The Capture of Mussolini’s Last Residence by 10th Mountain Division
Spearheading the Allied advance through northern Italy, soldiers of the United States 10th Mountain Division arrived at the picturesque Lake Garda. By late April 1945 they had the struggling German army on the retreat as they pushed their way into the heart of the last Axis stronghold in Italy and eventually into the very home of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Known to the Italians as “Lago di Garda”, the area was the seat of the newly formed Salo Republic, headed by Mussolini.
Hitler was using Mussolini as a leader of a “puppet government” to help rally what Fascist support remained and more importantly to protect Germany’s southern flank. After his rescue from exile by a squad of German Falshirmjager, led by Otto Skorzeny, the government’s headquarters and Mussolini’s personal residence were established in the Villa Feltrinelli, which sat on the lakeshore near Gargnano.
Built in 1892, the villa was occupied by members of the prominent Feltrinelli family who made their fortune in the lumber industry. They lived in the beautiful home until the German Army confiscated it in 1943. The Germans assigned thirty of their elite SS guards to watch over Mussolini’s every move and militarized the villa’s grounds. They dug a bomb shelter with cemented walls, erected gun emplacements including several anti-aircraft weapons, and the villa itself was given a coat of the infamous German field-gray paint.
Mussolini was not so much a resident of the villa as he was a prisoner. Surrounded by German soldiers and having every decision scrutinized by the German commanders, Mussolini seemed very aware of his status. The embattled dictator referred to the villa as a “dark and gloomy place”, a statement more aptly a reflection of the current stage of his life than a description of his new home. He often found solace with his longtime mistress, Claretta Petacci, who was conveniently relocated into the nearby Villa Fiordaliso.
Leaving the Villa Feltrinelli for the final time on April 18, 1945, Mussolini entered the drawing room where his son, Romano was playing “The Blue Danube” on the piano. He bid his wife and family farewell, simply telling them he was off to Milan for a conference. The next contact with him was on April 23, 1945 when Mussolini spoke to his wife, Rachele, on the phone telling her to flee the villa, and move to the old royal residence at Monza. There they were to be reunited with him at Lake Como north of Milan but the meeting never took place. Along with his mistress, he was captured and executed by Italian Partisans while hiding near Lake Como on April 28.
On May 28, 1945, the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, who already faced tough opposition in the heavily fortified North Apennine Mountains and Po River Valley, were greeted at Lake Garda by a determined German Army. The Germans now at a critical point in the war were not quite ready to leave the country altogether so they launched what would be their last bid to retain Italy.
Explosives had demolished the first of the six tunnels along the road on the lake’s eastern coast, slowing the advance of the 86th Regiment until DUKWS (amphibious trucks) were requisitioned to circumvent the blown tunnel. As they traveled in the open water, anti-aircraft shells exploded overhead raining shrapnel and killing at least one soldier.
Once onshore, the men continued up the highway. On April 29, 1945 while members of the 86th Regiment were entering the fifth tunnel, a precisely fired German 88mm shell exploded inside, killing four soldiers and wounding many more. Adding to the horror of the scene were the bodies of twelve German soldiers, victims of a failed attempt to sabotage the tunnel with explosives.
The same day, preparations began to capture Mussolini’s villa, or “castle” as many of the soldiers called it. Lying on the west side of the lake, the villa had been under surveillance by the Allies since their arrival. The operation could have proved to be quite perilous since just the prior day, German soldiers were spotted moving north along the highway. Several unusual structures, whitish-gray in color, were seen near the villa, and were perceived to be some type of military fortifications or bunkers. In addition, looming ominously on the villa itself was a large turret-like structure, perfect for positioning machine guns or anti-aircraft artillery.
Lieutenant Eugene Hames, leader of a platoon in the 85th Regiment’s K Company, was one of the men selected to lead the operation. The others to be leading the operation were Captain Cooper also of Company K, Lieutenant Bogan of Company M and acting battalion commander Major Eric Wikner.
The initial plan was to have the twenty-five year old Lieutenant Hames, accompanied by ten men from his platoon, cross the lake in the middle of the afternoon by motorboat and capture the villa. However, the operation was soon to be altered from its original conception.
As Lt Hames was in the platoon area selecting men for the mission, a jeep containing a colonel in the passenger seat drove up. Patiently listening to all the details, the colonel responded, "I do not like this, Lieutenant."
"I don't either, Sir", Lt Hames replied frankly. The colonel decided it would be best to postpone the mission, until an alternate plan was established.
The colonel, who quite possibly saved the lives of the original ten men by delaying the mission, would never have a chance to hear of its successful execution. He was killed by a German artillery shell on the very day of the villa’s occupation while standing outside the 10th Mountain Division’s temporary headquarters in Torbole. The colonel was William O. Darby, who trained and commanded the First Ranger Battalion, which fought valiantly through North Africa. Colonel Darby was now serving as Assistant Division Commander for the 10th Mountain Division near the end of the war.
However, before Darby’s death, the orders were changed substantially. First, a special task force commanded by Major Eric Wikner, acting commander of the 3rd Battalion, would carry out the mission. The assault force would consist of all Company K, under Captain Richard Cooper and one heavy machine gun platoon from Company M, under Lieutenant 1st Lieutenant Henry Bogin. With Germans spotted across the lake, the additional firepower of their .30 caliber machine guns might be needed. Second, the operation was scheduled to take place at night instead of the original daylight assault. Third, the orders were to have the task force travel across the lake in several DUKWs instead of motorboats.
Around 1:30am on April 30, the DUKWs departed the “duckhead” at San Zeno. Sputtering along in a staggered formation, the trip took one hour to cross the four miles of open water. Although the darkness concealed their positions, the noise of the crafts’ grinding engines eliminated any possible hope of a surprise attack. In later years, Lt Hames stated, "I recall thinking that what we were about to do was comparable to going pheasant hunting while riding on a Ford tractor."
Reaching the opposite bank two miles north of the villa, the engines were cut and the vehicles glided ashore. The men proceeded to unload, as quickly as possible, assuming that if the Germans launched a counterattack that it would begin by a shelling of the landing area. The DUKWs were left at the landing area in the event of a withdrawal or evacuation was needed. As the men moved towards the road, they encountered terraces, which were several feet high. They clamored up them and pressed on towards the villa.
The night was very dark and an elderly Italian man approached them on a bicycle. Fortunately, he was not shot by some of the startled soldiers and he informed them the Germans left town the previous day. This was the German movement Lt Hames had observed. Pressing on towards the villa, much to their amusement and relief they discovered that the unusual fortification was actually a lemon orchard or “limonaia”. The whitish-gray rock columns had wooden beams running between them, which supported the fruit as it grew.
Arriving on the villa grounds, several squads continued forward to the town of Gargnano. Several roadblocks were set up along the winding roads while Lt Hames formed a perimeter around the property. Posting guards at the back entrance, he cautiously entered the villa through the front door with a few others.
Making their way into the villa, they found it as if Mussolini had just stepped out for the evening. All of his personal belongings and other items were still in place. The large kitchen was stocked with food, and the bedrooms were lavishly furnished, complete with clean sheets on the beds. With his dress uniforms still hanging in the closet, Mussolini’s bedroom was quickly established as a command post.
One room that appeared to be a pharmacy gave evidence to Mussolini's failing health near the end of the war. It contained numerous kinds of pills and various medications including those to aid his suffering from a duodenal ulcer and blocked bile duct. While at the villa, he even had a German doctor appointed by Hitler who gave him vitamin injections and hormones.
Inside the grand dining room, the enormous table had its place settings laid out as if a meal was to be served soon. Private First Class Harold Sutton, a machine gunner from Company M was among those entering the dining room. He recalled, “Hanging above the table was the most beautiful chandelier I ever saw.”
Several items of historical note were found in the villa. Swords presented to “Il Duce” from Hitler and Hirohito were found, along with his priceless Stradivarius violin. Various medals were also discovered, one from a mountain climbing school while the other was a gift from Pope Pious XII. Many of these items were “liberated” by the visiting soldiers. Most of these items made their way back to the United States and are still part of personal collections.
Elsewhere around the grounds, the soldiers continued to find other luxury items, but unlike those inside, these were not left for the comfort and use of the new occupants. The dock in front of the villa was intact, but a beautiful boat with an inboard motor, had been destroyed and sat partially submerged. Two black Mercedes sat in the large garage, their engines ruined by strategically placed phosphorus grenades.
By 8:15am on April 30, the villa was secured as ordered without a shot being fired. The men spent the following week exploring the surrounding villages and enjoying the villa, even taking turns sleeping in Mussolini’s large bed. Many went into Gargnano to purchase souvenirs, mail correspondence, eat meals, and get a hot shower.
On May 2, 1945 while still at the villa, the news they had been longing for was finally heard, “The German Army in Italy has surrendered.” The men were elated by news but were again nervous as they were ordered to move to Udine in northeastern Italy, near Trieste. Along with the British Eighth Army, they were to prevent any further westward movement by Yugoslavia’s forces. Eventually, the communists relented by evacuating the area, thus ending the war for the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s total losses while in Italy were 975 killed in action and 3,891 wounded in action. Included in this number were the 62 KIA and 270 WIA casualties that occurred during the battle for Lake Garda.
After the war, ownership of the villa transferred back to the Feltrinelli family. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was the leader of the family’s publishing house who later joined the communist party. He was a candidate for the Italian elections in 1948 and used the villa to promote political propaganda. Upon Giangiacomo’s death, a result of his participation in political terrorism, the villa was mostly uninhabited during the 1960’s until his son Carlo decided to sell it to a party outside the Feltrinelli family.
In 1997, hotelier Bob Burns purchased the villa and it underwent a five-year restoration project. Due to the villa’s historical significance, the restoration included negotiations with Italian preservation authorities and also Mussolini’s granddaughter who believed the property could serve as a memorial to her famous grandfather.
It is now the Grand Hotel Villa Feltrinelli and is open for accommodations to the public. Although the rates are higher than the average traveler may budget, the more seasoned traveler will enjoy their time at the villa in one of its thirteen guestrooms, two of which have outdoor terraces. Over seventy pieces of original antique furniture can be found throughout the villa. Each bedroom also features its own bathroom with heated marble floors.
The bedrooms are only a few of the elegant rooms inside the villa. There are also other public rooms that offer luxuries, including a library featuring classical literature and vintage National Geographic and Life magazines. Concealed in a cabinet is a large plasma video screen, which offers a variety of films to guests. Guests can mingle in the salon, a beautiful gathering room featuring ceiling frescos and a grand piano.
Other services available are personal tours of Lake Garda aboard “La Contessa”, the villa’s own fifty-two foot luxury boat, therapeutic massages either indoors or outdoors, and an eight acre park. Inside the park, are lighted paths, a croquet green, the original limonaia built in the late 1800’s, which are the structures the soldiers observed and individual guesthouses.
The four guesthouses located on the perfectly manicured grounds are for guests who wish to have a more private stay but still wish to enjoy the beauty of the villa. Each of these offers their own unique décor and are named La Limonaia, Casa di Fiori, Casa Rustica, and The Boat House.
The cemented bomb shelter that was dug by the German soldiers, now houses large generators, which help supply power to the villa. However, one feature now absent is the large turret-like structure, which was taken down sometime after the end of the war but before the purchase by Mr. Burns.
The occupation of Benito Mussolini’s final residence has been tucked away deep in the annals of WWII history, and the story is relatively unknown outside of the circle of 10th Mountain Division veterans and their descendants. It has been long overdue that the story of this unique operation was shared publicly with those outside this circle. For the men who participated, they will forever recall proudly the day they captured “Mussolini’s Castle”.