While new plans for a rescue were being made, Operation Avalanche put British and American forces ashore in southern Italy on September 3.
The ex-dictator was continually moved from one hiding place to another, but the Germans soon discovered him at a villa on La Maddalena, near Sardinia. Skorzeny was able to smuggle an Italian-speaking commando onto the island who confirmed that Mussolini was indeed there. 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 crashed into the sea, but Skorzeny and his men were rescued by an Italian warship.
Mussolini was again moved, this time to the Campo Imperatore Hotel at the top of the Gran Sasso peak in the rugged Italian Apennine mountains in central Italy east of Rome––a place accessible only by cable car from the valley far below.
Captain Skorzeny flew over the site and photographed the area; it was formidable in the extreme, but he, Luftwaffe General Kurt Student (who had earlier conceived Germany’s famous airborne and glider operations against Belgium’s Eban Emael fortress and the British-held island of Crete), and Major Otto-Harald Mors, a paratrooper battalion commander, came up with a workable plan. Skorzeny assembled a team of 107 commandos who would be landed in gliders.
On September 12, 1943, Skorzeny and his 107 men silently descended on the mountaintop in 12 gliders, took the Italian Carabinieri guards by surprise without firing a single shot, and whisked the ex-dictator away in a Storch airplane to Rome. The rest of the commando team escaped by cable car. Skorzeny then flew Mussolini to meet with Hitler. It was a stunningly brazen, textbook example of the perfect commando operation––an operation that earned Skorzeny fame, promotion to major, Hitler’s gratitude (not to mention Mussolini’s), and the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
German Intelligence Learns of the Tehran Conference
In mid-October 1943, after the Germans broke a U.S. Navy coded message, German intelligence learned the date and place of the Tehran conference. Exactly who first came up with the idea of assassinating the Big Three during the conference is unknown (Kaltenbrunner can’t be ruled out), but the plan was approved by Hitler and Kaltenbrunner was told to carry it out. Because of Skorzeny’s recent rescue of Mussolini, he was the logical choice to head the mission.
On November 21, a German radio broadcast had announced that the Big Three would hold a meeting in Tehran at the end of the month, and there were rumors that the Germans might attempt to kill the leaders. As luck would have it, among a group of Soviet guerrillas operating in the Rovno forest in the German-occupied Ukraine was the legendary Soviet intelligence officer Nikolai Kuznetsov, who spoke perfect German. Posing as a Wehrmacht first lieutenant by the name of Paul Siebert, Kuznetsov penetrated German lines and became friendly with SS-Sturmbannführer Ulrich von Ortel, who happened to be well versed in the Long Jump plot.
Kuznetsov/Siebert kept pouring the drinks and the inebriated Ortel kept talking, telling Kuznetsov that he would soon depart for the meeting of the Big Three in Tehran, where, “We will eliminate Stalin and Churchill and turn the tide of the war! We will abduct Roosevelt to help our Führer to come to terms with America. We are flying in several groups. People are already being trained in a special school in Copenhagen.” Ortel even promised to introduce the spy to Skorzeny.
It was an intelligence coup of massive proportions.
The Soviets Thwart the Assassination Attempt
With Moscow and the Soviet legation in Tehran now alerted, the plan was allowed to unfold. The first German group, consisting of six radio operators, was dropped by parachute at Qum. Soviet intelligence officer Gevork Vartanyan said after the war, “Our group was the first to locate the Nazi landing party––six radio operators––near the town of Qum, 60 kilometers from Tehran. We followed them to Tehran, where the Nazi field station had readied a villa for their stay. They were traveling by camel and were loaded with weapons.”
Vartanyan noted that as the six men approached Tehran, a pre-arranged truck appeared and they loaded their equipment––radios, weapons, and explosives––into it. They moved into a “safe house” in Tehran, set up their communications equipment, changed into civilian clothes, and disguised their appearance by dyeing their hair. But then things started to fall apart.
“While we were watching the group,” said Vartanyan, “we established that they had contacted Berlin by radio and recorded their communications. When we decrypted these radio messages, we learned that the Germans were preparing to land a second group of subversives for a terrorist act––the assassination or abduction of the Big Three. The second group was supposed to be led by Skorzeny himself, who had already visited Tehran to study the situation on the spot. We had been following all his movements even then.”
Once Roosevelt and his party had arrived in Tehran, General Dmitry Arkadiev, head of the NKVD department of transportation, contacted Roosevelt’s chief of security, Mike Reilly, and told him of the plot. The American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, then briefed the president on the still-sketchy details of the plot. All agreed that going ahead with the meeting was risky but that it should be done.
To reduce the danger to Roosevelt, who would have to travel by car the mile between the American embassy and the Soviet embassy, where the meetings would be held, it was decided to allow FDR and his party to stay in guest quarters at the Soviet embassy––where the hosts had already liberally planted secret listening devices to learn every word spoken by the president and his team.
Vartanyan said, “We arrested all the members of the first group and forced them to make contact with enemy intelligence under our supervision. It was tempting to seize Skorzeny himself, but the Big Three had already arrived in Tehran and we could not afford the risk. We deliberately gave a radio operator an opportunity to report the failure of the mission, and the Germans decided against sending the main group under Skorzeny to Tehran. In this way, the success of our group in locating the Nazi advance party and our subsequent actions thwarted an attempt to assassinate the Big Three.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that, to this day, counterstories have appeared that have claimed there never was a Nazi plot to kill or kidnap the Big Three in Tehran. Some historians contend that the “plot” was an imaginary one hatched by Stalin himself as a way to get Roosevelt to stay in the “bugged” guest quarters on the grounds of the Soviet embassy. Others who were high-ranking officers in Soviet intelligence at the time swear the plot was real and have written books on the subject. As with many aspects of the labyrinthine former Soviet Union, the true facts may never be known.)
Skorzeny’s Last Commando Operations
The failure of Operation Long Jump did not diminish Skorzeny’s reputation in the eyes of the Nazi warlords, nor put an end to covert commando operations. In the spring of 1944, his unit, now renamed SS Jagdverbände 502, undertook a mission to abduct the Yugoslav partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, but the operation was compromised and called off.
In mid-October 1944, Skorzeny was given a new assignment: Operation Panzerfaust (also known as Operation Mickey Mouse)––the kidnapping of Miklós Horthy, Jr., the youngest son of Admiral Miklós Horthy, Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, who had earlier supported the Nazis but had become disenchanted with them and announced his intention to withdraw his nation from the Axis. Germany threatened to kill the younger Horthy if his father did not resign as regent. He did so and was placed under house arrest in Bavaria; his son was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until the end of the war.
Skorzeny is probably best known in the West for, in December 1944, employing about two dozen English-speaking Germans in American uniforms and driving American vehicles to penetrate American lines in an operation called Greif (“Griffin”) that spread panic and confusion during the Battle of the Bulge. At war’s end, Skorzeny was involved in Germany’s Werwölfe (Werewolf) insurgency movement. He surrendered to the Americans on May 16, 1945, near Salzburg, Austria.
After the war, Skorzeny was charged by the Dachau Military Tribunal with breaching the 1907 Hague Convention in connection with his men masquerading as Americans during Operation Greif. He was, however, acquitted by the tribunal when it was learned that Allied teams sometimes did the same things. He fled from a detention compound in 1948 and, with help of a network of friends and former SS officers, changed his identity and moved relatively freely throughout Europe, eventually ending up in Spain, where he wrote a book about his exploits.
A heavy smoker, Skorzeny died of lung cancer in July 1975, his legacy as a brilliant, unorthodox commander, tactician, and theorist tarnished by the evil regime for which he worked.