Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseOn 24 Jul 1943, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was ousted from power and was arrested after a meeting with King Vittorio Emanuele III. Three hours after his arrest, the king announced Mussolini's resignation over the radio. German leader Adolf Hitler, having just met with Mussolini on 19 Jul, was outraged. On 26 Jul, he ordered Mussolini to be rescued from captivity and delivered to Germany. Airborne officer Kurt Student was recommended, and was immediately accepted by Hitler, to head this operation; "[Student] is the right man for this sort of thing", Hitler reportedly said.
ww2dbaseCode named Operation Eiche (Oak), Student was tasked with finding and rescuing Mussolini, but as a secondary objective he was also told to seize control of Rome should he notice such an opportunity. Unwilling to let the opportunity of fame go by, chief of the SS organization Heinrich Himmler insisted that his SS troops were to play a part, which Hitler agreed. Himmler's man on the operation was Otto Skorzeny, who had little to no espionage experience, and happily delegated his responsibility to his subordinates during the planning phase of the operation.
ww2dbaseWhen Skorzeny arrived at Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Germany for the first time during the planning of this operation, Hitler spoke to him passionately about the importance of rescuing Mussolini.
ww2dbaseIn a later meeting with Hitler, Skorzeny observed how much Hitler valued his friendship with Mussolini. "There was such a warm, human inflection in his voice when he spoke of his loyalty to his Italian friend that I was deeply moved", recalled Skorzeny.
ww2dbaseThe initial search efforts to locate Mussolini was not encouraging. German intelligence in Italy had very little useful information on the former Prime Minister's whereabouts. Skorzeny, eager to please his superiors, sent out his own operatives to gather information, but they were equally unsuccessful. Rumors and other such unreliable sources provided 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. In mid-Aug, Skorzeny learned of Mussolini being in La Maddalena after learning from German Army Captain Hunäus, a liaison to the Italian Army, that a special prisoner was being held there; he personally visited the island along with Lieutenant Warger by minesweeper, disguised himself as a junior officer, and began collecting intelligence. He found that a grocer delivered fruit to Villa Weber (suspected location of Mussolini's captivity) daily, approached him non-challantly, and began to talk about Mussolini must had already been killed; according to Skorzeny's memoirs, the grocer was coaxed into entering a bet that Mussolini was still alive because he had just seen him earlier that day. Despite this lucky progress, the Italians moved Mussolini to Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome on 28 Aug before the Germans could make a move. On 1 Sep, Mussolini arrived at the Hotel Campo Imperatore (also known as Albergo Refugio) at Gran Sasso in central Italy. By 8 Sep, the Germans finally had a certain degree of confidence that they had gathered adequate intelligence that Mussolini was imprisoned at the mountain top hotel.
ww2dbaseOn 8 Sep 1943, Italy publicly capitulated to the Allied powers. Subsequent German efforts to occupy Rome and other areas in Italy briefly took precedence over the rescue of Mussolini, but it was not long until Student put his efforts back into the rescue mission as he feared that, now Italy had switched sides, Mussolini could be delivered to the Western Allies very soon.
ww2dbaseAs Student had confirmed that Mussolini was at Gran Sasso, he ordered his subordinate Major Harald Mors to begin planning for the rescue operation on 11 Sep, with an expected execution time of 0730 hours on the next day, a very short timeframe for Mors. Expertly and professionally, Mors put together a plan for 12 gliders to land on a small open field near the hotel, and the three platoons of Luftwaffe airborne troops and one platoon of SS troops would rush into the hotel for the rescue; the small open meadow had been discovered by Skorzeny during an aerial reconnaissance mission that took place on 8 Sep. The airborne troops were well armed with assault rifles, machine guns, and grenades and were supported with medics. The SS troops, on the other hand, were lightly armed and had much less experience with raids. Skorzeny, who placed as much stress on his personal gains as the objective of the mission, interfered with the planning and insisted to bump off several Luftwaffe troopers so that he could have photographer Toni Schneiders and a journalist accompany the SS detachment; in his memoir, Skorzeny insisted that Toni Schneiders was added to the mission list by his deputy Karl Radl. Student, who was annoyed but had the confidence that his real soldiers could accomplish the mission, went along with Skorzeny's suggestion. A second component of the rescue force consisted of 20 vehicles carrying troops that to secure the lower cable car station that connected the mountain top hotel to the rest of the world.
ww2dbaseMors and fellow German officer Georg Berlepsch were upset that the presence of Skorzeny's men meant about 20 professional soldiers were bumped off of the mission to make room for the SS and their propaganda personnel. Student, who was equally frustrated but was much more confident, comforted his tactical planners; "[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.
ww2dbaseOn the Italian side, about 100 Italian Carabinieri policemen guarded the hotel itself, while another 100 guarded the lower cable car station.
ww2dbaseWhen the operation launched on 12 Sep 1943, the ground column took a longer route toward Gran Sasso due to potential roadblocks by Italian forces still resisting German troops. As this large column attracted attention, Rudolfo Biancorosso, the police prefect of L'Aquila, radioed Inspector General Giuseppe Gueli at Hotel Campo Imperatore, who came down to the lower cable car station to receive the warning from Biancorosso. After Gueli went back up to the upper station, he increased the station guard at the upper station to 40 men; interestingly, he did not warn his officers to raise alarm, aside from asking some of the guards to prepare mules in case they needed to use them to bring Mussolini down the side of the mountain in the case that Germans captured the lower cable car stations. At about 1400 hours, the ground column reached the lower cable car station. A brief firefight scattered the outgunned Italian Carabinieri personnel, and at 1417 hours the Germans radioed the mission completion signal back to the operation headquarters.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, the glider team was supposed to take off from the airfield at Pratica di Mare south of Rome in the morning, but a delay in the arrival of the gliders meant the team was not launched until 1100 hours. In addition, while they were expecting 12 gliders, only 10 arrived, which meant Student was to cut down the size of his team even smaller. At 1305 hours, the first of the three glider teams finally took off. At 1405 hours on 12 Sep, the first glider landed outside the hotel, which carried Skorzeny. He stumbled out of the glider after the rough landing and immediately ran uphill toward the hotel, forgetting his submarine gun in the glider and forgetting to give orders to his men. He ran up to the hotel and opened the first door that he came across, expecting to gain entrance into the building, but instead went into a dead-end room that housed the telephone switching equipment and a surprised operator; he kicked the chair, smashed the radio, and ran back outside. He then joined two SS non-commissioned officers armed with MP28 submarine guns in running around the rear the of hotel in search of the entrance. Around this time, another glider arrived, crashing landing about 100 meters in front of the hotel. The arrival of professional soldiers in this second glider was welcomed in terms of the German operation, but Skorzeny and his men had already caused the surprise to be completely lost. Shortly after, the remaining gliders arrived. The professional airborne soldiers expertly exited their gliders, set up their MG42 machine guns, and approached the hotel with speed.
ww2dbaseGueli, who had been taking a nap when the raid began, was dumbfounded when his men woke him to report the attack. Still groggy, he looked out the window, observed the German airborne troops running toward the hotel, he yelled "Don't shoot!" to the Carabinieri guards below his window, which created confusion as the guards were just about to set up a defense.
ww2dbaseAround this time, according to Skorzeny's memoir, Mussolini show his face through the window in the front of the building. "Away from the window", Skorzeny yelled.
ww2dbaseItalian second-in-command Tenente Faiola took charge and ran up to Mussolini's room, personally guarding him, pondering whether Mussolini should be shot if the German troops was to enter the building. Mussolini, sensing the danger, told Faiola that if he killed the former Prime Minister, the German troops would likely execute the entire Carabinieri force in retaliation, which seemed to have caused Faiola to spare Mussolini's life.
ww2dbaseAlthough the German Luftwaffe troops executed the mission with much greater efficiency, it was Skorzeny and his men who reached the front entrance of the hotel first. The main entrance was blocked from the inside with furniture, thus the SS men, without grenades, could not enter; Skorzeny later claimed that he had ordered them to carefully suppress the usage of firearms in order to maintain surprise, thus the SS men could not enter the building quickly. Noticing that some of the Italian guards outside the building were either standing around confused or had lowered their weapons altogether, Skorzeny climbed up the side of the building and reached Mussolini's room from the outside. "Duce, the Führer sent me to free you", he said. "I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!", responded Mussolini. The time was now about 1415 hours, about 10 minutes since Skorzeny landed and about the same time that the lower cable car station was secured. Skorzeny also claimed to have observed gliders 6, 7, and 8 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 shot fired was an accidental one fired when an airborne soldier squeezed the trigger by accident when he exited his glider.
ww2dbaseAt 1500 hours, Skorzeny escorted Mussolini out of the hotel building. By this time, the atmosphere at relaxed. The Italians and Germans, perhaps because they had only recently been allies, were by this time friendly with each other once again. At least one of the photographs taken by photographer Toni Schneiders featured Carabinieri men, still armed with their weapons, posing with Skorzeny and Mussolini. Off-camera, some of the Germans and Italians were drinking wine together. While Skorzeny made sure he was prominently featured in many photographs, he claimed to have been somewhat frustrated by the presence of a photographer in this rescue operation, writing "of course the inevitable journalist put in an appearance". At 1515, after many photographs, Mussolini and Skorzeny were flown away in a German Storch aircraft which had arrived at 1450 hours. They arrived at Pratica di Mare at 1615 hours, transferred to a He 111 bomber, and flew to Germany via Vienna.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, at Gran Sasso, Mors ordered his men to destroy the gliders by fire to prevent enemy capture. By 1900 hours, they had left the mountain top by cable car. In the morning of 13 Sep, the motor column departed the lower cable car station with all German personnel.
ww2dbaseAfter the successful delivery of Mussolini to Hitler at Hitler's headquarters at Rastenburg on 15 Sep, Himmler used this operation as a propaganda for the SS organization. Hitler fueled this effort further as he awarded Skorzeny the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for the success of the operation. Mors, furious of Skorzeny claiming all the credit for the operation even though his fumbling at the start of the mission could very well have destroyed all chances of success, complained to Student. Student promptly issued his own complaint to Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, but Göring failed to take any effective action.
Robert Forczyk, Rescuing Mussolini: Gran Sasso 1943
Otto Skorzeny, Skorzeny's Special Missions
Operation Eiche Interactive Map
Operation Eiche Timeline
|25 Jul 1943||Mussolini was arrested. Upon learning the news of the change in government, German troops were prepared to disarm the Italian military.|
|26 Jul 1943||Adolf Hitler ordered an operation to be commenced to rescue Mussolini from his arrest.|
|27 Jul 1943||In Italy, Mussolini was moved from Rome to Ponza Island.|
|30 Jul 1943||Otto Skorzeny's SS men arrived in Rome, Italy.|
|7 Aug 1943||Otto Skorzeny thought Benito Mussolini was being kept in La Spezia, Italy, and was about to launch a rescue attempt when he learned that he was moved hours prior, and canceled the operation at the last moment. In fact, his intelligence was flawed as Mussolini was never transferred to La Spezia; on this date, Mussolini was being transferred out of the island of Ponza, Italy via a destroyer.|
|8 Aug 1943||The imprisoned Mussolini was transferred to the island of La Maddalena off Sardinia, Italy.|
|26 Aug 1943||Otto Skorzeny arrived at La Maddalena, Italy via E-boats. Later that day, he learned that Mussolini had just been transported away.|
|28 Aug 1943||The imprisoned Mussolini was moved from the island of Maddalena off Sardinia to Lake Bracciano by seaplane, then by car to the Hotel Campo Imperatore (aka. Albergo Refugio) at Gran Sasso.|
|11 Sep 1943||At 1500 hours, Kurt Student ordered Major Harald Mors to have a plan for the rescue of Benito Mussolini ready at his desk as soon as possible, with the plan to be executed on the following day at 0730 hours.|
|12 Sep 1943||German Luftwaffe and SS personnel rescued Mussolini from Gran Sasso, Italy.|
|15 Sep 1943||Benito Mussolini arrived at Rastenburg, East Prussia, Germany after his rescue. While there, he announced the establishment of a new Italian republic to continue the fight against the Allies.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945