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SS Officer Skorzeny Wrongly Credited With Deed, Historian Says : Mussolini Rescue: A New Version

December 26, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

FREIBURG, West Germany — Military historians here are re-examining one of the great feats of daring in World War II--and at least one has reassigned credit for the action.

This was the spectacular rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from a mountain stronghold in 1943 after he was deposed and arrested by the Italian government--an operation that outdid any fictional thriller.

The dramatic rescue has invariably been attributed to Capt. Otto Skorzeny, the scar-faced leader of an elite commando unit of the SS, Adolf Hitler's bodyguard forces; U.S. military intelligence once called Skorzeny "the most dangerous man in Europe."

But now the credit, at long last, is being assigned where it belongs--with the crack Luftwaffe airborne troops.

"Actually, Skorzeny pretty much went along for the ride--as a passenger," said Lt. Col. Florian Berberich, who is compiling an account of German airborne operations in World War II.

"It was an amazing operation," he said, "but it was planned and executed by a special paratroop battalion, which did all the work, while Skorzeny and his people got all the credit."

Berberich points out that the actual commander of the operation was Maj. Harald Mors, who headed an elite airborne battalion based near Rome. Mors, then 32, was a tough, resourceful officer who led airborne troops in the invasion of the Low Countries and the assault on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean.

Now 77, a retired colonel in the postwar Bundeswehr (federal armed forces), Mors lives quietly in a Bavarian village, and in a recent interview he confirmed the military historian's version of the rescue--or kidnap--of Mussolini, known as Il Duce.

'Fairy Tale'

"Yes, it was the paratroops who planned and carried out the operation," Mors said over a cup of tea. "But for more than 40 years, Skorzeny has gotten all the credit. His version is something of a fairy tale. I'd like to see that remedied by military historians."

The operation itself stunned the Allies, who had been counting on gaining custody of Mussolini from the Italians, who were negotiating an armistice. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the operation "a stroke of great daring."

From the time Mussolini was deposed in July, 1943, Hitler was determined to rescue him to bolster a Fascist regime that would fight alongside the Germans.

Hitler sent Skorzeny to Italy to seek out the dictator's whereabouts, and with his connections in German and Italian police and intelligence, Skorzeny found that Mussolini was being moved from one location to another, from Ponza to La Spezia to La Maddalena.

Finally, Skorzeny's sources placed Mussolini, held under guard, at a hotel at Gran Sasso, the highest point in the Apennines, east of Rome.

The hotel was reachable only by cable car that rose 3,000 feet to the hotel, located at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet on the Campo Imperatore.

Gen. Kurt Student, in charge of German airborne troops in Italy, was in overall command of the mission and, as was the custom, turned the planning over to the troop commander, Maj. Mors.

"We didn't have much time," recalled Mors, who looks 20 years younger than his age, dressed in a neat pinstripe suit--a long way from the paratrooper smock and short helmet he wore during the war.

"The Allies had just invaded the Italian peninsula. Gen. Student wanted to mount the operation quickly. So I had my plan ready in a matter of hours."

Coordinated Assault

Mors decided to send two companies up the mountain by truck, coordinating their arrival with that of a third company, which would land by glider on the mountain plain to assault the hotel.

Unlike their U.S. and British counterparts, the German airborne forces were part of the air force--the Luftwaffe--rather than the army, as were the gliders.

On Sept. 12, 1943, the road convoy led by Mors began moving up the mountain, and the glider force headed by Lt. Baron Otto von Berlepsch boarded their craft at Practica di Mare airdrome near Rome.

"Skorzeny asked Gen. Student if he could go along," recalled Mors. "Since Skorzeny's efforts had helped locate Mussolini, Student felt he couldn't say no.

"Then Skorzeny talked Student into letting him take about 15 of his own men along on the gliders. He could be persuasive. But Von Berlepsch was furious, having to leave behind 15 paratroopers.

"The point is, Skorzeny and his SS commandos went along as passengers; Von Berlepsch commanded the assault team.

"I chose to stay with the two companies in the valley, because if anything went wrong with the glider force, I would still be in position to supervise the operation and decide what to do.

"Later, some people didn't understand this, but my job was to command the whole operation, not just one aspect."

Textbook Operation

The Germans took along Italian Gen. Ferdinando Soleti, a member of the paramilitary carabinieri police force, who was expected to urge the guards not to shoot.

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