Lake Montorfano, just to the south east of Como, is a tranquil and scenic spot ideal in the summer months for swimming in its pure clear waters where the only sound likely to be heard is the call of a coot or the occasional shout of ‘fore’ from the neighbouring Villa D’Este Golf Club.
But back in 1944 the Villa D’Este’s Club House was the barracks of an elite commando force trained to undertake spying and sabotage behind enemy lines. Its leadership were fervently anti-communist fascists yet their loyalties were ambiguous from the start as they maintained links with both the German and American secret services. The battalion set up on the shores of Lake Montorfano even went on to provide a model for covert ‘stay behind’ teams of spies and saboteurs adopted by NATO and deployed across Western Europe as an anti-communist tactic during the Cold War. For me, learning about Como’s history continues to throw up fascinating surprises, so let me try to unravel more about why this group came to Como and what they did.
April 25th was Italy’s Independence Day celebrating the surrender on that date back in 1945 of the German troops who had occupied the northern half of the country since Italy’s declaration of peace on September 8th 1943. The Nazi occupation had re-established Mussolini and his fascist puppet state known as the RSI (Repubblica Socialista Italiana). The RSI was certainly neither democratic nor socialist. It became better known as the Republic of Salò after the name of the small town on the western banks of Lake Garda where Mussolini was initially based.
The Italian Royal Navy had, prior to 1943, been the most effective of Italy’s armed forces depriving the British merchant fleet of access to the Suez Canal, maintaining a blockade of Malta and ensuring ongoing supplies to the Axis troops in North Africa. Following the 1943 armistice, they maintained loyalty to the King and the constituted Italian government and not to the nazifascist RSI established by the Nazis under Mussolini in the north. The Royal Navy duly withdrew where possible to Taranto where they surrendered their fleet and offered their services to the allies. The British immediately made use of the regiment called Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Flotilla) renaming it the Mariassolto group led by Captain Ernesto Forza and joined by other officers released by the British from Prisoner of War camps. MAS referred to the assault boats used – Motoscafo Armato Silurante (Armed Torpedo Boats). The Mariassolto were an elite commando force trained to destroy shipping and their first targets were those parts of the Italian Royal Navy that had been trapped within the occupied zone in their other major base at La Spezia in Liguria.
In La Spezia, an aristocratic captain of the Royal Navy called Prince Junio Valerio Borghese preferred to back Mussolini and the RSI offering his services to the Nazi occupiers. He promised to set up a group of commandos in the north with the same skills as those in the Mariassolto group in the south. He kept the same name for this regiment that had been used by the Italian Royal Navy, the Decima Flottiglia MAS. Most former members of the Italian armed forces had been imprisoned by the Germans following the September armistice and only released if they promised to join up in the RSI regiments. The great majority refused to do so and many were then deported as slave workers in German factories. However, for some young men, the prospect of a life of daring and adventure within an elite band such as the Decima MAS proved appealing. As time developed, the greater part of the Decima MAS regiment became used to fight against the partisans partnering with the lawless bands of fanatic fascists known as the Brigati Neri as well as the German Army. Borghese negotiated partial autonomy for his commando units from German command. Yet he also retained some distance from Mussolini’s RSI army preferring collaboration with German secret services.
Lake Montorfano April 1944
Out of all the commando units operating within the Decima MAS, why was one of the most clandestine and subversive of them all based on Como’s Lake Montorfano occupying the grounds of the Villa D’Este Golf Club and barracked in the club house? Pleasant though Lake Montorfano undoubtedly is, we need to fathom out why a naval group would decide to base itself in what must be one of the furthest points in Italy from the sea, and what exactly were they doing?
The ‘Vega’ Battalion was established at Lake Montorfano in April 1944 by Captain Mario Rossi ostensibly to operate a warehouse providing supplies for the remainder of the ‘Special Forces’ battalions of the Decima MAS. Rossi’s actual brief from Borghese had been to develop commando groups of spies and saboteurs who could operate independently not just behind enemy lines but also as ‘stay behind’ cells once the whole country came to be liberated by the allies From first conception the Vega Battalion was pro-fascist but its leadership’s loyalties were ambiguous. Mario Rossi had from the start been in contact with the O.S.S. – the American Secret Services organisation that preceded the C.I.A. – as had his superior, the ‘Black Prince’, Prince Junio Valerio Borghese. When the ultimate defeat of the nazifascist regime became increasingly obvious after the D-Day landings in Normandy, the Vega Battalion started to prepare for clandestine activity within a post-fascist Italy while retaining links through both German and American secret services with potential anti-communist allies.
Borghese formally disbanded the Decima MAS on April 26th 1945, the day after the Germans had signed the armistice in Rome bringing a formal end to hostilities. He then spent his time in Milan hiding from the summary retribution being handed out by the victorious partisans to those who had collaborated politically, economically or militarily with the nazifascist regime. On May 10th he was picked up by James Jesus Angleton, local O.S.S. second-in-command and future deputy to the head of the C.I.A. William Colby, given an American officer’s uniform to wear and driven down to the relative safety of Rome. His first formal debriefing took place eighteen days later in the Cinecittà prison camp. The contents of that interview have now been released from the American National Archives in Maryland and they include Borghese’s description of the actual objectives of the Vega Battalion on Lake Montorfano. Vega had been set up in 1944 to bring together all elements of the Decima MAS involved in either spying or sabotage. Previously these activities had been directed by the German Secret Service but Borghese had negotiated autonomy for Vega with the German General Harster. The group’s objectives were:
- To collect information from the areas of Italy occupied by the allies.
- Commit acts of sabotage in the areas of Italy occupied by the allies.
- Set up the means to continue spying and sabotage in the main cities of Northern Italy once the allies also occupy those areas.
It was this third objective which chiefly interested Angleton since it seemed to offer a model for how to pursue a clandestine war against communists. The C.I.A. replaced the O.S.S. soon after the end of the war. They, alongside NATO once it had been established in 1949, recognised they would need to act secretly against communist influence in the west given that the civilian populations of countries such as Italy would not tolerate open hostility against those who had so recently been fighting so bravely against fascism. Angleton appreciated, trusted in and shared Borghese’s fervent anti-communism while overlooking or even deeming irrelevant his total lack of respect for democracy.
A Nest of Spies
Borghese admitted that one reason for selecting Como and Lake Montorfano for the Vega battalion was the proximity to Switzerland. There were at least two reasons why this might have been a factor in deciding on location. Como and Lugano were two cities which could both be described as nests of spies during the last two years of the war. Borghese had managed to gain a certain amount of independence for the Vega battalion from the Germans and also from Mussolini’s puppet government of the RSI. He used this relative independence for him and Rossi to maintain links with the American O.S.S. Even one of the radio operators at Lake Montorfano was an enemy agent. Contacts with the O.S.S. were easy to maintain either through illicit entries into Switzerland and on to Lugano or even through contacts maintained by the Swiss High Commission which had transferred from Milan to base itself in Como on Viale Geno. Even the Commander of the German SS Group based in Cernobbio, Joseph Voetterl, worked for the Americans. More significantly still, the German Military Governor of Northern Italy, Karl Wolff, had, through contacts with the O.S.S. in Bern and Lugano, made contact with the non-communist partisan groups from October 1944 and had also taken part in cross-border meetings with Allen Dulles (Swiss Director of the O.S.S from 1942 and overall director of the C.I.A. from 1953 to 1961) negotiating Operation Sunrise which provided for the eventual peaceful surrender of his troops – all very much against Hitler’s wishes.
The other advantage of proximity to Switzerland was the opportunities this offered for self-financing the battalion and the rest of the Decima MAS through contraband. The local economy around Como had always included significant income from smuggling over the Swiss border. The ‘Vega’ Battalion took to this activity on a truly commercial scale using their relative independence from the Italian authorities to openly flout the law. Organisation of the trade was entrusted to a film star of the time, Osvaldo Valenti who had joined the Vega Battalion with the rank of lieutenant ostensibly as the Information Officer for the Decima MAS. He based himself in Lanzo D’Intelvi overlooking Lake Lugano using the Albergo Unione in Casasco D’Intelvi as an administrative base. His most profitable trade was the export of salt brought to Montorfano using military transport from the saline ponds on the Venetian lagoon. It was then transferred to the ‘spallone’ (as the smugglers were nicknamed) who would make the night-time crossing by foot. Valenti sold contraband primarily to obtain foreign currency. All items in demand over the border were smuggled across but the trade in salt and in agricultural products from the Province of Brescia were the most regular. Flour, butter, rice, lard and cured meats were first transported by lorry from the area around Brescia to Milan where they were then taken by train up to Varenna or Bellano on the upper eastern shores of Lake Como. From there they came by boat to Argegno and then transported up to the end of the Val D’Intelvi.
Osvaldo Valenti would also become known for his part in a negotiated peace between the Vega Battalion and the partisan groups operating in the Val D’Intelvi under the leadership of the legendary Captain Ugo Ricci. On 28th September 1944 Ricci’s group led a successful raid on a division of the Vega Battalion barracked in the ex-Sant Ambrogio monastery in Porlezza on the eastern end of Lake Lugano. Valenti, who either directly or through his accountant happened to have contacts with Ricci, then negotiated a treaty in which Ricci would return all the arms seized from the division in exchange for an undertaking that the Vega Battalion would not undertake any reprisals against the local population or, for that matter, not molest or take part in any actions against the local partisans.
Mario Rossi’s battalion at Lake Montorfano established five ‘stay behind’ groups to work clandestinely after the northern part of Italy was taken over by Allied troops. Each group was designed to have six members able to undertake spying and sabotage. These were established in the cities of Milan, Turin, Genoa, Venice and Bologna. The members of each group were ideally selected to serve in their city of origin as well as for their specific skills in espionage or sabotage. However Rossi himself was a member of the Milanese group in spite of being from Genoa. Each group had a radio operator who was tasked with maintaining communications with the Vega headquarters. They rented lodgings and acquired garage facilities for servicing cars and trucks, and warehouses for their secret cache of arms. Each group acted independently of the others and each member of the group lived independently of his or her colleagues. Bars were acquired to provide cover for these individual members to meet and coordinate their actions. They were well established before the armistice but kept under strict command to not act before receiving instruction from headquarters. There was however one major problem – once Borghese had formally dismissed the Decima MAS on April 26th with a proclamation issued in Milan’s Piazza della Repubblica, no further instructions were ever sent to the five clandestine groups. They were left without any idea how to act. One can only surmise that this total lack of leadership came about as a result of an agreement forged between Mario Rossi, Junio Valerio Borghese and James Angleton that Vega should redirect its hostility away from the victorious allies and towards the communists whose partisans had led the insurrection against the nazifascist state and whose party – the PCI – was now ideally placed to influence the country’s post-war settlement.
The Villa D’Este took back its golf course and was soon back to hosting famous guests including Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and the Belgian King Leopold II.
The immediate aftermath of the war resulted in considerable bloodletting as a reaction to the oppression of the previous years. Summary justice was meted out to those accused of collaborating with the nazifascist regime. Osvaldo Valenti and his wife were among the victims of this with Valenti executed for his alleged association with Pietro Koch who was the leader of a merciless fascist death squad. His wife, Luisa Ferida, who had also been a pre-war film star, was executed alongside of Valenti in the belief that she had also been involved in the war crimes of the Banda Koch. She is now believed to have been entirely innocent of the charges.
The chances of survival for fascists and collaborators improved greatly for those able to survive the first six months after the war. This was the case for Borghese who had been transported away from Milan to Rome by James Angleton. After an initial period in prison he was released in October 1945 only to be re-arrested and brought to trial for war crimes. The C.I.A. did their best to ensure he would be tried by the Appeal Court at Rome where he might expect the greatest leniency. He was initially sentenced to a total of 12 years for the murder of partisans. The court reduced this by 9 years due to his previous brave service to the country when serving for the Royal Navy prior to the 1943 armistice. He was then given a total discharge due to the general amnesty issued by the Italian Communist party leader and then Minister of Justice, Palmiro Togliatti. Togliatti’s amnesty was designed to pardon both fascists and partisans for crimes committed during and immediately after the war.
The Secret Civil War
In 1951 Borghese joined the MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) – a neo-fascist parliamentary party. He left them in 1953 since he felt they were too weak in preference to taking the extra-parliamentary route to fascism. This eventually led him to leading an abortive coup d’etat in Rome on January 8th 1970 – part of a fascist and anti-communist strategy backed by the Italian and American Secret Services and parts of the Carabinieri resulting in the bomb attack at Piazza Fontana in 1969 and continued afterwards in a series of terrorist attacks now known as the ‘anni di piombo’. Essentially Borghese was still fighting the civil war he had used the Vega Battalion to prepare for.
Less is known about Mario Rossi although it is suggested that he gained his liberty in May 1945 by revealing the names of all the other members of the ‘stay behind’ groups that Vega had established in Milan, Genoa, Turin, Bologna and Venice. He went on to have a career in the shipbuilding industry in his home town of Genoa.
James Jesus Angleton stayed on as the O.S.S.’s head of counterespionage in Rome and started off by recruiting a covert band of armed ex-fascists as a hit squad to oppose any attempt of a communist uprising during the 1946 elections. He came back to Rome towards the end of the 1940’s as the CIA’s Head of Station. His fervent anti-communism led him to negotiate agreements with the Sicilian Mafia to ally themselves against the movement for Sicilian independence. He also collaborated with the Italian Secret Services in establishing a new set of ‘stay behind’ groups modelled on the Vega concept of Borghese and Rossi. These groups were called ‘Gladio’ and the operatives were seen as ‘gladiators’. Gladio’s objectives coincided also with that other shady Italian post-war organisation, the P2 masonic lodge. Their overall objective can be summarised as both fighting communism and providing the means for integrating the fascist faithful into the structures of the new Italy. Gladio and P2 developed into a secret state promoting terrorist acts against its own citizens, with the purpose of discrediting communists and provoking a right-wing backlash that would support a fascist coup d’etat. Angleton’s anti-communism was definitely of greater importance to him than any commitment he may had to democracy – at least in any country other than the USA.
NATO went on to adopt the Gladio (the Vega model) model of clandestine cells and these were established across Western Europe. It was only just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall that these groups were finally disbanded. Belgium and France disbanded theirs in November 1990. Italy stopped in December 1990 and Luxembourg did so in February 1991.
It is in effect quite extraordinary to consider how so much of the covert internal structures of the Cold War across Western Europe emanated out from that small tranquil lake on the southern edge of Como. It is also depressing to consider how the joy and relief arising on April 25th 1945 from the unburdening of the oppression and economic suffering inflicted on a good part of the country, did not mark the actual end of Italy’s civil war. Rather it seemed to mark a new covert phase prolonging a conflict between communist and anti-communist forces. And the greatest likely victim of this conflict was always going to be democracy.
Local historian, Giorgio Cavalleri’s book ‘La Gladio del Lago’ was indispensable in researching this article.