This post is eighth in a series drawn from a History of I.S.9 (CMF) in the British National Archives. Research courtesy of Brian Sims.
See also “I.S.9 History—Organization,” “I.S.9 History—Tasks,”I.S.9 History—Methods,” “I.S.9 History—Communications,,” “I.S.9 History—Agent Choice and Training,” “I.S.9 History—Air Operations,” and “I.S.9 History—Sea Borne Operations.”
Below is a transcript of a chapter in the history that begins to cover operations in Italy:
Operations in Italy (Introduction)
1. Events immediately prior to the invasion of SICILY on 9 June 1943.
2. The SICILIAN Campaign.
3. The invasion of the ITALIAN mainland, 3 Sept 43.
4. The military situation on 1 Nov 43.
5. The ITALIAN Armistice and general P/W situation in ITALY at 1 Nov 43.
6. Means available to tackle the problem.
1. EVENTS IMMEDIATELY PRIOR TO THE INVASION OF SICILY.
During the long campaigns fought in the M.E., the Western Desert and in NORTH AFRICA, active escape operations had proved themselves well worth while and a certain amount of experience had been gained. In GREECE and the islands it was possible to gain some idea of how far it was possible for an allied country, occupied by the enemy, to continue the struggle through partizan activities and thus offer some form of cover for the support of Allied clandestine organizations. With the fall of TUNISIA in the early summer of 1943, the whole of NORTH AFRICA was cleared of the enemy and everyone looked towards EUROPE. Events moved quickly and when it became known that SICILY was the target for initial assault we were immediately faced with fresh problems. Apart from our very limited resources in personnel and equipment capable of employment in the field with an invading army, we were faced with the problem of operating in an enemy occupied country.
At the time of the invasion on 9 Jul 1943, few, if any, Allied agents existed in SICILY and whatever could be done had to start from scratch. We were not dismayed however, as with the recent successes in TUNISIA our spirits could not have been higher and all indications drawn from intelligence reports suggested the Italian morale was at a low ebb.
2. THE SICILIAN CAMPAIGN.
The first invasion craft and glider-borne forces touched down in SICILY on 9 Jul 43 and within a few days of this initial assault an I.S.9 (CMF) Field Escape Section was landed. It will be recalled that the SICILIAN campaign went well for the Allies from the moment our beachheads were secured and the island was firmly in our hands by the middle of Aug 43. SICILY was conquered amazingly quickly and with unexpectedly few losses in men and material.
Several escape plans were arranged but the rapid progress of our armies proved each one in turn to be unnecessary. Therefore at the conclusion of the campaign we were not very much further forward, as little opportunity had arisen to test our plans thereby forming a sound idea of just how much could be done by a Field Escape Section in these conditions. It seems strange that we should complain after this brilliant campaign in which all escape plans had been rendered negative by the swift advances of our armies, but as an organization we must always take the pessimistic view and prepare for the worst. Delighted as we were at the end of this SICILIAN campaign we knew that as the advance into EUROPE progressed, sterner resistance must be expected and would surely come in course of time.
3. THE INVASION OF THE ITALIAN MAINLAND ON 3 SEP 43.
We were again faced with attempting field rescue work in an enemy occupied country, having had little opportunity to gain experience in SICILY. On 3 Sep 43 invasion troops crossed the Straits of MESSINA to land in the toe of ITALY. The 9 Sep saw the landing at SALERNO and a small force steaming towards TARANTO to secure this almost undefended port and immediate hinterland.
By this time an I.S.9 (CMF) Field Escape Section had crossed the MESSINA Straits and was trying to keep pace with the rapid advance of 8 Army up through CALABRIA. In so far as we were concerned, it was a repetition of the SICILIAN campaign, landings at several points with events moving so quickly as to make long term rescue work negative.
By Sep 28, British 10 Corps had fought their way through the SALERNO passes and VI U.S. Corps moved up on their right flank. The British parachute brigade which had been landed at TARANTO had been successful, capturing the port intact and together with a U.K. Armoured Brigade and two U.K. divisions had advanced to take FOGGIA on 27 Sept. British 13 Corps had by this time advanced Northwards from REGGIO 200-miles in 17-days.
On Oct 1, 10 Corps captured NAPLES and went on to advance to the VOLTURNO River. By 12 Oct the conquest of SOUTHERN ITALY was complete and 8th and 5th Armies astride ITALY and up against what was to be the first main defensive line to be defended by the enemy.
During all this period and until 1 Nov, Lt-Col. A.C. SIMONDS commanded a strong escape force which became known as “SIMCOL” and which operated from bases on the Adriatic coast. Through his base in AlGIERS and a small HQ at 15 Army Group Headquarters he also co-ordinated the efforts of our Field Section operating with 5 Army on the West coast and directed the infiltration of several long term agents into the German occupied territory in NORTHERN ITALY. Work progressed on these lines until 1 Nov, when our own story begins and saw the armies up against the 1943 winter Line.
No attempt has been made to describe actual operations undertaken during this period as these will be part of Lt-Col. SIMONDS’ story and it is felt that we can be excused for a somewhat lengthy preamble on the grounds that we wished to explain how the situation as at 1 Nov was arrived at and the background which is common to us both.
4. THE MILITARY SITUATION ON 1 NOV 43.
It has now been officially disclosed that after the conquest of SOUTH ITALY (3 Sep – 12 Oct 1943) the second objective in the campaign was to contain the maximum number of German divisions. Although we had no official information that such was the task given to the theatre commander, it was a popular theory even as early as 1 Nov 43. One thing, however, did seam certain and that was that the Germans had managed to stabilize themselves along a line which offered every advantage to the defender and that it was their intention to hold this position for as long as possible. So for the first time in the Italian campaign we were faced with a new problem – operating along a static line strongly held by both sides.
The German 1943 Winter Line was based on a mountain and valley system on the WEST coast, included amongst which was the now world famous MONTE CASSINO. Further to the EAST, the line ran into the APPENINE mountains, which appeared almost insurmountable with gigantic ridges running across the line of advance. The enemy realised the almost impossibility of any major attack along these central features and defended them with a comparatively small number of troops. As the Winter progressed they became even more impassable and were permanently covered with snow, often to depths of thirty to forty feet. Further still to the EAST the enemy held the ADRIATIC sector of the line with strong forces entrenched behind a series of ridges, every one of which ran from EAST to WEST.
It was obvious that it would be a hard struggle to break through this line and that each mountain feature would have to be attacked methodically by infantry battalions. The only roads forward were up deep narrow valleys and there was little hope of deploying guns and armour. Almost every bridge was blown and the roads mined.
After the first phase of the Italian campaign, four American and three British divisions were withdrawn for the build-up for the subsequent invasion in the WEST. It seemed therefore that there was little hope of the Fifth and Eighth Armies breaking this line in these cruel conditions up in the APPENINES.
Before our service days most of us had thought of ITALY in terms of bright sunshine and friendly Alpine valleys. These impressions may have been gained from geography lessons at school and attractive travel posters, but we soon found otherwise. It is true that beautiful climatic conditions can be found at almost any period of the year but, unfortunately, their locations do not seem to coincide with battle areas. Perhaps it is that a soldier engaged in war is more sensitive and conscious of climatic conditions which mean so much not only to those in the front line who have to bear them physically, but to those responsible for the planning and execution of major battles. The phenomena of Italian climatic conditions must be experienced to be believed.
Such then was the general military situation at the beginning of November 1943, but before attempting to begin the story of our own struggle, it is necessary to recall the P/W situation, with a word on the problem presented by the signing of the Italian Armistice Terms.
5. THE ITALIAN ARMISTICE AND GENERAL P/W SITUATION IN ITALY AT 1 NOV 1943
Ever since the fall of MUSSOLINI, on July 25, 1943, and the subsequent invasion of the Italian mainland, an expectant air of optimism had existed amongst us and the general attitude was that anything might happen. In spite of the fact that we were mentally prepared for dramatic happenings, the sudden radio announcement of the Armistice by General EISENHOWER at 6.30 p.m. on 8 September 1943 hit us like a bombshell.
It had many times been considered how the P/W in the Italian camps would react to such an announcement, but this did not lessen the shock when it finally came.
From the very first landings in ITALY, speculation appears to have been rife within the P/W Camps and in many cases S.B.Os. [Senior British Officers] had made plans of action to cover possible eventualities. Looking back it is indeed unfortunate that it proved impossible to infiltrate into the camps orders and information for some definite plan of action by S.B.Os. This however was not the case and the consequent appreciations made by S.B.Os. differed considerably and their subsequent reactions at the time the Armistice was announced were equally varied. Many S.B.Os. last official instructions received through means of M.I.9 code, was that in the event of an Armistice or similar circumstances, they must order the P/W to “stay put” and await organised aid. These instructions were to cover a general Armistice and to avoid large numbers of P/W being at large and out of control as happened at the end of the Great War in 1918. Unfortunately it as not appreciated at the time of sending the instruction to the S. B.Os. that ITALY might surrender but that the German Army would remain in ITALY to fight.
In some camps these instructions were carried out but fortunately in the majority of cases, S.B.Os seemed to realisethe circumstances and quickly appreciate that this aid was not immediately forthcoming. They realised that time was all important and acting upon their own initiative and within the full rights of any officer, they ignored this “stay put” order. In the confusion of the moment it must have been a difficult decision to make.
On Sept 8, 1943, the vast majority of the 75,000 P/W in ITALY found themselves free. During the following few days, the majority left their camps and moved into the country districts, some in large organised bodies, others in small parties and a few alone. Of those who stayed in the camps, a German or Fascist guard soon arrived to take over. Of the latter P/W many may be excused as perhaps their long period in prison camp had destroyed the capability of quick reaction, others remained on the definite orders of Senior camp officers, and a small number lacked sufficient imagination to make the break.
During the ensuing period and up until 1 Nov, very large numbers of P/W roamed the hills and country districts without much interference from enemy forces. Many made their way back to Allied lines by land and sea but as each day passed the position of those P/W remaining in enemy occupied territory grew worse. Their greatest enemy was the approaching Winter and this apart from the increasing German stranglehold on the country. For the first few months after the invasion, the Germans had little, if any, effective control of internal security, but day by day they secured an increasingly tighter hold, finally introducing a full Gestapo system. Fascist forces were organised to work under direct German control and amongst their tasks were given the job of rounding up Allied escapers and evaders. This was attractive employment to the “Fascist” and appealed to his sadistic mentality. Even at this stage the Germans were not themselves adopting a vigorous plan of campaign for the re-arrest of Allied P/W, for they had far more important tasks in hand securing their Winter Line.
Even so, from reports by returning P/W, it was already evident that conditions were daily getting worse for the evader. Rumour and suspicion amongst both the civilian population and the P/W themselves was increasing and becoming another real problem to be overcome. I.S.9 Agents and helpers were treated with suspicion for fear they belonged to the Fascist ranks or may be informers. It was at this time that an I.S.9 officer working behind the lines was almost shot by doubting evaders. It was not expected that the situation would improve.
6. MEANS AVAILABLE TO TACKLE THE PROBLEM.
Unfortunately very little. It is true we had the legacy of all the equipment, personnel and experience gained by Lt-Col. A.C. Simonds during the period 8 Sep – 1 Nov 43, but at the conclusion of the “SIMCOL” operations almost all the attached units and stores were withdrawn. Fully conscious of our huge problem, and one about which the C-in-C [Commander in Chief] (then General A.V. ALEXANDER) was constantly making enquiries, every effort was made by the commander ‘A’ Force to increase our war establishment.
Dealing with the demands of an operational staff however, is far easier than a W/E [War Establishment] Committee, so bound in their decisions by the exchequer and manpower available. As a result, we faced our task very much understaffed and with only a handful of field section and operational officers. Equipment and M/T [military transport] was in even shorter supply. At 1 Nov 1943, the following organization existed in ITALY (unless otherwise stated the personnel referred to were within the unit W/E):-
(i) At HQ 15 Army Group, BARI.
One G.S.O. II. [General Staff Officer, Grade 2]
* One G.S.O. III.
One G.S.O.II—Attached for the “SIMCOL” operations and retained on attachment after 1 Nov 43.
One G.S.O. III—Attached for the “SIMCOL” operations and retained on attachment after 1 Nov 43.
One Pte [Private] Clerk R.A.S.C. [Royal Army Service Corps]
One requisitioned car.
* The officer filling this appointment was in fact located at HQ 5 Army acting in a liaison capacity. HQ 15 Army Group controlled the invasion of the mainland from SICILY but at a later date moved forward into ITALY and were established at BARI. When it became known that the U.S. Five Army HQ were to land at SALERNO it was decided to appoint an officer to act in an advisory capacity. This officer also had full control of the field section operating within the SALERNO bridgehead. It was intended that this officer should immediately re-join HQ 15 Army Group when the Fifth Anny broke out from SALERNO and joined forces with Eighth Army. In actual fact it was found that it was advantageous for us to have a staff officer representing us on the Fifth Army staff even after they broke out of the SALERNO bridgehead. It was not until very much later when the Fifth Army staff were fully conversant with our activities that this officer was withdrawn. A similar representation attached to HQ Eighth Army would have been advantageous but such an officer could not be found within our small resources. In point of fact we did not suffer very much in consequence as the staff of 8th Army were already well aware of our existence from the Western Desert days and all our liaison was conducted by our staff at HQ 15 Army Group.
(ii) Boating Section, TERMOLI.
At the conclusion of the “SIMCOL” operations which had been conducted from TERMOLI, Lt-Col. A.C. SIMONDS instructed Major J. F. FILLINGHAM to form an I.S.9 boating section and carry through all outstanding “SIMCOL” commitments.
As previously stated, all attached units were in the process of being withdrawn and few I.S.9 officers and other ranks were available. At Nov 1, this section was composed of 3 officers (two of which had just returned from behind the lines). Transport consisted of 1 Jeep and 1 loaned 15-cwt [15-hundredweight transport vehicle]. Apart from various Royal Naval craft which could be called upon, the section also had five Italian Motor Fishing Vessels under command.
By the grace of Eighth Army we were able to increase the section by the attachment on loan of a Staff Capt. [captain], one C.Q.M.S. [company quartermaster sergeant] and two general duty men. They joined the section in early November.
In addition a field section composed of one officer, one Sjt [serjeant, or sergeant] with 1 Jeep had been established on the 8th Army front at LANCIANO. At this stage their task was to conduct certain land infiltrations connected with sea borne evacuations planned from TERMOLI. They were in fact at this stage part of the boating section.
Some forty odd Italian sailors were also on the ration strength and composed the crews of the motor fishing vessels. Domestic assistance was obtained through the employment of local labour.
(iii) No. 1 Field Section.
This section was composed of three officers and one Sjt with three vehicles. They had landed in ITALY with the 5th Army at SALERNO and were still operating on the approaches to MONTE CASSINO.
(iv) No. 2 Field Section.
This Section was composed of only two officers, one batman/driver and one Jeep. This woefully small section were faced with a tremendous task on the central sector of the front and just within the left flank boundary of 8th Army. Like the boating section, one of its officers was an ex-P/W who wished to remain and give his assistance. It was not unusual at this stage to find ex-P/W anxious to join our organization and help those less fortunate ones still remaining behind the lines. In fact several did eventually take up official vacancies on our W/E but in the early days their services were on an unofficial basis and with the consent of the Commander Allied Repatriation Unit.
Although by 1 Nov almost complete operational freedom was given to the officer responsible for activities within 15 Army Group, we must include a word on our Main HQ still in ALGIERS. They continued to give every support on administrative matters which could not be handled locally and took up our many problems of W/E’s, etc., at AFHQ [Allied Force Headquarters]. In addition they still retained operational control of escape operations in the NORTH of ITALY.
Several agents were dispatched from ALGIERS and dropped into the NORTH of ITALY to carry out long term rescue plans, form cells of helpers and encourage ratlines into SWITZERLAND.
At this stage the operational sections on the Army fronts could not do more than penetrate to a depth of one hundred miles and certainly nothing NORTH of the PO Valley. The general plan therefore was for ALGIERS to be responsible for the Northern Plain and beyond. It was intended to infiltrate as many reliable agents as possible in the NORTH on a strategic basis, with the idea that when the line advanced they could be taken over and operated by Field Sections.
During the “SIMCOL”¬ operations various signal links had been provided by HQ 15 Army Group and First British Airborne Division. Everything was ordered to be withdrawn at Nov 1st, but after the strongest appeals to the respective C.S.O’s we were able to retain a 33 set with operators and cypher personnel which worked back to I.S.9 through HQ 15 Army Group and HQ First British Airborne Division.
It was from this small beginning that we were eventually able to “scrounge” enough W/T [wireless telecommunications] equipment and operators to have our own W/T network throughout our Field Sections. Never shall we be able to adequately express our gratitude to the C.S.O. HQ 15 Army Group (Brig. CORYTON, O.B.E.) and the B.G.S. (Ops) [brigadier general staff, operations] (Brig. MARTIN). It was they who listened to our appeals to have W/T detachments on attachment and because they understood and appreciated our work they gave us every support. At this time it should be remembered that equipment in ITALY was in extremely short supply, especially wireless and technical stores. Trained R.C.S. [Royal Corps of Signals] operators were even more scarce.
It is hoped that this long introduction will assist the reader to form a reasonably accurate picture of the situation as at 1 November 1943.