Otto Skorzeny, soldier, commando leader, engineer, advisor and agent died of lung cancer in Madrid on July 5th, 1975. Nicknamed Scarface because of two big fencing wounds on his left cheek, he was one of the most enigmatic participants in World War II.
Born on June 12th, 1908 in Vienna into a middle-class family of Polish origin which had a long history of military service, he also spoke French and English. Member of a German-national student fraternity, he started sympathizing with National Socialism since the early 1930s. However, Skorzeny only played a minor role in the Anschluss on March 12th, 1938, when Germany and Austria became one state.
Quite tall at 1.92 meters, after the invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 he was turned down by the German air force and joined Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard regiment instead, the LSSAH, which took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941.
During the Battle of Moscow in the first winter of the war, his mission to seize important buildings in the city was later canceled as the Germans failed to capture the Soviet capital. While recuperating from injuries sustained at the Eastern Front, he developed ideas on unconventional commando warfare.
A special duties unit was founded under Skorzeny’s command. Its first mission in Iran was deemed a failure, but the next operation made it world-famous. On September 12th, 1943, Skorzeny and 16 Waffen-SS soldiers and about 75 paratroopers rescued deposed Italian leader Benito Mussolini from the hotel he was been held captive at the Gran Sasso massif in the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy.
On October 15th, 1944 he arrested Miklós Horthy Jr. in Budapest to force his father to resign and relinquish power to forces that remained loyal to Germany. The Hungarian leader had plans to switch sides and sign an armistice with the Soviets. Both remained in captivity until the spring of 1945.
During the Battle of the Bulge in 1944/45, he directed the infiltration of hundreds of English-speaking troops clad in US uniforms behind the Allied lines. On September 9th, 1947 he was acquitted by the International Military Tribunal in Nurnberg on the testimony of Forest Frederick Edward “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas, a British Special Operations Executive officer who declared that Skorzeny had done nothing that his Allied counterparts would not have also attempted.
Skorzeny in January and February 1945 participated in the defense of the East German provinces of East Prussia, Pomerania and of Brandenburg against the Red Army, but managed to surrender to the Americans in May. On July 27th, 1948 he escaped from an internment camp in Darmstadt and hid out at a farm in Bavaria for 18 months. At that time he supposedly was already working for the Gehlen Organization, an anti-communist agency set up by US occupation authorities on December 6th, 1946.
After shorts stays in France and Austria he moved to Madrid using a Nansen passport for stateless persons issued by the Spanish government under Francisco Franco. There in 1950 he published a book titled Secret Missions and opened an engineering office, which later expanded to an import/export company.
Under Egypt´s first President Mohamed Naguib he trained commandos, among them the future Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat. He later worked for his successor Gamal Abdel Nasser. Skorzeny also served as an aide to Argentinian President Juan Perón and shortly as bodyguard for his wife Eva. From 1958 to 1963 he had a farm in Ireland, which from 1963 he rarely visited.
About that time he was recruited at his Spanish home by the Mossad, Israel´s intelligence agency, to obtain information on German scientists who were providing military assistance to Egypt against the Jewish state. It has not been proven if he was personally involved in the death of any person considered dangerous by Tel Aviv.
The real reasons why an adventurer like Skorzeny, who never distanced himself from this radical ideals of his youth, chose to work for the Zionists remain unclear, but he may simply have feared assassination by the world´s best secret service. In any case, this final chapter somehow fits a distinctly versatile personality.