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“Our German Wehrmacht Is Being Stopped By A Shadow”
The furious speaker was Field Marshal Kesselring. The time was 1944. And the “shadow” was cast by Italian partisans and a handful of brave Americans from General Bill Donovan’s O.S.S.
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
A week before Anzio, General Donovan arrived unannounced at O.S.S. headquarters in Naples, a dilapidated four-story palazzo requisitioned from an indigent Neapolitan duke. In its vast rococo rooms, radios and high explosives mingled incongruously with the duke’s gilded mirrors and heavy Victorian furniture, and the personnel feasted by candlelight on wines from their host’s cellar and fettucine made with G.I. powdered eggs. The general joined them for dinner and with instinctive courtesy insisted that Peter Tompkins, twenty-four-yearold chief of the Naples group, should preside at the head of the table. “You’re the host,” he said. “I’ll sit at your right.” Later, over coffee, he confided to Tompkins the purpose of his visit. It was expected that the coming landings at Anzio would result in an early liberation of Rome, the general explained, and he wanted someone to enter the occupied city, contact O.S.S. secret radio Vittorio , which had been operating in Rome since the previous October, and at a given signal set off sabotage and countersabotage measures to coincide with the Allied invasion. Filled with that sense of dedication that Donovan engendered in his men, Tompkins volunteered and was promptly accepted for the job.
Donovan’s selection was a shrewd one. Tompkins’ parents had lived in Rome for years, he had spent much of his boyhood there, and he spoke the language fluently enough to pass for an Italian. He had worked in the Rome bureau of the New York Herald Tribune before the war and knew his way around the city “as well as any trasteverino born in the shadow of St. Peter’s,” according to his autobiography. Under the cover name of “Pietro,” he was flown by O.S.S. plane to Corsica, landed on the Italian mainland in a rubber boat on the night of January 21, and was smuggled by car into Rome without detection. There he contacted “Coniglio,” leader of the strategic intelligence team dispatched by the O.S.S. Fifth Army Detachment in October, whose dark, piercing eyes reminded Tompkins of a ferret, and a sensitive young Neapolitan agent known as “Cervo,” who wore the uniform of a police lieutenant, complete with highly polished boots and official armband and revolver. It was Cervo who had brought the Vittorio radio from Naples and was charged with its care and concealment. Cervo invited Tompkins to hide out in his own apartment. “After all,” he said, “who would expect to find an American agent in a Fascist policeman’s bed?”
The following morning, January 22, Tompkins learned that an Allied assault convoy of fifty thousand men and five thousand vehicles had anchored off Anzio before dawn and that the troops had swarmed ashore without opposition. The invasion had caught the enemy completely off guard. In Rome the O.S.S. countersabotage teams made ready to defuse the mines planted on the Tiber bridges as the Allies approached and to initiate guerrilla activities against the Germans. Tompkins waited impatiently for the signal over Vittorio to start their operations. The only messages were a warning that the liberation of Rome would be temporarily postponed and a top-priority request for information on all German troop movements toward the beachhead.
Several days passed without news of the expected Allied advance, and gradually the truth dawned on Tompkins: instead of the lightning “cat-claw thrust at the Alban Hills, General Clark’s Anglo-American forces had inexplicably decided to dig in and consolidate their defensive position on the beach against a German counterattack. Long after the war it was revealed that Field Marshal Kesselring, upon learning of the Anzio landings, had exclaimed: “Only a miracle can save us now.” The miracle was Allied overcaution. The advantage of surprise was squandered; General Clark called off the plan to drop paratroopers, who could have prevented the movement of enemy troops against the beachhead, “lest it prematurely disclose the area of our main assault”; and Anzio settled into a stalemate as complete as Cassino. Churchill cabled Field Marshal Viscount Alexander in disgust: “I expected to see a wildcat roaring into the mountains—and what do I find? A whale wallowing on the beaches.”
For the next two months O.S.S. radio Vittorio continued to supply detailed information on all the German units deployed against the allied landing forces and to recommend railroad yards and main lines for bombing targets. The underground groups that Tompkins had alerted for countersabotage were transformed in February and March into a comprehensive intelligence network, deriving its information from the various political parties, from industrialists who still enjoyed German confidence, and from officers of the “Open City of Rome” staff, including one actually assigned to Kesselring’s headquarters.