If the real Otto Skorzeny hadn’t lived, pulp-fiction writers would have had to make him up:
Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna into a middle-class Austrian family with Polish roots which had a long history of military service. In addition to his native German, he spoke excellent French.
In his teens, Otto once complained to his father of the austere lifestyle that his family was suffering from, by mentioning he had never tasted real butter in his life, because of the depression that plagued Austria after its defeat in World War I. His father prophetically replied, “There is no harm in doing without things. It might even be good for you not to get used to a soft life.”
He was a noted fencer as a university student in Vienna. He engaged in thirteen personal combats. The tenth resulted in a wound that left a dramatic dueling scar—known in academic fencing as a Schmiss (German for “smite” or “hit”)—on his cheek.
In 1931 Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party and soon became a member of the Nazi SA. A charismatic figure, Skorzeny played a minor role in the Anschluss on 12 March 1938, when he saved the Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot by Austrian Nazis.
Skorzeny went to war in the USSR with the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and subsequently fought in several battles on the Eastern Front. In October 1941, he was in charge of a “technical section” of the German forces during the Battle of Moscow. His mission was to seize important buildings of the Communist Party, including the NKVD headquarters at Lubyanka, and the Central Telegraph and other high priority facilities, before they could be destroyed. He was also ordered to capture the sluices of the Moscow-Volga Canal because Hitler wanted them used to turn Moscow into a huge artificial lake by opening them. The missions were canceled as the German forces failed to capture the Soviet capital.
In December 1942, Skorzeny was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel from Soviet Katyusha artillery rockets. He refused all first aid except for a few aspirin, a bandage, and a glass of schnaps. A few hours later Skorzeny rejoined his unit but his health deteriorated, and continuous headaches and stomach pains forced him to evacuate for proper medical treatment. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire and was hospitalized in Vienna. While recuperating from his injuries he was given a staff role in Berlin, where he read all the published literature he could find on commando warfare, and forwarded to higher command his ideas on unconventional commando warfare.
Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal’s first mission was in summer 1943. Operation François saw Skorzeny send a group by parachute into Iran to make contact with the dissident mountain tribes to encourage them to sabotage Allied supplies of material being sent to the Soviet Union via the Trans-Iranian Railway. However, commitment among the rebel tribes was suspect, and Operation François was deemed a failure.
In July 1943, he was personally selected by Hitler from among six German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) special agents to lead the operation to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been overthrown and imprisoned by the Italian government.
Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place to frustrate any rescuers. There was a failed attempt to rescue Mussolini on 27 July 1943. The Ju 52 that the crew was aboard was shot down in the area of Pratica di Mare. Otto Skorzeny and all but one of his crew bailed out safely.
Mussolini was first held in a villa on La Maddalena, near Sardinia. Skorzeny was able to smuggle an Italian-speaking commando onto the island, and a few days later he confirmed Mussolini was in the villa. Skorzeny then flew over in a Heinkel He 111 to take aerial photos of the location. The bomber was shot down by Allied fighters and crash-landed at sea, but Skorzeny and the crew were rescued by an Italian destroyer. Mussolini was moved soon after.
Information on Mussolini’s new location and its topographical features were finally secured by Herbert Kappler. Kappler reported Mussolini was held in the Campo Imperatore Hotel at the top of the Gran Sasso mountain, and only accessible by cable car from the valley below. Skorzeny flew again over Gran Sasso and took pictures of the location with a handheld camera. An attack plan was formulated by General Kurt Student, Harald Mors (a paratrooper battalion commander), and Skorzeny.[contradictory]
On September 12, Gran Sasso raid (a.k.a. Operation Oak and Unternehmen Eiche), was carried out perfectly according to plan. Mussolini was rescued without firing a single shot. Flying out in a Storch airplane, Skorzeny escorted Mussolini to Rome and later to Berlin. The exploit earned Skorzeny fame, promotion to Sturmbannführer and the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.