How One of Hitler’s Most Prized Commanders Became an Israeli Assassin

How One of Hitler’s Most Prized Commanders Became an Israeli Assassin

Stephanie Schoppert - May 24, 2017

Otto Skorzeny was no ordinary SS Commando. He was commander of the unit “Fiedenthal” and was one of Hitler’s favorites among the SS commandos. Hitler even went as far as to give Otto Skorzeny the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross the most prestigious medal in the German army for saving the life of Benito Mussolini. But his time in the SS was only the beginning for Otto Skorzeny and most of his exploits involved taking lives instead of saving them. After the WWII, Otto Skorzeny became one of the most valuable assets for the Israeli spy network Mossad.

Otto Skorzeny had a simple upbringing. He was born in Vienna to a middle class family with a long history of military service. It was in 1931 at the age of 23 that he joined the Austrian Nazi party and eventually became a member of the Nazi SA. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Skorzeny tried to join the Luftwaffe but was turned down because he was too tall. Still determined to serve his country, he joined Hitler’s bodyguard regiment instead.

How One of Hitler’s Most Prized Commanders Became an Israeli Assassin
Otto Skorzeny.

He was part of the invasion of the Soviet Union and served on the Eastern front until December 1942 when he was struck in the back of the head with shrapnel. He was then given a staff role in Berlin where he developed strategies for unconventional warfare. His ideas got noticed and he was made commander of the Waffen Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal unit which had its first mission in 1943. Operation Francois involved sending a group into Iran by parachute in order to convince them to sabotage the Allied supplies that were being sent to the Soviet Union on the Trans-Iranian Railway. The rebels were less than reliable and the mission was deemed a failure.

In September of 1943, Operation Oak was considered a resounding success with the rescue of Benito Mussolini. He was also involved in the planning for Operation Long Jump which was the plot to assassinate Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. Other operations conducted or planned by Skorzeny included Operation Knight’s Leap, Operation Armored Fist and Operation Griffin. He was also involved with Werwolf SS which was a Nazi resistance movement in areas of Europe that were occupied by the Allies.

How One of Hitler’s Most Prized Commanders Became an Israeli Assassin
Skorzeny with the rescued Mussolini.

Skorzeny’s success with these operations earned him the highest honors that the German military could bestow and he was one of Hitler’s most favored commandos up through the end of the war. Ten days after Hitler committed suicide, Skorzeny surrendered to the Americans. Two years later he would stand trial for war crimes involving the improper use of U.S. military insignia, theft of U.S. uniforms and the theft of Red Cross parcels from U.S. POWs. He and nine other defendants were acquitted of the charges partially due to lack of evidence and partially due to the testimony of a British SOE agent who admitted to wearing a German uniform behind enemy lines.

Despite being acquitted he was kept in an internment camp while he waited for a decision from the denazification court. On July 27th, 1948, he escaped and made his way to a farm in Bavaria where he hid for 18 months. He moved throughout Europe avoiding detection and keeping in contact with Reinhard Gehlen, who was a German General and spymaster of the anti-Communist Gehlen Organization for the United States after the war.

Things started to take a very different turn for Skorzeny when Reinhard Gehlen sent him to Egypt in 1952 in order to act as a military adviser to General Mohammed Naguib. Skorzeny began training the army and recruited a staff of former Wehrmacht generals. He even planned raids into Israel through the Gaza Strip with Palestinian refugees in 1953/1954. For a period, he served as adviser to President Gamal Abdeal Nasser before moving on to be an adviser to Argentinian President Juan Peron and bodyguard to his wife. He found himself in Ireland from 1957 on as a farmer until the Irish parliament became concerned about his intentions and sought to have him removed from the country.

In the 1960s a Mossad team was tasked with killing him in retribution for his crimes during the war, so how did this former Nazi Commando end up as a Mossad assassin instead?


How One of Hitler’s Most Prized Commanders Became an Israeli Assassin
Rafi Etian a Mossad agent who admitted to running Skorzeny as a Mossad assassin.

In the early 1960s Mossad was not sure what to do about Skorzeny. There was originally a team developing a plan to kill the former Nazi commander but then they decided that he would be more beneficial to them alive. They believed that since he still had Nazi connections he could be useful in improving their ability to target Nazis who were providing military aid to Egypt. One source suggests that upon first contact Skorzeny agreed to work with Mossad if Simon Wiesenthal removed him from his list of wanted war criminals. Wiesenthal denied the request but Mossad agent Rafi Meidan managed to recruit Skorzeny anyway.

He began working for Mossad in 1962 when he underwent training and instruction at the organization’s facilities in Israel. After training he was put to work on one of the top priorities of Mossad: stopping German scientists from working on the Egyptian rocket program. They had already been bombarding the scientists with threatening calls and notes, some even received letter bombs. High on their list of targets was Heinz Krug, who despite being offered work in America, choose to work for Egypt instead. Mossad believed he took the position not only for the money but knowing that the missiles would likely be used on Israel.

Krug knew where the threats were coming from and that Mossad had already killed at least one other German scientist. He needed help before his time came and therefore he turned to Skorzeny who was a German war hero and considered by the allies to be the “most dangerous man in Europe.” When Skorzeny offered to protect him, Krug believed him. Skorzeny told Krug that he arranged for three body guards to follow them in a separate car while they rode to a safe location to talk. It was at the safe forest location that Krug was shot. The three bodyguards were really Israelis who poured acid over the body and then buried the remains in an already dug grave. A coating of lime ensured that dogs and animals would not be able to find the body.

Skorzeny would do more for Mossad, including mailing a letter bomb that would kill five Egyptian scientists at the missile site. He also provided names and addresses of any German scientists that were working for Israel and the names of any European companies that were providing military hardware to Egypt. He continued to provide assistance to Mossad until 1970 when a cancerous tumor was discovered on his spine.

The tumors were removed but he was left paralyzed from the waist down. He vowed that he would walk again and after six months of therapy he accomplished his goal. Just a few years later in 1975, lung cancer would claim his life. German veterans who attended his funeral, and had no idea of his dealings with Mossad, proudly gave him the one-armed Nazi salute.

How One of Hitler’s Most Prized Commanders Became an Israeli Assassin
German veterans and their wives giving the Nazi salute at Skorzeny’s funeral.

To this day it is unclear why Skorzeny, who was once a proud Nazi, would agree to work for the Israelis in killing a fellow German. Some believe that it was an act of self-preservation, when he was first approached by Mossad he assumed that the agents were coming to kill him. By working with Mossad he ensured that their attempts on his life would stop. Others felt that he missed the action and adventure that came with the war and spent the rest of his life trying to get it back, Mossad offered him that chance. Despite working with Mossad in his later years he never denounced Nazism or the ideals he held throughout the war.