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THE INCONCEIVABLE
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
THE INCONCEIVABLE
Mission Accomplished! Otto Skorzeny (with binoculars) and Mussolini in dark hat and overcoat.
THE INCONCEIVABLE
Mussolini approaching Captain Heinrich Gerlach's Fiesler Storch which flew him from captivity.
 
    THIS WEEK, 70 years ago, Il Duce di Italia established the “Repubblica di Salò.”
    In the early morning of July 25, 1943,  the inconceivable had occurred. The Gran Consiglio Del Fascismo voted to recommend that the King of Italy remove the Prime Minister from office. In other words, after 21 years, Il Duce di Italia was no longer the leader of Italy. This set in motion events which would lead to one of the most daring rescues in history, and the subsequent establishment of the “Repubblica di Salò.”
    The Gran Consiglio Del Fascismo consisted of men who had been hand picked by Mussolini, including: Dino Grandi; Marshal Emilio De Bono, an old Fascist comrade, who was with him from the beginning; and Mussolini’s son-in-law, former Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano. On July 13, Council members, led by Grandi, urged Il Duce to convene the Council.
    On July 19, as the Italian Duce was meeting with the German Führer in the small town of Feltre, in Northern Italy, near the Austrian border, news arrived that 500 American bombers were striking Rome in broad daylight. It was the first time that Rome had been bombed, and it resulted in 3000 deaths and 11,000 injured. With Il Duce was General Vittorio Ambrosio, whom Mussolini had recently appointed to replace Marshal Ugo Cavallero as chief of Commando Supremo. General Ambrosio, unsuccessfully, urged the Duce to tell Hitler what everyone already knew - after almost a decade of war, which included the Invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War, Italy could no longer continue fighting.
    At 5:00 P.M. on Saturday, July 24, 1943, in the Palazzo Venezia, Mussolini convened the Gran Consiglio Del Fascismo for the first time since December 7, 1939. All wore their black Fascist uniforms. Grandi, who had opposed the war, and was aware that the King had decided to replace Mussolini, began attacking Mussolini’s leadership. At midnight, Party Secretary, and Mussolini loyalist, Carlo Scorza moved to adjourn till the next day. Grandi opposed it, shouting, “No! I am against the proposal! We have started this business and we must finish it this very night!”
    Finally, at 2:00 A.M., on the morning of July 25, a vote of no-confidence was taken. The vote was 19-7 against Il Duce di Italia. Even his son-in-law, Count Ciano voted against him! The next day, King Victor Emmanuel III summoned Mussolini to the Royal Palace. When the King informed Mussolini of his dismissal as Prime Minister he said, “My dear Duce, it’s no good anymore. Italy has gone to bits. Army morale is at rock bottom. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more. You’re the most hated man in Italy!” As Mussolini left the Royal Palace, he was approached by a captain of the Carabinieri, who told him that, “His Majesty has charged me with the protection of your person.”  With that, Il Duce di Italia was placed under arrest by Lt. Col. Giovanni Frignani and Captains Faffaele Aversa and Paola Vigneri of the Carabinieri. Marshal Pietro Badoglio was named Prime Minister. Frignani and Aversa were among those later executed by the Germans in the Ardeatine Caves.
    Knowing that the Germans might attempt a rescue of Mussolini, his Italian captors moved him from secret location to secret location. The Italians were correct.  The very day after Mussolini’s arrest, der Führer summoned SS Captain Otto Skorzeny and tasked him with rescuing, “Italy’s greatest son,” stating that his, “ . . . old ally and dear friend . . .,” had to be rescued immediately. But before any rescue could be planned and implemented, the would-be rescuers had to determine the location of the Duce’s captivity.  Skorzeny immediately went to Rome, ostensibly as an aide-de-camp to paratroop commander General Kurt Student.
    After weeks of snooping, a message was intercepted which said, “Security measures around Gran Sasso completed.”  From this, the Germans deduced that Mussolini was being held at Albero-Rifugio Hotel, on the Campo Imperatore on the 6,000 ft. high Gran Sasso Mountain in the Abruzzi Mountains. But the Germans had to hurry. On September 3, 1943, General Giuseppe Castellano secretly signed an armistice in Sicily.  General Eisenhower, unexpectedly, on September 8, announced that Italy had secretly surrendered, the same day that General Montgomery’s Eighth Army landed on the Italian mainland.
    Now that Mussolini had been located, the Germans would have to devise a plan with some possibility of success to extricate the Duce from this high-altitude, remote location. The planners finally decided on a glider operation.
     On Sunday, September 12, 1943, at around 2:00 p.m., 12 German gliders, carrying 108 Luftwaffe paratroopers and SS troops, arrived over their target where they thought there would be flat ground to land. There was none, so they crashed in front of the hotel. Skorzeny was the first out and ran toward the hotel. The German rescuers had brought an Italian General, Fernando Soleti, to order the 100 Italian Caribinieri guarding the Duce to not oppose the rescue operation. General Soleti emerged from one of the gliders yelling “Don’t shoot!” in Italian, causing the Caribinieri to hesitate enough for the Germans to take command of the situation.
    Skorzeny burst into the hotel and ran up the staircase. At the top of the staircase he threw open the door. Facing him stood Mussolini. After disarming the two Italian guards, Skorzeny introduced himself to the fallen dictator and said, “Duce, der Führer sent me!  You’re free!” Mussolini hugged Skorzeny and said, “I knew my friend Adolph wouldn’t desert me.” So far, no one had been injured.
    That was the easy part!  The Germans had arrived in gliders, most of which were wrecked, and none of which had engines.  In any event, there was really no place to land or take off. So, Skorzeny radioed General Student, who sent his personal pilot, Capt. Heinrich Gerlach in a Fieseler-Storch, which was a very light plane needing very little space from which to take off or land.
    Within a short time, Capt. Gerlach had landed his Storch on the uneven ground. But, as soon as he landed, he knew it would be almost impossible to take off with any kind of passenger. His problems were further compounded when the giant Skorzeny (6'7") announced that he would be leaving with the Duce as well!
    In order to make this work, Gerlach revved up the engine of the Storch while it was being held by 12 sturdy men. At Gerlach’s signal, the men let go. The Fieseler-Storch taxied toward the edge of the plateau. At the last minute, the plane lifted off the ground, but it just as suddenly fell, one of its wheels having hit a rock, sending it toppling over the edge into the valley below. Capt. Gerlach desperately tried to pull it out of its dive without success. Finally, at less than 100 ft. from the ground, the Captain was able to right the plane. He neglected to tell his passengers that the engine had been damaged during takeoff and wasn’t functioning properly! From there, it flew to an airfield, near Rome, where Skorzeny and Il Duce transferred to a larger plane and flew to Vienna, where they received a hero’s welcome. Il Duce spent the night in the Hotel Imperial. After several nights in Vienna, Il Duce was flown to Berlin. Gerlach and Skorzeny were awarded the Knight’s Cross.
    On September 15, 1943, the Italian Duce met the German Führer at the latter’s headquarters in East Prussia. Mussolini was a broken man, in very poor health and simply wanted to retire. Hitler was shocked at his appearance. But der Führer insisted on a comeback. So, a beaten Mussolini returned to Italy, and on September 18, 1943, established an Italian government headquartered in the northern Italian town of Salò, informally known as the “Repubblica di Salò.” Today the town has a population of 10,000. On November 25, 1943, it finally acquired a name - “Repubblica Sociale Italiana.” Only the Reich and its European allies recognized the RSI. Not even Spain recognized it!
    Under pressure from the Germans, the RSI put the 19 members of the Grand Council that had voted against Mussolini on trial in Verona. The trial began on January 8, 1944. All were convicted on January 10, 1944, and all but one sentenced to die, although only six were in RSI’s custody. The six were: 78 year-old Marshal De Bono; Count Ciano; Giovanni Marinelli; Carlo Pareschi; Luciano Gottardi and Tullio Cianetti. By a vote of 5-4, Cianetti was spared the death penalty because he had written a letter of apology to Mussolini the day after the Grand Council’s vote. Despite the pleas of Mussolini’s daughter Edda, Count Ciano’s wife, the sentences were executed on January 11, 1944. The condemned were tied to chairs and shot in the back.
    Her pleas having failed, Edda, with her three children, and the Count’s diaries, fled to Switzerland.

NEXT WEEK: DODOCANESES

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own.  Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.
 
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