Operation Tombola

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Captain Roy Farran holding a German sub-machine gun in Italy

During World War II, Operation Tombola was a major Special Air Service raid on German rear areas in Italy.

Fifty men parachuted to the Cusna Mountain area (Reggio Emilia) between 4 and 24 March 1945, under command of Major Roy Farran and helped from the SOE mission "Envelope" under command of Micheal Lees. A number of airdrops provided weapons for the rag-tag force which armed local resistance fighters and linked up with seventy escaped Russians.

They were able to attack German LI Corps headquarters, located at two villas in Botteghe d'Albinea in the hills above Reggio Emilia; in that attack the night of 27 March 1945 the Germans had 50-60 casualties (killed and mainly wounded), while the SAS and partisans had three killed in action (3 SAS men in Villa Rossi) and about seven wounded (4 British, 2 Italian, 1 Russian). The attack was done on the sound of a bagpipe played by David 'Mad Piper' Kirkpatrick (1924-2016) a Scottish volunteer who was dropped in the area in kilt - this was done to identify the operation as British so that reprisals would not be carried out against the local population. Operation Tombola continued until 23 April and the raids included the cutting of roads and shelling of a number of installations. Just as important as the 300 or so Germans killed and 200 captured was the number of defenders taken from other duties to secure the rear area. A number of Allied airmen, who were being hidden by civilians in the area, were also returned to friendly lines.

A book written in Italian Il bracciale di sterline by Matteo Incerti & Valentina Ruozi (Aliberti April 2011) details the operation and a second book Il paradiso dei folli (Imprimatur-Aliberti 2014) by Matteo Incerti to, focused on the war and post war experience of several participants of this secret mission. "Il suonatore matto" (Imprimatur 2017) also written by Matteo Incerti focused about the incredible life of the Scottish David 'mad piper' Kirkpatrick. As found from historical research done from mr. Incerti, the sound of the bagpipe of Kirkpatrick and the 3 British Sas soldier death (Riccomini, Bolden, Guscott) in Villa Rossi, let believe the Germans it was just a military attack and not an "partisan" attack to. So the nazi didn't order the reprisal against the civilian popolutation of Albinea.

During Operation Tombola 21st April 1945 was killed in action in Torre Maina (Modena) also the 2 SAS paratrooper Justo Balerdi-Robert Bruce, from Basque Country. Antifascist repubblican, and former member of the French Foreign Legion, Bruce was the only Basque who had fought with the British SAS in WW2. The story of Justo Balerdi-Robert Bruce is written in the books "Il bracciale di sterline" and "Il suonatore matto".

The commander of the operation, Roy Farran, published his account in the book Operation Tombola (Special Forces Library, Arms and Armour Press, 1986). The BBC series Secret War narrated by Alisdair Simpson (Acorn Media) in 2011 focuses on the exploits of Roy Farran and Michael Lees in the episode "SAS Italian Job". The operation is narrated also in the TV mini-series "Great SAS missions" (2004).

See also

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