The spies who hunted Mussolini

At the height of the Second World War, Allied secret operatives schemed sabotage and assassinations in Fascist Italy – even targeting the Italian leader. Roderick Bailey reviews new evidence revealing Britain’s attempts to bring Il Duce’s regime down from the inside.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

In 1944, Allied soldiers searching a police station near the shell-torn Italian town of Anzio discovered a year-old Italian document carrying an urgent warning. “Informing all concerned of a projected attempt on the life of Il Duce… alleged to be sponsored by the British,” it declared. The would-be assassin was described thus: “Height 1.77m, chest 86cm, wavy brown hair, long face, round chin, brown eyes, regular eyebrows, rosy complexion, defective teeth, age about 30, slim, low forehead.”

That document eventually found its way to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret British organisation formed in June 1940 to encourage resistance and carry out sabotage behind enemy lines. Today, the popular image of SOE’s work is dominated by stories of secret agents in Nazi-occupied France. In reality, its activities were global in scale: operatives fought beside resistance movements as disparate as communist partisans in the Balkans and headhunting tribes in Borneo.

Another target for its attentions was closer to home: Fascist Italy. So when the document retrieved at Anzio reached SOE, it sat up and took notice – had one of its operatives been exposed? Well, possibly. Although the Italian authorities hadn’t obtained the real name of the supposed assassin, SOE conceded that the plot outlined did rather resemble an earlier plan they had concocted to kill Benito Mussolini.

 

Igniting revolution

Seventy years on, dramatic details of SOE’s efforts in tackling Il Duce (‘The Leader’) and his regime are finally emerging from newly declassified British and Italian files. Mooted plans ranged from igniting a revolution in Sardinia to an attempt to arm the Mafia – and a proposal to kill Mussolini himself.

Also emerging is a picture that runs counter to the enduring image of Italian military failings during the Second World War: when it came to cloak-and-dagger warfare, Italy frequently had the edge.

Between 1940, when Mussolini entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany, and 1943, when he fell from power and the Italians signed an armistice, SOE was the principal secret Allied force tasked with causing trouble inside Italy. From the start, however, clandestine penetration of its borders proved a formidable challenge.

The first problem was the lack of available intelligence. Because of the cautious policies of prewar British governments, information had to be gathered more or less from scratch. “What were the British embassy and the various British Secret Service organisations doing in Italy from 1922 to 1940?” wrote one appalled SOE officer. “[I]f the whole resources of the British Empire have failed to obtain any confidential information from Italy during the past 18 years, then God help us.”

Then there was the problem of recruiting support: finding Italians with suitable attributes and who were prepared to help was far from easy. Most organised opposition inside the country had been crushed or dispersed years before. To the Allies, Italy was an enemy country, not an enemy-occupied one; conditions there were very different to those that SOE encountered in conquered territories. True, the Fascists had intimidated or defrauded large sections of the electorate, and burdened Italy with a costly war that it was poorly equipped to fight. But that did not mean that its population felt secure enough or pro-Allied enough to confront those in charge; nor, for that matter, would they wish to end up on the losing side if Italy prevailed.

For two years, SOE trawled far-flung PoW and internment camps for Italians who were willing to work as British agents. “Conditions most unfavourable,” recruiters reported after another failed sweep through camps in India. “Prisoners enthusiastic at [news of] Japanese successes.”

Over time, though, SOE succeeded in identifying a number of volunteers who seemed suitable for covert work. Some were communist or socialist ex-prisoners or ex-internees; others were Jews who had fled Italy before the war to escape persecution, or Italians who had lived for years in Britain. Some were adventurers, seeking excitement or self-enrichment. Most were Italian-born, but the cadre also included an Englishman, a Yugoslav and a Hungarian, plus a few Canadians and Americans. In the event, though, only a handful were sent into action.

Conventional Allied forces did not come close to landing on Italian soil until well into 1943, so SOE was restricted to working its way into Fascist Italy from the edges. A tiny band of agents was sent in – on foot, by parachute and aboard submarines – to seek out underground contacts and operate secret radio sets. Each one was effectively leaping into the dark, and risked the harshest penalty if caught. Indeed, half of them were captured and killed.

One such doomed agent was Antonio Gallo, originally from Verona. He had been loaned to MI6 in response to its request for an SOE radio operator to land in Sicily alongside one of its own men. The mission was hamstrung from the start. Learning that MI6 had no contacts on Sicily, and that no safe house had been arranged for the pair, one staff officer at SOE’s Baker Street headquarters warned – to no avail – that it seemed “more or less a suicide job”.

 

Tried and shot

On the fateful October night in 1942, Gallo and the MI6 agent were landed by submarine on the Sicilian coast, and duly paddled ashore. They were captured just moments later. Both were taken to Rome, tried, and shot in the spare, lonely courtyard of Forte Bravetta, an isolated and obsolete fortress in the countryside outside the capital. As in other such cases, the condemned were seated and bound with their backs to the firing squad – the Fascist way of dealing with traitors.

SOE’s agents in Italy rarely fared better on their own missions. In January 1943, two men put ashore on Sardinia were captured within 24 hours of landing. One was taken to Corsica and, under threat of execution, forced to help round up French SOE operatives on the island. He was spared death – not so the arrested French. His fellow agent, a Hungarian Jew who had lived in Italy as a boy, was forced to send messages from his radio pretending that he was operating successfully on Sardinia, in an attempt to persuade the British to send more agents and stores – which fell directly into Italian hands. He was subsequently moved to Rome, where he was still in prison when the Germans took the city in September 1943. In June 1944, they shot him.

American troops dock at the port of Anzio in January 1944 during the Allied campaigns in Italy. SOE’s efforts in the country had delivered few rewards. © Getty

Neither SOE nor MI6 emerges with much credit from these episodes. Overconfident in the ability of their agents to survive in Italy undetected, they were often careless with the lives of those who were sent in, and seem to have learned little from failed missions. The pair of agents caught in Sardinia, for instance, had had no contacts waiting for them, looked out of place and suffered from a lack of local knowledge. They were caught “because they approached a shepherd whilst he was guarding his flock”, an Italian prisoner of war later told the British. “No native would ever do this.”

But when the paucity of resources available to SOE is considered, it’s easier to understand such half-cocked plans for catapulting agents into Italy. It’s important to acknowledge, too, that officers at headquarters were under pressure to deliver results. Encouraged by victories on north African battlefields over conventional Italian forces whose morale, leadership and fighting abilities were poor, senior Allied commanders viewed Italy as the weakest link in the Axis, and made its defeat a strategic priority. For months, even Hugh Dalton, Britain’s minister of economic warfare – effectively the minister responsible for SOE – hounded its officers to wreak havoc on Italian soil.

These factors may also go some way to explain SOE’s enthusiasm for perhaps its most extraordinary project in Italy: the plot to assassinate Mussolini.

Mussolini was no stranger to attempts on his life. “The bullets pass,” he once declared, but “Mussolini remains… I’m convinced I shall die in my bed when my work for the Greater Italy is done.” Probably his closest shave came in 1926, when he faced an unlikely would-be assassin in Rome. Violet Gibson, the troubled daughter of an Anglo-Irish lord, emerged from a crowd on the Capitoline Hill, aimed a revolver at his head and fired from just 20cm away. Fortunately for Mussolini, the bullet merely nicked his nose. “Fancy!” he was alleged to have said afterwards. “Fancy – a woman!”

But it wasn’t until Italy closed ranks with Germany in 1940 that the British began to consider an assassination. Twice the Royal Air Force suggested a low-level bombing attack on Mussolini’s office and home in Rome; the second such proposal, from Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, suggested that Guy Gibson’s squadron of Dambusters should carry out the mission.

By early 1942, SOE were deliberating over a plan for killing Mussolini – or ‘Benny’, as he was sometimes codenamed in SOE files. The operation they decided on would be very much a ‘lone wolf’ mission. It required a man to masquerade as a captured Italian soldier, break out of a British-run PoW camp in the Middle East and make for neutral Turkey, from where, it was hoped, Italian diplomats would repatriate him. Once home, he would mount an attempt on Il Duce’s life.

Ruminating on this, one SOE officer in London considered it “rather a scatter-brained project” that “revealed a poverty of operational conception”. For one thing, the methods proposed for disposing of Mussolini were flawed – it seems they comprised poisoning, or a violent attack during one of his public speeches. The same officer observed that: “Mussolini’s food was not to be got at, and certainly not through the activities of an unknown individual from outside. The Duce would certainly not be alive today if it were as simple as all that. Moreover, he seldom spoke from a specially prepared rostrum, and his appearances were not heralded in advance.”

 

An odious thug

Remarkably, SOE gave the mission the green light, albeit with a fresh target in mind: the thuggish Roberto Farinacci, one of Mussolini’s most odious henchmen. Farinacci’s removal “would be popular with all classes”, SOE believed, whereas “to remove Mussolini before Italy had suffered further defeat and while Farinacci was still powerful might easily result in the rallying of the Fascist Party and an increased German control”. It was felt, too, that Farinacci was “more easily accessible... frequently to be found taking his aperitif at public bars”.

There was little further discussion about the plan’s merits or consequences. The decision rested on the willingness of a would-be assassin to have a go; it seems there was a carefree attitude inside SOE that, if he was confident of ‘perfecting’ the job, “we ought to allow him to pursue it”.

In fact, the proposed assassin was the same volunteer who had come up with the initial plan – a volunteer recruited in Italy’s former territories in east Africa. Giovanni Di Giunta, aged 33, was an ex-soldier from the hilltop town of Troina in eastern Sicily. He was also – or so he told SOE – a member of the Mafia.

Ledgers in Troina’s town archives confirm Di Giunta’s identity. According to local memories, however, he had been neither a member of the Mafia nor noticeably anti-Fascist. He was someone who “liked to navigate by fantasy”, recalled one man who had known Di Giunta in the 1930s, adding: “He wasn’t somebody whose stories you necessarily believed.”

If SOE had had the benefit of that assessment, some trouble might have been spared. But by August 1942, Di Giunta was behind the wire at a prison camp in Palestine, poised – SOE assumed – to make a break for Turkey. He was still there when a story reached SOE’s ears that, on the eve of his incarceration, Di Giunta had boasted to a friend about his top-secret mission, but seemed doubtful about going through with the assassination if he managed to make it home; it even appeared that he might give himself up.

Horrified, SOE immediately scrapped the whole project. Di Giunta was removed from the camp and returned to British care. Roberto Farinacci, like Mussolini, lived on; both would be gunned down by Italian partisans in 1945.

It seems, from that document discovered near Anzio in 1944, that the Italians had eventually got wind of the plot. Certainly, they knew some of the details, though their descriptions of most elements seemed rather garbled. The man to whom Di Giunta had boasted about his mission had been the same MI6 agent who later accompanied the ill-fated Gallo into Sicily; had he revealed the plan to Italian interrogators before he was shot? Or might Di Giunta have told another friend about it, sparking a rumour that somehow floated back to Italy?

The British never discovered the answer. By that point, though, it was moot, since the plot had failed almost before it had begun.

 

False friends

Experienced masters of deception, the Italians easily fooled British agents

For two years from around 1941, SOE’s man in Switzerland believed that he was working with a network of pro-British and very active anti-Fascists wreaking terrific damage across northern Italy. Dramatic reports reached him of sabotage attacks, as did appeals for money and explosives from those who claimed responsibility. In response, British supplies were smuggled over the border from Switzerland, dropped directly into Italy by the Royal Air Force and landed on the coast by Royal Navy submarines. In London, these successes featured in progress reports put before Churchill. The work of this network was, SOE felt, its most successful effort in Italy.

But to the chagrin of SOE, it was discovered after the armistice – when Italian counter-intelligence officers switched sides and began to share information – that this anti-Fascist network and its activities had been wholly fictional. The Italians, with extraordinary skill and care, had invented or manipulated SOE’s contacts, thus successfully tricking the British, misdirecting their efforts and soaking up their supplies.

Innocent incidents, such as accidental fires in factories and train derailments, had been convincingly presented as acts of sabotage. Lurid reports of these ‘anti-Fascist activities’ were written in secret ink taken from captured British supplies, and carried to Switzerland by men that the British should not have trusted.

As one Allied officer – later a senior CIA counter-intelligence officer – wrote after learning the details, what the Italians had achieved “must be regarded as a classic example of a deception operation”.

 

Shot as a traitor

A flimsy cover story led to the exposure of SOE’s first Italian agent

The first SOE recruit sent into Italy was Fortunato Picchi. In his early forties, quiet, retiring and single, he was a former headwaiter in banqueting at the Savoy hotel who had lived in London for 20 years. SOE found him during a recruitment trawl through Italians interned on the Isle of Man.

“An idealist, apart from politics, who is in many ways more English than the English,” SOE observed as he began his training in Scotland. “An excellent worker and organiser who cannot allow failure. Wants, above all things, for everyone to be treated fairly, and according to their deserts. Is prepared to share in all [of] England’s trials and has no desire to be treated in any way differently from the English soldier.”

Picchi parachuted into southern Italy with a party of British commandos in February 1941, the first operational drop in British military history. Codenamed Colossus, the operation was not a success. Damage to the target, an aqueduct feeding water to southern Italian cities, was soon repaired. Worse, the entire party was captured.

Picchi had been attached to the commandos as an interpreter, with papers and identity tags claiming him to be a Frenchman. As a cover story it was terribly weak. His interrogators spotted immediately that he was Italian. “He would have had the chance to withdraw since he was aware of the mission’s destination,” they noted after he admitted his real identity, “but he did not do so on account of his true love for, and adopted duty to, the English.”

The fatal implications of Picchi’s Italian nationality were realised a few weeks later, when, in Rome, he was tried as a traitor, found guilty, and shot.

“I do not care much about dying,” he wrote to his mother on the eve of his execution. “I repent of my actions because I have always loved my country and must now be recognised as a traitor. Yet in all conscience I do not think that that is so... Kiss all my brothers and sisters and to you dear Mamma a hug, hoping with the grace of God to be reunited in heaven.”

Dr Roderick Bailey is a research fellow at Oxford University and a specialist in the history of the Special Operations Executive

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