10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History

D.G. Hewitt - June 22, 2018

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was rescued in a daring mountainous raid. Wikipedia.

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.

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
Gerard Kuiper was an intellectual and a man of action, as he showed in his daring rescue mission. Universe Today.

Gerard Kuiper saves Max Planck

A rescue mission doesn’t necessarily require car chases, parachutes or shoot-outs to be an act of supreme courage and daring. Sometimes quiet, understated missions are just as impressive, as the rescue of Max Planck showed. The legendary German scientist was stranded in the east of his native country when the Second World War finally came to an end. With the Red Army advancing – and killing, looting and raping with impunity as it did – the future of Planck and his wife looked grim indeed. But the American astronomer Gerard Kuiper had other ideas. Though they were not friends, Kuiper became determined to get Planck out, however risky that might be.

In the closing months of the war, the Americans worked tirelessly to get Germany’s top scientists out of the country and back to the US. By May 1945, this mission was almost completed. Above all, the Americans had Werner Heisenberg and his team in custody. Getting Planck too was seen as a bonus but not essential. And so, when General Eisenhower ruled that the River Elbe would serve as the limit of America’s advance into Germany, it looked like the famous physicist and his wife would be lost to the Soviets. Kuiper, with no official backing, needed to act swiftly. Luckily, he was not only fluent in German but was also a man of action as well as an intellectual.

Commandeering a US Army jeep and convincing two GIs to join him, Kuiper set off into war-torn Germany. Away from the American zone, the country was in chaos. Though the war was over, the Red Army was on the rampage and Germany’s demobbed soldiers were desperate. Against the odds, Kuiper made it to the farm by the River Elbe where intelligence reports had concluded the 87-year-old Planck and his wife were hiding. Sure enough, the old couple were there – and they didn’t need much persuading to jump in the jeep and head west.

On the way back, Kuiper narrowly avoided several Soviet patrols. But still, the rescuers and the rescued all made it back into the American zone. From there, the Plancks chose to remain in west Germany, and Max even got back to work for two more years. Kuiper, meanwhile, retuned to America and played down his role in rescuing Max Planck, ‘the father of quantum theory’. Kuiper, who made a name for himself as a pioneer of astronomy, died in 1973.

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
The US Coast Guard team who rescued the crew of the SS Pendleton all received the highest honor. Berniewebber.com.

The SS Pendleton Rescue

It’s been called “The US Coast Guard’s Most Daring Rescue” and, when you learn just how audacious it was, it’s impossible to argue otherwise. Of course, the brave men and women of the Coast Guard routinely risk their lives to save others. But when they set out to save the crew of the SS Pendleton in February of 1952, they really went above and beyond the call of duty. Against the odds, the rescue mission was a huge success, saving more than 30 sailors from a watery grave.

The SS Pendleton was a huge tanker – a Type T2-SE-A1 – built in Portland in 1944. After a few years toiling for the American government, she was sold to the private National Bulk Carriers in 1948. Despite the fact that T2 ships had earned a reputation for breaking in two in cold temperatures, she remained in service and, at the start of 1952, she was in active service, running between New Orleans and Boston. On 18 February, the crew of the SS Pendleton ran into trouble. They hot a strong gale just south of Cape Cod. Before long, they were in serious trouble. They called the Coast Guard.

A plane was sent to look for the SS Pendleton. Shockingly, the pilot reported that he had found the stricken vessel – and that she had split in two, with both parts in danger of going under. With no time to lose, the Coast Guard sent a ship, the CG 36500 to the rescue. Its captain, Bernard Webber, soon encountered problems of his own. They hit huge waves as they went over the sandbar protecting the Massachusetts harbour. While the crew were safe, the damage knocked out the ship’s compass. They were going to have to find the stricken SS Pendleton without their main navigational aid.

Against the odds, they found the stern section, with 33 of the crew of 41 on it. The massive bulk was rocking back and forth in the huge waves. Webber knew that pulling up alongside it would be suicidal. But still, he wouldn’t give up. Timing it perfectly against the rise and fall of the waves, Webber shuttled his boat as close to the SS Pendleton as he could. The crew also timed their descent down rope ladders and, one at a time, jumped onto the rescue craft. Just one man – the ship’s cook – didn’t make it, falling into the ocean and drowning. With the crew all on board, Webber then fought Mother Nature again to make it back to shore.

For their efforts, Webber and his crew of three were awarded the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal, the service’s highest honor. The daring rescue has since inspired a book and a Hollywood movie. Webber would go on to serve in the Vietnam War and died a hero in 2009.

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
With Pompeii threatened, Pliny the Elder launched a suicidal rescue mission. Western Australian Museum.

Pliny the Elder sets sail for Pompeii

Surely everyone with an interest in history knows the story of Pompeii. But while they may well know that the Roman city was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius, the volcano which looms large over the Bay of Naples, erupted, the true story of the daring effort to rescue the citizens of Pompeii. To be fair, though, not even professional historians have a full picture of what happened on that fateful day. However, there is certainly enough evidence to show that, not only was a rescue mission launched but that it most probably saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

On August 24, in the year 79 AD, Vesuvius finally erupted after spewing smoke for several days. While several other smaller Roman towns and settlements were affected, Pompeii was worst hit. Many of the inhabitants simply died on the spot as a wave of intense heat swept through the city streets. Others tried to flee but could not outrun the soot and ash. They were simply buried alive, their bodies perfectly preserved and now a popular tourist attraction. Only a small portion of the people managed to get out alive, and some of them had Pliny the Elder to thank for their lives.

We know of the statesman’s mission through the writings of his nephew, Pliny the Younger. According to his accounts, he was initially curious when he saw the black smoke billowing out of the top of Vesuvius. As well as being a politician, philosopher and historian, Pliny the Elder was also a man of science and he was keen to learn more. But what he first thought would be a scientific expedition from his villa at nearby Misenum turned into a dramatic rescue mission. Upon receiving a message from stricken friends close to Pompeii, he decided to act.

As Admiral of the Roman Imperial Fleet at Misenum, Pliny the Elder had men and ships under his command. It’s believed he chose 12 of his fastest warships, each with more than 150 oarsmen. The small armada set out on the 30km journey across the Bay of Naples. They got there just in time. Lifeboats were launched to shore and hundreds of citizens, not just Pliny’s own friends, were brought to the larger ships to safety. However, as Pliny the Younger noted, their leader chose to go back one more time. He was determined to find his friends. As he was bringing a small group of survivors to the beaches and the waiting lifeboats, they were all overcome by a cloud of poisonous gas. They died there and Pliny the Elder’s body was never recovered.

According to one recent study, as many as 2,000 people might have been saved by the rescue mission. Whether Pliny the Elder was driven by humanitarian concerns or simply saw a chance at glory will never be known. Interestingly, however, archaeologists are hopeful that they will soon be able to make use of the latest technology to identify his body from the many found lying in and around the ruins of Pompeii. If they do, surely he will be given a true hero’s burial.

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
Richard Bell Davies’s exploits – including his daring rescue mission – made him an aviation legend. AbeBooks.

WWI ace and the first ever search and rescue mission

The First World War saw the dawn of a new type of fighting: aerial combat. This also meant that this was the first time that countries needed to search for and rescue downed pilots. And it fell to pioneering aviator Richard Bell Davies of the British Royal Navy to carry out the first modern-style search and rescue mission – and, suitably enough, it was a mission straight out of a comic book adventure.

Born in London in 1886, Davies enlisted in the Royal Navy when he was just 15. After almost a decade sailing the world, he decided to take to the skies. He took private flying lessons and then, in 1913, he was accepted into the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), making him one of the world’s first combat pilots. Within a year of Davies getting his wings, the First World War broke out. Both sides were keen to see what their weaponized flying machines could do.

It didn’t take long for Davies to make a name for himself. Over the opening months of the bloody conflict he carried out a number of successful bombing raids, most notably taking out German submarine bases along the Belgian coastline. By January 1915, he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order. However, this was nothing compared to his next act of bravery. At the end of 1915, the 29-year-old Davies was tasked with patrolling the skies above the border of the Ottoman Empire. On November 16, he was patrolling alongside another aviator, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, when disaster struck.

Smylie’s plane was hit by heavy fire and went down. The pilot made a controlled landing and, eager that his machine didn’t fall into enemy hands, promptly blew it up. This meant, however, he was stranded behind enemy lines. With the enemy closing in, and despite the fact nobody had ever tried a quick rescue of this type ever before, Davies went down for his comrade. Smylie was bundled onto rather than into the aircraft and the two men took off to safety. According to legend, it took two hours to get Smylie free, so tightly was he wedged in above the controls.

For his unprecedented actions, Davies was awarded the Victoria Cross and then the Air Force Cross. He soon went back to his first love, the sea. He served throughout the 1920s and 30s and, even though he retired as vice admiral in 1941, he still served his country

10 of the Most Daring Rescue Missions from History
A costly mission finally rescued Lieutenant Colonel Iceal “Gene” Hambleton in Vietnam. Findagrave.com.


During the Vietnam War, numerous American soldiers risked their own lives to rescue their comrades. Some even went to extraordinary lengths to bring home the bodies of fallen servicemen. As such, the story of Bat 21 is far from the only example of a successful and daring rescue mission from this bloody war. It was, however, most definitely one of the most controversial, not least for the number of lives it cost. Indeed, the details were kept secret for more than 25 years. Thankfully, now we know the true, tragic but inspiring story behind Bat 21.

On April 2, 1972, Air Force navigator Lieutenant Colonel Iceal “Gene” Hambleton was flying in the electronic warfare plane with the call sign Bat*21 over enemy territory. All of a sudden, the plane, carrying a crew of six, was attacked. Anti-aircraft fire succeeded in blowing the tail off. As the plane plunges to the ground, only Hamilton was able to bail out. He parachuted to the ground and landed just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two belligerents. To make matters worse, North Vietnamese intelligence had identified Hambleton as a key expert in electronic surveillance. They knew the 53-year-old out there in the jungle and they were determined to capture him, dead or alive.

The Americans launched a rescue mission right away. A forward air controller pilot had stayed in contact with Hambleton as he parachuted to the ground, so they had a rough idea of where he was located. But still, the Air Force man recognized he needed to get to a place where a plane could land to pick him up. He managed to relay messages over the radio and in code using names of American golf courses, so his colleagues knew where to pick him up. Hopeful of getting their man back, the Americans sent a scout plane on ahead. This was shot down, with both pilots forced to bail out. A rescue mission was launched for them, with six soldiers killed carrying it out.

In all, it took 11 days for Hambleton to be reached. During that time, a total of 11 soldiers were killed, a plane was lost and hundreds of American and South Vietnamese troops were placed at severe risk. What’s more, plans for large ground assault were put on hold while the rescue mission took place. Hambleton was forced to steal from villagers to stay alive and even had to kill a peasant farmer who tried to capture him. Finally, Hambleton was located and, under cover of darkness, a Navy SEAL team brought him to safety.

The rescue of Hambleton spawned a book and then a hit movie. It also generated much debate, with some people arguing that it was wrong to put the lives of so many at risk for the sake of rescuing one man. After the war, Hambleton retired from the Air Force and concentrated on his main love in life, golf. He died in 2004 at the age of 85.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Operation Jericho – Mosquito Attack on Amiens Prison.” The People’s Mosquito.

“Go! Go! Go! Thirty years on, the SAS heroes who stormed the Iranian embassy recall in heart-stopping detail their most daring mission.” The Daily Mail, April 2010.

“Raid at Cabanatuan (1945).” Shadowspear Special Operations.

“Was Operation Thunderbolt the most daring mission in history?” The Spectator, July 2015.

“On This Day, 1943, Daring Raid By Nazi Commandos Rescues Mussolini” Steve Balestrieri. Sep 13, 2018

“Gerard Kuiper’s Daring Rescue of Max Planck.” Scientific America.