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.

Air & Space Magazine

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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.

On April 27, 1945, Benito Mussolini, along with his mistress, Clara Petacci, was captured by Italian partisans and summarily executed.

Hitler: The Pioneer of “Luftwaffe One”
In the opening frames of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), Adolf Hitler appears in the skies over Nuremberg in a glistening Junkers Ju 52; its shadow is shown moving across the cityscape. The event is the 1934 Reich’s Party Day convention, and the crowds milling in the streets below glance skyward to follow the Junkers. They greet the arrival of Hitler with awe and anticipation. The symbolism was powerful: The new German Führer, descending from the heavens, embodied the vision of German renewal.

During his 12 years in power, Hitler proved to be a frequent flier. And he managed to pioneer some real innovations, among them the first air squadron to operate a head of state’s aircraft—an analog of the U.S. Air Force’s 89th Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One. He also fully embraced aviation as essential for the evolution of national life and as a way to project military power.

Unlike Mussolini, Hitler took no particular delight in flying and was not interested in learning to fly. His approach was measured, more an embrace of necessity than a personal passion. Hitler’s involvement began in the national elections of 1932, when as a presidential candidate of the National Socialist Workers Party, he leased a tri-motor Junkers Ju 52 transport from Lufthansa German Airlines for campaign jaunts.

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