OPERATION EICHE: THE RESCUE OF BENITO MUSSOLINI
On 19th July 1943, Allied bombers, flattened the mainly working-class area of San Lorenzo, 3000 civilians died and 40.000 became homeless. The ancient Basilica of St. Lawrence to rubble. Enough was enough. it was not the first time that Rome was bombed by it would prove to be a crucial turning point in Mussolini downfall. One week later on 25th July 1943, of the 28 members of the Grand Council, 19 fascists voted against il Duce.
Mussolini was removed from office. The king appointed Pietro Badoglio as head of the New Italian Government. Immediately after, Mussolini was placed under arrest by the Italian military police (Carabinieri) and exiled first in the Island of Ponza, about 20 miles from the Italian coast, west of Cassino. Later "Il Duce" was moved to a more secure naval base on the island of Maddalena on the north-eastearn corner of Sardinia.
When news of Mussolini's downfall reached Hitler in Rastenburg. The Fuehrer made immediate plan to help his friend. On 26th July 1943, the day after Mussolini's arrest, SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Otto Skorzeny of the Waffen SS was summoned from Berlin to see Hitler. At a private meeting with the Fuehrer he was given the task of rescuing Il Duce.
The Operation codenamed "Fall Eiche" (Operation Oak) would be mounted under the overall commander Generalleutenant Student, Commander of the XI Fleiger Korps of the Luftwaffe. The next day Otto Skorzeny flew to Rome with Student.
It didn’t take Skorzeny long to track Mussolini down. He intercepted a radio transmission that revealed Mussolini was being held under armed guard in the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a ski resort high in the Apennine Mountains in the Gran Sasso region.
Now, the problem was how to get "Il Duce" out of captivity for good. Aerial reconnaissance photographs revealed a small patch of land adjacent to the hotel that Skorzeny determined was perfect for landing a squadron of gliders.
In the morning of the 12th of September 1943, Skorzeny and a team of SS commandoes and ‘Fallschirmjäger’ paratroopers boarded ten DFS 230 gliders and set off from the military airport of Patrica di Mare, south of Rome to Campo Imperatore. As they approached the landing site, Skorzeny realized that the patch of ground earmarked for landing was, in fact, a steep, rocky slope and not the flat piece of ground the aerial photographs had suggested it was.
The gliders had no choice but to crash land on the slope, causing injury to some of the troops in one of the gliders. Meanwhile, in the valley below, two paratroop units led by Operation Eiche commander-in-chief Major Harald Mors captured the funicular railway that usually carried tourists up to the hotel. Mors ordered all telephone lines to be severed, cutting off communication with the outside world. Once on land, Skorzeny and his troops stormed the hotel. The hotel and its one guest was heavily-guarded by two hundred members of the Carabinieri, but Skorzeny had a plan that he hoped would make them surrender. He had brought with him the Italian general, Fernando Soleti.
As the troops burst through the doors of the hotel, Soleti shouted for the guards not to shoot. Confused, the Carabinieri laid down their arms and surrendered. After smashing the guards’ radio so nobody would be tempted to call for backup, Skorzeny dashed upstairs and began searching the rooms for Mussolini. When he finally found him, he cried, 'Duce, the Fuehrer has sent me! You’re free!' Il Duce replied: 'I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me. Operation Eiche had been a spectacular success, with not a shot being fired.
It turned out, the rescue was a hollow victory for Mussolini. Having been set up by Hitler as the puppet leader of the newly-created Italian Social Republic. Mussolini acknowledged that he was now nothing more than one of Hitler’s underlings. The end, when it came, was swift. As the Allies battled their way through Northern Italy, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, tried to make a break for neutral Switzerland. On the 27th of April 1945, Mussolini, his mistress and their entourage were captured by Italian partisans near the village of Dongo on the shores of Lake Como. The next morning, the once-mighty Il Duce was shot dead by firing squad. Mussolini’s corpse - alongside that of his mistress and several of his supporters - was unceremoniously strung up from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Piazzale Loreto in Milano.