An Excerpt of Churchill’s Hellraisers by Damien Lewis
The Italian admiral was a proud man and justifiably so. Before joining the resistance he’d commanded a good proportion of the Italian fleet. Too old to operate like a partisan any more, fighting against an occupying force, his role now was to observe Allied airstrikes from this mountaintop fastness positioned well behind enemy lines, and to radio through battle damage reports to Allied headquarters.
Entirely military-like in his attitude, he had an eye for detail and for range and bearing that made him ideally suited to his task. But on this late-September evening in 1944 he’d put away his binoculars, turning his mind to entirely different and more urgent matters.
Captain Michael Lees felt the admiral’s firm grip shaking him awake. He’d been drifting into sleep, hoping for a rare night uninterrupted by enemy ambushes, shellfire or raids. It was remarkable how comfortable a rickety old hayloft could prove, after so many weeks living rough behind enemy lines. It made a passable billet for himself, assorted Brits and other nationalities who’d come here to assist the Italian partisans, striking with lightning speed from the mountains.
“There’s a message from Major Temple,” the admiral hissed. “You’re to get to his headquarters immediately.” Lees fumbled for his boots, hurrying to pull them on in the chill night air, the admiral’s tone reflecting the import of the major’s summons. In Major Darewski – ‘Temple’ was his operational cover name – Lees had discovered a fellow adventurer who hungered for action. After parachuting into the unknown and executing a tortuous and perilous route to get here, Lees was keen to lead the kind of guerrilla operations for which Major Temple was famed.
Lacing up his boots and pulling on a jacket, he set off at a run. The path ahead glistened blue-white in the moonlight, the night beautifully starlit and crystal clear. As his feet pounded upon the rough, stony ground, Lees felt the excitement rising within him. He wondered what might lie behind the major’s summons. It was either a juicy sabotage mission, or perhaps the Germans were launching a sweep through the valley, in an attempt to encircle the partisans, in which case they would need to act swiftly to organise their defences.
Such efforts as this – to raise, train and arm the Italian partisans for war – were largely at the behest of Winston Churchill. The Allied invasion of Italy in the summer of 1943 had been at Churchill’s urging, designed to drive a dagger into the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’. By doing so, Britain’s wartime leader intended to strike at Nazi Germany via Italy, so splitting the enemy’s defences in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Initially the proposal had met with fierce opposition, especially from the Americans. By way of response Churchill had sketched out a picture of a crocodile, pointing out how it was just as good to strike at the belly as the snout.
Eventually the Americans had been convinced that hitting Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’ was the right thing to do. Yet despite early successes in southern Italy, the Italian campaign had proven anything but ‘soft’. Hitler had little intention of leaving the back door to Europe open. He’d rushed reinforcements into the country, the Germans fighting a series of die-hard battles, first under the command of General Erwin Rommel, and then under another of Hitler’s favourites, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.
Come the approach of winter, the Allied advance had stalled on the Gothic Line, a string of formidable defences – thousands of machine-gun bunkers, concrete gun emplacements, deep tunnels, minefields and razor wire – stretching from coast to coast across northern Italy’s Apennine mountains. The forces manning the Gothic Line were some of Germany’s finest. They included the 1st and 4th Parachute Divisions, arguably some of the best troops in the Reich, plus two Panzergrenadier – mechanised infantry – divisions equipped with heavy armour.
All of Italy south of the Gothic Line had been seized in fearsome fighting by the Allies. But territory to the north of the line remained in enemy hands, excepting pockets of remote, mountainous territory held by the Italian resistance – Major Temple’s mission being one such example. At Churchill’s urging, the partisans were being armed and trained to rise up in the enemy’s rear, to help achieve a decisive breakthrough. Lees and Temple’s operation, headquartered towards the western end of the Apennines and just to the rear of the Gothic Line, was intended to strike hard at enemy lines of supply and communications.
Whatever tonight’s mission, Lees felt an immense sense of respect and camaraderie for Major Temple, who’d already won a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) in the war. Formerly an officer with airborne forces, but now serving as an agent with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – Churchill’s shadowy ‘Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’ – Lees was second-in- command here, and in Major Temple he believed he had found a real kindred spirit.
On his earliest operations with the SOE, Lees had earned the nickname ‘Mickey Mouse’. It was Yugoslav guerrillas who had coined the name, Mickey Mouse being the only ‘Michael’ they had ever heard of. But there had been nothing Mickey Mouse about the long months Lees had spent soldiering with them: he’d led dozens of dramatic raids on enemy railway tracks, blowing trains laden with war materiel to smithereens.
When told to cease offensive operations with the Yugoslav guerrillas, Lees had decided to interpret his orders rather literally: he’d stopped working with the resistance, launching a string of solo sabotage missions instead, ones of breathtaking – some might argue suicidal – daring. In doing so he’d earned a somewhat more apposite nickname – Michael ‘Wild Man’ Lees. His linking up with Major Temple promised fireworks and heroics in equal measure. With delicious irony, Temple’s mission had been codenamed Operation Flap. In truth, no one was inclined to ‘get a flap on’ with Temple – or Lees – in command. At thirty years of age, Major Neville Lawrence Darewski was comparatively old for an SOE operative. (By contrast, Lees was still in his early twenties.) The son of Polish-born Herman Darewski, a famous music hall musician of the time, and the English actress Madge Temple, it was from her that Darewski had coined his nom de guerre.
Major Temple had been operating behind the lines for months now. He’d parachuted in to link up with the partisans prior to Italy’s signing the 3 September 1943 Armistice of Cassibile, in which the Italian people had renounced their deal with the devil – the alliance with Nazi Germany and Japan, forming the Axis Powers – surrendering to the Allies.
The signing of the Armistice was a watershed moment, as far as Temple was concerned. Prior to that, he’d reported to SOE headquarters on what a perilous existence he’d been forced to lead with the partisans. It was a “cloak-and-dagger affair, only moving at night . . . minimum of smoke from fires, kit always ready for immediate move . . . I covered some one thousand miles on foot carrying my kit and arms . . . We had to cross rivers, roads and railways all held by the Germans . . . in small, very mobile
parties . . .”
Come the Armistice, all that had changed. Temple had urged his partisans to seize the moment and embrace the spirit of resistance. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, he’d led his band of fighters to strike at a major airbase lying just to the rear of the Gothic Line, in a daring mission that had proven spectacularly successful.
“We surrounded the airfield and held it for long enough to destroy eighty-nine Italian planes on the ground, and all the hangars and buildings,” Temple had reported. Then with characteristic flair: “We flew away one CR.42 to start the Partisan Air Force . . .”
In destroying those dozens of enemy warplanes, Temple’s operation was on a par with some of the most successful raids of the war. The lone CR.42 Falco – Falcon – that his force had liberated was a biplane fighter widely used by the Italian air force. Despite its seemingly archaic design, it had scored an enviable kill ratio on many fronts due to its robustness and maneuverability.
In the aftermath of the raid, Temple’s forces had been hunted remorselessly by the German military using armour, artillery and dive bombers. The lone CR.42 Falco that they’d ‘liberated’ was blown up by a tank. Temple responded in textbook fashion: “We withdrew from direct offensive tactics and went back to guerrilla warfare.” While the enemy held the main population centres, his bands of partisans began to tighten their grip on the remoter villages and hills.
“Outside the perimeter of the towns the Germans put up notices: BEWARE, YOU ARE NOW ENTERING BANDIT TERRITORY,” Temple reported of the time. He sent out his men at night to turn the signs around, so that ‘BANDIT TERRITORY’ became the German-held towns. “The Hun got very annoyed and threatened the direst of penalties to anyone caught doing this,” Temple pointed out, which only served to encourage him.
By late September 1944, Major Temple was master of all that he surveyed. Set at an altitude of some 3,000 feet, his headquarters lay in a mountain hut nicknamed ‘The Farm’. It boasted views across the plains to Turin – once Italy’s capital, and a major business hub – and the Alps beyond. On a clear day the glistening peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn were visible. On a flat patch of ground several thousand feet higher Temple had established his dropping zone (DZ), into which the Allies were flying loads of kit, explosives and weaponry.
From their Apennine valley fortress Temple’s 500-strong band of partisans launched daring raids, using captured vehicles to execute fast hit-and-run strikes. As Mike Lees was about to learn, Temple’s night-time summons was the result of one such recent mission.
After thirty minutes dashing through the moonlit landscape, Lees arrived at The Farm. Typically, he was in standard British battledress. By contrast, Major Temple cut a very different kind of a figure. A big part of Temple’s remit here was intelligence- gathering, and he’d just paid a clandestine visit to Turin disguised as a local. Such derring-do was all part of a normal day’s work as far as Temple was concerned. With his dark looks plus his tanned and weather-beaten features, he could easily pass as a local.
“Dressed as he was,” Lees remarked of Temple that evening, “he could never have been recognised as an Englishman.”
At well over six foot and with a broad, rugby-player’s physique, Lees towered over most of his contemporaries. Blessed with no-nonsense, honest looks, he was a man born and bred for plain-speaking action, as opposed to subterfuge. Hailing from a family with a long history of soldiering, he had cousins and even a sister serving with elite forces in various theatres of the war.
Temple and Lees had operated together for little more than three weeks here, and for much of that time Temple had been away in Turin on clandestine business. It was precious little time to really get to know each other. Temple viewed Lees as a hard and a tough operator, but what he was about to propose would test any man’s resolve. It would be the measure of Lees as to whether he accepted the mission. No man could be ordered to do as Temple intended, especially as all in SOE were volunteers.
‘Sorry to drag you out at this time of night,’ Temple began, ‘but we’ve got an important decision to make.”
About CHURCHILL’S HELLRAISERS:
In the winter of 1944, Allied forces had succeeded in liberating most of Axis-occupied Italy—with one crucial exception: the Nazi headquarters north of the Gothic Line. Heavily guarded and surrounded by rugged terrain, the mountain fortress was nearly impenetrable. But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was determined to drive a dagger into the “soft underbelly of Europe.” The Allied’s plan: drop two paratroopers into the mountains—and take the fortress by storm.
“One of the most dangerous and effective attacks ever undertaken by this Regiment against the enemy.”—Lt. Col Robert Walker‐Brown, MBE DSO, senior SAS commander
About the Author:
Damien Lewis is an award-winning historian, war reporter, and bestselling author. He spent over two decades reporting from war, disaster, and conflict zones around the world, winning numerous awards. He has written more than a dozen books about World War II, including The Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare, The Dog Who Could Fly, SAS Ghost Patrol, and The Nazi Hunters. His work has been published in over forty languages, and many of his books have been made, or are being developed, as feature films, TV series, or as plays for the stage. Visit him online at DamienLewis.com.
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