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SAS Italian Job by Damien Lewis



A review that made it sound pretty interesting.


I decided to buy this after seeing the graves of four of the protagonists at the CWGC Cemetery in Milan, I had read a summary on Operation Tombola in David Stafford’s “Mission Accomplished” which I would recommend to anybody interested in the bigger picture of the SOE’s operations in Italy but was looking for something more detailed on the Operation itself. Certainly, Damien Lewis’s book does not disappoint in this respect. I was almost put off by the title, which seems to reference the popular British crime caper film and seems a little inappropriate for what was a deadly serious, dangerous, and strategically important mission. I am sure that was not Damien’s choice. Also, I was worried that it might just be aimed at a particular market for SAS books rather than a general reader. I was wrong, it is extremely well written, fast paced and free of hyperbole and in no way glorifies killing or war. Instead, the book tells he story of some unique and, it is fair to say, flawed men who were extremely brave and of whom it is true to say, they don’t make them like that anymore.

In March 1945 as Allied Armies prepared to assault the German’s last line of defence in Italy the Gothic Line, some 40 SAS soldiers parachuted behind enemy, where they hatched a plan to attack a heavily defended German HQ which was the command centre for the whole Gothic Line defence. If it succeeded the Germans were likely to be thrown into disarray and the Allied campaign in Italy made a lot easier.

The two main characters are Captain Michael Lees, who was the SOE Liaison in the area and Major Roy Farran of the SAS – both of whom seemed to have had a few issues with the British Army’s Command . There is a wide cast of characters of all nationalities, British, Spanish , Italians and Russians. Damien Lewis has obviously done some thorough research in speaking to the families of those involved to put some flesh on the bones of the story. One of the interesting (and lesser known) stories that Damien has found are the three Spanish Republicans fighting with the SAS, it what was a truly international anti-fascist alliance. The Spanish were veterans of the Civil War and finally getting some well-deserved payback against the Fascists, one of them was also killed in the operation and is buried under his British nom di guerre in Milan. Damien is also properly respectful of the Italian partisans fighting with the SAS on their home soil, and whose assistance was essential for the mission. Unlike a few British authors, Damien is even handed in his treatment of the communist and non-communist partisans. Apparently, the British went to the lengths of flying in a Scottish piper to play the pipes during the attack, in order to give it a British signature and to deflect the Germans from taking reprisals against the partisans. If I had a criticism of the book , it is that the Germans and their Italian Fascist Allies are largely absent. Perhaps to give more formation about the cruelties of the German occupation and the vileness of their allies in the Italian Black Brigades might have given more perspective to the risks that the SAS men and the Italian partisans were running. Justifiably, Damien concentrates on the role of Michael Lees, who was not only seriously wounded in the attack and who was afterwards refused any decoration or promotion- he seems to have seriously got on the wrong side of the British Top Brass. In fact, Damien highlights that the whole mission might well have proceeded against the express the orders of the British planners. Rather amusingly SAS Major Farran clamed to have fallen out of the plane when he was expressly ordered not to jump. Farran was decorated by the Americans, not surprisingly since his successful mission probably saved a large number of America lives, so the British could not do much about disciplining him.

I would highly recommend the book to anybody who is interested in the lesser-known aspects of the Allied Campaign in Italy. It is well written and keeps the interest going. It tells a complex story with a wide cast of characters in a sympathetic way, without undue sensationalism. Where it does use dialogue, it at least seems like the dialogue people might have used at the time rather than relying on current jargon. Overall, it seems a fitting tribute to a very brave group. I am now definitely tempted to explore some of Damien Lewis’s other works.




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