On October 31, 1922, following the March on Rome, Benito Mussolini was appointed prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III. With that appointment, he became the youngest individual to hold the office up to that time. Mussolini quickly got to work, removing all political opposition through his secret police and outlawing labor strikes. He, along with his followers consolidated power through a series of laws that transformed Italy into a one-party dictatorship. A short five years later, he had established dictatorial authority by both legal and illegal means and planned to create a totalitarian state.
Still, as often happens, the people, good government officials, and of course, God made it clear that both fascist Italy and its dictator Benito Mussolini’s days were numbered by July 1943. So, after the successful Allied invasion of Sicily, the Italian government’s Grand Council delivered Mussolini a vote of no confidence. Shortly after that, King Vittorio Emanuele III replaced Mussolini as prime minister, and immediately had him arrested.
When Adolf Hitler heard of Mussolini’s arrest, he was furious. Hitler considered Mussolini to be his most powerful European ally, and Hitler began to make plans to rescue Mussolini. He brought in SS Major Otto Skorzeny, who was considered “the most dangerous man in Europe,” for the rescue mission. The Germans had discovered that Mussolini was being held in a mountain ski resort 7,000 feet above sea level in the Abruzzo region. Due to the remoteness of the location, Skorzeny decided the only way to rescue Mussolini was to send in a dozen gliders with 108 commandos to do the job. The mission, dubbed Operation Eiche commenced on September 12, 1943. Along with the commandos, Skorzeny brought along an Italian general named Soleti. It was Soleti’s mission to create confusion among Mussolini’s guards, thereby giving the commandos time to get to Mussolini. While Soleti shouted orders at the confused guards, the commandos recaptured Mussolini without incident and flew him to a nearby Luftwaffe airfield, then to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia.
While Mussolini was free now, this would not be the victory Mussolini had hoped for. The Germans installed Mussolini as the head of a puppet regime called the Italian Socialist Republic in the town of Salo. The position wasn’t much more than symbolic. The German press portrayed the rescue as a daring feat of bravery…at the time, but in 2016, Italian author Vincenzo Di Michele researched the raid and concluded that it was likely enabled by Mussolini sympathizers in the Italian government. Mussolini could not be allowed to be free, even to run a puppet regime, and so the Allies began their hunt for him. On April 25, 1945, Allied troops were advancing into northern Italy, and the collapse of the Salò Republic was imminent. Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci attempted to escape to Switzerland, intending to board a plane and escape to Spain. Two days later on April 27th, they were stopped near the village of Dongo (Lake Como) by communist partisans named Valerio and Bellini and identified by the Political Commissar of the partisans’ 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, Urbano Lazzaro. The next day, Mussolini and Petacci were both executed, along with most of the members of their 15-man train, primarily ministers and officials of the Italian Social Republic, in the small village of Giulino di Mezzegra by a partisan leader who used the name de guerre Colonnello Valerio (Not his real name, his real name remains unknown.)
When Hitler began his reign of terror, he fully expected that he would meet with little resistance from the people he was attempting to control, but that really never turned out to be the case. Even some of those who aligned themselves with him at first, rebelled later. Hitler found that out when, on November 18, 1940, he met with Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano over Mussolini’s disastrous invasion of Greece.
Mussolini had led Hitler to believe that he had no intention of attempting to invade Greece. Then, he surprised everyone with a attempted invasion of Greece. Even his ally…Hitler, was caught off guard, since Mussolini had led Hitler to believe he had no such intention. Even Mussolini’s own chief of army staff only found out about the invasion after the fact!!
Mussolini was warned against trying to invade Greece. Everyone around him knew that the Greek people were determined to hold onto their freedom, and that the Italian Army was woefully unprepared for such an attack. Even his own generals warned of a lack of preparedness on the part of his military. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that it would mean getting bogged down in a mountainous country during the rainy season against an army willing to fight tooth and nail to defend its autonomy, Mussolini moved ahead mostly out of sheer arrogance, convinced he could defeat the “inferior Greeks” in a matter of days. He also knew a secret, that millions of Lire (The primary unit of currency in Italy, Malta, San Marino, and the Vatican City before the adoption of the Euro) had been put aside to bribe Greek politicians and generals not to resist the Italian invasion. The whole bribe idea didn’t work out too well, however. Whether the money ever made it past the Italian fascist agents delegated with the responsibility is unclear, but if it did, it clearly made no difference. The Greeks pushed the Italian invaders back into Albania after just one week. The whole operation was a miserable failure, and the Italians spent the next three months fighting for life in a fierce, defensive battle. To make matters worse, about half the Italian fleet had been crippled by a British carrier-based attack at Taranto.
A furious Hitler severely criticized Ciano at their meeting in Obersalzberg, for opening an opportunity for the British to enter Greece and establish an airbase in Athens. That put the Brits within striking distance of valuable oil reserves in Romania that Hitler needed for his war machine. Hitler now had to divert forces from North Africa, a high strategic priority, to Greece in order to bail Mussolini out. He actually considered leaving the Italians to fight their own way out of the mess, and considered making peace with the Greeks as a way of forestalling an Allied intervention. Nevertheless, Germany would have to invade, in April 1941, thereby adding Greece to its list of conquests…whether Hitler wanted to or not. That put the Brits within striking distance of valuable oil reserves in Romania that Hitler needed for his war machine. Hitler now had to divert forces from North Africa, a high strategic priority, to Greece in order to bail Mussolini out. He actually considered leaving the Italians to fight their own way out of the mess, and considered making peace with the Greeks as a way of forestalling an Allied intervention. Nevertheless, Germany would have to invade, in April 1941, thereby adding Greece to its list of conquests…whether Hitler wanted to or not.