The Gran Sasso raid was the rescue of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini from the Gran Sasso d'Italia massif by German paratroopers and Waffen-SS commandos in September 1943, during World War II. The airborne operation was personally ordered by Adolf Hitler, approved by General Kurt Student and planned and executed by Major Harald Mors.
On the night between 24 and 25 July 1943, a few weeks after the Allied invasion of Sicily and bombing of Rome, the Grand Council of Fascism voted a motion of no confidence against Benito Mussolini. On the same day, King Victor Emmanuel III replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio and had him arrested.
Adolf Hitler's common procedure was to give similar orders to competing German military organisations. He ordered the Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny to track Mussolini and simultaneously ordered the paratroop General Kurt Student to execute the liberation.
Mussolini had been kept in islands around the Tyrrhenian Sea by his captors, first Ponza and then La Maddalena, where Skorzeny's men almost attempted a rescue operation. Intercepting a coded Italian radio message, Skorzeny used the reconnaissance provided by the agents, and informants (counterfeit notes with a face value of £100,000 forged under Operation Bernhard were used to help obtain information) of SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler to determine that Mussolini was being imprisoned in Gran Sasso, a remote and defendable mountain plateau on which was built a hotel linked with a cable car.
On 12 September 1943, Skorzeny and 16 SS troopers joined the Fallschirmjäger to rescue Mussolini in a high-risk glider mission. Ten DFS 230 gliders, each carrying nine soldiers and a pilot, towed by Henschel Hs 126 planes started between 13:05 and 13:10 from the Pratica di Mare Air Base, near Rome.
The leader of the airborne operation, Oberleutnant Georg Freiherr von Berlepsch, entered the first glider while Skorzeny and his SS troopers sat in the fourth and the fifth gliders. To gain height before crossing the close by Alban Hills, the leading three glider-towing plane units flew an additional loop. All of the following units considered that manoeuvre to be unnecessary and preferred not to endanger the given time of arrival at the target. That led to both of Skorzeny's units arriving first over the target.
Meanwhile, the valley station of the funicular railway leading to the Campo Imperatore was captured at 14:00 in a ground attack by two paratrooper companies, led by Major Harald Mors, the commander-in-chief of the whole raid, which cut all telephone lines. At 14:05, the airborne commandos landed their ten DFS 230 gliders on the mountain near the hotel. One crashed and caused injuries.
The Fallschirmjäger and Skorzeny's special troopers overwhelmed Mussolini's captors, 200 well-equipped Carabinieri guards, without a single shot being fired. General Fernando Soleti of the Italian African Police, who flew in with Skorzeny, had told them to stand down. Skorzeny attacked the radio operator and his equipment and stormed into the hotel, followed by his SS troopers and the paratroopers. Ten minutes after the beginning of the raid, Mussolini left the hotel and was accompanied by the German soldiers. At 14:45, Mors accessed the hotel via the funicular railway and introduced himself to Mussolini.
Mussolini was then to be flown out by a Fieseler Fi 156 STOL plane that had arrived in the meantime. Although under the given circumstances, the small plane was overloaded, Skorzeny insisted on accompanying Mussolini, which endangered the mission's success.
After an extremely-dangerous but successful takeoff, they flew to Pratica di Mare. They then immediately continued to fly in a Heinkel He 111 to Vienna, where Mussolini stayed overnight at the Hotel Imperial. The next day he was flown to Munich, and on 14 September, he met Hitler at Führer Headquarters, in Wolf's Lair, near Rastenburg.
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Mussolini leaving the hotel
The operation granted a rare public relations opportunity to Hermann Göring late in the war, with German propaganda hailing the operation for months afterward. The landing at Campo Imperatore was in fact led by First Lieutenant von Berlepsch, commanded by Major Mors and under orders from General Student, all of whom were Fallschirmjäger officers, but Skorzeny stewarded the Italian leader right in front of the cameras.
After an SS propaganda coup at the behest of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Skorzeny and his special forces of the Waffen-SS were granted the majority of the credit for the operation.
Skorzeny gained a large amount of success from the mission. He received a promotion to Sturmbannführer, the award of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and the fame that led to his image as the "most dangerous man in Europe".
Even Winston Churchill described the mission as "one of great daring".
Skorzeny published an autobiography in 1950 (Geheimkommando Skorzeny) and another book (Meine Kommandounternehmen) in 1976.