Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943–45

Joe Maiolo welcomes a considered new history of the Allied secret agents who lived dangerously in Italy during the Second World War

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Reviewed by: Joe Maiolo
Author: David Stafford
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £20

Reviewed by: Joe Maiolo
Author: David Stafford
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £20

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On 16 July 1940 Churchill ordered into existence a new secret service called the Special Operations Executive. SOE’s task was to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by infiltrating agents into Axis-occupied Europe to encourage national resistance movements and to disrupt the Nazi war machine.

During the war, SOE grew to over 13,000 men and women, with about half that force operating in enemy or neutral countries in Europe and Asia. After SOE disbanded in January 1946, its history became divided between action-packed spy stories of uneven reliability and serious attempts to assess SOE’s contribution to winning the war.

In Mission Accomplished, Stafford bridges the divide.

He offers readers a sound judgment of SOE’s contribution to the liberation of Italy and a gripping account of Britain’s secret war in Italy. Based on the now declassified SOE archives, Stafford tells the story of No 1 Special Force, which was ordered to establish contact with the Italian partisans and co-ordinate their campaign to achieve the maximum benefit for the Anglo-American invasion forces.

That was a daunting task, compounded by the political complexities of Italy’s defection in September 1943 from the Axis to the Allies. The Allies wanted the co-operation of King Victor Emmanuel and his general staff, which had deposed Mussolini. Yet the resistance, whether communist or not, and Italian SOE agents who had been recruited from anti-fascist exiles, despised the monarch and his elderly generals as fascist collaborators.

The resistance therefore complained bitterly about the Allies propping up the royalist regime and remained leery of their postwar political plans for Italy. The distrust was heightened by Allied strategy. Field Marshal Alexander’s armies had not come to free Italy in a lightning campaign, but to pin down as many German divisions as he could before the invasion of France.

The Italians, naturally, wanted the hated German occupiers and their die-hard fascist allies crushed as rapidly as possible.

In these difficult circumstances, No 1 Special Force sent dozens of teams behind enemy lines to contact the partisans, to deliver arms and supplies, and to conduct sabotage operations.

Stafford vividly describes these missions with striking detail and telling quotes. Readers will join an SOE speedboat assigned to rescue Benedetto Croce, the celebrated Italian philosopher and symbol of the liberal resistance, from falling into German hands; crawl through a secret passageway over the Ponte Vecchio to lay a vital telephone wire during the battle for Florence; and parachute into the Dolomites on a liaison mission with the famous mountaineer Major Harold Tilman.

The mere presence of British liaison officers such as Tilman raised the morale of the partisan fighters and helped to establish a good working relationship between the resistance and the Allied high command.

Of course SOE’s record in Italy was not one of unbroken triumph. Bad weather prevented parachute drops; aircraft were diverted to other higher priority theatres; and agents were captured and killed. And, as Stafford shows, SOE would not have been able to operate successfully at all had it not been for the remarkable courage of thousands of Italian civilians, who risked murderous reprisals from the Germans and fascists by helping the underground.

In fact the severity of German reprisals and the thousands of troops the Germans deployed to keep their roads and railways open attest to the impact of the resistance. Stafford, however, does not overstate its importance. The Allies would have won without the partisans, and SOE did not create the resistance.

Yet SOE made the resistance more effective by coordinating its efforts and thereby helped to make the political transition from the surrender of the Germans to the establishment of the Allied military occupation relatively peaceful.

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Joe Maiolo is senior lecturer in international history at King’s College London. His latest book is Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War 1931-41 (John Murray, 2010)