Saturday 25 October 2014

Scarface Skorzeny - the Hitler henchman who became a Kildare farmer

Published 09/05/2005 | 00:11

Sixty years ago, at the end of the Second World War, he was known as Hitler's most daring commando and was dubbed by the Allies 'the most dangerous man in Europe'. Otto Skorzeny was the legendary James Bond-figure who rescued Mussolini from a fortress in a plane during the war.

According to some accounts, he helped dozens of war criminals to flee to South America, and had escaped himself from jail in Germany after the war. He reportedly had an affair with Eva Peron - the Argentinian dictator's wife who was misleadingly depicted as a tragic heroine in the musical Evita - and continued to be involved in all sorts of skulduggery.

What is less well known about the 'scar-faced commando' is that he lived for a time in Co Kildare. In the 1960s Colonel Skorzeny, one of Hitler's top henchmen and the pride of the SS, could be seen driving across the Curragh in a white Mercedes and popping into the local post office for groceries.

Skorzeny, who was a multi-millionaire, bought Martinstown House, a rambling 19th-century shooting lodge and farm, in 1959. At the time TD and former health minister Dr Noel Browne expressed concern that the commando might use Ireland as a base for "furthering Nazi or Neo-Nazi resurgent movements" in Germany and elsewhere.

Dr Browne told the Dail: "It is generally understood that this man plays some part (in Neo-Nazi activities) and, if so, he should not be allowed to use Ireland for that purpose."

Reggie Darling, a local historian and former barber at the Curragh camp, remembers coming across Skorzeny on the Curragh in the 1960s: "He was a big man and he certainly stood out because of the scar across his face. Everyone knew who he was. I wouldn't say he was particularly friendly. He didn't really mix with local people."

Although the crimes of the Nazi regime were well known in Ireland and Skorzeny had played a leading part in the round-up and torture of senior members of the German resistance in 1944, he was widely respected as a military man. Even Winston Churchill described his rescue of Mussolini as "one of great daring".

According to Mr Darling, Irish army officers planned to ask Hitler's henchman to give a talk at the Curragh camp but the talk was cancelled when senior officials got wind of it because of the obvious diplomatic sensitivities.

"Skorzeny liked to drive up to Dublin and park his car outside the Gresham Hotel on O'Connell Street." says Mr Darling. "He considered the parking fines of £1 to be good value."

Skorzeny ran the farm at Martinstown, where his wife Madame Skorzeny also lived. He employed a German housekeeper who was married to a local man. "He seemed to use Martinstown as a bolthole," says Mr Darling.

It was rumoured locally that senior Irish politicians were entertained by Hitler's ex-commando at Martinstown but this cannot be confirmed.

Skorzeny had risen to prominence in Hitler's ranks after joining the Nazi party in 1933. He earned the nickname 'Scarface' from injuries sustained in fencing duels as a student.

After being rejected by the Luftwaffe, partly because of how tall he was, he joined the SS, trained in espionage and was involved in several famous commando raids during the war. In July, 1943, he was summoned personally by Hitler and sent over to hunt for Benito Mussolini.

Discovering that Mussolini was being held in a hill-top fortress by Italian troops, Skorzeny first kidnapped the Italian general Soleti, predicting correctly that if he brought the general along, the Italian guards would co-operate.

Skorzeny, the general and a small group of commandos swooped down on the fortress in gliders. The guards held fire, Mussolini was located and was taken away in a small spotter plane. Hitler told Skorzeny afterwards: "You have performed a military feat which will become part of history."

In another famous commando raid in Hungary, Operation Mickey Mouse, Skorzeny snatched a member of the Hungarian royal family from a palace, rolling him up in a rug and putting him on a plane to Berlin.

During the German Ardennes offensive, the now notorious Scarface directed the infiltration by hundreds of English-speaking Germans clad in American uniforms behind Allied lines. After helping dozens of high-ranking Nazis to escape, the 'most dangerous man in Europe' eventually surrendered to the Americans on May 15, 1945, one week after the end of the war.

That was not the end of the story, however. Although he was acquitted of war crimes by a US military court, he remained a prisoner because other countries wished to bring charges against him. But, in typical fashion, the infamous commando fled.

After his escape he sought refuge in fascist Spain and Argentina, where he became close to Eva Peron, reportedly foiling at least one attempt on her life.

After he was officially 'de-nazified' in his absence by a German arbitration board, Skorzeny resumed his career as an engineer and bought his Irish farm. The farm was eventually sold in 1970 to the Long family. It is now run by Mrs Meryl Long as an upmarket guesthouse.

Skorzeny died a multi-millionaire in Madrid in 1975.

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