Gentlemen At War

By Joshua M. Greene

As unpleasant as it is to contemplate, in war there is a right way and a wrong way to kill. Respect for that standard united the careers of two men who could not have been in other ways less alike.

Even with shoes on, British businessman Forrest Yeo-Thomas stood no more than five-foot six-inches tall. A receding hairline, plain features, and protruding ears made him seem much older than his thirty-two years. He didn’t mind his average appearance: the Gestapo had a hard time identifying him. Still, he did not look the part of Britain’s top underground operative. Otto Skorzeny, on the other hand, was one of Europe’s most recognizable celebrities. The thirty-five-year-old daredevil stood six-foot-three. A dueling scar ran down his handsome face from ear to chin. He was Hitler’s favorite commando and looked every inch the Nazi war hero.

From another perspective, the two men were indeed alike. Both were brilliant special agents endowed with sharp tactical skills and catlike survival instincts. Each answered directly to his nation’s highest authority, Yeo-Thomas to Churchill, Skorzeny to Hitler. Above all, both enjoyed reputations as gentlemen who respected the rules of war, demanded nothing of their men which they would not themselves do, and avoided causing harm whenever possible.

During the war years, Yeo-Thomas and Otto Skorzeny only knew one another by name. It was not until 1947 that they met face to face. Theirs became one of history’s more unexpected friendships and one that raised troubling questions. How far down the chain of command can responsibility for acts of war be ascribed? Are soldiers protected from punishment by virtue of “superior orders” when the government issuing those orders is itself criminal? Can those who support genocide be deemed honorable?

Less abstract questions occupied Yeo-Thomas as he parachuted into France in February 1943. The Allies were planning their invasion of Europe and depended on communications from spies, but the Paris underground had been compromised and its members arrested. Within a year of his arrival, Yeo-Thomas managed to rebuild a portion of French operations, but his failures outweighed successes in that final year of war. Intercepted messages, betrayal by Nazi double agents—Yeo-Thomas saw the unexpected bring down dozens of fellow operatives. He had no illusions about the job and adjusted quickly. When the Germans got too close, he hopped down a hole, disappeared, then resurfaced elsewhere to continue his assignment, which is how he earned his nickname: White Rabbit.

To avoid capture, the White Rabbit rented seventeen apartments throughout Paris and spent no more than two successive nights in any of them. He arranged to rendezvous only in crowded locales. One hot afternoon in July, it was metro station Place d’Etoile near the Eiffel Tower. He spotted his contact and approached. Suddenly, a German agent rushed out from behind a newspaper stand and grabbed Yeo-Thomas. Other agents ran up, wrestled Yeo-Thomas to the ground, clapped their arms around the contact and led him up the stairs.

“They caught me setting out for the drop!” the contact yelled back. “They forced me to keep the rendezvous!” Yeo-Thomas went mute. One word could compromise the entire French underground.

Technically, Yeo-Thomas died in a Gestapo jail: he drowned when interrogators immersed him in a tub filled with icy water that filled his lungs and belly. The SS threw him to the floor, rolled him on his stomach and applied artificial respiration. When he came to, they used a printer’s vise to crush the bones in both his hands. Every man has his limits and years later Yeo-Thomas recalled being at the breaking point when an over-enthusiastic torturer conveniently knocked him out and threw him back into the icy water. Hours passed. As consciousness slowly returned, Yeo-Thomas awoke to agony. His wrists had been tied behind his back and he hung suspended, toes inches above the floor. If he cracked, he knew the Germans would do this to anyone whose name he gave up. The White Rabbit stayed silent and took the pain.

His metro contact did not bear up as well and betrayed their network. Thirty-six British and French operatives were rounded up within hours and herded into a holding cage at Gestapo headquarters. The following day, Yeo-Thomas and his agents were deported to Germany. From bits of conversation among their guards, they learned where they were headed: concentration camp Buchenwald.

The train arrived at the camp. Yeo-Thomas and his crew were forced out with rifle butts and whips and told to strip. Prisoners shaved of all their body hair with rusty razors. Guards pushed them naked and bleeding through a steaming hot shower, threw them each a bundle of rags and wooden shoes, and crammed them into an isolation barrack. Thirty-seven men and women shared a box nine-feet wide and twelve-feet long. On the tenth day, sixteen of the group were marched to the Administration Building and never heard from again. Yeo-Thomas learned from rumors that all sixteen had been suspended by meat hooks in the crematory and slowly strangled. A few days later, five more followed, then five more after that. After two weeks, only six of his original thirty-seven agents were still alive.

The White Rabbit heard from a prisoner working in the camp hospital that the German medical officer, Ding-Schuler, was a weak man who might be turned. Yeo-Thomas sneaked into the officer’s quarters and confronted him. “This war is almost over,” he argued. “If you help me save my men, it will go well for you when the Allies arrive.”

More than three hundred prisoners died each day in Buchenwald. It was impossible to confirm the identities of so many corpses, and the White Rabbit’s plan of escape was as simple as it was gruesome. Under cover of night, he and his men ferreted through cadavers until seven were found that resembled their own features. In the morning, Ding-Schuler reported the agents dead from typhus, and cadavers bearing their names and numbers were sent to the crematory. Once the SS believed them dead, the agents were able to escape under assumed identities. The White Rabbit hid in a pickle barrel that was transported to an out camp several miles from Buchenwald. Dressed in a stolen uniform, he worked his way across German lines to ground held by Americans. There he collapsed more dead than alive. Eventually, he made it back to England where he was awarded the George Cross for bravery.

The same week that the White Rabbit escaped Buchenwald, Commando Otto Skorzeny managed to land a tiny glider on a minuscule patch of land atop the loftiest peak in the Apennine Mountains. He stormed through a line of astonished Italian guards, found the room where Hitler’s friend Mussolini was being held prisoner, and announced “I have this building surrounded. Surrender Mussolini to me and you will avert senseless bloodshed.” Skorzeny then marched his prize out to a tiny spotter plane that had followed him onto the mountain, took off, and delivered Mussolini into the hands of an ecstatic Fuhrer.

The daring rescue made front-page headlines across Europe. Skorzeny’s action was so dramatic and improbable that even Winston Churchill, never one to compliment a German, told a stunned House of Commons, “The stroke was one of great daring.”

His next assignment, the one that earned Skorzeny a reputation as “the most dangerous man in Europe,” came during the height of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last offensive. Disguised in U.S. Army jackets, Skorzeny and his commandos penetrated American lines in the Ardennes with orders to secure bridges for a German counterattack. They were discovered but managed to fight their way out, killing a number of Americans in the process.

On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide. Otto Skorzeny surrendered himself and his men to Allied forces. On September 10, he was flown to Nuremberg, Germany, to await trial with other senior Nazi officers. In May 1946, he was transferred to Dachau where the U.S. Third Army had established a war crimes tribunal. Skorzeny was charged with violating the rules of war by fighting in enemy uniform “in contravention to the Hague Convention of 1907.”

Skorzeny’s lawyer, an American Colonel named Robert Durst, grilled his client for a week. Finally convinced that Skorzeny had acted honorably, Durst devised a plan for the Nazi officer’s acquittal. From his reading of opinions by experts in legal theory, it seemed that international law was subject to “changing usages” such as those employed by Skorzeny’s commandos. If Durst could prove that Allied forces had employed similar tactics, then either the “rules of war” were obsolete or the Allies were equally guilty of violating international wartime regulations. Inspired by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dictum that law was “more experience than logic,” Durst produced a surprise witness: Yeo Thomas, the White Rabbit.

On the day of Yeo-Thomas’s testimony, Skorzeny left his prisoner barrack under heavily armed guard. He crossed a barbed wire-enclosed yard and entered the Dachau courthouse, wondering what on earth Britain’s most revered undercover agent could have to say on his behalf. The two hundred by one hundred-foot courtroom was packed with press, Army VIPs, and residents from the Munich area. At the far end of the room under the Stars and Stripes sat an eight-man U.S. Army tribunal. Skorzeny approached the dock, and what happened next took his breath away. There in the witness chairs sat Yeo-Thomas and a dozen other American and British officers. As Skorzeny approached, they rose from their seats, stood at attention, and saluted him in unison.

It was a stunning gesture, one that ignored politics and press and whatever disgust it might arouse in people who knew nothing of fighting a war. They were soldiers recognizing another soldier who like themselves conducted his business as humanely as possible and like them, too, believed there was a right way and a wrong way to kill.

“Skorzeny,” one of the Americans whispered. “Now there’s a soldier.”

Durst called his witness to the stand. The White Rabbit, hobbling from the tortures he had endured, took his seat. In his opinion, he said, Skorzeny and his men had not committed any crimes. From all he heard, they had behaved like gentlemen. Durst invited Yeo-Thomas to describe whether the Allied forces had ever used disguise as an instrument of war. Of course, he replied, and gave instances from his own actions in Buchenwald and elsewhere. Durst phrased his next question carefully.

“When using German uniforms, did the operators of the Secret Service go armed?”

“Yes,” the White Rabbit replied.

“To prevent danger of discovery,” Durst asked, “what would the practice be?”

Yeo-Thomas glanced around the courtroom. Then the man whose silence could not be broken by repeated torture ended the case against Otto Skorzeny with five words.

“Bumped off the other guy,” he said, providing the evidence Durst needed to prove his argument regarding “changing usages of war.” The court now had to either acquit Skorzeny or admit that there was one law for those who won a war and another for those who lost. The outcome was clear. Skorzeny leaned over and gave his men a quiet order. The German prisoners stood, bowed to Yeo-Thomas, and then resumed their seats.

Skorzeny was acquitted. But rather than see “the most dangerous man in Europe” go free, Allied forces kept him in custody with no indication of release. Finally, in July 1948, with wire clippers, rope ladders, and bribes, Otto Skorzeny broke out of his Dachau holding cage, stowed away in the trunk of a transport van, and escaped to freedom. He relocated to Spain where over the next several years he opened up business relations with industrialists whom he had met in prison. An interesting coda to his story appeared in the New York Post on September 21, 1989:

Jerusalem—A Nazi war hero who once headed Hitler’s band of personal bodyguards was a secret agent for Israel’s Mossad in the early 1960s, the Post has learned. Government sources here said Otto Skorzeny…helped to halt an Egyptian ground-to-ground missile development program that threatened Israeli security…. Skorzeny contacted ex-Nazis working on the Egyptian project. He convinced them to think twice about making it successful, and by 1965 the program had collapsed…”

Such exceptional behavior does nothing to attenuate the horrors of war but it certainly raises questions about condemning a man for wearing an unpopular uniform, even one with swastikas. Some Germans simply did fit the image of a Nazi monster. A man like Otto Skorzeny did not need international conventions to convince him to exercise restraint in battle. Some intangible essence, an instinct never codified in formal doctrine, guided his actions and moved him to voluntarily surrender at war’s end, despite the inevitability of a trial and the likelihood of execution. Later in his life, Skorzeny confided to a journalist who found him in Spain, “I am not ashamed of what the men under my command did in the war…but you must know that I am not interested in politics. I don’t believe in any Nazi revival. History never turns back, and for my part I don’t want it to.” Skorzeny lived to age 67 and died with a clear conscience in Madrid in 1975.

The White Rabbit came to a more troubled end. He suffered terribly from his war wounds and lived in constant physical discomfort, exacerbated by mental anguish over the course of events in recent years. The world around him in the 1960s seemed so decadent, so uncaring. When had high standards of character become anachronistic? Had the sacrifice of war been worth it? He approached death wondering whether in his idealism he had sinned against his own notions of nobility. He lived with a feeling of dirtiness, even of self-loathing.

“Well it’s over now,” he wrote in his diary. “I have my memories, something no one can take away from me. I am a bitter man, but I have known real happiness as well as real sorrow and excruciating pain. Knowing men like the many I counted as friends in those hectic and dangerous days has made me richer…. Often, though, I envy them, for they died happy, with an ideal, with the feeling that they had sacrificed everything for something good, something enduring. They did not live to see the sham that it all was, to see the wasting of all their efforts, the shameless scramble for personal satisfactions…”

Following a massive hemorrhage, Yeo-Thomas died in his Paris apartment on February 26, 1964. In his belongs was the draft of a letter he had sent Skorzeny at the end of the trials. “You did a damned good war job,” it read. “I’m sure you will get off. In any case, I have a flat in Paris if you should need somewhere to lie up.”

It may be impossible to reconcile Otto Skorzeny’s military allegiances with his extraordinary character—just as impossible as fathoming how a man who survived repeated torture by Nazi captors could then honor a Nazi commando before the eyes of the world. Here were soldiers from opposite and irreconcilable cultures convinced that in the rubble of a terrible time a treasure lay buried, a wealth of character awaiting resurrection. They felt that conviction in their bones and understood, perhaps as no one else ever could, the greater purpose of gentlemen at war.

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