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SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny: The Devil's Commando

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Skorzeny as commander of the Waffen SS Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal special forces unit, 1943. With his large dueling scar on display on the left side of his face.

Skorzeny as commander of the Waffen SS Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal special forces unit, 1943. With his large dueling scar on display on the left side of his face.

Glory and Romance

Otto Johann Anton Skorzeny was an Austrian born into a once-great empire as it began to dissolve into the pages of history. In 1918, the victors of the First World War sought to rationalize the political geography of a Europe which had just experienced the collapse of four enormous empires: Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman.

Austria's middle class was ravaged by inflation; money that would have bought a small house before the war had, by 1922, been reduced to the value of a postage stamp. Skorzeny was fifteen before he had his first taste of butter. His childhood was racked with economic adversity.

As he entered the university, Skorzeny was active athletically. He was a massive young man standing at 6 feet 4, with good physical coordination. He showed an interest in sports that involved weapons. In 1927, Skorzeny became immersed in dueling societies. He excelled at the sport known for its gargantuan drinking sessions. It was Skorzeny's rite of passage for his swashbuckling lifestyle.

During his tenth duel, in 1928, Skorzeny received a severe slash from ear to chin on the left side of his face, forming the scar which became his badge of courage; it was stitched up on the spot without anesthetic. After the Second World War, Skorzeny characterized his dueling as a kind of Spartan preparation for warfare

Skorzeny joined the Waffen SS in 1939 as an engineer officer in the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler. He took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union but was struck down by illness toward the end of 1941. While recovering, he became interested in the idea of developing a commando-style unit capable of operating behind enemy lines.

His proposal was taken up by his superiors and SS intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg. Soon afterward, Skorzeny was developing a school to create paramilitary soldiers trained in espionage, sabotage, and partisan operations. The 502nd SS Jager Battalion was created and commanded by Skorzeny, which was based at chateau Friedenthal just north of Berlin and would soon make its mark in history.

Hitler's henchman: Skorzeny (2nd from left), in Berlin October 3, 1943.

Hitler's henchman: Skorzeny (2nd from left), in Berlin October 3, 1943.

Saving Mussolini: The Grand Sasso Raid

According to Skorzeny's memoirs, Hitler personally chose him for the rescue mission, which involved landing six gliders on a mountainous ridge at the Grand Sasso ski resort, where Mussolini was being held. On September 12, 1943, a mixed Luftwaffe/SS force successfully disembarked at the resort and overcame the Italian guards without firing a shot.

Skorzeny and 16 SS troopers joined the German paratroops to rescue Mussolini in a risky glider mission. Ten minutes after the raid began, the fifty-nine-year-old despot, accompanied by German soldiers, left the hotel. Hitler had wanted him rescued before he could be delivered to the Allies.

On Monday, July 26, 1943, Skorzeny was summoned by Hitler to the Wolf's Lair just one day after Mussolini suddenly disappeared from his villa. The commander of the German security service in Rome intercepted an encrypted message that would lead Skorzeny to Mussolini. "The highest prison in the world," as Mussolini described it, was located in an "unreachable and inaccessible" place in a mountain lodge called Camp Imperatore, at over 7,000 feet above sea level in the Italian Gran Sasso.

Soon after finding Mussolini, German airborne general Kurt Student and Skorzeny began to plan his daring rescue using gliders to drop the commandos right on top of Mussolini's captors. Using the element of surprise, Skorzeny's troops were basically able to catch Mussolini's captors sleeping.

The afternoon of September 12, 1943 has gone down in the history of the Second World War as one of the best command actions of the entire war. Even Churchill was impressed with the skill of his adversaries. Mussolini at once proclaimed the existence of an "Italian Social Republic" in the north of the country.

Operation Grief

The trail of dead bodies Peiper's combat group left at Malmedy, Honsfeld, Bullingen, and Baugnez created a wave of terror among American troops in the Ardennes. Still, more terror and confusion were to be spread by Lieutenant Colonel Skorzeny's Panzer Brigade 150. Many of the brigade's 2,000 men were dressed in American uniforms to more easily infiltrate behind American lines.

Also, among the brigade's 70 tanks were some captured American Shermans. The brigade's first objective was to impersonate an American unit fleeing toward the rear, then rush ahead to the Meuse River during the first day of the offensive, seize the bridges intact and occupy them until the arrival of two SS panzer divisions.

Because of traffic jams, it became evident that their original mission was impossible, so the brigade was assigned to support Peiper's 1st SS Panzer Division in the northern sector of the offensive.

Regardless of setbacks, some of Skorzeny's commando teams would succeed beyond his wildest expectations. Trained in the techniques of infiltration and sabotage, about 150 Germans who spoke English had set off in 30 captured American jeeps, wearing American uniforms and carrying false identification papers in an attempt to slip through American lines.

Skorzeny failed to realize that the Americans had so much transport that most often four men did not ride in one jeep, and when it became known that Skorzeny's men were on the prowl, any jeep with four men drew suspicion.

Although only nine commando teams managed to infiltrate Allied lines, they had an amazing psychological effect. One four-man team switched road signs at a crossroads, sending an entire American regiment moving in the wrong direction. Another unit blocked off key roads with white tape, signaling that a minefield was ahead.

And yet another unit told an American officer such a sensational story of German successes that he withdrew his unit from the town it was about to defend.

One team made it all the way to the river Meuse before they were captured. A second group of commandos, seized by American soldiers near Liege, told the most shocking yarn about the entire operation. They said that "Skorzeny and a special commando team of fifty men had infiltrated through the American lines and were headed to Paris to attempt the assassination the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower."

The German commandos went even further and detailed the attempt, disclosing that Skorzeny and his commandos would meet at the famous Café de la Paix; once together, they would strike the Supreme Allied Headquarters at Versailles. The Americans would swallow the entire story imposing a curfew in Paris, stopping soldiers and civilians in the streets.

Eisenhower would become a virtual prisoner in his own headquarters, surrounded by armed guards, machine guns, and barbed wire. His security team even used a decoy in an attempt to capture Skorzeny.

Soon nervous military police from Paris to the Ardennes were stopping everyone, regardless of rank, asking questions supposedly only an American could answer. Many innocent American soldiers who didn't know the password would wind up being held captive until they could prove they were not a German commando in disguise.

Battle of the Bulge, Meuse River at the lower left the German goal of the offensive. Skorzeny's unit was to capture vital bridges over the Meuse River.

Battle of the Bulge, Meuse River at the lower left the German goal of the offensive. Skorzeny's unit was to capture vital bridges over the Meuse River.

After the War

On April 22,1945, SS Colonel Josef Spacil and his men arrived at the Reichsbank in Berlin with a convoy of trucks, as Soviet artillery shells were bursting outside the city of the once opulent Nazi capital. Weapons drawn they looted the bank's vaults of anything of value, including paper currency, diamonds, jewelry, and bonds. Spacil and his SS troops then drove off to a nearby airfield and flew to Austria.

Once on the ground near Saltzburg they met SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny, and then hid much of their stolen valuables, while taking a lot for themselves. Soon afterward, Skorzeny was captured and interrogated by American troops but never revealed the position of hidden treasure. In 1947 Skorzeny was charged at the Dachau Military Tribunal with breaching the 1907 Hague Convention, later only to be acquitted. In 1948, Skorzeny escaped from captivity with the help of three SS troopers dressed as American military police. Afterward, he hid on a Bavarian farm and Paris before settling in Spain under Franco's protection.

Spain had become a haven for many former Nazis after the Second World War. It is generally accepted that Skorzeny was a key mover, if not the founder, of ODESSA, a secret organization dedicated to helping former Nazis guilty of war crimes during the Second World War to flee to South America and escape prosecution.

One of the most notorious Nazis to escape prosecution and a certain death sentence was Joseph Mangala, known as the angle of death. Mangala worked as a doctor at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he performed barbaric experiments on its inmates. In its time of operation, roughly 1.3 million inmates died in Auschwitz. Mangala was never captured or prosecuted for his crimes. He died on a beach in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on February 7, 1979, at age 67.

Post-war life for Otto Skorzeny was packed with excitement. He spent time in Argentina advising President Peron and rumored that he had become Eva Peron's lover. Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper published that Skorzeny was described by American intelligence as "the most dangerous man in Europe" and had worked for Mossad after the war. He died peacefully in his bed in Madrid from cancer of the spine on July 7, 1975, at the age of 67.


Skorzeny , Otto. Skorzeny's Special Missions: The Memoirs of Hitlers Most Daring Commando. Zenith Press, MBI Publishing Company, 400 First Avenue North, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55401, USA. 1957

Smith, Stuart. The Devil's Disciple. Osprey Publishing, 1385 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018 USA. 2018

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mark Caruthers