The British had the Commandos as well the Special Operations Executive. The United States had the Office of Strategic Services, forerunners of the CIA, which fulfilled the overlapping functions of behind the lines raiding troops and outright spying missions.
In Italy an OSS mission to blow up railway lines on the supply line to Anzio fell very much into the category of special forces, rather than spying. ‘Ginny II’ saw uniformed troops dropped onto an Italian beach 250 miles behind the front line – the mission went wrong when they were dropped in the wrong place and forced to hide out in the Italian countryside. The subsequent court case lays out the facts:
On the night of 22nd March, 1944, two officers and 13 men of a special reconnaissance battalion disembarked from some United States Navy boats and landed on the Italian coast about 100 kilometres north of La Spezia. The front at the time was at Cassino with a further front at the Anzio beach head. The place of disembarkation was therefore 250 miles behind the then established front.
The 15 members of the United States Army were on a bona fide military mission, which was to demolish the railroad tunnel on the mainline between La Spezia and Genoa. On the morning of 24th March, 1944, the entire group was captured by a party consisting of Italian Fascist soldiers and a group of members of the German army. They were brought to La Spezia where they were confined near the headquarters of the 135th Fortress Brigade.
Colonel Almers then gave orders for the conduct of the execution, for the digging of a grave, etc. During the night from Saturday 25th to Sunday, 26th March, two attempts were made by officers of the 135th Fortress Brigade and by the Naval Officers to bring about a change in the decision by telephoning to the accused Dostler. All these attempts having been unsuccessful, the 15 Americans were executed on the 26th March, early in the morning. They were neither tried, nor given any hearing.
As men in uniform the fact that they were behind the lines should have been of no consequence. Unfortunately they fell within Hitlers’s notorious ‘Commando Order’. General Anton Dostler had ordered the executions. He argued at his trial, like many other Nazis after the war, that he was “only following orders”. He was to argue that the ‘Commando Order’ had been added to since it had first been issued:
During his examination, the accused, on being handed a copy of the text of the Fuhrerbefehl of October, 1942, said that a document which he had received in 1944 through Army Group channels contained substantially everything that was in the 1942 text, but with certain additions. He stated further that:
” this copy is not the complete Fuhrerbefehl as it was valid in March, 1944. In the order that laid on my desk in March, 1944, it was much more in detail . . . the Fuhrerbefeh1 which was laying in front of me listed the various categories of operations which may come under the Fuhrerbefehl. In addition there was something said in that Fuhrerbefehl about the interrogation of men belonging to sabotage troops and the shooting of these men after their interrogation. . . . I am not quite clear about the point, whether a new Fuhrerbefehl covering the whole matter came out or whether only a supplement came out and the former Fuhrerbefehl was still in existence….
The Fuhrerbefehl has as its subject commando operations and there was a list of what is to be construed as commando operations. I know exactly that a mission to explode something, to blow up something, cameunder the concept of commando troops.”
See the TRIAL OF GENERAL ANTON DOSTLER, Commander of the 75th German Army Corps, United States Military Commission, Rome, 8th-12th October, 1945
None of the Military Tribunals after the war were to accept the ‘only following orders’ argument to exculpate men accused of war crimes. In Nazi Germany all orders ultimately flowed back to Hitler, and it was convenient to argue that individual accused had no personal responsibility in this context. For Anton Dostler, and many others, it was not good enough to avoid execution themselves.
A Path to Lunch, has more background material on the OSS mission and pictures of the memorial to the men in Ameglia today.
US Military film record of Dostler’s execution in 1945: