaria to set up Werwolf resistance groups while Himmler had already canceled Werwolf plans prior to Skorzeny's departure. He hid in a Bavarian cottage until he surrendered to the Allies after the European War ended.
ww2dbaseAfter the war, Skorzeny was tried for his deceptions during the Battle of the Bulge. It was argued that, by having his troops wearing Allied uniforms, he was violating the laws of war. He was acquitted based on two major arguments. The weaker argument, but equally effective on his defense, was that the British special agents were known to have worn German uniforms on their missions as well, and the trial's prosecution did not wish to venture into setting a precedence for the trial of British personnel. The main reason for the acquittal of Skorzeny and other accused Germans was the vague nature of the law of war itself. International Law, Vol. II, paragraph 163 noted that it was illegal to engage in combat while display enemy flag or uniforms with the intention to confuse the enemy. However, the rules for wearing enemy uniforms were not clear when in non-combat situations, and Skorzeny's defense leveraged the fact that when actual combat took place, Skorzeny's men either took off the American uniforms or were visibly wearing German paratrooper overalls over the American uniforms. Treatise on International Law even stated that it was "perfectly legitimate to use the distinctive emblem of an enemy in order to escape from him or draw his forces into action", which helped the defense as well.
ww2dbaseAfter the acquittal, Skorzeny remained in prison; part of the time he spent in captivity, between Dec 1947 and Feb 1948, he helped American military historians record events of the war from a German perspective, particularly regarding to the rescue of Mussolini. He escaped from prison on 27 Jul 1948 and made his way to Spain where Francisco Franco granted him a safe haven. He was granted amnesty by the German government in 1952, declaring admittance to the mistakes of his past, including the abandonment of his Nazi ideals. He became a military and engineering consultant to several governments around the world, including secretly being the liaison between President Juan Perón of Argentina and the German manufacturing firm Fried. Krupp. Skorzeny passed away in Madrid, Spain a very wealthy man.
Robert Forczyk, Rescuing Mussolini: Gran Sasso 1943
William Manchester, The Arms of Krupp
Robert Merriam, Battle of the Bulge (Dark December)
Otto Skorzeny, Skorzeny's Special Missions
United States Congress, "Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals"
Last Major Revision: Jul 2011
Otto Skorzeny Timeline
|12 Jun 1908||Otto Skorzeny was born.|
|3 Sep 1939||Otto Skorzeny was sent home from Trost Barracks, Vienna, Austria despite the outbreak of war due to the lack of instructors to train new recruits.|
|1 May 1940||Otto Skorzeny was promoted to the rank of Unterscharführer.|
|1 Sep 1940||Otto Skorzeny was promoted to the rank of Oberscharführer and was transferred to the 2nd SS Division "Das Reich".|
|18 Dec 1940||Otto Skorzeny departed the Netherlands for northern France as a member of 2nd SS Division "Das Reich".|
|30 Jan 1941||Otto Skorzeny was promoted to the rank of Untersturmführer; he would not receive the notification for this promotion until Mar 1941, however.|
|26 Aug 1941||Otto Skorzeny was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class medal for recovering a damaged vehicle under enemy fire at the bridgehead in Yelnya, Russia.|
|28 Apr 1943||Otto Skorzeny was promoted to the rank of Hauptsturmführer and was given command of the commandos of the Oranienburg Special Training Unit.|
|26 Jul 1943||Adolf Hitler called for Otto Skorzeny to discuss the rescue of Benito Mussolini, but Skorzeny missed the initial call as he was drinking with a friend at Hotel Eden on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Germany.|
|28 Jul 1943||Otto Skorzeny arrived in Rome, Italy and visited Albert Kesselring at the Tusculum II villa outside of the city.|
|18 Aug 1943||Otto Skorzeny conducted an aerial reconnaissance mission over La Maddalena, Italy. His He 111 aircraft was shot down by British fighters. Skorzeny survived the crash, but suffered three broken ribs.|
|20 Aug 1943||Otto Skorzeny returned to mainland Italy after being shot down by British fighters two days prior.|
|15 Sep 1943||Otto Skorzeny flew from Munich, Germany to East Prussia, Germany; on the same flight were Ambassador Dörnberg and Ernst Kaltenbrunner.|
|16 Sep 1943||Otto Skorzeny was awarded the Gold Flying Badge by Hermann Göring at Wolf's Lair, East Prussia, Germany. Upon receiving the award, he requested the Knight's Cross to be awarded to his men Captain Gerlach and Lieutenant Meyer.|
|26 Sep 1943||Otto Skorzeny presented three Knight's Cross medals at the Harvest Thanksgiving festival at the Berlin Sportpalast in Germany. In the early afternoon, he had lunch with Joseph Goebbels and his family.|
|2 Dec 1943||Otto Skorzeny, who had been stationed in Paris, France due to the threat of Marshal Philippe Pétain leaving for North Africa, was ordered to leave the city as that threat was proven to be false.|
|25 Dec 1943||Otto Skorzeny and his family vacationed at Zurs on the Arlberg, Austria.|
|18 Oct 1944||Otto Skorzeny escorted Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy to Schloss Hirschberg in Franken, Germany via a special train.|
|20 Oct 1944||Otto Skorzeny arrived in Berlin, Germany.|
|21 Oct 1944||Otto Skorzeny arrived at Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, Germany.|
|22 Oct 1944||In an one-on-one conversation between Adolf Hitler and Otto Skorzeny, Skorzeny narrated the kidnapping of Miklós Horthy, Jr. and the attack on Castle Hill in Budapest, Hungary on 15 Oct 1944. Later in the same conversation, Hitler revealed to Skorzeny the plans for the Ardennes Offensive and asked him to plan a commando operation behind enemy lines in captured uniforms. When questioned the legal concerns of wearing enemy uniforms, Hitler told him that German intelligence informed him that the Americans had done the same in the Aachen, Germany area. Hitler ordered Skorzeny to have complete the planning by 2 Dec 1944.|
|14 Dec 1944||Otto Skorzeny took command of German Armored Brigade 150.|
|31 Dec 1944||Otto Skorzeny arrived at Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, Germany. He received care for his wounded left eye from Hitler's personal doctor Stumpfecker. Later in the day, he reported to Hitler regarding his commando mission during the Ardennes Offensive. As he departed, Wilhelm Keitel invited him to remain to join the rest of the German leaders for the New Year's celebration, but Skorzeny declined, opting to re-join his men in Cologne, Germany instead.|
|1 Jan 1945||Otto Skorzeny departed Cologne, Germany to return to the field headquarters of German Armored Brigade 150.|
|30 Jan 1945||Otto Skorzeny was ordered to join the Army Group Vistula on the Eastern Front.|
|28 Feb 1945||Otto Skorzeny was ordered to depart from Army Group Vistula and to return to Berlin, Germany.|
|31 Mar 1945||Otto Skorzeny was ordered to go to the "Alpine Fortress".|
|10 Apr 1945||Otto Skorzeny visited Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner's headquarters in Silesia in occupied Poland.|
|15 May 1945||Otto Skorzeny requested the local American officers a staff car, in which he would travel to the Americans field headquarters to surrender. As a prisoner, he was taken to Salzburg, Austria in an armored car with a heavy escort.|
|21 Jun 1945||Otto Skorzeny was interrogated by three Allied Generals regarding his role in the Ardennes Offensive in Wiesbaden, Germany.|
|22 Jun 1945||Otto Skorzeny was transferred from a makeshift prison cell to the city jail of Wiesbaden, Germany.|
|30 Jul 1945||Otto Skorzeny was transferred from Wiesbaden, Germany to the former Luftwaffe camp at Oberursel.|
|10 Sep 1945||Otto Skorzeny was transferred from Wiesbaden, Germany to Nuremberg, Germany; he traveled by aircraft with other top former German leaders.|
|21 Nov 1945||Otto Skorzeny was transferred to the witness wing at Nuremberg, Germany.|
|25 Jul 1948||Otto Skorzeny revealed to fellow prisoners that he was planning on escaping.|
|28 Jul 1948||Otto Skorzeny escaped from captivity.|
|5 Jul 1975||Otto Skorzeny passed away.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945