Operation Eiche (ii)

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This was a German special forces operation to rescue the deposed Italian leader Benito Mussolini (12 September 1943).

With several of his colleagues close to revolt about the dire military, political and economic situation in which Italy found itself after the Allies were fighting their way through Sicily after their 'Husky' landings, Mussolini summoned the Grand Council of Fascism on 24 July 1943. This was the first occasion on which this body had met since the start of the war. When he announced that the Germans were thinking of evacuating the south, Mussolini found himself under violent political attack, and Dino Grandi , the president of the the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations, moved a resolution asking King Vittore Emmanuele III to resume his full constitutional powers. This motion was carried by a margin of 19 to 7. Despite his loss of what was in effect a vote of no confidence, Mussolini seemed unconcerned as, it was alleged, he saw the Grand Council as merely an advisory body and did not think the vote possessed any substantive value.

On the afternoon of 25 July Mussolini was summoned to the royal palace by the king, who had already been planning the removal of Mussolini. When Mussolini tried to tell the king about the meeting, the king silenced him and told him that he was being replaced by Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio. On leaving the palace, Mussolini was arrested by Carabinieri on the orders of the king, and then moved around Italy to minimise the chances of his rescue by his remaining adherents.

After Mussolini’s downfall, Adolf Hitler ordered the preparations of plans for the rescue of his Axis partner. Two basic plans were prepared, one based on an airborne operation should Mussolini be kept in mainland Italy, and the other on a naval assault in the event of Mussolini being imprisoned on an offshore island.

Mussolini initially moved around Italy by his captors (first on Ponza and then on La Maddalena, both small islands in Tyrrhenian sea) while SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, selected personally by Hitler and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei und Waffen-SS Dr Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, was tracking him.

Intercepting a coded Italian radio message, Skorzeny used the reconnaissance provided by the agents and informants of SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the Rome-based head of the Sicherheitspolizei and Sicherheitsdienst, to establish the fact that Mussolini was being held in a hotel on the Campo Imperatore, a ski resort in Italy’s Gran Sasso area, high in the Apennine mountains in Abruzzi.

The plan to rescue Mussolini in a daring raid by German airborne commandos was created by a paratroop officer, Oberleutnant Georg Freiherr von Berlepsch, under the supervision of General Kurt Student, head of the Luftwaffe’s airborne arm.

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the Campo Imperatore was approachable on land only by means of the funicular railway over the precipice marking the plateau’s fourth side. While the Italians were still consolidating their guard positions, the Germans under Hitler’s direct instruction had devised an ambitious plan to rescue the ex-dictator: under the command of Major Otto-Harald Mors, the Fallschirmjäger-Lehrbataillon of Generalmajor Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision was to advance rapidly overland to seize the lower end of the funicular railway while one of the battalion’s companies, reinforced by SS special forces personel under the command of Skorzeny, was to land on the Campo Imperatore in 12 DFS 230 assault gliders, seize the hotel and thus release and protect Mussolini.

Various plans had been considered for the evacuation of Mussolini, but eventually the most testing of all was adopted. When the raid was launched on 12 September, disaster was at first threatened by the appalling state of the landing area for the gliders on the Campo Imperatore. Although two gliders had been lost en route to the Gran Sasso, the rest of the force managed to get down safely. Astounded by the bravado of the feat, the 200 well armed Carabinieri on the plateau offered no resistance and Mussolini was rescued unharmed.

The bottom of the funicular railway was captured after a brisk fight, preventing the Italians from sending reinforcements up to the Campo Imperatore. But now came the most tricky part of the operation, namely the evacuation of Mussolini. Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach of the Luftwaffe had been instructed to land his Fieseler Fi 156 Storch light aeroplane on the plateau, collect Mussolini and fly him to Rome, where arrangements had been made for Mussolini’s speedy removal to Germany. But Gerlach became highly concerned on learning only after he had landed on the Campo Imperatore that Skorzeny had also decided to join the party in the Storch.

Grossly overloaded, the STOL aeroplane plunged off the edge of the precipice and dived toward the valley floor as the take-off run had been too short to allow the Storch to accelerate to flying speed. In its dive, though, the necessary speed was attained and Gerlach was able to regain control and fly safely to the military airfield at Pratica di Mare near Rome. Here Mussolini was embarked in a Heinkel He 111 for the flight to Vienna, where the deposed Italian leader stayed overnight at the Hotel Imperial and was given a hero’s welcome.

Skorzeny ensured that he remained with Mussolini right up to the time of his arrival in Berlin, and thereby garnered the lion’s share of the plaudits for an undertaking he had neither planned nor led. After a pro-SS propaganda coup organised by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and propaganda minister Dr Joseph Goebbels, Skorzeny and his SS-Sonderverband zbV 'Friedenthal' special forces unit of the Waffen-SS received most of the credit for the operation.