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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
The Germans, outraged at this blow to their prestige, mounted a heavy counterattack on Cannobia, and Como requested another airdrop of weapons and supplies. Since all Allied aircraft had by that time been diverted to support the growing Warsaw resistance, it was impossible for the Air Force to comply. While the partisans held off the German drive, Como made a personal trip to Switzerland, obtained arms and ammunition, and loaded them secretly onto a freight train. The Swiss border control discovered the contraband and threatened to confiscate it, whereupon Como took over the train, crashed it across the frontier into Italian territory, and distributed the precious weapons to the partisans. The Swiss protested that his act was a flagrant infringement of their neutrality. To prevent further trouble with Switzerland, the O.S.S. spirited Como off to southern Italy, where he was detained for the duration.
Supplementing the partisan warfare, the Morale Operations (M.O.) branch of the O.S.S. conducted a campaign of black propaganda in an attempt to weaken the spirit of the Italian Fascist and German troops. A bogus newspaper, Das Neue Deutschland , purporting to be the instrument of an anti-Nazi German peace party, was airdropped to resistance groups who smuggled it across the enemy lines. Copies of a forged military announcement by General Kesselring, stating that he was resigning his command because the “war is lost in Germany,” were distributed by special “Sauerkraut” missions in forward areas and proved so successful that Kesselring found it necessary on September 13 to deny authorship of the proclamation. Even more effective with the Italian Fascists were “passes” from a self-styled “Patriots’ Committee,” inviting the bearer to join the partisans. “Actually we didn’t know whether the Partisans would honor the pass,” an O.S.S. field report admitted, “but we didn’t give a damn; the idea was to make the Italians completely useless to the Germans. The effect was cumulative. Kesselring was forced to interlard his Fascist troops with German units he badly needed elsewhere. When the Italians reached the front lines, they deserted in whole platoons, armed with surrender passes.”
Sometimes a partisan area would be overrun by the Germans, the leaders captured and executed, and the demoralized survivors sent fleeing into the mountains. Then American O.S.S. officers would drop into the area to weld the scattered unit together again and lead it in further sabotage efforts against assigned targets. General Donovan paid a special postwar tribute to these men who “took some of the gravest risks and performed some of the bravest acts of the war.” Men with no previous experience in resistance—men like Captain Joseph Benucci or Captain Howard Chappell or Captain Roderick Hall—were hand-picked to carry out resistance work in northern Italy. Their stories, strangely intertwined, are told here not because they are so extraordinary but rather because they are so typical.
Donovan worked a kind of magic when he talked, and O.S.S. field agents, infected by the general’s confidence, would often volunteer without hesitation to carry out any hazardous duty he suggested. Captain Benucci said after his interview with Donovan: “He talked to me for half an hour, and I walked out of his office convinced that I could do the impossible.”
Benucci, twenty-eight and a railroad worker from Newark, New Jersey, was chosen to lead an O.S.S. sabotage operation in Italy called Mission Aztec. On October 13, 1944, with sergeants Nick Gangelosi of Elmont, New York, and Sebastian Gionfriddo of Hartford, Connecticut, he parachuted into the lower Alps north of Venice, a strategically vital area that lay astride the German route to the Brenner Pass and Austria. He had expected to find a large partisan force awaiting him, but from the reception committee at the drop zone he learned that the Germans had struck just a month before and had killed over five hundred partisans in a mass slaughter that had left only fifty effective members in the local underground, headed by a slight and neatly dressed Rome industrialist named “Antonio.” Benucci would have to build his organization virtually from scratch.
By November 4, when Mission Aztec received its first O.S.S. supply drop, he had two hundred partisans in his mountain hide-out near Belluno, most of them members of the 1JUi Alpini Brigade and courageous fighters. The snow was already three feet deep, the temperature hovered around zero, and the encampment was badly in need of food. Accompanied by some of his best men armed with automatic weapons, Benucci set an ambush for an enemy supply convoy. Mines blew the tracks off the vehicles, and the fifteen German guards were cut down by concentrated fire. The partisans’ booty was the payroll for the Nazi garrison at Belluno, abundant food and weapons, and, best of all, a month’s ration of cigarettes. The Germans reacted promptly; an S.S. force swept the countryside and captured several partisans. Under torture they admitted Benucci’s presence in the area, though they did not reveal his whereabouts, and the enemy put a price of five thousand dollars on his head.