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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
Security was his prime concern. Antonio had warned him that the partisan band was honeycombed with informers ready to sell out their comrades to the S.S. for a reward. By great good luck a young Italian woman was captured by the Alpini and brought before Benucci; her partisan brother-in-law had been mysteriously fingered and hanged by the S.S., and she was known to be sleeping with a German master sergeant in the village. Under pressure she confessed that she was the paymaster for the local spy ring and surrendered a ledger containing the names of all the traitors in the area. Thirty-three informers, many of them members of the Aztec group, were lined up along with the woman agent and shot by the Alpini. The following morning twelve more villagers left in haste. The betrayals abruptly ceased.
Other American volunteers were less fortunate. Captain Roderick “Steve” Hall of New Hampshire, a young geologist, jumped from a Liberator bomber on August 2, 1944, the first O.S.S. leader to drop in uniform into northern Italy. Working in the VaI Cordovale area, he directed a partisan brigade for several months in demolition work. His radio operator was killed, and he arranged to send his intelligence to Mission Aztec for transmission to the O.S.S. base at Florence. On two occasions Hall’s trusted courier, a Swiss named Tell, arrived to deliver the messages to Captain Benucci; but intuition warned Benucci to meet Tell at a point some distance from his own headquarters, on the opposite side of the River Piave. His suspicions of the Swiss courier were justified when Hall was betrayed to the S.S. in January, and although in uniform, was tortured and hanged.
His story was never fully known. Inquiries by the O.S.S. revealed that Hall had left his unit on January 26 to ski north for a sabotage effort near the Brenner Pass. The following day, while hiding out with a local priest in Ampezzo, he was seized by Fascist police and carried off to the torture chambers. After the war an Italian doctor in Ampezzo disclosed a death certificate he had signed for one “R. G. Hall,” giving the cause of death as “heart failure.” The doctor confessed: “The Gestapo made me say that. All I saw was a body lying at the bottom of a cart. I noticed he had a rope around his neck.”
Due to Benucci’s precautions the informer Tell had not been able to give the S.S. the location of Aztec headquarters; but he was able to furnish them with Benucci’s name and rank and with an exact description. The Germans raised the reward for his capture to ten thousand dollars, “dead or alive.” For the rest of the Italian campaign Benucci never remained in one spot for more than two days at a time.
On the day after Christmas, 1944, another O.S.S. volunteer leader arrived: Infantry Captain Howard Chappell of East Cleveland, Ohio, a tall, powerful blond of Prussian descent, who was a former all-state football player and the heavyweight boxing champion at Western Reserve University. Like Benucci and Hall, he had been selected personally by General Donovan for the mission. Chappell and his team, Corporal Silsby and T/5 Fabrega, parachuted into the Aztec area near Belluno, and he spent several days with Benucci, being briefed on the territory he would penetrate. After some discussion it was decided that Benucci should continue with the 7th Alpini and should also take command of the VaI Cordovale brigade, leaderless since Captain Hall’s capture. Chappell would assume command of the Nanette Division, which operated to the west near the city of Bolzano, headquarters of the Nazi S.S. troops in Italy.
The Nanette Division proved to be a Communist outfit, more concerned with future political developments than with the liberation of their country. The division’s local chief was “Mello,” described by Chappell as “a pleasant character who, along with another Communist named De Lucca, schemed to have me murdered. Mello stole three planeloads of American equipment. One of his brigades had received from us clothing and forty Sten guns, which they buried whenever the Germans came near. They did no fighting.”
While carrying on their sabotage work, hiding in haystacks and bushes by day and striking at night, Chappell’s unit picked up twenty-one American pilots who had been shot down behind the lines and arranged for their evacuation to Yugoslavia. “When the parachutes landed,” Chappell said, “my partisans would try to get to them before the Germans or Fascists, who would kill our airmen on sight. The pilots usually drew their revolvers as soon as they scrambled to their feet, and it was difficult for the partisans, few of whom spoke any English, to let the Americans know they were friendly. They brought in one pilot who told us that a couple of tough characters had come running toward him across a field, and he had whipped out his .45 and was about to knock them off when one began yelling ‘Jesus-Christ-Lucky-Stri ke-God-Damn-ChesterfieldSon-of-a-Bitch.’ So the pilot put his gun away.”