Skorzeny: The Mythical Nazi Commando (Part 2)

Otto Skorzeny. Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0
Otto Skorzeny. Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0

Continues from SKORZENY: The Mythical Commando (Part 1)

By Adeyinka Makinde

At the time, both the Hague and Geneva Conventions permitted the execution of “spies and saboteurs” disguised in the uniforms of the enemy. Once a battle had commenced, they became unlawful combatants and thus forfeited their right to prisoner of war status.

The axis forces had subjected captured partisans to such procedure on the basis of them being unlawful combatants and allied Special Forces were liable to be summarily executed by virtue of Hitler’s infamous Commando Order which he secretly decreed in 1942.

Skorzeny, of course, bore prima facie responsibility for this and more. In order to furnish his men with American uniforms, equipment and things like chocolate bars, chewing gum and corned beef, he had had to confiscate items from American soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps and intercept Red Cross parcels that had been consigned to American prisoners of war.

The truth is that Skorzeny sent his men into battle ill-prepared. Contrary to the impression given by an oft-quoted description given by General Patton to General Eisenhower of “Krauts…speaking perfect English”, no more than ten spoke anything approaching fluent English along with a comfortable acquisition of American dialect and culture.

Perhaps a hundred to one hundred and fifty spoke passable English while the vast majority spoke little or no English. In order to avoid discovery, they were expected to fob off inquiries by saying “sorry” or run off while feigning diarrhea.

Many were easily picked off for ‘infractions’ such as ordering “petrol” instead of “gas” and using the British expressions “Up your bottom!” (instead of the American “Bottoms up!”) and “Keep your pecker up!”

Another area in which Skorzeny’s training fell short, and which he admitted to in his memoirs, was in regard to the minor details associated with American military custom such as in the use of vehicles.

A contingent of his men drove a US Army jeep with a full complement of four soldiers when in fact Americans traditionally drove two to a jeep. The effect of seeing soldiers traveling along this arrangement was to create an immediate sense of suspicion in any American soldier.

Perhaps the biggest success amid the failure of the offensive was the psychological effect the infiltration had on the allied forces. One of the results of the interviews the US Army conducted with one of Skorzeny’s captured commandos, most likely Wilhelm Schmidt, was that Skorzeny was at the head of a team of commandos en route to Paris to assassinate the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower.

This led to panic among the allies resulting in Eisenhower become a virtual prisoner in his headquarters at the Trianon Hotel in Versailles. Tanks were deployed and machine gun posts set up in readiness.

Guards were increased, barbed wire ringed the area, and, according to the memoirs of Eisenhower’s secretary, “the password became a matter of life and death.” An Eisenhower look-a-like was brought in to walk around in the hope of unmasking any German assassins.

The rumor of a plan to take Eisenhower’s life dated back to the previous year by a comment made to Skorzeny himself by a private on the parade grounds at Friedenthal. It also resurfaced -along with other extravagant rumors- while Skorzeny trained his men at Grafenwohr.

There was, of course, no such plan. Yet, the paranoia enveloping the Americans led to inconvenient cat and mouse games between GIs along with unnecessary and disruptive arrests and detentions.

Angered and shaken by it all, Eisenhower ‘released’ himself from captivity and ordered wanted posters bearing Skorzeny’s visage to be printed. The poster headlined him thus: “Spy, Saboteur, Murderer”.

Skorzeny would milk the praise from those who fell into the idea that it had been a masterstroke of unorthodox warfare. But it is clear that the extent of the confusion it had caused had been unintended.

Furthermore, the successes attributed to Skorzeny’s small group of ‘Enheit Stielau’ are likely inflated because it was not an unusual feature of battles to have camouflaged reconnaissance teams operating.

Another reason is that due to the deterioration over the course of the war in the quality of field uniforms, German infantry soldiers, who were prone to salvaging any items of American clothing which were considered to be more comfortable, could be captured or killed while wearing, for example, a US-issued field jacket.

But it is also pertinent to note that Skorzeny’s planning was hampered by a lack of cooperation from other resource-starved army units, an unevenly trained source of manpower who came from diverse areas of the German armed forces: army, air force, and navy as well as a lack of equipment; not only for the planned deceptions, but also in terms of available artillery pieces. Skorzeny himself estimated that around ninety-eight percent of the 150th Brigade’s equipment consisted only of small firearms.

When the war ended and on May 16, 1945, he emerged from a forest near Salzburg to surrender himself into the custody of an American army lieutenant, Skorzeny knew that he would have to give an accounting of his wartime activities.

His trial for the violation of the laws and usages of war was held before a US military tribunal in Dachau. It would run for three weeks between August and September of 1947.

Because he had been reassigned to fight towards Malmedy with the 6th SS Panzer Division, he had initially been implicated as a suspect in the massacre of over seventy American troops at Malmedy.

However, this aspect of the charges was dropped when SS-Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Pieper stated in his own trial that Skorzeny had had nothing to do with the shootings.

Still, one other major charge hung over his head, namely that of the improper use of military uniforms. He was also charged with espionage and the theft of uniforms, insignia, and equipment from prisoners of war.

The charge of “Participating in the improper use of American uniforms and treacherously firing upon and killing members of the armed forces of the United States” was based on the provisions contained in Article 23 of the Annex of the Hague Convention of 1907.

This states that “It is especially forbidden to make improper use of a flag of truce, of the national flag or of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy.”

A number of issues worked in favor of Skorzeny’s defense. One concerned the interpretation given to “improper use”. It was accepted at the trial that armies were entitled to employ ruses of war as an important element of battle strategy.

The key point of contention related to separating ruses which were linked to the use of enemy uniforms during actual fighting and in operations which did not involve fighting.

The contemporary experts in international law diverted in their interpretations. While some felt that the use of enemy uniforms was illegitimate at any point, others felt that legitimacy continued until battle commenced and that once this happened, the soldiers carrying out the ruse were under an obligation to reveal their true national uniform.

Arguments were made that the convention was outdated by the time of the Second World War, but given that it formed the basis of this prosecution, a minimal interpretation had to be that the convention accepted by implication that enemy uniforms could be used although their “improper use” would be a violation of the rules of law.

The precise evidence arrayed against Skorzeny was not particularly strong. First Lieutenant William J. O’Neill testified that while engaging in a battle on December 20th, he saw his opponents wearing American uniforms with German parachute overalls.

When captured, O’Neill could only recall that they belonged to the “First or the Adolf Hitler or the Panzer Division”.

The second piece of evidence, contained in an affidavit by an accused German soldier named Wilhelm Kocherscheid, related that while undertaking reconnaissance in American uniforms, he and his men encountered an American military police sergeant and that fearing they would be recognised “fired several shots” at the sergeant.

O’Neill’s evidence carried little weight since his impreciseness made the court unable to tie the soldiers with whom he had been fighting to the brigade commanded by Skorzeny, while the evidence provided by Korcherscheid fell short because there was no proof that the sergeant at whom he shot died or was even wounded.

The aspect of the trial which has tended to get the most attention was the introduction by Skorzeny’s defence attorney of an elite British commando, Wing Commander Forrest Yeo-Thomas.

Yeo-Thomas claimed that he had knowledge of Soviet, American, French and Polish forces having used captured German uniforms to deceive the enemy. When asked why they would do this, he answered, “to bump the other guy off!”

Yeo-Thomas expressed the view that it would be unfair to reach a finding of guilt and sentence Skorzeny to death when the allies did not prosecute those of their soldiers who conducted similar missions.

The evidence of Yeo-Thomas came to be seen as decisive in securing Skorzeny’s acquittal. There was a resonance that a commando would come to the rescue of a fellow commando who had fought for an enemy army; lacing his testimonial with warm words describing Skorzeny as having been a gentleman.

But this need not be construed as such. The post-war trials were filled with instances of siegerjustiz, that is, ‘Victor’s Justice’, by which the allies tried Germans for crimes which they themselves had committed.

Skorzeny was also acquitted of the other charges inspite of the fact that his former adjutant, Karl Radle, had testified that Skorzeny had forced himself into an American prisoner-of-war camp and obtained materials at gunpoint.

Although the court did not give reasons for its findings, it is presumed that given that Skorzeny had been acquitted of the main charge against him, the judges opted to apply the legal maxim de minimis non curat lex, which translates to mean that “the law cares not for small things.”

In 1948, Skorzeny escaped from an internment camp in Darmstadt where he was awaiting denazification. He also faced the prospect of being extradited to other allied nations for crimes allegedly committed on their territories.

He settled in Spain, then under the regime of General Franco and acquired a Nansen Passport for stateless persons, which was issued to him by the Spanish government.

During the 1950s, he is said to have worked as an advisor to the Peron regime in Argentina and also in organising the secret service of Egypt where he worked for General Neguib and Neguib’s successor Colonel Nasser.

The Skorzeny legend has been bolstered by his supposed masterminding of what came to be known as the ODESSA network. Although popularised through popular culture via a film based on a Frederick Forsyth novel, The Odessa File, much doubt has been cast on its existence.

Why, it is argued, would a supposedly clandestine group indulging in the sensitive business of smuggling former Nazis go by an acronym standing for Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehorigen –Organisation for former SS members?

Documents of the US Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) dating to the 1940s noted the existence of a small group in an SS internment camp in Auerbach which employed the word ‘Odessa’ as a codeword associated with the mundane objective of obtaining better camp privileges.

The word was used in a range of other camps and in certain towns as a means of bolstering group solidarity in the aftermath of defeat and while they endured captivity.

One document mentions the existence of a POW organisation at Dachau named ODESSA which was allegedly run by Skorzeny and which could arrange escapes to Argentina using forged Portuguese papers. However, the veracity of the informant was evidently not put to the test.

Few believe that Skorzeny, who would have been under intense scrutiny at the time, was capable of running such an organisation and even fewer believe that given his lack of discretion, he would have been capable of running the more elaborated version which would later capture the public imagination.

Former Nazis who escaped from Europe such as Reinhold Kops, Alfred Jarschel and Eric Priebke poured scorn on the idea of the existence of ODESSA. The truth is more likely that escape networks, in which Skorzeny may have played a part, operated in a looser, more improvised fashion and on smaller scales.

They came with names such as ‘Scharnhorst’, ‘Sechsgestirn’, ‘Konsul’, ‘Leibwache’ and Lustige Bruder’ and certainly were not organised on the scale of the ‘ratlines’ overseen by the Vatican or the intelligence services of the Western allies.

A final element in the myth-building around Otto Skorzeny has been the attempt to label him as a sort of progenitor of modern terrorism. Key to this view point was his formation of the Paladin Group in Albufera, near Alicante in 1970.

The Paladin Group was an anti-communist organisation which according to SAS-founder, David Stirling, was Skorzeny’s long-held idea of setting up an “international directorship of strategic assault personnel” whose objectives would enable it to “straddle the watershed between paramilitary operations carried out by the troops in uniform and the political warfare which is conducted by civilian agents.”

With recruits from a membership emanating from a disparate group of sources including former members respectively of the SS, France’s Service Action Civic (SAC) and the disbanded Organisation de l’Armee Secret (OAS), Paladin turned out to be a guns-for-hire body which catered to the provision of mercenaries to right-wing dictatorships. It provided training not only to the security agencies of authoritarian regimes, but also to a range of guerrilla organisations.

Thus, when he declared to the Madrid daily Informaciones, in November 1973 that he had “never become involved in the military or political affairs of any country”, this was not true.

The Paladin Group’s clients included the Greek military junta, South Africa’s State security agency BOSS and Spain’s Direccion General de Seguridad then waging a clandestine war against the Basque separatist group ETA. It also had alleged links to Waddie Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which would have been ironic given the Marxist credentials of Haddad.

Skorzeny was also behind a shadowy international arms supply body known as Arms co which made illegal supplies of arms and ammunition to countries such as Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya.

He was a personal friend of Italian neo-fascists Prince Junio Borghese and Stefano Delle Chiaie, both of whom spent time in Spain as exiles but who were influential in the era of la strategia della tensione.

While these do amount to a fair body of connections, painting Skorzeny as a major figure in the birth of international terrorism amounts to a gross distortion.

There are far better candidates.

The superpowers involved in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, for instance provided sustenance to a range of liberation or terroristic organisations which they trained and armed.

The American Central Intelligence Agency sponsored or otherwise had links with a host of terrorist organisations including Aginter Press, an extremely influential training ground for neo-fascists, which was run by Yves Guerin-Serac, a former member of the OAS which had violently opposed General de Gaulle’s decision to grant independence to Algeria.

Guerin-Serac’s organisation which was based in Portugal served as a finishing school for right-wing urban guerrillas who were taught the dark arts of bomb making, infiltration, counter-insurgency and black propaganda.

His ideological underpinnings, which were rooted in something which could be termed as ‘Christian Fascism’ along with his rendition of the techniques of waging guerrilla warfare which are preserved for posterity in a series of manuals discovered at the time of the fall of the Salazar regime, are more tangible and have more depth than anything the notoriously anti-intellectual Skorzeny could muster.

Whereas Skorzeny’s poor record in producing effective commandos from his training  school in Friedenthal  is clearly evident, Guerin-Serac, a decorated paratrooper from an era which produced many French soldiers with fascinating talents and expertise in covert work and so-called black-ops, through Aginter Press, developed tentacles reaching out across Europe, Latin America and Africa where the methodologies of politically motivated violence advocated in his manual were employed.

Certainly, he and his agents are credited to a major degree with the shaping of the anni di piombo or ‘Years of Lead’ which blighted the Italian political landscape for close to twenty years.

His is a legacy more torrid and lasting than that of Skorzeny’s Paladin Group which the French Nouvel Observateur magazine in 1974 described as a “strange temporary work agency of mercenaries”.

What then to make of the legacy of Otto Skorzeny? While there is no question as to the bravery, cunning and resourcefulness of this larger-than-life commando, his story as consistently retold over the decades has, nonetheless, being replete with a host of falsehoods and exaggerations.

Starting with the propaganda onslaught formulated by Josef Goebbels’ ministry in the wake of the mission which rescued Mussolini, there was more than a whiff of a carefully constructed myth that surrounded Skorzeny.

And once he had attained the status of National Socialist hero and the notoriety as ‘Europe’s most dangerous man’, the myth-making continued; nourished by a man who himself was prone to embellishment as well as a by a fawning group of former soldiers, military historians and writers.

His competence both as an instructor and a battle commander have since come under scrutiny. Men under his command consistently fell short in the trying circumstances of battle. Instances include the failed attempt to supply a group of encircled troops via barges during the siege of Budapest and the attempt to blow up American-held bridges at Remagen. The failures of his soldiers during the debacle of the Battle of the Bulge can be traced to the shoddiness of the preparations which he oversaw.

While it is true that he was never implicated in the cold blooded murder of civilians or of partisans, he was not the pure and honourable warrior as is often portrayed.

Skorzeny was behind a suggestion that German missiles be adapted to accommodate suicide pilots; a line of thinking which did not appear to offend his sense of honour or whatever remained of the tenets of his Catholic upbringing.

He was not merely a German patriot or conservative. He remained an unabashed admirer and believer in National Socialism and its leader Adolf Hitler whose creed of racial struggle and the need for the so-called Aryan race to subjugateuntermenschen led to so much upheaval and suffering.

While he was not one to dogmatically express himself through the raw doctrines of National Socialist thinking, his underlying beliefs could be garnered through statements such as one he made while speaking at the Delkey Literary Historical Debating Society in Ireland in 1960.

On the question of inferior races, Skorzeny said, “There should not be talk of inferior or superior races. It is clear, however, that some races are without proof of culture.”

Late in his life in the 1970s, he said in a filmed interview that the time was “not yet ripe” to make the assessment that National Socialism had been the wrong course for the German nation to take; indeed, he took the opportunity to go on record as saying that he did not regret his involvement and that if he had to do things again, he would do it “exactly the same way today.”

At the end of his memoirs, Skorzeny referred to what he termed the “Skorzeny legend” and affected to wearily refer to the “figment of imagination” of the many “fairy tales” which he claimed had been invented about him.

But his admission that he had kept “several thousand” newspaper and magazine clippings arguably present the man as he really was: one with a total obsession with himself and his image; an image that has over the course of time been exposed as been over-inflated and largely unwarranted.

The time surely has come to bring him down from his pedestal.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer and lecturer in law who is based in England.

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