By September of 1943, World War II was not going well for Nazi Germany. The Russians had routed the German attack at Kursk and had the strategic initiative. The German Afrika Korps had been pushed across and out of North Africa. German cities were routinely being bombed by American bombers during the day and British bombers at night. The British and Americans had landed in Sicily, which forced Italy out of the war, and the new Italian government had former dictator Benito Mussolini arrested. And the Allies had invaded the mainland of Italy and had a toehold on a beachhead.
Hitler wanted his ally Mussolini saved and tasked Hauptsturmführer (SS captain), Otto Skorzeny, to lead a raid to free him. Hitler called Skorzeny to Berlin to personally give him the mission.
“I have a mission of the highest importance for you. . . . Mussolini must be rescued, and speedily. . . .”
The Luftwaffe’s paratroop commander General Kurt Student was tasked with supplying the majority of the men for the operation.
The result, Operation Eiche (Operation Oak), was one of the most daring raids in Special Operations history. And afterward, Skorzeny became known as the “Most Dangerous Man in Europe.”
Background to the Operation:
The Italians had moved Mussolini around during his captivity. He was first held in Ponza, then at La Maddalena, both small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Skorzeny was using all available intelligence means to find out where the Italians moved Il Duce to. They were to learn that Mussolini was moved on August 26 to the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski resort at Campo Imperatore in Italy’s Gran Sasso massif, high in the Apennine Mountains.
Mussolini, complaining of stomach pains was kept in luxury accommodations and treated more like a guest than a captive. The Italians emptied the hotel of guests. He was being guarded by 200 carabinieri.
Skorzeny decided on a daring glider rescue as the surrounding mountains were too steep for a paratrooper assault. Gazing at aerial photographs, Skorzeny decided to land the gliders in what appeared to be a flat area behind the hotel.
The assault force would consist of 12 DFS 230 gliders with German airborne troops and 16 of Skorzeny’s SS Jagdverbande 502 (Hunting Group 502), Nazi Germany’s elite special operations unit.
The Raid Operation is Launched:
The Germans were to launch the raid at 0700 on September 12 but the gliders arrived late and the take off was delayed until 1300 hrs. Two of the gliders crashed on take off leaving the raid force with just ten.
Then, to his horror, Skorzeny learned that the field behind the hotel was not level but a steeply rising slope, strewn with boulders. While the German paratroop commander Maj. Hans Mors ordered an abort, Skorzeny countermanded it and ordered the gliders to attempt to land on the small clearing in front of the hotel.
One glider crashed, resulting in injuries to the commandos inside. Skorzeny’s pilot skillfully landed just 30 feet from the entrance of the hotel. Mors and the paratroopers were to cover the roads and block any forces attempting to enter the area. Skorzeny had with him Carabiniere Gen. Ferdinando Soleti who, speaking Italian urged the Italians who heavily outnumbered the Germans, not to shoot.
It worked perfectly. Three minutes after alighting from the glider in front of the hotel, Skorzeny was standing in front of Mussolini. “Il Duce, the Führer has sent me to free you.” Mussolini hugged him and said, “I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not leave me in the lurch.” In the entire amazing sequence, not one shot had been fired.
Because the road to Rome was considered too dangerous and the paratroopers too lightly armed to protect him, it was planned on having a Fieseler Storch a short-takeoff and landing aircraft (STOL) to land at the hotel and whisk Mussolini to Rome.
The Storch was designed to only carry three personnel. But Skorzeny insisted on flying with Mussolini and the heavily overloaded plane plummeted down the mountain before the pilot was able to pull it up and gain altitude. Once they arrived in Rome, Mussolini and Skorzeny boarded a He-111 bomber which flew to Vienna before flying on to Berlin. Mussolini would join Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair HQs two days later.
While in Vienna, Skorzeny received a call from Hitler personally to give him the news. Elated, Hitler promoted the SS man to Major and awarded him the Knights’ Cross. “Today, you have carried out a mission that will go down in history.”
Mussolini would only be spared for a short time. Hitler put in charge of the Fascist held area in Northern Italy where he shot many of the people who deposed him. But in January 1945, while attempting to sneak into Switzerland while dressed as a German soldier, he was captured along with his mistress Clara Petacci by Italian partisans. They were shot and hung in the city square in Milan by their bootheels.
Skorzeny would survive the war and worked as a military advisor to the Egyptian Army as well as being recruited by the Israeli Mossad to get information on former Nazis working on rockets for Egypt that would be targeted against Israel. He died of cancer in 1975 and after cremation, had his ashes interred in his family’s plot in Austria.
Despite the Nazis being one of the more evil empires of the modern world and while we detest everything they stood for, this is a great example of a classically executed special operation. The commandos had a plan that in the opening moments of the operation was scrapped due to developments and complications on the ground. The commander used his quick decision making and boldness and still flawlessly executed his mission. And by him bringing a local commander of the troops guarding the hostage, he was able to free the hostage without having to fire a shot.
It makes a good study for prospective Special Operations candidates to learn about the ability to think quickly and clearly, improvise and adapt your forces when facing a fluid situation and under a great amount of stress.
A video made by the Germans on the rescue of Mussolini can be seen here: