Patrick O’Donnell has written four military history books previous to this latest work
, a book that sits perhaps a little uneasily on the History shelf. Its uncertain status as military history is not due to the event itself; O’Donnell has clearly recovered and told a story not widely known of unbelievable bravery, heroism, and commitment by many Italian partisans and a handful of American OSS agents in the rugged Italian Alps during the final years of the Second World War. This story needs to be told.
It is more to do with O’Donnell’s method and the way he organizes his material that shows that in the final analysis he is more interested in telling a good story rather than placing the story in the wider context of OSS operations or of the Italian campaign in general. In other words, do not look to this book for an analytical discussion of tactics and counter tactics. This is not a fault so much as a way of seeing how O’Donnell has framed the story and what he has achieved in writing this story.
He tells a gripping old-fashioned tale of good (American agents and Italian Partisans) vs. evil (Nazi SS and Gestapo) with evil finally defeated and made to atone at the end of the war for its inhumane and barbarous conduct towards Italian civilians, partisans, and the handful of American agents parachuted deep behind enemy lines.
It’s also a story written with cinematic pacing and simplicity and with a cast of characters that are reminiscent of the black and white war films made during the war or shortly after, starring perhaps Douglas Fairbanks Jr. or maybe Burt Lancaster and John Wayne. There is no ambiguity about who is evil and who is good. In short, this is History written as action hero movie.
The story is not morally complex nor is it a Marco view of how the war was fought in Italy. O’Donnell writes the opposite; he resurrects and tells a forgotten but grand epic tale about how the actions of a handful of courageous individuals made a significant contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The story focuses primarily on the bravery, character, and leadership of two real-life OSS (Office of Strategic Services) American officers, Captain Howard Chappell, leader of the Tacoma Mission in the Italian Alps, and Captain Stephen Hall leader of the Mercury mission. Only one of these two men survives the vicissitudes and betrayals behind enemy lines.
Both missions had three objectives: organize and coordinate the military activities of the various partisan bands operating in Northern Italy, train and supply the partisans in weapons and explosives, and finally and most important of all, destroy the Brenner Pass the main artery in and out of Italy for the German armies fighting in Italy.
Hall, a young man of great physical strength and a natural leader, is the first to be parachuted in behind the lines and the originator of the daring plan to dynamite the Brenner Pass with the help of the local Italian partisan bands. He arrives and is surprised to learn that the partisans are politicized and not interested in helping each other defeat the Germans. In fact, the only thing they share in common is their hate for the German occupiers and their Italian fascist allies. The Communists and Christian Democrats partisan bands were already jockeying for power in post-war Italy and did not help each other. Indeed, they were deeply suspicious of one other.
Hall’s other major obstacles included the difficult Alpine landscape, bitter winter weather, and the ever-present threat of being arrested by the SS who frequently swept through the rugged terrain in search of partisans and Allied agents. The stakes were high for Hall and later Chappell and his men; being caught by the SS meant torture and eventually death at the hands of the dreaded Gestapo.
The head of the Gestapo in the Bolzano region, where the Brenner Pass is located, was Major August Schiffer a man of ruthless and brutal interrogation methods. He was not above having prisoners beaten, shocked with electrodes, and eventually hung to death either on meat hooks or clotheslines. Hundreds of Italian partisans and their sympathizers were treated this way, as was eventually Hall (he was hung to death on a clothesline) who was betrayed by a mole inside a partisan group.
Hall’s murder was made to appear as suicide, but before he was captured Hall managed to have a love affair with the mysterious Countess Isabel de Obligado—who it turned out was a double agent working for France—destroy several bridges, and for a short time coordinate the efforts of the partisans. Hall was supposed to link up with Chappell and together they were to set out to bomb the Brenner Pass. The link up with Chappell and his men never happened and Chappell himself narrowly escaped three times from the clutches of the SS and Gestapo.
Chappell’s military exploits in the Bolzano region read as if they are part of a movie script. He plots to free several of his captured men armed with only a pistol, by guile and bluff he forces the surrender of the remaining units of the Germany army not once but twice, as they tried to escape through the Brenner Pass into Germany. Chappell and an Italian partisan group lead by the heroic Ettore Davare in both instances had thousands of men and their equipment surrender to them. Under Chappell’s leadership an important supply bridge is attacked and an attempt is made to blow up the bridge by detonating the unexploded bombs dropped by Allied planes. The bridge is attacked a second time and finally destroyed, all and all an extraordinary use of wits and courage and it all took place in about 18 months.
In the end Schiffer and his henchmen were found in hiding and brought to trial. Schiffer was hung for war crimes in 1946 and O’Donnell suggests that Chappell himself meted out some punishment before the war ended to those responsible for the torture and murder of Hall.
The Brenner Pass was never bombed or destroyed by either Hall or Chappell or any of the Italian partisan groups working under their guidance and strategy. Nevertheless, the courage, wits, and bravery of all those involved in the attempt to destroy the Brenner Pass is worth recalling and their commitment admired.