Rescuing Mussolini: Gran Sasso 1943

Raid 9

Author: Robert Forczyk

Illustrators: Howard Gerrard Donato Spedaliere Alan Gilliland

Pulisher: Osprey Publishing

Its been said that history is propaganda written by the victors; but in the case of the rescue of Mussolini, history has been distorted by the propaganda of the losers – at least until now…

I have long been fascinated, and intrigued, by the story of the rescue of Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini from the Hotel Campo Imperatore high atop the Gran Sasso Mountains north of Rome in September 1943. In a joint operation between an elite special forces / commando unit of the Waffen-SS and a crack unit of Fallschirmjaeger Operation “Eiche” (Oak) established the template for the snatching of high-value targets and hostage rescues.

Mussolini leaving the hotel - surrounded by a mixture of Fallschirmjaeger and WSS troops, as well as Italian soldiers and policemen.

The fact that the Germans were capable of pulling off such a fantastic feat so late in the war makes it particularly remarkable. As does the fact that the mission involved troops swooping silently out of the sky in flimsy gliders to land within yards of the hotel’s front door – taking the heavily-armed guard’s completely by surprise – and then finally that Mussolini was precariously flown off the mountain top in a light plane. This raid has all the right elements for a truly epic tale – except for the fact that it was performed by the bad guys.

A DFS 230 glider of the type used for Operation Oak.

But how much of what we think we know about this raid is actually truthful – let alone accurate? Not a lot apparently – thanks to the wartime Nazi propaganda machine, and Otto Skorzeny’s own personal post-war PR.

Now, I have to admit at this point that I knew this was the case already. I have a copy of After The Battle magazine No.22, and I also had the good fortune a few years ago – through my participation with a WWII Fallschirmjaeger living history group – to get to know an actual FJ veteran of the raid. His first-hand account of the raid and his opinion of the Waffen-SS in general, and Otto Skorzeny in particular, was very colourful – to say the least.

However, I found Robert Forczyk’s account of the operation in “Rescuing Mussolini: Gran Sasso 1943”, RAID 9, from Osprey Publishing, to be a highly-engaging and well-rounded read – and that it added even more to my personal knowledge of the subject.

Regarding the book itself, it begins with an excellent introduction on the history and development of “raiding” as a form of warfare and then expands into a concise overview of German commando-type units and operations between 1940 and 1943. It also includes an excellent side-bar specifically about the origins, training and combat record of the SS-Friedenthal Group – of which Skorzeny was commander. There then follows a series of chapters covering the background to the mission, the planning for it, the raid itself, and finishes with an analysis and conclusions about the raid. And as usual, the text is supported with some excellent specially-commissioned artwork – including a detailed aerial-view painting of the obective, marked with a step-by-step guide to the progress of the raid.

Hotel Campo Imperatore in 1943

Hotel Campo Imperatore in 2007.

But if there was only one thing above all else that makes this book worth the cover price – and worthy of a slot on your book shelf – it’s the two-page section devoted specifically to the career of Otto Skorzeny. Finally, someone has blown the lid off the myth of Otto Skorzeny as a “commando extraordinaire” or “the most dangerous man in Europe”. In fact, and Robert Forczyk has done the primary research in official SS records to prove it; “Skorzeny was a poor soldier, but he was an ardent Nazi and this political loyalty counted for more than professional skill. He was an accomplished and unabashed liar, comfortable with appropriating the deeds of others or shifting the blame for failure.”

The truth of Skorzeny’s war record is that he didn’t really have a clue about special operations or about leading men in combat and – if not for his political connections – he would have stayed in the rear in charge of the motor pool. Also, although almost always credited as the leader of the Gran Sasso he was in fact more of an observer – traveling not in the lead glider but with the support element in the second wave. He ended up being in the first gliders to land on the mountain top due to mistakes in a maneuver among the tow planes that wasn’t corrected. Once on the ground, far from courageously storming the hotel, he and his men had no clue what to do spent more than a few minutes wandering about in confusion looking for the front door. If the Italian guards had been serious about their job and not decided to give up and switch sides virtually as soon as the Germans landed, then the outcome of the raid could well have been a complete disaster – and that would have been largely thanks to the ineptitude of Skorzeny and his men.

A Fallschirmjaeger poses with his new FG42 battle rifle. If there were any real heroes at Gran Sasso, it was these men. Not Skorzeny and his upstarts.

If your knowledge about Skorzeny and/or about the mission to rescue Mussolini is based on the opening credits of the movie “The Eagle Has Landed”, or you know the story from any other popular source then you definitely need to read this book. On the other hand, if you’re completely new to the subject then this is the best book you could probably have as an introduction.  Strike-Hold! highly recommends it.

About the author:

Dr Robert A. Forczyk has a PhD in International Relations and National Security from the University of Maryland and a strong background in European and Asian military history. He is currently a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserves and has served 18 years as an armour officer in the US 2nd and 4th Infantry Divisions and as an intelligence officer in the 29th Infantry Division (Light).

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