Nazi Rescue of Mussolini A US Model for Zelensky

On July 25, 1943, Benito Mussolini, after being voted out of power by his own Grand Council, was called to a conference with King Vittorio Emanuele

On July 25, 1943, Benito Mussolini, after being voted out of power by his own Grand Council, was called to a conference with King Vittorio Emanuele in the Villa Ada park at the special bunker known as the Villa Ada Savoia.

The King told Mussolini that the new Italian prime minister would be General Pietro Badoglio. Tired, unshaven and shaken, Mussolini walked out of the meeting only to be arrested by Carabinieri troops. 

He would be held at different hiding places until he was transferred to the  Hotel Campo Imperatore, Emperor’s Field Hotel (Albergo di Campo Imperatore) in the Apennine mountains. 

Under Hitler’s personal orders, a German team made up of Nazi paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) and a team drawn from the Waffen SS assembled in 10 gliders at Rome’s Pratica di Mare Air Base where they were towed to within striking distance of the hotel.

On September 12, 1943, the gliders carried an Italian general whose role was to convince Mussolini’s jailers not to fire on the Nazi rescue force. Four days before, the Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies, an event closely tracked (via communications intercepts) by Nazi intelligence. Allied forces had already taken Sicily and were lodged in southern Italy.

Hitler ordered his army to not only free Mussolini but also to take Rome, which they dutifully did. As this happened, the new government headed by Badoglio and the King escaped Rome and joined the allies at Bari, on the Adriatic in the south of the country. 

The Germans established a military line of defense called the Gustav Line. Mussolini was flown out of Italy, first on a Storch light aircraft, and then transferred to more long-range aircraft that first took him to Vienna and, after a refresh, on to Berlin. Hitler would receive him and put him in charge of a rump Italian government called the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI).  

Benito Mussolini is shown in front of a hotel in Gran Sasso Mountain area of Italy in September 1943 during World War II. Gathered around the overthrown Italian dictator are German paratroopers who rescued him from imprisonment.

In April 1945, as German defenses crumbled, Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci attempted to flee to Switzerland but they were captured by Italian communist partisans and summarily executed on April 28 near Lake Como. Their bodies were taken to a service station in Milan where both were hanged by their feet for public display.

This bit of World War II history could well be a model for US Pentagon plans to rescue Volodymyr Zelensky should his government in Kiev collapse.  

The US has launched a number of trial balloons and encouraged French leader Emmanuel Macron to propose the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine to somehow save the Ukrainians from the Russians. 

This sort of thing would not have been discussed in polite circles until the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the collapse of the defense of Avdiivka. Now it is obvious that Russia has increased the tempo of its operations and is taking gobs of territory held by Ukraine’s army.   

It is also now clear that Ukraine has significant manpower problems and its attempt to use forceful means to corral potential recruits is causing unrest in the country, including in major cities such as Odesa, Kharkiv and Kiev.

The problem for Washington is the lack of political support for any NATO military operations in Ukraine. The revelations, especially in the European press, including a recording of German military officers discussing how they could blow up the massive Kerch Strait bridge with Taurus missiles and hide the operation, are undermining the German government’s already badly eroded credibility at home. A French “instant” poll, meanwhile, showed two-thirds opposed to sending troops to Ukraine.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who recently emerged from a serious prostate operation to testify on Capitol Hill, argues that if Russia “wins” in Ukraine, then pretty soon after the Russians will attack NATO territory, suggesting that the first attacks might be against the Baltic states.

Austin knows there is no evidence supporting his argument. The same sort of claims, also coming from European leaders, are based on assumptions and assertions without any facts. Speaking on the occasion of his State of the Nation address in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said emphatically that Russia has no intention of attacking Europe.

Austin and the Pentagon are in a dilemma. Without a provocation of significant magnitude to justify a NATO intervention (another Gulf of Tonkin exercise of what was a manufactured casus belli), what can the US do to save Ukraine? How can it get away with an intervention that most wouldn’t object to in Europe or the United States?

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens during a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this year. Photo: Chad J McNeeley / Defense Department

The US cannot just send in troops to start fighting Russians. That would surely start a war in Europe. Putin has already put down a marker that if there was a war in Europe, Russia could use its “tactical” nuclear weapons. 

While NATO has been playing chicken with the Russians for many months, urging Ukraine to use NATO-supplied weapons to attack Russian cities, for example, or attempting to take down the Kerch Strait bridge or other critical Russian infrastructure, the introduction of NATO frontline troops can’t be hidden behind a facade of non-intervention or plausible deniability. 

On what basis could NATO troops get away with some sort of intervention without a Russian counterattack? The Nazi example of freeing Mussolini may be a model that, in a modern interpretation, might do the trick.

No one can say how long the Zelensky government can hold on in Kiev. With a steady Russian military advance, growing turmoil at home, the refusal to hold elections, the jailing of people opposed to Zelensky and a host of unpopular measures, Zelensky’s hold on power is entering the zone of desperation. 

The Russians may see an opportunity for a power transition to leadership in Kiev inclined to make deals with Moscow. Zelensky probably can’t do that: he is too committed to expelling every last Russian from Ukrainian territory and demanding war crime trials, as he also insists that he will never deal with Putin in Russia. Zelensky’s security situation in Kiev could rapidly come under a terminal shadow.

In these circumstances, the Pentagon could rescue Zelensky and move him elsewhere, with Lviv (Lvov) being the most likely place, as it is far in the west and challenging for the Russians to reach if they wished to deal with Zelensky using military means. Rescued by NATO “forces”, the Russians might happily see Zelensky and his government go. 

That would make the relocation possibly unobjectionable or at least not the worst outcome for the Russians. They could then deal with a more flexible replacement government.

In effect, just as Italy was temporarily divided (more or less) in half, with the Gustav line the demarcation until allied forces finally took Monte Cassino in May 1944, Ukraine might also be divided, although exactly how would depend on what remained of Ukraine’s army supporting Zelensky. 

Should someone of the quality of former commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhny take over in Kiev, it could mean that Zelensky’s stay at Lviv would be brief and he would go into retirement elsewhere. From the perspective of NATO and the Pentagon, such a process would take some time, perhaps even a year, allowing President Joe Biden to hang on until the US elections in November.

General Valerii Zaluzhny might be more willing to do a deal with Russia. Photo: Twitter

There are not many good choices for NATO or Washington. Biden cannot afford another Afghanistan debacle but one is rapidly creeping in his direction thanks to Russian military victories and the crumbling of Ukraine’s defenses. Biden has the option of opening peace negotiations with Russia but Moscow may not be interested. There is a lot of water that has poured over the dam.

Of course, the military situation in Ukraine could stabilize and the Russians could decide to wait until after the US elections in November, but this seems unlikely now. The Russians are under their own domestic pressure to wrap up the “Special Military Operation” and there is no reason at present to believe that Putin and the Russian army will slow down or back off. 

In this light, the Mussolini rescue at the Hotel Campo Imperiale model may be one of the few alternatives available.

Stephen Bryen served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. This article was first published on his Weapons and Strategy Substack.

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