By: Warren Gray
“Today, you have carried out a mission that will go down in history.”
— Adolf Hitler, to SS Captain Otto Skorzeny, September 12, 1943.
This is the amazing, true story of the first combat use of the German FG 42 paratrooper assault rifle, and the Fieseler Fi-156C-3 Storch (“Stork”) light transport and liaison aircraft, which was employed with quite-dramatic effect on this mission. This historical narrative also highlights the accidental, German hero who made poor choices in uniforms and weapons for the task at hand, and wasn’t really supposed to take the lead at all, but a strange twist of fate thrust him into the limelight, exceeding all expectations and later becoming widely-known and feared as “the most-dangerous man in Europe.”
On the morning of July 25, 1943, amid the Allied invasion of Sicily and the bombing of Rome, the Italian, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, known as Il Duce (“The Leader”), was deposed as prime minister by the Italian Grand Council of Fascism with a vote of “no confidence,” and King Vittorio Emanuele III replaced Mussolini with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, and had him taken into custody “for his protection” by the Carabinieri (paramilitary police.) Two days later, Mussolini was escorted to the island of Ponza, 40 miles off the coast of Naples, to prevent his possible rescue by the Germans.
Adolf Hitler immediately called a conference the next day at his secret, “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters in the deep woods near Rastenburg, East Prussia (now Kętrzyn, Poland), with five German officers who were candidates to locate and recover the Führer’s (“Leader’s”) good friend and staunch ally. Four of them gave unsatisfactory, party-line answers to Hitler’s probing questions, but the fifth was an outspoken, unconventional maverick, Schutzstaffel (SS) Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Otto Skorzeny, a young (age 35), imposing Austrian (like Hitler himself), six feet, four inches tall, and weighing nearly 250 pounds, with a thin moustache, and a saber-dueling scar on his left cheek and chin, who was currently the commander of the recently-created, battalion-sized, Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal (“Special Group Friedenthal”) at Friedenthal Castle, near Berlin, training operatives in sabotage, espionage, and paramilitary techniques.
Skorzeny, later nicknamed “Scarface” by the Allies, was a combat veteran of the Netherlands, France, and the Eastern Front, participating in the invasion of the Soviet Union and fighting in several battles. In December 1942, he was wounded by shrapnel in the back of the head, medically evacuated for treatment, and was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, for bravery, plus the Wound Badge. While recuperating in Berlin, he developed his bold ideas on unconventional, commando warfare, proposing partisan-like tactics, fighting behind enemy lines, and sabotage attacks.
Nazi Germany had just suffered a crushing defeat in Stalingrad less than six months before, sustaining a staggering 400,000 casualties, and now their Axis partner, Italy, was rapidly slipping from Germany’s grasp under Allied assault, on the verge of secretly negotiating a surrender to the enemy. Hitler feared that an Italian capitulation would facilitate an Allied attack in the north, which would directly threaten the German homeland, so he desperately needed to rescue Mussolini and restore him to power.
Accordingly, on July 26, 1943, Adolf Hitler authorized the Top-Secret, Operation Eiche (“Oak”), telling Skorzeny that, “I have a mission of the highest importance for you. Mussolini must be rescued, and speedily.” Skorzeny was placed under the command of Luftwaffe (Air Force) General Kurt “Papa” Student, in charge of all German paratroopers, and the two men flew to Rome the very next day to meet with Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the overall, German military commander in Italy, while Skorzeny’s adjutant, Karl Radl, personally selected 10 officers and 40 of their best Friedenthal commandos for the upcoming mission. By July 30th, they had all flown to Italy and established a base camp near Rome’s Pratica di Mare military air base (still an active air base today.) Skorzeny later said that, “Most of my men were trained parachutists.”
On August 26th, after several false leads and near misses, Mussolini was finally relocated to the Hotel Campo Imperatore (“Emperor’s Field,” still in operation today), 7,030 feet above sea level, at a ski resort on the south slope of the 9,554-foot-tall, Gran Sasso (“Great Stone”) mountain, where the only ground access was by a cable car from below (there is now a paved road.) There, he was closely guarded, as the hotel’s only guest, by 200 Carabinieri paramilitary policemen. Otto Skorzeny intercepted a coded, Italian, radio message revealing the new location, high in the limestone/dolomite peaks of the Apennine Mountains, about 65 miles northeast of Rome.
Complicating the entire issue, the new, Italian government under Marshal Badoglio officially signed a surrender armistice agreement with American General Walter Bedell Smith at Cassibile, Sicily (the Armistice of Cassibile), which was finally made public on August 8, 1943. As soon as the armistice was announced by Allied radio, German forces initiated Operation Achse (“Axis”), attacking Italian forces, most of whom had not yet been advised of the surrender, and had no clear orders regarding their conduct with German troops. So, the Italian Army quickly collapsed and was overwhelmed. The Allies responded with amphibious landings at Salerno and Taranto the next day.
On September 8, Skorzeny and Radl conducted an aerial reconnaissance of the Gran Sasso mountain in a Heinkel He-111 bomber, while General Student sent Lieutenant Leo Krutoff to the hotel undercover, posing as a doctor searching for possible convalescent sites for wounded, German soldiers. They needed to absolutely confirm Mussolini’s presence at the hotel, to avoid launching an operation that was certain to fail. Both the air and ground reconnaissance efforts verified that Mussolini was, indeed, a prisoner at the luxurious, mountain hotel.
Skorzeny and General Student jointly determined that only an air assault would be feasible, since the high, mountain air was too thin for a parachute drop on the rough and hilly terrain around the hotel, and a ground assault up the cable-car route was impractical. They decided upon using 12 DFS 230C-1 transport gliders for a silent approach the first thing in the morning, landing on what appeared in aerial reconnaissance photos to be a flat, triangular, grassy field behind the hotel.
The dozen gliders were to carry 82 German paratroopers of the 2nd Parachute Division and 26 SS Friedenthal troops, totaling 108 men, so the Germans fully realized that they would be outnumbered by the Carabinieri defenders by a 2:1 ratio. Skorzeny later wrote that, “We could only give ourselves a very slight chance of success. But the order was there, and we soldiers must carry it out...to undertake a most-dangerous mission, and that we stood a damned small chance of ‘pulling it off’ and surviving.”
Paratrooper Major Otto-Harald Mors was placed in overall command of the mission, and would approach the target area from the ground with two paratrooper companies in 20 vehicles as reinforcements, while First Lieutenant Georg Freiherr von Berlepsch, an aristocrat, would lead the airborne portion in the gliders, with SS Captain Skorzeny in a strictly-supporting role inside the fourth glider.
Operation “Oak” was finally executed on Sunday, September 12, 1943, but there were immediate problems. The raid was supposed to be launched from Pratica di Mare Air Base at 7:00 AM, but the DFS 230 gliders all arrived too late, and there were only 10 of them, not the requested dozen, so the task force was reduced to just 90 men. Then, their takeoff was delayed until shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon.
Skorzeny and his Friedenthal troopers occupied the fourth and fifth gliders, holding a total of 17 SS men, and, to hedge his bets against the Italian defenders, Skorzeny had brought along Carabinieri Brigadier General Ferdinando Soleti of the Italian African Police to hopefully confuse and delay any response from the guards, and convince them not to shoot. Soleti did not particularly want to cooperate with the mission, even going so far as to feign illness, so General Student had placed him under armed guard right up to the moment of takeoff, riding in Skorzeny’s glider.
The 10 gliders were towed by underpowered, single-engine, Henschel Hs 126B-1 light reconnaissance aircraft. To gain altitude before crossing the nearby Alban Hills, the three leading planes flew an additional loop maneuver, but all following pilots considered the turn to be unnecessary, and proceeded onward. As a result, Skorzeny’s two gliders were now the first two to arrive over the target.
This simple accident of fate suddenly thrust Otto Skorzeny into the limelight, since he and his men were originally supposed to be in a purely supporting role during the actual, assault operation. Student’s paratroopers from the Fallschirmjäger-Lehr (“Paratrooper Instructors”) Battalion were the true assault force, since German paratroopers had always conducted special operations missions previously. In contrast, the SS Friedenthal troopers were part of the Sicherheitdienst (SD, or “Security Service”), the SS and Nazi Party’s internal intelligence organization, and despite their “special” status, they were not really trained in military tactics or the operational use of forces.
Skorzeny’s mission had been to locate Mussolini using intelligence sources, which he did quite well, but he was a technical officer in combat service support roles, not a qualified, infantry officer, and the paratroopers were supposed to take the lead on this assault mission. His lack of tactical, assault expertise was readily evident in the on-scene photos of the mission, based upon his unwise choices of uniforms, weapons, and equipment for the dangerous operation.
The veteran, SS officer and his men were wearing plain, Luftwaffe, tropical (desert-tan) uniforms on a gray, limestone mountain with green, grass-covered, ski slopes below, when standard, Wehrmacht (Army) or SS feldgrau (“field-gray,” or greenish-gray) uniforms would have been far better. And, although he later claimed that most of his men were “trained parachutists,” they were all seen wearing the standard, Luftwaffe, M40 steel helmet instead of the M38 paratrooper helmet, which had a better liner and improved chinstrap for enhanced head protection during airborne or glider-borne assaults, and a reduced rim area to minimize neck injuries.
Similarly, Skorzeny himself was seen wearing only a small, Walther PPK pistol holster on his belt, and with no other weapons. The PPK was a small-caliber (usually 7.65x17mm, or .32 ACP), low-powered, defensive pistol, hardly a manstopping, combat sidearm, acquired mainly as a status symbol by military officers and high-ranking, Nazi officials, due to the superior craftsmanship and finish of the pre-war models, in particular.
And while Skorzeny claimed to have attacked the Italian radio operator and smashed his radio with the butt of his (presumably, Erma MP 38, designed specifically as a paratrooper weapon) submachine gun, this weapon was never seen in any of the photo series, and he was not wearing a magazine pouch to carry any spare magazines into battle. He had apparently left the weapon inside his glider upon landing. Some of the other SS troops carried heavy, outdated, Haenel-Schmeisser MP 28 submachine guns.
Conversely, the experienced, German paratroopers on this mission wore camouflaged smocks, proper, M38 jump helmets, and some carried the brand-new, innovative, FG 42 (Type I) assault rifle in 7.92x57 mm Mauser into action, for the very first time on this critical operation. It was one of the most-advanced weapons designs of the war, literally the forerunner to most of today’s assault rifles and carbines. Undoubtedly, the paratroopers were far better-trained and equipped for special raids than Skorzeny and his SS Friedenthal men.
To his horror, Skorzeny immediately discovered that the proposed landing field behind the hotel was actually a steeply-rising, rocky slope, strewn with boulders. Down in the valley below, Major Mors’ detachment rapidly secured the cable-car station at 2:00 PM, and cut all the telephone lines to isolate the target. Mors observed the glider predicament from below, and radioed an urgent order to abort the mission.
But Otto Skorzeny, utterly determined to succeed at all costs, countermanded the order, and shouted to his glider pilot, “Dive! Crash-land as near to the hotel as you can!” With almost superhuman effort, the pilot heroically muscled his aircraft in, skidding to a landing a mere 30 feet from the hotel at 2:05 PM. As the other nine gliders made their final approaches from the west, Skorzeny, Soleti, and seven more SS commandos rushed into the Campo Imperatore. Eight remaining gliders landed safely, but one crashed, injuring the pilot and all nine paratrooper passengers inside.
General Soleti loudly told the Italian Carabinieri troops in their own language to stand down and not fire their weapons, under penalty of death for committing treason. This literally bluffed the entire guard force into surrendering, since they were thoroughly confused by the recent armistice, and were now under attack by their former allies. Inside the hotel, Skorzeny attacked the Italian radio operator and smashed his equipment, then stormed through the hotel in search of Mussolini. Within just three minutes, he had found him, and announced, “Il Duce, the Führer has sent me to free you.” Mussolini hugged him, and replied, “I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not leave me in the lurch.”
Outside, von Berlepsch’s German paratroopers quickly secured the entire area, and the raid itself was well-documented by Wehrmacht photographer and paratrooper Toni Schneiders (apparently added to the mission by Skorzeny himself), who took plenty of still photos, and at least some film footage of the dramatic event in progress. Not a single shot was fired by either side (except for one accidental discharge from a German rifle), and the entire operation was essentially over within just 10 minutes, when Skorzeny personally escorted Mussolini outside, in front of the waiting cameras, instantly receiving most of the credit, undeservedly, for the jointly-planned and executed operation.
Lieutenant von Berlepsch then radioed “mission accomplished” to Major Mors down in the valley, and Mors rode the cable car up to the hotel, arriving at 2:45 PM and introducing himself to Mussolini.
Their next critical task was to extract the Italian dictator from the steep mountain. The road to Rome was considered too dangerous, and the paratroopers were too lightly armed to protect Il Duce, so they called for a Fieseler Fi-156C-3 Storch (“Stork”) light-observation/transport/liaison aircraft with short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability to land at the hotel and whisk him away to safety. General Student had provided two of these aircraft for the mission, but one damaged its undercarriage before it could be used for the exfiltration. The other Fi-156 was flown by Student’s personal pilot, Captain Heinrich Gerlach, who successfully landed at the lofty, Gran Sasso raid site.
The Storch was strictly a two-seater aircraft, however, and Gerlach wanted to take Mussolini away on his own, but Skorzeny insisted upon accompanying Il Duce back to Pratica di Mare Air Base, and then all the way to Germany, so all three men squeezed inside, and Gerlach took off at 3:15 PM in a badly-overloaded aircraft, initially plummeting 1,000 feet over a steep precipice in a hair-raising, white-knuckle extraction, which was ultimately successful, and Mussolini was safely in Rastenburg two days later, meeting Hitler in person.
For his part in Operation “Oak,” Otto Skorzeny was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’s second-highest award for valor. He was also promoted to SS sturmbannführer (major), and subsequently became known to the Allies as “the most-dangerous man in Europe.” Luftwaffe pilot Heinrich Gerlach was also awarded the Knight’s Cross, upon Skorzeny’s personal recommendation.
General Kurt Student earned the Oak Leaves to his previous (May 1940) Knight’s Cross, equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor, for planning, directing, and executing the entire mission. Major Otto-Harald Mors and Lieutenant Georg Freiherr von Berlepsch each received the German Cross in Gold for their efforts. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aptly described the Mussolini raid as “one of great daring.”
Lieutenant Colonel Andreas Alexander Handschuh of the modern, German Army wrote a Master’s degree thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in December 2017, on “Otto Skorzeny and the Real Conduct of Unternehmen Eiche (‘Operation Oak’),” in which he offered a well-reasoned, critical analysis of the daring mission. He pointed out that at a time when the war was going very badly for Germany, especially on the Eastern and Italian Fronts, and with U.S. and British bombers targeting German cities around the clock from the west, the stunning success of the Gran Sasso raid provided an invaluable, propaganda victory for the Third Reich.
Handschuh aptly concluded that, “This operation was crucial for Germany, because its success kept part of Italy on her side...The wartime media’s propaganda played a fateful role in the creation of his (Skorzeny’s) personal myth at the time and thereafter...The German population needed heroes, who still believed in Adolf Hitler and ultimate, German victory.
“The SS experienced difficulty recruiting volunteers until the end of 1942...(and) Skorzeny...provided the archetypical, valiant, German soldier, who never gives up and fights as long as he can...(so) the SS was using Skorzeny and his missions for recruiting volunteers, and improving and sustaining military morale... Psychologically, Skorzeny affected the German population’s hearts and minds, and aroused them to have hope for the future and trust the German government and military leadership, despite instances of defeat.
“This operation in the Apennine Mountains was a launching pad not only for the Fieseler Storch aircraft that rescued the Duce, but for Otto Skorzeny and his global recognition and credit...This operation was also the first high-value-target, special operation in modern times, and is used as the perfect case study to teach soldiers and military leaders how to conduct a successful operation.”
So, while the combat debut of the brand-new, FG 42 paratrooper assault rifle was somewhat inauspicious, not firing even a single shot on the mission, the tiny, Fieseler Fi-156C-3 Storch liaison aircraft made an absolutely-stellar, first impression in action, earning its daring pilot a prestigious, hero’s medal in the process.
As for “Scarface” Otto Skorzeny, who chose his uniforms and weapons rather poorly for this particular assignment, an unanticipated twist of fate suddenly cast him into the role of an accidental, national hero and SS role model, feared by the Allies as “the most-dangerous man in Europe.”
This audacious, special operations mission was a shining example of what can go wrong, even on a meticulously well-planned operation, but also of how, despite various, unanticipated setbacks, well-trained commandos can still brilliantly execute their assignments, using speed, stealth, and surprise to swiftly achieve their objectives without the need for bloodshed.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counter-terrorism. He served in Europe (including four years in Germany) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachute wings and four college degrees, and is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his recently revised website at: warrengray54.webs.com.