by Michael Haskew

When news of Benito Mussolini’s removal from power in Italy reached Adolf Hitler in far-off Berlin, the Nazi Fuhrer flew into a rage. His Axis partner had obviously been betrayed, driven from office by disloyal elements in the government and armed forces. Hitler considered an outright invasion of Italy, the kidnapping of the Italian royal family, the arrest of officials in the new Italian government, and even a bid to imprison the Pope in retaliation.

After he was finally dissuaded from these actions, Hitler remained determined to find Mussolini and rescue him from the clutches of the new Italian government, which would surely place Il Duce on trial for crimes committed while in office, find him guilty, and render a sentence of disgraceful death. An intercepted radio message led the Germans to Mussolini’s location. After being moved six times, the former dictator was being held at the Albergo Rufigo, a luxury hotel at Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi Mountains north of Rome. The hotel was somewhat secluded, and its location at 7,000 feet above sea level added to the measures of security that had already been taken.

Hitler Brings In Otto Skorzeny

Hitler summoned SS Major Otto Skorzeny, a daredevil officer with a reputation as the “most dangerous man in Europe,” and charged him with formulating a plan to rescue Mussolini from his mountaintop prison. Skorzeny assembled a force of 90 handpicked airborne troops and determined that the best option for the rescue was to send his men in by glider, overpower any resistance, and then fly Mussolini to safety aboard a Fieseler Storch, a light aircraft that would be strained due to limited weight capacity but was probably capable of carrying Il Duce to freedom.

On September 12, 1943, German airborne troops captured the rail line that ran from the valley floor up the side of the steep mountain, ensuring that no Italian reinforcements would interfere with the rescue attempt. Skorzeny’s glider men made pinpoint landings near the hotel, surprised and captured Mussolini’s guards, and escorted the dazed and frail former dictator to the waiting plane.

Refugee Without A Country

Just as the Storch was preparing to take off, Skorzeny climbed aboard. The weight of the pilot, Skorzeny, and Mussolini exceeded the capacity for the plane to safely operate, but Skorzeny ordered the pilot to open the throttle. When the plane reached the edge of a nearby cliff, it plunged earthward. With only seconds to spare, the pilot maintained control and the Storch began to claw for altitude. A short while later, the plane landed safely at a Luftwaffe airfield. Mussolini then boarded a Heinkel He-111 bomber for the flight to Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia.

Hitler greeted his friend warmly but was shocked at Mussolini’s appearance. No longer was he the swaggering, robust leader of Fascist Italy. He was a refugee without a country.

The Nazis sought to take advantage of what little pro-Fascist sentiment remained in Italy and installed Mussolini as the leader of a puppet regime, the Italian Socialist Republic, in the town of Salo on Lake Garda in northern Italy. Few men rallied to the support of the former Duce, whose days were already numbered.