Mussolini's escape from Campo Imperatore

03/09/2010 - 10:41


Some of you may already know this story but I thought it worth repeating:-In September 1943, a crack unit of the German Air Force Paratroop Regiment directed by Lieutenant Count Otto von Berlepsch crashed their gliders into the mountains around the Campo Imperatore and the Gran Sasso, the highest peak in the Apennines. Their mission known, as Operation Eiche (Operation Oak), was to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini who was being held captive in the Campo Imperatore Hotel.On 25 July 1943, a few weeks after the allied invasion of Sicily and bombing of Rome, the Italian Grand Council of Fascism voted to depose Mussolini and replace him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio and Mussolini was subsequently arrested on the orders of King Victor Emmanuel III. After his arrest, Mussolini was transported to various locations around Italy by his captors. Otto Skorzeny, selected personally by Hitler to carry out the rescue mission, tracked him to the isolated hideaway. Mussolini was brought to the Hotel by way of rickety cable car (which is still on display at the modern cable car station there) and was said to have blanched at the prospect of the journey up the mountain.Intercepting a coded Italian radio message, Skorzeny used his own reconnaissance to determine that Mussolini was being imprisoned at the Hotel, a ski resort high in the Apennine Mountains. On 12 September 1943, Skorzeny joined the team, led by Major Harald Mors, to rescue Mussolini in a high-risk mission.The commandos crashed their gliders into the nearby mountains and having approached the Hotel managed to overwhelm Mussolini's captors without a single shot being fired. Skorzeny attacked the radio operator and his equipment, and formally greeted Mussolini with "Duce, the Führer has sent me to set you free!" to which Mussolini was said to reply "I knew that my friend would not forsake me!" Mussolini was first flown from Campo Imperatore in a tiny Luftwaffe Fieseler Fi 156 Storch STOL liaison aircraft, initially flown in by Captain Walter Gerlach, then taking off with Mussolini and Skorzeny. Mussolini, terrified, was jammed in at the pilot’s feet and the extra weight of the passengers destabilized the tiny pane and almost caused it to crash on take off. Mussolini was transported to Vienna, where he stayed overnight at the Hotel Imperial and was given a hero's welcome and from there he was taken to Berlin.The operation granted a rare late-war public relations opportunity to Hermann Göring and Nazi propaganda hailed the operation for months. Mussolini was forced to return to power as a puppet of the Nazi Regime in the German-occupied portion of Italy (the Italian Social Republic), informally known as the Salò Republic because of its administration from the town of Salò. Otto Skorzeny gained a large amount of success from this mission; he received a promotion to Major, the award of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and fame that led to his "most dangerous man in Europe" image.In late April 1945, with total defeat looming, Mussolini attempted to escape to Switzerland to board a plane to escape to Spain, only to be captured and summarily executed with his mistress Clara Petacci near Lake Como by Italian partisans. On 29 April 1945, the bodies of Mussolini, Petacci, and the other executed Fascists were loaded into a moving van and trucked south to Milan. There, at 3 a.m., they were dumped on the ground in the old Piazza Loreto. The piazza had been renamed "Piazza Quindici Martiri" in honor of 15 anti-Fascists recently executed there on the Axis powers.After being shot, kicked, and spat upon, the bodies were hung upside down on meathooks from the roof of a petrol station. The bodies were then stoned by civilians from below. This was done both to discourage any Fascists from continuing the fight and as an act of revenge for the hanging of many partisans in the same place by Axis authorities. The corpse of the deposed leader became subject to ridicule and abuse.After his death and the display of his corpse in Milan, Mussolini was buried in the municipal cemetery to the north of the city. On Easter Sunday 1946 his body was located and dug up by neo-Fascists. Making off with their hero, they left a message on the open grave: "Finally, O Duce, you are with us. We will cover you with roses, but the smell of your virtue will overpower the smell of those roses."On the loose for months—and a cause of great anxiety to the new Italian democracy—Il Duce's body was finally 'recaptured' in August 1946, hidden in a small trunk in a town just outside Milan. Unsure what to do, the authorities held the remains in a kind of political limbo for 10 years, before agreeing to allow them to be re-interred at Predappio in Romagna, Mussolini’s birth place.Otto Skorzeny fled Germany after the war and travelled to various countries around the world including Argentina where he was for a time an advisor to Juan Peron (who subsequently had his own issues with a disappearing corpse).Like thousands of other former Nazis, he was declared denazified in absentia in 1952 by a West German government arbitration board, which now meant he could travel into other Western countries. He spent part of his time between 1959 and 1969 in Ireland, where he bought Martinstown House, a 200-acre farm in County Kildare in 1959. He also had property in Mallorca. He finally succumbed to cancer on July 7th, 1975 in Madrid at the age of 67.

 A fascinating story, Postmac. I read about it a long time ago, but it had faded.... An interesting detail about Skorzeny, he came to live in Spain under the personal protection of Franco. He was a multimillionaire and resided mainly in Majorca; however, he was found to have a tumor and died, as you said in Madrid on July 5th, 1975. His "protector", Franco, died on the 20th November of the same year. Skorzeny was also an adviser to Nasser.

Not entirely on point but anyway....reputed to be true! Franco lay in a fever in his palace in Madrid. He was slipping in and out of consciousness and it was clear that he wouldn't last much longer. He had been administered the last rites and his family were gathered around his bed in vigil watching the dictator's slow demise. Outside the palace word had spread that Franco was nearing death and many of his supporters had gathered outside the gates of the palace to offer support. The windows of the palace bedroom were open and a soft chant could be heard wafting over the air from outside the gates; "Franco, Franco", they cried. Suddenly the old man with difficulty raised himself up in his bed and cocked his ear of the sound wafting in. He turned to his daughter and asked "What is that sound?". She replied "It is the people of Spain, Papa, they have come to say goodbye." The old man thought for a moment and then replied:- "Why, ....where are they going?"

 Very funny, story, although it may not be "historically" correct. Franco had been agonising for many months. His son-in-law, the Marquis of Villaverde, who was a heart surgeon tried to keep him alive all this time as members and friends of the dictatorial regime were afraid of what may happen. So his agony was unmercifully prolongued. In the end, nothing happened and Spain regained its democracy.... with a few hiccups...but the transition was smooth and bloodless. I only found quite interesting that both Franco and Skorzeny died a few months apart. Actually, Franco may have been technically dead before Skorzeny and Perón also died around that time.... Can´t remember the exact date. Perón was also an unconditional admirer of Mussolini. Both Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco during the Spanish Civil War....