Gran Sasso, Benito Mussolini, Hotel Campo Imperatore. General Ferdinando Soleti, General Gueri, Karl Radl. Fallschirmjäger Waffen-SS-Soldaten.
Major Otto-Harald Mors
Benito Mussolini (right) with Otto Skorzeny (next to him) and others elated over their accomplishment in liberating him.
By March 1943, it was obvious that the war was not going well for Germany. A staggering 300,000 men had been lost in the disaster at Stalingrad, and the Germans were in retreat in North Africa. In that month, SS-Obergruppenführer Hans Juttner, who had authorised the formation of SS Sonder Lehrgang Oranienburg the previous year, conducted an interview with an SS-Obersturmführer by the name of Otto Skorzeny. Juttner, who had held high rank in the tiny and very select officer corps of the pre-Hitler Reichswehr (German Army), was evidently satisfied with Skorzeny’s military record, and at the interview’s conclusion offered him command of the Waffen-SS special duties unit, and also a sabotage school in occupied Holland. Skorzeny immediately accepted.
Physically, the Austrian-born Skorzeny was an impressive specimen. At 6’4” and weighing over two hundred pounds, he easily exceeded the exacting physical requirements for a Waffen-SS officer. He would later be nicknamed ‘Scarface’ by the Americans, due to a particularly prominent duelling scar that ran down the left side of his face. Several senior SS officers bore such scars, although less obviously. SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS foreign intelligence, also carried one, and even the prissy SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sported a tiny mark.
Apart from his imposing appearance, Skorzeny may have seemed an unlikely candidate for Juttner’s offer. At thirty-five he was a relatively elderly subaltern (he was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer on acceptance of his new post) who was medically classified ‘GvH’, fit only for garrison duty. Such a choice might outwardly indicate a low priority for the development of special operations in the Waffen-SS. By this stage of the war, the Wehrmacht was moving away from such concepts, eventually converting the elite Brandenburg Regiment into a conventional line infantry division.
Juttner, however, had made a good choice in Skorzeny. A civil engineer by profession, Skorzeny had originally volunteered for the Luftwaffe on the outbreak of war but had been deemed too old for aircrew training. He transferred to the Waffen-SS, and as an artillery officer with the Leibstandarte took part in the invasion of Russia, winning the Iron Cross second and first class. Wounded and stricken by a serious case of dysentery followed by biliary colic, he was evacuated on medical grounds and returned to Vienna. After convalescent leave he was eventually appointed to the SS Totenkopf Division as an engineering officer. This was, however, while the division was refitting in France, therefore Skorzeny was not involved in that division’s more notorious exploits. During this time he gained a thorough knowledge of the operation of German and Allied tanks. Skorzeny’s health collapsed late in 1942, and he was returned to ‘garrison duties’. Like the founder of the British SAS, David Stirling, Skorzeny used his enforced free time to formulate certain ideas on unconventional warfare, which brought him to the attention of SS-Obergruppenführer Juttner.
According to Skorzeny’s original account in 1945, SS Sonder Lehrgang Oranienburg, as its name implies, was based in that town, in the SS Totenkopf Division’s barracks. Skorzeny was more evasive about this detail in later years, possibly not only due to fears of any perceived association with that notorious formation, but of confusion with the even more notorious ‘special’ unit that was founded there in 1940. In that year Oskar Dirlewanger, SS-Obersturmführer and convicted paedophile, took command of a special unit comprised largely of convicts. When this unit, now designated SS-Sonderbattalion Dirlewanger, was posted to occupied Poland, it quickly established a reputation for brutality that surpassed even that of other SS units there, not least due to Dirlewanger’s favourite diversion of injecting naked young Jewish girls with strychnine and observing their death agonies. Despite being under suspicion of ‘racial defilement’ (for suspected sexual relations with a Jewish woman in Lublin) Dirlewanger was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer in late 1941. This was an indication of his privileged position in the eyes of the Nazi hierarchy. When in early 1942, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Kruger threatened that unless Dirlewanger’s ‘bunch of criminals’ were removed from his jurisdiction he would lock them up personally, SS-Gruppenführer Hans Juttner had them placed under the direct command of SS-Reichsführer Himmler’s staff, and they were transferred to anti-partisan operations to the east of Minsk. There they ‘distinguished’ themselves by such tactics as forcing villagers into their barns, which would be then set alight, and marching women and children across minefields to clear them.
It should be noted that Dirlewanger’s SS Sonderbattalion had absolutely no connection with Skorzeny’s SS Sonder Lehrgang. Although in June 1944 a special order invited members of Dirlewanger’s unit to volunteer to participate in an operation with ‘SS Jager Bataillon 502’ (as Skorzeny’s unit was then designated), this seemed to originate from Himmler rather than Skorzeny, and there is no evidence that any such personnel volunteered or were accepted.
Skorzeny reviewed the training programme of his new unit and, like Helmut Clissmann before him, was unhappy with certain aspects of it. In keeping with their ‘stormtrooper’ ethos, Waffen-SS units tended to favour aggressive assaults utilising heavy firepower. Such an approach had its drawbacks, as the German General Kurt Student could testify; in 1940 he had been mistakenly shot by over-aggressive Waffen-SS troops in Rotterdam. Skorzeny had made a study of British commando operations, in particular the daring attempt to assassinate Rommel, the commander of the Afrika Korps. Skorzeny had concluded that the raid had failed primarily because of faulty intelligence (Rommel was not at the base when the raid occurred) but also because the vital element of surprise was lost due to unnecessary gunfire, which resulted in the loss of most of the British force. In Russia, Skorzeny witnessed for himself how a single shot by a nervous sentry could result in an entire German position firing wildly at nothing, and began to instil a strict weapons discipline in his unit, the results of which became evident in its two most spectacular operations.
Early in the summer of 1943, Skorzeny’s unit moved to a purpose-built facility in nearby Friedenthal and was re-designated ‘SS Sonder Lehrgang zbv Friedenthal’. The ‘zbv’ in the unit’s title indicated ‘special duties’, just as in the official title of the Wehrmacht’s Brandenburgers (Bau-Lehr Battalion zbv Nr 800). The Luftwaffe would form their own special operations unit later that year, namely ‘Staffel Gartenfeld zbv’, named after its commander, Major Gartenfeld, who had flown Hermann Görtz to Ireland in 1940. In February 1944, this squadron was expanded to form Kampfgeschwader 200, which became infamous for its utilisation of captured Allied aircraft for covert missions.
By now, Skorzeny’s new command consisted of one full company led by SS-Hauptsturmführer van Vessem, as well as part of another company and a transport element. There were 300 men in all, all members of the Waffen-SS. Even at this early stage some members of this force were non-Germans. Apart from van Vessem, nearly fifty members of the unit were Dutch or Flemish, with a few ‘Volksdeutsche’ (ethnic Germans) from Hungary. Skorzeny wished to expand his command to battalion status and obtained authorisation to activate ‘SS Jager Bataillon 502’ in June 1943, Sonder Lehrgang zbv Friedenthal being absorbed into the new unit. There were, however, difficulties in attracting suitable personnel. The Waffen-SS envisaged a ‘500’ series of battalions for dangerous missions, one of which was the SS-Fallschirmjager Battalion 500. These units were to recruit personnel from SS penal institutions; under the draconian disciplinary code of the Waffen-SS, soldiers could be imprisoned for such offences as sleeping on sentry duty or ‘defeatist comment’. Skorzeny received a draft of personnel from an SS penal camp in Chlum in occupied Czechoslovakia, but ninety per cent of them were deemed unsuitable and were returned. Obergruppenführer Juttner then allowed Skorzeny to recruit volunteers from the Wehrmacht, and apart from one hundred SS personnel, fifty Luftwaffe and one hundred and fifty Heer (army) personnel were also admitted, allowing the formation of a headquarters company and two line companies. Thirty men were sent to the Havel institute for radio training. ‘The others underwent strenuous infantry training and engineer and motor courses were added later.
By the beginning of September 1943, Sicily had been lost to the Allies and Benito Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy, had been deposed. On 3 September the Allies invaded mainland Italy and the Italian government surrendered, agreeing to hand over Mussolini to the Allied powers as a condition of the armistice. Mussolini was moved from location to location, until in early November he was brought under heavy guard to a requisitioned hotel on the peak of the 6,000-foot Gran Sasso mountain in the Appenines. The mountain could be accessed only by cable car and all surrounding roads were blocked; this ruled out any possibility of a surprise assault by land, and the mountain’s altitude made a parachute assault impossible.
At about 2 p.m. on 12 September, a large glider swooped out of nowhere and crashed within 15 metres of the back of the hotel. Eight German soldiers and the pilot quickly emerged and sprinted to the building, led by a big man with a scarred face. Although they wore the uniforms and insignia of the Fallschirmjager, these men were actually members of SS Jager Bataillon 502. SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny, leading the assault, had given strict instructions to his troops to hold their fire in order to preserve the element of surprise. The new Italian government had not yet declared war on Germany, although some skirmishes had taken place. The stunned Italian defenders were further confused when an Italian general clambered from the wrecked glider and began shouting ‘non abagliare!’ Seconds later, a second glider landed in front of the hotel, from which emerged another eight members of SS Jager Bataillon 502. The first group had already reached Mussolini, scrambling up a terrace and a lightning conductor, while the second secured the ground floor of the hotel. It was five minutes since the landing of the first glider. Within minutes, six more DFS-230 gliders (the same type that had been used in the assault of the Eban-Emaal fortress in May 1940) landed on the mountain top – these carried Fallschirmjagers (under the command of Major who surrounded the hotel. One glider missed the landing zone and was wrecked on the steep mountain slopes. In the hotel, Skorzeny demanded and received the surrender of the Italian garrison and informed Mussolini that he was free. Word soon came through that other Fallschirmjagers had seized the cable car station in the valley. Due to large numbers of Italian forces in the area it was not advisable to attempt to bring Mussolini away by road. The original plan to bring Mussolini to safety required Skorzeny to bring him down to the valley in the cable car and transfer him to a nearby airfield which would be temporarily seized for the purpose, but Skorzeny’s radio operator in the valley was unable to contact the Heinkel 111s designated to land there; in any case there was now a full Italian division in the vicinity. An alternative plan called for a light aircraft to land in the valley below the Gran Sasso, but this aircraft damaged its undercarriage on landing. As an absolute last resort, a tiny Feiseler Storch aircraft flown by General Student’s personal pilot was ready to attempt a landing on the mountain top. Skorzeny’s troops, assisted by Italian prisoners, moved as many boulders as possible from an improvised airstrip and Hauptmann Gerlach successfully landed his aircraft within 100 feet. He had a shock in store – not only was he expected to fly out Mussolini, but Skorzeny as well! All three were aware of the extreme hazards involved; Mussolini was a qualified pilot and Skorzeny had some flying experience. Gerlach performed another miracle by taking off from the Gran Sasso, the aircraft plunging into the chasm at the end of the improvised airstrip. Recovering from the dive, Gerlach flew the heavily overloaded Storch to Rome and landed safely despite a damaged undercarriage. Skorzeny and Mussolini transferred to a Heinkel 111 and the pair were in Vienna that evening where Skorzeny was immediately awarded the Knight’s Cross and promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer on Hitler’s personal order.
The raid on the Gran Sasso was subsequently hailed as an assault of exceptional daring, all the more remarkable for having been carried out without loss of life. This was purely accidental: when Skorzeny took off, four more DFS-230 gliders were missing and unaccounted for, along with the occupants of the glider that still lay wrecked on the mountain slope. It is worth noting that without the exceptional skill of Hauptmann Gerlach, to say nothing of the glider pilots, the rescue of Mussolini would have ended in a pile of twisted wreckage on the slopes of the Gran Sasso. Skorzeny originally admitted to ‘vehement reproaches’ from General Student and Hermann Goering for his decision to accompany Mussolini in the Storch. Ironically, the assault was planned with poor quality aerial photographs which did not indicate just how steep and rocky the intended landing zone really was; better information in this regard would almost certainly have led to the raid being cancelled. Goebbels’ propaganda ministry exploited this rare victory to the full, leading to Skorzeny quickly becoming famous. For his part Skorzeny was happy to grab his share of the glory. When in early October 1943 the Nazi newspaper, Illestrierter Beobachter, mistakenly credited the Major in command of the party of Fallschirmjagers as Mussolini’s liberator, Skorzeny took part in a widely broadcast radio programme to set the record straight.