Lying in his hospital bed, having been denied the treatment he required to make a full recovery, Captain Mike ‘Wild Man’ Lees of the Special Operations Executive, a secretive branch of the British Army, could have been forgiven for feeling as though his officers had betrayed him; and in all honesty that was probably the case. His crime? Using his initiative to plan and mount a raid on a German Army Command Headquarters that probably saved the lives of thousands of allied troops. He should have been rewarded, instead he was vilified by senior commanders and left forgotten in a military hospital.
Operation Tombola was an ambitious plan to destroy the headquarters of the 14th German Army, defenders of the Gothic Line, a line of fortifications stretching across Italy from east to west. The allied advance across Italy had stalled at the Gothic Line and the momentum needed to be regained quickly in order to avoid thousands of unnecessary deaths. The mastermind of operation Tombola was Captain Mike Lees of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Captain Lees had been parachuted in behind enemy lines on a mission to galvanise and organise local Italian partisan forces into a cohesive and effective fighting force capable of carrying out lightning raids on enemy patrols, supply convoys and infrastructure in order to cause chaos and confusion amongst axis forces. Lees proved to be a brilliant officer who used his charm, intelligence and enthusiasm to unite the local militia groups and turn them into a fierce fighting force. He formed defensive positions to protect the valley that housed his headquarters and put together an intelligence network to gather information on enemy movements, facilities and disposition which proved to be invaluable when planning Tombola.
Operation Tombola would involve trekking across enemy held territory, carrying all the kit they would need for the raid on the two Villa’s that formed the 14th Army Group headquarters in Bottega. They would be carrying out the assault in the dead of night with the aim of killing or capturing the senior enemy commanders and destroying the communications infrastructure in the hope that this would throw the defenders of the Gothic Line into disarray and aid the allied advance. It would be a co-ordinated attack involving elements of the SAS who would be parachuted in a few days prior to the attack, as well as Italian partisans, and a guerrilla force consisting of escaped Russian prisoners of war.
As the date of the raid approached, the relationship between Lees and SOE headquarters reached a new low. Frustrated at a lack of support, Lees had sent a curt signal requesting equipment and reinforcements which had upset a number of his superiors. Another blow to this relationship was dealt when Major Roy Farran (SAS) parachuted in with the SAS reinforcements against orders. Farran was impressed with Lees and his plan, and the two quickly became firm friends. They were both frustrated when the raid was called off, and then it was back on again but only with further interference from the top brass.
Disaster struck on the day when the raiding party were due to set off, as Lees suffered a reoccurrence of the Malaria he had been struck down with when on operations in the Balkans. Remarkably despite his fever, and against the advice of Farran, Lees insisted on going on the raid; it was his party and he was determined not to miss it. Shortly after the party had set off a message was received at Lees headquarters that the raid was to be called off again. By the time that the message had caught up with the column Lees was to sick to even read it, let alone make a decision, as a result Farran, who was the senior officer, read the message and took the decision to continue with the attack. Farran had feared that to call off the raid now would destroy morale amongst the partisan forces, and their current high levels of morale and enthusiasm for the plan would be irretrievable if lost.
Despite suffering terribly, Lees arrived at the German headquarters along with the rest of the party. The Russians had split off from the rest of the group to their pre-determined rendezvous point. The headquarters consisted of two villas in the hills above Reggio Emilia, Villa Calvi and Villa Rossi. The attack began with a burst of gunfire from a Bren gun, scything down a German patrol . The alarm was raised, and the German defenders were now fully aware of the attackers’ presence. Despite his fever, Lees led the charge on Villa Rossi. Armed with a Bren gun and firing from the hip, Lees took out several Germans including one at point blank range. After quickly securing the ground floor, Lees and his men began the assault on the more heavily defended first floor. The attackers met with stiff resistance, and in order to break the deadlock Lees himself charged the staircase; suddenly the flash of automatic gunfire lit up the darkness and Lees was thrown backwards down the staircase.
Badly wounded, Lees managed to crawl; it was agonising and slow progress but somehow he made it to the relative safety of the ground floor from where he was rescued by two of his partisan fighters. The attack had been a great success, with Villa Rossi a half burnt wreck, and Villa Calvi a raging inferno, the German headquarters and communications infrastructure was in ruins. Lees was taken from the village and hidden behind some hay bales in a barn in the village of Rivalta; his wounds were tended to by two Italian nurses operating with the local resistance. Later a doctor was brought to the barn to examine Lees’ injuries. Upon examining the English Captain the doctor discovered that he had suffered from serious leg nerve damage in his leg, and without hospital treatment soon, he would probably never walk without a stick again.
An ambitious plan was hatched to rescue Lees, involving the Italian resistance and an Italian flying ace who had carried out many daring rescues for the SOE previously. After an agonising journey in a stolen German ambulance, Lees arrived at a mountain top airstrip, just barely long enough to land the light reconnaissance aircraft that would fly him to safety. After a couple of passes the Italian pilot carried out an extraordinary landing on the tiny runway. Lees was duly flown back behind allied lines and taken to a military hospital, expecting to be treated quickly, Lees was shocked to find himself dumped in a bed and forgotten about. He was briefly examined by a doctor who confirmed the nerve damage, but for some reason he was denied the prompt treatment he required. By the time he finally got the surgery it was too late to save the use of his injured leg.
Lees’ crime? Being resourceful, adaptable, and possessing a burning desire to do everything within his power to aid the allied cause and secure ultimate victory. Captain Lees should have been given heroes welcome on his return, and afforded every treatment available to save his leg, instead he was denied the awards and treatment he deserved because he didn’t conform; he made bold decisions based on solid intelligence rather than misguided and misinformed orders from a remote and unimaginative hierarchy, and they didn’t like it. Captain Lees acted in the best traditions of the British Army and we should all remember him for his heroic deeds.