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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.

 


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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