The Fall of Mussolini – Operation Oak, Part One

Benito Mussolini giving the Roman salute standing next to Adolf Hitler
Public Domain

In the summer of 1943, the terrible reality of total war was the closest wolf to the Italian  population’s sledge.  Mussolini’s grandiose plans for a new Roman Empire that would stretch across  Southern Europe and North Africa, was by now an unobtainable, blood-drenched dream.  Allied forces had landed in Sicily on 10th July 1943 and on the 19th July 1943, Allied bombers hit Rome killing over 1,000. Mussolini had called for help from his friend Hitler, but with the ongoing Russian offensive at Kursk on the Eastern Front requiring swift attention and endless manpower, no reinforcements could  be spared to support the beleaguered Italian dictator.

On Sunday the 25th July 1943, Mussolini attended what he believed would be a routine meeting with King  Vittorio Emanuele III.  The King had not interfered during Il Duce’s twenty years of fascist rule, but  this meeting was different.  The King told Mussolini that he was dismissed as Prime Minister with  immediate effect.  He told the erstwhile leader almost sadly: 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.’  The stunned dictator left the King’s presence, where he was promptly arrested my  military police and bundled away into captivity.  That evening it was announced on Italian radio that  Il Duce had resigned, the Italians reacting with simultaneous outpourings of grief and joy.  Benito  Mussolini was truly the Marmite dictator.  On the 8th September 1943 as the Allies made their  torturously slow advance, the Italians would change sides and join the allies.

On hearing the news that his friend and ally had been deposed, Hitler flew into another of his  incandescent, spittle-flecked rages and ordered that Mussolini should be released from captivity  forthwith.  The German High Command searched for someone to head up the commando team and airborne  officer Kurt Student was picked with Hitler’s glowing testament that “he (Student) was the right man  for this sort of thing.”  Student was a capable Fallschirmjager officer who had been given a complex  and difficult task.  This was made more difficult by interference from Reichsfuhrer Himmler head of  the SS, who thought such a high profile mission should have SS participation.  Himmler’s man was Otto  Skorzeny, a much-decorated SS officer who whilst convalescing from wounds received on the Easter  Front, had formed schools in clandestine warfare and sabotage.  Skorzeny met with Hitler in the Wolf’s  Lair headquarters in East Prussia, and the Fuhrer was impressed with the SS officer’s can-do demeanour  and positive attitude.  However, Skorzeny was considered by many in the more conventionally reserved  military circles to be a shameless self-publicist.

Kurt Student and Otto Skorzeny
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-128-26 / Unknown authorUnknown author / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons. See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first problem was to discover where exactly Mussolini was being held.  German Intelligence had no  information as to where he was and it was thought that Mussolini was being moved frequently from  location to location.  Skorzeny sent some of his own operatives to Italy in order to curry favour with  his superiors, but these agents were equally unsuccessful and probably only succeeded in muddying the  waters.  There were rumours that Il Duce was in Ventotene, Elba, Santo Stefano, and La Spezia as  possible locations, thus sending German agents all across Italy to investigate. In fact, Mussolini  spent 28 Jul to 7 Aug on the island of Ponza, then was moved to the island of La Maddalena off  Sardinia.  Skorzeny discovered in mid-August that Mussolini was being held on La Maddelana, when a  German liaison officer with the crumbling Italian Army told him that the Italians were holding a high  profile prisoner on the island.  The SS Colonel disguised himself as a junior Wehrmacht officer,  visited the island on a minesweeper and found a local grocer who delivered fruit to the Villa Weber,  Mussolini’s suspected location.  Skorzeny struck up a conversation with the grocer and steered the  conversation, where he made a bet that the dictator was dead.  The grocer took the bait and affirmed  that was certainly not dead as he had seen him the previous day.  Despite this breakthrough, hopes  were dashed when Mussolini was moved firstly to Lake Bracciano near Rome, then to Hotel Campo  Imperatore (also known as Albergo Refugio) at Gran Sasso in central Italy.  By the 8th September 1943,  the Germans now knew where Mussolini was being held.  The final clincher was a signal intercept that  stated: Security measures around Gran Sasso complete.

On Italy’s capitulation to the Allies, the rescue of Mussolini became of secondary importance as the  Germans tried to take Rome, but the mission once again became top priority when it was realised that  the dictator could be delivered to the Allies for possible war crimes trials.  Student ordered his  staff officer Major Mors to begin planning for a rescue operation that he would be in overall command  of, on the 12th September 1943.  Initially a parachute drop was considered, but rejected because the  thinner air at this altitude would cause the paratroopers to drop too quickly, resulting in a high  casualty rate.  A ground assault would require too many troops with a loss of the element of surprise.   Mors final plan was for twelve gliders to land on the field adjacent to the hotel and for three  platoons of Luftwaffe airborne troops and one platoon of SS troops to storm the hotel.  Skorzeny  continually interfered with the planning and wanted Luftwaffe troops bumped off the gliders, so that  more SS troops, a cameraman and journalist could be carried.  Student was probably leaned on by  Himmler, so Skorzeny had his way.  Student, who was equally frustrated but was much more confident  with his troops, comforting his tactical planners: “He (Skorzeny) has no competence; he is  participating as an observer”, he said, promising that Skorzeny would stay out of the way when the  mission began.

The second element of the rescue mission was for a column of vehicle-mounted troops led by Major Mors,  to secure the cable car station at the bottom of the mountain.  The original plan would have Mussolini  taken off the mountain with the recovering assault forces, after destroying the gliders.  The  opposition was thought to number around 100 Carabinieri guarding the hotel and a further 100 troops  based near the lower cable car station.  The gliders were late to arrive and only ten were available,  which delayed the take off until 1100.  Finally the enterprise which was code named Operation OAK, was  given the green light and the DFS 230 assault gliders were dragged into the air by their bomber tow  aircraft.

Gran Sasso, Fallschirmjäger nach Einsatz
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-567-1503B-22 / Toni Schneiders / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons


© Blown Periphery 2023

Chris served for 38 years in the military as an apprentice and adult Service. He completed tours in multiple locations in the UK and Germany during the Cold War. Later he served on operational tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Middle East and Asia.
Christophe Downes 28th July 1957 – 30th March 2023