Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Calitri at War

From British Military Archives, meet the Men of OPERATION COLOSSUS

Close by our home in the Calitri borgo in what I refer to as Teresa's Piazza, because not surprisingly Teresa lives there, is an innocuous water fountain still in use today mostly by, you guessed it, Teresa. Though I've passed it many a time, I never gave it much notice. Printed on it in raised metal letters are the words 'Aquedotto Pugliese 1914' (see Photo Album). This date was when modern running water apparently first debuted in Calitri. The water was supplied from an aqueduct then newly completed, which ran by the base of the mountain on which Calitri is perched. Calitri, I understand, was the first town to tap this new water supply with the water being pumped up the hundreds of feet into town using a steam driven pump. Ah, the marvels of modern technology ... and if we reorder the date just slightly into the year 1941, it was still all about water even then .......

The lumbering twin engine bombers coasted in from the Tyrrhenian Sea after what for those aboard must have seemed like a lifetime since departing RAF Station Luqa on Malta, south of Sicily. These Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers were already obsolete when WWII had begun, a stigma unworthy of any aircraft, yet true in their case. None the less, they were available and times being what they were, would have to do for this mission.

For some of the aircraft on this mission hasty modifications had converted them from their primary mission as bombers into transports. Unlike conventional bombers their cargo would fall through a fairly small opening in the floor of the fuselage and was not of the explosive or incendiary type but of the flesh and blood variety for six of the aircraft carried a squad of six British paratroopers each *.

The flight crews busied themselves now with final preparations as they approached the drop zone. This was a time long before inertial navigation or ground-mapping radar would simplify the lives of future aircrews on future missions much like theirs. For hours, relying on precise headings, adjusted for the winds aloft, the group of eight Whitleys had headed north across the Mediterranean. With the approach of sunset, the muted features of the terrain far below would now have to guide them. A landscape of deep valleys and jutting peaks typical of the southern Apennines would call to each crew, as had the Sirens of old. Their miscues would attempt to deceive the flightcrews … turn here, head further to the right, stay the course a little longer … but it would prove to no avail. The Sele River and a mosaic of villages here and there along their route would guide them to their destination. Crossing a towering ridgeline (today occupied by wind turbines), the interphone would have crackled as the navigator, crosschecking his charts, announced over the cabin noise .... "Pilot, there at ten o'clock, that has to be Cairano". There was no mistaking it, jutting there precariously on the angled brow of that imposing mountain. Just a little farther down the valley and they’d find Calitri. It was the early evening of 9 Feb 1941.

Yes, Italy was at war with the Allies. Calitri, in fact, had offered its young men to the cause, but the war was distant, far removed from them here midway between either coastline. Absent the sound of gunfire to disturb their tranquility, the war as yet remained something to read about in the giornali (newspapers), and for some, a personal death lottery as causalities among the local cadre were announced each week. Life for the most part went on as usual with the townspeople descending the mountain each morning to work in their fields, only to return in the evening. The sound of approaching 845 horsepower engines, in an instant, changed all that.

The local Calitri ‘contadini' (peasants), looking skyward, must have marveled at the sight, the likes of which had never before been seen in this part of Italy. In fact, Antonio Caruso, then a young nine year old shepherd, told me in Mario's Cafe there how he’d taken his vigilant eyes from his flock that evening to scan for the source of the approaching sound. The advancing drone of engines now resonated across the valley. Having abandoned the course of the Sele, which the aircrews had relied on since coasting inland, some in the staggered flight hesitated momentarily, circling over the valley below Calitri, before moving just a little further up the valley to their objective, the fresh-water aqueduct across the Tragino River.

Aboard the troop aircraft, responsibility for the success of the mission now transferred from the Royal Air Force flight crews into the hands of Major T.A.G. Pritchard of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the commander of X Troop of the No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion. The shiver of the engines down the length of the 69-foot fuselage undoubtedly reinforced the palpable reality of their mission, the first ever of its kind. Having made military parachute jumps myself when much younger, daring, and yes, more impulsive, I can only imagine how some aboard may have been reluctant to jump. Training was one thing but to jump in combat over enemy territory was altogether different. Their hearts must have pounded from an adrenaline rush as the command to jump echoed down the cold interior of the Whitleys and the commandos frog-walked to the open floor hatch to one-by-one be swallowed in the evening void. Their only comfort now lay in their training, their collective will to succeed and the fact that they were not alone. All told, among the various aircraft, there were 35 of them composed of seven officers and 28 enlisted men of various ranks. In that instant they were forever mates as together they exited into the advancing night only to be instantly thrown horizontal by the slipstream like rag-dolls as each awaited the tug of the static line and the reassuring jerk from their inflating chute.

Training for this, the first paratrooper operation ever undertaken by the British military and, in fact, what was the first Allied airborne operation of WW2, had begun in the summer of 1940. Impressed by the achievements of German airborne units during the Battle of France, Winston Churchill had called for the establishment of a similar capability for Britain's military. Training of this all-volunteer force was conducted at RAF Ringway, near Manchester England, at what was to become known as the ‘Central Landing Establishment’. By December 1940 a small force, designated No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion, had completed its training. From the battalion, a smaller group of men, designated ‘X Troop’, was selected to conduct what was code-named ‘Operation Colossus’. Their target, off in the fields just east of Calitri, lying just inside in the territory of Basilicata, is visible even today with the naked eye from the balcony of our home in the borgo storico (historic village). Today a grove of trees attempts to conceal its history, revealing only a thin sliver of its white bridge-like silhouette.

X Troop's mission was to seize the aqueduct and destroy it. Based on intelligence from the English engineering firm who had originally built the structure, George Kent and Sons, a plan was formulated to strike it because of its importance to Southern Italy. When my friend Mario first mentioned 'Colossus' to me, I'd wondered why the British War Office had chosen to attack this simple structure and why then? I learned that the aqueduct supplied water to an estimated two million Italians in the southern province of Puglia (Italy's 'heel'), and more importantly, to the ports of Bari, Brindisi and the vital naval base at Taranto, all of which supported the Italian war effort. Deprived of fresh water, morale, if not support for the war itself, would diminish. Its destruction would hopefully have the added benefit of disrupting Italian military efforts in Africa and Albania. Beyond its strategic importance, there was also psychological value. Following the disastrous results of the Battle of France, concluding with the disheartening evacuation from Dunkirk (May,1940), success here could spur British morale. A successful raid would demonstrate to the world that Britain hadn't succumbed and yet remained a potent force with the ability to globally strike at its enemies. The aqueduct, being a significant distance inland from the coast, also made it unlikely that a raiding party, delivered by sea, could reach it undetected. Moreover, it was believed that the aqueduct was too strongly constructed to be destroyed by aerial bombardment, inaccurate as it then was. An airborne raid, conducted by paratroops, was thought to be the ideal way to eliminate the aqueduct. Beyond this, Colossus would serve to test the effectiveness of this newfangled paratrooper force and the adequacy of their equipment. Additionally, the RAF's ability to accurately deliver a strike team to a predetermined location at a specified time would be put to the test. Since this was all new, the lessons learned would lead to more refined airborne operational procedures. In a nutshell, a lot was riding on X Troop and the success of this mission that in theory, on paper at least, checked off a lot of 'nice to have' boxes.

Besides Tony Caruso that February evening, I wondered how many others might have noticed their approach. Had anyone noticed as their silk chutes billowed and stealthily lowered the men and their equipment to the ground? No one I spoke with seemed to recall, though they did say that for years afterwards many of the locals sported fine silk made clothing! They all, however, became starkly aware of the operation when thirty minutes after midnight on 10 Feb 1941 a tremendous explosion erupted from the cleft in the valley, formed between the surrounding rising terrain, where the aqueduct is located. Equipment failures and navigational errors on some aircraft resulted in a significant portion of the explosives as well as the explosive specialists themselves to land miles away. Yet Major Pritchard was able to assemble most of his scattered teammates, locate the aqueduct, emplace what explosives they could muster, and as planned, destroy the structure. Mission accomplished, it was now all about getting his team safely out of there and on to the planned recovery point.

For Major Pritchard and his men, getting to the recovery point would prove far more difficult than it had been to reach the objective. The raiding party split into groups and began the approximate 60 mile trek, as the crow flies (even farther for some), to the mouth of the Sele to meet a submarine, HMS Triumph, scheduled for the night of 15 February. Unfortunately the Italians had not signed up to this! Now aware of the attack and alerted to the presence of hostile boots on the ground in the area, the local Carabinieri (paramilitary police), Italian soldiers and civilians quickly mobilized into search teams and with the aid of local farmers began their hunt. For X Troop, expected to cover about 12 miles a day, it would not be an easy stroll through the bucolic Italian countryside to the rendezvous point. Neither the locals nor the winter terrain would cooperate. Meanwhile other teams, these of workmen from Calitri, to include Tony's father and the family donkey, quickly began to repair the aqueduct. Michale, another person I spoke with at Mario's, recounted how his dad had found containers of weapons to include pistols, rifles and associated ammunition. With fewer men, the paratroops had had to improvise. Upon landing, I learned they had pressed into service a farm worker they encountered to carry equipment to the aqueduct. I suspect they must have tied him up until after their hasty departure, left to be discovered by first responders to the scene.

Unbeknown to the Major Pritchard and his men, who were now doing their darnedest to escape and evade, the foggy unpredictability of war, whose disruptive presence first emerged with errors in the jump zone location and equipment failures on some aircraft, decided to play another card. The bomber formation had included two aircraft assigned to carry out a bombing raid on the rail yards in Foggia, about 60 miles beyond the aqueduct. This was meant to divert attention from the primary paratrooper assault. As fate would have it, one of these aircraft developed an engine problem after rolling off the target. The pilot radioed Luqa airfield that he was preparing to crash-land. Coincidentally, he'd chosen a flat area near the mouth of the Sele River south of Salerno, the precise area where the rendezvous with the submarine was scheduled to occur! Talk about bad karma! Red flags went up at British headquarters on the news. Fearing first that with Italian vigilance heightened due to the crash, and secondly, that because the Italians may have intercepted the transmission, the recovery area was now compromised. Concluding that the rescue submarine might be sailing into trouble, the HMS Triumph was recalled. With no way to inform X Troop, still deep inside Italy, they were basically written off as lost. Major Pritchard and his men would not know of this fateful change in plans and the impossibility of their recovery, had they ever reached the coast, until after the war, for they were all eventually captured, swept up in the course of a few days. The long slog they faced, compounded by winter weather conditions and a very tight schedule, had forced them onto roads. This had greatly reduced their chances of going undetected, resulting in their quick capture. Their supposed 50-50 chance of return was now zero! Like romance, the essence of war is uncertain with intrigues sometimes determined haphazardly, no matter how thick the plot or in this case, the planning.

There had been some clashes and brief firefights, but without any losses. In all, there was but one casualty in Operation Colossus (not including what may have happened to the bomber crew that crashed and a training accident) and his death was totally unnecessary. He was neither British nor from Calitri, yet Italian nonetheless. On Palm Sunday 1941, one of the mission's interpreters, actually a civilian named Fortunato Picchi (using the cover name 'Dupont' and purported to be a Free French soldier), then in the custody of an Italian Fascist paramilitary group, the Blackshirts, was tortured and shot for his part in the operation. Indeed, it was a sad ending for someone named Lucky ('Fortunato'), who before his recruitment had been a waiter at London's Savoy Hotel.

There were injuries, however. One paratrooper landing in a tree broke his ankle. He extricated himself from the tree, hid is a straw roofed hut the night, but was captured the next day. The grandmother of another Calitri friend hid one of the paratroopers for a time and he rewarded her with his silk parachute, probably all he had to give her. He was also later captured. I learned that some prisoners were held in the Calitri town jail, then located inside the present day commune office building, for approximately one month before they were moved to nearby Sant' Angelo dei Lomdardi and later to Naples. For the men of X Troop the war was over. They were interned in POW camps for the remainder of WWII.

Recently Maria Elena and I were fortunate to be able to visit the aqueduct and actual target of Operation Colossus (see Photo Album). It is still in use today, attested to by Teresa's fountain. It lies in the backfields of a farm owned by relatives of our friend, Antonio, who arranged the visit. With 70 year old Giovanni leading the way, we walked through tall grass and brambles to the structure. Along the way, Giovanni related to us how a few years back one of the men of X Troop had himself returned to the site. It seemed strange, at least to me then, to also hear him say that he'd apologized for what he had done. But thus is war, where in its aftermath, if we are lucky enough to survive, there is time for reflection. Looking at the aqueduct, it is hard to imagine today how this structure could have commanded so much attention in 1941. It looked very much like a boxed-in bridge with railings spanning the distance between sloping terrain. Maybe 150 feet all told. But for the drop-off in the terrain, it wouldn't be visible at all. At either end stood a squat, white, windowless building, which we were told served as access into the aqueduct. I walked it, one end to the other, imagining the Major and his men scrambling over it on that fateful night in '41 with the lights of towering Calitri serving as backdrop on the horizon. Grass and moss cover its top surface. The sole evidence of violence I noticed was a discharged, rusted shotgun cartridge dropped there no doubt by some bird or cinghiale (wild boar) hunter. I imagined it looked today much like it had after its prompt repair following the attack. Contrary to the best of British intensions, repairs were made in a few days time. With a quantity of the explosives lost, the limited amount that remained had been insufficient to permanently knock out the aqueduct. Damaged yes, but still repairable. The rapidity of the repairs had insured there had been little impact to recipients of its water, who in the interim had relied on reserves.

Thinking it over, had this all been a colossal waste of time, resources and more importantly, men’s lives? Was this but folly, some sort of elaborate shakedown exercise or experiment under real conditions? Had all the detail been in planning the attack and scant on recovery of the team? Had X Troop been essentially sacrificed on a one way mission? Where apologies really in order and by whom? The questions keep crowding in but not their answers. Answers are elusive because ambiguity is in the nature of war. In retrospect, history says that because of this attack and fear of others like it, Italy diverted much needed resources to guard dams, power stations and bridges throughout Italy, when they could have been better employed in combat. In so doing, had the lives of these rear guards been spared the ravages of war? Had the outcome of the war in some miniscule immeasurable sort of a way been affected by what happened here in the shadow of Calitri? Had the events at the Pugliese aqueduct changed the course of history **? History, at least for the men of Operation Colossus, had certainly changed forever, and maybe, just maybe, it is only they who can judge, and if they so choose, apologize.

That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

* With one man taken ill prior to takeoff, one aircraft contained only five paratroopers.

** Somewhat akin to the "butterfly effect" of chaos theory (à la Monday morning quarterback, only visible in hindsight), where sensitive dependence on initial conditions (like the flap of a butterfly's wings) can sway events ... in the case of a butterfly's actions, on the formation of a storm or in the case of the removal of thousands of troops for guard duty, on the outcome of a war. In a nutshell, small differences may produce large variations in the long term behavior of a dynamic system, be it storm or war. Remember that proverb, "For Want of a Nail"?

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "Colossus".

To view historic WWII footage of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Bombers practicing early paratrooper drops to the tune of Jimmy Dorsey's "Jumpin Jive" click here on Paratroopers. Be sure to shut off the blog's music (I love that tune), if you have it running.