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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
Elaborate precautions were taken to maintain the security of both Vittorio and a second clandestine radio transmitter that had been set up to handle the heavy flow of air traffic between the O.S.S. group in Rome and the armies stalled on the Anzio beachhead. Cervo had concealed Vittorio on one of the numerous river boats tied up along the Tiber, ramshackle wooden structures that were known as favorite site for homosexual assignations and were usually left alone by the police. The river boat he selected was almost opposite the Italian Ministry of Marine, whose radio signals would cover the weaker signals of the O.S.S. station if the enemy tried to pinpoint its location by triangulation. The other radio was hidden by an accommodating priest in a small church in the heart of Rome and tapped out its code messages in the quiet shadows of his sacristy. During a six-week period the bulletins transmitted to the Fifth Army totaled ninety-eight single-spaced typewritten pages.
Inevitably the Allied delay brought disillusionment and defections. On March 13 the O.S.S. learned that its security had been blown by a radio technician, “Walter”—supposedly a friend of Cervo’s—who had sold out to the Germans. Cervo and an orderly named Scottu sped by motorcycle to the river boat to change the location of Vittorio, while Tompkins and his fellow agents waited in the apartment for his return. When the telephone rang later that evening, one of the agents answered and hung up with a puzzled look. “Cervo’s sister wants to know if you have brought her any honey,” he told Tompkins. The others stared at their chief in sudden apprehension as they recognized their pre-arranged message of warning. “They’ve got Cervo,” Tompkins said. In the shocked silence the phone sounded again, two rings, a pause, and two more rings—the danger signal. Systematically they collected and burned all O.S.S. messages and code books, armed themselves with hand grenades, and placed their automatics in readiness on the table, prepared for a last-ditch fight if Cervo, under torture, revealed their hide-out.
Cervo never broke, though the others did not learn the full story of his capture until after a week of nerveracking suspense. Alerted by the informer, a group of Fascist police had been waiting at the river boat to seize Cervo and his orderly. They were taken to Via Principe Amedeo 2, escorted to the top floor by armed guards led by a Dr. Koch, who was noted as a torture expert, and thrown into separate cells. In an official report written after his escape Scottu stated that “they started punching my chest, my jaw as if I were a punching bag. … At 2 A.M. the lieutenant [Cervo] was brought into our cell, bleeding from the mouth, nose, and with his face all swollen. He had lost several teeth.”
Day after day the torture continued, but neither Cervo nor the orderly would reveal the names of his associates. On the twenty-third, the fifth day after their capture, it was learned that some partisans had thrown a bomb into a Rome side street, Via Rasella, which had killed thirty-two German M.P.'s. Infuriated by the news, Koch and his Fascist inquisitors burst into the cell and, reported Scottu, “started to beat, kick and punch those present, covering us with spittle.” The lieutenant was interrogated alone for about twenty minutes, “coming back with his face disfigured, tottering and worn out.”
Toward evening the turncoat Walter announced that the inmates of the cell were to be handed over to the Nazi S.S. as part of the 320 civilians to be executed in ten-to-one retaliation for the thirty-two Germans bombed at Via Rasella. “Only the lieutenant whispered words of encouragement to all,” Scottu reported. “I helped him to the toilet, but he could pass only blood. Seeing us, Walter knocked us both to the ground.” Cervo was carried bodily out of the cell and taken to Regina Coeli jail; Scottu, arriving later at the same jail, was not among those selected for execution. Cervo and the other hostages were transported by truck to some catacombs near San Callisto and were thrown into a cave and shot one by one in the back of the neck. Then the victims were piled in a heap, and the Germans exploded a number of mines, burying dead and dying under the collapsing walls of the cave.
Although Cervo’s sacrifice had saved the lives of his associates, both the Germans and the Fascist police were now aware of the existence of the O.S.S. group. The members led a hunted life, hiding in garrets and cellars while waiting for the Allies to liberate the city. Complicating the situation was the increasing friction between Coniglio, the original O.S.S. leader in Rome, and Tompkins. The two agents, increasingly resentful of each other, resorted to means of their own to transmit what was often duplicate intelligence. Coniglio sent his message north by courier to be relayed to the Fifth Army by other O.S.S. radios in Italy; Tompkins, after the loss of Vittorio , made use of a British Secret Intelligence Service circuit. The S.I.S. set in southern Italy often did not forward Tompkins’ information until it was over a month old and therefore useless.