city-florence

Recently, Luigi Donfrancesco—nephew of I.S.9 Italian agent Andrea Scattini—and I have been in touch with Nancy Lewis, the wife of Captain Richard W. B. Lewis, an American officer with I.S.9 POW rescue operations in Italy during the war.

Richard Lewis served his role during the war admirably, and was discharged from service in 1946 with the rank of major.

After the war, he had a long, distinguished career in teaching at Smith College, and Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale Universities. A profic writer, recognition for his work included a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Edith Wharton: A Biography. He retired from Yale in 1988. He died in 2002.

Richard Lewis is mentioned in a number of posts on this site, including I.S.9 diaries, situation reports, and other documents.

Mrs. Lewis has kindly given permission for us to share a section of her husband’s book The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings (1995, pp. 64-68), in which he recounts his experiences with the I.S.9 rescues.

We are very grateful to Mrs. Lewis.

Notes in brackets were written by Luigi Donfrancesco.

“My own knowledge of the Casentino [province of Arezzo, Tuscany, Italy] began in the autumn of 1944. The first stay in Florence had, after all, been a short one, and during it I housed our little headquarters – two American officers, two British sergeants, and half a dozen Italian agents – in a luxurious apartment on Lungarno [Riverside] Vespucci (it had belonged to the former Fascist mayor of Florence, who had fled with the Germans and was later brought back and tried). It was a time of curious contrast, for while the German shells whistled about the Bailey bridge being thrown up below our windows, we inside, having for the moment nothing to do, indulged in a mild and continuous orgy.

“In early September, the front line had sufficiently established itself across the Apennines to permit us to go back to work, and we moved to a farmhouse just beyond the village of Rufina, about fifteen miles northeast of Florence and a few miles into the hills above Pontassieve. From here we could dispatch agents through the relatively unguarded mountain areas north toward Imola and Forlì and east into the Casentino.

“We were part of an Anglo-American intelligence outfit known in Washington as MIS-X [Military Intelligence Service X] and in London as MI-9 [Military Intelligence 9]; in Italy, we had various cover titles.

“Our section of it [IS-9: Intelligence School 9, called “A” Force in Italy] had to do with was known as ‘escape and evasion’: that is with prisoners of war who had escaped from enemy camps and were roaming the countryside; or with individuals – members of air crews, for example – who were at large behind the lines but had evaded being taken prisoner.

“The principal operation prior to Italy had been the exclusively British raid to collect escapees on the Island of Crete.

“The mission in Italy had begun in September 1943, when in the wake of the Italian surrender a great many POW [Prisoners of War] camps were abandoned and scores of thousands of prisoners – mostly English, who had been captured in the Western Desert and, especially, at Tobruk – were wandering the peninsula, a hundred miles and more north of the hastily re-formed German front line.

“Shifting our advance Headquarters periodically up the Adriatic coast, we dispatched small, careful briefed missions daily and nightly. Our agents were for the most part Italian, themselves former prisoners of war recruited from Allied camps; they were accompanied by a British or American officer or NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer]. Agents went in by parachute, or were taken in by boat, at night, and dropped off at strategic points. An obvious early requirement was to establish radio contact with these agents, once they had found the best place from which to operate.

“It was in one of our efforts to do so that, on November 1, the night of my twenty-sixth birthday [IS-9/“A” Force reports say the date was November 2, 1943], I went along on a coastal expedition and ran into trouble.

“We were aboard an Italian version [MAS: “Motoscafo Armato Silurante” or “Motoscafo Anti Sommergibile”] of an American PT [Patrol Torpedo] boat: a British officer [Captain Raymond ‘Lee’ Couraud, French, naturalized British, Commander of the ‘French Squad’ of 2nd SAS – Special Air Service] and myself, and about a dozen Italians, sailors and radio men. We had reached the rendezvous point [at Silvi, north of Pescara], and were lying quietly in the darkness, flashing out signals and looking for a response. I was sitting below, talking with an Italian youth [18 year old Augusto Ruffo ‘di Calabria,’ elder brother of Paula, future Queen of Belgium] who was developing into one of our most quick-witted agents, when there came an abrupt but continuing crackle of sound. Peering up the gangway, I could see tracer bullets flying and could hear shouts of consternation and rapid orders from above. My young Italian friend, in the midst of a sentence, fell forward from the bunk to lie dead on the floor; a bullet had penetrated the side of the boat end entered his back.

“When all sounds had ceased, I made my way cautiously up on deck, where I found half a dozen bodies strewn around, the boat otherwise deserted. Flames were licking along the railing; from out in the blackness I could hear the desperate appeal of the Italian sailors who had jumped overboard with their life belts and were floating about crying for help: ‘Aiuto! Aiuto.’ Stowing my spectacles in the pocket of my battle jacket, wrapping my trousers around my waist, and tying the laces of my boots together so I could hold the boots by my teeth, I slipped into the water and began to swim ashore. The distance may not have been more than half a mile, but I kept losing direction and swimming unnecessary hundreds of yards before I made it to the beach and sat, spent and shivering, with my back against a little sand hill. As I watched, exhaustedly, the fire on board reached the torpedo and the boat blew up.

“A mobile German patrol, it appears, driving along the coast road, had spotted us and opened fire, putting the boat out of commission with the first round. The patrol had then captured all the surviving Italians and had departed. The British officer, I learned eventually, had swum to the beach safely, walked adroitly south along the shore, and passed the lines two evenings later. [IS-9 reports and Uguccione Ranieri “di Sorbello”, in his October, 1944 letter to Princess Ruffo di Calabria, Augusto’s mother, state that Capt. Lee-Couraud was wounded, with two bullets retained in his arm and shoulder, and, despite that, he was able to reach the Allied lines 10 days later, on November 12, 1944]. He reported me dead, and my family was so informed.

“I was about seventy miles north of the British Eighth Army, I discovered, and within forty-eight hours had reduced the gap to less than fifteen, being sheltered and fed along the way by a series of kind and unquestioning Italian peasants (my Italian was still very skimpy). One of these gave me a usefully shabby suit to wear. Technically, this meant that I was now in disguise and, if seized by the Germans, could have been treated as a spy; but it seemed to be safer than marching along in uniform, even if my regulation boots could give me away. I was almost within sight of the British lookout posts when I got stuck: the long, drawn-out battle of the Sangro River had begun, and the front lines were far too lively for me to attempt to cross. For nearly six weeks, I lay up in the little stone house of a peasant family headed by a shrewd and gutsy man named Sciotti Bernardino near the tiny village of Crecchio [province of Chieti] while both armies surged forward and fell back in what, from my fretful vantage point, seemed sheer tactical messiness. I made useless little forays toward making my way to safety, only to retreat each time to the welcoming Sciotti household; during these efforts, I had a series of adventures and misadventures with which, decades afterwards, I would regale our young children (in one of them I was taking prisoner by a German soldier on foot patrol, deposited inside a barn, and told to stay there; I slid out a back window and scurried away).

“Finally, around mid-December, I took off impatiently and huddled for two nights with a horde of refugees in a barn just this side of the lines; then, having swallowed enough raw red wine to give me the requisite courage, I stumbled through the vineyards, passing within a few feet of a German sentry in the darkness, and fell into a foxhole commanded by a Sikh, a member of the British First Indian Division. His immediate response – until quelled by his elegantly English-speaking, turbaned commanding officer, who was mercifully nearby – was to cut off my head.

“Shortly before Christmas, I met up with my brother, who was head of CIC in the American II corps on the other side of the peninsula. It was he who told me that our parents had received a cable saying that I was ‘missing and believed killed over Italy,’ the authorities having evidently assumed that, since I belonged to the Army Air Corps, I must have been shot down during a bombing raid. My message home, that I was alive and well, arrived as the family was sitting down, not very cheerfully, to Christmas dinner.

“After an interval, I was given my own command [it seems he took over to New Zealand Captain Andrew Robb as Head of the No. 5 Field Section (of the ‘A’ Force), that operating along the Adriatic coast] and for the next six months we operated out of a small Abruzzese village called Lanciano [province of Chieti] (this was the time when I came upon the the work of the Abruzzese novelist Ignazio Silone). After the fall of Rome to the Allies in June 1944, we moved base into Umbria, taking a villa in the valley below the “open city” of Assisi; and after a few weeks there, we again took to the road, driving north into Tuscany and through the hills to Arezzo (reaching a farmhouse outside of town just after a German patrol had made off with some chickens). So it was, in July, that I entered Florence, leading two other jeeps and a British lorry.

“Before the month was over, as I have said, we were established in Rufina, above Pontassieve. Though the summer and autumn we dispatched agents to the north and east, the operations becoming easygoing and almost routine as the days went by. Our targets were mostly in the direction of Forlì, but we had considerable business as well in the rugged area beyond the Consuma Pass – the Casentino, which was a spacious no-man’s land, rendered useless by its topography for large scale military maneuvering. Air crew ‘evaders’ made their way down into it and got word to us; several times, I drove up the Consuma Pass to spy out the valley and the mountainscape with binoculars. We were also asked by the American OSS (with whom we had no formal relation) and the local British Corps headquarters to send intelligence-collecting missions into the area. It was from the reports of our returning agents, and by close scrutiny of the maps, that I become acquainted with the Casentino, and the names of Poppi, Bibbiena, and La Verna.”

The City of Florence is available through Amazon.com.

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