Thursday 12 December 2013

Otto Skorzeny: The Bond Villain That Never Was

Otto Skorzeny, SS Poster Boy
He stood 6’4”, had shoulders like an oak beam, and bore a scar that ran from his left eye to his chin. The British called him the most dangerous man in Europe. He was Hitler’s favourite commando. He rescued Mussolini from his traitorous countrymen before they could hand Il Duce over to the Allies. In a glider. From a mountaintop.

This infamous warrior’s post-war years were no less colourful, with key roles in such Bond-esque gatherings of super-villainy as ODESSA, the Nazi old-boys’ club made famous by Frederick Forsyth, and the Paladin Group, a network of mercenary training schools and armies-for-hire. In Argentina, he saved Eva Perón from assassination, had an affair with her under the president's nose, and left South America with the $800,000,000 fund that Martin Bormann had siphoned from the Reich’s own coffers as it collapsed at the end of the war.

Any brief biography of SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto ‘Scarface’ Skorzeny reads like a character sketch from an Ian Fleming novel. A legend in his own lifetime, his exploits are spoken about in the kind of reverent tones normally reserved for the greatest of combat heroes, not an accused war criminal who escaped custody before he could fully face trial. But if Skorzeny’s resume reads a little too much like a far-fetched adventure story, it might be for good reason. If this real life Bond villain seems like he stepped from the pages of fiction, perhaps it’s because his legend is almost entirely that: fiction.

So much of Skorzeny's life is tangled up in half-truths and fabulous exaggerations it's perhaps inevitable that he has become a darling of not only World War II enthusiasts, but also of conspiracy theorists. The fantastical tales to be found online include that he faked his death in Spain in 1975 and reached the ripe old age of ninety whilst sunning himself in Florida, keeping in touch with everyone from Josef Mengele to Adolf Hitler. And there's the one about the little German boy Skorzeny helped smuggle into America, George Scherff Jr, son of George Scherff Sr, lab assistant to none other than Nikola Tesla, and family friend of both the aforementioned Bormann and Mengele. The conspiracy theorists posit that young Herr Scherff later changed his surname to Bush and became the 41st president of the United States.

Given the stories that surround Skorzeny, it's a wonder he didn't live out his days in a hollowed-out volcano along with Blofeld and Scaramanga. So where is the line between truth and fiction for this "Commando Extraordinary"?

Otto Skorzeny was born to a respectable middle class Viennese family in 1908. He was an unexceptional student, though gifted in languages; he was fluent in French from childhood, and mastered many other tongues throughout his life. While attending university, he earned his Schmiss – a fencing scar – while in a student tournament. There exists a photograph of Skorzeny, lined up in two rows with his fellow combatants, a tankard of beer in hand, his face and hands smeared with his own blood.

When military history buffs discuss Skorzeny so respectfully, they tend to focus on his daring strategies, his bravado, his innovations in commando tactics. They rarely address the most disquieting aspect of this anti-hero: his politics. Otto Skorzeny was not drafted into the German army, he was not destined for the Waffen-SS through an accident of birth. In reality, he was a committed Nazi, joining the Austrian wing of the party in 1931, as well as becoming a Brownshirt. He played a role in the 1938 Anschluss, Austria's fall to Germany, saving President Wilhelm Miklas from execution.

When Europe erupted in war in September 1939, Otto Skorzeny was working as a civil engineer in Vienna. Feeling such a mundane existence was not for him, Skorzeny attempted to enlist in the Luftwaffe as a pilot, but was refused due to his age and bulk. Here is where history and legend part ways.

According to some accounts, including Skorzeny's own memoirs, the Austrian then became part of Hitler's bodyguard regiment. Skorzeny's superiors quickly noted his daring and guile, and so promotion followed promotion, and soon he was at the front line. He embarked on a series of exploits around Europe, including singlehandedly forcing the surrender of more than fifty Yugoslav soldiers and officers. This brief but spectacular period of active combat was brought to a halt by a piece of Soviet shrapnel, though if Skorzeny is to believed, he refused all medical treatment but a bandage and a glass of schnapps before returning to the fray. The injury got the better of him, however, and he was soon evacuated to Berlin. Upon recovery, he was summoned before the Führer and tasked with the mission that would cement his legendary status: the rescue of Benito Mussolini from the Italian forces that had deposed him.

Leading a combined force of SS officers and commandos in Operation Oak, Skorzeny would locate Il Duce and liberate him from his captors. Months of reconnaissance eventually lead Skorzeny to the Campo Imperatore hotel on top of the Gran Sasso mountain. There, he and his men landed ten gliders on the cliff edge and overcame the Carabinieri who acted as guards, all without a single shot being fired. Skorzeny himself found Mussolini in room 201, announcing, "Duce, the Führer has sent me to rescue you!"

Skorzeny became an immediate sensation, poster boy of the SS propaganda machine, darling of the Reich. Even Winston Churchill expressed begrudged admiration for the Austrian's daring. Skorzeny's reputation became such that the mere suggestion of an assassination plot by him was enough to confine General Eisenhower to his quarters for the duration of Christmas 1944.

Skorzeny's fame continued to grow after the war. Having escaped American custody and been de-Nazified by the German government, he was free to carve out his life as an international man of intrigue, spending time in Perón 's Argentina, Franco's Spain, and most surprisingly of all, a decade in the Republic of Ireland, where he became much sought after in Dublin's elite social circles while raising prize-winning sheep. That is where my novel, Ratlines, finds him: up to his neck in conspiracy and murder under the protection of the Irish government.

So that is the legend. This Otto Skorzeny could have held James Bond suspended over a pool full of hungry piranha while holding the world to ransom with stolen atomic bombs. But what is the truth? Almost inevitably, it is less exotic.

According to the research of military historians such as Robert Forczyk, Skorzeny's advancement through the ranks of the Waffen-SS had more to do with handshakes in bierkellers than feats on the battlefield. In reality, Skorzeny spent the first years of the war as a mechanic, maintaining combat vehicles at a safe distance from the action. That Soviet shrapnel that sent him back to Berlin was actually a severe case of stomach colic. It was a loud mouth and a great deal of bluffing, rather than skill as a soldier, that won him a seat on a glider bound for Gran Sasso and Mussolini's prison.

It was indeed true that Skorzeny had been tasked with reconnaissance for the mission, but he carried out the task poorly, resulting in more than one false start, and several injured Kameraden due to badly mapped terrain on which the gliders landed. By blind luck, Skorzeny, who was supposed to be along purely as an observer, was in the glider that crash landed by the hotel first. Eye witnesses describe Skorzeny's circuit of the building, dodging guard dogs while he tried to find a way in, as bordering on comical. When met with a wall of around six feet in height, Skorzeny was unable to scale it, and had to climb on the back of a subordinate to reach the other side. He defied orders by running into the hotel and claiming Mussolini for himself, then insisted he travel to the Wolf's Lair to present the Italian to Hitler in person.

Desperate for some morale-boosting propaganda, Heinrich Himmler seized on Skorzeny's version of events, going so far as to stage a filmed re-enactment of the raid. Emboldened by the success of Operation Oak, Skorzeny accepted further daring missions, most of them resulting in abject failure as his true limitations became clear. Regardless, over the years and decades that followed, Skorzeny wove a shroud of mystery and danger around himself, eagerly lapped up by journalists, historians and politicians, garnering wealth and glamour along the way. It is possible the Austrian came to believe his own lies, seeing himself truly as the great warrior he claimed to be.

It is almost as disappointing to find our super-villains aren't quite so super as it is when our super-heroes let us down. In the end, Otto Skorzeny has proven to be no more real than Auric Goldfinger or Dr Julius No. But even if the legend is built on sand, the man Skorzeny pretended to be remains one of the great villains of the twentieth century.

Otto Skorzeny appears in my novel Ratlines, priced for a limited time at $1.99 for Kindle: