‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como

dick mallaby book cover

The story of Dick Mallaby is meticulously researched and presented in this book by Gianluca Barneschi, also published in English under the title ‘An Englishman Abroad’.

Dick Mallaby, an Englishman brought up in Tuscany, is said to have inspired Ian Fleming’s secret agent hero, James Bond. Mallaby was on ‘His Majesty’s Secret Service’ when, as a trained ‘licensed to kill’ agent he parachuted down into Lake Como on 14th August 1943. He was caught almost immediately and, with Italy still allied with Germany, he faced summary execution as an enemy spy. 

Mallaby’s drop into Lake Como was a first in two respects for Britain’s wartime ‘dirty tricks’ division of the Secret Intelligent Services (SIS) – the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It was the first time an SOE agent was parachuted behind enemy lines, and also the first time SOE had attempted to place a UK national to serve as a wireless operator and sabotage expert into hostile Italy. 

The mission was fatally flawed from the start – Mallaby landed almost straight into the arms of the awaiting Italian authorities. However our gallant hero would prove to have luck on his side. His capture happened at a fortuitous moment for Mallaby resulting from Italy being in the midst of a major political and constitutional crisis following the King’s dismissal of the Mussolini-led fascist government back in July. Through a mixture of quick creative thinking and exceptional luck, Mallaby was to find himself in the crucial role of aiding the new Italian government negotiate a peace deal with the British and American allies. With his clandestine wireless transmitter and his signals training, he offered  the only means of providing confidential communication between all parties. The centrality of his role in establishing the armistice meant that he would eventually be accompanying King Vittorio Emanuele III and Prime Minister Badoglio as together they boarded the boat that took these leaders to Brindisi and to safety in the newly liberated area of Italy. But this fortuitous end would have seemed beyond all possibilities as he languished in Como’s San Donnino prison unaware that fate was about to offer him a chance to avoid execution.

Casino Royale Gaeta

Lake Como is no stranger to either factual or fictional secret agents. Daniel Craig starred in Casino Royale – filmed on location at Villa Gaeta in San Siro (seen above) and Villa Balbianello in Lenno.

What was SOE?

Special  Operations Executive was a secret organisation created in 1940 on similar lines to the American equivalent forerunner of the CIA  – the OSS. SOE agents were trained to support resistance groups, maintain communications with headquarters, and undertake sabotage while operating behind enemy lines. Life expectancy of SOE agents was measured in weeks since they were invariably executed if caught on active service. Financed by secret funds and not given any official recognition, SOE came to be called ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ or ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’. By 1943, they had established clandestine operations in France and the Balkans but were only just beginning to develop activities on the Italian mainland. Although SOE did coordinate activities with the American OSS in other countries, they were keen to establish themselves as the more dominant organisation in Italy – a situation that was to be reversed by the end of the war. 

sabotage

Sabotage activities, use of explosives, support of resistance groups with arms, money and clothing and providing wireless communications were key activities for SOE and its agents in Europe.

SOE Agents were members of the British Army. They were subjected to a rigorous training covering sabotage techniques, unarmed combat, survival, silent killing, how to resist interrogation and torture, parachuting, wireless telegraphy and ciphers – a programme that could well have suited James Bond himself. They even had their own ‘Q’ department not quite up to modifying Aston Martin DB5s but certainly with the imagination to come up with exploding rats. The idea was for SOE agents to position dead rats whose stomachs had been stuffed with explosives inside enemy facilities. The hope was that the rats would then be collected  up for incineration whereupon they would explode.

Aston MArtin DB5

‘Q’ provided our fictional James Bond with the famous Aston Martin DB5 with extras. SOE also developed special gadgets along with some absurd ideas like the exploding rats.

Who Was Dick Mallaby?

dick mallaby

Dick Mallaby, born in Sri Lanka, brought up in Italy speaking perfect Italian and English as well as French and German.

Dick Mallaby was born in 1919 and died prematurely on 1st April 1981. It was back in 1939 aged 20 that he left the family home in Tuscany for London to enlist in the allied war effort. He joined SOE in 1942 as the need for fluent Italian speakers became more obvious following the campaigns in North Africa and the imminent allied invasion of Sicily. He was a reckless, courageous adventurer like many of the young men who seemed to be heroes straight out of ‘Boys Own’ magazine. He was a multilingual athlete who had already qualified as both a paratrooper and a wireless operator when first recruited into SOE. However he was not originally selected to work behind enemy lines in spite of his perfect Italian and knowledge of the country due to his Nordic good looks. His key identification data put on file for Agent D/H 449 in February 1943 describes him thus:

Sergeant Cecil Richard Mallaby, unmarried, not interested in politics, able to speak perfect English and Italian, very good French and also good German; completed schooling in Italy and England.

REAL AGE: 23

APPARENT AGE: 21

HEIGHT: 1.79m

WEIGHT: 70kg

FACE: Long. Fresh, clear complexion

FRONT PROFILE: Oblique and irregular

EYES: Sky blue and deep set

NOSE: Straight. Nostrils visible

MOUTH: Full

CHIN: With a light dimple, well defined and clean shaven

HAIR: Straight, combed back, blond but credibly brown for operational purposes

DISTINCTIVE MARKS: Scars on the right cheek, right elbow and both shins. Heart-shaped tattoo on the left forearm, red spot on the right thigh. Walks in a very upright manner.

SOE  wanted to establish a clandestine wireless operator in Northern Italy to team up with what they believed to be friendly resistance groups. Their previous candidates proved either unsuitable or unwilling and so the opportunity was passed to Dick Mallaby who assumed the codename of Agent Olaf and started preparing for Operation Neck. 

The purpose of  Operation Neck was to make contact with so-called Agent 900, an Italian national,  and then provide Agent 900 with communications support. Agent 900 had apparently arranged a safe house for Olaf in 1 Via Borgo Vico, Como. The problem was that Agent 900 was in fact a double agent of the Italian secret services – the Servizio Informazioni  Militare (SIM) – who had managed to gain the unquestioning confidence of SOE bosses. In this way Agent 900 and SIM (judged to have been the most efficient of all the European belligerents’ spy agencies) had perverted all of SOE’s understanding of the resistance groups they had decided to support. These groups were entirely fictitious as was the safe house in Como where Dick’s contact was yet another double agent of SIM. When Dick climbed aboard a Halifax plane on 13th August 1943 with Lake Como as his destination, his mission was doomed from the very start. 

Dropping Into Lake Como

Pognana 2

Looking down lake Como south from Pognana. Dick dropped into the lake between here and Faggeto Lario. His intended drop was near to Torno.

Dick’s flight from Blida in Algeria left at 10.02 pm on 13th August and set a course over Minorca, South-Eastern France and then Lodi in Lombardy before approaching Lake Como from the south west. The flight had not been easy in that it faced flak above Savona and searchlights around Pavia. 

At 2.48am on 14th August 1943, Dick Mallaby bailed out at 600 metres above Lake Como on a clear, moonlit night. His target had been Torno where it was hoped the lakeside would be in darkness and no-one would be around on the ground. However lights were shining brightly from all the villages around the lake and the sky to the south was bright due to an intense allied bombing raid on Milan. The lakeside was actually full of refugees avoiding the heavy bombardment of Milan over the previous days. And the Italian anti-aircraft batteries were on full alert thanks to Agent 900’s prior warning. Dick’s parachute was spotted by Domenica Aquilini from her balcony in Carate Urio as it descended into the lake between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. She raised the alarm.

carate

Carate Urio, on the western banks of the Como leg of the lake. Dick was spotted landing in the lake by observers in Carate Urio.

Four men from Carate Urio then set out in a rowing boat to look for whoever had just parachuted into the lake. They came across Dick Mallaby in his inflatable dinghy off the coast at Pognana. His attempt to explain himself came to nothing when the English lettering on his dinghy sonn gave him away.  An eyewitness, Annamaria Rusconi – a young girl at the time – remembered  the night well and stated the following in an interview published in La Provincia in 2016. 

‘He was wearing a camouflage suit which they stripped off him and found something. He was hidden away for a day but I don’t know where.’

annamaria rusconi

Gianluca Barneschi was able to interview some of the original witnesses to Dick Mallaby’s parachute drop including Annamaria Rusconi who was a young girl at the time. She went on to teach in the local Elementary School and run the local library.

He was taken to the Carate Urio town hall and interrogated by the Como Commander of the Carabinieri. Incriminating materials including parts of a wireless transmitter and code books were soon found and his captors immediately realised they had an important prisoner.  He was then transferred to counter espionage services in Milan while remaining incarcerated in Milan’s San Vittore prison. His capture was made public on Wednesday 18th August when the Milanese newspaper, ‘La Sera Il Secolo’ published the headline ‘The Man Who Fell from the Skies was Betrayed by Moonlight’.  Following more allied bombing of Milan, Dick was transferred back to Como’s San Donnino prison while SOE headquarters tried to work out some means of getting him out.

During subsequent interrogation Dick was able to fabricate a story that fortunately fitted into the political confusion of the time and which did not contradict whatever SIM’s double agents including Agent 900 had been able to learn about the purpose of his mission. Additionally he managed to interest the Italian security services sufficiently for them to refrain from executing him. In any case, SIM was not a purely fascist organisation. Its ultimate loyalty was to the king and Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III had dismissed Mussolini’s fascist government twenty days earlier on 25th July.

Landing Within a Political Maelstrom

armistice

King Vittorio Emanuele III and Pietro Badoglio in a newspaper article declaring the peace agreement with the allies. Dick was to play a crucial and central role in facilitating the negotiations for this armistice.

King Vittorio Emanuele III had supported fascism from its inception until 25th July 1943 when he dismissed Mussolini and appointed one of Mussolini’s senior generals, Pietro Badoglio, to head a new government. The allies were left uncertain as to whether Badoglio would sue for peace with the allies or continue the fascist policy of partnership with Germany. With German agents completely surrounding the Italian government and royal palace in Rome, it was very hard to make contact with Badoglio or sustain confidential communications. Thus, Dick continued to fester in San Donnino whilst the uncertainty over what Badoglio intended to do continued. 

san donnino

The forbidding exterior of the old San Donnino prison in Como’s old town.

Little did Dick realise that his salvation was on its way thanks to the secret mission of Italian Brigadier General Giuseppe Castellano to Portugal.

Castellano had been tasked with negotiating a peace with the allies without the Germans learning about it. Badoglio’s government had decided its future policy – to dissolve their partnership with Germany with as little harm as possible and without getting into a fight with them. Once secret negotiations kicked off in Portugal, there then followed the need to continue discussions and clarify details with communication between Rome and the Allies’ base in Algeria. But the only way these negotiations could remain confidential and undiscovered by the Germans was through the use of a clandestine wireless set and an operator well-versed in cryptography. The Commander in Chief of Allied Forces, General Eisenhower insisted on this and charged UK’s future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with organising it. Macmillan turned to the head of SOE who informed him that the very man they needed was currently languishing in Como’s San Donnino prison. 

On 30th August 1943, Dick Mallaby was released from San Donnino and transported down to Rome’s Regina Coeli Prison, having been previously and unknowingly promoted by SOE to second lieutenant. 

From Como to Rome

Regina Coeli Prison

Regina Coeli Prison, Rome

Dick Mallaby knew nothing of the crucial role he was about to play in the historic peace negotiations between the new Italian government and the allies. After all, he had only exchanged one dismal lodging in Como for an equally dismal cell in Rome’s Regina Coeli. But he knew something was afoot when the next day a luxury car came to escort him to Palazzo Vidoni, the headquarters of the Supreme Command of the Italian Army. He was immediately introduced to Brigadier General Castellano who gave him the wireless transmitter provided by the allies with a curt order to immediately contact the Allied Forces HQ in Algeria. Mallaby at first refused stating he could not take orders from any other than a British officer. He was then shown the authorisation from the SOE Director. It was then at around 4.00pm on 29th August 1943 that he sent his first coded message to SOE headquarters in Algeria, as follows:

‘Sergeant C.R. Mallaby to Allied Forces HQ North Africa: I have been instructed by General Castellano to establish radio contact between the Italian Government and Allied Headquarters. I request instructions.’

He received the reply: ‘Proceed. Continue transmissions.’  Which he duly did, from an office in Palazzo Vidoni only metres away from the number of German and Italian VIPS forever in and out of the building. He was given the codename Monkey and Allied HQ responses were codenamed Drizzle. These communications were the ONLY means in which the Italian government was able to communicate with the Allied leaders. The  full set of Monkey-Drizzle communications have now provided historians with the most accurate, complete and verifiable record of the negotiations leading up to the signing on the 3rd September and the subsequent publication of the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943 – the day before the Americans were to make their beach landings at Salerno and when it was also hoped they would be able to make a landing to liberate Rome.

Palazzo Vidoni

Palazzo Vidoni, headquarters during the war of the Italian Supreme Command. Dick was transmitting messages to Allied HQ in Algeria while German officers were constant visitors in the adjoining rooms.

Announcing the Armistice

The timing of the announcement of the Armistice was not to the liking of the Badoglio government who believed they had until 12th September by when they hoped the Americans would have liberated Rome. Eisenhower was intent though on forcing Badoglio’s hand possibly fearing that the Italians were not seriously intending to surrender. Badoglio though was concerned about making the surrender public while the German army was still in control of Rome. Dick Mallaby’s communications were still the only means of contact between the two parties throughout this tense period. Eisenhower would not allow for any further delay in publishing the armistice commenting in a message earlier on September 8th to Badoglio via Dick Mallaby that there were sufficient loyal Italian troops in Rome to ‘ensure the momentary security of the city’. Eisenhower then announced the armistice at 6.30pm Rome time. Badoglio then made the following broadcast via radio to the nation at 7.42pm:

‘The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the unequal struggle against the overwhelming enemy power, in order to spare the nation from further and more serious disasters, has requested an armistice from General Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Anglo-American forces.

The request was accepted. 

Consequently, every act of hostility against the Anglo-American forces must cease by Italian forces everywhere.

However, they will react to any attacks from any other source.’

The Germans interpreted that very last phrase to mean that the Italian Army was from that moment an enemy force. They set about the immediate imprisonment of all Italian military within their areas of occupation. They subsequently captured and disarmed over one million Italian soldiers, half of the entire Italian army. Of those one million, 196,000 managed to escape during deportation and 13,000 were killed while being transported from the Greek islands. Only 94,000 accepted the immediate offer to fight alongside the Germans leaving 710,000 imprisoned as slave workers in German concentration camps. A further 103,000 in the camps later agreed to fight with the Germans leaving between 600,000 and 650,000 slave workers. Of these it is estimated that about 40,000 died during their time in the concentration camps. 

Meanwhile the situation back in Rome for King Vittorio Emanuele III, Badoglio and his government and Dick Mallaby had become highly dangerous.

From Rome to Brindisi

Early in the morning of 9th September, King Vittorio Emanuele and Badoglio fled from Rome by car towards Pescara on the Adriatic coast. Dick was told to pack a suitcase and his wireless transmitter and go immediately to the airport where he boarded a cargo plane with an unknown destination. That very same day, the British landed in Puglia as previously planned with the Badoglio government to take over control of the Italian Royal Navy in Taranto and Brindisi. 

Mallaby’s destination was Pescara. On landing he was instructed to set up his wireless transmissions from within the airport and recommence the Monkey-Drizzle links so the allies could resume contact with Badoglio and the King. He was soon told to pack up again having been told their destination was now to be Taranto. He and the group from Rome travelled by car down the Abruzzo coast to Ortona where he was told to await boarding ship. 

Corvette Baionetta

The Corvette Baionetta left Pescara with the Admiral of the Italian Royal Navy and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio on board. It stopped at Ortona to pick up King Vittorio Emanuele, his family and Dick Mallaby

Amongst total confusion at the port with a crowd waiting to board the corvette Baionetta, Dick realised he was standing  just behind the royal party. Gathered on the dock and also waiting to board was King Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife Queen Elena, Prince Umberto and the Supreme Commander of the Italian Army, General Vittorio Ambrosio.  They and Dick all boarded to join Pietro Badoglio and the Chief of the Italian Royal Navy who had embarked in Pescara. Spaces on board were limited with no space for Dick until General Ambrosio ordered his embarkation since Dick was ‘by now part of the Supreme Command’s nucleus’. The ship then left Ortono with its VIP list of passengers just after 01.00am on 10th September. Dick was the only Englishman amongst the other 56 passengers. 

Their ship was met by a light cruiser, Scipione near to Vieste on the Gargano peninsula which accompanied them down to Brindisi. Dick, the King, the senior officers of the Italian Armed forces and the leaders of the Italian government docked in Brindisi at 2.40pm on 10th September.  Meanwhile a few hours earlier back in Rome, Italian troops had surrendered to the Germans commencing their occupation of most of Italy. 

Brindisi

Brindisi

On landing, Mallaby yet again set up his wireless transmitter choosing to base himself in the grounds of the castle overlooking the harbour. Allied HQ in Algiers were relieved to be back in contact and to learn news of whatever had happened to the leaders of the Italian government over the preceding 24 hours. They seemed completely unaware of the King and Badoglio’s escape and the subsequent fall of Rome. 

Conclusion

faggeto

Faggeto lario – Dick had travelled the length of Italy since dropping close to Faggeto on Lake Como on 14th August 1943

It had just been under a month since Dick dropped into Lake Como between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. His mission had gone disastrously wrong at the start but he had used his training to keep his interrogators interested in him and delaying any possible execution. Events then seemed to fall in his favour and he just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. He found himself as the most critical facilitator of the highest level of negotiations between the allies and the leaders of the defeated Italian nation.  

His achievements did not go unappreciated. General Eisenhower himself recognised the importance of the negotiations that Dick had so ably facilitated stating he played a part in:

‘ …negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys of secret agents and frequent meetings in hidden places …plots of various kinds were hatched, only to be abandoned because of changing circumstances … if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama.’

Dick received more formal and individual acknowledgment on 7th December 1943 when he was awarded the Military Cross. His citation talks of him ‘dropped alone into lake of Como by parachute…in conditions of unexpected difficulty that tested his courage…handcuffed and beaten… (demonstrating) exceptional coolness, perseverance and devotion to duty.’ 

His exploits also won the SOE considerable gratitude from Winston Churchill and the British General Staff since, as mentioned in his citation, if it was not for his role ‘the Allied landings on the Italian mainland may have been made with Italy still an enemy.’

Just as James Bond  always ends his cinematic escapades with a well deserved scene of rest and ‘recuperation’, so we can imagine Dick, in a new clean officer’s uniform, recovering in a bar overlooking the Brindisi seafront, and thinking back over one amazing month in his wartime career.

Villa Balbianella

Daniel Craig as Bond and Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios in a ‘romantic’ scene from Casino Royale in the gardens of Villa Balbianello

Postscript

SOE was to establish its first base on Italian soil in Brindisi. Dick stayed in Italy and was occupied over the next two years in training up other agents to be dropped off behind enemy lines to support partisan groups in occupied Italy. However he had not seen the last of Lake Como. 

With his incredible sense of critical timing, he set off on secret mission from Lyon in France on 15th December 1944 in the company of some of the most senior leaders of the Italian Committee of National Liberation. He crossed the Swiss border into Italy on 14th February only to be arrested the following day having crossed Lake Como to Varenna. From there he was transferred to Como where he faced interrogation first by the Italian fascists and later by the Chief of the SS, Karl Wolff. And herein lies another extraordinary escapade since Dick just happened to be back on Lake Como when equally momentous military and political upheavals were developing. The last months of the war in Italy are shrouded in deep mystery and the role of both the American OSS and British SOE in the secret negotiations with Karl Wolff and their possible involvement in the death of Mussolini remain highly ambiguous. Dick happened to be there – but that is all another story. 

Acknowledgments

This article is based on the research undertaken by journalist and independent researcher, Gianluca Barneschi and published in his excellent account of Dick Mallaby’s SOE service entitled ‘An Englishman Abroad’. The book is available from Amazon and in Kindle format in both English and Italian. It is a great read.

Further Reading

In addition to Gianluca Barneschi’s meticulously researched book cited above, I can recommend the official history of the SOE in Italy written by David Stafford and entitled ‘Mission Accomplished – SOE and Italy 1943-1945’. This is also available from Amazon and in Kindle format.

About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
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