Operation Spokane

'Spokane' was US special forces operation to parachute a party of the Office of Strategic Services' A Company, 261st Reconnaissance Battalion into German-occupied Italy to aid local resistance forces (4 March/22 May 1945).

('Spokane' and 'Sewanee' are often treated as a single mission as the progress of this operation integrated the two missions under the command of Major Arnold Lorbeer, the commanding officer of 'Spokane'.)

The object of the undertaking was to harass German garrisons, disrupt the German communications, gather and transmit intelligence, and establish liaison, supply, arm and train partisan units in the Tyrolean Alps in the area to the north of Edolo, approximately between Valtellina and Val Camonica.

On 4 March Lorbeer and two other members of the 16-man 'Spokane' mission departed Rosignana airfield in a Consolidated B-24 Liberator aircraft to select and parachute onto a dropping zone in northern Italy: the co-ordinates for two possible sites had been provided by Office of Strategic Services' agents based in Switzerland. After flying over both sites, the three-man team parachuted into a long snow-covered valley with the town of Livigno in its centre. High mountains around the valley, high winds and air pockets made it necessary to jump from from an altitude of greater than 2,500 ft (760 m), but the landings were easy in soft snow. The Americans immediately learned that the valley was strongly held by partisans, and the Livigno dropping zone ('Beet') was later used for several other personnel drops of an eventual total of 35 men, and for equipment drops. Three Office of Strategic Services personnel and nine men of the USAAF were killed in the crash of an aeroplane during one of the drops: one of the men killed was of the 'Santee' Mission, and the other two of the 'Spokane' mission.

After receiving their first supply drop the men of the operational group started to equip and train the partisans in the proper use of demolition charges and weapons, including the 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine gun and bazooka anti-tank rocket launcher. At the same time, mixed operational group and partisan teams moved out to start the collection of intelligence. Much of the initial information was obtained from Italian engineers operating the hydro-electric installations in the area. Within two weeks of their arrival, the men of the operational group, supported by partisans, had occupied the Cancano hydro-electric facility with the aid of co-operative Italian engineers.

The facilities at Cancono and at nearby Isolaccia were reputed to be the largest such hydro-electric facilities providing electricity to Milan and other northern cities. In Isolaccia the Axis maintained a garrison of about 30 Italian Fascist and about six German soldiers, and sniper fire from that garrison had wounded several partisans. In order to deny the Axis control of the Isolaccia facility, all available men of the operational group and about 100 partisans raided the garrison, and in this task the weapon found to be most effective was the bazooka, whose fire destroyed the roof over the Axis garrison. This garrison then retreated to the lower part of the facility, from which its men used machine guns to hold off the Allied attack until the fall of night, after which they slipped away, in the process abandoning their weapons and four casualties.

The thinking of the time at Allied headquarters was that the Germans might attempt a final stand by withdrawing their forces in Italy to an area they could fortify as an Alpine redoubt with its western end anchored on the Stelvio pass. Of of the primary concerns of the operational group was therefore the Stelvio pass and the garrison at Bornio, at the foot of Highway 38 leading to the pass. The operational group’s other primary concern was the area to the east of Edolo along Highway 42, where it was learned that the Germans were mining the road.

On the night of 30/31 March seven men of the operational group and 50 partisans raided the Stelvio construction dump. Demolition squads blocked the road to the north and south of the dump and cut telephone communication lines between the dump and the German garrisons, and the main body of the raiding party then overwhelmed the small German garrison guarding the construction dump and the electric cable car line used to delivery material to Stelvio. Demolition charges destroyed the cable car system’s machinery and all the materials which the Germans might have been able to use, the latter including 500 rolls of barbed wire and tons of steel plate.

In the period between the middle of March to the middle of April there were almost daily exchanges of fire between mixed operational group and partisan units and the Axis troops on the Stelvio pass. While the distances from one side of the pass to the other rendered much of the fire ineffective, it was later learned from one of the German commanders that two of their men had been killed and another four wounded, and the casualties had caused some desertions from Italian Fascist units.

During the final week of April, a combined force of operation group men and partisans entered Bormio, where the Italian Fascists immediately surrendered. The German commander refused to surrendered, however, but did agree to keep his garrison in a block of houses under the guard if a partisan unit of superior size. On the following day the German commander from Stelvio arrived in Bormio under a flag of truce. Lorbeer invited the commander to lunch, and the German agreed to surrender his unit. Two days later the Bormio garrison of some 300 men on the Stelvio pass surrendered, yielding all their weapons and equipment. This took place three days before the end of hostilities in Italy.

During this same period the operational group and partisan operations to the east of Edolo along Highway 42 were engaged in operations to defeat the German mining of that road to the west of the Tonale pass. The men of the operational group taught the partisans how to remove the mines, and thus were able to keep the bridges from being destroyed.

As it became clearer that the Germans were being defeated on all fronts, the mission of the 'Spokane' group became an anti-scorch posture as it waited for Allied troop to arrive. This took place on 22 May, and the men of the 'Spokane' group then travelled to the base at Siena.