Adolf Hitler believed he was the best man for conducting special operations and Allies regarded him as the most dangerous man in Europe. Probably, his most famous operation was the spectacular deliverance of Benito Mussolini from the remote mountain hotel.
Who was this man?
His name was Otto Skorzeny.
On 25 July 1943, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Benito Mussolini as an Italian Prime Minister and ordered his arrest. The former dictator was being held at the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a hotel high in the Apennine Mountains. Mussolini was constantly guarded and no one thought it would be possible to rescue him from that remote prison.
On 12 September, elite German commandos carried out a special operation of rescuing Mussolini. Nine of 10 DFS 230 gliders precisely landed in front of the hotel. As Italian guards were observing the situation in astonishment, they failed to react and consequently did not fire a single shot at the German paratroopers.
Skorzeny brought with him Italian General Soleti of Polizia, who demanded they stand down. The guards obeyed the orders and Otto Skorzeny officially greeted Mussolini, stating that Hitler personally sent them to rescue him. Shortly afterwards, a Fieseler Fi 156 “Storch” aircraft landed and took Skorzeny and Mussolini to Hitler who was extremely pleased with the result of the mission.
Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna in 1908, to a rich, middle-class family. He started his studies at the University in Vienna in 1926, where he became fascinated with fencing. One of the duels resulted in a facial wound that left a big scar on his cheek. He later claimed, that the knowledge about pain he learned while fencing, taught him to not to be scared in combat.
Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1931. He was very pleased with the Anschluss, and believed that the union of Germany and Austria would be beneficial to his country. After the Nazis attacked Poland, Skorzeny volunteered to join German Air Forces, but was told he was too tall and too old. He joined the “Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler” instead, the most elite Waffen SS division.
He fought on the Western Front, including France and Holland, and later in Yugoslavia. He was spotted by the senior officers, rightly judging his abilities, and was quickly promoted. In 1941, he was sent to the Eastern Front as an officer of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”.In 1942, he suffered a head wound by shrapnel from a Katyusha rocket launcher. Initially, he refused medical treatment and rejoined his unit only hours later. Ultimately however, he was forced to leave his unit. He was sent to a hospital in Vienna, promoted to the rank of captain and awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under enemy fire.
He was also given a new task – the creation of a Special Forces unit, modelled by British Commandos. Many consider the rescue of Mussolini, a baptism of fire for Skorzeny’s unit. Although the mission was a complete success and Hitler was excited about Skorzeny, the truth was different. It was General Kurt Student who planned all operations, but Skorzeny was able to play it right and present himself as Mussolini’s saviour.
Not only Hilter believed him, but thanks to Goebbels, all the world believed him as well. Adolf Hitler was so impressed with Skorzeny, that later he made him his first choice for leading special operations.
The most famous were: The Armoured Fist operation, known also as the “The Mickey Mouse” operation, taking place in Autum 1944 in Budapest. Skorzeny was ordered to capture Miki Horthy, son of Admiral Miklos Horthy in order to blackmail the latter one. Although the mission was a complete success, Admiral Horthy did not let Nazis blackmail him and he proposed that the Soviet Union cease fire. As a direct consequence of Horthy’s actions, the Nazis decided to carry out another mission, code named “Panzerfaust”. Once again, Otto Skorzeny was put in charge and once again he succeeded. During this mission, Skorzeny’s commandos took over Budapest, arrested Horthy and made Ferenca Szalasimn the new prime minister.
Skorzeny lost only 20 men during this operation and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. When he came back from Hungary, Hitler gave him another mission. As the Germans were planning the Ardennes offensive, Skorzeny was ordered to infiltrate American lines. During the offensive, his English-speaking men were disguised in Allied uniforms and were causing chaos behind enemy lines. His unit was using American Jeeps and various German vehicles, even including Panther tanks, which were repainted and modified to look like Allied ones.
They had caused serious direct damage to the Allies, but the main damage was the confusion and chaos it caused to Allied units. All captured men were giving Skorzeny’s name as the man in charge of their unit. They also claimed that his real target was General Eisenhower and Skorzeny was planning to reach Paris and assasinate him. That was a lie, but the allies believed it and Eisenhower became heavily guarded.
At one point, the Allies began calling him “the most dangerous man in Europe”. But not all Skorzeny’s operations were successful. Operation Knight’s Leap was a failed attempt to catch Josip Broz Tito alive. Allegedly, Skorzeny was also involved in planning “The Long Jump” operation, an attempt to kill the Big Three – Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. The British and Americans dismissed existence of such a plan, as did Skorzeny himself in his post-war memoirs.
A few days after the III Reich’s capitulation, Skorzeny was arrested by Americans in Salzburg. In 1947, he was tried at the Dachau Trials. It was impossible to sentence him, as Allies were not prepared to expose their secret operatives to the same charge. While being detained in a POW camp, he escaped with the help of three former SS officers. Later Skorzeny claimed tha his escape was arranged by U.S. authorities.
He fled to Spain, where he set up a small engineering company. His memoirs were published in 1950 by the French newspaper Le Figaro, causing 1500 communist riots in Paris.
He spent some time in Argentina and later in Egypt, where he served as president Nasser’s advisor. At one point he even worked closely with the Israeli Mossad.
Otto Skorzeny died on 5th July 1975 in Madrid, at age 67.
SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny an der Oder; this file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R81453 / CC-BY-SA.
Skorzeny with Mussolini:
Gran Sasso, Mussolini vor Hotel; This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-567-1503C-15 / Toni Schneiders / CC-BY-SA