Gran Sasso Raid

Operation Eiche:
The Gran Sasso raid to Rescue Benito Mussolini

On July 24th, 1943, the Fascist Grand Council of Italy voted to remove Benito Mussolini as head of the Italian government and country.  The next day, Mussolini made his regular fortnight visit to Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, not expecting the vote to be taken seriously. He was stunned to hear he was indeed being removed, and after the king dismissed him, Mussolini was put under arrest and taken away.  

The Italians created a new cabinet and essentially switched from the Axis side to the Allied side, including declaring war on Germany on October 13th, 1943. The king and the cabinet left Rome and went south, leaving the northern section to the Germans where they had bunkered in to stop any Allied forces from moving through Italy from Africa, into Europe. 

Adolf Hitler was furious as this left his forces in Italy at a great disadvantage, and he needed to secure that country so that his forces in Africa would also be able to retake Italy and move into Europe to support other German campaigns. After meeting with several of his top-level commanders, Hitler chose Austrian-born Otto Skorzeny, a Waffen SS colonel, to help devise a plan for finding and rescuing Benito Mussolini so he could be put back in power. 

Mussolini was being moved around from place to place, to disguise his whereabouts so that he would not be rescued. But his latest location was uncovered through intercepted coded radio messages first, then through aerial reconnaissance photography of the terrain. Skorzeny got to work assembling the insurgent team and planning the rescue. 

Major Harald Mors, in charge of a team of German paratroopers, was brought in to design the best possible entry and exit for the team at Campo Imperatore, a ski resort hotel located on top of the Gran Sasso massif in the Apennine Mountains.  A massif refers to an isolated and compact group of mountains within a range and, in this case, had a wide enough top plateau to land glider planes. 

The assault group, led by First Lieutenant Georg Freiherr von Berlepsch under the orders of General Kurt Student, and commanded by Mors, consisted of 26 of Skorzeny’s SS troopers, Mors’ 82 paratroopers of the 2nd parachute division, Skorzeny, and General Fernando Soletti, head of the Italian Polizia. 

On September 12th, 1943, they flew into Campo Imperatore on 12 DFS 230 glider planes, making a surprise attack, and taking out two Italian guards who were trying to warn those inside. Soletti then informed the 200 Carabinieri (Italian police guards) inside to stand down or be charged with treason and executed, which they did without firing a shot. 

A Fieseler Fi-156 Storch observation plane, well-known for capabilities with short take offs and short landings in tight spaces, that had also landed at the site, then flew Mussolini and Skorzeny out, narrowly avoiding a crash on the hillside.  After reuniting with his family, Mussolini then met with Hitler and was installed as head of the new Italian Social Republic, a puppet figure at best, but necessary for Hitler to have some control over northern Italy.  The daring operation was considered by both Axis and Allied commands as one of the most effective rescues of WW II.

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