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.
- By Von Hardesty
- Air & Space magazine, May 2005
(Page 3 of 8)
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.”
Skorzeny had decided to evacuate Mussolini by air, largely because the region surrounding the mountain resort was filled with anti-Fascist partisans. Luftwaffe pilot Walter Gerlach flew a Fiesler Fi 156 Storch to the mountain, landing his short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft on time and in less than one hundred feet.
Skorzeny hurriedly escorted Mussolini to the Storch. For security reasons, Skorzeny decided to fly out with Mussolini, which burdened the aircraft with 220 additional pounds. Mussolini added even more to the Storch’s load by insisting on taking all his luggage. Gerlach expressed his apprehension but nevertheless agreed that he would attempt a takeoff.
With the flaps extended and the engine at full throttle, Gerlach took off down the rocky strip. Bouncing along, the Storch slowly gained momentum, then suddenly struck a rock outcropping that smashed the left landing gear. Just as the aircraft cleared the edge of the cliff, Gerlach managed to regain control and set a course for Rome. From there, the Luftwaffe flew Mussolini to Vienna and then Rastenburg in East Prussia, where he was reunited with Adolf Hitler.
Despite his remarkable rescue by Hitler, Mussolini proved to be a reluctant and ineffectual ally. He agreed to head up a short-lived puppet regime in northern Italy, proclaimed as the new Italian Social Republic, but his heart was not in it. The war had been difficult for Mussolini and filled with tragic events, not the least being the death of Bruno while testing a new bomber.