I spent a decent chunk of November playing Avalon Hill’s the Battle of Bulge (which you can read about at Castalia House). One of the neat little things about the game was that it included pieces and rules for Operation Greif and the Einheit Stielau mission. Otto Skorzeny was charged with sending English-speaking commando units in American uniforms to secure bridgeheads along the Meuse and create general havoc in the rear while a brigade of armor using refitted US tanks and Jeeps (ultimately most of this force was made up piecemeal of camouflaged German vehicles) exploited the chaos of the first day to push ahead with the retreating American columns. While the mission was not particularly effective tactically, it created massive paranoia in the deep Allied rear, with speculation that anyone and everyone could be a secret German spy, possibly trying to assassinate Eisenhower. In game, this amounted to four 0-strength units that have a chance to delay allied units moving through towns and junctions (if they aren’t ‘found out’ and eliminated) and a single piece for the 150th Pz, an average strength armor unit with a special Day-one ability to move after combat, instead of before, and ignore ZOC.
Anyway, when I was at the local indie bookstore picking up Christmas gifts, I saw and picked up a copy of Glenn B. Infield’s “Skorzeny: Hitler’s Commando”. After finishing it, my dad loaned me his copy of Charles Foley’s Commando Extraordinary.
Foley presents Skorzeny as a noble man, a brave soldier, and a hero. Yes, yes, he was all of those things during the war, Infield concurs—also, Otto Skorzeny is Red Skull.
The similarities and contrasts of the two biographies were fascinating. Both acknowledge Skorzeny’s cunning, heroism, daring, and bravery—his operation to rescue Mussolini by crash-landing gliders on a mountain top was the stuff of legends that made him a hero at home and earned him the begrudging respect of the Allies, and that was just one of many feats. While Foley’s book is not quite a hagiography, it’s certainly the sort of biography I’d want written about me if I were planning to become an international supervillain. Beginning with a wistful account from a British Commando about the brotherhood between all special forces and how the testimony of fellow commandos spared Skorzeny from the noose, it’s almost shocking that so glowing an account of an enemy’s war-time feats could be written and published not ten years after the fact. The Skorzeny that Foley portrays is one who is a good and decent man who just wants to live and let live, let by-gones be by-gones, put the war behind him and move on with his life.
Infield’s book, compiled and published around 25 years after Foley’s has the benefit of hindsight and declassified documents. While the first chunk of the book covered much the same ground, the remaining two thirds were devoted to his time after the war, including a much more thorough account of his time as a POW and his exploits (in part as a CIA asset) to further the causes of international Nazism and protect escaped Nazis from those trying to hunt them down. While many modern historians dismiss the notion of an umbrella organization for any and all secret international Nazi plotting, it’s undeniable that Skorzeny had his fingers in a lot of pies, and he was one of the most active and influential former members of the SS. This context makes the end of Foley’s tale, in which Skorzeny has begun to invest in wind farming, all the more ominous. Plus, I can now say “You know who else invested in clean, renewable green energy? NAZIS!”
Perhaps what struck me as most odd about Foley’s book was that it had not one but two epilogues. The second focused on the only tangentially related exploits of the Special Air Service, but the first included some pretty spectacular “what ifs”, going so far as to suggest that war’s outcome could’ve been quite different if the Allies had been willing to do to Petain in France what Hitler had Skorzeny do to Admiral Horthy in Hungary.
So, yeah, Otto Skorzeny is one of those guys for whom the term Magnificent Bastard was coined. Even history’s villains can produce complex figures who are admirable for their bravery and heroism despite the causes they fight for. I do know that if I ever run a WWII Pellucidar game again, I’ll probably be using Skorzeny as a big bad for the campaign. Post-war, Otto Skorzeny is funneling personnel, weapons and wealth into the inner earth via tunnels in South America!