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, Septem­ber 12, 1943, a few planes, 8 towed gliders, and 90 crack Luft­waffe air­borne troops (Fall­shirm­jaeger) landed with­out resis­tance on the back slope of the hotel. Accom­panying the air­borne troops was a burly, scar-faced, 35‑year-old Waffen‑SS captain by the name of Otto Skor­zeny and 15 of his SS comman­dos. Neither Mus­solini’s abduc­tors nor his sur­prised captors (200 well-equipped mili­tary police) exchanged a shot. After a few snap­shots of Skor­zeny and Mus­so­lini before the hotel, Skor­zeny squeezed him­self and the lib­er­ated dic­ta­tor into a single-engine, two-seater plane and made off with his prize. Opera­tion Eiche (Oak), or the Gran Sasso Raid, was a pro­pa­ganda coup for the Nazis, who flew Mus­so­lini to Hitler’s East Prus­sian head­quarters, then back to North­ern Italy. There Il Duce 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.

Operation Oak: 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: Ninety paratroopers under the command of Major Harald-Otto Mors along with 15 select com­man­dos led by Waffen-SS captain Otto Skor­zeny crash-landed gliders onto the hotel’s boulder-strewn slopes, then over­whelmed Mus­so­lini’s stunned jailers without firing a single shot. Skor­zeny rushed passed the para­troopers to greet Mus­so­lini, boasting, “Duce, the Fuehrer has sent me to set you free!” To which Musso­lini replied, “I knew that my friend would not forsake me!”

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

Left: Otto Skorzeny (center, dangling binoculars) with the lib­er­ated Mus­so­lini and to Skor­zeny’s right the slightly build Harald-Otto Mors, planner and leader of the Luft­waffe oper­a­tion, Hotel Campo Imper­a­tore, Septem­ber 12, 1943. Photo­graph by Toni Schnei­ders who was attached to Mors’ para­troop bat­ta­lion. The high-risk rescue saved Mus­so­lini from being turned over to the Allies under the terms of the Long Armis­tice and cata­pulted the self-promoting SS 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 his work on the intelligence side of the Luft­waffe raid, 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-person, highly maneu­ver­able Fieseler Storch (“Stork”) spotter plane on the uneven pla­teau. It was a hair-raising take­off as the pilot, Skor­zeny (who had forced his way into the air­craft), and Mus­so­lini (Skor­zeny’s future meal ticket) in the now 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 twin-engine 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: The Luftwaffe’s successful exploit produced a rare late-war public rela­tions blip to sagging Axis for­tunes thanks to German propa­ganda organs, 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 some of the brave glider-borne raiders who had extracted the deposed dictator from the hands of his enemies.

Operation Oak: The Raid to Free Imprisoned Benito Mussolini, September 12, 1943