Adolf Hitler. While it may have puzzled his closest lieutenants, Hitler never really lost his admiration for his onetime idol, Mussolini. The Duce's arrest in July of 1943 was a personal affront to Hitler and put an almost unbearable strain on the Axis alliance. Hitler was determined to rescue his friend Mussolini at any cost¾for reasons that were both personal and political.
Kurt Student. GeneralStudent was the well-respected leader of the German paratroopers, an elite unit composed of volunteers. By 1943 he was already famous as the architect of the glider raid on Eben Emael, one of the most successful special-forces operations of any war. Student and Otto Skorzeny worked together to find the Italian dictator, despite occasional tensions.
Otto Skorzeny. A former Waffen S.S. engineering officer, in 1943 Skorzeny was the chief of the newly created Friedenthal Battalion, a largely untested commando unit operating under the auspices of the S.S. Bold and ambitious¾and an effective self-promoter¾Skorzeny was quick to realize that the Mussolini search-and-rescue mission was his ticket to the Big Time.
Herbert Kappler. As Himmler's man on the spot in Rome, this shrewd S.S. sleuth was an obvious choice to aid in the search for Mussolini. Like most of the important Germans based in Rome, Kappler knew that Mussolini was "finished" politically and that any rescue attempt was a fool's errand. Nevertheless, he ended up making key discoveries.
Eugen Dollmann. Dollmann was an S.S. man who had lived in the Italian capital for many years and served as Himmlerís personal spy among Roman high society. With his excellent knowledge of Italian, the blond, dapper expatriate was often called upon to act as an interpreter for members of the Axis hierarchy and was present at a number of important meetings between Hitler and Mussolini. During Operation Oak, Dollmann probed his Italian contacts for information.
Harold Mors. At the tender age of 32, Major Harold Mors was already a seasoned paratrooper officer. In September of 1943, General Student gave Mors command of the mission to rescue Mussolini from the Gran Sasso. "But for more than 40 years," Mors later complained, "Skorzeny has gotten all the credit. His version is something of a fairy tale."
Georg von Berlepsch. On the day of Mussolini's rescue, Lieutenant Georg von Berlepsch was the ostensible leader of the glider assault team. However, while en route to the target, Berlepsch's three-glider formation (Kette) became detached from the front of the squadron, inadvertently allowing Skorzeny's glider to take the lead. Skorzeny went on to grab the Duce as well as the glory, overshadowing the role played by von Berlepsch and the rest of the paratroopers.
Albert Kesselring. As chief of the German forces in Italy, Kesselring had a good relationship with the Italians and refused to believe that Italy's new leaders-Mussolini's captors-were planning to betray Hitler. He was famously proven wrong in the fall of 1943, but quickly redeemed himself on the battlefield by bottling up Allied forces in southern Italy after they made their landings with Italian consent.
On the Italian Side
Benito Mussolini. Mussolini's sudden arrest by the King of Italy caught the dictator totally by surprise. Wearing an increasingly rumpled blue suit, the Duce was shuffled from one secret location to another in order to keep the Nazis guessing. Depressed in spirit and suffering from poor health, the Sawdust Caesar¾who once fancied himself a novelist¾occupied himself by jotting down his philosophical musings in a journal.
Victor Emmanuel III. Though he had held the throne for over 40 years, 73-year-old King Victor Emmanuel had taken a backseat to his more charismatic partner Mussolini during the 20 years of Fascist rule. Having arrested the Duce and grabbed the reigns of power for himself, the King soon discovered that breaking free of the Axis alliance with Hitler was more difficult than he imagined.
Pietro Badoglio. Appointed the new Head of the Government by the King, 72-year-old Marshal Badoglio had a long career as a soldier but lacked any real experience as a politician. Badoglio was deferential to the King and rarely made a move without the latter's approval. Together, the two men unwittingly steered Italy toward disaster.
Galeazzo Ciano. A handsome playboy, Ciano was married to Mussolini's favorite daughter, Edda. He once shared his father-in-law's ambitious aspirations for Italy and even held the position of Italian foreign minister. By 1943 Ciano was so disillusioned with Mussolini that he sided with the rebels on the eve of the dictator's arrest. It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life.