How much did Otto Skorzeny deserve the credit he received for the Unternehmen Eiche?

IBDP History Internal Assessment 

How much did Otto Skorzeny deserve the credit he received for the Unternehmen Eiche?
Examination Session: May 2013
Word Count: 1986

Section A
This investigation evaluates the question: How much did Otto Skorzeny deserve the credit for the Unternehmen Eiche? It will do so by comparing opinions of different persons who were involved both in the planning and the carrying out of the mission. As it isn’t possible to assess all possible points of view, the main sources will include Skorzenys’ view, Major Mors opinion, who was the leader of the Paratroopers, Karl Students opinion, who was in charge of the planning, and the views expressed by other primary sources. The sources providing the opinion of Otto Skorzeny and the original Newspaper report for that mission will additionally be assessed for the origin, purpose, limitation and the value. This piece of work won’t investigate the reasons as to why Unternehmen Eiche was put in place, but only assess the role Otto Skorzeny played in it.

Section B
The Unternehmen Eiche was launched on the 12th September 1943 with the aim of rescuing Benito Mussolini, the overthrown Italian Dictator, who was held prisoner by the Italian king, Viktor Emanuel III. He had been imprisoned after he being blamed for every failure in the Second World War by the Grand Council of Fascism. Hitler immediately ordered for Mussolini to be freed. 
     This operation with the codename Unternehmen Eiche was planned by General Karl Student and was to be carried out by a unit of paratroopers under Major Harald Mors. Skorzeny was not involved in the operation at this point. Prior to the actual rescue from the Hotel Campo Imperatore the Germans had problems finding the Duce. Their initial thought was that he would be kept in the Kings Palace. After that proved wrong they had a variety of clues most of which lead them to the isles of Ponza. At this point Skorzeny was involved in the mission and was part of a scouting mission which revealed that the Duce was no longer on the Ponza isles. It was only once he was located in Campo Imperatore that the Germans could execute their plan fast enough to rescue him. 
     The operation began with the taking of the base camp, which was the only connection to the Campo. With the base camp secured and the telephone lines cut the Germans had control of the area around the Gran Sasso and could initiate the crucial part of the plan.. The soldiers were to be flown onto the plateau where the Hotel was located with 10 gliders and were to storm the hotel to save the Duce. The soldiers involved were mostly Luftwaffe soldiers, but one battalion was made up of 20 SS-men under Skorzeny. This part went well, and all but one glider landed safely. Skorzeny’s glider crashed which in the end almost jeopardized the operation. 
     After landing the German soldiers stormed the hotel and saved the Duce. After he had been secured he was flown to Rome with a “Fieseler Storch”, a light, 2-person carrier, which in this case was loaded with an extra person, Otto Skorzeny, providing an extra challenge for the pilot. Once in Rome the Duce and Skorzeny transferred to a Heinkel He-111 which flew them to Munich, where Skorzeny reported to Hitler personally and got honored with the Ritterkreuz.

Evaluation of Sources

Otto Skorzeny: Meine Kommandounternehmen: Krieg ohne Fronten
This book is a memoire of Otto Skorzeny in which he describes several Special operations. The chapter of importance for this investigation is chapter two: “Auf der Suche nach dem Duce”, in English: “The search for the Duce”. Skorzeny wrote this book as a personal reflection after the war, although it possesses certain values of a novel. At first glance, this book is the perfect source for this topic. It is the personal reflection of the person in question and therefore the best option to find out Skorzenys view. It shows the reader what Skorzeny would like the whole world to believe, whether or not that might be true. This feature is both a value, because it provides a very distinctive view on the topic, as well as a limitation, since it seems, when compared with other sources, that important facts and other views have been disregarded. That it was published 1975 makes it even more interesting since it shows that this biased and probably false view still persisted well after the war. 

“Spiegel” article
This article was published by Der Spiegel in 1967. A specific author is not stated, which in this case though, is not a problem since knowing the name would not alter the analysis of this source in any way. Its purpose is to inform German readers of the newspaper about how the Duce was saved. It is interesting to read since it doesn’t have a negative tone towards the mission or the people involved. On the contrary, I actually read some pride out of it. This is intriguing because it was published 1967, well after the third Reich. To still see any form of pride of enthusiasm in an article of a well read and renowned German newspaper in that time is what makes this so interesting. That factor is also one of its values. A limitation of the text is that it leaves little to no room to question any of what happened.

At first glance, the situation seems to be clear. Skorzeny is portrayed as the hero of this mission and many sources only mention his name in context with it  .In his own book he keeps emphasizing how crucially he was involved in every aspect of the operation. For example does he over-emphasize his role in the scouting flight, or this importance in the planning of the operation. It is out of question that he did play a part, but his presentations are not representable of what actually happened. He seems to disregard other peoples input in the mission. Evidence of his involvement in the planning is given by the involvement of the Italian General Soleti, who got involved after Skorzeny proposed it. As for his involvement in the active part of the mission, he emphasizes three main things done by him: leading the troops into the hotel, spotting and warning the Duce and his role as personal guard of Mussolini from the moment of rescue on. The question here is once more not whether he did these things, but why they are so important. Usually it would not matter who spotted the Duce first, who lead the charge or who accompanied Mussolini to Hitler. The answer to this question lies in the context of the mission. Rescuing the Duce was not only important because he was a friend of Hitler, but also because with the Duce lost, Italy was believed to drop out of the war. Adding to this strategically dilemma was the thought of propaganda. If they could manage to save Mussolini and put all actions in the right light, the mythos of the strong and heroic SS-Arian would be further solidified. The operation itself could have been done without Skorzeny and his SS-men, but Goebbels knew that a genius like Skorzeny could easily showcase this mission as something even bigger, if he only was involved. And he absolutely did. Even Winston Churchill said this mission to be a “highly bold action.” Seeing such sources as the Encyclopedia of World War II and official newspapers such as Der Spiegel only stating Skorzeny as the mastermind behind the operation further shows the success of Skorzeny in building gain renown for himself.  
     Until now there have been very few people claiming that Skorzeny was not as important as he portrayed himself. And all these people appear to be German. In fact, basically all non-German sources unquestionably adopt Skorzeny’s view of things. Examples are again the Biography of Mussolini by R.J.B. Bosworth and the Encyclopedia of World War II by Alan Axelrod. 
     According to the anti-Skorzeny views, he never possessed any commanding power in this mission. He, along with his SS men, was only on the mission as a policing force for more authority. They claim he only managed to position himself well in pictures and therefore created the appearance of him being the man in charge. This is noticed when Kurt Students book is read in the context of the other sources.    
     As said earlier, this mission was not simply to rescue the Duce, but also to save the Face of the Axis powers. This means that from the beginning, the propaganda side of it, emphasized by Skorzeny, was always prominent. When looking at the wide range of sources only accrediting Skorzeny one can see that despite having no actual power in the mission, Skorzeny did an amazing job at advertising it as an SS operation and a personal achievement.

To say that Skorzeny was completely uninvolved in the planning and the carrying out of the mission is wrong. He did play a certain role, but never the one he was accredited for so often. The planning of the mission lay with General Student, who then delegated Major Mors to lead the mission in the field. Skorzeny had minor inputs in the planning and helped with hand on work such as the scouting flight. However, he never had the official command of the mission and never was a major authority, neither in the planning, nor in the field. Therefore it is fair to say that Skorzeny does not deserve credit for the mission as a whole. What he indeed deserves credit for are the actions he did while on the mission, but even more so for his amazing skill of turning this mission into an enormous Propaganda success for the Nazis. 


Axelrod, Alan. Encyclopedia of World War II. New York: Facts on File, 2007.

Balsi. „Die Befreiung Mussolinis-Der Einsatz auf dem Gran Sasso.“ Last edited March 31, 2004.

Bedürftig, Friedemann. Als Hitler die Atombombe baute: Lügen und Irrtümer über das dritte Reich. Munich: Piper, 2004.

Bosworth, Richard. Mussolini. London: Arnold, 2002.
„Duce, sie sind frei!“ Der Spiegel, March 27, 1967. Accessed September 10, 2012.

Götzel, Hermann. Generaloberst Kurt Student und seine Fallschirmjäger. Die Erinnerungen des Generaloberst Kurt Student bearbeitet von Hermann Götzel.
Freidberg: Podzun-Pallas Verlag, around 1980.

Skorzeny, Otto. Meine Kommandounternehmen: Krieg ohne Fronten. Munich: Winkelried Verlag, 2007.