Operation Eiche: Hitler's Rescue Of Benito Mussolini In The Gran Sasso Raid
Describing 1943 as a tough year for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini would be a significant understatement. His ambitions to exert control over all of North Africa had culminated in a humiliating defeat. Sending unwilling troops to the Eastern Front to confront the increasingly confident Soviet Union resulted in unsustainable casualties. Furthermore, the Allied invasion of Sicily brought World War II right to Italy's doorstep.
In contrast to Germany, where Adolf Hitler and his inner circle ruled with an iron grip, Italy retained a monarchy and a council capable of ousting the increasingly desperate Mussolini if they so chose. As July began, Mussolini clung to power, but the question lingered: for how much longer?
Then, on July 19th, 1943, Allied bombers appeared over Rome, the 'Eternal City.' While Rome had seen bombings before, this particular event marked a critical turning point in Mussolini's downfall. The bombers devastated the predominantly working-class neighborhood of San Lorenzo, inflicted significant damage on two of Rome's airports, and reduced sections of the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls to ruins. It was the last straw.
Enraged members of Mussolini's government turned against their beleaguered leader, reaching a climax with a vote of no confidence by the Grand Council on July 24th. The very next day, Il Duce found himself summoned to King Victor Emmanuel III's palace, expecting a routine bi-weekly meeting. To his surprise, the king informed him that he was being replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, delivering the devastating message, '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. Having held the reins of power in Italy since 1922, he was abruptly removed from office, betrayed by members of his own government. His mood darkened further when he was promptly arrested by the Carabinieri (Italian military police) on the king's orders.
Upon receiving the news of Benito Mussolini's ousting from leadership in Italy, Adolf Hitler, situated in distant Berlin, was consumed by anger. He perceived his Axis partner's removal as a clear act of betrayal, orchestrated by disloyal factions within the Italian government and armed forces. Hitler contemplated various retaliatory actions, including a full-scale invasion of Italy, the abduction of the Italian royal family, the arrest of officials in the newly formed Italian government, and even the prospect of detaining the Pope.
Having been dissuaded from his initial impulses, Hitler remained resolute in his determination to locate Mussolini and extricate him from the clutches of the newly established Italian government, which appeared poised to subject Il Duce to a trial for his actions during his tenure, anticipate a guilty verdict, and impose a shameful death sentence. The Germans discovered Mussolini's whereabouts through an intercepted radio message. After being relocated six times, the former dictator was found detained at the Albergo Rufigo, an opulent hotel situated in the secluded confines of the Abruzzi Mountains to the north of Rome, at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level, further enhancing the security measures in place.
In Comes Otto Skorzeny To Rescue Il Duce
Hitler summoned SS Major Otto Skorzeny, an audacious officer renowned as the "most dangerous man in Europe," and assigned him the task of devising a plan to liberate Mussolini from his high-altitude incarceration. Skorzeny assembled a squad of 90 handpicked paratroopers and concluded that the optimal approach for the rescue entailed deploying his troops via gliders to swiftly subdue any resistance. Subsequently, Mussolini would be airlifted to safety on a Fieseler Storch, a lightweight aircraft that would be stretched to its weight capacity but appeared capable of conveying Il Duce to freedom.
On September 12, 1943, German airborne units secured control of the mountain's rail line, eliminating the potential for Italian reinforcements to hinder the rescue mission. Skorzeny's glider-borne operatives executed precision landings near the hotel, surprising and apprehending Mussolini's guards, and then escorted the disoriented and frail former dictator to the awaiting aircraft.
Just as the Storch was getting ready for takeoff, Skorzeny climbed on board. The combined weight of the pilot, Skorzeny, and Mussolini exceeded the plane's safe operating capacity. Nonetheless, Skorzeny commanded the pilot to open the throttle. As the plane neared the edge of a nearby cliff, it descended rapidly. With mere seconds to spare, the pilot skillfully regained control, and the Storch struggled to gain altitude. After a short while, the aircraft safely touched down at a Luftwaffe airfield. Mussolini then boarded a Heinkel He-111 bomber for a flight to Wolf's Lair, Hitler's headquarters located in Rastenburg, East Prussia.
Hitler warmly welcomed his friend but was taken aback by Mussolini's altered appearance. No longer was he the confident, robust leader of Fascist Italy; he had become a stateless refugee. The Nazis attempted to exploit the remaining traces of pro-Fascist sentiment in Italy by establishing Mussolini as the figurehead of a puppet regime known as the Italian Socialist Republic, headquartered in the town of Salo on Lake Garda in northern Italy. However, few rallied to support the former Duce, as his days were already numbered.