On a road near Lake Como, a black Fiat saloon pulled up by the roadside.
A man with a gun jumped out and forced out the other occupants, who included a thickset, bald man of 61, his famous hypnotic eyes now clouded with fear, and his lover, a beautiful young woman who was weeping and clinging to him.
The couple were ordered to stand against a wall. The gunman spoke few words about death and justice for the Italian people, then raised his weapon.
‘You can’t do that!’ shouted the woman, you can’t shoot Mussolini!’ The gunman, an Italian partisan, ordered her to get away from him, but she refused. He pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The gun had jammed. The man hurriedly took another gun. Benito Mussolini was a bully and a coward who had been caught trying to flee Italy in disguise as the Allies advanced through the country. But now he managed to summon a façade of bravery.
Throwing open his coat, he faced the partisan squarely: ‘Shoot me in the chest,’ he ordered.
This time the gun did not jam. The first bullet hit his mistress. Clara Petacci fell to the ground, dead.
Mussolini, meanwhile, slid to the ground. Walking over, the partisan shot him again at close range. Mussolini jerked convulsively. Then he was still.
The news travelled swiftly. In England, Winston Churchill was delighted at the demise of the dictator. In Germany, Hitler made no comment when handed the news on a slip of paper. He had already announced that he had no intention of being taken alive by the Russians who were encircling Germany.
In Italy, in the port of Pozzuoli, near Naples, a ten-year-old girl named Sophia Villani heard the news, but she was more preoccupied with finding food than the death of the dictator.
For the last five years, Sophia had known only war. Together with her sister Maria and her mother Romilda — the girls’ father had deserted the family — they had watched from the balcony of their squalid little apartment as German soldiers beat and shot people in the streets below, rounding up Jews and throwing them into their trucks.
‘My young eyes saw one appalling, gruesome spectacle after another,’ she would later recall.
She was injured in an air raid, a piece of shrapnel hitting her on the chin, leaving a vivid scar and became so thin from food shortages that she was known as ‘the toothpick’.
When the Allies arrived in Italy, the American GIs and some Scots soldiers took pity on the little street urchin — and her beautiful mother — and shared their rations with them.
None of them could have suspected that years later she would become a movie star after catching the eye of film producer Carlo Ponti when she entered a beauty contest in Naples at the age of 14. He became her mentor and, eventually, her husband.