Operation Speedwell (7 September 1943 onwards) was an SAS operation in the north-west of Italy that did significant damage to the rail links supplying the western end of the Gothic Line.
The operation was carried out by 2 SAS. Its objective was to cut the rail links in the Genoa and Spezia of north-western Italy. At the time the western end of the Gothic Line reached the west coast of Italy just to the south of the Italian naval base at La Spezia.
The operation involved two teams of seven men, one led by Captain Phillip Pinckney CH and Captain Dudgeon. After dropping into the north-west of Italy the teams were to split into smaller groups to carry out their attacks. Pinckney’s group of seven men were to drop near Florence, while Dudgeon’s group of six would be dropped further to the west, near the naval base of La Spezia.
During the operation the two parties successfully derailed several trains and damaged railway lines. However they suffered from the same poor weather that affected the main Allied attack on the Gothic Line and many of the men fell ill.
Dudgeon’s group were meant to be dropped near Borgo Val di Taro, 25 miles to the north of La Spezia and a similar distance to the south-west of Parma. In the event they actually dropped close to Barbarasco Tresana, about fifteen miles further to the south. The drop took place on the night of 7-8 September, the day before the Italian armistice was announced, but the SAS troopers weren’t informed of this. As a result they spent the first part of the operation assuming they were operating in entirely hostile territory, but also unaware that the Germans had imposed a curfew.
Dudgeon’s group split into three - Dudgeon and Brunt, Wedderburn and Challenor and Foster and Shortall.
Wedderburn and Challenor managed to destroy two trains and a tunnel on the Bologna to Genoa line and a train on the line that ran south from Pontremoli to La Spezia. They returned to the drop zone on 16 or 17 September, and waited three days for the others to return, but without any luck.
The other four men in Dudgeon’s group were captured and killed by the Germans, so their activities aren’t well documented. They probably managed to carry out some sabotage, but the details are unclear. On 20 September Foster and Shortall ran straight into a German camp on the main road north-west of La Spezia. They were then executed at the nearby town of Ponzano Magra. Dudgeon and Brunt were arrested at La Cisa on 31 September, while attempting to bluff their way east in a stolen German car, and were executed later on the same day.
Pinckney survived Operation Speedwell, but was captured and executed during an attempt to destroy a rail tunnel in the Brenner Pass later in the war.
The end of the operation was a bit chaotic. Six of the seven men in Pinckney’s group reached Allied lines safely, but only two from Dudgeon’s group. The first troopers reached Allied lines after 54 days. Others took 73 days, while Sergeant ‘Tanky’ Challenor took seven months to reach safety, suffering from malaria and jaundice. He and Wedderburn split up on 25 December 1943 to increase their chances of escaping, but both were captured. Challenor escaped and was nursed back to health by friendly Italians. He was captured once again in April 1944 while attempting to reach Allied lines, but managed to escape once again and finally reached Allied lines. Wedderburn was captured but was lucky not to be recognised as a commando and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.