‘Scarface’ – The Elite Nazi Commando Who Hitler Sent To Rescue Mussolini

Left: Otto Skorzeny. Right: Storch used to rescue Mussolini. Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0

Otto Skorzeny was one of Germany’s finest commandos. An engineer by profession, he tried to volunteer for the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), in the year 1939 but was declined entry due to his age (31 at the time) and unusual height (6.4 feet, or 1.92 meters). He had a scar on his cheek, inflicted during a fencing duel. Due to this wound, he would become known as ‘Scarface.’ He was an Austrian Nazi Party member since 1931 and was a noted figure in the lower and mid-level party structures before the war.

After failing to enlist as an airman, his party connections enabled him to become a member of Hitler’s elite bodyguard unit. After proving himself to be a capable soldier, most notably in the campaigns in Netherlands, France, and Yugoslavia, he advanced through the ranks and became a Lieutenant in the Waffen SS. He was wounded on the Eastern front and transferred to a desk job in Berlin, after which he got into the SS Foreign Intelligence Service.

Otto Skorzeny inspecting paratroopers in 1945
Otto Skorzeny inspecting paratroopers in 1945. Photo Credit.

Here he was given a chance to propose his ideas on commando warfare, studying the partisan methods he saw in the East. He advocated the use of a small force of saboteurs, kidnappers, and assassins to minimize the casualties and maximize the effect and create panic in the enemy. During the war, his name was associated with a string of operations, some of them largely successful, some of them not.

Some were only planned, but never conducted, and some were not exactly commando operations but were more daring or reckless efforts that prove Skorzeny’s insatiable ambition and loyalty to Adolf Hitler. This article is a list of his successful missions, in chronological order.

1. Operation Oak, or the Gran Sasso Raid

A picture taken with Mussolini, after his rescue
A picture that was taken with Mussolini, after his rescue. Photo Credit.

In 1943, Skorzeny conducted his most famous action, the kidnapping (or rather the rescue) of then imprisoned Benito Mussolini, the former dictator of Italy. The mission was codenamed Operation Oak.

After success in the North African Theater of War, the Allies landed in Sicily in 1943, and swiftly crushed the Italian Army in a series of victories. The frontline was then settled on the so-called Winter Line, and the Allied advance was held back by the Germans here until the end of the war. Mussolini was overthrown and arrested by the Italian King, Emanuel the Third, in 1943. Hitler wanted him back, so he ordered Skorzeny together with five Luftwaffe agents and three agents selected from the Armed Forces.

Mussolini had first been held on the island of Sardinia, where Skorzeny started to gather intelligence. He was shot down during a reconnaissance mission but managed to bail in time to be saved by a passing Italian destroyer ship, still loyal to the Fascists. After this event, Mussolini was moved to the Campo Imperatore Hotel on the top of the Gran Sasso Mountain.

Mussolini rescued by German commandos from his prison in Campo Imperatore on 12 September 1943. Photo Credit.
Mussolini rescued by German commandos from his prison in Campo Imperatore on 12 September 1943. Photo Credit.

Together with agents Kurt Student and Harald Mors, Skorzeny devised a daring plan which would be remembered as one of the finest commando operations ever.

The mission was conducted via glider planes which landed on the mountain. The members of the 502nd Paratrooper Division then proceeded to the compound of the Campo Imperatore Hotel. In a rather dashing turn of events, the team, accompanied by the Police General Fernando Soleti, managed to persuade the carabinieri guarding the hotel to surrender their arms.

Skorzeny managed to take hold of a  radio and formally greeted the high-level captive with the words:  “Duce, the Führer has sent me to set you free!” to which Mussolini replied, “I knew that my friend would not forsake me!”

2. July 20th Assassination attempt

Wolf's Lair after the assassination attempt
Wolf’s Lair after the assassination attempt. Photo Credit.

On the 20th of July, 1944, Skorzeny was in Berlin when an attempt on Hitler’s life was made. Anti-Nazi German Army officers tried to seize control of Germany’s main decision-making centers before Hitler recovered from his injuries. Skorzeny helped put down the rebellion, spending 36 hours in charge of the Wehrmacht’s central command center before being relieved.

Even though this wasn’t an operation, so to speak, it was a turning point as Skorzeny proved to be one of Hitler’s most loyal officers and one on whom he could rely. Skorzeny had by that point received many decorations for his actions and was one of the few people who enjoyed the Fuhrer’s trust and respect. Skorzeny was also an opportunistic figure who knew his way around the Reich’s headquarters and this event launched his professional career to new highs.