Back in June 2021 we recounted the exploits of Dick Mallaby, a British secret agent who, on being parachuted into Lake Como and immediately arrested, went on to provide the only communication channel available for those negotiating the Italian Armistice in September 1943.
He then spent most of the remaining war years in a training role but he had not seen the last of Lake Como. Dick was an agent of the British Secret Operations Executive (SOE) reporting to its boss in Bern, Jock McCaffery. The Americans also had their own secret organisation based in Bern known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) headed by Allen Dulles.
Although desperate to undertake another mission behind enemy lines, McCaffery was concerned that Dick would be too readily recognisable in Italy due to the fame of his former exploits. However, come February 1945, when allied victory was almost guaranteed, SOE relented and sent him once again to Lake Como. It initially appeared as if fortune was going to be no kinder on this occasion than in 1943. He was almost immediately arrested and again carted off to Como to be interrogated by Paolo Porta, the fanatical Head of the local Brigate Nere, who was to face execution with other fascist leaders on the lakefront in Dongo just over two months later. Dick was able to keep good luck on his side as he managed, truthfully or otherwise, to pose as a potential go-between in secret peace negotiations between the fascist authorities and the local heads of the allied Secret Services based in Bern, Switzerland. Once again Dick Mallaby found himself an active participant in another crucial moment of diplomatic intrigue.
The ‘official’ purpose of Dick Mallaby’s second trip into enemy-occupied Italy was for him to meet up with the Catholic forces of resistance – the Fiamme Verdi partisans operating principally in the Province of Brescia. He was accompanied on his mission by three Italians. They were a radio operator with the code name of Anselmo and two Catholic priests, Don Mario Zanin and Don Giovanni Barbareschi. Both priests were closely linked to the Fiamme Verdi.
The party of four met up at the British Embassy in Lugano on February 13th and made their clandestine crossing into Italy to the north east so as to descend the Val Cavargna. They spent the night of the 14th in a mountain hut outside of Carlazzo and on the next day crossed Lake Como from Menaggio to Varenna. There they failed to make contact with someone due to help their ongoing journey and so hitched a ride down the lake to Lecco.
According to the young priest Don Barbareschi, the group had taken his advice to change their destination to Milan so they could all meet up with Milan’s Archbishop, Cardinal Schuster. Don Barbareschi was in fact Cardinal Schuster’s trusted go-between who had been aiding secret negotiations between the Catholic church with the support of the Fiamme Verdi and the heads of Mussolini’s puppet state through the offices of the British SOE in Bern. Schuster was seeking to arrange for the peaceful surrender of the Italian fascists in exchange for their promise to cease fighting and not destroy any of the civil and industrial infrastructure. Since Don Barbareschi was also highly trusted by Jock McCaffery, the SOE Head in Bern, there is every good reason to believe that Mallaby’s mission was always intended to support Cardinal Schuster and use the radio operator Anselmo to facilitate communications between Milan and the British in Switzerland.
At Lecco, the four members of the party went into a bar and, according to Dick Mallaby, the two priests began to attract unwanted attention to themselves through some injudicious and easily overheard comments. The police duly arrived and, although their identity documents passed scrutiny, suspicions were aroused by the fact that all four had given the same address in Milan as their residence – the address given was the actual Milan residence of Don Barbareschi. All four were arrested and initially detained in Lecco. Don Mario Zanin managed to take advantage of confusion during an air strike to escape and seek shelter in a nearby seminary. Dick Mallaby was separated from the remaining two and transported to face interrogation by Paolo Porta in Como.
Dick Mallaby becomes Captain Richard Tucker
All captured enemy secret agents faced summary execution on arrest. Agents were trained to use whatever means they could when captured to prolong their lives short of giving away critical information in a bid to play for time to organise some form of rescue. One way to prolong interrogation was to provide false information that would need to be checked assuming of course this did not compromise any actual plans. While advised to be imaginative in their stories, they were also told to keep to verifiable facts wherever possible. Dick Mallaby’s inventiveness and imagination would now be put to the test.
He told Paolo Porta that he was on a secret commission on behalf of the Allied Military Commander in Italy, General Alexander. To give some credence that he would be authorised for such a mission he promoted himself to Captain giving his name as Richard Tucker. He stated his message from General Alexander was intended for none other than Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces. He would not reveal the content of his message to any other except to say that it involved a possible peace proposal. Dick Mallaby would have been fully briefed on the political situation at that time where it was obvious that both the Germans and leaders of the Italian fascist regime were considering how to prepare themselves for defeat. I believe it is also highly likely that his original mission was to facilitate further negotiations initiated by Cardinal Schuster with the British SOE. However he may not have been on a mission directed by General Alexander. In any case, Paolo Porta was impressed and invited Dick to stay overnight at the officers’ mess before being taken down to Milan on the 16th February to meet with the overall Commander of the fascist Brigate Nere – Brigadier General Edouardo Facdouelle.
All seemed to be going well for Dick aka Captain Richard Tucker as he shared a convivial lunch with the Brigadier and to quote his biographer his ‘equally cordial daughter’. Dick explained how he could only convey General Alexander’s proposal directly to Rodolfo Graziani and no-one else. Facdouelle then accompanies Dick to Graziani’s headquarters but Graziani refuses to meet with him explaining through Facdouelle that he was worried that the Germans would learn about the hearing. Instead Graziani orders Dick to be taken to the headquarters of the fascist state’s secret services known as the Servizio Informazioni Difesa (SID) in Volta Mantovana to be interrogated by Colonello Candeloro De Leo who headed the organisation.
On the 18th February Dick faced his interrogation with De Leo, a man with a fearsome reputation as a skilful interrogator and the head of one of the more effective of the fascist state’s organisations. Dick knew at this stage, following Graziani’s refusal to get involved, that he would have to divulge the presumably fictitious proposal from General Alexander. He duly presented a five point plan for a peaceful surrender aimed to protect Italian infrastructure from German sabotage and ensure no partisan reprisals against Italian fascist forces, backed up by Allied military intervention wherever needed. He added that he himself would need to return to Switzerland to procure a radio transmitter so that he could return with it to facilitate all further communications between the two parties. De Leo passed on this plan to Graziani the next day, February 19th. Graziani duly informed the German SS of everything Captain Tucker had to propose.
Dick Mallaby Meets the German High Command
Once De Leo had concluded his amiable interrogation, Dick was told to pack his bags and accompany a Captain in the German SS waiting for him in the hall of the villa housing the Italian SID. Needless to say, this turn of events caused him severe worry which only increased on finding himself transferred to the headquarters of the German SS’s intelligence arm, the SD, in the Palazzo delle Assicurazione in Verona.
He now spent a week facing numerous and rigorous interrogation sessions but no torture. His interrogators had introduced themselves as not as gullible or as credulous as their Italian counterparts. But Dick had by now bought himself sufficient time to consolidate and embellish his story. Try as they might his interrogators could not uncover any inconsistencies between the various statements recorded.
On the 26th February he was transferred to a luxurious villa in Fasano on Lake Garda where he was introduced to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and General of the Waffen SS, Karl Wolff, the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy – the man responsible for the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps and for the vicious anti-partisan campaign across occupied Italian territory. Having convinced all others so far of his sincerity, Dick Mallaby now managed to convince the most powerful representative in Italy of the Nazi regime that he really was Captain Richard Tucker and that he genuinely came with a peace proposal from General Alexander. He also repeated the need for him to return to Switzerland and to return with a radio transmitter as he had originally explained to De Leo.
With his agreement to return as soon as possible from Switzerland, Dick was transferred back to Verona from where on February 28th he was subsequently escorted to the SS’s local headquarters in Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli ready to cross the border at Chiasso the following day.
Dick Mallaby Falls Out of Favour
Dick’s apparently improvised plan for ending the war in Italy started to fall apart the moment he crossed the Italian border into Switzerland at Chiasso at 07.00am on 1st March 1945, because Allen Dulles and his team of agents working for the American OSS had a better plan now known to history as ‘Operation Sunrise’.
Unknown to Dick or to his boss Jock McCaffery in Bern, or at this stage to Karl Wolff, a plan for bringing together Germans and the Allies to discuss a peace settlement had first been proposed to Allen Dulles back on February 21st when Dick was under detention at the SD Headquarters in Verona. This plan already had the backing of the Swiss secret services, the sponsorship of some high ranking SS officers and was on the way to being adopted also by Allen Dulles. Karl Wolff was briefed by one of his officers on this fresh proposal on the very day that Dick crossed over to Chiasso. The Americans would have previously been made aware of Dick’s alternative plan and when he was due to cross the border because the SS Officer in command at Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli, Captain Joseph Voetterl, was in fact an American double agent.
Dick’s plan was now seen as an amateurish meddling with the inherent danger of confusing the various parties launching Operation Sunrise or worse still, sowing distrust between them. And so it may come as no surprise that the Swiss secret service refused to recognise Dick’s well established cover as one of their own officers on presenting himself at the Chiasso border control. He was immediately detained and from that date on, effectively silenced and kept out of action. He remained in detention until released on 13th March when he was then able to debrief Jock McCaffery on his various exploits since entering Italy back in mid-February. Under pressure from London, McCaffery returned Dick into Swiss detention on 20th March where he remained until finally released by the Swiss one week later. By that time all the necessary agreements and understandings between the parties of Operation Sunrise had been secured and it only awaited the final approval of the Allied political leaders to activate the proposed armistice agreement. Operation Sunrise was ultimately successful and led to the signing of German surrender on April 29th at the Allied Army Headquarters in Caserta.
Back in Cernobbio
The SS Border Control HQ in Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio was used extensively in these last weeks of the war as a practical location for hosting those senior German officials and the variety of agents and double agents acting as go-betweens in the negotiations for a peace deal. Just as Dick Mallaby stayed there on 28th February, so did others use it as a practical point of departure for or return from clandestine meetings in Switzerland. The American OSS were kept informed of all these comings and goings by their double agent, Joseph Voetterl.
Among those invited to the villa to his utmost surprise was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi, who had been arrested alongside Dick Mallaby back in Lecco on 15th February. Don Barbareschi had been held in prison in Lecco until he was unexpectedly released on 9th March and taken to Villa Locatelli. There he was met by none other than SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff. Wolff asked him to undertake a mission on his behalf to relay a message to the SOE chief in Bern, Jock McCaffery, informing him (and SOE) of his involvement and commitment to the Operation Sunrise peace negotiations that were progressing with the Americans, and of the fate of Dick Mallaby held in detention over the Swiss border. Until that moment, SOE had been given no information on these talks conducted by their allied partners in the American OSS nor did McCaffery know at that time of Dick Mallaby’s fate.
McCaffery must have been deeply embarrassed by having been kept ignorant of what had been going on when he duly informed London the next day of the secret American peace plans and of the fate of his own agent, Dick Mallaby. London did not hesitate in giving their approval for the American OSS to continue as the senior partner in the talks with the Nazi leadership. They also directed McCaffery to suppress any news of Dick’s own links with Wolff or of the proposals put to him. Dick himself was only able to debrief McCaffery three days later in between his periods of Swiss detention.
Dick Mallaby was very reluctant later in life to talk about his exploits during the war. It is almost impossible yet to evaluate to what extent the proposals he presented to De Leo and Wolff were imaginative improvisation on his part or a genuine proposal from British SOE to seek an agreement with the Italian fascists. It is however evident that there was a serious lack of coordination between the two allied secret services and that by the time the war ended, the Americans were very much the senior partner in taking the initiative on shaping the new European order following the collapse of Nazism.
Perhaps the one person with the best view and understanding of all the various peace negotiations at the time was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi. He would have been involved in Cardinal Schuster’s dealings with Mussolini and Graziani, had accompanied Dick Mallaby on his mission and was briefed by Wolff in the early days of Operation Sunrise. Don Barbareschi was also very reluctant after the war to discuss what he knew or go into any detail of his time with Mallaby.
If buildings could talk then the best one to interview would be Villa Carminati/Locatelli since many of the significant players in the complex series of secret diplomatic talks passed through its doors. Villa Carminati/Locatelli was to witness even more drama towards the end of April 1945 when the Como countryside was crisscrossed by eminent allies and enemies playing out the final dramatic act of the Nazifascist occupation of Italy. But that is another story!
For our account of Dick Mallaby’s first mission to Lake Como, read ‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como. For more information on what went on within Villa Carminati/Locatelli and the role of American double agent Joseph Voetterl, read Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust.
A documentary film is currently under production on the life and exploits of Dick Mallaby promoted by his son, Vacky Mallaby. Follow this link for a preview in Italian with English subtitles.