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.” The Duce 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 sur­prised captors exchanged a shot. After a few photo­graphs were made, 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.

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High-Stakes Rescue of Imprisoned Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, September 12, 1943

Campo Imperatore Hotel, 1943Crashed gliders, Campo Imperatore Hotel, 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!”

Skorzeny and Mussolini, Campo Imperatore Hotel, 1943Fieseler Storch ("Stork")

Left: Otto Skorzeny (center, dangling binoculars), field com­mander for Opera­tion Oak (Unter­nehmen Eiche) with the liberated Mus­so­lini, 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 Hein­kel 111 and was even­tually flown to the Hitler’s Rasten­burg head­quarters in East Prussia via Vienna and Munich.

Mussolini and Stork rescue planeRecognition of heroes, Berlin, October 1943

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