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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 Fleming   

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 


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