Military historians here are re-examining one of the great feats of daring in World War II--and at least one has reassigned credit for the action.
This was the spectacular rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from a mountain stronghold in 1943 after he was deposed and arrested by the Italian government--an operation that outdid any fictional thriller.
The dramatic rescue has invariably been attributed to Capt. Otto Skorzeny, the scar-faced leader of an elite commando unit of the SS, Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard forces; U.S. military intelligence once called Skorzeny “the most dangerous man in Europe.”
But now the credit, at long last, is being assigned where it belongs--with the crack Luftwaffe airborne troops.
“Actually, Skorzeny pretty much went along for the ride--as a passenger,” said Lt. Col. Florian Berberich, who is compiling an account of German airborne operations in World War II.
“It was an amazing operation,” he said, “but it was planned and executed by a special paratroop battalion, which did all the work, while Skorzeny and his people got all the credit.”
Berberich points out that the actual commander of the operation was Maj. Harald Mors, who headed an elite airborne battalion based near Rome. Mors, then 32, was a tough, resourceful officer who led airborne troops in the invasion of the Low Countries and the assault on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean.
Now 77, a retired colonel in the postwar Bundeswehr (federal armed forces), Mors lives quietly in a Bavarian village, and in a recent interview he confirmed the military historian’s version of the rescue--or kidnap--of Mussolini, known as Il Duce.
“Yes, it was the paratroops who planned and carried out the operation,” Mors said over a cup of tea. “But for more than 40 years, Skorzeny has gotten all the credit. His version is something of a fairy tale. I’d like to see that remedied by military historians.”
The operation itself stunned the Allies, who had been counting on gaining custody of Mussolini from the Italians, who were negotiating an armistice. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the operation “a stroke of great daring.”
From the time Mussolini was deposed in July, 1943, Hitler was determined to rescue him to bolster a Fascist regime that would fight alongside the Germans.
Hitler sent Skorzeny to Italy to seek out the dictator’s whereabouts, and with his connections in German and Italian police and intelligence, Skorzeny found that Mussolini was being moved from one location to another, from Ponza to La Spezia to La Maddalena.
Finally, Skorzeny’s sources placed Mussolini, held under guard, at a hotel at Gran Sasso, the highest point in the Apennines, east of Rome.
The hotel was reachable only by cable car that rose 3,000 feet to the hotel, located at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet on the Campo Imperatore.
Gen. Kurt Student, in charge of German airborne troops in Italy, was in overall command of the mission and, as was the custom, turned the planning over to the troop commander, Maj. Mors.
“We didn’t have much time,” recalled Mors, who looks 20 years younger than his age, dressed in a neat pinstripe suit--a long way from the paratrooper smock and short helmet he wore during the war.
“The Allies had just invaded the Italian peninsula. Gen. Student wanted to mount the operation quickly. So I had my plan ready in a matter of hours.”
Mors decided to send two companies up the mountain by truck, coordinating their arrival with that of a third company, which would land by glider on the mountain plain to assault the hotel.
Unlike their U.S. and British counterparts, the German airborne forces were part of the air force--the Luftwaffe--rather than the army, as were the gliders.
On Sept. 12, 1943, the road convoy led by Mors began moving up the mountain, and the glider force headed by Lt. Baron Otto von Berlepsch boarded their craft at Practica di Mare airdrome near Rome.
“Skorzeny asked Gen. Student if he could go along,” recalled Mors. “Since Skorzeny’s efforts had helped locate Mussolini, Student felt he couldn’t say no.
“Then Skorzeny talked Student into letting him take about 15 of his own men along on the gliders. He could be persuasive. But Von Berlepsch was furious, having to leave behind 15 paratroopers.
“The point is, Skorzeny and his SS commandos went along as passengers; Von Berlepsch commanded the assault team.
“I chose to stay with the two companies in the valley, because if anything went wrong with the glider force, I would still be in position to supervise the operation and decide what to do.
“Later, some people didn’t understand this, but my job was to command the whole operation, not just one aspect.”
The Germans took along Italian Gen. Ferdinando Soleti, a member of the paramilitary carabinieri police force, who was expected to urge the guards not to shoot.
The complicated operation went off with textbook ease: The gliders made hard landings on the plain; the paratroopers stormed the hotel; the local commander agreed to surrender without a fight, and Mussolini was released.
Mors came up by cable car, and he remembers: “He (Mussolini) was unshaven and looked ill. He said he was glad that it was the Germans who rescued him and not the English. He told us not to shoot anybody.
“He said he would like to see his wife in Northern Italy. And he said he was angry that his son-in-law, Count Ciano, had helped depose him. He later had him executed. I think he realized that though he was freed, there was no true liberation for him.”
The problem was to get Mussolini off the mountain. Mors decided that taking Il Duce back by road was too dangerous. A second option--to land a light plane near the lower cable-car station--went awry when the light craft buckled a wheel on landing.
The third and most dangerous option was to have a light plane land next to the hotel itself.
But that is what was done, with Gen. Student’s personal pilot, Capt. Heinrich Gerlach, flying a tiny Fieseler Storch (Stork) to the hotel.
Then, as Mussolini was being bundled toward the plane, Skorzeny argued that he must accompany the dictator, under Hitler’s orders.
Pilot Gerlach was reluctant to take the 6-foot 4-inch commando leader aboard but finally did so, wedging Skorzeny into the luggage space behind Mussolini in the passenger seat.
The paratroopers pitched in to clear the field of boulders; Gerlach gunned the Stork, dipped dangerously low in a valley and finally gained airspeed to clear the ridges and head for Rome.
There, Skorzeny insisted that Mussolini immediately board a military transport aircraft and ordered the pilot to refuel at Vienna. Arriving late, the party decided to spend the night in Vienna, Skorzeny’s hometown.
Decorated by Hitler
At the Imperial Hotel, Skorzeny called SS boss Heinrich Himmler to tell him the news. This was followed by a phone call from an ecstatic Hitler, who promoted Skorzeny to major and ordered a local SS colonel to hang his own Knight’s Cross around Skorzeny’s neck--the first time that the highly prized decoration was awarded on the day it was earned.
Hitler was particularly delighted that it was Skorzeny, a member of the SS, who seemingly had pulled off the magnificent feat. Skorzeny became an instant hero throughout the Third Reich.
“So it went down in history,” commented Berberich, the historian.
Why didn’t the airborne forces get proper credit at the time?
Arnold von Roon, a major on Gen. Student’s staff who won the Knight’s Cross leading paratroopers in the bloody battle for Crete, thinks military politics had something to do with it.
Living now in Bavaria, Von Roon said in an interview, “Once Hitler decided that it was Skorzeny and the SS commandos who led the operation, it was difficult to do anything about it.”
Field Marshal Herman Goering, who was in command of the Luftwaffe, ordered that the paratroopers leave the subject alone and not complain about the Skorzeny version.
“Gen. Student didn’t want to get into a row with Goering over who got the credit. So he never protested. He thought history would provide the truth.”
Von Berlepsch, who led the assault, won a Knight’s Cross in the battle for Anzio and was later killed in action there.
As for Skorzeny, both Von Roon and Mors agree that he was an extraordinary soldier.
“He was huge, robust, intelligent, but not intellectual,” Von Roon recalled over a beer. “He was quite a charmer, too, and could be very persuasive. It is simply that he did not plan or lead the Mussolini operation.”
Other Daring Deeds
Later, Skorzeny added to his reputation by other daring ventures: He seized Hungarian leader Nicholas Horthy to keep him from going over to the Russians; he led a commando force with English-speaking troops that created some havoc during the Battle of the Bulge, when the Americans thought his mission was to assassinate Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he fought the Russians on the Eastern Front in 1945, winning the oak leaves to the Knight’s Cross.
Held by the Americans after the war, he was finally cleared of charges that his troops participated in the massacre of U.S. soldiers at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge. He settled in Madrid and died of cancer in 1975.
Skorzeny’s prominence as a prisoner and his postwar memoirs established his view of the Mussolini rescue in the minds of journalists and historians.
“I once asked 10 historians who liberated Mussolini,” recalled Berberich, “and nine said Skorzeny. So his version has had a long shelf life.”
“Another reason why perhaps we didn’t pay much attention at the time,” added Mors, was that “the paratroopers had been in plenty of action, so for us and Gen. Student, the Gran Sasso operation was all in a day’s work.”