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The Maxim Gorky, an enormous eight-engine Tupolev ANT-20, struck awe in those who watched its propaganda flights over Red Square (below). (Von Hardesty/NASM)

Despots Aloft

To the three most infamous dictators of the 20th century, the airplane was much more than a way to get from Stalag A to Gulag B.

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Mussolini quickly moved aviation to the forefront of his authoritarian regime. He advocated the building of a modern air force, the Regia Aeronautica, promoted airshows and record-breaking flights, and called for the design of advanced military aircraft. Winning the Schneider Trophy race in 1926 became an early benchmark for Mussolini’s air-minded regime. His Minister of Air, Italo Balbo, catapulted Italian aviation to worldwide prominence in 1933 when he led a flotilla of 25 Savoia-Marchetti SM-55 flying boats on a transatlantic flight to New York and Chicago.

Mussolini’s stylized reputation as an aviation pioneer meshed well with his larger persona as Il Duce, the dynamic leader of Italian Fascism. He appeared in various guises in official propaganda photographs—a sort of Superman at the helm of state, speaking to the masses, playing the violin, singing arias, winning at chess, and, as a man of the people, working shirtless with the peasants at harvest time. Dubbed the First Sportsman of Italy, Mussolini appeared as an avid swimmer, race car driver, equestrian, fencer, and skier. He inspired his countrymen to believe that Italy was on the cusp of greatness—a modern incarnation of the Roman Empire.

The momentum of Mussolini’s rise eventually led to military adventures: first the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935 and then intervention in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 to 1939 to support the Nationalists under General Francisco Franco. In the Spanish war, Mussolini’s son, Bruno, a pilot, flew 27 combat sorties, and the Italian press lionized him and his fellow airmen as exemplars of Italian aviation under Fascism.

Mussolini cast his lot with Nazi Germany in World War II, committing the Italian military, including the Regia Aeronautica, to a long, ruinous war. Italy now had to contend with the armed forces of Great Britain and the United States, both intent on neutralizing Italian military power in the Mediterranean and seeking unconditional surrender. The stakes could not have been higher: An Allied victory would mean the destruction of Mussolini’s regime.

Mussolini’s pre-war stress on aerial spectaculars had evoked an image of Italy as a modern air power. In reality, Italy pursued records at the expense of establishing an industrial base for aviation, and the Regia Aeronautica entered the war with few operational aircraft and minimal capacity for reinforcement. When fully mobilized, Italian aviation plants could manufacture only 200 aircraft of various types each month. Great Britain out-produced Italy by more than eight to one; the United States by at least 30 to one. But the airplane would also figure prominently in Mussolini's own fall from power.

Just two weeks after the July 10, 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, in league with rebellious elements in the Fascist party, ordered Mussolini’s arrest. Once Italy’s self-styled “modern-day Roman Caesar,” Mussolini began a perilous odyssey. His captors moved him repeatedly to foil any rescue, finally shipping him to the Apennine Mountains, 80 miles northeast of Rome.

By September, Mussolini was powerless and isolated in a second-floor room at the Campo Imperiale Hotel, atop the Gran Sasso d’Italia. He was keenly aware that any attempt at rescue would be daunting; his resort-prison was on a high plateau accessible only by cable car.

Hitler was greatly alarmed by the arrest of Mussolini, fearing it might set the stage for Italy to pull out of the war and endanger Germany’s southern flank. He therefore recruited one of his most talented commandos, Waffen SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, for a rescue mission, later dubbed Operation Eiche (Oak).

Tall, fearless, and bearing facial scars from 15 duels, Skorzeny was a dedicated Nazi and a soldier tempered by the brutalities of the Russian front; he had all the requisite skills to lead an assault on Gran Sasso d’Italia. On September 12, 1943, he flew out of an airfield near Rome at the leading edge of a group of DFS-230 gliders carrying over 100 commandos.

Mussolini was sitting near a window when he caught sight of Skorzeny’s gliders touching down adjacent to the hotel. The commandos quickly advanced and disarmed the guards at the door. Observers later reported that Mussolini had yelled to the Germans from his window, “Don’t shoot, don’t shed any blood!” Skorzeny himself was the first to reach the second floor, where he disarmed two guards and then burst into Mussolini’s room, shouting “Duce, the Führer has sent me. You are free.”

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