The Rescue of Mussolini
Without a doubt Benito Mussolini was a ruthless tyrant, who inflicted untold damage on Italy, not least by aligning his fascist regime with Nazi Germany. Similarly, the wickedness of the Nazis can never be overstated. At the same time, it’s possible to recognize that the raid on the Gran Sasso castle was one of the most audacious – and indeed, impressive – rescue missions of the whole of the Second World War, even if it did end with a fascist dictator earning his freedom, albeit only temporarily.
By the summer of 1943, Italy’s war effort had crumpled. After a series of military defeats, the Americans finally took Sicily at the end of July. The Allies were set to advance on Rome. The King of Italy, as well as many high-ranking politicians and the Italian public, had turned against Mussolini. Even the Grand Council of Fascism held a “vote of no confidence” against their leader. Enough was enough. The King ordered Mussolini to be arrested and replaced him as the head of government.
At first, Mussolini was moved from location to location to make any rescue attempt more difficult. But then he was taken to Gran Sasso, an old ‘castle’ that was once a stately home but was by then being used as a hotel. Though it was hardly a prison or fortress, it was high up in the Abruzzo mountains, making it hard to access – and hard to escape from. Adolf Hitler had other ideas. Determined to halt the American advances through western Europe, he ordered Mussolini to be rescued and asked his men to pitch him ideas. An Austrian SS colonel, Otto Skorzeny, impressed the Fuhrer with his plan to conduct a daring aerial raid on the Gran Sasso. Hitler gave the plan the green light.
Looking at maps of the area, Skorzeny decided against parachuting in. The mountainous terrain made it impossible. But then he spotted a patch of flat land. Surely he could land gliders on there? The plan was set. On the afternoon of 12 September 1943, 12 gliders, carrying 26 crack SS troops as well as a further 82 paratroopers set off. At the last minute, the pilots realized that flat field wasn’t so flat. One glider crash-landed, causing minor injuries to its occupants. Remarkably, these were the only people hurt in the raid. Though the temporary prison was guarded by around 200 Italian soldiers, they were caught by surprise and then overwhelmed by the sight of well-trained SS men pointing their guns at them. After knocking the Italian radio communications systems out, Skorezeny found Mussolini and set him free. A small plane then came in, landed, and flew the deposed dictator to Rome.
After Rome, Mussolini was taken to first Vienna and then to Berlin, where he was reunited with his Nazi allies. The rescue mission was not really a military coup – after all, Italy had been lost. Mussolini was installed as the puppet head of the small Nazi-occupied Italian Social Republic but had no real role for the rest of the war. The mission was, however, a great PR coup for the struggling Nazi regime. Skorzeny himself became a national hero, and even Winston Churchill acknowledged that the mission was one of “great daring”. Ultimately, it would be one of the last Nazi victories of the whole war.