Operation Tombola (4 March-24 April 1945) was a successful SAS operation in northern Italy that saw them form a battle group along with Italian partisans and escaped Russian POWS, causing a great deal of disruption before the start of the Allied spring offensive of 1945.
The aim of the operation was to establish a base in the area between La Spezia and Bologna, on the western end of the Gothic Line, organise the local partisans, and influict as much damage as possible on the Germans. The first men from an eventual party of 50 men from 2 SAS dropped into the area on 4 March 1945. Amongst them was Major Roy Farran, who ‘accidentally’ fell out of the aircraft during the drop. Having already escaped from German custody once, he fought as ‘Major Patrick McGinty’ during Tombola. More drops took place on 7 March, 9 March and 10 March, bringing in with them some of the veterans of Operation Galia, which had focused on the area slightly further to the south west. Two men from the Brake 2 party that had been sent to find the Galia group and then stayed behind also crossed the mountains to join the new operation.
The SAS quickly organised a sizable force in the area, made up of their own men, local Italian partisans and seventy escaped Russian POWs. The combined force became known as Battaglione Alleata.
On 27 March the battaglione carried out its first attack, an assault on the German HQ at Albinea, on the northern edge of the Apennines just south of Regio Emilia. This was the headquarters of the 51st Mountain Corps, commanded by General Hauk. The HQ was quartered in two buildings, the Villa Calvi and Villa Rossi, and numbered about 300 men. The attack was carried out by 170 men. The Russians and some of the partisans formed a screen to the south of the buildings to prevent German reinforcements interfering. Each building was then attacked by a force of 10 SAS and 20 partisans. The attackers inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, including the death of the HQ Chief-of-Staff Oberst Lemelson, although General Hauk was absent during the attack. The SAS lost three dead and two wounded, the partisans lost five wounded and six captured and an SOE liaison officer was wounded. In addition Farron was criticised by his own HQ for having disobeyed an order to postpone the attack so that it would take place at the same time as the Allied spring offensive, which had been postponed into early April.
At the start of the April the Germans made an unsuccessful attack on the battaglione’s own HQ in an attempt to get revenge for the attack on Albinea.
After the start of the Allied spring offensive the battaglione attacked Highway 12, the road north from Modena to Verona and then Lake Garda. This was one of the main lines of retreat for the Germans, and the attack thus helped slow down their attempt to escape from the advancing allies and cross the Po.
The operation officially ended on 24 April, by which time the main Allied armies had broken out onto the Po plains and the Germans were in full retreat away from the operational area. In the month of active combat operations Operation Tombola had inflicted 600 casualties on the Germans and taken 400 prisoners, making it one of the larger SAS missions of the war.