The courageous Gran Sasso rescue of Mussolini during the midst of the allied invasion of Italy in World War II remains one of the most impressive and important rescue missions of all time.
By 1942, Italy, a strategic ally of Germany, had been losing on all fronts. As American and British troops pushed up the Italian peninsula in 1943, the war weary government turned Mussolini and he was imprisoned. Hitler, desperate to protect Germany’s southern flank, rushed troops across the border to defend the strategically important Italian highlands. While some Italians welcomed their old allies, the new regime threatened to undermine Germany’s military occupation of northern Italy.
Without Mussolini, the remaining Italian fascists were indecisive and leaderless. Hoping to re install Mussolini as the head of a new, puppet state that would support the Germans, Hitler furiously demanded that Mussolini be rescued. For the job, he personally selected SS colonel Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny’s risky, elaborate, and ultimately successful plan would earn him the reputation as “the most dangerous man in Europe”.
Pact of Steel
During the late 1930s at the height of Hitler’s militaristic expansion in Europe, Germany became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Looking for allies, Hitler negotiated the Pact of Steel with fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Officially called the ‘Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy’, the agreement bound the two states into a tight military alliance, securing Germany’s southern front.
But while Italy’s military looked impressive on paper, it was significantly less developed than its European counterparts. Suffering from poor equipment and training, Italian forces were unprepared for war. When Germany invaded Poland and France in September of 1939, Mussolini was hesitant to get involved due to Italy’s lack of military weaponry and industrial base to support a protracted conflict. But as Nazi armies rampaged across Europe, Mussolini’s fears were alleviated and he officially joined the Axis, declaring war against France and Britain.
Mussolini leads Italy to ruin
Mussolini hoped to prove that Italy was no “minor power” in the alliance and could hold its own weight as a modern European nation. He boasted that Italy would conquer Greece, ordering his generals to dispatch troops across the border. But within weeks, the Greek army pushed the Italians back into Albania and humiliatingly put the Italians on the defensive.
Frustrated and disappointed, the Germans reluctantly sent troops to back up the Italian army and retake land. Within 7 months, the Nazi’s had routed the Greek armies and taken Athens. Throughout the war, Italian military failure followed by German support would become a repeating cycle.
Hoping to regain traction and support among his people, Mussolini declared a ‘new Roman empire’ that would contain ancient Italian possessions in northern Africa. He sent multiple Italian armies across the Mediterranean to wrest control of the land from its British defenders. Once again, beaten back with heavy losses, Hitler was forced to send General Rommel and his infamous Afrika Corps to salvage the situation. Rommel scored tactically brilliant victories, but before long both Italian and German troops withdrew suffering from supply shortages and manpower deficits.
After being humiliatingly defeated on nearly every front, Italians wanted an end to the war. Mussolini was ridiculed as a “saw-dust Caesar” who’d led the underequipped, underprepared Italians into a horrific war. By mid-1943, the Allies had invaded Sicily and then the Italian mainland itself. As American and British troops slowly fought their way up the Italian peninsula, the Grand Fascist Council and Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, passed a vote of vote of no-confidence against Mussolini. They had him arrested and imprisoned, immediately contacting the allies to discuss terms of surrender.
Germany seizes northern Italy
With Hitler’s defensive ally on the verge of defeat, he knew he had to act fast to protect his southern flank. Trying to slow the allied advance, he ordered German divisions to invade northern Italy and take up defensive positions in the Italian highlands. With the downfall of Mussolini, the disorganized Italian troops were hesitant to turn on their previous allies.
German troops used the chaos to advance quickly, establishing control over much of northern and central Italy. But although the Germans were able to seize northern Italy, they met resistance from Italian locals loyal to the new regime. Without native Italian support and governmental legitimacy, the Italian people would continue to openly resist the German army.
Hitler’s daring idea
As German troops poured into Italy further provoking Italian nationalists, Hitler looked for solutions. He summoned six of his best military officers in absolute secrecy, tersely ushering them into an interrogation room. He drilled them with question after question, asking the officers their opinions of the Italians. Most of them responded in propagandized terms of support for their beleaguered allies, stressing solidarity and unity.
But one of the officers, Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian-born man much like Hitler himself, had a certain distain for the Italians. Skorzeny wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion, declaring “I am an Austrian, mein Fuhrer, and our attitude toward Italy is prejudiced by the happenings of the previous world war”. Upon hearing this, Hitler immediately dismissed all the other officers, keeping only Skorzeny behind.
Hitler swore him to secrecy and gave him top secret orders: to plan and execute a daring mission to infiltrate Italian defenses and rescue Mussolini.
Otto Skorzeny’s team
Otto Skorzeny wasted no time, assembling a crack squad of elite Wehrmacht Paratroopers and fanatical SS Commandos. Spearheaded by the highly decorated 2nd parachute division, Skorzeny’s team consisted of the best of the best. Skorzeny also recruited sympathetic Italian Carabiniere General Ferdinando Soletti, in hopes that he could convince Italian soldiers to surrender directly to him.
Skorzeny’s party traveled to central Italy to try and locate Mussolini, playing a cat and mouse game with Mussolini’s captors who continuously moved him to thwart any recuse efforts. But finally after 2 ½ months, Skorzeny and his team caught a break. They intercepted a coded radio message that held Mussolini’s location – the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski resort high in the Apennine Mountatins.
The Campo Imperatore
Situated on the Gran Sasso d’Italia, the highest mountain in continental Italy south of the Alps, the Campo Imperatore couldn’t be approached by land without being sighted by Mussolini’s guards. Nearly 200 well-armed Italian guards were positioned at strategic positions all around the hotel, blocking off road access to the Campo Imperatore. Undeterred, Skorzeny decided to overcome these difficulties with a direct aerial assault.
He proposed a risky plan to stealthily approach the Campo Imperatore in silent gliders, overwhelm the guards, and capture Mussolini. When other officers balked at the plan’s brazenness, Skorzeny comprised that if a suitable landing site couldn’t be found for the gliders around the hotel, they would abort the mission and find another solution.
The Gran Sasso Raid
By September 12th, 1943, Skorzeny and his squad were prepared for action. In 12 fully manned gliders, they silently approached the Campo Imperatore from above. Getting closer, the Germans scanned the ground looking for anywhere to land. Finding only rock-strewn fields, the paratroopers prepared to abort the mission and turn back. But Skorzeny intervened, countermanding other officers orders and demanding the pilots to crash land the gliders as close to the hotel as possible.
Two gliders crashed on the scattered boulders, but the others were masterfully landed just 30 feet away from the hotel. The elite German units swarmed inside, accompanied by high ranking Italian General Ferdinando Soletti who declared that any Italians who resisted would be executed for treason. With divided allegiances and unsure about fighting a squad Germans against their own commander’s orders, the Italians hesitated.
The SS commandos took advantage of the situation, quickly disarming the surprised Italian soldiers. Within just three minutes, they had established complete control over the building. Skorzeny confidently greeted Mussolini, announcing coyly that “the Fuhrer sends his regards”. With Mussolini in tow, the rescue party made their way back to German controlled northern Italy before flying home to Berlin.
Aftermath and the Italian Social Republic
Operatively and strategically, the Skorzeny’s Gran Sasso rescue mission was a complete success.
Back in war torn Germany, Otto Skorzeny and Mussolini were triumphantly paraded through the streets. The situation provided a late war time public relations opportunity to Nazi propagandist Joseph Gobbles, who publicized the event and hailed Skorzeny as the ‘most dangerous man in Europe’. Receiving personal credit for the Gran Sasso raid, Skorzeny won international fame. Even Winston Churchill described the mission as “one of great daring”. Skorzeny went on to receive a promotion and a Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross award, reserved to recognize extreme battlefield bravery or outstanding leadership.
Hitler reinstalled Mussolini as the dictator of the new Italian Social Republic, a puppet state carved out of Nazi occupied northern Italy. Using Mussolini as a front to ensure legitimacy among native Italians, Hitler continued the war in the south. Forcing the allies to fight through the heavily defended Italian mountains, the German troops successfully delayed the allied advance another 8 months.