Shortly before seven o’clock on the rain-drenched morning of April 27, 1945, the hum of motors gradually displaced the serenity of the mountainous northern Italian countryside. A road convoy was rolling north on the two-lane highway less than 10 miles from the Swiss frontier on the northwest side of wishbone-shaped Lake Como. Crouching figures, one of them taking photos, watched from the rugged hillside as the vehicles entered a short tunnel just north of the hamlet of Musso. The 40-vehicle convoy was forced to an abrupt halt by a roadblock of rocks and a felled tree on the other side of the tunnel. Rifle fire erupted from the hillside. The armored car in the convoy barked a reply with its cannon.
A High-Profile Convoy
The occupants of the ambushed vehicles consisted of four components. There was a handful of armed Italians under Alessandro Pavolini, Fascist Italy’s propaganda minister. More numerous were two German units: a 40-man SS detail led by Lieutenant Fritz Birzer and a nearly 200-man antiaircraft detachment commanded by a Lieutenant Schallmayer (recorded as Fallmeyer in earlier accounts). However, it was the fourth element, entrusted to Birzer’s iron-handed care, that gave the column its historical significance.
Inside Pavolini’s armored car sat Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, the 61-year-old Duce (Leader) of Fascist Italy. A sedan at the end of the convoy contained the dictator’s paramour, 33-year-old Claretta Petacci, and her brother, Marcello. Claretta, daughter of one of Pope Pius XI’s doctors, had abandoned her husband to become Mussolini’s lover for 13 years. Also in the column was a 21-year-old admirer of Il Duce, Elena Curti, daughter of another of Mussolini’s alleged mistresses. Her presence had earlier caused a stormy argument between the dictator and Claretta. All were fleeing the northward advance of American and British troops.
Their ambushers, alerted earlier of an approaching enemy convoy, belonged to the Italian 52nd Garabaldi Partisan Brigade under Count Pierluigi Bellini delle Stelle (pseudonym Pedro). The bearded and mustached partisan leader ordered a ceasefire. He and Luftwaffe Lieutenant Schallmayer then met under a flag of truce.
“I have orders to halt all enemy columns,” explained Bellini.
“And I,” replied Schallmayer in broken Italian, “have my orders to proceed.”
While the pair talked, Bellini’s deputy, Urbano Lazzaro, walked the length of the convoy. He counted an armored car, 10 cars, and 29 trucks occupied by an estimated 200 people. He discreetly informed his chief, confirming that their small band was both outnumbered and outgunned. The partisan commander decided to stall for time to bring in reinforcements and set up additional obstacles along the road ahead.
Schallmayer had no way of knowing that he was confronted with fewer than a dozen men. After nearly an hour of further discussion, the Italian said he could not permit the convoy to go on without the approval of his divisional commander. The bluff worked, if only because the Germans wanted merely to stay ahead of the Allies, not to fight. Who wanted to die when he knew that the war was nearly over? Schallmayer saw some of the 11 new roadblocks being put up when he was taken to the partisan headquarters at Dongo, about a mile north of Musso. During the next few hours, the Germans were allowed to remove the tree and debris blocking their way.
Bellini finally informed Schallmayer that the Germans could proceed under certain conditions. The key one was that all Italians and their vehicles would remain behind. It was close to 2 pm when the German rejoined the convoy to discuss the partisan terms with his officers and the Italians. They decided to accept Bellini’s demands with one exception—Mussolini would be disguised and go on with the Germans.
“The Dictator’s Spirit was Dead”
With apparent reluctance, a tearful Claretta at his side, Italy’s onetime dictator slipped into a Luftwaffe coat and placed a helmet on his bald head. Il Duce then climbed into the rear of the third German truck, seating himself between two large fuel containers. With him went two large leather cases of documents and five suitcases of currency and gold.
Motors churned into life, gears meshed, and the German vehicles started north toward a checkpoint established at Dongo. Behind them, the abandoned Fascists, fearing the worst from the partisans, reacted in different desperate ways. Some tried to turn their cars around. Others dove into chilly Lake Como to hide or swim away. A few were shot, but most were quickly rounded up. Pavolini was one of those wounded.
Meanwhile, the German column was halted in Dongo’s main square. The partisans checked documents and vehicles. It was not long before they came upon the gaunt shape slumped in the rear of the third truck. He’s just a drunken comrade, explained a German officer. Called over, Urbano Lazzaro was not fooled. He shook the slouching figure and, perhaps reflexively giving in to polite form of address, said, “Cavaliere [Excellency] Benito Mussolini.”
Il Duce, pale and exhausted, his jutting chin covered with stubble, arose and climbed out. “The dictator’s spirit was dead,” Lazzaro later recalled. “He was no longer of the living.”
Mussolini was told that he was being arrested “in the name of the Italian people” and would be safe as long as he offered no resistance. Surrounded by partisans, he walked slowly across the square to its town hall. A growing crowd, informed of the capture, applauded loudly. While Mussolini’s captors confiscated the two cases of documents, they left the others filled with currency and gold aboard the German convoy, which continued on its way.
The partisans informed their regional headquarters of the Comitato di Liberazione Nazioriale (CLN, National Liberation Committee set up to coordinate anti-Fascist activities) of the capture of Mussolini and most of his ministers. The CLN was asked what it wanted done with the prisoners. Bellini strongly believed that Il Duce should be held for trial by the Italian authorities, not the Allies. He did not seem to realize that, as a widely dispersed organization comprised of local committees representing all sorts of groups, the CLN was not geared to make a quick, acceptable-to-all decision. Only one group knew precisely what it wanted—the Communists.
While awaiting word from the CLN in Milan, Bellini decided to move his prisoner to a more secure place, where the Germans, Fascists, Allies, or more radical partisans could not snatch him. Mussolini, his uniform replaced by a mechanic’s overalls, was driven westward in the relentless rain along the climbing, winding road from Dongo to Germasino. He arrived there shortly before 7 pm, almost exactly 12 hours after his convoy was intercepted. There, only four miles from neutral Switzerland, he was housed in the Guardia di Finanza (Customs) barracks. Il Duce shared his captors’ expectation of a trial. “I shall have much to say at the tribunal and I will show that in these 18 months I saved Italy from worse disasters,” he told a Guardia sergeant.
From a Poor Blacksmith’s Son to a Dictator
Whatever awaited him, it was a far cry from the future Mussolini had envisioned for himself and his country when he assumed dictatorial power in 1925. Il Duce had followed a torturous political path before his ascent to power. He was born the son of a poor blacksmith on July 29, 1883, in the hamlet of Dovia just below the administrative center of Predappio in the northeastern foothills of the Apennines. A feisty youth, he went on to become a socialist journalist and propagandist. The socialists expelled him for going against the party line and calling for Italy’s entry into World War I.
Swinging to the other side of the political pendulum, he established a blackshirted nationalist revolutionary group called the Fasci di Combattimento (Fighting Leagues) in 1919. His charisma and oratory skills got him elected to parliament two years later as leader of the National Fascist Party. In 1922, Italy was beset by political, economic, and social turmoil. Feeding off this unrest and threatening a “march on Rome” to take over, Mussolini maneuvered himself into being asked to form a government. He became Italy’s youngest prime minister, at 39, on October 29, 1922.
A major setback caused by the murder of popular socialist parliamentarian Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist goons in 1924 proved temporary. In enhancing his image, Mussolini became the first 20th-century politician to exploit modern communication techniques. A dictatorship soon was established, banning opposition newspapers and parties, and setting up a so-called corporate state, all with the backing of big business, the military, and the church. The strutting lantern-jawed dictator gave rise to such expressions as “Mussolini is always right” and “He made the trains run on time.” Political repression was tempered by extensive public works programs.
Mussolini’s Mare Nostrum
Overseas, Mussolini tried to reestablish the glory of ancient Rome so that the Mediterranean Sea could become mare nostrum (our sea). In 1935, he ordered the invasion and annexation of Ethiopia. The following year, overcoming his earlier aversion to Adolf Hitler, he signed a treaty creating an alliance with Nazi Germany. He subsequently reinforced this with the Pact of Steel, committing Italy to side with Germany in case of war. In all, and to his later regret, Mussolini had 17 meetings with Hitler. Both dictators helped assure Francisco Franco’s victory during the Spanish Civil War. Next on the Italian agenda was Albania, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea; it was invaded on Good Friday 1939 and annexed.