The rescue of Mussolini: On 12 September 1943, in an audacious expedition, the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was rescued from imprisonment by a group of German commandoes.
The war was not going well for Italy and Mussolini. Campaigns against Greece and Albania had ended in ignoble defeat and things were going poorly for Italian forces fighting in North Africa. The Italian people were beginning to taste the bitter fruit of disillusionment with their leader.
On 20 January 1943, Mussolini had a meeting with his foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, who was also his son-in-law. Believing the war to be a lost cause, Ciano urged Mussolini to seek terms with the Allies. Mussolini flatly refused. (Indeed, Ciano had approached his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, the previous November but had no joy. Ciano had been dubious about Italy’s participation in the war from the start. When, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France, Ciano wrote in his diary, ‘I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy!’) Ciano paid for his lack of faith when, on 5 February 1943, his father-in-law sacked him from his post. Ciano took up a post within the Vatican who were also holding discussions with the Allies into the make-up of a potential non-fascist Italian government.
The end in sight
Allied troops landed on Sicily on 10 July 1943, where they enjoyed an ecstatic welcome from the islanders. By mid-August the German forces escaped the island by crossing over the narrow Strait of Messina onto the Italian mainland. Mussolini appealed to his ally, Adolf Hitler, to send reinforcements but with German forces tied up on the Eastern Front, where they had just lost the crucial Battle of Stalingrad, no help was forthcoming.
On 19 July, Allied bombers pounded Rome, killing over a thousand civilians. Further evidence for the Italian population that defeat was inevitable.
As a result of the invasion of Sicily and the critical situation now facing Italy, Mussolini agreed to convene a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council, the first meeting since 1939. Lasting from 5 pm to 3 am on 24 July 1943, the meeting centred around the resolution, put forward by Dino Grandi, another of Mussolini’s former foreign ministers, that Mussolini be disposed and that the king, Victor Emmanuel III, should replace the dictator as head of the armed forces. Mussolini delivered an impassioned two-hour speech, exhorting his fellow fascists to put up a fight. His plea fell on deaf ears and after ten hours of heated discussion, the council voted 19 to 8 (with three abstentions) in favour of Grandi’s resolution. One of those who voted against Mussolini was Galeazzo Ciano (pictured).
The most hated man in Italy
The following day, Mussolini kept his fortnightly meeting with the king, believing that the vote the previous evening was neither constitutional nor binding. He was much mistaken. Almost apologetically, Victor Emmanuel dismissed the 59-year-old dictator: ‘My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. 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 was immediately arrested and imprisoned. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, appointed a new cabinet which, pointedly, contained no fascists. The Italian population rejoiced.
On 8 September, as the Allies advanced onto the mainland, Italy swapped sides and joined the Allies and, on 13 October 1943, declared war on Germany. The king and his government fled Rome and abandoned the northern half of the country to the Germans.
Meanwhile, Mussolini was kept under house arrest and frequently moved in order to keep his whereabouts hidden. On 26 August, he was moved into the Campo Imperatore Hotel, part of a ski resort high up on the mountains of Gran Sasso in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. It was here, on 12 September, that Mussolini was dramatically rescued.
The hotel had been emptied of guests. Mussolini, although complaining of stomach pains, idled away his time in relative luxury attended to by his guards, who tended to treat him more as a guest than a captive.
Meanwhile, on 26 July, Hitler had personally charged 35-year-old Waffen SS colonel, Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian with an Action Man-type duelling scar down his left cheek, to rescue ‘Italy’s greatest son’. First Skorzeny (pictured) had to find out where Mussolini was being held. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s head of the SS, allegedly consulted astrologers to help him in the task. Instead, the more traditional method of intercepting coded radio messages revealed the exact location.
But how to rescue the man proved more challenging. The hotel, being on a mountainside, made the possibility of a parachute drop impractical. Aerial reconnaissance revealed a small field behind the hotel, so Skorzeny decided on landing a group of handpicked commandoes by glider – a risky venture but the only option available to him.
In the early afternoon of 12 September 1943, as the twelve gliders prepared to descend, Skorzeny realized that the field was not flat, as he believed, but a steep hillside. They had no choice but to crash-land on the uneven but flatter ground in front of the hotel. One glider crashed, resulting in a few injuries, but otherwise the risk paid off.
Despite being outnumbered by 200 Italian guards, or carabinieri, Skorzeny’s men quickly took control of the situation, forcing the carabinieri to surrender without a single shot being fired. Skorzeny was helped by having brought with him an Italian general, Fernando Soleti, who emerged from the glider shouting, ‘Don’t shoot’ and sowing confusion among the Italian guards. Skorzeny attacked the radio operator with the butt of his rifle, then smashed the radio, before rushing up the stairs. Having found Mussolini’s room, Skorzeny burst in announcing, ‘Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me! You’re free!’ Overwhelmed, Mussolini, who had watched the gliders land from his window, responded, ‘I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me.’
Skorzeny then radioed for assistance from a small STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft waiting nearby. The plane landed on the dangerously short and rocky field while Mussolini thanked his captors and, grinning, posed for photographs.
Skorzeny escorted Mussolini to the plane. Taking off from the plateau would be no less risky than landing. Skorzeny made what was already a dangerous undertaking even more so by insisting on joining Mussolini and the pilot in a plane designed only for two. But Skorzeny knew that if the mission failed Hitler would never forgive him and he would be forced into taking his own life. (A fate that befell Erwin Rommel a year later). With the three men on board, the pilot revved the engine to full power while twelve Germans held the plane back by its wings. On the given signal, they let go and the plane took off. But, failing to gather enough height, one of its wheels hit a rock. The plane veered off the plateau and downwards into the valley below.
The Germans leaned over the plateau and watched horrified as the plane descended but then the pilot was able to pull the aircraft up, and off it went. Meanwhile, the remaining commandoes made their escape on foot. (The account is based mainly on Skorzeny’s testimony which, of course, could have been and probably was exaggerated. Another witness later said that Skorzeny did not want to be in the front glider and only appeared on the scene first because the first glider had crashed, and that it was Soleti, the Italian general, that persuaded the carabinieri to surrender without a fight).
The plane taking Mussolini to freedom landed on an airstrip near Rome, where he was transferred onto another plane and flown to Vienna. The following day, he was flown to Munich where he was reunited with his wife, Rachele, and daughter, Edda, wife of Ciano. Two days later, he met with Hitler at the Führer’s Wolf Lair HQ near Rastenburg on the Eastern Front.
Little more than a corpse
On Hitler’s orders, Mussolini was returned to German-occupied northern Italy as the puppet head of a fascist republic based in the town of Salo on Lake Garda. There, having established the Italian Social Republic (ISR) with its own flag (pictured), he dealt with his son-in-law and other ‘traitors’ who had voted against him at the Fascist Grand Council meeting in July. Ciano had gone to Germany only to be forced back to Mussolini’s new republic. Despite Edda’s pleas, Mussolini had Ciano and five colleagues tried in Verona in January 1944, and five, including Ciano, were executed by firing squad on the 11 January. To add to the humiliation, they were tied to chairs and shot in the back. Ciano’s last words were ‘Long live Italy!’ (Ciano had kept a detailed diary of his meetings with political figures, including Mussolini and Hitler. Edda, knowing the content could be embarrassing to the Nazi regime, tried to trade them in return for her husband. She failed. Two days before her husband’s execution, Edda escaped to Switzerland, taking the diaries with her. They were published in 1946. Her son, Fabrizio, later wrote a book with the wonderful title, When Grandpa Had Daddy Shot).
Mussolini didn’t have long to enjoy his new-found freedom, knowing he was no more than a puppet and that his end was nigh. In January 1945, he gave an interview in which he said: ‘Seven years ago, I was an interesting person. Now, I am little more than a corpse… 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.’
Nineteen months after his rescue, Mussolini, his mistress, Clara Petacci, and a few followers attempted to escape into Switzerland. Stopped by Italian partisans, Mussolini’s attempts to disguise himself with a Luftwaffe overcoat and helmet failed, and on 28 April 1945, at Lake Como in Lombardy, Mussolini and Petacci were shot. Their bodies were transported to Milan where they were beaten and urinated upon and finally left to hang upside down for public display.
World War Two: History In An Hour and Mussolini: History In An Hour both by Rupert Colley and published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, are available in various digital formats and downloadable audio.