Top Secret Column September 2005

OSS Operation Ginny met with a tragic end during the Italian Campaign.Top Secret Column spread

By Don Smart

The three rubber dinghies struggled through the rough surf in the pitch black night toward an inhospitable stretch of rocky beach. The cliff rose almost straight up from ocean’s edge. The mission commander realized his team had landed in the wrong place, but there was no time to hunt for the correct landing area. The mission would have to start from here. This mistake was just one of many as Operation Ginny unfolded to its final tragedy.

In the early days of the North Africa and Italian campaigns, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) personnel initially lacked experience, resources, and the respect of skeptical staff officers in the theater. The agency soon began to prove its value. Prior to Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, OSS agents established contact with Allied sympathizers and gathered intelligence vital to the invasion.

During the North Africa campaign, OSS operatives organized warrior tribesmen into a guerrilla force to guard against a possible Axis thrust through Spanish Morocco into the Allied rear. During landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno, an OSS detachment provided Colonel William O. Darby’s Rangers with critical tactical intelligence during their defense of the Sorrentino peninsula. The activities of OSS agents soon came to the attention of General Mark Clark, commander of the Allied Fifth Army, who gave them vehicles, rations, and a free hand to operate.

In February 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, agreed to allow the OSS’s Special Operations staff to employ four to eight commando cells to organize and assist guerrilla forces in Italy and southern France. During the fall of 1943, these newly arrived operational groups began to look for offshore islands on which to establish bases for raids against the German-held northern coastline. After the Italian surrender, an OSS unit joined a French expeditionary force to take the island of Corsica. The German garrison was already withdrawing to the mainland, so the OSS groups established advance bases on Corsica as well as the nearby islands of Gorgona and Caprais. At Corsica, they were only 35 miles from the Italian coast.

From their new bases, the OSS operational groups conducted raids against German communications lines along the Italian coast in an attempt to divert enemy troops from the main front. The narrow, rocky coastal plains of the Italian peninsula were crossed by numerous roads and railways, which the Germans used as lines of supply. Night after night, small groups of OSS soldiers crawled ashore to attack the most vulnerable points and reconnoiter enemy installations.

The 2677th Headquarters Company, Detachment C, (Unit A, First Contingent) was one of the special OSS units activated in April 1943. Commanded by Colonel Edward J. Glavin, they were stationed at Ile Rosse on Corsica. The Italian front stretched across the peninsula at Cassino with a further front initiated at Anzio in January 1944. The Allied forces recognized that one of the main German supply routes was the railway line running along the western coast of Italy. The Allied air forces had been conducting Operation Strangle to cut all German lines of communication; however, bombing in the mountainous terrain along the coast had not succeeded in cutting the Genoa Livorno line.

The Allied G-3 Special Operations branch suggested that the best way to cut the line was to demolish one of its tunnels by means of a sabotage party landed from the sea. At about 15 miles northwest of La Spezia, a tunnel between a small station named Stazione di Framura and the small fishing village of Bonassola was deemed the best target. Passed down to the 2677th, Operation Ginny was born.

The task of developing the tactics needed was assigned to the unit’s operations officer, 1st Lt. Albert R. Materazzi. The aim was to destroy the northern tunnel entrance, located some 500 yards southeast of Stazione di Framura. Materazzi’s plan was for a team of 15 men—nine demolition experts and six security riflemen—to land under cover of darkness from two PT boats.

Reconnaissance indicated that there was a natural ravine the team could move through to reach the tunnel entrance. The team consisted of Americans with Italian backgrounds and some who could speak the Italian language fluently. All were to be dressed in U.S. Army field uniforms and would not carry civilian clothes. After neutralizing the signal house, they would blow the tunnel entrance then retrace their steps to the three rubber boats, and reboard the waiting PT boats.

The operation was carefully timed. The team would launch at 11 pm, reach the target by no later than 12:30 am, and be picked up at 3:30 am. There were contingency plans. If the commanding officer decided the operation could not be accomplished that night, he would notify the PT boats no later that 2 am, the men would hide, and the operation would be rescheduled for the following night with pickup at the same time. If contact could not be made with the PT boats after blowing the tunnel, then the party would proceed inland to a safe house about 40 miles away. On the surface, it looked like the plan was risky but that it had a reasonable chance of success.

In 1944, the German forces in Italy were commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. All of northern Italy was under the command of Army Group von Zangen, led by his subordinate, General Gustav von Zangen. The targeted area of the Italian coastline was defended by the 75th Army Corps under General Anton Dostler, with his headquarters at San Andrea near Parma. The 135th Fortress Brigade, commanded by Major Kurt Almers, was guarding the area around La Spezia.

After the go-ahead for the operation was received, the first attempt was made on February 27-28. It was called off when the correct landing area could not be found in the dark. When the party got to shore, it could not find one landmark and returned to the PT boats. The unit then did a more complete target study based on profiles of the railway and intelligence gathered from engineers of the Italian Railways Maintenance Section. The 52nd Fighter Group flew a photographic reconnaissance mission of the area on March 10. The 15-man group made a complete dry run of the mission during the night of March 20-21 near Ile Rosse. The timing and emergency plans were left in place, and the group pronounced itself ready for insertion on March 22-23.

The U.S. Navy’s PT-214, commanded by Lieutenant R.T. Boehel, and PT-219, commanded by Lieutenant Harold Nugent, left Bastia at 5:55 pm and made landfall west of Stazione di Framura at 10:45 pm The overall mission and demolition team were commanded by 1st Lt. Vincent Russo. The security party was under 1st Lt. Paul J. Traficante. Radio contact was sporadic, but the PT boats did hear Russo report that they had reached shore and were looking for a place to land.

At 11:45 pm, things began to go wrong. A convoy of German torpedo boats was sighted returning from a mine-laying mission. PT-219 took diversionary action and got into a firefight, while PT-214 idled along the coast on one engine and tried to keep in contact with the shore party. The radiomen on the boats kept trying to reach the shore party, but all was silent. At 2 am, the two PT boats rendezvoused five miles out to sea. Their radar indicated numerous targets along the shore, and they had to lie quietly until 3 am At that time, they moved in close to the rocky cliffs in an attempt to raise the mission party on the radio. PT-214 reported its main steering mechanism had malfunctioned, and it was 4:15 a.m. before it was repaired. No transmissions were heard from the mission party, and the two boats returned to base.

Russo realized the team was in the wrong spot. He left 12 men to guard the rubber dinghies while he and two others headed off to reconnoiter the area. Climbing up the steep, rocky embankment, the three discovered they had landed near the village of Carpineggio, about halfway between Bonassola and Stazione di Framura. The group had landed two miles from its intended initial point and about one mile from the target. By the time the reconnaissance party returned, several hours has passed and daylight was at hand. The radioman reported that contact with the PT boats had been lost and that they had probably returned to base.

Russo decided on a contingency plan requiring the men to hide during the day, establish contact with the PT boats the following night, and then accomplish the mission. He would not blow the tunnel until contact had been made. Like the dark clouds of an oncoming storm, the problems of Operation Ginny continued to mount.

The dinghies loaded with the explosives and demolition equipment were dragged up on the beach, hidden under trees, and camouflaged. The party moved inland over the steep hills until they found an empty barn to occupy. By midmorning, Russo decided to attempt to find food for the group.

Franco Lagaxo, a local farmer living on the crest of a hill overlooking the sea, saw two soldiers approaching his cottage. They identified themselves and asked if he would help them procure some food. They also asked if he would guide them to the “little house at the railway.” He did not understand and took them to nearby Paggio.

Realizing the mistake, Russo and his partner released Lagaxo and told him they would return for the food at noon. At noon, three of the Americans returned to Lagaxo’s house and got the food. They also asked if he would come to the barn where they were hiding and try to guide them to the railroad signal house. At mid afternoon the farmer took a small party to the correct spot and the team determined the exact target location. The Ginny men spent the rest of the day in the barn waiting for nightfall.

On March 23-24, the second night, two PT boats launched to accomplish the pickup per the contingency plan. They were carrying oarsmen, a dinghy, and two canvas boats in case the original rubber boats were damaged. About an hour after their departure, one PT developed engine trouble and turned back. The remaining boat continued on and arrived at the pickup point about midnight. Radar showed several objects patrolling the area, and the decision was made to abandon the attempt. The Ginny team had to spend another day in hiding.

The morning of Friday, March 24, was the beginning of the end for the demolition team. A fishing boat returning to Bonassola reported seeing several small rubber boats hidden along the shore. Vittorio Bertoni and Giobatta Bianchi, two Facist militiamen, went with the fisherman to investigate and found the boats and explosive material. They alerted the local German command and formed a search party. Five Facist militiamen and a German patrol started to comb the area.

The farmer, Franco Lagaxo, had seen the Italians discover the boats and rushed to warn the Americans. When he got to the barn, he discovered just how many were in the group. His warnings came too late. Two of the team were captured without a struggle near Franco’s house. They tried to maintain that they were the only two, but the Italians knew that there were more because of the three boats. When Bertoni blew his whistle to summon the patrol, the Americans opened up with rifle fire. The German patrol surrounded the area, and after a brief, vicious firefight the outnumbered Americans surrendered.

The Americans were disarmed and taken to Bonassola where they were locked in an office. The two officers were questioned by Commissar Guglielmini, who managed to find out details about the mission. Russo and Traficante were tired, hungry, and very disillusioned about the outcome of the mission. They indicated they had come from Corsica on a PT boat with plans to blow up the railroad tunnel between Framura and Bonassola. The commissar was also surprised to learn that all the men were from Italian-American backgrounds and could speak and understand the language.

At 2:30 pm a German army truck arrived and the prisoners were transported to 135th Fortress Brigade headquarters in a castle at the village of Carrozzo for further interrogation. The enlisted men were confined to three rooms in the cellar, while the two officers were placed together in one room. Word of the capture of the 15 was moving up the chain of command of the German Army. First Lt. Wolfgang Koerbitz, the brigade intelligence officer, was given the assignment of interrogating the men. He had little experience in this sort of thing, so a naval intelligence officer, Corvette Captain Friedrich Klaps, was brought in to help. Klaps agreed to help; however, since he spoke very bad English, he asked his assistant, Lieutenant George Sessler, to translate.

Klaps and Sessler started with Lieutenant Traficante, who would give only his name, rank, serial number, and home address. The enlisted men disclosed the same information. When Lieutenant Russo was brought in, Sessler tricked him by telling him that Traficante had given them the whole story. Russo then proceeded to disclose the details of the mission. Late on the afternoon of March 25, Sessler closed the interrogation and wrote a report to be sent up the chain of command.

Back on Corsica, the 2677th staff officers were wondering what had happened to their men. A photo reconnaissance plane from the 52nd Fighter Group made a run over the Framura area. The photos showed no damage to the tunnel, nor any signs of the dinghies or men. The Ginny men had simply disappeared.

word came back to 75th Army Corps headquarters that the brigade had captured “Italian-speaking American commando troops.” This headquarters then cabled the brigade asking if this was a reconnaissance on the part of the Allied forces in Corsica aimed at conducting a larger landing operation. The answer was, “No, their mission was to blow up the railroad tunnel at Framura.” General Dostler now realized he was in a very difficult situation. The word “commando” suddenly tied the Americans into the definition given in the Füherbefehl (Führer’s order).

After the raid at Dieppe on October 18, 1942, Hitler issued a decree stating that all enemy troops encountered during so-called commando operations, or acting as agents or saboteurs, were to be exterminated to the last man. It made no difference if they were in uniform or not, armed or unarmed. If they were captured alive, then they were to be immediately handed over to the intelligence service. Under no circumstances were commandos to be sent to a POW camp. Any German officer failing to carry out this order would be summoned before a war tribunal.

Dostler gathered his staff officers together to discuss whether the 15 Americans fell under this order. After much discussion and rereading of the document, he sent a cable to brigade on the morning of Saturday, March 25, stating, “The captured Americans are to be shot immediately. Signed Dostler.”

The order caused an uproar at brigade headquarters. Almers, Klaps, and Koerbitz realized they were going to be caught in the middle of an execution of American prisoners of war.

Read the rest of the story in the September issue of WWII History magazine.