Operation Tombola was a very successful SOE and SAS operation in Northern Italy, which saw a small force of SAS troops and resistance fighters attack the HQ of the German LI Mountain Corps just before the start of the final Allied offensive in Italy in 1945, killing the corps chief of staff and doing a great deal of damage to the HQ and with it the smooth functioning of the corps. This book focuses on that raid, but also covers the entire length of Tombola, a wider operations that included a rare defence of a partisan base against German attack, and wide ranging raids during the spring offensive.
I enjoyed the general tone of this book, which reads rather more like an adventure story than a standard work of history. This does lead to occasional exaggerations (such as describing a corps HQ behind the lines as a ‘forbidden Nazi fortress’), but makes the book much more atmospheric. Lewis is able to use this approach because two of the most important British figures in the operation, Michael Lees and Ray Farron, both published accounts books that covered the operation, so he has access to their thoughts about the raid.
The biggest flaw in the book is the insistence on describing their target as the HQ of the German 14th Army. This simply wasn’t the case. It was the HQ of one of two corps in that army – General Hauck’s LI Mountain Corps (mis-spelt as Hauk here). The army itself was commanded by Lt General Joachim Lemelsen, who doesn’t get a single mention in the entire book! At one point Lewis describes the target as being the ‘absolute nerve centre for four German divisions’ - this was indeed the case – the four German divisions in the LI Corps! This is also acknowledged in the signal sent to report the raid –‘51 Corps HQ attacked’. This was an impressive enough achievement in its own right.
The book isn’t free of other errors. Early on Lewis recounts how one of the key SOE figures, Michael Lees, is sent to cross the front lines from northern Italy into France. This was a voyage west, across the Alps, passing through the old fortifications on the Franco-Italian border, which was a fairly quiet front even after the Americans occupied southern France, but here it is portrays as a move south, across the Gothic Line. A great deal of fuss is also made about the fixed fortifications of the Gothic Line, but despite the huge amount of effort put into them, these had actually fallen to the Allies fairly quickly – the Allied autumn offensive finally ran out of steam some way to their north, after costly battles in the Apennines. At one point Lewis has the Handley Page Halifax powered by Rolls Royce Vulture engines, but that engine was never used on the Halifax (it was the failed design intended for use on the twin engined Avro Manchester). These may seem relatively petty, but they are just the ones I spotted, and it does make you wonder if others slipped past.
One also has to be aware that Lewis has picked sides in the disputes between Lees and Farron on one side and SOE in Italy on the other. Farron had been very firmly told not to parachute into northern Italy, but arranged to ‘fall out of an aircraft’ while supervising a troop drop. Lees was often insubordinate, sent some very rude messages back from the field, and was rather prone to ignore orders he didn’t agree with. The most important example came just before the attack on the Corps HQ – the plan was for this to take place at the same time as the Allied offensive, and when that was postponed, so was the attack. However even through that message did reach Lees and Farron they chose to ignore it. Of course they had good reasons, not least the difficulty of cancelling a partisan mission so close to its start, but SOE HQ also had good reasons to postpone it –including the danger of forewarning the Germans about the upcoming offensive, and giving them time to recover from the attack. Another area of controversy was that some in the British high command were starting to worry about the long term impact of arming Communist partisans so close to the end of the war. This is dismissed here as being totally unjustified, but Lewis fails to mention that this was exactly what had happened in Greece, where British troops had briefly come to blows with the Communist resistance after the Germans left.
However despite these flaws and points to be aware of, this is still a very entertaining book, that gives a really vivid picture of what life must have been like living and fighting with the partisans, as well as a detailed account of one of the most impressive SAS and SOE raids of the entire war.
Chapters – numbered only
Author: Damien Lewis