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The last days of a dictator

Caution: This article contains graphic content
The bodies of Mussolini, his mistress and other Fascists hanging from an Esso station in Milan (Photo:
The bodies of Mussolini, his mistress and other Fascists hanging from an Esso station in Milan (Photo:

77 years ago, on April 28, 1945, after being captured by Italian partisans, dictator Benito Mussolini came to a gruesome end. Much changed since his rise into power and his tyrannical rule of Italy as the dead body of Il Duce (“the Leader”) was hanged at an Esso gas station in Milan while being kicked, stoned and spat on. His cult of personality had begun to crumble as the war turned against the Axis powers, especially after the Allied invasion of Italy. In this article we will look at the last days of Mussolini.

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Mussolini addressing the American people in English in 1929 (Video: YouTube)

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, a former Socialist politician, journalist, and World War I veteran, became one of the first European dictators of the 20th century in the 1920s at the helm of the Partito Nazionale Fascista (“National Fascist Party”) and its paramilitary wing, the Camicie Nere (“the blackshirts”). His ultimate goal was to restore the Roman Empire. He liked to pose as a heroic military leader, often half-naked, on propaganda photos. Before Adolf Hitler seized power and became the Führer in 1933 (Read our earlier article – Becoming Führer), Mussolini was an influential, almost mentor-like figure for him. The two countries had a flourishing cooperation in the 1930s.  When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Germany was among the first countries to recognize Italy’s rule over Ethiopia. They joined forces in the Spanish Civil War between 1936-1939 and sent troops to support the nationalist forces of Francisco Franco. Shortly before World War II, they signed the “Pact of Steel” which formalized their political, economic, and military alliance. With Germany becoming stronger and stronger and launching successful diplomatic and military campaigns, this role started to change gradually during WWII between the two dictatorships and the Italian dictator often became a burden for the Germans.

The two allies, Mussolini and Hitler (Photo: Universal History Archive/Shutterstock)
The two allies, Mussolini and Hitler (Photo: Universal History Archive/Shutterstock)

Following the German attack against France in June 1940, Italy became convinced of German victory and entered the war on the Axis side to get the spoils of war. Mussolini sent troops to France and attacked British forces in Africa also. Encouraged by their initial success, and growing jealous of Hitler’s conquests, Mussolini embarked on the invasion of Greece in October 1940. His attempts to subdue Greece were met with heavy resistance, and his troops were forced into retreat. Germany needed to come to Italy’s aid. The Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Read our earlier article – The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox), were sent to Africa to help Italy. It became clear that the Italian armed forces and the economy were ill-prepared for an all-out war.

Mussolini on horseback in Tripoli, Libya (Photo: Public domain)
Mussolini on horseback in Tripoli, Libya (Photo: Public domain)

The war took its toll on the Italian population when the Allied started to bomb Italian cities, and as the threat of an Allied invasion grew imminent, Italy’s position in the war became more and more untenable. Mussolini lost his grip on his people and eventually lost the confidence of leading Italian fascists. In the wake of the Allied landings on Sicily in July 1943, Mussolini was ousted by the Fascist Grand Council and was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio on 25 July 1943. The new government negotiated an armistice with the Allies. Despite being voted out of power, he appeared at his office the morning after, but he got arrested after a meeting with the king on the steps of the royal residence at Villa Savoia in the afternoon. He was held captive in several places and was eventually taken to the well-guarded Hotel Campo Imperatore on the Gran Sasso d’Italia mountain. On September 12, 1943, he was rescued by a group of German paratroopers and SS troops with the participation of Hitler’s trusted SS-commando, the infamous Austrian-born German Otto Skorzeny (Read our earlier article – The Griffin that didn’t fly).

Skorzeny (centre) with the rescued Mussolini after the successful Gran Sasso raid, September 12, 1943 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Skorzeny (centre) with the rescued Mussolini after the successful Gran Sasso raid, September 12, 1943 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Following his rescue, he became the head of the German satellite state of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (“Italian Social Republic”) also known as Republic of Saló, named after the town at Lake Garda. By that time, Mussolini was already a fallen dictator, but only the Allies closing on his stronghold brought his final demise. The Allies managed to break the German resistance at the abbey of Monte Cassino in May 1944 (Read our earlier article – Razing Monte Cassino), then liberated Rome on June 4, 1944, and advanced further north. In early 1945, as German defensive lines collapsed, Mussolini had to decide whether to flee or stay in the country.

The last photo of Mussolini being alive, April 25, 1945 (Photo: Public domain)
The last photo of Mussolini being alive, April 25, 1945 (Photo: Public domain)

Disguised in German uniform and accompanied by his young mistress, Clara Petacci, he attempted to escape the Allied advance by joining a German convoy headed for the Swiss border to later depart for Spain (he rejected the advice to fly out of Italy). They were stopped and identified by partisans in the town of Dongo (as a sidenote, it is worth mentioning that Dongo is a sister-town of Arromanches-les-Bains in Normandy, where one of the two artificial Mulberry harbors was installed shortly after D-Day on Gold Beach). The couple spent the last night together at a farmhouse in Bonzanigo di Mezzegra.

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Mussolini’s mistress, Clara Petacci (Photo:
Mussolini’s mistress, Clara Petacci (Photo:

After a “trial”, Mussolini, his mistress and his most loyal men were executed in the neighboring Giulino di Mezzegra at the entrance of the Villa Belmonte on April 28, 1945. Mussolini was 61, Petacci 33 years old. Their dead bodies were taken to Milan in a furniture van. They were hung, head downward, on Piazzale Loreto at an Esso gas station (today, you can find a McDonalds restaurant at the approximate location of the event). A huge crowd celebrated the fall of the dictator and desecrated their cadavers.

The bodies of Mussolini, his mistress (second and third from the left) and other Fascists hanging from an Esso station in Milan (Photo: Public domain)
The bodies of Mussolini, his mistress (second and third from the left) and other Fascists hanging from an Esso station in Milan (Photo: Public domain)

It was a symbolic location since a year earlier the fascists had put on display the bodies of fifteen executed members of the Resistance. A woman has even fired five shots at the deceased Mussolini saying, “Five bullets for my five dead sons.” Another bizarre aspect of the event was that Mussolini often liked to pose half-naked in propaganda materials. This time, his similarly half-naked dead body was put on display for the angry crowd. Eventually, on the order of U.S. soldiers, the bodies were removed and taken to a morgue.

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Mussolini lies beside his mistress, Clara Petacci, in a morgue in Milan (Photo: Public domain)

Already hiding in his underground bunker in Berlin, Adolf Hitler learned about the capture, execution, and public humiliation of his ally a day later, on April 29, 1945. Being surrounded by the Soviets, he decided to avoid a similar end and committed suicide together with his wife, Eva Braun the next day. Their bodies were burned.

Mussolini’s body was buried in an unmarked grave in Milan. Anti-fascists regularly desecrated his grave until fascists dug the remains out on Easter Sunday of 1946 and disappeared with it. Four months later, the body was found in the Certosa di Pavia monastery by Italian authorities. The government has then decided to hide it in a Capuchin monastery in the town of Cerro Maggiore. Eleven years later, the new Prime Minister, Adone Zoli, former anti-fascist partisan and Christian-democratic politician, needed the political support of the far-right party in the parliament in 1957. As a compromise, Zoli, with his family coming from Mussolini’s hometown, allowed the reinternment of Mussolini at the family tomb in Predappio in Mussolini’s birthplace on September 1, 1957. His bones were handed over to his widow, Rachele Mussolini, and placed in a large sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is overlooked by a marble head of Mussolini. Some of his supporters said farewell with a fascist salute.

Mussolini’s sarcophagus in the family crypt (Photo: Chris Warde-Jones)
Mussolini’s sarcophagus in the family crypt (Photo: Chris Warde-Jones)

Three years later, Zoli was also buried in the same cemetery not far away from the crypt of the dictator. The last piece of Mussolini’s body, a sample of his brain used during the autopsy, was returned to the widow from the U.S. in 1966. Later, Rachele Mussolini ran a restaurant in Predappio at the feet of Mussolini’s former villa. She passed away in 1979, at the age of 89 and was laid to rest in the Mussolini family crypt. Mussolini and Rachele had five children. The family crypt is still frequently visited by neo-fascists. Following four years of restoration amid tension between the descendants of the Mussolini family, the re-opened tomb can be visited daily from 2021.
If you want to study Allied World War II operations in Italy and explore the iconic locations of Mussolini’s fascist rule, join us on our Italian Campaign Tour from 2023.

The entrance of Villa Belmonte where Mussolini was shot on April 28, 1945 (Photo: Wikipedia, Jordanhaul)
The entrance of Villa Belmonte where Mussolini was shot on April 28, 1945 (Photo: Wikipedia, Jordanhaul)
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