How SS Commando Otto ‘Scarface’ Skorzeny Became an Assassin for Israel After WW2

Skorzeny in Pomerania visiting the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, February 1945. Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0
Skorzeny in Pomerania visiting the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, February 1945. Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0

German scientist Heinz Krug vanished on September 11, 1962. Krug was at his office, and then he was gone without ever returning home.

The only other detail known to the Munich police was that Krug often went to Cairo. Like dozens of other Nazi rocket scientists, he had been hired by Egypt to help them develop advanced weapons.

The Israeli newspaper HaBoker (now defunct) claimed that the Egyptians had kidnapped Heinz to keep him from doing business with Israel. The “leak” was an attempt by the Israeli government to keep investigators from looking too closely at the case. Although the 49-year-old scientist wasn’t going to be found either way.

Based on interviews with former Mossad officers and with Israelis who have access to Mossad archives from the last 50 years, it is now known that Krug was murdered by Israel to intimidate German scientists working for Egypt, Forward News reported.

Skorzeny as commander of the SS unit "Friedenthal". Photo Credit.
Skorzeny as commander of the SS unit “Friedenthal”. Photo Credit.

More amazing is the discovery of who committed the murder. Otto Skorzeny turned out to be one of the Mossad’s most valuable agents. He was also a former lieutenant colonel in the Nazis’ Waffen-SS, one of Hitler’s favorite among their commando leaders. The Führer gave Skorzeny the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the most prestigious medal in the German army, for leading the operation that saved Benito Mussolini from his captors in 1943.

By 1962, Skorzeny was working for the Mossad, which translates from Hebrew to “The Institute for Intelligence and Special Missions.”

One of the Mossad’s top priorities had been stopping German scientists from working on Egypt’s rocket program. Krug and other German scientists had received threatening messages for several months before his death. In Germany, they received phone calls in the middle of the night to quit the Egyptian program. In Egypt, some received letter bombs.

Krug was near the top of the Mossad’s list of targets. During World War II, Krug was a member of a team of superstar scientists at Peenemünde, a test range on the Baltic Sea coast. The top German scientists worked there under Wernher von Braun. There they engineered the rockets used in the Baby Blitz that had a massive impact on England in the second half of 1944. They had larger goals of building rockets with longer range, better accuracy, and more power.

Skorzeny with the liberated Mussolini, 12 September 1943. Photo Credit.
Skorzeny with the liberated Mussolini, 12 September 1943. Photo Credit.

According to the Mossad files, von Braun invited Krug and other scientists to join him in America 10 years after the end of the war. Von Braun, nearly cleared of charges from the war, was leading a missile development program in the U.S. He became one of the fathers of the NASA space program. Krug, instead, chose a more lucrative option: working in Egypt for the German professor Wolfgang Pilz with other scientists from Peenemünde. There, they set up a secret missile program.

In Israel’s opinion, Krug must have known that Israel would be the target for the Egyptians’ new missiles. As a committed Nazi, they believed he would take the opportunity to continue working toward the Final Solution.

The phone calls and notes were driving Krug crazy. He and his coworkers knew that they were coming from the Israelis. In 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the Holocaust’s chief administrators, in Argentina. They managed to smuggle him to Jerusalem, where he was tried and executed.

Krug knew the Israelis were coming for him, too. That is why he turned to Skorzeny, the Nazi hero. The one man able to save him.

On the day he vanished, sources say that Krug left work to meet with Skorzeny.

Skorzeny (2nd from left), 3 October 1943. Photo Credit.
Skorzeny (2nd from left), 3 October 1943. Photo Credit.

Skorzeny was 54 years old at the time. By this point, he was a legend. He was a dashing, innovative military man. He grew up in Austria. The trademark scar on the left side of his face came from an over-zealous fencing match as a youth. He rose through the ranks to lieutenant colonel in the Waffen-SS. Because of his success as a guerilla commander, Hitler recognized him as a man who would go above and beyond, stopping at nothing to complete his mission.

His exploits made him an inspiration to Germans and gained him the grudging respect of Germany’s enemies. He was labeled by American and British intelligence as the “most dangerous man in Europe.”

Krug drove Skorzeny in his white Mercedes north out of Munich. Skorzeny said that he had arranged for three bodyguards, who were following behind. They would stop in the forest at a safe location to chat. When they arrived there, Krug was executed – without a trial, without even a formal indictment. The executioner was Germany’s hero. Israel had managed to turn him into a secret agent for the Jewish state.

After Krug was shot, the three Israelis poured acid on his body. After waiting for the acid to work, they buried the remains in a previously dug hole. They covered the grave with lime to keep search dogs and wild creatures from finding the remains.

Skorzeny (left) and Adrian von Fölkersam (right) in Budapest, 16 October 1944. Photo Credit.
Skorzeny (left) and Adrian von Fölkersam (right) in Budapest, 16 October 1944. Photo Credit.

The trio that arranged for this execution was led by future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. At the time, he was the head of Mossad’s special operations unit. One of the others was Zvi “Peter” Malkin, who had tackled Eichmann in Argentina and later would become a painter. Supervising was Yosef “Joe” Raanan, the agency’s senior officer in Germany. All three had lost many relatives to the Holocaust.

The Israelis used Skorzeny to get as close as possible to the Nazis helping Egypt begin a new Holocaust.

The Mossad followed no rules and knew no limits in its efforts to protect Israel and the Jewish people. Its spies went around the legal systems of many countries to execute enemies of Israel, including Palestinian terrorists, Iranian scientists and even a Canadian arms dealer named Gerald Bull, who worked for Saddam Hussein until he was shot to death in Brussels in 1990.

Mossad agents once killed a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, thinking that he was the leader of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by the Black September group. Ahmed Bouchikhi was gunned down as he left a movie theater in 1973 with his pregnant wife. She eventually received compensation from the Israeli government, which did not admit fault. That mission delayed further assassinations, but it didn’t stop them completely.

To get to the enemies of Israel, the Mossad worked with unexpected partners. For short-term results, the Israelis were willing to work with anyone.

Reuven Shiloah - first director of the "Mossad".
Reuven Shiloah – first director of the “Mossad.”

But what made Skorzeny want to work with the Mossad?

Born in Vienna in June of 1908 to a middle-class family proud of its military service for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Skorzeny was fearless and bold and able to put together deceptive tales that fooled many people, even at a young age. These were the qualities that the Mossad desired.

He joined the Nazi party in 1931 when he was 23. He was a huge supporter of Hitler. After World War II broke out, Skorzeny left his construction firm and volunteered for the Leibstandarte SS Panzer Division that served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard.

In his memoirs written after the war, Skorzeny talks about his years in the SS as if they were nearly bloodless travels through Europe. His travels couldn’t have been as innocent as he tries to make them seem. He was involved in the battles in Russia and Poland and the Israelis believed he was involved in the extermination of the Jews. The Waffen-SS was not part of the Wehrmacht, or regular army; it was the military force of the Nazi party and its genocidal plans.

His most famous mission occurred in September 1943. He led commandos in engineless gliders to land at an Italian mountain resort. There, they rescued Hitler’s friend, Benito Mussolini, who had been kidnapped, and smuggled him out of the country.

Mossad seal.

This operation earned Skorzeny the promotion to lieutenant colonel, operational control of Hitler’s SS forces, several hours of face-to-face conversation with the Führer, and the Knight’s Cross. But he wasn’t done yet.

In September 1944, Admiral Miklos Horthy, the Regent of Hungary and an ally of Germany, was close to surrendering to the Russians. Skorzeny led a team of Special Forces into Budapest to kidnap Horthy and replace his government with the hardline Fascist Arrow Cross regime. That regime then killed or deported tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews in the short months before the war’s end.

Also in 1944, Skorzeny handpicked 150 soldiers, including some who spoke English, dressed them in stolen U.S. uniforms, and put them in captured American tanks. They then attacked the Allies from behind after at the battle of the bulge.

Waiting in a cell as a witness at the Nuremberg trials, 24 November 1945.
Waiting in a cell as a witness at the Nuremberg trials, 24 November 1945.

This bold act bought Skorzeny two years of interrogation, imprisonment, and trial after the war. Allied military judges acquitted him in 1947. European papers headlined him as Europe’s most dangerous man. He enjoyed the fame. In 1957, he published his memoirs in multiple editions and languages. In his books, he describes Hitler as a caring, attentive military strategist.

There are many things Skorzeny did not reveal in his memoirs, including how he escaped from the American military, which held him for a third year after his acquittal. Prosecutors were preparing charges against him in the Nuremberg tribunals, but he managed to escape with the help of former SS soldiers in American military police uniforms.

There are rumors that the CIA’s predecessor agency, the Office of Special Services, aided Skorzeny’s escape. (He had done some work for the OSS and was allowed to settle in Spain.) He did some advisory work to Juan Peron in Argentina and for the Egyptian government. During his stint with Egypt, he got to know the Egyptian officers running the missile program.

In the meantime, the Mossad was plotting the best way to find and kill Skorzeny. Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad, had a different idea: find Skorzeny and put him to work.

For some time, the Mossad was aware that to get close to the German scientists; they would need an inside man. In short, they needed a Nazi.

Avraham Ahituv. Photo Credit.
Avraham Ahituv. Photo Credit.

Since there was no way to get a Nazi that they could trust, they instead found a Nazi they could count on. Someone who was thorough, determined, successful in executing plans and skillful at keeping secrets. For some, it was a painful decision to recruit Skorzeny. The task was given to Raanan, who was born in Vienna and barely escaped the Holocaust. As an Austrian Jew, his birth name was Kurt Weisman. When the Nazis took over in 1938, he was 16 and was sent to British-ruled Palestine. His mother and his brother stayed in Europe.

Like many of the Jews in Palestine, he joined the British army. He served in the Royal Air Force. When the State of Israel was created in 1948, he took a Hebrew name and became Joe Raanan. He was one of the first pilots in the new nation’s air force. He rapidly became an airbase commander and later became the air force’s intelligence chief.

His unique resume, which included work in psychological warfare, was noticed by Harel, who signed him up for the Mossad in 1957. A few years later, Raanan was sent to Germany to direct the agency’s operations there. He was instructed to pay special attention to the German scientists in Egypt. It was Raanan who had to find a way to command an operation to find and establish contact with Skorzeny.

Raanan had a hard time overcoming his own reluctance, but he followed orders and assembled a team that traveled to Spain to gather intelligence. They watched Skorzeny, his home, his workplace and his daily routine. The team included a German woman in her late ’20s who was a saayanit, or helper. She was not trained, nor a Mossad official, but would take on roles as needed, often portraying the girlfriend of a Mossad agent.

Portrait of Muhammad Naguib (1904-1984), the first President of Egypt (1953-1954), in military uniform.
Portrait of Muhammad Naguib (1904-1984), the first President of Egypt (1953-1954), in military uniform.

Internal Mossad reports record this woman’s name as Anke. She is described as pretty, vivacious and flirtatious. She was perfect for the operation.

In the early part of 1962, Skorzeny was spending an evening in a bar with his wife, the niece of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s finance minister.

They were relaxing with cocktails when the bartender introduced them to a German-speaking couple. The woman was pretty, in her 20s, and the gentleman was well dressed, around 40. They were German tourists, they said, and had just survived a street robbery.

They spoke perfect German with a slight Austrian accent, like Skorzeny’s. They gave false names but they were actually Anke and a Mossad agent whose name is still classified.

There were drinks and flirting. Skorzeny’s wife invited the couple, who had claimed to have lost everything, to stay the night with them. As they entered the house, Skorzeny pulled a gun and said, “I know who you are, and I know why you’re here. You are Mossad and you are here to kill me.”

The young couple didn’t flinch. The man replied, “You are half right. We are from Mossad, but if we had come to kill you, you would have been dead weeks ago.”

“Or maybe,” Skorzeny said, “I would rather just kill you.”

Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, c. 1943. Photo Credit.
Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, c. 1943. Photo Credit.

Anke said, “If you kill us, the ones who come next won’t bother to have a drink with you. You won’t even see their faces before they blow out your brains. Our offer to you is just for you to help us.”

After a long pause, Skorzeny replied without lowering his gun, “What kind of help? You need something done?”

The Mossad officer told Skorzeny that Israel needed information and they were willing to pay for it.

Skorzeny returned, “Money doesn’t interest me. I have enough.” What Skorzeny did want was for Simon Wiesenthal, the famed “Nazi hunter,” to remove his name from his list of war criminals. Skorzeny insisted that he had not committed any crimes.

While the Mossad agent did not believe that Skorzeny was innocent, he told Skorzeny that they would take care of getting his name off the list.

Finally, Skorzeny lowered his gun, and the men shook hands.

“I knew that the whole story about you being robbed was bogus,” Skorzeny said, with the boastful smile of a fellow intelligence professional. “Just a cover story.”

Dr. Simon Wiesenthal at the Centre for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) symposium "Zionism as a response", at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam, October 18, 1982. Photo Credit.
Dr. Simon Wiesenthal at the Centre for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) symposium “Zionism as a response”, at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam, October 18, 1982. Photo Credit.

Raanan secretly arranged to fly Skorzeny to Tel Aviv and introduced him to Harel. They questioned him and gave him further instructions and guidelines. They took him to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem. The Nazi was silent and respectful. At one point, a war survivor pointed at Skorzeny and called him a war criminal.

Raanan replied that the man must be mistaken. Skorzeny was a relative of his and a Holocaust survivor himself.

Many worried that it was too easy to recruit Skorzeny. His reply was that he was a target for assassination as long as he was on Wiesenthal’s list. By cooperating, he was insuring his life. As proof of his cooperation, he flew to Egypt and compiled a list of German scientists and their addresses. He was supplied the names of European front companies that bought and shipped parts for Egypt’s military projects. These included Krug’s company, Intra, in Munich.

Raanan served as project manager for the whole operation. The task of keeping in contact with Skorzeny he assigned to Rafi Eitan and Avraham Ahituv, two of his best agents.

Eitan had earned the nickname “Mr. Kidnap” for his role in abducting Eichmann and other men wanted by Israel security agencies. He would eventually be known for running Jonathan Pollard as a spy in the U.S. government in the ’80s. In 2006, at the age of 79, he became a Member of Parliament, heading a political party representing senior citizens. He confirmed his role with Skorzeny in an interview, though he declined to give more detail.

Ahituv was born in Germany in 1930. From 1974–1980, he ran the “Shin Bet,” Israel’s domestic security service, which often worked with the Mossad.

The agents spoke to Wiesenthal and tried to persuade him to remove Skorzeny’s name, but he refused. Instead, the agents forged a letter from Wiesenthal to Skorzeny stating that he was off the list.

Skorzeny was remarkably cooperative. On one trip to Egypt, he mailed a letter bomb that killed five Egyptians in the military rocket site Factory 333, where German scientists worked.

Gran Sasso. Mussolini and Skorzeny. Photo Credit.
Gran Sasso. Mussolini and Skorzeny. Photo Credit.

The intimidation campaign was successful. Most German scientists left Egypt. Israel stopped the violence and threats after a team was arrested in Switzerland for verbally threatening a scientist’s family. The Swiss judge was sympathetic to the Israeli fears of an Egyptian rocket program and convicted the two men of making threats, but set them free immediately.

The Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, decided that the publicity was bad for Israel’s image and might threaten a weapons deal he had arranged with West Germany.

Harel submitted his letter of resignation, and Ben-Gurion accepted it. The new head of the Mossad, General Meir Amit, moved away from chasing and intimidating Nazis. Amit did have one last use for Skorzeny, though. He asked the Nazi to help arrange a peace negotiation with a senior Egyptian official, but nothing ever came of it.

Skorzeny never precisely explained his reasons for helping Israel. His autobiography never uses the words “Israel” or “Jew.” He did receive his life insurance: he was never assassinated.

Skorzeny possessed a strong desire for adventure, and working with spies, even Jewish spies, must have held a fascination for him. He was the type of man who feels alive in fear. There is a possibility that regret and atonement played a role. The Mossad’s psychological analysts did not buy it, but Skorzeny may have been truly sorry for his part in World War II.

Whatever his reasons, he took them to the grave. Otto Skorzeny died of cancer at the age of 67 in Madrid in 1975.

He had two funerals, one in a chapel in the capital of Spain and the other to bury his cremated remains in the Skorzeny family plot in Vienna. Both were attended by dozens of German military veterans and wives. They gave him the one-armed Nazi salute and sang Hitler’s favorite songs. Fourteen of his medals were prominent in the funeral processions.

Joe Raanan, by this time a successful businessman in Israel, attended the funeral in Spain. He attended of his own accord and at his own expense. It was a personal tribute from one Austrian warrior to another.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE