Nick Squires, in The Telegraph, 23 September 2016, where the ttile is ‘Real life James Bond’ who parachuted behind WWII enemy lines to be honoured by Italy’
A British secret agent who parachuted behind enemy lines during the Second World War and played a key part in securing Italy’s unconditional surrender is to be honoured on Friday at a ceremony in Tuscany. Richard Mallaby, known to his friends as Dick, was a debonair agent with Special Operations Executive who was described by his peers as having ice-cold courage and the ability to talk his way out of the most dangerous situations. He is credited with helping to negotiate the armistice with Italy after the dismissal of Benito Mussolini in 1943, and two years later, during the final months of the war, played a part in securing the surrender of 800,000 German troops in Italy.
British secret agent Mallaby parachuted into occupied Italy in WWII British secret agent Mallaby parachuted into occupied Italy in WWII Mallaby was codenamed “Olaf” for his blonde hair and blue eyes
Recruited by SOE, the secret British organisation tasked with fomenting resistance against Axis forces, his secret missions, brushes with death and derring-do may have inspired Ian Fleming when he created the character of 007 after serving in British naval intelligence. “He was a real-life James Bond. His missions, like many of the adventures of SOE agents, are likely to have been an inspiration for Ian Fleming, whose brother Peter also worked in special operations,” said Gianluca Barneschi, an Italian lawyer and historian who wrote a book about Mallaby based on 20 years of research.
“When he parachuted into Italy, he carried secret codes hidden in a toothpaste tube, as well as a crystal for a radio. Dick was a very brave Englishman. His missions were incredible; they’d make a great film.” It is Mr Barneschi who has pushed for the British agent’s bravery to be officially recognised, more than 70 years after he risked his life on covert operations in occupied Italy. “It’s ironic that the Italians know more about Mallaby than the British do,” said Colonel Lindsay MacDuff, the British defence attache in Rome. “Mallaby’s achievements during the war were remarkable.”
The young agent’s dramatic entry into the war came in August 1943 when he parachuted, at night and alone, from a Halifax bomber into Lake Como in northern Italy. Codenamed “Olaf” for his blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the first Briton to be sent to Italy as an SOE operative. The 24-year-old was supposed to link up with anti-Fascist partisan groups but Italian counter-intelligence got wind of his operation and he was arrested. The Italians searched his kit and found plenty of incriminating evidence, including photographic negatives hidden inside hollowed-out torch batteries and the crystal for a wireless set concealed in the handle of a shaving brush.
In a real-life precursor to later Bond films, the secret agent wore a wet suit, beneath which were normal clothes, and had a knife strapped to his arm. Mallaby was beaten during interrogation and feared that he would be shot as a spy. But with Italy beginning to seek a way out of the war after the toppling of Mussolini just a few weeks before, his fluent Italian and radio skills were soon put to use.
Hauled out of prison, the trained radio operator was used as a key point of contact between the new Italian government under Marshall Pietro Badoglio and Anglo-American forces based in Algiers. Brought to Rome, right under the noses of the Germans, Mallaby sent out coded messages and decoded those received in reply from Algiers, using a secret communications channel that was codenamed “Monkey”. As German forces began to take control, Mallaby accompanied Marshal Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel III when they made a break for the Allied lines, flying from Rome to Pescara on the Adriatic coast, where they were picked up by an Italian corvette and taken to Brindisi.
The armistice was signed in early September 1943. Mallaby played a “remarkable solo role” in the tortuous surrender negotiations, according to Roderick Bailey, the author of Target Italy, an account of SOE’s operations. The young British soldier was awarded the Military Cross. The citation for the medal said that had it not been for his “exceptional coolness and devotion to duty”, the subsequent Allied amphibious landings in Italy might have taken place with the country still fighting as an enemy.
Mallaby was back in action in 1945. He crossed into Fascist-controlled northern Italy from Switzerland but was swiftly captured and interrogated by the SS. Narrowly avoiding a firing squad once again, he went on to play a vital role in negotiations between the Allies and General Karl Wolff, commander of all SS forces in Italy. He helped to secure the surrender of all German forces in Italy in May 1945 in what became known as Operation Sunrise.
“Mallaby was the right person, in the right place, at the right time, on two occasions during the war,” said Mr Barneschi, the author, who now hopes to find a British publisher for his book. “Both times he was arrested, he could have been shot.”
Mallaby will be honoured on Friday in the Tuscan town of Asciano, near Siena, where he spent his youth.
His three children, Richard, Caroline and Elizabeth, will be awarded a gold medal from the mayor of Asciano in recognition of their father’s contribution to the war effort, at a ceremony attended by Colonel MacDuff. “Thanks to his courage and talents, he was the protagonist and leader of two missions during the Second World War that changed the course of the conflict,” the town’s mayor will say. “After more than 70 years, his heroic deeds have finally been disclosed and the community wishes to remember and celebrate this mesmerizing and brave man who for many years lived in these lands.”
Mallaby was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in the colonial hill station of Nuwara Eliya, but his family moved to Italy when he was a toddler after his father inherited an estate called Villa Poggio Pinci. He grew up speaking fluent Italian and went to a local school, where he was known for his recklessness. “The local mothers in Asciano would tell their kids not to play with him because he was such a daredevil,” said Mr Barneschi. “He would ride his bicycle along the parapets of a bridge.”
When war broke out, he travelled back to Britain and joined the Devonshire Regiment as a private. Anxious for active duty, he then volunteered for a commando unit, 8 (Guards) Commando, and saw action at Tobruk. When the unit was disbanded, he joined SOE in January 1942.
He impressed the covert organisation with his level-headedness. “He possessed the kind of courage known as the cold, two o’clock in the morning type,” one fellow SOE operative said. He was judged to be more than capable of doing “man-sized jobs”.
Jill Morris, the British ambassador in Rome, said: “I’m delighted that Richard Mallaby is being honoured in this ceremony and that his work in wartime Italy is being recognised. His contribution undoubtedly helped to shorten the war for Italy and reduced needless bloodshed and loss of life.”
Mallaby died in Verona in 1981 at the age of 62 and is buried on his Tuscan estate. He is survived by his three children and his wife, Christine Northcote-Marks, who served as a coding expert with the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) during the war.