Mussolini’s military bubble burst with Italy’s entry into World War II. Recognizing the nation’s lack of preparedness, the opportunistic Duce hoped to ride on the coattails of German victories and share the spoils of war with minimum risk. As he told Marshal Pietro Badoglio, his chief of the supreme general staff, “I need several thousand dead to be able to take my place at the peace table.”
The results were predictable; the Fascist lion that roared turned out to be a shabby tabby. Mussolini waited until the French had just about succumbed to the German blitzkrieg in June 1940 before invading southeastern France. The Italians were bloodied. Italy also suffered defeats in East Africa, North Africa, and Greece. Hitler had to come to Mussolini’s rescue to the detriment of his own projected invasion of the Soviet Union.
A Dictator on the Run: Mussolini’s Escape from Campo Imperatore
Il Duce’s house of cards finally tumbled after the 1943 Allied invasion of his country. Timid King Victor Emmanuel III, who had agreed to Mussolini’s 1920s takeover, dismissed the dictator “after long hesitation and in some fear” and had him imprisoned in Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski lodge in the Apennines northwest of Rome. Once again Hitler came to the rescue. Four days after the new Italian government under Marshal Badoglio proclaimed an armistice on September 8, 1943, 90 German glider troops led by SS Captain Otto Skorzeny landed on a rock-littered meadow beside the isolated lodge.
They quickly freed the hapless Mussolini and bundled him into a tiny Fieseler Storch observation plane. The high-winged aircraft wobbled over the rough ground and dropped off the 6,500-foot plateau. It slowly nosed up in the thin air and carried Skorzeny and his prize to Rome. Mussolini went on to Germany to be told what to do by his protector.
A physically and mentally depleted Mussolini was set up as the powerless head of a Republica Sociale Italiana. His puppet regime, monitored by German watchdogs, was subsequently established at Salo in northern Italy. The move was a last-ditch effort to “legitimize the German occupation of Italy and demonstrate the continuity of the Nazi-Fascist alliance.” The wartorn country obviously was in a chaotic state as the Allies gradually shoved the Germans back up the Italian peninsula. A national government of soldiers and technocrats operated under tight American and British oversight to the south.
In the north, in addition to the Salo Republic, a rebellion coordinated by the CLN was resisting both the Axis and, with few exceptions, the royalty-tainted Badoglio government.
In April 1945, feebly asserting what independence he had left, Mussolini moved his capital first westward to Milan and then north to Como at the lower end of the tourist-attracting lake. Il Duce had regressed from a popular, high-profile public figure to a mere shadow, his bombastic bravado generally reduced to pessimism, resignation, and self-pity.
To one German he said, “Death has become a friend who no longer frightens me. Death is a gift from God to those who have suffered too much.” On April 14, the onetime dictator had his last formal meeting with the Germans, whom he blamed for his fall and now sought to discard in hope that a compromise accommodation could be reached with the CLN. The Allies had already refused to enter into negotiations, which the desperate Duce tried to initiate behind the Germans’ backs. Mussolini soon heard that the Nazis in Italy were trying to do the same thing behind Hitler’s back.
Just before leaving the prefecture at Como on his final journey, Mussolini penned a letter to his wife, Rachele, who had just arrived at a villa near the town. In it he asked “forgiveness for all the harm I have unwittingly done you. But you know that you are the only woman I have ever really loved.” He signed it, “Your Benito.” Distraught, she made several attempts to phone him. When they finally connected, she urged him to “flee to safety.” He calmly told her, “I see that all is over.” He did not want to leave Italian soil.
During the last days of Il Duce’s reign, Rachele and their children seemed always to be one town behind him. The couple had three boys and two girls. Mussolini, a notorious womanizer, also had at least one illegitimate child. Unlike his family, his mistress remained close by his side. She maintained that her “destiny was irrevocably linked with his.”
Mussolini left Como during the dark morning hours of April 26 with a small group, including his German babysitter, Lieutenant Birzer. They drove northward only a few miles to Menaggio. There Il Duce was joined by the Italians, including the Petaccis, who would accompany him on the final leg of his journey. Lieutenant Schallmayer’s Luftwaffe unit arrived as well to become part of the group of evacuees. The day was one of wasted movement caused by the confusion and indecision of frightened men. They finally settled down to spend the night in the lakeside town’s militia barracks. Waking early, Mussolini and his entourage set out before dawn. It was not long before their convoy ran into the partisan roadblock, ironically between Musso and Dongo.
“I Have Come to Shoot Them”
Count Bellini, apparently fearing that the Germasino site was still not secure enough for his well-known prisoner, decided on another move. Awakened during the night, Mussolini was disguised with bandages to pose as a wounded partisan. He was driven in a chilling rain back to Dongo. There he rejoined his lover. Traveling in two cars, the couple and their captors motored back toward Como. However, they never reached their destination, a secluded house two miles northeast of Como on the opposite side of the more than 30-mile-long lake. Distant gunfire stopped them. They learned that Allied troops were fighting diehard Fascists in Como.
The vehicles did a 180-degree turn and drove 10 miles to near Azzano on the lakeshore. Tired and sopping wet from the continuing rain, the small party made its way up the rugged foothills for about 15 minutes. They had to pause once so that Petacci, wearing high heels, a fur coat, and toting two large bags, could rest. At about 3 am, they reached the two-story home of a farmer known to the partisans. While the two prisoners slept, their fate was being debated by the CLN in liberated Milan.
Accounts differ, but it has been established that the Communists on the committee, acting on the orders of party secretary Palmiro Togliatti (who also was vice premier in the new Italian government), were determined to immediately execute Mussolini. Concealing their intent as much as possible from their less-radical colleagues, they persuaded the CLN to let one of their number bring the captives back to Milan. The man designated was Walter Audisio, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War’s International Brigades who used the pseudonym Colonel Valerio.
By the morning of Saturday, April 28, the storm had given way to dazzling sunlight. Audisio, his travels eased by a pass signed by the American liaison officer assigned to the CLN, pursued his single-minded mission accompanied by a fellow Communist, Aldo Lampredi, and a partisan escort. They followed Mussolini’s earlier route to Dongo via Como. Arriving at about 2 pm, they were received with anything but open arms.
Bellini insisted that the 52nd Brigade should have the honor of taking the captive to Milan. An argument ensued until Audisio blurted, “I have come to shoot them.” The Communist, stressing the fact that he was Bellini’s superior in the partisan movement, claimed that he was carrying out the CLN’s orders. Bellini slowly gave ground, suggesting that all the Fascist prisoners be gathered in Dongo to be formally turned over to Audisio. The latter, with Lampredi and two Communist partisans, left to get Mussolini and Petacci. Bellini went to fetch the other captives.
“Shoot Me in the Chest”
In the meantime, Il Duce and his mistress had risen late. At noon, given a lunch of polenta in their upstairs bedroom, Mussolini told Petacci that he had lost his appetite; suspense over their fate was getting to him. The waiting ended at about 4 pm. Audisio, wearing a brown raincoat and waving a submachine gun, burst into the room.
“Come quickly,” the intruder snapped. “I’ve come to free you.” The couple was hurried back down the hillside to the road. They were placed in the rear of a waiting black Fiat 1100. Audisio perched himself on a fender, while two partisans mounted the running boards. The other men, including two who had been guarding the farmhouse, squeezed into the sedan with the prisoners and the driver. They sped off. It was a short drive, perhaps a mile, ending just outside the hamlet of San Guilino di Mezzegra on Via XXIV Maggio (May 24 Road, named after the day in 1915 when Italian armies entered World War I).
Mussolini and Petacci, still in her ridiculously high heels, walked to the nearby iron-grilled gate of the Villa Belmonte, a large house on Lake Como protected by a low stone wall backed by high hedges. Audisio tried the gate. It was locked. Lampredi and one of the partisans were instructed to stand guard several yards on either side of the gate. The prisoners stood, backs to the wall, just to the left of the entrance. Their appointed executioner said, “By general headquarters of the Corpo Volontari della Liberta [Corps of Volunteers of Liberty, the CLN’s military arm] I am charged with rendering justice for the Italian people.”