Fuehrer HQ, Rastenburg, Germany • September 12, 1943
On September 11, 1943, imprisoned in the Hotel Campo Imperatore high in the Apennine Mountains, deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini learned of the terms of the “long armistice” the Allies had presented to Marshal Pietro Badoglio’s new Italian government. (A “short armistice” had been signed in Sicily on September 3 between Italy and the Allies, who believed an armistice was needed to facilitate Operation Avalanche, their landings on the Italian mainland on September 8 and 9.) The “long armistice” had been pushed by Britain to humiliate Italy for having declared war on the British Empire. It required the Italians to turn over Mussolini and other high-ranking Fascists suspected of having committed war crimes to the forces of the “United Nations.”
Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) considered suicide while his friend and Axis partner Adolf Hitler pressed his special rescue operations team ever more urgently to discover where Badoglio’s government had hidden Mussolini and snatch him to safety. It was a cat-and-mouse game as the Badoglio government moved Mussolini from police barracks in Rome, to an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the island of La Maddalena near Sardinia, to finally the mainland in the area of the Gran Sasso d’Italia (“Great Stone of Italy”) mountain, a popular skiing center with a hotel that could only be reached by cable-car—clearly a place hard to get to and easy to defend.
But Mussolini’s German rescuers were clever, resourceful, and capable of following Mussolini’s movements within hours or days in a country where few secrets were kept. On this date in 1943 the burly, scar-faced 35‑year-old Waffen‑SS captain by the name of Otto Skorzeny, with a few planes, eight gliders, and ninety airborne troops, landed without resistance on the back slope of the hotel. Neither Mussolini’s abductors nor his surprised captors (200 well-equipped military police) exchanged a shot. After a few photographs were taken, Skorzeny hustled Mussolini into a single-engine plane and made off with his prize. It was a propaganda coup for the Nazis, who flew Mussolini to Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, then back to Northern Italy. There Mussolini was installed as puppet ruler of a second (and last) incarnation of a Fascist Italian State, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, informally known as the Salò Republic.
High-Stakes Rescue of Imprisoned Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, September 12, 1943
Left: The isolated alpine ski resort Campo Imperatore Hotel in 1943, where deposed dictator Benito Mussolini was eventually incarcerated. Mussolini’s Axis partner, Adolf Hitler, claimed that he would not let “Italy’s greatest son” down in his hour of need. His “old ally and dear friend” had to be rescued. The rescue was the last of Hitler’s spectacular gambles to bear fruit.
Right: German commandos under Waffen-SS captain Otto Skorzeny crash-landed their gliders onto the hotel’s boulder-strewn slopes, then overwhelmed Mussolini’s stunned jailors without firing a single shot. Skorzeny formally greeted Mussolini, saying, “Duce, the Fuehrer has sent me to set you free!” To which Mussolini replied, “I knew that my friend would not forsake me!”
Left: Otto Skorzeny (center, dangling binoculars), field commander for Operation Oak (Unternehmen Eiche) with the liberated Mussolini on September 12, 1943. The high-risk operation saved Mussolini from being turned over to the Allies under the terms of the armistice and catapulted the talented commando leader to worldwide fame. Skorzeny received a promotion to Sturmbannfuehrer, a Nazi Party paramilitary rank equivalent to major, and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Right: From prior reconnaissance of the site, Skorzeny knew that only a light plane with short takeoff and landing capabilities stood a chance of getting Mussolini off the mountain, so it was decided to land a two-seater, highly maneuverable Fieseler Storch (“Stork”) spotter plane on the uneven plateau. It was a hair-raising takeoff as Mussolini, Skorzeny, and the pilot in the overloaded Storch toppled over the edge of the mountain into the abyss below. A hundred feet from their doom on the valley floor, the men were saved when the pilot was able to correct the aircraft. Mussolini transferred to a twin-engine Heinkel 111 and was eventually flown to the Hitler’s Rastenburg headquarters in East Prussia via Vienna and Munich.
Left: Mussolini departed the Campo Imperatore Hotel for the Storch wearing a heavy coat and heavy ski boots. His rescue was one of the most famous commando operations of war, and it shocked the Allies. Eleven days after his rescue, Mussolini returned to German-occupied Italy, where he was installed as the titular head of the puppet Salò Republic.
Right: Skorzeny’s successful exploit produced a rare late-war public relations blip to sagging Axis fortunes, for it keep at least the appearance that Italy was still in the war on the Axis side. On October 3, 1943, Nazi Germany’s Thanksgiving Day, Berliners gathered in the Sport Palace to cheer Skorzeny (second from left in photo) and his brave glider-borne raiding party that had extracted the deposed dictator from the hands of his enemies.
German Newsreel of Mussolini’s Dramatic Rescue, September 1943