Operation Eiche (ii)


'Eiche' (ii) was a German special forces operation to rescue the deposed and imprisoned 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' (i) 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 Vittorio Emanuele 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 Fascist leader’s removal. 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. Mussolini was arrested by the Carabinieri, on the orders of the king, on 25 July just after he left the king’s private residence, and was taken to the Podgora Carabinieri headquarters in Trastevere. As part of a planned process to prevent any rescue attempt by Fascist adherents, in the afternoon Mussolini was transferred to the Carabinieri cadet school in the Vía Legnano, and held there until 27 July. On this date, military police led by Generale Francesco Saverio Pólito took Mussolini to Gaeta, boarded the ship Persefone and imprisoned Mussolini in an isolated house on the island of Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea from 12.00 on 28 July to 7 August. On this latter date, Mussolini was transferred to a private villa on the island of La Maddalena, where he remained until 27 August. On 28 August, Mussolini was transferred to the Albergo di Campo Imperatore on a remote and easily defended mountain plateau 6,929 ft (2112 m) above sea level in the Gran Sasso d’Italia mountain range. A ski station and cable car located next to the hotel provided the sole physical link with the valley below. The hotel was the only one of an originally planned trio of hotels shaped in the letters 'D', 'V' and 'X' to create 'DVX', the Latin word for 'leader', from which Mussolini’s Italian title 'il Duce' was derived. Ironically, the 'D'-shaped Hotel Campo Imperatore constructed to celebrate Mussolini’s rule served as his prison for several weeks.

After Mussolini’s downfall, Adolf Hitler had 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.

SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, who was selected personally by Hitler, and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei und Waffen-SS Dr Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, were tracking Mussolini’s movements. On the basis of the interception of an Italian coded radio signal, 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 high in the Apennine mountains in the Abruzzi region.

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 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 Waffen-SS special forces personnel 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 single-engined light aeroplane on the plateau, collect Mussolini and fly him to Rome, where arrangements had been made for Mussolini’s speedy removal to Germany.

It was on 7 September, as noted above, that German signals intelligence had intercepted a coded Italian signal which indicated that Mussolini was being held somewhere in the Abruzzi mountains. The Germans then made use of a ruse to confirm the exact location: a German doctor pretended to try to establish a hospital at the hotel on the Gran Sasso. Informants of Kappler used counterfeit currency created in 'Bernhard' (ii) to obtain information, and Skorzeny also made use of information gathered by other agents to plan his raid.

After the Italian government had announced the Armistice of Cassibile and thereby its defection from the Axis to the Allied cause on 8 September, the Germans launched 'Achse' (ii) and within a matter of days had occupied strategic points in central and northern Italy, effectively disarming hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers who had nominally just switched sides. The defecting Italian military and political leaders, including Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio and the king, fled to Allied-controlled territory in southern Italy.

On 12 September, Skorzeny and 16 Waffen-SS troopers of the 502nd SS-Jägerbataillon joined men of the 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision in preparation for the attempt to rescue of Mussolini in a high-risk glider mission. A total of 12 DFS 230 gliders, each carrying nine soldiers and one pilot, and each towed by a Henschel Hs 126 single-engined aeroplane, departed between 13.05 and 13.10 from the Pratica di Mare air base near Rome. Two of the tug/glider combinations were lost on the approach flight.

von Berlepsch, the leader of the airborne operation, was embarked in the first glider, while Skorzeny and his SS troopers occupied the fourth and the fifth gliders. To gain height before crossing the nearby Alban Hills, the leading three glider-towing aircraft flew an additional loop. All of the following aircraft considered this to be unnecessary and preferred not to endanger the given time of arrival at the target. This meant that both of Skorzeny’s gliders arrived first over the target.

Meanwhile, the valley station of the funicular railway leading to the Campo Imperatore was seized at 14.00 in a ground attack by two paratrooper companies led by Mors, who was in overall command of the operation. The ground force immediately cut all the area’s telephone lines. At 14.05, the airborne assault force landed in the DFS 230 gliders on the mountain near the hotel. The crash of one of the gliders caused injuries.

The Fallschirmjäger and Waffen-SS troopers overwhelmed Mussolini’s captors, 200 well-equipped Carabinieri guards, without firing a single shot after Generale Fernando Soleti of the Italian African Police, who had arrived in Skorzeny’s glider, instructed them to stand down. Skorzeny attacked the radio operator and his equipment and stormed into the hotel, followed by his SS troopers and the paratroopers. Only 10 minutes after the beginning of the raid, Mussolini left the hotel in company with the German soldiers. At 14.45, Mors accessed the hotel via the funicular railway and introduced himself to Mussolini.

Mussolini was then to be flown out of the area in an Fi 156 short take-off and landing aeroplane which had meanwhile arrived. Although the small aeroplane would thus be overloaded, Skorzeny insisted on accompanying Mussolini, which endangered the mission’s success as the aeroplane had to take-off over the edge of a precipice and only then gain sufficient flying speed to start to climb. After an extremely risky but successful take-off, the Fi 156 flew to Pratica di Mare. There passengers immediately boarded a Heinkel He 111 to fly Vienna, where Mussolini stayed overnight at the Hotel Imperial. On the following day he was flown to Munich, and on 14 September met Hitler at the latter’s Wolfsschanze headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia.

Completed at the cost of two Italians killed and 10 Germans wounded, 'Eiche' (ii) provided a rare public relations opportunity for Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring late in the war, and German propaganda hailed the success of the undertaking for months afterward. As noted above, the landing at Campo Imperatore was in fact led by von Berlepsch, commanded by Mors and under the orders of Student: all of these were Fallschirmjäger officers, but Skorzeny stewarded the Italian leader right in front of the cameras and thus received the lion’s share of public notice. After an SS propaganda coup at the behest of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Dr Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, Skorzeny and his Waffen-SS special forces troopers were accorded the majority of the credit for the operation. Skorzeny was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer, and was awarded the Ritterkreuz of the Iron Cross.

On learning of Mussolini’s escape, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated in the House of Commons that 'Knowing that il Duce was hidden in a safe place and that the Government of Badoglio was committed to handing him over to the Allies, a daring attack, completely beyond all foresight, prevented this from happening.'