Otto Skorzeny, Germany’s top commando in the Second World War, is one of the most famous men in the history of special forces. His extraordinary wartime career was one of high risk and adventure and here he tells the full story. Skorzeny quickly proved his worth in Yugoslavia and then Russia. In 1942 he was awarded the Iron Cross, and in April 1943 he was promoted to captain and named “Chief of Germany's Special Troops, Existing or to be Created in the Future.”
When Mussolini was imprisoned in Italy in 1943, it was Skorzeny who successfully led the daring glider rescue, winning the Knight’s Cross and promotion as a result. Skorzeny’s talents were brought into play again when he was sent to Budapest to stop the Hungarian regent Admiral Horthy from signing a peace with Stalin in 1944. Now dubbed “the most dangerous man in Europe” by the Allies he was awarded the German Cross in Gold. A few months later he took a critical role in the Ardennes offensive with a controversial plan to raise a brigade disguised as Americans with captured Sherman tanks. His captured colleagues spread a false rumor that he was planning to assassinate Eisenhower, who was consequently confined to his headquarters under guard for protection.
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About the Author
Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna in 1908. On the eve of World War II, Skorzeny was working as a civil engineer. Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he joined the SS and was assigned to Hitler’s elite bodyguard Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. He died in 1975.
Charles Messenger is a renowned historian, who has previously served twenty-one years with the British Royal Tank Regiment. He is the author of nearly 40 history books.
Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent who has been based in Tel Aviv, London, Miami, and Washington. He is also author of Comic Wars, a book about the bankruptcy and renaissance of Marvel Comics, and coauthor of books on Israeli espionage and diplomacy, including the national best seller Every Spy a Prince and Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. He is a graduate of Harvard, married with two grown children.
Read an Excerpt
ON THE 12th June, 1908, the streets of Vienna were enlivened by a gay and splendid procession as all the citizens of the ancient imperial city proudly celebrated the diamond jubilee of the reign of the Emperor Francis Joseph I. In the early part of the afternoon of that day my mother, who had been watching the procession in the morning, gave birth to a child. I was that child.
No outstanding events of my schooldays remain in my memory, but 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. I liked any kind of sporting activity and never missed the so-called "Fresh-Air Afternoons" as I found bodily exercise of all sorts a physical necessity. We specialized in various ball games and I figured regularly in one of the teams from our school which competed in the High School Tournament every summer.
The choice of a profession was already settled. I wanted to be an engineer, like my father and brother, so in the autumn of 1926 I began to attend classes in the Technical University in Vienna. In the winter of 1928-9, I passed the first state examination. The opening stage, to all intents and purposes theoretical only, was behind me, and I could turn to the practical side of engineering.
When I went to the University I became a member of an active students' association which trained us to become men prepared and equipped to fight the hard battle of life. We learned that we must be prepared to back words and deeds with everything we had — physical force if necessary — and on many occasions in after life I was very grateful for the self-discipline I learned in this school.
The only political activity in which I participated during my schooldays was the official demonstration in favour of union with Germany (the national protest against the refusal of the Entente to permit the incorporation in Germany of the German-Austrian Republic) which took place every September in the Heldenplatz and was entirely nonpartisan.
The country's economy was still suffering severely from the effects of the First World War, when inflation on an inconceivable scale came to inflict further damage. Social tensions, provoked by various political parties, became greater and greater. They found their first overt expression in the disorders of July, 1927, which have passed into the history of my home town as the "burning of the Vienna Palace of Justice". One of the reactions to this outrage was the founding of the so-called "Academic Legion" in our universities. Its sole purpose was to assist in the defence of public order and authority. I joined this association, which was soon afterwards transferred to the "Student Volunteers" which in turn was ultimately absorbed in the previously existing Heimwehr. At that time the Heimwehr resolutely refused to become a political body. Unfortunately, it subsequently struck out on the path, a tragic path in my opinion, which seems inevitable if influence is to be gained. By slow degrees it became a political party and started to call itself Heimatblock. As this transformation became clear by 1930, I and most of my comrades regarded it as a signal to sever our connection with the "Student Volunteers". We were determined to have nothing to do with party politics and not allow ourselves to be the tools of party politicians.
In the winter of 1931, I took my final examination at the Technical University and succeeded beyond my best hopes. Unfortunately, qualifying for employment and finding it were two different things, for both Austria and Germany were in the throes of a terrible economic crisis which was at its worst at that moment. However, after some search I had a slice of luck and became manager of a small building business which in a few years I was able to expand into a very considerable concern, despite adverse conditions.
The first political meeting I ever attended was to prove decisive for the evolution of my ideas. In the summer of 1932 Dr. Goebbels spoke to a packed assembly of the NSDAP in the Engelmann Arena in Vienna. The social ideas which he advocated and the promise to put an end to the unprofitable squabbles of the political parties were decisive in my eyes. I became a member at once. But my membership only lasted for a year. I was not required to do anything. I went to several meetings and paid my subscription. In June, 1933, my political activities, if one can call them such, came to an end. The NSDAP was banned by the Dollfuss government.
Shortly after I was married and spent my honeymoon in Italy, in the course of which I visited the wild and mountainous Abruzzi region, destined to be the scene of one of my better-known exploits, I returned to Vienna and the humdrum of everyday life. Despite economic difficulties, I managed to keep my business going and even increased it. I was able to get together a sound and solid labour force and, even though most of the men came from the "red" camp, I was on excellent terms with them.
The events of February and March, 1938, came as a complete surprise to me no less than the general public. The newspapers gave us but a vague idea of what was really happening, though it was destined to restore normal relations between Germany and Austria and genuine domestic peace in my tortured country. But, even in our wildest dreams, we had never thought that the two nations would be united. When the Chancellor, Schuschnigg, paid his visit to Berchtesgaden on the 12th February, one thing seemed certain — a favourable solution of the problem would be at hand. Everyone in Vienna was consumed with the fever of this political crisis. Then came the Chancellor's speech to the officials of the Fatherland Front at Innsbruck, in which he announced that there would be a referendum on the following Sunday. On the 10th and 11th March, the excitement in Vienna was at its height.
The German Gymnastic Association, which I had joined in 1935, had long since organized so-called defence units, of which I was a member. In view of the threatening situation in Vienna on the 12th March, we were ordered in the afternoon to assemble at our gymnasium. I had arrived and was just about to change when the news of the resignation of Schuschnigg's government came over the radio. It took us completely by surprise.
An order came from the leaders of the German Gymnastic Association that all the defence units were to assemble at the Chancery in the inner town. I invited some friends to join me in my car, drove to the inner town and left it in the vicinity of the Ballhausplatz. All the streets were crammed with crowds making their way towards the Chancery. As both spectators and participants, we took up our stations in a side street behind the building in which we supposed that the destinies of our country were being decided.
Suddenly the Vienna police drove up from the Minoritenplatz in motor lorries. We could hardly believe our eyes when we noticed that they all wore swastika armbands. At length a chorus of cheers greeted the appearance on the balcony of the new Chancellor, Seyss-Inquart, and he made a short speech. Soon afterwards, a number of men rushed into the street where we were. Among them was Bruno Weiss, the President of the German Gymnastic Association, who came up to me and said: "Thank goodness, I've found a sensible man! I've an important job for you, Skorzeny! Did you see a big black limousine leave just now?" I nodded, and he continued: "President Miklas was in that car. We in the Chancery are extremely worried! We've just heard that a biggish detachment of the Guard Battalion is stationed at the Presidential Palace, but a small group of Florisdorf SS men have also been told off to mount guard there and we're afraid that there may be some unfortunate incident when the two forces meet. Will you help us? Have you a car handy?"
I gladly offered my services and he resumed: "You have the new Chancellor's orders to go to the Presidential Palace as fast as you can and take any action you think necessary to prevent any stupidity by anyone."
Weiss shook hands and while stressing the necessity to remain calm and collected insisted that not a moment was to be lost. I swept my friend Gerhard along with me and ran to where I had left my car. "Let's hope this is going to be all right," I said. Driving at breakneck speed I found it difficult to avoid an accident as the streets were full. When I turned into the Landstrasse Hauptstrasse I saw a small column of cars ahead. Was the President's among them? I caught up with the last car and passed it on the right. I thought I was bound to arrive immediately behind the President. When I had successfully overtaken two more cars, the car at the head turned into the Palace and I reached it at the same moment as the second car. A single individual had just got out of the limousine and was hastening with short, swift steps to the gate. Behind him the four occupants of the second car shot through the entrance.
What followed happened so quickly that I had no time to think and could only act on instinct. I thrust my way through the four men and found myself in a small hall. Ahead of me was a staircase sweeping round to the first floor. President Miklas was running up the steps. Some soldiers appeared on the landing and came towards the President. I leaped up the steps myself. A lieutenant of the Guard Battalion and some of his men barred my way. I could see that the officer was being urged on by his men. He suddenly gave the order: "Arms at the ready!" Some of his men raised their weapons and pointed them at me. Glancing down the stairs I saw that some of the men in the hall were also drawing their revolvers. If anyone loses his nerve now anything can happen, I thought to myself.
"You fools! You fools!" I shouted. Turning to the lieutenant I added: "You'll be responsible if anything happens. I've been sent by the new Government to see that no disorders occur."
"Who are you? What do you want?" asked the President, who had so far remained silent. Despite a situation which was half tense and half comical, I introduced myself: "Engineer Skorzeny, Herr President. May I suggest that we ring up the Chancellor together. He will confirm on whose orders I am here."
The soldiers moved aside and we went upstairs together, followed by the lieutenant. Then I heard an imperious knock on the door. One of the men below looked out and a police officer was visible. He greeted me and said: "The Federal Chancellor has ordered me to report to you with my company. Am I needed?"
I was very glad to see him, as his arrival showed that Dr. Seyss-Inquart not only knew of my existence and mission, but was keeping us in mind. I raised my voice and said to the President: "Mr. President, a police company has just arrived at the palace for your protection. We must get in touch with the Chancellery at once so that the lieutenant can hear that there's to be no shooting here!"
We soon got through and I was able to report the situation to Dr. Seyss-Inquart. Then I handed the receiver to Dr. Miklas, who seemed to be in agreement with what the Chancellor said to him. I took the lieutenant aside: "You must tell your men to drop their weapons at once! You can see there's no reason for shooting." He walked away and I heard him give the order. Then Dr. Miklas handed me the receiver. Dr. Seyss-Inquart said that he understood that the credit of preventing bloodshed was mine. He asked me to remain in attendance on the President. I was to assume command of the SS men and be responsible for internal security at the palace. The unit from the Guard Battalion could take charge outside.
Compulsory military service was introduced immediately after the incorporation of Austria in Germany, so I voluntarily reported for recruit training at any time in order to make certain of being called up for the Luftwaffe. In view of my experience as an engineer I could expect to be enrolled as candidate for a commission. I knew that I must expect to be called up in the autumn of 1939.
In the last week of August, I took a vacation on Lake Worth with my wife. Nothing could have been more peaceful than the scene there, but the news of the actual outbreak of war between Germany and Poland burst like thunder on our holiday mood. I returned immediately to Vienna to put my business affairs in order and found in my mail a not wholly unexpected call-up to a Luftwaffe Communications unit which I had previously expressed a wish to join. So my military career was to begin at a critical moment!
I was to receive my recruit training in the Trost Barracks in Vienna, and reported punctually on the 3rd September. Next day our company commander told us that for the moment no instructors were available as they had all gone to the Polish front. We should all receive special technical training and subsequently be employed as front-line engineers. A course of lectures had been arranged which we must attend once a week. Our class would comprise a hundred recruits. We could go home for the time being and our final call-up would follow later.
This announcement was a great and not altogether unwelcome surprise to most of us, but I was not so easily satisfied, stood to attention and said: "Sir, may I be permitted to ask whether I can be transferred to the flying service? I originally applied for service in the Luftwaffe and have had some experience in flying." "What year?" was the immediate question. "1908, Sir!" The captain rapped out: "Much too old!" and obviously considered the question settled.
A gnawing doubt assailed me. Was I really too old for flying?
Our education in the motorization of the army soon commenced and in the middle of December we were informed that twenty of us were to be posted as engineer officer-cadets to the Waffen SS (that part of the SS organized to fight with the army). Only twelve, of whom I was the oldest, proved sufficiently proficient for that corps. Some time elapsed before the actual transfer took place.
I was eventually posted to the second reserve battalion of the SS division "Adolf Hitler" Leibstandarte, in Berlin-Lichterfelde. Once again I found myself in a room with the older recruits. I had doctors, chemists and engineers for my new companions. We were faced with a new and short, but correspondingly intensive course of training before we joined our specialist unit.
The regulation six weeks passed very swiftly and I became a passable soldier in the highly critical eyes of the Leibstandarte officers. Then I spent a few weeks with the "Germania" reserve battalion in Hamburg-Langenhorn, where I was initiated into my future specialization as a technical officer.
On the 9th May, 1940, we were instructed to take transport and personnel reinforcements to our "Germania" regiment which was in line on the hitherto inactive western front. The same day, much to my disappointment, I received an order to report at the headquarters of the Waffen SS in Berlin. The western campaign was beginning, and there was I being sent a monstrous distance from the front!
In a few days I had to take quite a number of examinations. I got my military driver's certificate for all classes in addition to an instructor's ticket, but what pleased me most was the expert mechanic's certificate which was issued to "Unteroffizier" Skorzeny.
A few days later I was sent for by Major Hoffman, the senior Motor Transport Officer of the SS. He introduced me to Major Rees, who listened to my pleas for action. "All right!" he said, "I'll take you into my battalion as a technical officer. I can give you your first job straight away. We are taking over eighty trucks which are in your old Lichterfelde barracks. Take them to Hamm early to-morrow morning. Our heavy artillery battalion will then be ready to move. We are part of the 1st SS Division and must lose no time, or the war will be over without us."
I was in Hamm by three a.m., but as I was short of twenty-six trucks I wondered what sort of reception I should get from my new CO. There was only one thing to be done — go back for more! After two hours I fortunately scraped up thirteen from various sources and returned to the barracks by seven o'clock. But when I reported to the CO later on and, somewhat tremulously, gave him the number I had brought, he astonished me by being not too pleased. I was briefly informed that by that evening at the latest the full number must be made up, as the column would be leaving next morning. So that was how I was to be initiated!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hitler's Commando"
Copyright © 1957 Otto Skorzeny.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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