On 25 July 1943, a few weeks after the Allied invasion of Sicily and bombing of Rome, the Italian Grand Council of Fascism voted to depose Mussolini and replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Mussolini was subsequently arrested on King Victor Emmanuel's orders.
Mussolini was being transported around Italy by his captors, whilst Otto Skorzeny, selected personally by Hitler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner to carry out the mission, was tracking him.
Intercepting a coded Italian radio message, Skorzeny used the reconnaissance provided by the agents and informants of SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler to determine that Mussolini was being imprisoned at Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski resort at Campo Imperatore in Italy’s Gran Sasso, high in the Apennine Mountains. On 12 September 1943, Skorzeny joined the team of Fallschirmjäger to rescue Mussolini in a high-risk glider mission. The commandos landed their DFS 230 gliders onto the mountain, only one crashed causing some minor injuries to the passengers. The Fallschirmjäger and Skorzeny’s special troopers then overwhelmed Mussolini’s captors (200 well-equipped Carabinieri guards) without a single shot being fired, this was also due to the fact that Carabinieri-General Ferdinando (Fernando) Soleti, who flew in with Skorzeny, told them to stand down or be executed for treason. Skorzeny attacked the radio operator and his equipment, then he formally greeted Mussolini with “Duce, the Führer has sent me to set you free!” to which Mussolini replied “I knew that my friend would not forsake me!”
Mussolini was first flown from Campo Imperatore in a Luftwaffe Fieseler Fi 156C-3/Trop StorchSTOL liaison aircraft, Werknummer (serial number) 1268, initially flown in by Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach (1912—1993), then taking off with Mussolini and Skorzeny (even though the weight of an extra passenger almost caused the tiny plane to crash) to the military airport of Pratica di Mare (near Rome) then embarked in an Heinkel He 111 on to Vienna, where Mussolini stayed overnight at the Hotel Imperialand was given a hero’s welcome. The Storch involved in rescuing Mussolini bore the radio code letters, or Stammkennzeichen, of "SJ + LL" in motion picture coverage of the rescue.
The operation on the ground at Campo Imperatore was in fact led by First Lieutenant Baron Georg Freiherr von Berlepsch, commanded by Major Otto-Harald Mors and under orders from General Kurt Student, all Fallschirmjäger (German Air Force Paratroopers) officers; but Skorzeny stewarded the Italian leader first into Rome and eventually into Berlin, right in front of the cameras. After a pro-SS propaganda coup at the behest of SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Skorzeny and his Special Forces (SS-Sonderverband z. b. V. “Friedenthal”) of the Waffen-SS were granted the majority of the credit for the operation. The “Friedenthaler” of the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt were for the Waffen-SS what the Brandenburgers were for the Wehrmacht and Abwehr.
The operation granted a rare late-war public relations opportunity to Hermann Göring. Mussolini was made leader of the Italian Social Republic (a German puppet state consisting of the German-occupied portion of Italy). Otto Skorzeny gained a large amount of success from this mission; he received a promotion to Sturmbannführer, the award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and fame that led to his “most dangerous man in Europe” image. Winston Churchill himself described the mission as “one of great daring.”