Operation Tombola (ii)

'Tombola' (ii) was a British special forces operation by Major Roy Farran’s 3rd Squadron, 2nd Special Air Service to aid Italian partisans near Reggio in the Bologna area of northern Italy (4 March/24 April 1945).

In the middle of December 1944, Farran was sent to Italy with the 3rd Squadron, which had only recently been formed on the basis of volunteers from the British 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, and Farran believed the men to be well-trained and highly disciplined. The squadron came under the command of General Mark Clark’s 15th Army Group, and between December and February 1945 conducted several small-scale operations in the areas of La Spezia and the Brenner Pass. These undertakings were on a small scale, and Farran began to devise a plan for deploying a larger unit into the area behind the German lines, but still be close enough to the formations of the 15th Army Group to aid Allied ground forces in their own operations. Farran concentrated his planning on the Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena areas. Italian partisan brigades were operating in each department, controlled by a headquarters (Comando Unico) and supported by an Allied liaison officer who supervised supply drops and tried to persuade the partisans to engage the German forces in their areas. The only area with a liaison officer ready to accept the arrival of SAS forces was Reggio Emilia, which suited Farran’s plan well as the forward-most point of 15th Army Group was only 12 miles (19 km) distant.

Farran himself wished to command the operation, known as 'Tombola' (ii), but was forbidden by staff officers at 15th Army Group’s headquarters, but nonetheless managed to secure approval to accompany the SAS troopers in the aeroplane from which they were to parachute into the operational area. When the operation began on 4 March, Farran 'accidentally' fell out of the aeroplane, but was 'fortunately' wearing a parachute at the time and 'happened to have' his personal kit with him. All of the troopers landed safely, though one officer suffered a dislocated shoulder and had to be left in the care of Italian civilians, and the party was met by the Special Operation Executive’s local liaison officer, Michael Lees. Lees took Farran and his men to meet the commander of the local Comando Unico, which comprised four 'brigades', of which three were communist and one christian democrat. When they arrived, Farran proposed to the Comando Unico that a new battalion, known as the Battaglione Alleato, be created with an SAS company as its core and fleshed out with one company of right-wing partisans and another of Russian deserters from the German forces. Although the suggestion was approved, Farran was not encouraged by the state of the partisans when he first inspected them, stating that 'nearly all of them had some physical defect'. To improve their fitness and training, Farran arranged for several instructors and an Italian interpreter to be delivered by parachute, together with a large quantity of supplies.

Within a few days the SAS company of 40 men had arrived to form the core of the battalion, with one officer and four men attached to each of the other companies in a supervisory capacity.

The battalion’s first target, as proposed by both Farran and Lees, was the headquarters of General Frierdrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, located at Botteghe d’Albinea near Reggio Emilia, about 20 miles (32 km) from the point at which the SAS troopers had landed. The 15th Army Group’s headquarters initially agreed with the proposal and supplied aerial photography of the headquarters. At the same time, it was discovered that local German forces were beginning an anti-partisan drive into the mountains where the battalion was stationed. Despite this, Farran decided to continue with the attack, and was on his way to the headquarters with the battalion when he was contacted by the 15th Army Group headquarters, which withdrew its permission for the attack. Farran decided to ignore this change and continued toward the target on the grounds that he might lose all credibility with the partisans if their first operation was cancelled.

Farran had made a personal reconnaissance of the headquarters on 23 March, and the battalion arrived in three columns at a farm about 10 miles (16 km) from the target on 26 March. Here the men rested until the fall of night, and at 02.00 on 27 March began the attack on the headquarters. This comprised a number of buildings centred on the Villa Rossi, where the corps commander was billeted, and the Villa Calvi, which was occupied by Oberst Georg Gartmayr, the corps' chief-of-staff. The garrison consisted of some 300 soldiers.

Farran’s plan called for the SAS troopers and a number of the partisans to force their way into the two villas while the Russians placed themselves between the villas and the other buildings with the task of preventing the rest of the garrison from intervening.

The partisans were able to approach the villas without being spotted, quietly killing several sentries in the process. However, the plan to use a bazooka rocket-launcher to gain entry to the Villa Calvi failed when this weapon misfired. The British and Italians were nonetheless able to enter the villa by force, but fierce German resistance meant they were unable to move upstairs and kill Gartmayr. The assault team instead used explosives, petrol and looted furniture to set the villa on fire, and use machine gun fire to ensure that the remaining Germans could not escape. Although effective, the fire meant that the Germans in the Villa Rossi had been alerted to the situation before the partisan group attacking that villa could begin its assault. As in the Villa Calvi, the Germans put up a stiff resistance and stymied attempts by the partisans to reach the upper floor. A number of Germans were killed in fighting, however, and the partisans wrongly believed that one of these might be Hauck. Under heavy fire, the partisans then retreated after setting fire to the villa’s kitchen.

The rest of the German garrison reacted swiftly to the attack, and soon brought the Russian screen force under machine gun fire. Farran then fired a red Very light signal, and the entire force retreated from the area, carrying its wounded. After nearly a day marching through the mountains, obscured from German search parties by mist and rain, the battalion arrived in a partisan-controlled village. The battalion had suffered three British troopers killed, as well as eight British and Italians wounded; this latter figure included Lees, who suffered injuries which crippled him permanently: he was eventually taken by a light aeroplane to a hospital in Florence. It was at first believed that six Russians of the covering force had been captured and immediately executed, but the missing men were located at the partisan headquarters a few days later. About 60 Germans, including Gartmayr, had been killed by the partisans.

After this attack, the German forces of the area undertook a drive into the mountains with the goal of eliminating the partisans.

Between 28 March and 12 April, aided by the SAS and using heavy weapons including a 75-mm (2.95-in) pack howitzer and 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars, the partisans fought the Germans in open engagements. The battalion was attacked three times in its prepared positions, each time repelling the attacks and inflicting heavy losses on the Germans: after an attack on 10 April, the partisans counted 51 German dead. After heavy fighting and suffering several local reverses, the Russian company undertook a counterattack which forced the Germans to fall back and bring their offensive to an end.

At the beginning of April, Farran was informed that Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army was planning to launch the 'Craftsman' offensive in the area in which the SAS party and its associated partisans were operating. As the army’s axis of advance extended through Modena, Farran decided, with army group approval, to move the battalion into Modena and support the partisans already operating there. Equipped with Jeeps for additional mobility, the battalion was to undertake attacks on Highway 12, the main route linking Florence and Modena route, and harass any German troops using it.

On 5 April Farran received word that the offensive was beginning, and led the battalion to its new area of operations. On arrival, though, the battalion discovered that the area’s terrain lacked the type of cover needed for partisan operation: as the highway extended along an open valley, this would require the Jeeps to drive across exposed ground right up to the convoys before opening fire. Farran therefore decided to target German troops on and around the road with the 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzer, and then send in the armed Jeeps after the Germans had been shelled. An initial attack on the village of Sassuolo, near Modena, was extremely successful, and the partisans launched a number of similar raids against targets along Highway 12.

On 20 April, after a series of raids had been made, Farran was informed that the 5th Army had broken through the German line, and decided that the battalion would now attack the city of Reggio Emilia, which straddled Highway 12. The howitzer was used to bombard the main square of the town, and Farran later discovered that the local German and Italian fascist garrison believed that the attack was being delivered by the vanguard of a US armoured division. As a result, the Axis troops abandoned the city two hours after the shelling had begun. On 22 April, it was discovered that US troops were approaching the city of Bologna, and therefore the German forces were retreating to the north along Highway 12. Positioning the partisan battalion near the bridge at Sassuolo, Farran used the howitzer, mortars and a machine gun to open fire on the traffic crossing the bridge, destroying a number of vehicles. The attack attracted the attention of a flight of Supermarine Spitfire fighter-bombers, which strafed the area and inflicted more casualties on the Germans. After fighting all day, the battalion was withdrawn by Farran, and after harassing more German transport columns for another day, moved into Modena to help mop up any remaining resistance.

Very soon after this, orders arrived bringing 'Tombola' (ii) to an end and instructing the British troops to move to Florence. During its operational period, the battalion had killed an estimated 300 Germans, taken 158 prisoners and destroyed 20 vehicles, in exchange for 24 casualties of its own.

Only after returning to Florence and reporting to army group headquarters did Farran learn why headquarters had wanted to delay the raid on the headquarters of the LI Gebirgskorps: the 15th Army Group had planned to start an offensive against this corps 10 days after the raid, and it was feared that Farran’s assault on the headquarters would alert the Germans to the attack. The offensive had therefore been cancelled, and Farran believed that he would be court-martialled for disobeying orders, but no such thing happened.