It’s an understatement to say that 1943 hadn’t been a good year for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. His desire to hold sway over the whole of North Africa had ended in humiliating defeat; his disastrous decision to send unwilling troops to the Eastern Front to fight an increasingly confident Soviet Union had resulted in unsustainable casualties, and the Allied invasion of Sicily had brought World War II right to Italy’s back door.
Unlike in Germany - where Adolf Hitler and his inner circle ruled the country with an iron fist - Italy still had a king and a council that could, if they so desired, remove the increasingly desperate Mussolini from office. As July began, Mussolini was just about holding on … but for how long?
On July 19th 1943, Allied bombers appeared over the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome. It was not the first time the city had been bombed, but it would prove to be a crucial turning point in the dictator’s downfall. The bombers flattened the mainly working-class area of San Lorenzo, caused extensive damage to two of Rome’s airports and reduced parts of the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls to rubble. Enough was enough.
Furious members of Mussolini’s government turned against their beleaguered leader, culminating in a vote of no confidence by the Grand Council on the 24th of July. The following day, Il Duce was summoned to the palace of King Victor Emmanuel III for what he thought would just be one of their regular bi-weekly meetings. The king told him he was being replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. 'My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good,' the king told the crestfallen dictator. '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 left the palace in a state of shock. He had ruled Italy since 1922, and now he had been unceremoniously booted out of office after being betrayed by members of his own government. His mood darkened considerably when he was immediately arrested by members of the Carabinieri (Italian military police) and imprisoned on the orders of the king.
When Hitler received news of Mussolini’s downfall, he was appalled. If Mussolini could be so easily deposed, maybe the same fate awaited Adolf Hitler?
The Daring Mission
Furious and fearful of the implications of a potential alliance between the Allies and what he presumed would now be a hostile Italy, Hitler decided the only course of action was to annex former Italian territory and overseas possessions and rescue his fellow dictator from captivity. The Italians had a suspicion that Hitler might mount a rescue attempt, so Mussolini had been moved around continuously since his arrest to throw the Germans off the scent. However, Hitler had anticipated this tactic and so he sent Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny to Italy to track the dictator down and mount a rescue attempt. The rescue of Benito Mussolini would be codenamed Operation Eiche.
Skorzeny had seen action during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and, after being hit in the back of the head by shrapnel in 1942 (receiving an Iron Cross for his troubles), he had then been assigned a staff job in Berlin where he began to develop techniques for unconventional commando warfare.
It didn’t take Skorzeny long to track the deposed dictator down. Intercepted radio transmissions revealed Mussolini was being held under armed guard in the Hotel Campo, a ski resort high in the Apennine Mountains in the Gran Sasso region of southern Italy. Now the problem was how to get him out.
Aerial reconnaissance photographs revealed that the hotel’s location on top of a mountain ruled out a parachute assault. However, the photos revealed a small patch of land adjacent to the hotel that Skorzeny determined was perfect for landing a squadron of gliders.
On the morning of the 12th of September 1943, Skorzeny and a crack team of SS commandoes and ‘Fallschirmjäger’ paratroopers boarded ten DFS 230 gliders and set off from a small airstrip near Rome for the hotel. As they approached the landing site, Skorzeny realized that the patch of ground earmarked for landing was, in fact, a steep, rocky slope and not the flat piece of ground the aerial photographs had suggested it was. The gliders had no choice but to crash land on the slope, causing injury to some of the troops in one of the gliders.
Meanwhile, in the valley below, two paratroop units led by Operation Eiche commander-in-chief Major Harald Mors captured the funicular railway that usually carried tourists up to the hotel. Mors ordered all telephone lines to be severed, cutting off communication with the outside world.
Once on land, Skorzeny and his shock troops stormed the hotel. The hotel and its one guest was heavily-guarded by two hundred members of the Carabinieri, but Skorzeny had a plan that he hoped would make them surrender. He had brought with him the Italian general, Fernando Soleti. As the troops burst through the doors of the hotel, Soleti shouted for the guards not to shoot. Confused, the Carabinieri laid down their arms and surrendered.
After smashing the guards’ radio so nobody would be tempted to call for backup, Skorzeny dashed upstairs and began searching the rooms for Mussolini. When he finally found him, he cried, 'Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me! You’re free!' Mussolini was overcome with emotion. 'I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me,' he told Skorzeny.
By now, Major Mors had made his way up the mountain and entered the hotel. He greeted Mussolini and introduced himself. The grinning Italian dictator posed for photographs while Skorzeny radioed for a Fieseler Fi 156 STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) plane to come and pick the dictator up.
The plane made the tricky landing on the strip of rocky ground and the Italian leader was escorted to it after waving a tearful goodbye to his rescuers. The plane was designed to carry two passengers, but Skorzeny insisted on escorting the dictator, making the plane dangerously overloaded.
Why would Skorzeny risk the mission at this late stage? Overloading the plane would make it harder to take off. The answer was simple. If anything happened to Mussolini on his way out of Italy, Skorzeny would be held personally responsible. Not known for his forgiving nature, Hitler would have undoubtedly demanded Skorzeny fall on his sword should Mussolini be lost. If he was going to go down, he might as well go down in flames.
And so, the overloaded plane trundled down the makeshift runway and managed to get into the air. There was a hairy moment when the plane appeared to plunge into the valley below, but the pilot managed to get the nose up and the plane flew off towards Rome while the rest of Mussolini’s relieved rescuers prepared to make their way back to friendly territory on foot. Operation Eiche had been a spectacular success, with not a shot being fired.
Hitler was shocked to see his old friend when the two dictators were reunited on the 14th September at the Führer’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ bunker in the forests outside the town of Rastenburg. Mussolini cut a sorry figure, having lost a considerable amount of weight since the last time Hitler had seen him. But the important thing was his old friend was safe.
Of course, as it turned out, the rescue was a hollow victory for Mussolini. Having been set up by Hitler as the puppet leader of the newly-created Italian Social Republic, Mussolini acknowledged that he was now nothing more than one of Hitler’s underlings. In an interview with Madeleine Mollier, the wife of an embassy press attaché who had interviewed the dictator in his pomp back in 1938, Mussolini knew the end was nigh.
'Seven years ago, I was an interesting person. Now, I am little more than a corpse,' he told Mollier. 'Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen. I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce ... I await the end of the tragedy and, strangely detached from everything, I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.'
The end, when it came, was swift. As the Allies battled their way through Northern Italy, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, tried to make a break for neutral Switzerland. On the 27th of April 1945, Mussolini, his mistress and their entourage were captured by Italian partisans near the village of Dongo on the shores of Lake Como. The next morning, the once-mighty Il Duce was shot dead by firing squad. Mussolini’s corpse - alongside that of his mistress and several of his supporters - was unceremoniously strung up from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Milan.
It was an undignified end for the man who had ruled Italy for over twenty years, though few Italians mourned his passing. Mussolini may have escaped from the clutches of his enemies in 1943, but his crimes against his own people and the rest of the world meant he could not escape justice forever.