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.