I’ve declared before that military thought and action holds close parallels to persuasion theory and practice and here’s yet another great illustration. Keep in mind my Rule:
You Can Get Farther with a Kind Word and a Gun than with Either Alone.
First, we set the scene. 1943 and a world at war. Hitler, a Fascist from Germany, and Mussolini, a Fascist from Italy, joined as Axis Powers and launched war against the Allies of the US, Great Britain, Free France, and the Soviet Union. The Fascists and their Axis partner, Japan, started the war with shocking and dominating victories that extended their dictatorial ambitions from Spain to Moscow, China to Guadalcanal. The Western Democracies hung on a thread in the early years, but by 1943, a string of Allied victories thickened that thread and the Allies fashioned a rope over the Axis Powers and began to pull it tight. First among the Fascists to fall: Mussolini. The Italian people loved him in victory, then hated him when he delivered only defeat. They rose up and deposed their once admired Il Duce, formed a new government, and held Mussolini prisoner, to hide him from rescue attempts by his oldest political partner, Hitler. The new Italian government surrounded Mussolini with hundreds of soldiers at all time, maintained tight security regarding his whereabouts, and moved him frequently across Italy and Sardinia, finally securing Mussolini in the Gran Sasso Mountain in central Italy, held in a sports hotel at the top of a remote and forbidding mountain accessible only through a cable car tram from the valley 6,000 feet below to the barren peak.
Even today, the mountain top is little changed with only a new observatory building added to the hotel and cable car station.
Hitler saw the strategic and tactical importance of rescuing Mussolini, so the Fuehrer hatched a plan and found the man to lead it: Otto Skorzeny.
As we noted in an earlier post, Skorzeny employed persuasion plays from the begining of this mission. He first had to locate where Mussolini was held and that required the action of a German physician who scouted a suspicious location as part of a public plan to run a malaria clinic. That physician’s report convinced Skorzeny that Mussolini was held in the Campo Imperator Hotel on top of the Gran Sasso Mountain. Skorzeny quickly worked up a plan that involved landing 10 gliders with 90 commandos on board. But, even 90 elite Special Forces could not shoot their way in and out of that remote mountaintop with hundreds of Italian soldiers. So, Skorzeny decided to add persuasion to his power.
Skorzeny ran this rescue like a persuasion experiment with a well chosen cast, all dressed for the part. He managed to convince the 200+ Italian soldiers and officers holding Mussolini to let him go with just a handful of commandoes and an Italian general. No big Hollywood gunfight, cool explosions, or hand to hand combat. Just surprise and a great script. Pictures of the event show that Italian General looking like a Central Casting Field General. Here’s a shot of Mussolini (in the black hat) with the Italian General, Ferdinano Soleti (back to camera on left), who looks dapper, relaxed, and commanding while conversing with Mussolini.
There’s an old theater expression, Dress the Part and the Role Plays Itself. You see that here with all the appearances of power and control in Skorzeny and Soleti. Skorzeny added greater touches including most importantly gaining physical control of Mussolini in less than 5 minutes after crash landing his glider on a rocky field near the hotel. Skorzeny literally put his hands on the deposed leader and escorted him physically through the Italian soldiers and officers like he was moving Il Duce through a cocktail party.
The event clearly gained Low WATT traction among those soldiers charged with jailing Mussolini. They just observed the Cues – dress, demeanor, physical possession of Mussolini – and stopped thinking about the situation. It just seemed right to hand over Mussolini to the General and Skorzeny. Hey, they even posed for a group shot with the Germans!
As you look at these photos taken at the scene of one of the most daring and dangerous special operation missions ever attempted, you might wonder who brought along a camera. This mission could have turned into a bloodbath between a few hundred men all armed with rifles and automatic weapons. You never bring a knife to a gunfight, so who brings a camera?
Turns out that Skorzeny deliberately and thoughtfully pulled two German soldiers out of the gliders used in the landing and substituted a journalist and a cameraman in their stead. Consider this account.
Another last-minute Skorzeny decision was to bump two more Fallschirmjager to make room for a war correspondent and a photographer – it was becoming clearer by the minute that Skorzeny was more interested in the public relations of the mission than the tactical details. Robert Forczyk, Rescuing Mussolini – Gran Sasso 1943, page 27.
You need to note, then consider, the sincere confusion of the writer with the observation that “. . . Skorzeny was more interested in the public relations . . .” If you only want a gunfight, then bringing a camera along seems a stupid and vain move. Of course, gunfighters are pretty sincere and don’t stop to consider the persuasion utility of a camera on the scene. I cannot quote any source to verify the perception I’m going to describe, but merely looking at all the photos from the event, it appears that the PR machine hit the ground early in the operation and was filming and interviewing immediately. Think about that for a moment.
You’re an Italian soldier or officer guarding Mussolini on this remote and inaccessible mountain top. Suddenly German gliders begin landing within a few hundred feet of you. Up until a few weeks ago, Germany and Italy were Axis buddies and now there’s this confusing coup and things are up in the air. A big German officer and a dapper Italian General come walking over to you explaining that they are here to take possession of Mussolini. You see more German gliders land around you. A camera crew runs up to the scene and starts taking pictures. A war correspondent begins interviewing you and your buddies. Then, the big German officer comes walking out of the hotel with his arm around a smiling Mussolini and it’s all good. The Italian General smiles at Il Duce and shakes his hand. More photos. More interviews. Then a very small German propellor plane lands nearby and the German officer and Mussolini climb in and take off.
That PR crew was a persuasion box. It helped convince the Italians that this was not a gunfight, but rather an orderly transfer of custody. Hey, an Italian General is on the scene explaining things. Hey, the Germans aren’t shooting anything except a camera. Hey, look over here and say, “Formaggio!”
And, too, consider the persuasion implications of those photographs for the wider war effort of the Germans. Those pictures document a friendly relationship between German and Italian soldiers with a smiling Il Duce in the middle. Maybe the Italian people overthrew Mussolini, but his soldiers didn’t. The Germans could offer vivid photographic proof that Mussolini was alive and in the game and that Italians were okay with that.
Hey, you gunfighters out there. That camera crew was not about PR and vanity. It was about accomplishing the mission. Skorzeny used everyone’s desire to be famous in pictures to subdue potential Italian resistance AND acquire indisputable evidence that the Axis was alive and well. Gunfighting alone would never have achieved these outcomes. If only one Italian soldier took one shot at and hit Mussolini, the mission would have failed. The only casualities occurred among Germans in two gliders that landed badly on that rough and windswept mountain top. Gunfire injured no one.
See now the impact of my Rule.
You Can Get Farther with a Kind Word and a Gun than with Either Alone.
Skorzeny did need guns for this mission for two different functions. The first and preferred function was as window dressing; armed German soldiers looked official, like they were doing government business. The second, and less preferred function was for gunfighting. If you read more about Skorzeny and his commandos, you’d leave your money on them in a gunfight. They would have taken the position and probably kept Mussolini alive in the fight. But, because they looked so good just arriving on the scene, they did not have to prove their skill with a gun. The guns did provide that sense of power, primarily as a symbol, but also as a threatened promise.
To that Skorzeny added persuasion. A well dressed and familiar Italian officer. A big and dangerously dressed German officer. A camera crew and war correspondent. Speed, lights, and action, baby. Skorzeny ran this like a scene for a Hollywood movie and made 250 armed soldiers feel like starring players. No one wanted to ruin the take with a gunfight.
Consider now these Rules.
All Persuasion Is Local. The Italians moved Mussolini to several locations and at least once before on Sardinia, Skorzeny thought he could make his move. That plan required a different kind of rescue that would have needed serious gun fighting. Skoreny adapted to the Local conditions.
Drive with Science, Putt with Poetry. Skorzeny flew over the Gran Sasso taking photos at great personal risk – he literally layed out of the plane in the freezing Alpine air, snapping pictures while another man held him by the ankles. He drew up maps, estimated force requirements, tested glider capacities, and made modifications. He glided in on Science, but once on the ground, nothing but Poetry.
Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not. This mission may be the single best illustration of this Rule. You don’t persuade just for the hell of it, but rather use persuasion to accomplish a larger goal. See two larger goals here. First, Skorzeny used persuasion to confuse, distract, and mislead a potentially dangerous and fatal threat to his success. The Italian soldiers apparently never fired a single shot and not because they were overwhelmed by a superior attacking force, but because they perceived no danger to themselves that required shooting. Second, Skorzeny used persuasion to generate a huge public relations presentation of Mussolini’s return. The pictures showed friendly and cooperative Italian soldiers with friendly and cooperative German soldiers and that beaming boy himself, Benito Mussolini. What revolution? What coup? What?
Return finally to my opening observation. Persuasion and war fighting are very similar activities. You can learn from one to learn more about the other.