David Eyton-Jones talks about the SAS Operation Tombola in wartime Italy

16 October 2013 13:40

David Eyton-Jones talks about the SAS Operation Tombola in wartime Italy

For my first interview with Blind Veterans UK Review I had the good fortune to spend a day in the company of David Eyton-Jones as he recounted his time serving in the elite Special Air Service under the command of Major Roy Farran. Aged 22, David was part of a 50 strong force of members of the SAS who parachuted into the Italian Cusna Mountain area of Reggio Emilia in early March 1945. Their mission was to take part in Operation Tombola, to combine with the British Spring Offensive on the German Gothic line.

As a reflective David Eyton-Jones spoke of his time behind the German Gothic line, the last defensive position in the Apennines, this writer was once again moved by the remarkable courage shown by the ordinary men and women who gave up everything to fight for their country. Reading agriculture at Jesus College, Cambridge David was accustomed to working the land with oxen and mules, but he soon found himself using the beasts of burden to carry heavy arms to and from raids.

As he smoked the first in a series of pipes David began: "In September 1939 when war was declared I was aged 16 and in the 5th form of my school. Today I remember those friends of mine with whom I played rugger and whose names are on the school roll of honour. Had war not broken out my intention was to become a farmer, something highly unusual as I am from a family of Clergymen. In fact my Father was the Cleric to Blind Veterans UK in Kemptown and I had a wonderful childhood introduction to the charity that I now thank for doing so much for me.

"After five terms at Cambridge I joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in April 1944 and in the autumn I was sent by troop ship to Naples to join the 1st Battalion the Royal Sussex Regiment. I had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and I had the task of delivering a replacement company of light infantry to a camp near Naples and so missed reaching my Regiment.

"In January 1945 I found myself with other Officers waiting to join different Regiments, which were spread over Italy, Greece and France. When Roy Farran came to visit the depot we were housed in, he called for volunteers for special duties behind the German lines. A young Rhodesian called Ken Harvey and I were accepted and immediately sent via Florence to the SAS base on the west coast of Italy.

"Within two weeks of joining the SAS I was sent for by Roy Farran to drop by parachute into what we called the Tombola Valley in the Italian Cusna Mountain area of Reggio Emilia. No time to do a practice jump we were flown by night in a Dakota crewed by Polish Airmen. The search lights from the German lines seemed to fasten onto the plane and I felt like a goldfish in a bowl with one thought going through my head: 'How could the anti aircraft guns miss us?'

"I was relieved to get the order to jump as I didn't want to fly back over German lines. I leapt out of the plane onto a snowy hillside, very near a bonfire which was the marker for the dropping zone. I managed to control my parachute and on landing was met by an Italian Partisan called Bruno who directed me to a farmhouse where we were rewarded with a glass of grappa. I looked at my watch and saw that it was midnight on 8th March, my 22nd birthday, I mentioned this to my comrades and my glass was refilled.

"The following day was spent visiting various companies of Italian Partisans and watching their weapon training. The arms had been supplied by British drops for the Partisan forces and a small army of 70 escaped Russian troops.

"A week later following further drops of SAS troops I was sent to guard the Cisa Pass, one of the routes that the Germans could use to penetrate into the Kingdom of the Partisans. After a few days on the hill we were called to regroup in the village of Quara, about 10 miles distant. I marched with my company of Partisans and on our return Roy Farran ordered me back to Cisa to recover the 75mm howitzer, which had been left behind.

"Leaving my troop to rest I set off. Already exhausted I found a horse in a stable and set off back to Cisa riding the reluctant animal. I found that it was unwilling to be ridden over rivers and the only way to cross them was to dismount and drag the animal over the water. Reaching our destination I found it was impossible to move the howitzer without oxen to pull it, which meant I had to return to Quara to collect the oxen which had been ordered through the Italian Partisan Quartermaster, Barbanera.

"So once again I set off, dismounting at every stream we had to cross. Eventually we neared our destination and I dozed off in the saddle, I was awoken by a hefty blow on the head which knocked me to the ground. Believing that I had run into a German outpost I staggered to my feet only to find the horse munching hay in a stable. I had been knocked to the ground on entering the doorway! I did return with the oxen and delivered the howitzer.

"At about that date Roy Farran sent for me and a young guardsman called Kershaw and asked about our knowledge of snow. I had skied in Switzerland and Kershaw had been a member of the British Bobsleigh team in the winter Olympics. Roy was to lead an attack on two villas used as German headquarters in Botteghe d'Albinea, in the hills above Reggio Emilia on the night of 27th March. He gave Kershaw and I orders to find an escape route out of the Tombola Valley after the attack. It was for us to find a route that could be used by the whole British force if we had to escape rastrellamento; it was a reprisal measure the Germans were likely to take if the British carried out a severe attack on the German corps headquarters.   

"Kershaw and I returned to Casa Belloochi where we had landed. Once there we found a guide to take us to Monto Custna, a mountain range some 2,500 metres high. He was fully equipped with skis, sticks and snow goggles. We had none of these things and refused his offer to try to find some for us, knowing full well that it would be impossible to equip the 50 British with these essentials.

"We would have to trudge through the snow, which was three foot deep, without any assistance. The guide came some of the distance with us on his skis and obviously thought we were mad to continue. As he departed he gave us the sign of the cross, believing we were going to our death. It was a full day before we reached the summit of the mountain and we located the Rifugio at sunset, spotting a silhouette of the small building near the crest line. On reaching the Rifugio we had great difficulty opening the door as snow had drifted into the hut through a grating on the east wall and there was the same level of snow inside as outside. The temperature was like moving into a deep freeze cabinet. The fireplace was covered in snow and there were no logs or anything visible that could be burnt. We were utterly exhausted at that time and consumed the tins of self heating soup which we had with us, before collapsing in our sleeping bags on top of the snow. We didn't have the energy to even take our boots off.

"In the early morning the light streamed in through the grating and we found that we appeared to be in our graves. I looked for angels to confirm that we had reached Heaven but in fact our sleeping bags had dropped three feet to the snow floor leaving us deeply embedded in the snow.

"Summoning our last energy we rose and each took a couple of benzadrine tablets. Outside the sun shone on the bare snow coloured mountain which caused me to lose my sight to temporary snow blindness. We decided that we could not recommend the travis of the mountain as an escape route for the British and took the shortest route down the mountain, which meant sliding on our backsides. With his bobsleigh experience Kershaw led the way and I followed behind. He kept his two feet spread out and used his heels to guide us down between the occasional boulder. On reaching the relatively level ground at the base of the mountain our feet were sore and Kershaw had injured himself when he caught his foot on a boulder.

"Unable to undo the frozen laces of our boots we staggered along towards Febbio, which was the billet of Mike Lees's, a member of our team and the Special Operations Executive agent. He was already on his way to join the attack at Botteghe d'Albinea and so we had to walk the five miles back to Quara. Every step was an agony as we had frostbite in our feet. Our toes were black as were the toenails and the latter required six months to regain their original colour.

"When Roy had returned from the villas he realised that my feet were not in order and put me in charge of the jeeps, each mounted with a Vickers machine gun for hassling Germans!

"However as the person Roy had put in command of the Italian company didn't get on with their leader I was reallocated to take over command of the Italian company of 50 Partisans. Whilst I was preparing to depart an American plane flew very low over the valley with its starboard engine on fire. Three parachutes opened under the plane and the crew landed in a flat area near the river. Taking one of the jeeps I drove over to greet them, but all three airmen threw their hands into the air thinking I was German. I called over to them that I was British and would they get into the jeep as I could see a car with German troops heading towards them. I remember the pilot's remark of 'Aw gee my navigator must have got it all wrong!' I assured him that the navigator was quite correct, they were in German occupied territory and I would arrange with the Partisans for them to be accommodated in a farmhouse."

Laying aside his pipe, David broke from his narrative to say in 1987, at the Partisans reunion in Bologna, he learnt from the Italian Quartermaster Barbanera the fate of the American airmen. He discovered there were a total of seven airmen who bailed out. They were all accommodated in a farmhouse until the Germans retreated when they resumed their duties.

Drawing on his pipe David continued: "I was allocated a target of a Section of Route 12, which was regularly used as a supply route and convoy system. I led the Partisans to a village within two miles of Route 12 where the following day I was called to a conference with Roy Farran and other British, Partisan and Russian leaders and given orders to commence attacks on our targets in time with the British Spring Offensive on the German Gothic line.

"Having reached Route 12 we took up firing positions on both sides of the road which followed a ridge across the mountains. No traffic passed that night. Then two nights later having decided that a smaller party would be more effective I sent Corporal Danny Ford to use another route and another attacking position on any German convoy that passed. On this occasion he had great success, destroying several trucks which caught fire and disappearing before the Germans could organise return fire.

"I led the company of Italian Partisans on the march to our destination but soon realised that it was unwise to take the whole Italian Company of 50 men on a night march. They made so much noise they set the guard dogs barking at each farm we passed. Today if I go out after dark and hear dogs barking it still sends a shiver down my spine.

"In the morning the Partisans captured a German soldier as he visited a farmhouse to buy eggs. I was called in to question him and discovered there was a staging post for German convoys at a village called Monte Bonello, with a German sentry posted in the bell tower of the village Church, a prime position to view the surrounding area.

"I decided that Monte Bonello would be a good target and set off in the afternoon to review our target from a small mountain nearby. We reached our destination in the afternoon and I took a compass bearing on the Church tower. Later in the evening under the cover of darkness we carried our heavy Browning machine gun to the crest of Monte Forco and set aim on the Church tower with the compass bearing.

"We had loaded belts of ammunition with tracer bullets and incendiary. It was rather fun at night to see our tracer streaking across the sky and swinging in arcs from the Church tower to the village square. There must have been vehicles parked in the square because very soon there were large explosions from that area. The barrel of the Browning was red hot when we loaded it back onto the mule which had carried it to the spot. I was alarmed to see the mule feeling the warmth from the Browning make a rapid run from the firing position to our camp. However when we crossed the next stream we found the mule standing patiently with its feet in the icy water from the melting snow and it was a wise animal that led us away from Monte Forco as German mortars opened up, plastering our previous firing position. This mortar fire continued for some hours after we had left. It is after all the SAS saying: 'He who hits and runs away lives to fight another day'.

"The following day the Staffettas, a force of women who served with the Partisans, reported our raid had been successful and Bellano had been evacuated as the Germans withdrew from the area. And so I led the Italian Partisan Company up to Route 12 and they marched triumphantly down towards their homes in the plane of Lombardy.

"As we approached the town of Sassoulo, the doors opened and the people rushed out with flowers and bottles of vino. However this suddenly stopped as we heard the rumble of track vehicles coming up behind us. Thinking that it might be another German convoy my Partisans fled to behind the houses leaving Corporal Danny Ford and myself standing by the road. The leading scout car was flying the American flag and so we were glad to see them, until the convoy came to a halt beside us on the road and we were rather horrified to see that every gun was aimed at us. I called out to the Officer peering out of the leading vehicle 'Don't shoot we're British'. He shouted 'Dove sono i tedeschi?' Where are the Germans?' I replied that we had been in the area for some months and that the Germans were making full speed northwards and the dust they could see on the road in front was left by German vehicles. When the American column had passed through the village and not before, the gifts of vino and flowers was resumed.

In the foothills near Reggio Emilia was the Botteghe di Albinea, the wine bottling place for the local wine Lambrusco. Two villas were the homes and a huge barn was where local farmers brought their wine to be bottled and effervescence added to make a sparkling flavoursome aperitif.

The Villa Rossi and Villa Calvi were at that time occupied by the German 51stCorps HQ and the force of some 30 British and Partisans selected for their aggression were to attack by night. The previous day they had reached a farmhouse called Casa Da Lupo 'The House of the Wolf' and they overlooked Albinea. All were expectant of their attack on the target.

Whilst there a wireless message came from SOE HQ in Florence to abort the attack as the area could be an easy target for American bombers. The Italians were horrified that their expectations of a direct attack on German HQ would be lost and realised that American bombing could devastate the village of Albinea.

They convinced Roy Farran that he should not give up the direct attack and the message from Florence was ignored. Lieutenant Riccomeni led the attack on the Villa Rossi. He was killed along with two of the British force. Ken Harvey led the attack on the Villa Calvi while the Germans carried out their resistance from the rooms above.

Mike Lees and Corporal Langburn were injured during the attacks. Both parties withdrew carrying the injured before it became daylight. From the House of the Wolf they could view the German transport loading and removing the Corps HQ across the Po Valley. It was a successful attack and the Germans pulled out.

"The German's rastrellamento focused on the sacking of Villa Minnotso. All the Partisans combined together to form a large force to prevent the Germans crossing the river at the bridge at Gatta. Easter Sunday the Germans did a head long retreat being somewhat discouraged by the massive advance of the Partisans towards them.

"To finish our mission a Spanish interpreter serving with the SAS and I had the sombre task to reclaim the bodies of those members of the SAS who were killed in the attack on the villas.

"Only when Operation Tombola had been deemed a success did we return to England onboard a troop ship. After we were disbanded in September 1945 I rejoined the Royal Sussex Regiment, returning to Northern Italy when I was promoted from Lieutenant to Captain before going on to serve in Palestine. I stayed with the Royal Sussex Regiment until I was demobilised in 1947.

"After the war I had to start again and I was lucky enough to meet my wife Diana who had been a WAAF in the war. We married and at the age of 27 moved to Assam in India where I was fortunate in obtaining the Managership of an estate of 1500 acres early in my career. We had some 750 workers and I introduced a crèche, school and medical centre making it a community as people lived on the plantation as their housing was provided. They were good years producing a heavy crop of quality tea and my wife's production was four children during those years.

If you know of a veteran suffering with sight loss, Blind Veterans UK can help with lifelong practical and emotional support. Please refer them to our memberships team by calling 0800 389 7979 or visit our website.