Rescuing Mussolini

The Nazi raid to liberate the Duce

 A German glider next to the Hotel Campo Imperatore during the raid to rescue Mussolini (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

A well-executed military mission is worthy of respect and study regardless of who performed it. Today's article is about Unternehmen Eiche („Operation Oak”), better known as the Gran Sasso raid. The raid was a rescue operation undertaken by German Luftwaffe and SS forces on September 12, 1943, to free Benito Mussolini, the Fascist Italian leader who had recently been deposed and arrested. The mission involved a daring airborne landing against superior enemy forces and a tightly timed cooperation among three groups in different locations.

German commandos disembarking from a glider during the raid (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

By the summer of 1943, it was clear to everyone that Italy was doing poorly in the war. The country's campaigns in North and East Africa were abysmal failures, and the invasion of Greece went so bad that Germany had to be called in to help. On the night between the 9th and 10th of July 1943, Allied troops invaded the island of Sicily in preparation for the attack on the Italian mainland. On the 19th, 521 Allied planes bombed Rome, causing thousands of civilian casualties. Though there were no Allied soldiers on the mainland yet, Mussolini's Fascist regime was on the verge of collapse, and an armistice between Italy and the Allies was a very distinct possibility. On the night before the 25th, the Grand Council of Fascism passed a vote of no confidence against Mussolini. The next day, the Duce visited King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who had him arrested and appointed General Pietro Badoglio in his place. Badoglio promptly began secret negotiations about surrendering to the Allies. In order to prevent pro-Fascist forces from freeing Mussolini, the disgraced leader was kept in near-constant motion between various prisons, islands and other safe locations.

General Badoglio, Mussolini's replacement (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 28, Mussolini was moved to the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a mountainside hotel located 6,990 ft (2,130 m) above sea level in the Gran Sasso d'Italia massif some 68 miles (110 km) to the northeast of Rome. Interestingly, the hotel was originally built in the 1930s to glorify Mussolini's reign: seen from above, the building had the outline of a capital letter „D.” Two further buildings were planned but never built, shaped „V” and „X.” Together, they were to spell out DVX, the Latin word for „leader” which Mussolini's title, Il Duce, was derived from.

The Hotel Campo Imperatore in 1943 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Hitler considered Mussolini a friend, an old ally, and in many ways the inspiration for his own National Socialist movement, and was furious when he heard that the Italian dictator was ousted from power. The Führer immediately came up with ideas to retaliate. He considered an outright invasion of Italy to prevent it from capitulating, kidnapping the Italian royal family, and even imprisoning the Pope. He was dissuaded from these ideas and eventually settled on the more measured response of rescuing Mussolini from his Italian captors, while German forces in Northern Italy dug in and prepared to disarm Italian soldiers as soon as the country officially surrendered to the Allies.

Hitler often gave the same job to competing branches of his military, and this case was no exception. Luftwaffe General Kurt Student, developer of the German paratrooper force, was given the task of planning and executing the rescue once Mussolini's location was found. Meanwhile, Austrian-born SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Otto Skorzeny, who would go on to become Hitler's favorite commando, was tasked with finding Mussolini.

General Kurt Student (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

According to one description of the events, Hitler secretly summoned six of his best small-unit officers and started interrogating them about their opinions on the Italians. Five answered with standard propaganda platitudes of solidarity. When it came to his turn, Skorzeny replied more bluntly: "I am an Austrian, mein Führer, and our attitude toward Italy is prejudiced by the happenings of the previous world war," referring to how Austria-Hungary was fighting against Italy in World War I.  Whether it was his honesty or some other factor, Skorzeny was given the task.

Otto Skorzeny with the distinctive facial scar he acquired during his days of academic dueling as a young man (Photo: State Treasury of Poland)

German intelligence intercepted a coded Italian report which suggested that Mussolini was held somewhere in the Abruzzi mountains. The Germans suspected the Hotel Campo Imperatore, and quickly hatched a ploy to confirm their suspicions: German doctors were sent to the location under the guise of seeking a suitable site for a malaria hospital. The Duce's location was given additional confirmation by informers who were paid off with counterfeit British money. The Germans also learned that the hotel was guarded by about 200 Carabinieri. (The Carabinieri were and still are a „gendarmerie-style” force that can be found in several European countries: the force itself is part of the nation's military, but it also fulfills some of the functions of the police amid the civilian population.)

Two Italian Carabinieri and a Hungarian soldier on the Eastern Front (Photo: unknown photographer)

The only way to reach the hotel on the ground was by a cable car line, but going up the mountain in small groups while exposed to the defenders' fire would have been suicide; an airborne solution was needed. Parachute drops were discarded as an option, as the rare air at such a high altitude would have made the jumps excessively dangerous. General Student finally settled on a gliderborne operation.

The cable car leading to the hotel (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The German DFS 230 glider had already proved itself suitable for such a mission. With a capacity of one pilot and nine glidermen, it was smaller than the American Waco glider, and the men had to disembark through a single narrow door, but it also had an advantage in the form of a parachute break. This parachute allowed the glider to dive at its landing zone almost vertically down, at an 80° angle, then land within 60 ft (20 m) of its target. This accurate landing ability came handy earlier in the war, when the French fort of Eben-Emael was captured by German airborne troops who landed directly on top of the subterranean fortress.

One of the DFS 230 gliders near the hotel (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The rescue operation involved three forces acting independently of each other. A ground force was to assault the bottom terminal of the cable car line and hold it against any Italian forces loyal to the new government who might try to go up the mountain and interfere with the rescue. A glider force would land right next to the hotel up on the mountain and rescue Mussolini. An often-forgotten third force, comprised of a single truck and seven men, was to go to the medieval castle of Rocca delle Caminate in Northern Italy, and rescue Mussolini's wife Rachele Mussolini, and their two youngest children, who were under house arrest there.

Rachele Mussolini, née Guidi (Photo: Wikipedia)

Mussolini's rescue is today most closely associated with SS officer Otto Skorzeny. Interestingly, the original version of the rescue plan only called for Skorzeny to rescue Mussolini's wife and children, while the raid on the mountain hotel itself was to be conducted entirely by Luftwaffe troops. With the support of SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Göbbels, however, Skorzeny managed to force himself into the main rescue effort along with a small force of 16 SS and Sicherheitsdienst (Nazi intelligence service) men. Göbbels had a camera team accompany the hotel raid to make sure that the SS, and not the Luftwaffe, would receive the lion's share of the fame if the operation succeeded.

Skorzeny and Mussolini in the midst of German commandos during the rescue (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The raid commenced at 1:05 p.m. on September 12, four days after the Italian authorities' public surrender to the Allies. Twelves gliders and their tow planes, carrying a force of about 100 men (most of them Luftwaffe, only Skorzeny and 16 others associated with the SS), were to fly to the hotel, but two of them ran over bomb craters and crashed during takeoff, leaving ten. As the force was approaching the hotel, the men saw that while the designated landing site looked like a grassy field on recon photos, it was, in fact, a slope strewn with rocks and thus unsuited for landing. Skorzeny had orders to abort the mission in such a situation, but he decided to go ahead anyway and told the pilot to dive and crash land as close to the hotel as possible.

View of the hotel from one of the gliders during approach (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Two gliders crashed on the boulders, but the rest managed to follow Skorzeny's plane, and German troops poured out of the vehicles at around 2:05 p.m. The raiders were outnumbered two to one, but they had a secret weapon: General Fernando Soleti of the Italian African Police. The general quickly ordered the Carabinieri to lay down their weapons, and threatened them with execution for treachery if they refused to comply. Confused by the sudden attack, their loyalties split because of the ongoing transfer of power in Italy, and given a direct order by a superior, the men surrendered without a fight.

One of the crashed gliders with three others and the hotel in the background (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
One of the crashed gliders with three others and the hotel in the background (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

A few minutes later, Skorzeny was standing in front of Mussolini, telling him "Il Duce, the Führer has sent me to free you." Hugging the man, Mussolini replied "I knew that my friend would not forsake me!" Meanwhile, the second German force, led by Luftwaffe Major Harald-Otto Mors, managed to capture the bottom cable car terminal at the foot of the mountain at more or less the same time the gliders landed up on the mountain. Major Mors and a few of his men later took a cable car up to the hotel to meet Mussolini in person.

Harald Mors (second from right) shaking hand with Georg von Berlepsch, the Luftwaffe officer in charge of getting the gliders to the hotel (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The third force at Rocca delle Caminate also sprang into action at 2 p.m., with the paratroopers driving up to the castle and quickly overpowering the stunned guards with their automatic weapons. Rachele Mussolini was given 15 minutes to pack, at the end of which she and her two children were promptly led out of the castle and to a commandeered car which the truck then escorted to a German airfield half an hour's drive away.

Rocca delle Caminate some time later in the war (Photo: 4live.it)

Meanwhile, back on Gran Sasso, it was time to leave. Evacuation by cable car and then road vehicles was initially considered, but discarded due to the chaotic road conditions: in the aftermath of the Italian surrender and the German takeover, both Italian partisans and roving Italian army units could show up any time. Some sources suggest that Skorzeny also planned to evacuate Mussolini with an Fa 223 Drache ("Dragon") helicopter, but it broke down and couldn't fly in. At any rate, the choice finally fell on a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (“Stork”) liaison plane flown by General Student's personal pilot, which was already in the air and standing by to assist. The plane, known for requiring very short runways, soon landed next to the hotel and Mussolini was ushered inside.

The Fi 156 prior to takeoff (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

At the last moment, Skorzeny decided to squeeze himself into the tiny aircraft alongside the pilot and the Italian dictator, dangerously overloading the plane. Due to Skorzeny's extra weight, the perilous “takeoff” took the plane over the edge of a cliff and into freefall, which the pilot only pulled out of at the last second. The Fi 156 flew to a nearby airfield, where the Duce was transferred to a larger plane and flown to Vienna. He was then flown to the Eastern Front and met Hitler in the latter's famous Wolf's Lair headquarters.

Mussolini and Skorzeny in the plane just before takeoff (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Skorzeny became the man of the hour: in Vienna, he received a personal call from Hitler, who said "Today, you have carried out a mission that will go down in history." He was promoted to Sturmbannführer, the equivalent of major; received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross; and became Hitler's favorite commando, who was eventually described as "the most dangerous man in Europe." During the Battle of the Bulge, he led a false flag operation behind enemy lines to sow chaos and confusion with English-speaking German soldiers wearing American and British uniforms pretending to be retreating U.S. troops. (Read our earlier article – The Griffin that didn’t fly)

Skorzeny with Hitler after his promotion (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Skorzeny with Hitler after his promotion (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

For his part, Mussolini was made the head of the Italian Social Republic (also known as the Salò Republic for the small town that was its de facto capital), a puppet state set up by the Germans in Northern Italy. His reign was short-lived: in late April 1945, he was captured by communist partisans while trying to escape to Spain via Switzerland and shot the next day along with his mistress, Clara Petacci, and some of his followers. (Read our earlier article: The last days of a dictator)

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The Knotted Gun – Non-violence sculpture at the UN Headquarters in New York (Photo: UN photo)

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