South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 499
September 2017

Roy Bowman
Land-line; 031 564 4669
Mobile; 084-951 2921

The Chairman, Roy Bowman opened the meeting at 19h30 welcoming all members present, their guests and visitors. He then began the announcements. He encouraged the visitors who have been with us for more than three meetings to join the Society, offering full benefits for the last quarter of the year and their Annual Subscription to be paid in January.

The booking list for the Ken Gillings Memorial Tour over the week-end of 19th and 20th August 2017 was officially closed.

The Chairman made an appeal for speakers for the 2018,2019 and 2020 programmes.

An appeal was made for volunteers to be co-opted onto the committee for the balance of the year to the end of May 2018.

The Chairman requested the audience to come up with ideas for future tours and visits for the balance of the year and next year.

Members are not keeping their address details updated with the result that after moving or changing email addresses they no longer receive their mail. It is very important to update contact info.

The Chairman then introduced the speaker for the DDH, Professor Philip Everitt, whose subject, "Experiences in the Frontier War 1877-78", based on the unpublished notes of his great grandfather, Harry Burgess.

After the customary 5 minute break the raffle was drawn and the winner was Charles Whiteing who by coincidence was also the presenter of the Main Talk.

Charles was introduced by the Chairman and began his presentation,


In October 1935, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia which activated a series of invasions and annexations that led Italy to war for four years.His later North African campaign disasters were the catalyst to Germany entering this theatre with their Afrika Korps, and Italy's subsequent defeat.
Following an audience with King Victor Emmanuel on 25 July 1943, at the Villa Savoia in Rome, Benito Mussolini was dismissed as fascist dictator of Italy.
He had been Italy`s Fascist leader for 21 years and had advised the Kng that the Fascist Grand Council had passed a vote of no confidence in him and had voted to return supreme power to the king. The king agreed with Marshal Pietro Badoglio that Mussolini would be stripped of all his powers and a new government, without any Fascist members, was to be formed. Negotiations were to commence with the Allies, with a view to surrender and to create an alliance. However the Allies were unwilling to form any sort of alliance with their erstwhile enemies.

Mussolini was placed under arrest, and initially exiled to the island of Ponza, South of Rome. He was later transferred to the secure naval base on the island on Maddalena located on the island of Sardinia.
On September 3rd 1943, the Italian government agreed to an unconditional surrender, with King Victor Emmanuel remaining as constitutional monarch. However the announcement was delayed till September 8th to allow the Allies more time to advance and to limit the predictable response from the German forces.
It was planned that American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were to parachute into Rome in support of the Italians, but the Italian garrisons were not yet ready for integration. The German response to the Italian surrender was rapid, with troops rushed to Rome and other key cities; resulting in the cancellation of the planned American parachute drop on the capital city.
Being occupied by two opposing armies, Italy now found herself in a vacuum. Quickly the Germans established their military administration. Fortunately the King and the government escaped German capture when they boarded an allied naval corvette sailing to Allied occupied territory in the south of Italy. Although now under attack from the Luftwaffe, the Italian fleet managed to escape to Malta, where it was interned for the duration of the war. Throughout the country, Italian soldiers discarded their uniforms, hid their weapons, and blended in with the general population.

Field Marshal Rommel had been appointed army commander in Northern Italy on August 17. He proceeded to round up the Italian troops under his command, and had them interned in forced labour camps.
South of Rome, Field Marshal Kesselring disarmed his Italian troops and let them return home. At this time there were about 600,000 Italian troops stationed in Axis occupied Crete, Greece, and other parts of the Balkans. They were given the option to fight alongside the German units, or be transferred to Germany as forced labourers. Understandably, very few chose the former option.
Hearing of Mussolini`s downfall, Hitler initiated plans to rescue his former ally. On July 26th, he summoned SS Hauptsturmfuehrer (Captain) Otto Skorzeny to the FHQ Wolfsschanze located at Rastenburg in East Prussia.

Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna 12 June 1908 and had joined the Nazi party in its early days in Austria. This 6ft 4in giant of a man had joined the pre war SS, and in 1940, served with the Waffen SS in France. He later served on the Eastern Front in Russia where he was wounded. He was then transferred to security headquarters in Berlin to establish a commando unit for clandestine operations. In December 1944, he was responsible for infiltrating English speaking US uniformed German troops driving Jeeps behind Allied lines in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge.

At his private meeting with Hitler, Skorzeny was ordered to rescue Mussolini from the Italian government. The operation was under the overall command of Generalleutnant Kurt Student, Commander of 9 Flieger Korps of the Luftwaffe.
The initial problem was to actually establish where Mussolini was being held. Inquiries in Italy had to be discreet as the country was no longer an ally of Germany. On July 27 Skorzeny and Student flew to the headquarters of the German forces in Italy located at Frascati, south east of Rome. Together with 50 handpicked men from Skorzeny`s own SS unit, and additional members of the 1 Fallschirmjaeger Division; the unit arrived at Pratica di Mare aerodrome located on the coast south of Rome.
They established the location of the barracks in Rome where Mussolini had first been taken, and later taken to Ponza. On August 18 Skorzeny learnt that Mussolini had been transferred to the island of Madalena, and he embarked on a reconnaissance flight in a Heinkel 111 but they were shot down en route by Allied fighters. He survived the crash and was rescued by an Italian anti aircraft ship. Later, dressed as a sailor he joined the crew of a German E-Boat which paid an "official visit" to the island. He went ashore without arousing any suspicion, and established that a few hours earlier in that morning; Mussolini had been flown out by a Red Cross seaplane.

The Italians were naturally nervous of a potential rescue attempt on Mussolini as German aircraft had been seen flying low over the island the previous day.
Although now back to square one, German intelligence reported that a white seaplane had landed on Lago (lake) di Bracciano, twenty miles north east of Rome, and close to the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. SS Obersturmbanfuhrer (Lt. Colonel) Herbert Keppler was head of the SD (Sicherheitdienst) in Rome, and had intercepted a message routed to the Italian Ministry of Home Affairs which read "Security measures around the Gran Sasso completed." (After the war, Keppler was arrested and tried for the massacre of 335 Italians in March 1944.) On August 28, Mussolini had been driven straight to the Gran Sasso Mountain after the Red Cross seaplane had landed.
Their destination was the Hotel Albergo-Rifugio which is located on a small plateau 3000 metres above the nearest road & can only be reached by cable car.
As the hotel was still occupied by guests; Mussolini initially stayed at the La Villetta Inn located near the lower cable station.
Here he stayed in an upper floor room until the hotel had been evacuated by the beginning of September.
The hotel is located on the Gran Sasso d`Italia, high in the Abruzzi Apennines & was in fact a readymade prison without bars and an ideal hideaway. With the only approach being via the cable car and with Italian guards stationed at both ends, all seemed secure. Mussolini occupied suite number 201, on the second floor which comprised a bedroom, bathroom, toilet and sitting room. Being more of a guest than a prisoner; he was well looked after, with hotel manageress Signora Flavia Jurato attending to his strict diet. On September 8, Mussolini was told of the Italian armistice and that he was to be handed over to the Allies.

On the same day, Skorzeny carried out a photographic sortie of the hotel having established it was the site where Il Duce was being held. However during the flight, it was found that the camera in the Heinkel 111 was faulty, and at an altitude of 5000 metres, (the hotel was located at 2112 metres), he leant out of the aircraft in the icy slipstream to operate a hand held camera. The developed pictures turned out to be poor, smudgy and lacking any detail. But the observant Skorzeny had noted a fairly flat piece of ground behind the hotel. This plateau area was to form the basis of their planned assault.
The use of paratroopers was finally disregarded as the thin air would result in a too rapid descent, with the rough terrain resulting in injuries, and the parachutists being scattered too widely.
General Student suggested a night attack by a parachute battalion to seize the lower cable station to secure it from an attack by allied troops, and as a line of retreat once the operation was complete. He then issued his approval and final orders. The required twelve DFS 230 Gliders were to be flown from the south of France to Rome as soon a possible, with 06h00 on 12 September scheduled as zero-hour.
The plan was that the gliders would land on the plateau, with a simultaneous attack on the lower funicular station by the German parachute troops. It was assumed that at that time of the morning, the dangerous air currents would be still, and the gliders would not be adversely affected.

Skorzeny and Student then proceeded with the detailed planning which included weapons, equipment, calculations etc. The twelve gliders could each take ten men excluding the pilots, and assuming there were no casualties; they would have to confront an estimated force of about one hundred and fifty Italians. Each glider group would have their pre planned tasks, with Skorzeny planning to travel in the third glider to facilitate his, and the fourth gliders troops being covered by the first and second glider groups that would have already landed. The Italians would have the strategic advantage insofar that they knew the terrain and could defend the hotel as a potential fortress. It was decided to include a high profile Italian officer with the force to confuse the Italian troops and to restrain them from reacting with force against Mussolini. The officer selected was Generale Soleti who met with General Student at the Practica di Mare airfield to be briefed on his role.
However, zero hour was postponed as the gliders only landed in the early hours of the 12th, but Student then re scheduled the attack for 14h00 on the same day. The daylight landing presented its own set of problems as the air currents and cross winds would have a bearing on what was already a dangerous landing.
The assault was now to be made in broad daylight which had a bearing on the detachment operating in the valley below.

On the Saturday afternoon Skorzeny met with his men in the garden of the monastery in Frascati where they were camped. He briefed them saying it was an attack personally ordered by Adolf Hitler, but as losses were to be expected, he asked for volunteers. They all stepped forward but as the group could not exceed 108, and as Student said afterwards, he had the disagreeable task of refusing some of them. Among the paratroopers he selected 18 members of the Waffen SS.

The gliders and their tugs arrived at about 11h00 on Sunday 12th. The aircraft were refuelled and drawn up on the airfield with their gliders in sequence of their departure. The pilots and twelve group commanders were then finally briefed by General Student where he stressed the necessity for as smooth a landing as possible. The respective landing site for each glider was mapped out on a chalk board, with the duties of the respective commanders.

They agreed on the password "Take it Easy," & this remained the watchword of the SS for the remainder of the war. Flying time, altitudes and distances were discussed with Captain Langguth, the Intelligence officer of the Parachute Corps. The flying time to cover the 100 kms was about an hour and it was essential they be airborne by 13h00. Suddenly at 12h30 air raid sirens were heard, with Allied aircraft bombing the airfield. Although this resulted in a number of bomb craters on the tarmac, it seemed no damage had been sustained by either the Henschel tug aircraft or the gliders.
The raid ended just before 13h00 and the men ran to board their allotted gliders. General Soleti was invited to sit next to Skorzeny in front of their glider on a narrow wooden board, the space being very cramped and hardly any space for their weapons.
The signal was given and the aircraft and the gliders took off, slowly gaining altitude in wide circles in perfect weather conditions with white cloud banks at about 3000 metres.
The interior of the glider was described as hot and stuffy with the Italian General feeling decidedly unwell, especially when a young corporal behind them was sick.
They had reached cloud cover at an altitude of 3500 metres when the pilot of their Henschel tug aircraft announced over the radio telephone that Flights 1 and 2 were no longer ahead of them. Skorzeny had not realised that two gliders had been damaged on take off by the bomb craters on the airfield.

Skorzeny told the tug pilot that they would take over the lead and proceeded to cut a hole in the fabric of the glider to enable him to get his bearings and land marks. It was nearing zero hour when he recognised the Aquila valley below and saw the convoy of German vehicles with the paratroopers heading for their rendezvous at the lower cable station.
They circled looking for their landing site, but although triangular in shape, it was very steep like a ski jump. The pilot Lieutenant Meyer decided to ignore the "no crash landing" instruction, and ordered they land as near to the hotel as possible.
The landing was described as follows; "The pilot tilted the starboard wing and we came down with a rush and wondered if the glider would take the strain in the thin air. Lieutenant Meyer released the parachute air brake and following the noise of breaking wood, we came to rest."
With the bolt of the exit hatch wrenched off, the first troops spilled out clutching their weapons. They had landed within 15 metres of the hotel surrounded by jagged rocks which had assisted in reducing their taxi path to only 20 metres.

Skorzeny later said he saw an amazed Italian sentry standing at one corner of the hotel. The German troops had been ordered not to open fire before he did so to maximise the surprise factor.

The sentry was ordered to "Mani in alto" (hands up) and entering through an open door, he saw an Italian using a wireless set.

The operators actions were terminated with his chair kicked out from underneath him and the wireless was destroyed with a rifle butt. Finding no entrance into the hotel from the radio room, Skorzeny and his group ran outside and around to the front of the hotel where a terrace loomed 3 metres above them. Rottenfuehrer (Corporal) Himmel bent down, and Skorzeny and his following men stepped on him and were up and over the balcony.

Looking up at the outer facade of the hotel, he saw the familiar face of Mussolini at one of the first floor windows. Italian troops were by now beginning to react to the assault which included setting up two machine guns on the floor of the terrace. These were neutralised, as with additional carabinieri who continued to stream out from rooms and corridors. Many shouts of "Mani in alto" insured that so far, no shots had been fired by both parties.

Skorzeny describes his first encounter with Mussolini. "I was within the hallway and I leapt up a staircase, three steps at a time and flung open a door ahead of me. There was Mussolini standing with two Italian officers which I thrust aside and ordered to stand with their backs to the door. We had succeeded in the first part of our mission which had taken about twelve minutes since landing."

Looking out the window he saw Radl and his SS men running towards the hotel followed by a limping Obersturmbannfuhrer Menzel commander of the Friendenthal special unit from glider number four. His glider had grounded about 100 metres from the hotel but he had broken his ankle on landing. This was followed by gliders five, six and seven. But not all the landings were successful, as glider number eight was caught in a cross wind during its final approach and it crashed on the rocky slope, killing all on board.

By this time some firing could be heard and Skorzeny ordered the Italian officer in command to surrender his troops to a superior force. The result was a white bedspread being hung from one of the windows, with the Italian O.C. offering Skorzeny a goblet of red wine and toasting "the victor."

Skorzeny turned to Mussolini he said "Duce the Fuehrer has sent me, you are free." Mussolini responded "I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not leave me in the lurch."

The Germans ordered the Italian ranks to leave their weapons in the dining room with the officers, including a colonel and a general, being allowed to retain their side arms.

The lower cable station had been taken by the German troops, and Skorzeny called for reinforcing troops to be brought up.

Wireless contact was made with General Student advising him that the operation had been successful but the next phase included getting Mussolini to Rome and three options were to be considered.

Plan A was to take control of the Italian airfield at Aquila d`Abruzzi at the entrance of the valley to allow three Heinkel 111`s to land; one for Mussolini and Skorzeny with the other two as decoys.

Plan B was for a Fieseler Storch to land in one of the fields in the valley or Plan C for the aircraft to land on the plateau adjoining the hotel.

The first two plans were rejected insofar that the paratroopers would not be able to reach the airfield in time to attack and hold it and that one of the Fiesler aircraft had damaged its undercarriage landing in the field.

Plan C commenced with the now Italian prisoners assisting to clear a small strip for an aircraft to land and moving some of the heavier boulders. The Italians also helped the German troops to rescue victims of the crashed glider. By now the pilot of the Fiesler Storch aircraft, Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach was circling above the cleared site and landed without mishap. Hearing that not only Mussolini, but that Skorzeny was also to be a passenger, his immediate concern was not only their respective sizes, but also the additional weight in the small aircraft.

Skorzeny later justified his actions by saying that he could not allow Mussolini to fly out alone with Gerlach; and should there be a mishap he would have been held responsible by Hitler for the death of Mussolini.

The Italian troops were to remain at the hotel with the exception of the colonel and the general who would be taken to Rome with the German troops under command of Major Mors once they had descended in the cable car.

Wearing an overcoat and a soft hat, Mussolini left the hotel with Inspector of Police Giuseppe Guieli and climbed aboard the waiting Storch aircraft, with Skorzeny sitting behind him.

With the engine at maximum revs, Gerlach signalled the troops to release the wings and the small aircraft rushed towards the end of the strip but without taking off. Skorzeny moved about in the aircraft to activate take off when a gulley suddenly appeared ahead of them.

The small plane rose slightly and then dipped down but damaged the left wheel as it hit the ground again. The little aircraft lurched upwards, and swept down into the gulley. With a magnificent feat of flying skill, Gerlach managed to stabilise the aircraft, and flying at only 30 metres above the ground, they emerged in the Arezzano Valley.
After a while Rome appeared in sight and Gerlach managed to land successfully at the Practica di Mare airport with a balanced landing on the right front and tail wheels as the left wheel had been damaged on takeoff.

On Skorzeny`s recommendation Heinrich Gerlach was awarded the Ritterkreuz on 19 September 1943. This is the least he could have done as the success of the operation was in jeopardy by his insisting on joining the flight and overloading the aircraft.

On 15 September 1943 Mussolini was flown by a Heinkel 111 to FHQ Wolfschanze and was warmly greeted by Adolf Hitler.

Skorzeny`s mission was a propaganda feat for Germany and on 3 October 1943, Hitler awarded him the Ritterkreuz and promotion to SS Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) at the Berliner Sportspalast.

There were no awards for either Major Mors who had been appointed overall officer in charge by General Student, or for Student himself; and both said afterwards that the credit given Skorzeny was totally unjustified.

Student complained to Goering, and Mors to the Luftwaffe, but they were told in no uncertain terms that Hitler wanted all the credit to go to Skorzeny

Adolf Hitler had hoped Benito Mussolini would revive the Fascist movement in Northern Italy, but Mussolini was totally disillusioned and tried to seek asylum in Switzerland. But while he was travelling in a German convoy, it was ambushed by Italian partisans and they were captured. The partisans then negotiated with the Germans and allowed the convoy to proceed on its way on the condition that Mussolini and the other Fascist members remain behind and be handed over to them.

On 28 April 1945 Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were shot by Italian partisans and their corpses suspended upside down in a public square in Milan. Their corpses were later left in the town square to be mutilated by the local population.

Ironically, Hitler may have heard of the fate of his erstwhile ally before he took his own life and that of his new bride Eva Hitler nee` Braun in 1945. One of the last orders he gave was that their corpses be burnt to avoid similar humiliation by the Russians.

On May 15 1945 Skorzeny was arrested by US troops. He was implicated in Operation Grief which had 2000 English speaking Germans driving Jeeps and dressed in US uniforms infiltrating Allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

He was acquitted of any war crimes, and later settled in Spain where he had an import / export business. He founded an organisation known as Die Spinne (the Spider) which assisted about 500 ex SS members to escape from Germany.

His reputation preceded him and he was linked in later years to mercenary operations from Biafra to Egypt and even a plot to assassinate Castro.

He later bought a country estate in County Kildare, Ireland and a house in Mallorca.
In later life he suffered from lung cancer and he died in Madrid on 5 July 1975. His remains were returned to his native Austria for burial in Vienna.

The Chairman then declared a refreshment break during which the draw for the raffle took place. This was won by Charles Whiting.

The main talk was presented by Professor Philip Everitt but unfortunately was not available at the time of the publishing of this newsletter.

After question time, Lt.Col. Dr. Graeme Fuller was called to give the audiences Vote of Thanks to both speakers for their varied and most interesting talks on two diverse subjects.

It remained for the Chairman to give the programme for 14th September 2017:
DDH: Roy Bowman telling us about "The Dam Busters revisited"
Main Talk: Capt.(SAN) Charles Ross(Ret) and he will be telling us about "Lt. Col. Jack Sherwood Kelly VC,CMG, DSO".

and wish the audience and presenters a good evening and a safe trip home.

Roy Bowman

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South African Military History Society /