I had always been under the impression that Nazi Germany didn’t really ‘do’ special forces – much like Napoleon, Hitler didn’t seem to see the value of irregular warfare, and moreover there was not room for special operations in Blitzkrieg; the short, sharp war. The Germans had nothing to compare with the plethora of special forces that sprang up in Britain – the SAS, the SBS, the Commandos, the Paras, the Long Range Desert Group and Popski’s Private Army to name but a few.
Yet this book by Charles Whiting suggests that this is a slighty simplistic view. Otto Skorzeny performed some daring and almost improbable acts during the war – rescuing Mussolini from captivity, kidnapping the son of the Hungarian Regent, and an infamous role in the Battle of the Bulge. What is even more fascinating, is that Skorzeny was not a career soldier, and largely developed his own theories, which the Nazi High Command only showed interest in once the war turned against them. He gained unique access to Hitler and other Nazi grandees, and for a relatively junior officer had quite a privileged place in the Nazi war machine.
There are some interesting lessons for military enthusiasts. Principally, how special forces operations seemed in the main to only occur to both belligerents when they were forced onto the defensive – Britain in 1940, and Germany after Stalingrad and Alamein. But, whereas after 1940 Britain kept on developing special forces capability which came in use when the tide turned, Germany was continually on the back foot until defeat in 1945. Also, the fact that Skorzeny was outwardly an unpromising, amateur soldier shows how military hierarchies – particularly one as stiff as the ‘prussian’ officer class, are not always adept at embracing unconventional tactics.
The impact of Skorzeny’s operations in the Ardennes are perhaps his best known legacy. Heading up a special unit of men dressed in US uniforms, and who broke through the front line to cause havoc behind the American lines. Rumours spread that Skorzeny was going to go all the way to Paris to assasinate Eisenhower. Although slightly ridiculous, these rumours caused panic and meant Eisenhower was a virtual prisoner in his headquarters during a critical phase of the battle (this incident led to his ‘most dangerous man in Europe’ tag). Thus Skorzeny and his men had exerted an influence out of all proportion to their size, merely by the suggestion of what they might do. Such is the strategic impact of special forces.
One of the most prolific military historians ever, Whiting based this book on interviews with Skorzeny, while the former was lying seriously ill in Germany towards the end of his life. Whiting does not merely tell us about Skorzeny’s wartime career – there are also startling tales about his involvement in Peronist Argentina (including an affair with Eva Peron), and a shady role in Nasser’s Egypt. These are stories that may well be new to the eyes of many, me includuded, and they all go towards painting a picture of an extraordinary man.