Operation Achse Part II


A German tank from the 1st SS Panzer Division moves past the Duomo Cathedral, Mlian, during Operation Achse.

Further south in Italy, Operation Achse had similarly momentous consequences for a large group of Allied prisoners of war.

On the day of the armistice between the Allies and Italy, there were around 75,000 British and Dominion POWs in Italian camps. They were mostly infantrymen who had surrendered at Tobruk in 1941, scattered in some fifty-two camps all over the Italian peninsula. One of the terms of the armistice between the Allies and the new Badoglio administration was that the prisoners should be transferred to the care of the Allies. Churchill had demanded ‘the immediate liberation of all British POWs in Italian hands, and the prevention, which can in the first instance only be by the Italians, of their being transported north towards Germany’. The chaos that accompanied the armistice and its announcement, and the rapidity of Rommel’s advance into northern Italy, meant that this was far easier to demand than do. Moreover, some of the more fascistic camp commanders simply ignored Badoglio’s orders and handed their charges over to the Wehrmacht. Others threw open the gates of their camps to let nature take her course. The more enterprising, tougher and more resolute prisoners saw their chance and took it. Ill-prepared, ill-equipped, often dressed only in their service clothes, and rarely speaking more than a smattering of Italian, in groups of two or three they headed for freedom.

Where that lay was open to question. Some hoped to join Tito’s partisans to the north-east of Italy in neighbouring Yugoslavia; some to join the nascent Italian resistance; some to join the Allied forces in Sicily; some to throw themselves on the mercy of the Vatican in Rome. Still others decided to wait in hiding for the anticipated Allied landings further north on the Italian peninsula: there were rumoured to be assaults planned or actually taking place in Genoa, La Spezia, Leghorn and Trieste.


Switzerland, too, promised freedom, but it lay beyond the Alps. Not for nothing were they the natural frontier between the two countries. Those POWs trekking from Italy into Switzerland had far more on their hands and under their feet than the refugees from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, for the Alps on the frontier here were much higher than in the Alpes-Maritimes. In the Pennine Alps they would have to climb, not walk; here they had to face the challenges of glaciers and crevasses, not just steep mountain paths. Few of the escapers from Italy had any experience of such places and conditions, and many of them had never even seen snow. Fewer still were properly equipped with warm jackets, thermal underwear, tough mountaineering boots, alpenstocks and crampons: some even tried to cross 10,000-foot passes in shorts. Hazards were human, too. The men on the run often had to throw themselves on the mercy of the inhabitants of the uplands through which they journeyed. Many were treated with great humanity by their former enemies, who risked exemplary punishment from the new occupiers: their chalets burned, their menfolk deported or executed. Others were more venal. The Italian peasants on the frontier soon spotted the opportunity to guide the POWs over the border. These men, the passatori, were incentivised by the British government to ply their trade. Once the scale of POWs seeking safety was understood, a bounty of £20 was offered for every man taken to safety in Switzerland. The Germans at once countered this with an offer of a similar sum of 1,800 lire. At the time the weekly wage for industrial workers in Milan was 200 lire. Robert Thomson, a South African who escaped over the passes, remembered, ‘Even though the Italian guides were being well paid to take us to Switzerland, they wouldn’t think twice about handing us over, instead, to the Germans, who would also reward them.’

Prisoners in the camps close to the border began to arrive in Switzerland within days of the September armistice. The weather was still relatively good. As the weeks drew on conditions became more difficult, the routes more clogged with snow. In Zermatt, where the Matterhorn straddles the Swiss–Italian border, the escapers’ problems were compounded by the fact that the three closest towns on the Italian side of the frontier were garrisoned by SS forces. Nevertheless, in the month after the Badoglio declaration more than one thousand Allied POWs crossed the high border by the passes above Zermatt and neighbouring Saas-Fee. One of them was the senior officer at Camp 49, Fontanellato, near Parma: Colonel Hugo de Burgh of the Royal Horse Artillery. This veteran of the North-West Frontier in British India thanked the Swiss patrol that welcomed him. ‘Why not?’ was the reply. ‘If it had not been for the Battle of Britain in 1940 there would be no Switzerland.’


Paul Schamberger’s Interlude in Switzerland tells the story of South African Commonwealth troops who escaped from the POW camps over the Alps in the wake of Operation Achse. William ‘Billy’ Marais was a thirty-four-year-old corporal in the 4th South African Armoured Cars. Seconded to the Eighth Army, he was captured by Rommel’s forces in the Western Desert in November 1941 and sent to an Italian POW camp. When the armistice was signed, he was at once dispatched north to Germany. Two days after the armistice he escaped from a train close to the Brenner Pass and spent twelve days in the foothills of the Dolomites trying to find a way into Switzerland. He lived by stealing fruit from orchards. After a few days on the run he was recaptured by a Fascist border patrol. He escaped once again by jumping down a precipice. Surviving this desperate remedy, he hunted up and down the border for a crossing point. Everywhere it seemed closely guarded by Italian troops. At last, utterly at the end of his tether, frozen stiff and exhausted, he managed to cross the frontier at the unguarded Stelvio Pass. At 9,045 feet, this was the second-highest paved pass in the Alps, where Switzerland jutted out between Austria to the north and Italy to the south, north of Bormio in the province of Sondrio and south of Stilfs in South Tyrol. There Marais collapsed. Before doing so he left a note in his diary.

Red Cross – Roote Kreuz

No. 135480

Cpl W.T. Marais

South African Tank Corps

Should I be found Please take this and if Possible deliver to Red +. I attempted to escape from the Germans. I have had about 12 days freedom from Barb wire.

Please let my Mother know that my thoughts were of her always. It is cold, very cold.

Marais was found alive by a Swiss border patrol. Hearing the German spoken by his rescuers, he took them to be the Wehrmacht. Marais bit, yelled and screamed, and had to be subdued by being sat upon. He was taken a couple of days’ march to the Kreisspital in Samedan, four miles north of the skiing resort St Moritz. Here he was cared for for some weeks with what he later remembered as incomparable kindness and humanity. On his recovery he was dispatched to Berne. There he was interrogated on his escape by the British military attaché, our friend Colonel Henry Cartwright. On falling ill once again, Marais was returned to Samedan. At 2 a.m. on 25 December 1943, he noted in his diary that he had there spent ‘the most wonderful Christmas eve of my life’.


Marais was followed by more than 5,000 Allied escapers from Italy who found their way over the Alps into Switzerland in the autumn and early winter of 1943. The vast majority of these men were British and Commonwealth servicemen. Provided they were not in military uniform, they fell into the Swiss category of ‘evaders’, which meant they were not interned. The Swiss had agreed to accept these men at the time when they were still turning away Jews because of a deal struck just three days after the announcement of the armistice. On 12 September 1943, the British envoy Sir Clifford Norton and his opposite number, Marcel Pilet-Golaz (foreign minister now rather than federal president), had agreed that the POWs would be accepted on three conditions: that they left as quickly as possible; that they were subject to Swiss military law; and that they were paid for by the British. The Swiss called this episode the ‘invasion’ or Grosseinbruch.

To cope with the numbers of POWs who arrived that autumn of 1943 the Swiss Internment Commissariat set up a special headquarters for the Allies. This was conveniently close to the Italian border in the Schwaner Hotel in Wil, Canton St Gallen. The unit provided an occupation in itself for those POWs with office skills. Each escaper had to be interviewed: his unit, POW camp, means of escape and identity of those who had helped or hindered his passage were recorded, assessed and passed on. For the remainder of the POWs, handier with tommy guns than typewriters, something else had to be done. Once they had recovered from the rigours of the passage over the Alps, the men behaved as might have been expected of servicemen in the prime of life. They devoted themselves to sport, alcohol, fighting among themselves, and pursuing Swiss women. Norton and Pilet-Golaz were at one that this was best done as far as possible out of sight of Swiss citizens, and especially their Swiss military counterparts. Accordingly, like the Jews of south-eastern France in the happy days of Guido Lospinoso, the men were dispatched to the country’s largely deserted skiing resorts.


Adelboden in the Bernese Oberland, only forty miles south of the capital, was one of the very first resorts developed by the British in the early years of the twentieth century. Perched on a sunny, south-facing terrace at the end of the Engstlige valley, it was high – 4,430 feet – and surrounded by the snowfields of the Lohner, Steghorn and Wildstrubel mountains. Its proximity to Berne, coupled with its remoteness, made it a good location for the evaders. Not all of them wished to forgo the struggle and a number still thought it their duty to try to rejoin their units. Escape from Adelboden – approached during winter by only one road – was exacting. The village of Frutigen was the only door in the wall and that was guarded. Under the terms of the Hague Convention, the Swiss were required to prevent the evaders’ flight.

The camp was opened by an advance party on 8 November 1943, the evaders themselves following three days later. The first snows of the season had come more than a month before and for most their new quarters compared favourably with the Italian POW camps and the billets at Sandhurst and the Salisbury Plain. ‘The men marvelled at the spring mattresses, linen sheets, pillows and feather duvets on all the beds. All bedrooms had hot and cold running water’. They also took up skiing, a sport that – according to the pre-war skiing ace James ‘Jimmy’ Riddel – was ‘the most fun you can have with your trousers on’. Yet it was still Switzerland. One evader in Adelboden was Rommel’s future biographer, Desmond Young. Attached to the 4th Indian Division, he had been captured at the Battle of Bir Hacheim in the Libyan desert. He reflected, ‘We were, in effect, still in prison, though the bars were golden.’

Prison, too, had been the fate of Mussolini, albeit a jail of a less congenial sort than Desmond Young’s.

General Badoglio’s advisers realised that the former Duce might be a target for kidnapping by the Wehrmacht, and kept him on the move. He was first rumoured to be on the island of Ventotene on Italy’s west coast; then on another island, Maddalena, close to Sardinia. Il Duce was apparently in a reflective mood, whiling away the time reading Giuseppe Ricciotti’s classic Vita di Gesù Cristo (Life of Jesus) seeking inspiration. Eventually he was tracked down by the naval intelligence service of Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz in the Albergo Ritugi. This hotel formed the nucleus of a skiing resort some eighty-two miles north of Rome, on the Gran Sasso mountain. At 9,554 feet this was the highest peak in the Apennines, the range that forms the femur of Italy’s leg. It could be reached only by funicular railway.

Here Mussolini seemed secure enough, but Badoglio’s men overlooked the courage and imagination of the Waffen-SS and the paratroopers of the Fallschirmjäger (parachute) Division. These men conceived Operation Eiche (Oak), a plan that reads like a cocktail of Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed and Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare.

Photoreconnaissance suggested that it would be possible to land gliders on the plateau around the hotel. The commandos could then seize Mussolini from his 250 Carabinieri captors, using an Italian general as a human shield. Il Duce would then be flown off the mountain in a Fieseler Storch, a tiny high-winged monoplane not dissimilar to the Lysanders used by the RAF for dropping SOE agents in France. This was the scheme conceived by Major Otto Harald Mors and the daredevil scar-faced giant Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, a sort of Nazi Lawrence of Arabia.

On 12 September 1943 Operation Eiche was put into action. Most surprisingly, all went according to plan. Nine lightweight DFS 230 gliders were successfully crash-landed on the mountain. They were guided by Skorzeny, who had cut a hole in the fuselage of his own glider to see the landmarks below. The commandos were spotted by Mussolini, looking wistfully out of a second-floor window of his prison-hotel. Most of the Carabinieri guarding the Duce fled their posts. The remainder obeyed Mussolini’s call to avoid shooting the Italian general Fernando Soleti – or indeed anyone else. Not a drop of blood was spilt. Skorzeny – shades of Where Eagles Dare – put the radio out of operation, leapt up the stairs three at a time and duly greeted Mussolini. ‘Duce,’ he cried, ‘the Führer has sent me to set you free!’ Mussolini also knew his lines: ‘I knew my friend would not forsake me!’ With the pilot, Mussolini and Skorzeny all on board, the tiny Fieseler was overloaded and staggered perilously off the high plateau. Landing safely in Rome, Mussolini was transferred to a more dignified Luftwaffe transport Heinkel He 111, thence to Vienna and on to a touching reunion with the Führer in Rastenburg.


Hitler was not all heart. He wanted Mussolini to establish a new Fascist government in Alpine Italy and the Lombardy plain immediately to the south. This would ease the administrative burden of northern Italy and help pacify the nascent partisan resistance. It would also safeguard the Wehrmacht’s supply lines to its forces in the south – not to mention its lines of retreat.

Mussolini had other ideas, more attuned to On Golden Pond. He had intended to retire from politics and live out the remainder of his life in the company of his mistress: to Hitler’s annoyance he proved to have little appetite for the grand plan. Still, in the circumstances it was difficult for Il Duce to refuse. On 23 September he duly proclaimed the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, RSI). Its unofficial capital was Salò, perched on the shores of Lake Garda under the shadow of Monte San Bartolomeo, on the southern slopes of the Alps. Here most of the republic’s ministries were housed. Just eleven days after his rescue, Mussolini found himself in residence nearby at Rocca delle Caminate, a medieval fortress. Only his mistress Clara Petacci was missing. Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich was one of Hitler’s intimates, an SS general who had begun life as a butcher. He was duly detached from his hard-pressed I SS Armoured Corps in Russia to deliver Petacci into Mussolini’s arms in Salò. Goebbels, no stranger to infidelity, noted tartly in his diary on 9 November 1944, ‘The personal conduct of the Duce with his girlfriend, whom Sepp Dietrich had to bring to him, is cause for much misgiving.’

Indeed, Mussolini now cut a sorry figure. He was guarded by a detachment of the Leibstandarte SS, Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit; his phone was tapped, and even his doctor – George Zachariae – was provided by the Führer. Hitler had already threatened the Duce with the destruction of Milan and Turin – the north’s industrial heartland – and the crucial port of Genoa. These remained part of Mussolini’s puppet republic, but even before the RSI was proclaimed he had lost the Alpine provinces of Belluno, the long-disputed German-speaking South Tyrol, and the Trentino north of Venice. These were regarded as too close to the borders of the Reich to be placed under anything other than direct Nazi control. On 10 September 1943 the provinces were dubbed the Operationszone Alpenvorland or OZAV (Operational Zone of the Alpine Foothills). The OZAV was administered by High Commissioner Franz Hofer, a notorious Nazi who also ran the Alpine Reichsgau of Tyrol-Vorarlberg to the immediate north.

In the autumn of 1943, with many of the Allied POWs from the Italian camps still trekking north towards Switzerland, these three Italian provinces were given a makeover. Italian magistrates were replaced by German-speaking mayors. Italian newspapers were shut down, the Italian Fascist party was outlawed, and – above all – the Jewish population was relentlessly pursued. On 16 September 1943, thirty-five Jews from Merano were entrained for Auschwitz. When they reached the camp, the six-year-old in the party was gassed. Two months later they were followed by the refugees from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, entrained at Borgo San Dalmazzo.

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