In September 1943, Nazi paratroopers staged a daring commando raid that rescued Mussolini from the Apennine Mountain ski resort where he was being detained. Hitler installed Mussolini as the figurehead of the Social Republic of Italy (known informally as the Republic of Salo), a Nazi puppet state in German-occupied northern Italy.
By April 25, 1945, however, the Third Reich was quickly losing its grip on northern Italy. With his stronghold of Milan teetering on the precipice, Mussolini agreed to meet with a delegation of partisans at the palace of Milan’s Cardinal Alfredo Schuster. There, a furious Mussolini learned that, unbeknownst to him, the Nazis had begun negotiations for an unconditional surrender.
Mussolini stormed out of the palace and fled Milan with his 33-year-old mistress, Clara Petacci, in the 1939 Alfa Romeo sport car he had bought as a gift for his girlfriend.
The following day, the pair joined a convoy of fellow fascists and German soldiers heading north toward Lake Como and the border with Switzerland. Mussolini donned a German Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat, but the disguise did little to save him when partisans stopped the convoy at the lakeside town of Dongo ,on the north western shore of Lake Como.,on April 27. For 20 years, Mussolini had built a cult of personality with his image emblazoned on posters and newspapers. Now, the familiarity of his distinctive shaved head and granite jaw, even in disguise, did him in.
A group of local communist partisans led by Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle and Urbano Lazzaro attacked the convoy and forced it to halt.
The partisans recognised one Italian fascist leader in the convoy, but not Mussolini at this stage, and made the Germans hand over all the Italians in exchange for allowing the Germans to proceed. Eventually Mussolini was discovered slumped in one of the convoy vehicles. Lazzaro later said that
His face was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind. I read utter exhaustion, but not fear … Mussolini seemed completely lacking in will, spiritually dead.
The partisans arrested Mussolini and took him to Dongo, where he spent part of the night in the local barracks.In all, over fifty fascist leaders and their families were found in the convoy and arrested by the partisans. Aside from Mussolini and Petacci, sixteen of the most prominent of them would be summarily shot in Dongo the following day and a further ten would be killed over two successive nights.
Fighting was still going on in the area around Dongo. Fearing that Mussolini and Petacci might be rescued by fascist supporters, the partisans drove them, in the middle of the night, to a nearby farm of a peasant family named de Maria; they believed this would be a safe place to hold them. Mussolini and Petacci spent the rest of the night and most of the following day there.
On the evening of Mussolini’s capture, Sandro Pertini, the Socialist partisan leader in northern Italy, announced on Radio Milano:
“The head of this association of delinquents, Mussolini, while yellow with rancour and fear and trying to cross the Swiss frontier, has been arrested. He must be handed over to a tribunal of the people so it can judge him quickly. We want this, even though we think an execution platoon is too much of an honour for this man. He would deserve to be killed like a mangy dog.”
Mussolini and Claretta Petacci were executed the following day.