Operation Galia (27 December 1944-10 February 1945) was an SAS operation in the north-west of Italy designed to prevent the Germans moving troops from the western end of the Gothic Line to the area around Bologna, and to reduce the German pressure on the western end of the line.
After the Italian armistice many Allied POWs escaped from camps in Italy. Some joined the Italian partisans, who were particually numerous in the mountainous regions of the Apennines. Amongs them was Major Gordon Lett, who established an ‘International’ partisan band in the Rossano Valley, in the mountains between Genoa, La Spezia and Parma. Despite a series of German and Italian fascist attacks in the area, by December 1944 his band was firmly established in the area, was in contact with the Allied armies to the south, and had good local support. Lett considered the Rossano Valley to be the ideal location for a Special Forces base, as there was only one minor road into the area, was otherwise surrounded by mountains, but also within easy striking distance of several key roads.
By late December the first Allied attack on the Gothic Line in the northern Apennines was running out of steam. Along most of its length the Germans had been forced out of the main Gothic line positions, but they still held the western end of the line, which reached the coast just to the south of La Spezia. The last American attack towards Bologna had ended on 28 October, although the British Eighth Army was still attacking on the coast, and the Americans intended to launch at least one more attack towards Bologna before the end of the year.
In early December SHAEF offered to transfer one squadron from 2 SAS to Italy, to carry out operations begin enemy lines, with the code name Galia. By the time the first SAS troops were flown into Brindisi on 19-20 December the basic outline for Operation Galia had already been set out. The SAS were to drop into the area north of La Spezia, join up with the partisans, and harasse the enemy lines of communication. The operation had two main objectives - first, to stop the Germans moving troops from the western end of the Gothic Line to the Bologna area, and second to slow down any German troops attempting to retreat north through the mountains if the Fifth Army did attack. The operation was to be commanded by Captain Bob Walker Brown, a fellow POW alongside Lett, who had reached Allied lines and joined the SAS.
The Allies also had another concern. The western end of the Fifth Army line was held by the 92nd Infantry Division, a troubled unit with African-American soldiers and a mix of white and African-American officers. The relationship between the men and their officers was poor, and the division had no combat experience. By mid December there was some concern that the Germans might attempt to attack this division, and perhaps even threaten the port of Livorno. On 26 December, the day before the SAS parachuted into the area, the Germans did indeed go onto the offensive, launching Operation Wintergewitter. Despite many individual acts of bravery, the 92nd was forced back, but the Germans only ever intended to carry out a short range push, and the attack ended after two days. Lett was informed of the plan on 22 December, and agreed to have the landing zone in the Rossano valley secured for a drop on 27 December.
Despite the German attack, a party of five officers and twenty nine men, led by Captain Walker-Brown, carried out a daylight drop into the Rossano as planned. The drop began with a single aircraft dropping supply containers, to make sure that the valley was in friendly hands. This was followed by the first three SAS men, who signalled that the valley was indeed safe. Only then did the main drop begin. There were only a handful of minor injuries and the SAS was greeted with tea and food, a rather unusual reception for a party landing behind enemy lines.
The group then split into a HQ group of seven men and five active sections, four of five men and one of six. The small force managed to overcome the winter weather to carry out a series of raids, hitting German transport targets and mining roads. Three of the sections were sent out on 28 December, to the north-west, north-east and south-east. The rest of the troop spent that day hiding their supplies and preparing to attack the coastal road from La Spezia to Genoa before setting off on 29 December. The first setback came on 30 December when the six man stick was captured by the Italian fascists in Montebello di Mezzo. Their Italian guide was executed that day, but the captured SAS men survived the war as prisoners. Later on the same day seven Allied airmen were killed when their transport aircraft crashed during a resupply mission.
The first attack was carried out on the night of 30 December, and hit the La Spezia to Genoa road just to the west of Brugnato and Borghetto, where the road ran up the Vara valley, parallel to the coast. Walker Brown and his party found a good site for an ambush and then hit a German convoy, destroying three vehicles and setting a fourth on fire before retreating to their nearby base at Sero. Their next target was Borghetto itself, which was hit on 1 January 1945 by the SAS and partisans. A smaller party then mined the bridge over the Magra at Bottagna, destroyed a German truck and killed twelve when it was detonated on the night of 4-5 January. 6 January saw an attack on a German staff coar on the La Spezia-Genoa road. At about the same time two more of the SAS parties probably attempted to attack the railway tunnel at Pontremoli, east of Rossano. The overall plan was thus to spread the attacks out in all directions, to make it look as if a larger party was in the area.
On 11 January Borghetto was attacked again, this time just as a convoy was passing through. The Germans suffered 30 casualties and the SAS and supporters none. The attack was repeated on 12 January in an attempt to stop Italian fascist reprisals nearby. Another 56 casualties were inflicted on the Italian and German troops in the town. By now the Germans were preparing to carry out a sweep across the area to try and catch the SAS (a Rastrellamento or ‘raking’). They had around 2,000 troops at Pontremoli, five miles to the east of the SAS base in the upper Rossano valley. Walker Brown decided to pre-empt the German attack with a strike of his own. The main party, with partisan support, would hit the road near Pontremoli. A second party would attack Aulla, to the south-east, and a third at Borgo Val di Taro, to the north. All three attacks were planned for the night of 19-20 January.
The main party successfully ambushed a German column on the road outside Pontremoli, but was then forced into a rapid retreat by the approach of large numbers of German troops, part of the force gathered for the sweep. It was forced to split into three parties, each of which managed to evade the Germans. Lett returned to Rossano just as the Germans were about to attack early on 20 January. He was then able to evacuate onto Monte Picchiara, which gave his party a good view down into the valley. After that he spent several days dodging the Germans in the mountains, coming close to being captured at Sero, in the next valley to the south-west on 25 January. By 26 January the sweep was over, and Lett was able to return to the Rossano valley. Walker Brown’s party also had a number of close calls, operating in the area to the north of Rossano and made it back to the Rossano valley on 27 January.
The sweep had involved up to 6,000 German and allied troops and lasted for seven days. The SAS had escaped without any losses, but all of the partisan bands suffered losses and the German murdered a number of civilians who they believed were cooperating with the partisans. The sweep proved that Operation Galia was achieving its main aim of pinning down German troops in the area.
During the sweep the Galia party had been out of contact with its HQ. As a result on 29 January Roy Farran, the SAS commander in Italy, decided to send a small party to try and find the Galia group, as Operation Brake 2. This was made up of a replacement radio operator, two SAS men and a liason with the partisans. Unfortunately the man chosen for this was Primo Battistini, codename Tullio, who had already been thrown out of the Rossano area by his fellow partisans, and wouldn’t be welcomed back. Contact was finally made by radio on 30 January, but Brake 2 still set off on the following day. Brake 2 was an overland operation, so they had to sneak through the German front lines. On 2 February a supply drop was finally carried out, performed at some risk by Colonel John Cerny, the commanding officer of the 64th Troop Carrier Group. The drop included weapons, supplies and a new doctor.
The SAS were able to go back onto the offensive on 7 February, when one party attacked the road between La Spezia and Aulla, hitting a German convoy and camp, while a second party attacked the La Spezia to Genoa road.
On 10 February a message reached Walker Brown giving him the option to begin to withdraw. After some consideration he decided that his men were getting worn down and it was time to leave while they still could. His force was split into two parties, each with some extra members (including one German paratrooper who had switched sides!). Their heavy weapons were left behind in the Rossano valley to be used by any mission that replaced them. The Brake 2 party arrived in Rossano on 11 February, just as Galia was about to leave! Gordon Lett and his partisans remained behind as did Brake 2, with orders to prepare for the next mission. Tullio also remained in the area, despite protests from just about everyone else. One of the main SAS parties then returned to Rossano to help Lett deal with a political crisis caused by the removal of many of his supporters, arriving on 14 February. Walker Brown’s main party reached the American front lines early on 15 February, and the second party followed on 20 February.
Walker-Brown was awarded the DSO for his role in the operation, which had been a great success. The SAS had lost six prisoners and one man too sick to leave Rossano, but otherwise escaped without loss, having carried out a series of damaging raids and distracted thousands of Axis troops. Plans were soon put in place for a follow-up mission, Operation Blimey, but this began too late to have much impact, and the area was soon overrun by advancing American soldiers.