Once Mussolini was deposed as the result of a palace coup
on 25 July 1943, SOE was at the centre of the final diplomacy that led to
the armistice and the surrender of the Italian Forces on 3 September.
In August the first British SOE agent parachuted into Italy. He was 24-year-old Sergeant Richard Mallaby, codenamed Olaf, perhaps because of his Nordic looks. He was born in the British Crown Colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but had lived on the family’s Tuscan estate from the age of seven.
Richard Mallaby joined the Devonshire Regiment in England in 1939. He fought as a commando in North Africa and was recruited by SOE Cairo in January 1942. The agent received training in sabotage and wireless telegraphy and completed the parachutist’s course. He also helped coach a handful of Italian volunteers who had been prisoners of war or civilian internees.
The Italian section of SOE Cairo had made plans to insert a radio operator in Italy as early as August 1942, but it took a year for a revised operation to go ahead. It began on the night of 13-14 August 1943 in a mission codenamed Neck. It was coordinated by SOE Algiers, with assistance provided by SOE Switzerland.
The Swiss branch had mainly been responsible for the implementation of policy for Italy owing to the shortage of Italian agents. John McCaffery headed the mission from the British Legation in the capital, Bern …
Agent Mallaby was to seek out an Italian in the city of Como. He would put him in touch with a Resistance group, which would undertake sabotage and had already been provided with a radio set by SOE Bern. The sergeant carried the necessary crystals, signal plan and ciphers. He had another contact in Milan and a fall back address in Geneva.
According to plan, Richard Mallaby was dropped by night into Lake Como from an RAF plane. He had false papers and wore civilian clothing. The agent rowed his inflatable dinghy towards the shore. However, there had been a massive Allied bombing raid on Milan the previous night. The villages along the lakeside were lit up and crowded with evacuees. Mallaby was seen even before he reached land and was arrested by the police. This was once thought to be mere mischance, but the mission was compromised from the start by Fascist infiltration of the SOE Bern operation, as we shall see in Chapter Five.
Richard Mallaby was handed over to Italian counter-intelligence in Milan. News of his capture appeared in the Couriere della Sera newspaper and soon reached SOE Bern. Frantic efforts to obtain Mallaby’s release began through discreet diplomatic contacts.
Meanwhile, the month-long negotiations that led to the Italian surrender
were well under way. Italian diplomats first approached the British in Lisbon
on 3 August …
General Eisenhower sent his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, and British major general William Strong, head of his intelligence staff, for a meeting with Italian General Castellano in Lisbon. On 19 August the three discussed terms at the British Embassy, but made little progress. The Italians wanted to take the field against the Germans. The Allies sought total surrender.
Colonel Roseberry arrived from the London SOE HQ and on the 21st received a cable reporting that SOE Bern had confirmed the arrest of Richard Mallaby. The colonel supplied General Castellano with a signal plan, codenamed Monkey, and a wireless set over which negotiations could continue. The SOE head added that an experienced and reliable wireless telegraphy operator was already in place - the prisoner Richard Mallaby. The Italians were greatly impressed at the apparent foresight of the British secret service.
After a short interval to cover his tracks, General Castellano returned to Rome on 27 August. He issued immediate orders that Richard Mallaby - commissioned in the field as a lieutenant - should be released into his care. The general had been provided with information to give to the agent that would prove his good faith …
Lieutenant Mallaby worked from a small room on the top floor of the Italian Supreme Command HQ. In his first message on 30 August, he told SOE Algiers of his release. Over the next 10 days the agent transmitted 70 messages between the Italian Government and General Eisenhower.
On 31 August General Castellano went to Sicily with the approval of his government to agree to the military terms of surrender. The brief document was signed in an olive grove at Cassibile, near Syracuse, on 3 September and made public five days later.
Lieutenant Richard Mallaby came south with the Royal Family, politicians and generals who fled Rome on 9 September. He continued to transmit messages until relieved by a wireless telegraphy unit from SOE Algiers a week later. The lieutenant became an instructor at Maryland, SOE’s Italian base. On 7 December he was awarded the Military Cross.
Richard Mallaby again fell into enemy hands in early 1945. Now a captain,
he was part of the four-man Edenton Blue Mission sent to assist Green Flame
partisans in the Brescia area. The men crossed the Swiss border on the night
of 14-15 February, but were arrested at midday in a Lecco restaurant. The
captain was consigned to the Black Brigades and returned to gaol in Milan.
To save his life, he concocted what the head of American intelligence in
Switzerland, Allen Dulles, described as ‘a clever ruse.’
Richard Mallaby admitted to being a British officer, but claimed that his name was Captain Richard Tucker. He said that he was carrying a top-secret message to Marshal Graziani, the Fascist commander, from Field Marshal Alexander on an anti-scorch deal. On 17 February, the captain was interviewed by Colonel Candeloro De Leo, head of Republican counter-intelligence, at his HQ in Volta Mantovana. The Italian was wary but agreed to pass on details to the marshal. There was a vain attempt to keep news of the approach from the Germans, but on 26 February ‘Captain Tucker’ was seized by the SS and driven to their HQ in Verona.
In the evening the captain was taken to meet SS General Karl Wolff at his villa on Lake Garda. The general told Mallaby that he was lucky not to have been shot as a spy. After a two-hour discussion, Wolff was convinced that the agent had been sent by the Allies to make contact with the Fascist and Nazi authorities.
General Wolff decided to use Mallaby as his own intermediary and to ensure that he would be smuggled back across the Swiss border with a message for Field Marshal Alexander. The captain gave his word of honour as a British officer that he would return with Alexander’s reply as soon as possible.
Richard Mallaby was duly taken to Chiasso on 1 March, but by mischance informal SOE arrangements with the Swiss authorities had broken down. The agent was interned. He was in civilian clothing and claiming to be an Italian citizen. Mallaby managed to smuggle a message to John McCaffery a week later.
On the same day, General Wolff met Allen Dulles in Switzerland to launch the negotiations which on 29 April led to the signing of the surrender document for all enemy forces at Caserta. John McCaffery was ordered by Major General Gubbins to intervene only if requested by Dulles, so the endgame, Operation Sunrise, was an entirely American enterprise.
The brave and resourceful agent Richard Mallaby - in Swiss hands for six weeks - was denied the opportunity of being at the centre of a second armistice and surrender negotiations.