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).


SS hero Otto Skorzeny a suitable role-model for advertising? Ask Dave Trott

November 28, 2011

Dave Trott, renowned creative director of the “Hello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba” era, has lost none of his ability to surprise and shock.

The other day, Stephen Foster, at MAA, had the audacity to suggest that small quoted marketing services aggregators, like Media Square, never amount to much because they can’t exploit scale: only the big boys, such as WPP and Omnicom, really know what they are doing.

It so happens Dave works for Media Square: his ad agency Chick Smith Trott (now CSTTG) was acquired by the self-same at the beginning of last year. Dave, being Dave, took highly creative exception to Stephen’s thesis, which he rebutted with a fascinating (historical) parable demonstrating the power of original ideas over force of numbers.

Dave’s story is persuasively told, although I am not sure he was wise in his choice of protagonist. But I’ll leave you to decide on that.

Its improbable hero is one Otto Skorzeny.

Who? Well, for those who aren’t military buffs, here are a few background facts. Born in Vienna, 1908, Skorzeny was (on his mother’s side) the scion of a professional military family serving the Austro-Hungarian empire. Everything about him marked him out for martial glory: his powerful build; his commanding, charismatic, personality; his extraordinary personal courage – witness the deep facial scar acquired in one of 13 duels fought as a student; and finally, and most importantly, his completely unconventional approach to military tactics. Everything that is, except a theatre in which to exercise these gifts. After 1918 Austria was an embittered rump state, castrated by the Versailles Treaty: it had no place for soldiers.

Then along came Adolf Hitler and World War II. What a golden opportunity for the still young Skorzeny. To say the least, he did not disappoint – ending the war as one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the Third Reich. Skorzeny’s precocious speciality was commando warfare – what today would be called special forces operations. And in these he so excelled that he can easily bear comparison with David Stirling, founder of the SAS, or Orde Wingate, leader of the Chindits.

Let’s take two examples of the man in action (those selected by Dave, as a matter of fact). In September 1943 Skorzeny and a few hand-picked German commandos daringly snatched the former Italian dictator Mussolini from under the very noses of his now-Allied captors. Mussolini was apparently impregnably guarded in a mountain fastness approachable by a single cable car. Skorzeny’s flash of military genius? While everyone else was thinking land defence, he attacked from the air by glider.

Example 2: Operation Greif, December 1944. Skorzeny trained and led a unit of 2,000 German special forces whose mission was to operate behind the lines in the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last big offensive. Controversially, Skorzeny’s forces were drilled in American English and acquired American uniforms, American weapons and Jeeps for the occasion, marking them out for execution as spies if captured. The aim was not to kill as many GIs as possible, but to sow confusion in the enemy ranks. It seems a few commandos were, at great personal risk, to allow themselves to be captured – in order to disseminate under interrogation the entirely false rumour that their real mission was the assassination of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower.

In the event, the operation was botched, though not by Skorzeny. Only three dozen or so of his unit were able to carry out their original mission, of whom up to 18 were shot by the Americans after drumhead trials. Never mind, the rumour got through. Eisenhower did indeed have to spend that Christmas closeted in his distant HQ – hampered by absurd security precautions just when the Allies were under maximum pressure. Operation Greif very much shows Skorzeny’s ruthless creativity at work, levelling impossible odds by means of a clever ruse. As do other  – ultimately unsuccessful – operations credited to his name: the aborted assassination attempt on the Allied Big Three, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, at Tehran in December 1943; and the attempted but failed assassination of Yugoslav partisan leader General Tito in May 1944. Which, if nothing else, underline the ambitious scope of Skorzeny’s thinking.

Here’s a clip taken from the German news archive. It depicts Skorzeny in triumphant Errol Flynn mode immediately after the rescue of Mussolini, and well illustrates the kind of hero Dave would like Skorzeny to be. Sorry about the lack of a translation, but you should be able to follow the storyline easily enough. Skorzeny is the one in the getaway Fieseler Storch, standing just behind “Der Duce”:

The trouble is, I’ve forgotten something here, and so has Dave. Skorzeny was not just a brilliant professional soldier reluctantly doing his bit for Adolf and the Third Reich under compulsion of his military oath (as von Manstein, Guderian and many other Wehrmacht generals subsequently claimed to have done). Skorzeny was an obersturmbannführer (lieutenant-colonel) in the fanatically Himmlerian Waffen SS  and a deeply committed Nazi.

He joined the Austrian Nazi party indecently early in 1932 and in 1938 enthusiastically assisted Hitler’s overthrow of Austria’s legitimate government, in what was euphemistically called Anschluss (Union). Much later, in 1944, he was one of the first to pitch up in Berlin after the failure of von Stauffenberg’s July Plot, to help prop up Hitler’s momentarily tottering regime. Even with the war lost and Hitler dead, Skorzeny remained wedded to the cause of helping high-ranking Nazis by means of the ODESSA network, which he himself had taken a lead role in creating. He finished his days under the benign jurisdiction of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, advising the Egyptians on how to hit back at the Israelis, and the Greek military junta on how to repress their own people. Other clients included the South African government and, topically enough, Colonel Gadaffi.

So, at the end of all this, I’m not quite sure what Dave is trying to tell us. Other than something slightly unconvincing about his theory of “predatory intelligence”.

Yes, Skorzeny was a brilliant creative thinker in his way; but then, Hitler – as Bernie Ecclestone recently reminded us – was a brilliant road-builder. The trouble, in both cases, is the facts have been over-selected, making the insight almost worthless. Context is everything.


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