The operation to free Mussolini, who was being held prisoner in a high mountain hotel on the summit of Gran Sasso, Italy, in September 1943, is without a doubt one of the most spectacular operations not only of the Second World War, but in all military history.
German paratroopers, the Wehrmacht’s elite, were responsible for organizing the rescue in record time, and executing a daring and perfectly synchronized operation between land and airborne detachments. Surprise and speed were the Fallschirmjäger’s main weapons, surprising the Italian garrison guarding il Duce. For political reasons Otto Skorzeny, the clever SS officer, also participated in the operation, leading a dozen of his commandos. Propaganda and his connections with Himmler made him into the false hero of the mission, over-emphasizing his role in the whole search and rescue operation.
Based on the testimony of several protagonists in this incredible operation, as well as analyzing major documents (letters, reports by General Kurt Student, etc.) and the abundant literature available on the subject, this book dismantles the “Skorzeny Myth” and reveals the truth of what really happened in a mission that even Churchill called “one of great daring.”
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The Operation Begins
On 24 July 1943, fourteen days after the start of the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Italian Grand Council of Fascism met for the first time since 1939. The following morning, a vote of no confidence was passed by an absolute majority requesting that although Mussolini was not to be completely removed from power, the king would now take control of the army for the first time since Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940.
This decision is historically significant because it gave the monarch the motive to remove Mussolini, whose downfall had been prepared through a coup d'etat inspired and raised by the military and those close to the monarch. In any case, the vote of the Grand Council of Fascism served as a pretext to remove Mussolini.
As he left the king's residence, Mussolini was put in an ambulance and taken under arrest to the Podgora Carabinieri Headquarters in the Trastevere area of Rome. In the afternoon he was transferred to the Carabinieri Cadet School in vía Legnano, where he stayed until 27 July.
Immediately after the fall of Mussolini became known, Hitler seriously considered occupying the Italian Peninsula (Operation Schwarz). Other operations he considered included: the occupation of Rome and the Vatican, including the arrest of the royal family and all politicians and officers who opposed the alliance with Germany; reinstalling the fascist regime in Italy (Operation Alarico); the destruction of the Italian fleet (Operation Achse) and the liberation of Mussolini (Operation Eiche). The latter would be assigned to XI Fliegerkorps (XI Air Command) under the command of General Kurt Student and the objective of freeing Mussolini soon became a priority.
To accomplish the mission (code-named Operation Eiche (Operation Oak) from 1 August 1943) the first objective was to discover the whereabouts of il Duce, who had been missing without a trace since his last audience with the king. After staying in Rome, on 27 July he was taken to the coastal port of Gaeta, accompanied by the chief of the military police of the Supreme Command, General Francesco Saverio Pólito. Once onboard the corvette Persefone, he arrived on the island of Ponza at 12:00 on 28 July, where he was kept in an isolated house before spending three weeks in a private villa on the island of La Maddalena, where he had arrived on 7 August.
Initially, Student did not inform anyone about his special mission to free il Duce. He did not even say anything to Otto Skorzeny, the Austrian SS-Hauptsturmführer whom Himmler had originally selected, together with a commando of around forty SS soldiers, for Operation Schwarz. According to Student:
I was surprised when I received a phone call from the Führer's headquarters [Wolfsschanze, Wolf's Lair] while I was in Nimes on the afternoon of 26 July 1943. I was told to report to him immediately. I flew as fast as I could to Rastenburg (East Prussia), and once there was ordered by Hitler to march to Rome with all available paratroopers. I was ordered to hold Rome in case Italy surrendered and was given a special mission to free Mussolini. On the return trip I was accompanied by someone who was unknown to me at the time: SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny. We had both been given an SS commando to help search for Mussolini and carry out some police work. Hitler had ordered us to keep our instructions in the strictest silence and so we started an intense search to locate Mussolini's hiding place. Finally, on 8 September, the day that Italy surrendered, a 'hot tip' took us to the Gran Sasso. In light of this serious event, I should have put off Mussolini's rescue and committed all my forces to my main task; preventing Rome from falling into the enemy's hands.
The 'hot tip' had been given by SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the commander of the German security service (SD) in Rome, who had known for several days that something strange was going on in the Gran Sasso. However, his suspicions were confirmed when he managed to intercept an ecrypted message addressed to the Italian police chief, Carmine Senise. Kappler knew the code used by the Italian Ministry of the Interior, so it was easy for him to decipher the message, which read, 'We have finalized the security measures in the Gran Sasso and its surroundings'. The message was signed by Inspector Gueli, and Kappler quickly communicated the information to Student, who then informed Skorzeny.
'The highest prison in the world', as it was described by Mussolini, was located in an 'unreachable and inaccessible' place in a mountain lodge called Campo Imperatore, 2,112 metres above sea level in the Italian Gran Sasso. The building itself was D-shaped and was originally planned to be the first of three buildings (the other two were never built), with the other two hotels being built in the shape of a 'V' and 'X' so that the word 'DVX' could be clearly read from above at the highest point of the Apennines. As luck would have it, the building that was erected to celebrate il Duce had become his prison.
Student decided to free Mussolini and entrusted the task to Major Harald Mors, who was supposedly the officer most admired by Student. Mors had been part of Student's staff since the beginning of the war and in mid-July 1943 had replaced Harry Herrmann as the commander of the Fallschirmjäger-LehrBataillon (the model and experimental battalion of the paratroopers), the crème de la crème, which was renamed for security reasons as I./FJR 7 (1st battalion of the 7th Regiment). As Student said: 'On the morning of 11 September, I decided to act fast and with a very particular method of attack. I could not afford to waste any more time. I entrusted the task of organising the rescue mission to the Fallschirmjäger-Lehr-Bataillon, under the command of Major Mors.' Once the alliance with the Italians was broken, there were no longer any diplomatic issues. However, there was a serious risk that Mussolini's guards, deprived of any orders due to the chaos currently reigning in the capital, (Badoglio and King Victor Manuel III having fled to Brindisi, which was now under Allied control, on the morning of 9 September), did anything terrible. From that moment, the operation to free il Duce was launched.CHAPTER 2
Preparing for The Mission: Freeing Mussolini!
Harald Mors, 32, was quartered with his battalion near the Jesuit college of Mondragone. He had been talking to other officers from the battalion about the motorisation of the Fiat trucks belonging to 103rd Infantry Division 'Piacenza' (which had been disarmed the previous day as part of the operation to control the Italian Army), when the telephone rang. At the other end was General Student, who wanted to speak to Mors about a matter of extreme urgency. After the conversation had ended, Mors set off for the general headquarters, where he met other officers, friends, and comrades from previous operations. He took advantage of the situation to ask the First Section commander of Student's staff, Major von Roon, the reason for this urgent meeting.
Ironically von Roon replied, 'Bruno Meyer', and took him to see Student. The general didn't bother with any pleasantries: 'Major, tomorrow at 07:30, free Mussolini from the Gran Sasso in Italy.' It was clear from the nature of the order what kind of pressure Student had been under over the last few days.
Student had some idea about what was entailed, but he preferred to discuss it with his right hand-man. In any case, Mors would have the freedom to act as he wished once the details of the mission were known.
I asked for an hour to analyse the materials, the situation and my responsibilities before the mission began. It was 15:00. When I had all of the available materials in front of me, I discussed the matter with Student's intelligence officer, Hauptmann Langguth. He told me that the mission had to be carried out in the strictest secrecy. Its unofficial name, the one that was being whispered around the general staff, was 'Bruno Meyer', but more officially it was called Operation Oak (Eiche). The information that we had to hand was old and we were waiting for the arrival of a photograph of the terrain that Langguth had taken that morning.
Mors pointed out to Langguth that the information was inaccurate with many holes in it, and that there was hardly any certainty to any of it. Everything was based on vague assumptions. Langguth stated that all the information they possessed had came from Skorzeny.
It was the first time that I had heard anything about the notorious Skorzeny [Mors declared]; a very reserved and self-assured man, who had been roaming the general headquarters for some time. No one knew what he was doing there, except that he had received a mysterious 'special mission' from Hitler himself, and that he was an SS officer but had to wear a Luftwaffe captain's badge for security reasons.
In fact, after receiving the order to free Mussolini, Student had requested a specialist who he could trust. He niether could not nor wanted to assign this task to a paratrooper officer. Although it was a difficult mission, Skorzeny had found a way to make it work after his men had noted some special controls around the cable car station that led up to the Campo Imperatore hotel.
The information on the Gran Sasso was uncertain, but there were many indications that Mussolini was there. Student himself had taken the initiative of sending his own doctor, Dr Krutoff, to Assergi a few days before, with the excuse of looking for somewhere to house injured paratroopers. When he asked at one of the road blocks, the carabinieri responded with a curt 'no' and sent him on his way in a suspiciously abrupt way. The area was obviously under guard, but why? And more importantly, if it wasn't for Mussolini then who?
After taking 60 minutes to analyse the maps and photographs for the mission, Student met with Mors again. The general explained that would be possible for paratroopers to jump out over the Assergi Valley, capture the cable car and attack the hotel. Mors voiced his concerns that the paratroopers' arrival would be seen from the hotel, thus loosing their main weapon: the element of surprise. He feared the paratroopers would alert the L'Aquilla garrison (especially the 13th and 14th Infantry Regiment and the 18th artillery regiment, 'Pinerolo' Division. The rest of the units were in Greece).
Besides, Student's proposal seemed impossible due to the layout of the terrain itself (the hotel was near to a gorge), not to mention the strong winds and updrafts that would have scattered the paratroopers considerably, or even worse, would have smashed them against the rocks. Nor was it possible to launch a direct assault up to the hotel, which would involve climbing over 1,000 metres and putting the paratroopers within reach of the Italians. Others factors also had to be taken into account: the temperature difference between the valley bottom and 2,000 metres up the mountain, as well as the men's equipment. In an assault of this kind, the hotel garrison would have plenty of time during the long hours it would take the soldiers to climb the mountain to transfer the prisoner to a nearby cave using the various tracks and pathways available. The existing terrain near the hotel also didn't allow for any kind of transport aircraft (such as a Junkers Ju 52) to land.
All this meant that both the paratroopers' arrival and withdrawal had to be carried out by land. The most reasonable course of action would be a combined operation involving paratroopers and other soldiers driven up to the target by trucks. All troops involved would then have to return to the base using the latter vehicles.
These considerations and analysis were all taken into account with the following 'order of operations', in which Mors conceived a campaign divided in two phases; one airborne and the other by land:
a) 1st Company (I./FJR 7), under the command of the young Oberleutnant von Berlepsch, would be part of the airborne attack and land in gliders in the vicinity of the Hotel Campo Imperatore. The company's mission (assisted by a platoon from 4th Company) would be to free il Duce and guard him until reinforcements arrived. Three gliders would land near the hotel and take it in a surprise attack, while the rest would be on standby with their machine guns in case of greater resistance. The nearby cable car station would also be taken so that it could be used by the reinforcements arriving from the valley over land.
b) The bulk of the battalion, under the command of Major Harald Mors, would include two paratroop companies transported by lorries, a Panzerjäger (anti-tank) company and elements from a 'heavy weapons' company. They would be transported over land up to the Assergi Valley and occupy the town and cable car station, as well as providing the airborne troops with protection from potential attacks. It would also connect with von Berlepsch's paratroopers, if necessary, via an 'alpine' attack.
c) After the operation was completed, all of the units would withdraw to Rome via the land route used by Major Mors. In total 380 men would be involved in the assault.
According to this plan, the airborne paratroopers' attack and thus the element of surprise were the mission's most important assets: the enemy certainly did not count on facing the possibility of such an attack. The glider pilots' training was such that they could be required to make an accurate landing, and the quick release of Mussolini would be key to preventing him from being taken by his Italian captors through the mountains. Finally, in case of a possible attack by the Italian troops based in L'Aquila, Mors proposed that he take personal command of the units arriving by trucks: 'The heavy weaponry will go with me', he concluded. In conclusion, the operation required maximum coordination between the airborne and terrestrial phases.
After laying out the plan to Student, Mors received the order to proceed. However, he stated that the previously-agreed timings should be delayed, as it was impossible for them to meet at the target by 07:00 the next morning. Mors requested a delay of twenty-four hours, but fears that il Duce would be moved yet another time meant that Student only granted a seven hour delay. Consequently, H-Hour was fixed for 14:00 on Sunday, 12 September.
Everything had been planned to perfection. Mors' analysis and subsequent proposal meant that even though the operation was creative, audacious and complicated, it was still plausible and achievable. Nothing was left to chance. After all, the mission was to be undertaken by the elite of the German Army: the Fallschirmjäger.
All that remained was what to do with Mussolini after setting him free. Mors suggested taking him back to Rome in an armoured vehicle, which would be well-defended if placed in the centre of a column. However, Student came up with an even bolder idea: he would send his personal pilot, Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach, to collect Mussolini aboard his Fieseler Fi-156 'Storch' (Stork), which was an extremely agile and maneuverable airplane, capable of landing on a small area such as the one in front of the hotel.
Gerlach himself describes the circumstances when he received the order:
Three days after the action at Frascati (Italy was on the verge of no longer being our ally) on 11 September 1943, I was ordered to present myself immediately before General Student. Already there was Oberst Trettner, the chief of staff of XI. Paratroop Corps, as well as Major Mors (...) Student told me about the plan to free il Duce. Hauptmann Skorzeny's men had finally found their tip off: Mussolini was at the Imperatore hotel in the Gran Sasso. (...) My mission was to land a Fieseler Storch at the Campo Imperatore hotel immediately after the DFS-230 B-1 gliders. I was given the chance to offer my opinion, and, somehow, to find a solution for the task I had been entrusted with. Hauptmann Langguth showed me photographs of the Gran Sasso, along with images of the Campo Imperatore and the cable cable station that connected it to the Assergi Valley. Unfortunately the photographs had been taken from directly above and at a high altitude, meaning that it was impossible to have an accurate idea of the terrain. Langguth, who had flown over the location, could only say that the terrain was dangerously rocky with multiple obstacles. I was unable, therefore, to make sure that there was any chance of landing there with a Storch. After several minutes of intense analysis looking at the still-wet photographs, I told the general and those present: 'I will fly over and decide where the possible landing and take-offs areas can be'. The newly freed il Duce would then be taken to the Pratica di Mare aerodrome, where he would continue his journey on a Heinkel He 111 aircraft, accompanied by another officer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Freeing Mussolini!"
Copyright © 2018 Óscar González López.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 The Operation Begins,
2 Preparing for The Mission: Freeing Mussolini!,
3 Skorzeny Joins the Operation,
4 First Company Heads for the Gran Sasso,
5 An Unexpected Manoeuvre,
6 The 'Ground Phase',
7 Landing at 'Campo Imperatore',
8 Gran Sasso,
9 Mors Meets Mussolini,
10 Skorzeny Enters the Scene,
11 Surprise at the Gran Sasso?,
12 Skorzeny's Version of Events,
13 "My Dear Mors: I Don't Want Any Trouble With Himmler",
Appendix I: Official Report of Oberleutnant Karl Schulze, commander of 3./ FJR 7,
Appendix II: Order of Combat for I./FJR 7 in September 1943,
Appendix III: The Protagonists after the War,