Even after the war ended, Skorzeny and his wartime operations continued to be a topic of interest as he waited to appear before a denazification court. This was captured in a 9 August 1948 article in Time magazine:
He had been a lieutenant colonel in Hitler’s Elite Guard. He was intelligent, cunning, courageous. His face—ice-blue eyes, sabre-scarred chin, thin contemptuous smile—was a symbol of Nazi fanaticism. He denied most of the legends that had grown around his name (one: that he had been assigned to assassinate General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Said he: “Only a rumor. You can be sure that if any attempt had been made it would have succeeded”). But the truth about Otto Skorzeny was impressive enough.
In the summer of 1943, after Mussolini had become the prisoner of Italy’s Badoglio Government, it was Skorzeny whom Hitler personally assigned to rescue the Duce. After weeks of dime-thriller spy work he located Mussolini in a remote hotel on the 5,560-ft. peak of the Gran Sasso in the Abruzzo Mountains northeast of Rome. He led an assault which reached the hotel by crashlanding gliders against the mountainside. Skorzeny reported: “Duce, the Führer has sent me as a token of his loyal friendship.” They flew out together in a tiny plane which had to take off by dropping 1,000 feet over a precipice.
Skorzeny surrendered to U.S. troops at Salzburg, in 1945. Since then, he had been in prison, first at Dachau, then at Darmstadt. His war-crimes trial, on charges of torturing U.S. prisoners, resulted in acquittal; but he was held in custody because a denazification court had not yet gotten around to his case. Last week he escaped. Somewhere in Germany, Otto Skorzeny had gone underground."
In November 1946, a U.S. Army combat infantry battalion commander, somewhat bored with postwar Occupation duty, volunteered for the 7734th Historical Detachment. Charged with interviewing captured German senior officers, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Theodore C. Mataxis (Sidebar: The Mataxis Legacy), a National Guard officer from Seattle, Washington, formed a lifelong professional relationship with SS Major (MAJ) Otto Skorzeny. It was he who located and rescued the Italian Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, from his captivity on the Gran Sasso. LTC Mataxis, personally fascinated by this special operations mission, assisted in the debriefing of the “Commando Extraordinary”and his adjutant, MAJ Karl Radl.1 The two were among the many senior officers being held in the Oberursel POW Camp in 1947, after being exonerated of war crimes by the Allied tribunal at Nurnberg. An inveterate professional ‘pack rat,’ LTC Mataxis kept a carbon paper copy of the original Gran Sasso interview. His son, LTC (ret) Theodore C. Mataxis Jr, shared that copy with the USASOC History Office.
1Charles Foley, Commando Extraodinary (Reprinted ; Ballantine Books, New York, 1957), passim.
The purpose of this collective essay is to graphically illustrate the Adolf Hitler-dictated rescue using period Bundesarkive photographs of the operation and rescue aircraft. It required considerable ‘manhunting’ to find Il Duce after he was secreted away on 25 July 1943 by the Italian national police. These Carabinieri were acting under orders from the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. With Rome under Allied attack, King Victor Emmanuel was anxious to break ties with Germany and gain an armistice. Disinformation masked Mussolini’s disposition. Germany scrambled to reinforce Italy after the Allied invasion at Salerno on 3 September 1943. Allied air superiority complicated the secret rescue operation. Mussolini was positively located on the Gran Sasso days before the Italian king announced an armistice. A fortnight later MAJ Skorzeny’s airborne commandos swept down upon the alpine ‘prison.’ The surprise rescue of Il Duce proved to be a major Nazi Psywar coup that boosted military and civilian morale. It was true to the motto of Britain’s 22nd Special Air Service (22 SAS), “Who dares, wins”—the critical element of success in special operations.
“However, as soldiers and optimists we believed in our mission and knew that, should even the merest possibility offer itself, we should take hold of it and do our duties as true soldiers.”2 — SS Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny
2 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations used throughout this article were obtained from the manuscript: Skorzeny, Otto, “My Rescue of Mussolini, 12 September 1943,” (obtained by the Historical Division EUCOM, 27 July 1947), Mataxis Collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
25 July 1943 Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was dismissed by King Victor Emmanuel III, arrested and kept in custody by the government of the new Prime Minister of Italy, Pietro Badoglio.
26 July 1943 Hitler gave SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Skorzeny the mission to locate and rescue Mussolini in Italy.
“Adolf Hitler outlined in a few precise words his train of ideas…. The thought of his [Mussolini] imprisonment was unbearable and he [Hitler] regarded his rescue as an absolute duty as his friend…. He placed me under the command of Gen. Oberst Student. Details I was to discuss with Gen. Oberst Student. With these instructions I was discharged.”
Note: Gen. Oberst Student was the architect of the German airborne assault on Crete in May 1941.
Skorzeny ordered his deputy (Karl Radl) to select 50 of his Jagdverbande 502 commandos for the mission.
“50 men of my Jaeger Btl. Among these 10 officers and all men with a fair knowledge of Italian were to assemble the next morning on the Berlin airfield.”
27 July 1943 Skorzeny and General Kurt Student flew to Rome and met with Field Marshall Albert Kesselring.
“No one had the faintest idea that Generaloberst Student and I were entrusted with locating the whereabouts of the Duce and with effecting his rescue.”
29 July 1943 Skorzeny’s commandos and elements of the Luftwaffe XI Air Corps established a base camp close to Rome’s Pratica di Mare Airport.
“Most of my men were trained parachutists.”
July – August 1943 Skorzeny and Radl discovered Mussolini had been moved from the island of Ponza, to La Spezia, and then the naval fortress on Maddalena Island off Sardinia.
18 August 1943 Radl developed the plan for Mussolini’s rescue from Maddalena Island.
28 August 1943 Flown by seaplane from Maddalena to the Gran Sasso, Mussolini was confined in the Hotel Campo Imperatore.
7 September 1943 U.S. Major General Maxwell D. Taylor secretly arrived in Italy to discuss the pending armistice with the Badoglio government.
“Badolgio was far more deathly afraid of the Germans than of the Allies. The preservation of Rome from German reprisals was much more important than participation in any military operation that might facilitate the Allied landing, but would endanger the city.” 3
“In the meantime the general position on the front had deteriorated rapidly. The allies had made successful landings in Sicily, and we had to send off one of our parachute divisions, to strengthen the front there.”
8 September 1943 Skorzeny and Radl conducted an aerial reconnaissance of Gran Sasso at the same time the Italians signed the armistice and isolated the Germans in Rome. Undeterred, Skorzeny continued to search for Mussolini. This included a cover story whereby military doctors would visit Gran Sasso to determine its suitability as a malaria clinic.
3Maxwell D. Taylor, Swords and Plowshares (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972), 58.
“Carefully weighing our chances my adjutant and I came to a disheartening result. We could only even give ourselves a very slight chance of success. But the order was there and we soldiers must carry it out. I went to my men and lined them up. I told them I was expecting in the next few days an order to undertake a most dangerous mission, and that we stood a damned small chance of ‘pulling it off’ and of surviving.”
10-11 September 1943 Skorzeny refined the rescue plan to use twelve DFS 230 gliders, assault Gran Sasso by air, and be supported by Major Otto-Harald Mors and a parachute battalion whose vehicle convoy would secure the lower end of the funicular railway between the village and Gran Sasso.
4Otto Skorzeny, “Skorzeny’s postwar sketch showing where DFS 230 gliders landed on 12 September 1943,” National Archives Records Administration, Washington, DC, on internet at: . Accessed on 6 October 2014.
“I outlined together with Radl our plan of action and presented it to Gen. Oberst Student. We wanted to land with gliders near the hotel and to overpower its garrison in a surprise attack. A strong detachment was simultaneously to creep up the valley (Avessano), to seize the Telphar-li-ne station, and to cover our retreat.”
12 September 1943 After several delays, the attack force was airborne shortly before 1300 hours. Skorzeny in the third glider took the lead when the first two disappeared in the clouds.
“I expressly gave orders that come what may, no person was to open fire before I myself fired the opening shot. Should I be wounded or killed, then the first shot was to be given by one of the officers accompanying me.”
“It was certain that no one expected an attack from the air and this was our one and only chance to ‘pull it off.’”
Four minutes after landing, Skorzeny bluffed the 200-man Italian guard force into surrendering, and had Mussolini under German control. Then the Italian Carabinieri joined in the photo shoot.
“Not a rifle was lifted against us.” “I reported to him [Mussolini] with the words: ‘Duce, the Fuehrer has sent me as a token of his loyal friendship.’”
Lack of radio contact with Rome removed the planned aircraft extraction of Mussolini from the L’Aquila airfield. The last option was for General Student’s personal pilot, Captain Heinrich Gerlach, to land his Fieseler 156C-3 Storch next to the hotel, pick-up Skorzeny and Mussolini, take off, and land at Rome’s Pratica di Mare Airport.
“Our radio communications with Rome had broken down. I therefore had to take recourse to the second possibility.”
“Now the last and most dangerous course was only left open to us. This ‘storch,’ piloted by a Captain who was the personal pilot of Generaloberst Student, was already circling the Hotel.”
“On the other hand, I could not risk letting Mussolini start off alone, since all the responsibility would rest upon my shoulders should a mishap occur.”
Thirty minutes after take-off Skorzeny and Mussolini landed at Practica di Mare, transferred to a Heinkel He 111 medium bomber, and flew to Vienna, Austria.
“Shortly before midnight I was decorated by a General Staff Colonel of the Army in the name of Adolf Hitler with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross… . The next day we continued our flight to the Fuehrer HQ in East Prussia… . I had to report and give a detailed account of our enterprise from beginning to end. Two days later I returned by air to Italy to fetch my men. As a reward we were given permission to cross Italy and the beautiful southern Tyrol in a motorized march to Innsbruck… . From Innsbruck we continued our journey by train to Friedenthal. Finally we were all given our well-earned leave.”
13 September 1943 Hitler called and congratulated Skorzeny, awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, and promoted him to Sturmbannführer (Major).
5William H. McRaven, SPEC OPS: Case Studies in Special Operations Theory and Practice (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1995), 188.