Childhood & Early Life
Skorzeny was born on June 12, 1908, in Vienna, Austria, into a middle-class family. After completing high school, he joined the ‘Technical University of Vienna’ in 1926, to study engineering. His father and brother were engineers, too. During his university days, he was a noted fencer and had participated in 15 ritual sabre duels, one of which had left a permanent scar on his cheek. In 1931, he graduated as a civil engineer. He then worked as the manager of a building business for a while.
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Member of the Nazi Party
Inspired by German ‘Nazi Party’ leader Josef Goebbels’s speech, Skorzeny joined the Austrian ‘Nazi Party’ in 1932. In 1935, he joined the German paramilitary organization known as the ‘German Gymnastic Association.’
On March 12, 1938, at the time of the ‘Anschlus,s’ or the German annexation of Austria, he led a small group of his paramilitary organization to protect the Austrian president, Wilhelm Miklas, from Austrian ‘Nazis.’
At the beginning of World War II (after the invasion of Poland), Skorzeny applied for the ‘German Air Force,’ the ‘Luftwaffe,’ but was not accepted due to his above-average height and his age. At31, he was considered too old for training. Following this, he joined Hitler’s bodyguard regiment, the ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler,’ as an officer-cadet.
The Eastern Front
In September 1940, he was transferred to the ‘SS Division Das Reich’ as the “Oberscharführer.” He proceeded to fight battles against Holland, France, and the Eastern Front. He participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, or the ‘Battle of Moscow.’ He also looked after the mechanical part of keeping all the war vehicles in proper order. While on the Eastern Front, in December 1942, Skorzeny was hit by shrapnel in the back of his head. However, he continued to fight till the evacuation. He was hospitalized later. He received his first ‘Iron Cross’ for this bravery.
During his recovery, he was given office duty in Berlin, where he studied commando operations and unconventional guerilla warfare. Skorzeny formed his own ideas about war tactics. The head of the ‘SS’ foreign intelligence service, SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, found it interesting. Skorzeny was appointed as the head of the newly created ‘Waffen Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal,’ meaning he was put in charge of the training of sabotage, paramilitary techniques, and espionage.
In mid-1943, the first mission of the new unit was ‘Operation François.’ The commandos (sent to Iran by parachutes) were told to encourage the mountain tribes of Iran to disrupt the supply of material to the Soviet Union. However, they were not sure of the commitment of the tribes. Finally, this operation was considered a failure.
On the night between July 24 and 25, 1943, the ‘Italian Grand Council of Fascism’ voted a no-confidence motion against Dictator Benito Mussolini. The king removed him and had him arrested. Hitler asked Skorzeny to search for Mussolini (and simultaneously ordered Gen. Kurt Student to carry out the liberation). The mission was named ‘Unternehmen Eiche,’ or ‘Operation Oak.’ The Italians were constantly changing Mussolini’s secret location. Finally, using the information obtained from informants, Skorzeny located Mussolini at a ski resort named the ‘Campo Imperatore Hotel,’ nearly 6,500 feet above sea level, in the Abruzzi Apennines.
Skorzeny led a risky airborne glider mission on September 12, 1943. It was difficult to land at the high mountain hotel, but the commandos landed their gliders. Without firing any shots, they took over the place. Following this, Mussolini was freed. He was being taken away in a small plane, which seated only the pilot and one passenger. However, Skorzeny insisted on riding the same plane, which made the take-off too difficult. The entire operation was put at risk, but the pilot managed to fly the aircraft and Mussolini was taken away from the place of his confinement. Although the mission was possible because of the teamwork of the paratroopers, Skorzeny and his forces obtained most of the credit for this operation. Hitler felicitated him with the ‘Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross’
Operation Long Jump
Skorzeny’s next mission was the ‘Operation Long Jump,’ a plan to infiltrate the ‘Tehran Conference’ and assassinate the “Big Three,” namely, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. The Soviets claimed that their espionage system had penetrated the German secret agency and had learned the details of the plot. After the first German team reached Tehran, the Soviets intercepted their messages and had them arrested. Thus, Skorzeny and his team never reached Iran.
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Historians claim that no such operation existed and that it was only Soviet propaganda. In his memoir, Skorzeny also mentioned that there was no such operation.
‘Operation Greif’ was Skorzeny’s most difficult mission. He trained his soldiers to penetrate the American lines in the region of Wallonia in the Belgian Ardennes, disguised as American soldiers, and to cause confusion and panic. This was risky due to the language barrier and the inadequate supply of American uniforms for the disguise.
The ‘Battle of the Bulge’ was launched on December 16, 1944, and the German soldiers infiltrated the enemy lines. Along with other fake orders, they spread rumors that Skorzeny was on a mission to raid Paris and kill or capture General Eisenhower. This caused a lot of confusion, and in Paris, General Eisenhower was given protective custody. A hunt was carried out to find the imposters, and 18 of the captured German soldiers were executed. Posters and descriptions of Skorzeny were distributed, with orders to capture him. However, Skorzeny was in East Prussia and Pomerania as the in-charge of his troops and was ordered to disrupt the bridge over Rhine River, which was taken over by the American army. At the end of the war, he received the ‘Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross,’ the highest military honor in Germany.
Arrested by the ‘Allies’ on May 15, 1945, Skorzeny was detained for 2 years. He was tried in 1947 at the ‘Dachau War Trials,’ for violating laws at the ‘Battle of the Bulge,’ especially for using enemy uniforms behind the enemy lines. However, he was acquitted later. On July 27, 1948, Skorzeny escaped from the ‘Darmstadt Camp,’ with the help of three former ‘SS’ officers. He remained hidden for nearly 18 months and then moved to Madrid and started an engineering business.
Skorzeny’s memoirs were published in April, 1950. In 1952, he acted as a military advisor to Egypt’s General Naguib and also trained the Egyptian army. Later, he served as an advisor to Egypt’s President Nasser. In 1952, the German government declared that Skorzeny was “denazified in absentia.”
In 1962, two ‘Mossad’ agents approached Skorzeny and his wife in a Spanish bar. Identifying them as Israeli agents, Skorzeny invited them to his house and confronted them with a gun. However, the agents stated that although they were ‘Mossad’ agents, they had approached to recruit him, as Israel wished to stop Egypt’s missile program. Skorzeny agreed on the condition that ‘Mossad’ should remove his name from Israel’s hit list.
‘Mossad’ failed to convince ‘Nazi’ hunter Wiesenthal to remove his name. Thus, they showed forged papers to Skorzeny and he agreed. He assassinated Heinz Krug, one of the chief ‘Nazi’ scientists who had a role in the Egyptian missile project. Skorzeny also sent a letter bomb that killed five Egyptians at the work site of the scientists. After these incidents, the rest of the German scientists left the project. The reason why Skorzeny agreed to work for Israel is not clear.
In 1970, a cancerous tumor was found on Skorzeny’s spine. He was later operated upon to remove the tumor. On July 5, 1975, he died of lung cancer in Madrid, at the age of 67. He received a Roman Catholic funeral in Madrid on August 7, 1975. Later, his body was cremated and his ashes were interred in his family’s plot in Vienna.