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Monday, 12 September 2016

Nazis free captive Mussolini

Extraordinary daring of Gran Sasso Raid


Mussolini, centre, is escorted to a waiting aircraft after being  freed from his captors. SS captain Otto Skorzeny is on his left
Mussolini, centre, is escorted to a waiting aircraft after being
 freed from his captors. SS captain Otto Skorzeny is on his left.
One of the most dramatic events of the Second World War in Italy took place on this day in 1943 when Benito Mussolini, the deposed and imprisoned Fascist dictator, was freed by the Germans.

The former leader was being held in a remote mountain ski resort when 12 gliders, each carrying paratroopers and SS officers, landed on the mountainside and took control of the hotel where Mussolini was being held.

They forced his guards to surrender before summoning a small aircraft to fly Mussolini to Rome, from where another plane flew him to Austria.  Even Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, professed his admiration for the daring nature of the daylight rescue.

Known as the Gran Sasso Raid or Operation Oak, the rescue was ordered by Adolf Hitler himself after learning that Mussolini's government, in the shape of the Grand Fascist Council, had voted through a resolution that he be replaced as leader and that King Victor Emmanuel III had ensured that the resolution was successful by having the self-styled Duce arrested.

The Campo Imperatore Hotel at the time of the raid.
The Campo Imperatore Hotel at the time of the raid.
The Italian government by then had decided defeat in the War was inevitable following the Allied invasion of Sicily and the damage inflicted by Allied bombers on Rome.  Despite the weaknesses of Italy's military capability being exposed in Greece, Albania and North Africa, Mussolini made an impassioned speech to the Grand Council before his arrest, insisting they fight on. Yet many of his former supporters, including his son-in-law, the foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano, turned against him.

Hitler was furious. He regarded Mussolini not only as the only leader capable of organising the Italian forces, but as a personal friend. He denounced his successor, Marshall Pietro Badoglio, as a traitor.  The Italian government, by this time preparing to switch sides and declare war against Germany, tried to keep Mussolini's whereabouts a secret, moving him from one offshore island to another and them to remote areas of the mainland.

But the SS captain, Otto Skorzeny, personally chosen by Hitler to plan and organise Mussolini's rescue, intercepted coded radio messages and established that the former dictator's place of captivity since late August had been the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski resort built on a plateau in Italy's Gran Sasso massif in Abruzzo, high in the Apennine Mountains, around 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) above sea level.  It was guarded by 200 Carabinieri soldiers and accessible only by a funicular railway.

The only viable way of reaching the hotel was from the air.  Dropping troops by parachute was seen as too dangerous because of the altitude but Skorzeny had an alternative plan. His reconnaissance identified what he thought was a strip of grassy land near the hotel, which he believed would be suitable to land troop-laden gliders. These had the added benefit of being effectively noiseless, which would lend the attack an element of surprise.

The Germans landed gliders on the mountainside in order to take troops to the scene of the rescue
The Germans landed gliders on the mountainside in order
to take troops to the scene of the rescue
In the event, the grassy strip turned out to be strewn with rocks but Skorzeny ordered his pilots to attempt to land anyway, which was a considerable gamble.  It paid off as all bar two gliders touched down safely, including his own.

In another clever move, Skorzeny had taken with him an Italian military commander sympathetic to the German cause in General Fernando Soleti, who stepped out of his glider and immediately ordered the Italian guards advancing towards the invasion party not to shoot, threatening them with execution for treason if they disobeyed.

The ensuing confusion gave the Germans opportunity to take control and the entire Italian protection squad surrendered without a shot fired.  The only injury was to a radio operator, whom Skorzeny struck with his rifle butt to stop him summoning assistance.

Skorzeny found Mussolini's room and is said to have greeted the dictator with the words 'Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me. You're free!'. He immediately ordered a small aircraft known as the Storch (Stork), designed to take off and land in limited spaces, to fly to the hotel so that he could complete the next leg of the rescue.

The Hotel Campo Imperatore as it is today
The Hotel Campo Imperatore as it is today
The mission almost came to grief at this stage after Skorzeny, determined that he would deliver Mussolini personally to Hitler, insisted on flying to Rome with him, even though the plane was not meant to carry more than one passenger, in addition to the pilot.  There was no spare seat but Skorzeny found he could lie on the floor, his legs stretching into the fuselage.

With 12 men holding the plane back by its wings, the pilot powered up his engine to maximum speed before ordering the men to let go, at which point the plane shot off along the makeshift runway.  It left the ground but with extra weight on board failed to gain altitude quickly enough to avoid striking a rock, sending it veering off the plateau on a downwards trajectory towards the valley below.

The watching German soldiers thought the aircraft was certain to crash but the pilot somehow managed to regain control and gain height, disappearing into the distance to reach an airstrip just outside Rome without further mishap. Skorzeny later admitted he was prepared to take the risk, fearing the consequences if the mission failed.

Later, Mussolini would return to Italy to take charge of a puppet German state, the Italian Social Republic, based in the town of Salò on Lake Garda.  Within less than two years he was dead, captured by partisans and shot as he and his mistress, Clara Petacci, tried to flee to Switzerland.

Travel tip:

The Campo Imperatore still exists as a hotel today, consisting of 45 rooms, a panoramic restaurant, bar and swimming pool. The room where Mussolini was held has been turned into a museum, its decor and furnishings preserved as they were in 1943.  It is now accessible by road in summer but the road is partially closed in winter and visitors have to transfer to the funicular railway at Fonte Cerreto, which is a town on the road between L'Aquila and Assergi.  The area is now part of the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga national park.

The Venetian column with its winged lion of St Mark on the waterfront of Salò on Lake Garda
The Venetian column with its winged lion of St Mark
on the waterfront of Salò on Lake Garda
Travel tip:

Salò, where Mussolini spent his last months in power, albeit as the leader of a satellite state controlled by the Nazis, is situated on the western shore of Lake Garda. For three centuries part of the Republic if Venice, it was captured by the Austrians in the 19th century before being freed by Garibaldi.  Its points of interest include a Gothic-style cathedral, a column topped by the winged lion of St Mark, symbolising its link with Venice, and the 16th century Palazzo della Magnifica Patria, home to an exhibition of documents from Renaissance history, Italy's colonial wars and the Resistance against Fascism.

Read more:


Benito Mussolini and the founding of the Italian Fascists

How Italy entered the Second World War

Victor Emmanuel III abdicates

(Photos of Gran Sasso Raid courtesy of German Federal Archive)
(Photo of Campo Imperatore by Ra Boe CC BY-SA 3.0)


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