In World War II, the main participants of war were divided into two forces— the Allied powers composed of Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, versus the Axis, made up of  Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy. At the time when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was imprisoned by his people after the Allied bombers pounded the “Eternal City” of Rome, Hitler did his part as a trusted ally and friend to come and rescue his fellow dictator from the people… or was it for a reason?

The Fall of the Dictator

Although Hitler and Mussolini were both dictators during their time, Hitler held absolute power in his hands and with it came the ability to rule with an iron fist.  This was not true with Mussolini, Italy still had a king and a council of ministers that could remove Mussolini from his office if they opted to. When Allied bombers flew over the city of Rome on July 19, 1943, and turned the city and all the working-class areas of San Lorenzo into rubble by destroying two of their airports and partially damaging the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence,  Mussolini’s government turned the blame on him. The Grand Council lost its confidence in “Il Duce” who had been in power twenty years and booted him out on July 24. As King Victor Emmanuel III told him,

My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. Italy has gone to bits. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.

Mussolini had no choice but to leave the palace that had been his home for the past 20 years. The members of the Carabinieri arrested and imprisoned him, as per the king’s order.

Operation Eiche

Upon receiving the news, Hitler was appalled that his fellow Axis leader allowed himself to be removed so easily.  Hitler greatly admired Mussolini as the founder of the Fascist-Socialist system that the NAZIs had modeled their own Nationalist Socialist movement on. It also set a bad example that could be used to unseat him from power as well. Finally, if Italy suddenly decided to join the Allies, he would find a new front opened in the war that his hard pressed armies would have a hard time dealing with. Hitler believed the best course of action to prevent all this from happening was to stage a counter-coup,  overthrow the Italian king and put Mussolini back in power. And so he ordered for Mussolini to be rescued.

Meanwhile, the Italians already anticipated that Hiter would do that, so they constantly moved Mussolini around to ensure that the Germans would have difficulty knowing where the dictator was. Hitler expected that, too, and so he sent Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny to Italy to track where Mussolini was, at the same time planning a rescue attempt.

It wasn’t long until Skorzeny figured out where Mussolini was by using a radio transmissions interceptor. It turned out that he was being held under the secure area in the Hotel Campo, a ski resort up in the Apennine Mountains in the Gran Sasso region south of Italy. To get him out, Skorzeny obtained an aerial reconnaissance photo that showed the hotel’s exact location, which was on top of a mountain. He found a small patch of land adjacent to the hotel, and he thought they could use that to land a squadron of gliders.

Italy, Gran Sasso— Liberation of Benito Mussolini. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-567-1503B-05 / Toni SchneidersCC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rescue Day

When the first ray of sunshine shone over Italy on September 12, 1943, Skorzeny and a team of SS commandos boarded ten DFS 230 gliders and attempted to land on that small airstrip near the hotel. As it turned out, it was a rocky slope and not flat ground like how it appeared in the photo. Regardless, they crash-landed on the slope, injuring some of the troops in one of the gliders. Below,  Major Harald Mors leading two paratroop units cut off all telephone lines to the hotel.

Mussolini (center) and Otto Skorzeny after Operation Oak (Gran Sasso raid)
Mussolini (center) and Otto Skorzeny after Operation Oak (Gran Sasso raid). (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-567-1503C-15 / Toni Schneiders, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

Skorzeny and his team swarmed into the heavily-guarded hotel. In anticipation of having to shoot it out with the 200 or so guards, he brought with him Italian General Fernando Soleti, who ordered the Carabinieri not to shoot, an order they followed. The rescue force proceeded to smash the guards’ radio so they could not call for backup before proceeding to search the rooms and find Mussolini. Once they found him and told him that it was Hitler who sent him there, Mussolini couldn’t help but exclaim, “I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me.”

Skorzeny called down a Fieseler Fi 156 STOL, a light observation plane capable of short take-offs and landings which made a precarious landing on the slope.  Originally, the aircraft was supposed to just take Mussolini off but Skorzeny insisted on going with him to ensure that nothing happened to him.  The now badly overloaded plane barely made it off the ground.  Mussolini was flown to meet Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair, his headquarters in the woods outside Rastenburg in East Prussia.  It was here that Hitler explained what would be next for his old friend, he would make Mussolini the puppet leader of the Italian Socialist Republic in Northern Italy.  Mussolini had a hard time accepting that he would now be an underling to his former student.  As it would turn out, it wouldn’t have to serve under Hitler for very long.  the end came when the Allies arrived in Northern Italy, and Il Duce and Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci took off for neutral Switzerland. They were captured by Italian partisans in Milan on April 28th, 1945, and Mussolini, his mistress, and members of his entourage were put against a wall and shot. Their bodies were then hung upside down from lampposts at a local gas station.

Otto Skorzeny would go on to plan and execute Operation Greif in which his soldiers dressed in US uniforms and driving captured American vehicles sowed confusion behind allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge.  They were effective enough that rumors began that a group of German troops dressed as GIs was out to assassinate Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower. His staff had him so locked down trying to protect him that Ike felt like a prisoner at his own headquarters.

Skorzeny would survive the war, and be arrested by the allies to be tried for war crimes.  He then escaped from captivity and fled to Spain.  He was hired to train the Egyptian army and their commandos including Yassar Arafat who would become head of the terrorist organization, the PLO. Incredibly, he would be later recruited by Mossad to spy on Egypt and the German rocket scientists working for them.  He also worked and lived in Argentina advising the Peron government and imagined beginning a Fourth Reich out of that country with tens of thousands of German immigrants that entered the country after the war. He finally died of lung cancer in Madrid in 1975 at the age of 67.

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