Italian peasants shelter SAS raiding party

Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, commanding the SAS detachment. On the right is Roy Farran.

Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, commanding the SAS detachment. On the right is Roy Farran.

On the 8th August 1943 Churchill had sent a memo in which he made clear his feelings about operational code names:

Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be decided by code-words that imply a boastful and over-confident sentiment, such as ‘Triumphant,’ or conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as ‘Woebetide’ and ‘Flimsy.’ They ought not to be names of a frivolous character, such as ‘Bunnyhug’ and ‘Ballyhoo.’

They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections, such as ‘Flood,’ ‘Sudden,’ and ‘Supreme.’ Names of living people, ‹ministers or commanders, should be avoided. Intelligent thought will already supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names that do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo.’ Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.

It seems that this outlook had not yet been brought to the attention of Britain’s SAS, because on 27th October, after a short break following the attack at Termoli, they had launched Operations Candytuft and Saxifrage. These were classic SAS infiltration attacks in which men were dropped behind the German lines on the coast of Italy near Ancona and made their way on foot to sabotage the inland railway line.

Both operations were successful, although judging by the account given by Roy Farran, who led one of the SAS units, they were miserable affairs because of the appalling weather. They had been given shelter by Italian peasants but had to get back to the coast for their rendezvous with boat picking them up. They were all wet and exhausted, and one of the men was becoming ill from Malaria:

At eleven o’clock we said good-bye to the girls and thanked the old man warmly, promising to come back one day. It was pouring with rain again and I hated having to go out into the storm, but time was getting short if we were to catch the boat.

We marched down a secondary road to a small hamlet and turned left into the elds. Our training had advised us not to march in step but to walk in pairs like civilians, We were too tired to do anything except tramp along in single le, one behind the other, onlyithe regular crunch of our feet keeping our legs going automatically forward in step.

The path soon petered away in heavy plough. I knew the general direction and decided to cut across country until we hit a better track. Great clods of mud stuck to our boots, making them heavy to lift, and often the weight of our packs carried us forward on our faces into the furrows. After a few hundred yards, we were completely worn out; the night was very dark; and the rain blew mercilessly into our faces.

I took a pace forward and found myself sliding down a steep precipice, but I managed to ‘dig in my heels and the others pulled me back. We sat down in the mud in the rain. McPhail and Corporal Clarke said that they could not go on, but they would have to go on! We began to discard the least essential items from our packs – mess-tins, spare ammunition, and even sleeping bags. They were buried beneath the plough so that it would be long before they were discovered.

Staggering forward against the wind and the rain, we retraced our path to the village by following our own footsteps in the mud. I found a tiny one-roomed cottage and knocked on the door. An old peasant gave me a chair by the table while he went out into the rain to find the others. Pointing to the soaked rag of a map, I told him that we wanted a guide and he brought forward his son, who knew the countryside well. We brewed up some tea and dosed McPhail with quinine for he was now seriously ill.

Soon we were battling against the elements again with the youthful guide carrying McPhail’s pack. We wound round the edge of the ravine to where the path degenerated into a goat track on the hillside. We crossed a stream by some stepping stones and Corporal Clarke fell into the water. I say we crossed a stream, although after a time the path itself becameia minor river.

Our boots were hopeless. They had been designed for silent padding along metalled roads, but up these muddy slopes they slipped so much that it was like trying to skate on glass. Over a main road, we inquired at the house of the boy’s aunt, but she refused to put us up for the night on the grounds that it was so near the highway that the Germans often came in for eggs.

We followed a line of trees down a muddy lane to three farms. At the last one we discovered the shelter we were looking for. It is impossible to explain what risks these poor people took for Allied soldiers. If the Germans had discovered our presence, they would have had no scruples about burning down the farms, and their farms were their lives. If the house and the oxen went there was nothing.

It was the same in Greece and France. Always the poor, the very poor, would share their last crumb. It was not that they were concerned with politics or war, but just that they pitied someone in an even worse state than themselves. This farm housed three families who had fled from the bombing at Bologna. Some of their people had been killed in Allied air-raids but there was no resentment.

They made room for us in front of the fire and filled us up with salami sausage and bread. There were children everywhere, boys and girls scampering all over the building. At first they fought each other for sweets, until they discovered that the first piece of chocolate always went to the shy one at the back. These kids had not tasted chocolate in their whole lives.

There was no room for us in the house so we bedded down in the stable amongst the oxen. In the morning we sat in front of the fire again, occasionally jumping up to look at German trucks through the window.

See Roy Farran: Winged Dagger: Adventures on Special Service. By continuing their journey by daylight they just made it to the coast in time to be picked up.

SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.

SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.

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