V2 by Robert Harris: Three stars and a black mark

July 28, 2021

Robert Harris is without question a doyen of the high-class thriller. Few authors can plot, build dramatic tension, create convincing characterisations with such deft economic key strokes; and channel their novel into so concise and satisfying a denouement as he can.

What finally marks him out from his peers, however, is the breadth and depth of his historical research. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of, for instance, the late Roman republic or the disaster that entombed Pompeii in 79 AD, I can only say that I greatly enjoyed his take on both topics.

I was hoping to lavish the same unreserved praise on V2.

It’s certainly a page-turner that I consumed in double-quick time.

But then I stumbled upon that pleasure-killer, the historical anachronism. Not once, but multiply. And it was all so avoidable – had the author done a little more research.

Let’s be honest. Writing about historical events, it is exceedingly difficult to avoid the odd, venial, anachronism. Someone, somewhere will find you out.

For example, on page p 152 of V2 (paperback edition), Harris refers to rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s visit to Hitler’s Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, as related to fellow scientist (and story protagonist) Rudi Graf. Graf is fictional, but von Braun – a Hitler idol – was very real, and so was his visit to the Wolfsschanze: it took place in July 1943. Hitler was casting around for a decisive weapon to reverse the military catastrophe at Stalingrad. Von Braun appeared to have it, in the form of the V2 rocket, and he had brought some 35mm cine film along to prove his point. But, he’d had to wait hours, and hours, for an audience…

“Then someone shouted, “The Führer!” and in he came with Keitel, Jodl, Speer and all their aides. I must say he looked pretty awful, [says Braun in the novel] hunched forward and pale as a sheet, and his left arm seemed to have developed a life of its own – when he sat down, he had to hold onto his wrist with his other hand to stop it shaking…”

Hitler had good reason to be depressed by the outcome of Stalingrad, but there is no evidence that his left arm had developed the uncontrollable shakes at this stage. That came later, in the autumn of 1944, and was remarked upon by a variety of eye-witnesses at the time, including the head of his commando force, Otto Skorzeny, and the head of SS foreign intelligence, Walter Schellenberg. In all probability, the shakes had something to do with Hitler’s narrow escape from being blown up on July 20th 1944, although Schellenberg, possibly with the benefit of hindsight, claimed to have observed symptoms of Parkinson’s as early as the winter of 1943.

The state of Hitler’s physical degeneration is an incidental detail in Harris’s account and, if it is a case of Homer nodding, then so be it.

Less excusable is his sloppy description of various SS uniforms as “black”. We are told, for example, that Obersturmbannführer Karlheinz Drexler, the V2 units’s head of security, is wearing the “midnight-black” uniform of the SS (p 53). Later, when Drexler’s men are carrying out a brutal security raid, we learn “the tops of the men’s shoulders were clad in SS black” (p 275). And, a few pages later, with reference to the missile development site at Peenemünde in May 1943, Graf recalls “the number of black uniforms that started to spread like spoors across the island in the weeks that followed – manning checkpoints, patrolling perimeters, guarding the building sites …” as the SS began to ship in the thousands of slaves who would build and maintain the site (p 279).

All very evocative, the colour black epitomising the sinister motives that without doubt inspired the SS leadership and its murderous minions. But sadly, substantially untrue after mid-1940, when Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler – head of the SS – effectively discarded the black uniform with which the organisation had been closely associated since at least 1934.

Henceforth, black uniforms were almost without exception confined to ethnic paramilitary police units in conquered Reich territory – the kind of people routinely involved in slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews, under SS jurisdiction, behind the then-expanding Eastern Front.

Why did Himmler decide it was time for a radical shake-up at Hugo Boss, the SS fashion designer? Mainly because the SS had moved on, to become a more complex and socially penetrative organisation with the outbreak of war. Black represented the Allgemeine-SS, or General-SS – a, for the most part, bureaucratic and police-oriented organisation – which was being eclipsed by the new Waffen-SS (or Armed SS). Before the war, overtly military SS activities had been severely restricted, thanks to a Faustian pact between Hitler and the German armed forces. The Wehrmacht high command was quite prepared to go along with Hitler’s plans for world domination, so long as they didn’t involve itself being supplanted by a fanatical rival.

War subtly changed the equation. The Waffen-SS was allowed to massively expand and underwent a qualitative upgrade in its armament. Himmler, as Reichsführer, was its titular head and hierophant. But, operationally, the Wehrmacht remained firmly in control (for as long, at any rate, as it continued to win the war). One outward sign of this was that Waffen-SS units, unlike their civilian SS counterparts, were clad in standard military feldgrau (field grey) uniforms – even though their insignia (gorgets, shoulder-boards, cap badges etc) were of a very different type to those of conventional military units.

The “black” Allgemeine-SS, meanwhile, was sucked dry by the sudden recruitment crisis in the Waffen-SS, which simultaneously tended to degrade its civilian rival’s perceived status (inasmuch as middle-seniority recruits to the armed branch often had to trade a reduction in rank for the grim pleasure of perishing on the Fatherland’s Eastern Front).

Added to this, significant sections of the “civilian” SS – notably the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo, or the security police, of which the Gestapo was a part) and its intelligence counterpart, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD – SS foreign and home intelligence services) – had undergone their own evolution in uniforms. By the late Thirties the accent on black had mutated into so-called erdgrau (earth-, or service-grey). Grey, not black, remained the underlying SS colourway throughout the war.

So, who are all these “men in black” populating the Dutch landscape of V2, in late November 1944?

By this time, the SS had at last seized control of all spheres of life in the Third Reich, military as well as civilian. A combination of the Wehrmacht’s catastrophic defeats and the bungled July 20th (1944) Plot (which could never have been hatched without the connivance of high-ranking Wehrmacht officers) had put Himmler and his associates in the driving seat, militarily speaking. And what an uncomfortable seat that had become: it was apparent, even to Hitler and Himmler, that only a miracle, in the form of Revenge Weapons, could save the day. These (primarily the V1 and V2) were far too important to be left in the hands of the discredited Army establishment, headed by General Walter Dornberger. A massive RAF night raid on Peenemünde (Operation Hydra, August 1943) had provided the excuse for not only a shift in manufacturing locale (to a bomb-proof underground site near Nordhausen, Thuringia), but an explicit change of leadership. Dornberger was sidelined, to be replaced by Himmler’s protegé, SS-Gruppenführer Hans Kammler – a man who combined in his person extreme technical competence with equally extreme Nazism. Kammler makes an appearance in the novel; we are left in no doubt about his fanaticism, ruthlessness or casual brutality.

Kammler, ever the megalomaniac micro-manager, wanted to remodel the whole V2 project in his own image. We see something of this in his creation of a specifically SS technical unit, the SS-Werfer Batterie 500, which launched rockets from Hellendoorn, Holland. But the course of the war, and the diminishing resources at his disposal, obliged even him to recognise limitations. In practice, he remained operationally dependent on “unreliable” civilian scientists (like Graf, in the novel) and the Army technical teams that had worked on the V2 project under Dornberger.

Security was quite another matter. As a Waffen-SS general (he joined the Waffen-SS in June 1941) Kammler would have had ready access to the likes of Obersturmbannführer Drexler. Far from wearing a “midnight-black uniform”, Drexler was surely dressed in field-grey when issuing his blood-chilling order to “cleanse” all the female inmates of the officers’ brothel at Wassenaar. And so were his men, incorrectly described in the novel as “clad in SS black”.

To whom, exactly, Drexler reports in the Nazi hierarchy is never made clear. We discover, on p 194, that he is entertaining two Gestapo officers (who would have been based at The Hague); but that does not indicate, necessarily, that he is a member of the Gestapo himself. In all probability he is not. The security king-pin in Nazi-occupied Holland at the time was one Hanns Albin Rauter, who held the rank of Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF). As such, he reported directly to Himmler. He was also an Obergruppenführer (technically outranking Kammler, at the time the story takes place) and, as of September 1944, an acting Waffen-SS general. Logically, he would have had the last word on any major security operation in the area, such as the massacre at the brothel described on pages 291-292.

Harris seems to have made a further SS-related slip in his portrayal of Biwack. At the beginning of the novel (p3), Biwack is introduced to Graf by Colonel Huber in the following manner:

“This is Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office… Biwack gave a Hitler salute to which Graf made a wary return. He had heard about these ‘NSFOs’ but had never actually met one – Nazi commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders to kindle a fighting spirit. Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.”

Mercifully, Harris never comments on the colour of Biwack’s uniform. There are, however, several troubling aspects to his description of the man and his role.

NSFOs, or Nationalsozialistische Führungsoffiziere, were indeed the brainchild of Adolf Hitler and their role was certainly to rekindle Nazi ardour in the flagging Wehrmacht. But, far from being “recently embedded in the military“ (by implication, though Harris doesn’t say this, as a reaction to the July Plot), the NSFOs and Hitler’s decree creating them actually date some way back from the story timeline – to December 22nd 1943. The thinking behind them was Stalingrad, not the attempt on Hitler’s life.

SS-Sturmscharführer is a rank that roughly equates to regimental sergeant-major, the highest an experienced enlisted man could rise in the ranks without becoming a commissioned officer. Which is doubly strange, because in the first place NSFOs were recruited from among junior commissioned officers (typically lieutenants – on the not unjustifiable basis that young officers were more likely to be fanatical Nazis than older ones). And in the second, they were invariably Wehrmacht, not SS, officers. True Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and one of Hitler’s most powerful henchmen, had a role in vetting their appointment (by late 1944 there were nearly 50,000 of them), but it was the Wehrmacht, under General Hermann Reinecke, that was responsible for them carrying out their duties.

A Waffen-SS non-commissioned NSFO grafted onto Colonel Huber’s Army unit therefore seems, shall we say, a trifle unusual, given the habitual mutual loathing between Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers.

Oddly, the one person who would correctly fit into a “midnight-black” SS uniform is Wernher von Braun himself. Brilliant rocket scientist, talented cellist and piano-player, handsome philanderer, charismatic, wealthy and well-connected – Braun was also an utterly amoral technocrat who cared for very little beyond getting a rocket to the moon (which he eventually succeeded in doing, with the Saturn V/Apollo missions). To quote Tom Lehrer: “Once rockets are up, Who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

From the start Braun was what Lehrer called a Nazi-Schmazi. He joined the SS out of pure political opportunism, well knowing that without the unstinting support of Hitler’s regime he would never command the colossal resources required to develop a space-rocket. But while von Braun aimed for outer space, Hitler’s targets were very much confined to this world.

First stop for von Braun was a brief spell at the SS riding school, in 1933. And then in 1940, at Himmler’s personal request, he joined the Allgemeine-SS as an Untersturmführer (Lieutenant). Just in time, it appears, to qualify for the last batch of “midnight black” uniforms.

How do we know this? Because, although von Braun took care to appear in civilian clothes on most public occasions, a compromising photo of him in SS uniform somehow escaped the auto-censor’s post-war vigilance. And it turns out this uniform was black. Reserved, presumably, for ceremonial occasions – such as an official visit to Peenemünde by Himmler in June 1943.

Himmler visits Peenemünde in June 1943. Von Braun in a black SS uniform lurks – though he never denied it was him – in the background. Note the SS leader’s service-grey uniform

‘Does any of this really matter?’ I hear you say. After all, V2 is just a piece of historical fiction aimed at the bestseller lists, and should be enjoyed as such.

Well, yes and no. V2 is a piece of entertainment read, for the most part, by people who may have little knowledge of, and still less interest in, the historical authenticity of Nazi uniforms. That, however, is not the point. Harris is an author who takes pride in authentic historical reconstruction and has built his reputation upon it. For instance, his descriptions of the workings, and non-workings, of the V2 rocket seem to me (no expert, admittedly) very convincing. But, having stumbled on one anachronism, what else might I uncover on closer inspection? The willing suspension of disbelief is suspended no longer.

Not that historical authenticity will in any way trouble Hollywood, when the inevitable happens and V2 the book becomes V2 the film. Take it from me: there won’t be a nuanced SS uniform in sight.

Stuart Smith is the author of Otto Skorzeny – The Devil’s Disciple, published by Bloomsbury/Osprey 


Otto Skorzeny as Bond villain

September 20, 2018

No doubt about it, Skorzeny was a rogue – if a swashbuckling, flamboyant one. Among the first to grasp this villainous potential was Ian Fleming in Moonraker, which pitches James Bond against the evil Sir Hugo Drax. Drax, apparently a wealthy British industrialist, is in reality a former commander of one of Skorzeny’s Jagdverbände companies who is bent upon the destruction of his wartime enemy, Great Britain.

Ian FlemingFleming: Drawing on fact   

Elements in the plot and the character of Drax invite close comparison with Skorzeny himself:

  • By the mid-Fifties, when Moonraker was published, Skorzeny, too, had become a wealthy businessman, although one living in Spain rather than Britain.
  • During the last months of the war, Drax is hideously scarred down the face while carrying out a last-ditch act of sabotage as leader of a terrorist Werwolf unit (an organisation with which Skorzeny certainly had involvement). Skorzeny’s nickname was ‘Scarface’, on account of the duelling scars which disfigured the left side of his face.
  • Like Skorzeny, Drax is charismatic if a little loud-mouthed and ostentatious. He’s also a chain-smoker.
  • Drax’s chosen weapon of mass destruction is a gyroscopically enhanced V-2 rocket with which he plans to vaporise London. This might be dismissed as standard Nazi-bogeyman fare – bearing in mind the German missiles that had rained down on London only a few years previously – were it not for an interesting parallel. Skorzeny was prime-mover in a project that really had sought to overcome the wild inaccuracy of the Third Reich’s rocketry. In his case it was the V-1 (“Buzzbomb”) that he set about modifying, and his solution was to place a suicide pilot within it. Hanna Reitsch, Nazi Germany’s most famous test pilot, successfully flew a prototype.

Piloted V-1

Occupying British forces inspect a manned version of the V-1, known as the Reichenberg – a project pioneered by Skorzeny in 1944

Drax’s past is hardly an authentic reconstruction of historical events; parts of it nevertheless ring true. Real name Graf Hugo von der Drache, Drax is purportedly a former Brandenburger special forces commando who joins Skorzeny’s SS organisation not long after it is set up in 1943. Precisely the course taken by a number of Brandenburgers (among them, Nazi war hero Adrian von Fölkersam, later Skorzeny’s number 2), who volunteered for service in the SS commando unit after finding their specialised sabotage and linguistic skills increasingly redundant on the crumbling Eastern Front.

Later Drax, dressed and armed as an American, claims to have led a jeep commando unit attached to Panzerbrigade 150 – which created havoc behind American lines in the opening stages of Hitler’s last offensive, the Ardennes campaign of December 1944. Exactly so. The jeep escapade – an astonishing piece of psychological warfare – was far and away the most successful part of Skorzeny’s ‘false flag’ operation, Greif, which featured captured American tanks and armoured vehicles as well as the aforementioned jeeps.

Fleming is on shakier ground when – the Ardennes offensive having collapsed – he has Drache/Drax join forces with ‘Hitlerjugend Werewolves’ (led by his future henchman Willy Krebs) and go to ground in the Ardennes forest as a terrorist stay-behind operation. Heinrich Himmler, titular head of the SS, did indeed create an organisation called SS-Werwolf and Skorzeny’s commando force undeniably had dealings with it. But it was a fractious relationship, riven by jealousy and bad faith.

Himmler dreamed of a lavishly funded terrorist network made up of Nazi fanatics (mostly Sipo – state security police – although Hitler Youth provided some of the cannon-fodder) who were exclusively loyal to himself. By autumn 1944, when he first unveiled his gruesome foster-child, the precarious state of the Third Reich precluded such grand plans. Instead, the embryonic organisation was obliged to rely on Skorzeny’s generosity for training and matériel. While Skorzeny, as a commander of Waffen-SS units, was compelled (by fealty to Himmler as Reichsführer-SS) to collude with the scheme, covertly he and his senior colleagues did everything they could to strangle a parasitic rival they regarded as inferior to their own organisation in military professionalism, leadership, resources and experience.

skorzeny-after-surrender-austria-5-45.png

Otto Skorzeny after his capture in the Austrian Alps, May 1945

In this, they were largely successful. Werwolf had but one high-profile accomplishment to its name: the murder of the American-nominated mayor of Aachen, Franz Oppenhof, on March 25 1945. By the end of the war Werwolf was little more than a generic term for partisan resistance: its would-be leader, Skorzeny himself; its participants, the most diehard elements of his former commando Jagdverbände; its locale, the Austrian Alps – hundreds of miles from the Belgian forest of Fleming’s imagination.

What then of the real villain? For sure, Otto Skorzeny possessed some of the vital ingredients of a Bond Baddie, notably a tendency towards megalomaniac delusion and dreams of world domination. In the early Fifties he confided to an American friend in Madrid that ‘it was his destiny some day to be President of Germany’.[1] How much this was said in jest, under the influence of his favourite malt whisky, is hard to discern. But his schemes over the next few years – the creation of a neo-Nazi secret army in Spain and subversive political activities in the fledgling Federal German republic – do little to dissuade us of the sincerity of his self-belief.

As for war crimes, Skorzeny was never convicted of any – although there was certainly blood on his hands. For a short time he sponsored, at Himmler’s behest, a death-squad in wartime Denmark that cold-bloodedly gunned down members of the resistance. Likewise, the summary executions of several members of the Austrian underground at the end of the war were very likely carried out on Skorzeny’s orders – although nothing has ever been proved. But the atrocities he was actually accused of, during a US-instigated war-crimes trial, were not his responsibility. Skorzeny made his post-war reputation grimmer than it need have been by pandering to a political creed that was unrepentantly Nazi. In the absence of hard fact he was accused of all sorts of nefarious activities, many of which were contradictory. And, indeed, untrue.

In real life, ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Europe’ – as Skorzeny soon became known – lacked the monstrous chiaroscuro of a Bond villain, but he certainly had some of the makings of one.

[1] ‘Otto Skorzeny was Rolf Steinbauer’, Federal Bureau of Investigation Report, 9 January 1951, O.S. CIA name file. His confidant was Edgar Smith.

Stuart Smith is the author of Otto Skorzeny – The Devil’s Disciple, published by Bloomsbury/Osprey in the week of September 16, 2018. Price: £20 (hardback).


Otto Skorzeny and the killing of Osama bin Laden

September 14, 2018

01:38 local time, May 2, 2011: a small team of US Navy SEALs stowed the bullet-riddled corpse of their target aboard a stealth helicopter and exited rapidly from Abbottabad, Pakistan. With the 44th President of the United States personally monitoring their progress, they had just carried out an audacious commando mission: the assassination of the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden. There were no casualties – at least, not on the American side; only one helicopter down.

Osama-Bin-Laden-640x476

US decapitation target: Osama bin Laden

The military architect of this raid was (then) Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, and himself a former SEAL. Over 15 years previously McRaven had published a book, to this day regarded as a seminal text on special operations.[1] Among the 8 historical case studies that comprise the book, one is of compelling interest here: because of its uncanny similarities with bin Laden’s nemesis, Operation Neptune Spear.

This other operation – known as Oak – also involved a surprise airborne assault on a fortified hideaway located in a dubiously allied country. It was carried out by gliders – though use of a helicopter had been discussed at the planning stage. Like Neptune Spear, Oak was a politically-instigated raid receiving minutely detailed attention from the head of the state which sponsored it. It, too, was a surgical operation focusing on a single, human, target – except, in the case of Oak, the objective was rescue rather than elimination. The raid achieved complete surprise and complete success. Its critical phase was over within a matter of minutes; no shots were fired; there were no fatalities among those carrying it out; the rescued high-status hostage was air-freighted to safety.

Operation Oak influenced the course of WWII. Its successful outcome bought the Germans precious time and political credibility, enabling them to reinforce their position in northern Italy. What, a few days previously, had looked an easy win for the Anglo-American forces battling up the Italian peninsula was now to become a hard slog. When the Allies achieved their strategic breakthrough the following year, it would be in Belarus and Normandy, not northern Italy.

Skorzeny_Mussolini rescue

Excess baggage freighted with destiny: Skorzeny jumps aboard the getaway aircraft for a hazardous mountain-top take-off with Mussolini

The man who had tumbled out of that first, crash-landed, German glider and immediately assumed command of the situation looked every inch the expedition’s leader. He was enormously tall, Herculean in build; his voice stentorian; ruggedly handsome, the whole of the left side of his face was etched with a manly duelling scar; his eyes were a penetrating slate-blue; beneath his steel helmet (later exchanged for a jaunty garrison cap) was a preternaturally glossy crop of dark hair that seemed perma-waved in position. Hollywood could not have produced a finer casting-couch hero.

Within half an hour of landing he was standing side by side with Benito Mussolini, former Fascist dictator of Italy and the man he had just rescued, enjoying a carefully rehearsed photo opportunity. A few days later these photos – and the accompanying reels of news-film – would be relayed across the entire world, indelibly recording his achievement for posterity. His name, hitherto barely known, was Otto Skorzeny. He had come – he told Mussolini – on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler to escort him back to Berlin.

This fact was indisputably accurate; much else that has been said and written about the raid, its protagonist and his subsequent exploits is not.

No doubt about it, McCraven’s own account of Operation Oak is, in places, infected by the hagiography that has encrusted Skorzeny’s reputation. It is a tad too reliant upon the Nazi commando’s self-glorifying memoirs and a somewhat credulous biography written by Glen Infield nearly 40 years ago. Skorzeny did not – as he would have us believe – mastermind and plan the raid. Quite simply, he hadn’t got the military experience to do so. Planning and tactics were actually decided upon by the staff of Luftwaffe general – and overall commander of the mission – Kurt Student. In particular, by Major Harald Mors.

mcraven-caucus-blog480

President Barack Obama greets the architect of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven

That said, it is quite conceivable the raid would never have taken place, still less succeeded, without Skorzeny’s participation in it. And here, in the final analysis, resides McRaven’s argument.

It was Skorzeny who, during the long, hot, summer of 1943, relentlessly followed up every lead provided by his employer, the SS foreign intelligence service – the one organisation that eventually proved capable of delivering the goods on Mussolini’s whereabouts at Gran Sasso.

This at a time when the Abwehr, the Third Reich’s main intelligence service, was engaged in an opaque disinformation campaign aimed at throwing its SS rival off the scent. And when Skorzeny’s commanding officer, Student, was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the defence of Rome against an anticipated Allied attack. To Student, very much the professional military man, the recapture of Mussolini was a tiresome politically-motivated mission. To Skorzeny – as Hitler’s personal emissary – it was pivotal to his dreams of glory; which meant at very least winning the Ritterkreuz (the benchmark of military achievement in Hitler’s Germany).

It was Skorzeny who insisted on a last minute aerial reconnaissance over the mountain-top, providing – however inadequate the photographs – the only available information on a suitable glider landing site. More importantly still, Skorzeny – due to an accident in the glider flight-plan – was first to land on Gran Sasso, allowing him to seize the initiative, bluff his way past Mussolini’s Italian guards using a captured Italian general, and bag the former dictator alive. He did it without firing a shot.

These are the key issues McRaven focuses upon in his account; they clearly proved influential in his thinking on political decapitation missions. Though aware of the bitter controversy that had rumbled down the years about who should ultimately wear the laurels for Operation Oak (see note 4 of Chapter 5), he dismissed it as immaterial: ‘Whether Skorzeny was a straphanger or the mastermind of the operation is inconsequential. Ultimately, success resulted from Skorzeny’s actions at Gran Sasso and not from Mors’s.’

[1] Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare – Theory and Practice, 1995.

Stuart Smith is the author of Otto Skorzeny – The Devil’s Disciple, to be published by Bloomsbury/Osprey in the week beginning September 16, 2018. Price: £20 (hardback).


The Reputation of Colonel Otto Skorzeny

September 6, 2018

Well, hello. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Five years ago, Publicis was buying Omnicom (or was it the other way around?). Now, even the Mighty Martin has been toppled from his pedestal and marketing services conglomerates are beginning to look distinctly ‘retro’.

But enough of that. What have I been up to? Writing a book is the short answer. It’s called Otto Skorzeny – The Devil’s Disciple and will be published internationally by Bloomsbury/Osprey during the week beginning September 16.

OS cover

What’s it about? A military adventurer whose ‘epic’ deeds belong, at first sight, to the realm of fiction. And yet they do not. Skorzeny really did help to rescue Benito Mussolini from a near-impregnable mountain fastness where he was being held hostage by his own side. And he really did spook the Americans into believing he was sending a commando force dressed and armed as US servicemen to assassinate their supreme commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in Paris – which inspired panic behind American lines.

When I say Otto Skorzeny was larger than life, I mean it. He was a big man, with big ideas and an even bigger ego. He also had a big mouth and a big problem with telling the truth (though fortunately he didn’t have access to a Twitter account). His biggest fault, however, was an unflinching adherence – long after April 30 1945 – to one A. Hitler, to whom he owed his meteoric rise to global fame. Hence: The Devil’s Disciple.

You might think this misplaced devotion a big disadvantage in the post-war world: Nazi Germany pulverised, the Soviet Union, United States and Britain triumphant. Not a bit of it. With a slickness that puts Macavity in the shade, Skorzeny shrugged off a US-inspired war-crimes trial (he was acquitted on all counts) and escaped to Spain, where he morphed into a successful businessman. People came flocking to his Madrid apartment: journalists in search of a story (he was very good at that, especially tall ones); film producers in hope of acquiring the rights to Skorzeny: The Movie; the CIA to keep tabs on his devious double-dealings in Germany; Mossad agents, because Israel had got into a bit of bother with an Egyptian rocket programme manned by Nazi scientists.

Otto Skorzeny was to die not in a ditch but, a multi-millionaire, in his bed. It was cancer that finally got him, not one of his many enemies.

All of which goes to show that the cult of celebrity comes in many guises. Though, admittedly, the uniform of an SS-Obersturmbannführer is rarely one of them.

In the next week or so I’ll post more on Skorzeny’s picaresque career.

 


Publicom and on and on and on

August 15, 2013

Maurice Levy, John WrenNearly three weeks on from the seismic news that Publicis Groupe and Omnicom are to merge and still no end in sight to the discussion of possible permutations.

Not, be it noted, among the clients involved – who are mostly too stunned, or too busy topping up their tans, to react – but within the industry trade press. At AdAge, the merger has virtually gained supplement status with a regularly updated online sidebar.

But pickings are increasingly thin, as the few facts to emerge shear into speculation. My current favourite ramification? Did Messrs Lévy and Wren not consider the impact of their merger on the industry’s premier creative and effectiveness award schemes? It seems they did not, with dire consequences for both the Cannes International Festival of Creativity holding company of the year award and its Effies equivalent. Alas, these hallowed categories, engineered with such care and precision over the past few years, may now be consigned to the scrapheap by the appearance of a juggernaut so colossal that it will  steam-roller any conceivable competition for the heretoafter. Quelle horreur!

Here’s one factoid that may be of more than passing interest. In the four weeks to August 12th, WPP was the only significant loser in market value within a sector that is generally on the upswing. Its shares shed 1.8% in value. I owe this pearl to Bob Willott, editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, who speculates that the back-track reflects investment community anxiety that WPP may embark upon something big and silly as a riposte. In other words, a price-inflated mega-merger.

I doubt it, given that the only acquisition with appropriate critical mass would be Dentsu. Just think about it, but only for a nano-second. For once, Sir Martin Sorrell is likely to play a waiting game. The sole visible benefit of the Publicom merger to clients – in whose name such things are theoretically carried out – is consolidated media buying in North America. Of traditional media, that is. The very thing that may attract regulatory interest. “Big data”? Don’t make me laugh. It’s a smokescreen, though admittedly a trendy one. How much data, exactly, do Omnicom and Publicis own and farm compared to the specialists in the field (from Google downwards)? And, even supposing it were enough, how long will it take to merge the holding companies’ two very different platforms?

One other thing. Who is actually going to run the new show? There are an awful lot of chairmen, current and sequential – Bruce Crawford, Maurice Lévy and John Wren – but who is going to handle the grubby job of steering the global behemoth from day to day? A Frenchman does not seem likely (though a Frenchman handling the finances, that’s another matter) – because of a lack of global projection. Other than Lévy, the only French adman of global standing is, er, David Jones (well, he speaks fluent French and has a French wife). The natural choice might be Andrew Robertson, head of BBDO and indisputably a citizen of the world (he started off in Rhodesia). But maybe I’m in a minority of two on this. How’s your French, Andrew?


Artist’s ‘playful riff’ on Charles Saatchi

July 31, 2013

Charles Saatchi – NotCharles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson have just been granted a decree nisi in the  High Court, near finalising their divorce.  We thought to mark the occasion with an item that puts former adman Charlieboy in his rightful context: as a celebrated patron of controversial Art.

A young British artist (who for entirely understandable reasons prefers to remain anonymous) has created a life-size model of Saatchi with a hand outstretched ready to choke anyone who interacts with the piece. The work is entitled ‘Playful Tiff’ – the words Charles used to describe the incident where he lovingly placed his hand around his wife Nigella Lawson’s neck at Scott’s restaurant in London. Viewers of ‘Playful Tiff’ are invited to place their neck in Saatchi’s hand and capture the historic moment with a photo on their mobile phone.
For good measure, and in line with the impish persona Saatchi has used to promote his book, ‘Be The Worst You Can Be’, the model is bright red and comes with a set of horns.
The artwork is on display at the Jealous Gallery at Crouch End in north London.

We suspect this particular exhibit will soon be occupying pride of place in the Saatchi Gallery.

Just choking.


Fallout from the Publicis/Omnicom merger

July 29, 2013

Richard PinderBy Richard Pinder

When first hearing the Publicis and Omnicom merger rumours you could have been forgiven for thinking it to be some silly season gossip.

But as we know POG is not a passing fancy, it is for real. Hats off to Maurice Levy who has consistently shown his ability to be daring, decisive and dynamic just when people least expect it.

So what drove it? And who are the winners and losers? First, two sets of observations:

The announcement was made in Paris, not New York. The Group will be called the Publicis Omnicom Group, not the Omnicom Publicis Group. The revenues of Publicis Groupe are some way below those of Omnicom Group though their market caps are much closer, but it will be a merger 50/50 owned by the two companies shareholders.
After the dust has settled and the merger is done, the silly co-CEO thing is finished with and the company starts to operate normally, the CEO will be John Wren, from Omnicom, the CFO likely to be Randy Weisenberger from Omnicom, the ticker marker on the NYSE will be OMC and largest market for the combined entity will be the USA.

Once the incredulity subsides, you can see the attraction to Maurice and John. And as the above simple summary shows, you can see the game that is being played by both to get the other to agree to the deal. The former gets to show the French establishment what world class really means, a brilliant retirement gig as non executive Chairman of the world’s number one advertising group and without having to go through with the charade of making good his oft delivered promise to Jean-Yves Naouri to be his successor. The latter, within 30 months, gets to run something nearly double the size of OMC today, in seriously good shape in Digital and Emerging Markets, the number one ad agency of the number one spending client in the world – P&G who had only just taken most of their business from OMC – and all without the pain and risk of taking the long road there.

For Elisabeth Badinter it’s a fabulous end to her tenure as Chair of Publicis – seeing the company her father founded in 1926 become number one globally, as well as securing the very strong valuation on her holding that today’s Publicis stock price provides. For a number of senior managers there will likely be the triggering of various unvested options, stock grants and other goodies, not to mention the special dividends, that will mean good will all round. So, off on the August vacances with a spring in their step? Well not everyone…

For a start there is precious little in the announcement about WHY this is better for clients. We can see it’s better for doing deals with the big media partners, old and new. Scale counts there. But when the bulk of the enterprise’s activity is still about finding, creating and executing inspirational ideas to motivate the world’s population to choose one brand over another brand, there is a point beyond which scale can actually be a disadvantage – talent feels lost, ideas get killed by people who have no idea what the clients’ needs are and everything takes too long and costs too much. Well that’s what a large number of large clients have been telling me this past two years since I left Paris as COO of Publicis Worldwide.

There is also the small matter of the $500m savings mooted in the announcement. Publicis Groupe runs lean. Margins are already industry best. So the chances of finding much of the savings there seem slim. It will be interesting to see how the board of BBDO reacts to the likely loss of their top tier international travel rights, or the agencies of DDB cope with tough bonus rules that tie every unit in the company to the performance of those around them, as happens at Leo Burnett or Publicis today.

As a footnote on the winners and losers, spare a thought for those who fought, lost and thought they had won in the long-running soap opera called Maurice Levy’s succession. Just as the game looked like it would soon be over, the sport got changed and everything was different.

It will also be fascinating to see what WPP do about this. They have got used to being the world’s largest and Sir Martin is rarely quiet for long on any topic, let alone one so close to home. Bookies will surely be giving poor odds on a shotgun WPP/IPG or WPP/Havas union.

And me? Well as client choice reduces, the need for new global alternatives will continue to increase. It’s why we started The House Worldwide and it’s why we think it will  be increasingly relevant to clients who want to get back to a world where the client and the brand are more important than the agent promoting it, and where the money is better off going to the talent than to the accountants counting it.

Bigger and smaller, that’s the future of the ad network game.

Richard Pinder is co-founder and CEO of The House International. He was formerly the head of Publicis Worldwide.

 


Publicis Groupe and Omnicom disclose $35bn merger

July 27, 2013

Maurice LevyAs merger rumours go, they didn’t come much better. Omnipub. Or more probably Publicom. But let’s come back to that later.

The idea that the world’s number two marketing services group, Omnicom, is about to combine with the number three, Publicis Groupe, and topple WPP from its premier spot (by market capitalisation) eventually proved too much for Bloomberg News. Yesterday, after the New York Stock Exchange had closed, it went ahead and published on the basis of a single source, probably but not certainly a disaffected investment banker.

Hats off to Bloomberg: it got it right. The new entity is to be called Publicis Omnicom Groupe. Fuller details will be announced in Paris tomorrow. But Omnicom chief executive John Wren and Publicis CEO are expected to be joint CEOs of the combined companies. At least, for the time being…

Commentators have rightly fastened upon the many impediments to Wren and Lévy pulling off this $35bn marriage in advertising heaven. They range from anti-trust legislation, to rampant nationalism (Publicis is a French chauvinistic icon, and seen as a bulwark against Le Defi Americain), to apparently unbridgeable divergence in the two companies’ strategies, not to mention the little matter of crippling client conflict.

So that’s it then? It can’t possibly work? Well, no. I can’t speak for the thicket of legal obstacles likely to be thrown in the way of the touted merger, but most of the other objections can be turned on their head, sometimes to advantage.

Let’s take strategy as an example. Lévy is relatively weak in the USA, but has emphasised emerging markets and put his money where his mouth is – sometimes too much of it – with expensive digital acquisitions such as Digitas, Razorfish, Rosetta, Big Fuel and LBi. Wren is archetypally American – over 50% of his business comes from the States; he has shied away from digital acquisitions, which he regards as over-priced, and some (including shareholders) would argue that his conservatism, or complacency, has cost Omnicom dear in the Far East. So different strategies, yes; but incompatible ones, no.

Nor is client conflict the neurotic impediment to mergers in the advertising business it once was. Some clients – McDonald’s, Mars and Procter & Gamble for instance – are held in common by the two groups. The real deal-breaker – if there is one – is likely to be Coca-Cola (PG) and PepsiCo (Omnicom). Then again, maybe Wren knows something about the state of the PepsiCo business we don’t.

Next, might a merger not help to address some chronic succession problems in both organisations? Readers of this news site will be very familiar with those at Publicis. Jean-Yves Naouri, once 71-year-old Lévy’s favoured protégé, seems to have fallen by the wayside. While Arthur Sadoun – the capable, ambitious managing director of the elite Publicis Worldwide network – was probably too young and too little known outside France to assume the global mantle. An added piece in this jigsaw is Elisabeth Badinter, the daughter of Publicis founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, who has been a member of PG’s supervisory board since 1987 and its chairman since 1996.

Badinter will, according to the Wall Street Journal, co-chair the new Publicis/Omnicom entity with Bruce Crawford. But she is expected to retire at the end of 2015. Which would be a convenient moment for Lévy to metamorphose into an emeritus role. It might also be a convenient moment for Badinter to bow out and cash in an enormous cheque. She is a 9.1% share holder in Publicis Groupe.

John WrenTurning to Omnicom, the problems of its senior management are less well ventilated. But two things are certain: its directors are not getting any younger and there hasn’t been much mobility lately. The average age of the board is over 70 (my thanks to Bob Willott for this pop-up statistic), making 61-year-old Wren look a comparative spring-chicken. Omnicom remains a well-run company, but there is an unmistakable air of geriatric stasis hanging over it. It has lost some big, perennial, brands in the recent past: Gillette and Chevrolet. Another signature account – Anheuser-Busch – has been cut to ribbons by the cost-conscious Boys from Brazil (InBev). By contrast Publicis – for all its chief’s distinguished grey hair – is viewed as dynamic; a perception reflected not only in PG’s recent stellar results but its consistently superior stock market rating.

A “nil premium” merger (which is what Bloomberg has suggested this is) implies a combination of equals. In reality, although Omnicom is the larger company, Publicis will end up in the driving seat: we’re talking Publicom rather than OmniPub. The signs are already there: in the name, Publicis leading; and in the venue for the announcement tomorrow, Paris.

The important detail to look out for will be who becomes chief financial officer. My money is on Jean-Michel Etienne rather than Randy Weisenburger. It’s not only the French who have to be appeased, it’s also the investment community.

Bloomberg seeded one of the most galvanising “silly season” rumours in years. The only thing is, it turned out to be true.


Emirates global account quandary as Strawberry Frog splits with Amsterdam

July 11, 2013

emirates46_460If what I hear is correct, Scott Goodson, chairman of micro-network Strawberry Frog, hasn’t been kissing enough princes lately.

The mercurial Goodson – famous for saying his agency wasn’t up for sale, while putting the finishing touches to a deal with PR group APCO – has had a bust-up with his Amsterdam agency, Media Catalyst. That’s Amsterdam agency number two. He also managed to alienate Amsterdam agency number one, headed by SF co-founder Brian Elliott, which now trades as Amsterdam Worldwide. And then he fell out with his Brazilian partner, Alexandre Peralta, of Peralta Sao Paulo – an agency that has gone on to rather greater achievement without him. So, there’s a bit of history to this kind of thing.

But I digress a little. The latest split is unusually serious, because SF Amsterdam/Media Catalyst is the lead agency for SF’s backbone client, Dubai-based Emirates Airline – one of the world’s largest. The Frogs won the account against considerable competition from the likes of BBDO and Grey, back in 2010. And what an account to win: lead agency for a global rebranding campaign worth (according to AdAge at any rate) $300m. This wasn’t just a feather in the cap, but full plumage for a small digitally-inspired creative boutique making its way in the world. Timely sticking plaster as well, given the above-mentioned ructions going on elsewhere in the organisation.

It’s important to point out that most of the credit for winning – and retaining – this account seems to have been down to Amsterdam CEO Hans Howarth, the majority shareholder in Media Catalyst. Goodson, with his habitual talent for self-publicity, owned about 30% of the agency from which he has now been ejected, but somehow managed to maximise most of the plaudits.

The Emirates brief was to turn the airline into an aspirant, lifestyle brand (isn’t one enough in the world?) and SF duly delivered with “Hello Tomorrow”, announced with great pizzazz last April by Sir Maurice Flanagan, executive vice chairman of Emirates Airline : “Our new corporate image and global marketing campaign both underline the confidence we have in our existing products and services, and the vision we have for the future growth of the airline. Emirates is not just offering a way to connect people from point A to point B but is the catalyst to connect people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.” What this boils down to is getting a younger “audience” hooked on the brand by dextrous use of social media.

Only last month, Omnicom – in the guise of BBDO New York and Atmosphere Proximity – won Emirates North American business, against competition from WPP’s Grey and JWT. At the time, we were assured that the pitch would not in any way affect Strawberry Frog’s tenure of the global branding account. But that was before news of the split with Amsterdam broke. It would be surprising if some of these agencies’ biggest guns are not, at this very moment, on a Boeing 777 heading for Dubai airport. An Emirates one, naturally.

Where all this leaves SF – apart from picking up the pieces – is anyone’s guess.


Cannes awards spat masks war to the needle between de Nardis and Sorrell

July 4, 2013

Mainardo de NardisWPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell has rightly been basking in the reflected glory of the Cannes sunshine. Three successive years, three successive triumphs as holding company of the year at the International Festival of Creativity. It’s the pinnacle moment for a strategy – his own as it happens, but one for which worldwide creative director John O’Keeffe has done all the hard implementation – designed to kick into touch that old myth about Omnicom’s creative supremacy.

Martin, they used to say, has Asia (meaning he’s a shrewd strategist) but John (Wren, Omnicom CEO) has all the brands. Not any more. In the eternal battle for Cannes “statues”, WPP notched up a convincing lead of 2067 points over Omnicom, in number two position with 1552. Publicis Groupe trailed in third place with 989.5 (where did that half-point come from? No idea). Just to rub the triumph in, a leading WPP agency, Ogilvy & Mather, became the first network ever to win more than 100 lions and its Sao Paulo shop was named agency of the year. So now Martin can boast about having the brands, as well as Asia. Which is more than Alexander the Great could ever do.

But when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. A few days after the festival ended, news that Omnicom was crying foul over the final Lions tally left Sir Martin spluttering into his breakfast of fresh strawberries at Connaught’s. His temper will not have improved on learning the identity of the trouble-fête behind all this mischief: none other than Mainardo de Nardis, CEO of Omnicom’s principal media planning and buying network, OMD Worldwide. Mainardo (pictured) and Sir Martin go back a long way…

More of that in a moment, though. First, let’s get down and dirty with some relatively boring Cannes festival award technicalities. The substance of de Nardis’ complaint is that WPP media company GroupM has massively over-claimed in putting out a statement – last Wednesday – saying it had won 45 awards, more than any other media agency holding company. Not nearly so, according to Omnicom. Thirty of the Lions (i.e., awards) claimed by GroupM are not verified on the Cannes Lions winners’ website.

Doh? Well, a majority of GroupM’s wins should be disqualified because its subsidiary agencies were not specified in the original competition entry. WPP may well have won something, on the creative side, but for whatever reason, failed to catalogue the media achievement. After the wins were announced, according to Omnicom, GroupM assiduously went back to each entrant agency and requested they be listed as the media shop for the work.

“Gaming the system,” says de Nardis, and a clear violation of the Festival’s rules in spirit if not in the letter (Cannes does make allowance for a few genuine oversights, but not wholesale ones). “Rubbish,” responds GroupM: just a few inadvertent errors and when the Cannes deadline for amended entries is published tomorrow (July 5th), all will be vindicated.

OMD, by the way, won 19 awards, which are seemingly confirmed on the Cannes website. So, if we subtract 30 from GroupM’s claimed 45, we can see that OMD has everything to play for.

All this might seem a storm in a teacup to most readers. But fuelling Sorrell’s irritation is some history. Mainardo de Nardis was once a senior WPP executive and the relationship with Sorrell did not end pleasantly.

Specifically, de Nardis headed WPP’s CIA.mediaedge, these days called MEC, before leaving for Aegis in 2006. Ironically, in view of what has come later, it was WPP which accused de Nardis of not abiding by the rules. Indeed, it became so convinced that de Nardis was playing a double game – working for a rival while still on WPP gardening leave – that it issued legal proceedings against him. Interestingly (from a revelatory point of view), the matter went to trial and quite a lot of Machiavellian shenanigans tumbled out concerning de Nardis’ relationship with Marco Benatti, another former WPP executive who was at that time country manager of CIA in Italy. Although they have managed to fall out from time to time, de Nardis and Benatti were (and probably still are) closely tied by family and business interests – for example, they once ran Medianetwork Italia. Benatti was himself the subject of WPP court proceedings, for alleged breach of fiduciary duty in failing to disclose a major holding in an Italian company, Media Club, which he had helped to acquire on WPP’s behalf in 2002. The trial lumbered on until 2008. Anyone interested in the minutiae of these (apparently) dusty events might look here and here.

So, nothing personal in this statues kerfuffle, eh? One other thing guaranteed to pour salt into old wounds is the prestigious Chanel account, recently up for repitch. Incumbent media agency? MEC. Prospective winner (according to the gossip at Cannes, possibly generated by de Nardis himself): OMD. Actual winner, declared yesterday: WPP, in the guise of a new bespoke agency, Plus – which harbours elements of MEC and Mindshare in its media-buying element.


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