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Monday, September 11, 2006

Benito Mussolini Rescued, September 12, 1943

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Today in 1943, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was rescued from a mountain retreat in central Italy by German commandoes. This daring raid allowed the fascist leader to set up a government in the north of the country and continue to make life difficult for the Allies until nearly the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, eleven years before Adolf Hitler gained control of Germany. Like Hitler, Mussolini was a fascist and by 1926 had become a dictator in everything but name. He ruled Italy with an iron fist and envisioned a second Roman Empire in which Italy would rule all the areas bordering on the Mediterranean. He allied his nation with Germany through a treaty of friendship in 1936 and a so-called "Pact of Steel" in 1939. When World War Two began in Europe on September 1, 1939. Mussolini was hesitant to join his Nazi ally in their march across Europe. Upon seeing how successful the Germans were in the spring of 1940, however, Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France. Along with Germany, he declared war on the Soviet Union in June, 1941 and on the United States in December of that same year.

By the summer of 1943, the victories of 1940 and '41 were becoming a distant memory. When American and British forces invaded Sicily in July, the war was brought to Mussolini's front door. Il Duce (Italian for "the leader") found himself at odds with his inner circle, who soon turned on him. On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was stripped of power and arrested. He was taken to a resort in the mountainous region of central Italy and kept in isolation while his successor began secret negotiations with the Allies.

Adolf Hitler, afraid of the propaganda value that Mussolini would bring if he were turned over to the Allies, called on Otto Skorzeny and the commandoes of Hunting Group 502. Hitler personally ordered Skorzeny to find Mussolini, rescue him and transport him to the northern part of Italy, where the Germans would establish him as the head of a puppet regime. Skorzeny, who was perhaps Germany's most unconventional warrior, left for Italy with his men. Operation Oak was born.

It took the commandoes over a month to find Mussolini's whereabouts; he could not have been imprisoned in a more escape-proof location. The hotel that was serving as a makeshift prison was located on top of Gran Sasso, a 6000-foot high mountain located about 80 miles northeast of Rome. Skorzeny decided that the only way to pull off the mission was by using gliders to deliver he and his men to the mountain top. To help insure that Mussolini's captors would not kill Il Duce when they realized that a rescue attempt was underway, Skorzeny kidnapped Italian general Ferdinando Soleti. It was hoped that the General's presence would keep the guards from taking any rash actions.

On September 12, 1943, twelve gliders made a rough landing on top of Gran Sasso. Skorzeny and his men first disabled the hotel's radio room and then began searching for their target. Mussolini's guards confronted the Germans and, seeing General Soleti, held their fire. It was just a Skorzeny had planned. The dictator was soon located and Skorzeny told him, "Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me to set you free" to which Mussolini replied, "I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not abandon me." A plane soon arrived to carry the dictator away; the mission had been carried out without a shot being fired.

Mussolini held power in northern Italy for nearly two years after his rescue and sought revenge on those who had turned their backs on him. But he was only a propaganda tool now, albeit a valuable one. As the Allied armies moved up the "boot" of Italy, Mussolini knew that his days were numbered. On April 27, 1945, near Lake Como, Mussolini was captured by communist rebels as he and his mistress attempted to board a plane and fly to Switzerland. The next day, they were both executed and their bodies put on public display.

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