The Violent End of Mussolini – Operation Oak, Part Two

DFS 230 assault gliders with Hotel Campo Imperatore background
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-567-1503B-23 / Schneiders, Toni / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

The gliders wallowed behind their Heinkel 111 tug aircraft in the thin, turbulent air above the  mountains.  The lead aircraft sighted the long mountain ridge and the Gran Sasso Mountain behind it,  gave the order to their charges to cut the tow cables and made a hard left turn to clear the gliders.   The relatively small gliders were buffeted by the swirling air currents, but the pilots had spotted  the tiny cluster of buildings that was the Hotel Campo Imperatore and the air brakes on the wing upper  surfaces were applied to slow the gliders and increase their rate of descent.  As they came closer to  their target, the glider pilots realised to their horror, that the small meadow they had planned to  land on was in fact a very steep hillside.  With little in the way of alternatives, the pilots elected  to crash-land on the boulder-strewn, but flatter ground in front of the hotel.  Skorzeny urged his  glider pilot to get down as close to the hotel as possible, whatever the risks.

Inevitably there were casualties as the first glider containing Skorzeny and his team thumped down at  1405.  Skorzeny stumbled out of the partially wrecked glider and headed for the hotel, leaving his MP  40 machine pistol behind.  He went through the first door he found open, ending up in a dead end room  that housed radio equipment and a very surprised operator.  He angrily smashed the equipment and ran  back outside, finding two of his NCOs who fortunately had remembered their weapons.  The second glider  landed with the first of the more heavily equipped paratroopers, to provide control to secure the area  and give back-up while Skorzeny went round the rear of the building to try to find an unlocked door.

Inspector General Giuseppe Gueli, commander of the Carabinieri was rather surprised to be awoken from  his afternoon nap by one of his men, to be told that gliders were landing outside.  He looked out of  the window at the airborne troops running towards the hotel and yelled at his men not to shoot,  immediately causing utter confusion but potentially avoiding a bloodbath.  Gueli’s second in command  seemed to have more of a grasp of the situation and rushed up to the floor where Mussolini was being  held.  He was mulling over whether to shoot Mussolini if the Germans entered the building when Il Duce  explained that the Germans would kill everyone if any harm came to him.

After noticing that the guards had dropped their weapons or were making no attempt to engage the  assault force, Skorzeny climbed up the outside of the hotel to reach Mussolini’s room.  According to  his account, the following exchange took place: “Duce, the Führer sent me to free you”, he said. “I  knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!” responded Mussolini. It is advisable to  take this account with a hefty pinch of salt, because in all of the photographs taken at the hotel,  Mussolini looks plainly terrified. One rather gets the impression he was enjoying the relative luxury  of his captivity.  The time was now about 1415 hours, about ten minutes since Skorzeny landed and  about the same time that the lower cable car station was secured by the ground column.  Skorzeny also  claimed to have observed gliders six, seven and eight crash land around this time through the windows.  The entire operation at Hotel Campo Imperatore was completed without a shot fired in anger; the only  round fired was a negligent discharge, when an airborne soldier squeezed the trigger by accident when  he exited his glider.

The ground element led by Mors had been required to make several detours due to partisan activity and  it was deemed too dangerous to take Mussolini out by road.  A small Feisler Storch Army observation  aircraft was requested while the paratroops cleared the landing ground of boulders and marked a  landing strip.  Amazingly it appeared that German airborne forces radios actually worked, unlike those  of the British.  After the initial tension, the atmosphere at the hotel became relaxed, Germans and  Italians drinking wine together a posing for mutual photographs.  Skorzeny made sure that he appeared  in as many of these photographs as possible, although he later claimed to be “frustrated” by the  cameraman’s presence during the operation.

At 1500, Skorzeny escorted Mussolini out of the building for more photo opportunities with Il Duce’s  gallant rescuers, obviously Skorzeny featured prominently in these pictures.  It has to be said that  Mussolini looks far from happy in these photographs, the once strutting dictator hunched in a black  hat and overcoat from which frightened and haunted eyes stare back at the camera.  At around 1550 the  Feisler Storch landed and Mussolini was escorted to the aircraft by Skorzeny, and naturally this was  another opportunity for a photo shoot.  At this point taking everyone by surprise, Skorzeny jumped  into the Storch despite the protestations of the pilot.  The aircraft’s engine was run up to full  power, while the paratroopers hung onto it, then the grossly overloaded little aeroplane wobbled down  the airstrip and disappeared over the edge of the mountain.  The watchers ran to the edge to see the  Storch struggle to regain altitude in the valley below.  It landed at Pratica di Mare at 1615 hours,  where Mussolini and Skorzeny transferred to a Heinkel 111 bomber, and flew to Germany via Vienna.

Mussolini, his rescuers and three Italians. Skorzeny is of course at the centre
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-567-1503C-15 / Toni Schneiders / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

Reichsfuhrer Himmler was determined to milk the commandos’ rescue mission for all the propaganda value  he could wring from it.  The swift but meticulous staff planning conducted by Major Mors and his  paratroopers taking control and securing of the landing site, while Skorzeny was dashing around  seeking glory, were airbrushed from the official Nazi history.  Skorzeny was awarded the Knights Cross  with Oak Leaves and Student complained bitterly to Herman Goering about Skorzeny taking all the credit  for the success of the mission.  Goering did nothing.

Mussolini was a changed man in the years following his “rescue” from Gran Sasso.  Pressured by Hitler,  he set up a new regime called the Italian Social Republic, later the Salo Republic but he was by now,  nothing more than a puppet leader for his German master.  By 1945 the Allies were advancing into  northern Italy, the Salo Republic was collapsing, so Mussolini together with his mistress Clara  Petacchi and other exiles headed to Switzerland for a flight to Spanish exile.  On the 27th April 1945  Mussolini’s entourage was stopped by communist partisans near the village of Dongo.  They were taken  to Giulino di Mezzegra and summarily shot with most of their fellow travellers, mainly officials and  ministers from the Salo Republic.  From there their bodies were taken to Milan where they were shot,  kicked, spat upon, before being hoisted to hang upside down from an ESSO petrol station.  Mussolini’s  corpse was interred in an unmarked grave, before being stolen by neo-Fascists.  Finally the recaptured  the remains were interred in a crypt at Predappio in Romagna, his birthplace.

The bullet-riddled bodies of Mussolini, his mistress and entourage strung up from the Turin garage
Vincenzo Carrese, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Student fought in Normandy and against the British airborne forces during MARKET GARDEN.  He was  captured by the British in 1945, put on trial for the murder of prisoners in Crete and sentenced to  five years in prison, commuted because of health reasons.

Otto Skorzeny was held as a prisoner for two years after the war and tried for war crimes at the  Dachau trials.  This was because during the Ardennes Offensive his unit had dressed in American  uniforms, to infiltrate behind the American lines.  He escaped from an internment camp in July 1947  probably with the help of the ODESSA organisation and settled in Madrid, where he set up a small  engineering business.  He acted as a military advisor for the Egyptians and the Peron regime in  Argentina.  Mossad hatched a plot to have him assassinated, but its chief Issel Harel decided to try  and recruit him instead.  Perhaps unsurprisingly given its long memory and reach, Skorzeny agreed to  supply Mossad with a list of German scientists conducting military research in particular rocketry for  the Egyptians, scientists who subsequently disappeared or were taken ill permanently.  Skorzeny was  paralyzed following treatment for cancer which eventually killed him in Madrid in 1975.  He was given  a Catholic funeral in line with his faith, his coffin draped in the Nazi colours of red and black.   The funeral was attended by former SS members and his ashes were taken to Vienna for internment in the  family plot.

© 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