The three rubber dinghies struggled through the rough surf in the pitch black night toward an inhospitable stretch of rocky beach. The cliff rose almost straight up from ocean’s edge. The mission commander realized his team had landed in the wrong place, but there was no time to hunt for the correct landing area. The mission would have to start from here. This mistake was just one of many as Operation Ginny unfolded to its final tragedy.
In the early days of the North Africa and Italian campaigns, Office of Strategic Services (OSS)personnel initially lacked experience, resources, and the respect of skeptical staff officers in the theater. The agency soon began to prove its value. Prior to Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, OSS agents established contact with Allied sympathizers and gathered intelligence vital to the invasion.
Support from General Clark
During the North Africa campaign, OSS operatives organized warrior tribesmen into a guerrilla force to guard against a possible Axis thrust through Spanish Morocco into the Allied rear. During landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno, an OSS detachment provided Colonel William O. Darby’s Rangers with critical tactical intelligence during their defense of the Sorrentino peninsula. The activities of OSS agents soon came to the attention of General Mark Clark, commander of the Allied Fifth Army, who gave them vehicles, rations, and a free hand to operate.
In February 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, agreed to allow the OSS’s Special Operations staff to employ four to eight commando cells to organize and assist guerrilla forces in Italy and southern France. During the fall of 1943, these newly arrived operational groups began to look for offshore islands on which to establish bases for raids against the German-held northern coastline. After the Italian surrender, an OSS unit joined a French expeditionary force to take the island of Corsica. The German garrison was already withdrawing to the mainland, so the OSS groups established advance bases on Corsica as well as the nearby islands of Gorgona and Caprais. At Corsica, they were only 35 miles from the Italian coast.
Conducting Raids Against German Communications Lines
From their new bases, the OSS operational groups conducted raids against German communications lines along the Italian coast in an attempt to divert enemy troops from the main front. The narrow, rocky coastal plains of the Italian peninsula were crossed by numerous roads and railways, which the Germans used as lines of supply. Night after night, small groups of OSS soldiers crawled ashore to attack the most vulnerable points and reconnoiter enemy installations.
The 2677th Headquarters Company, Detachment C, (Unit A, First Contingent) was one of the special OSS units activated in April 1943. Commanded by Colonel Edward J. Glavin, they were stationed at Ile Rosse on Corsica. The Italian front stretched across the peninsula at Cassino with a further front initiated at Anzio in January 1944. The Allied forces recognized that one of the main German supply routes was the railway line running along the western coast of Italy. The Allied air forces had been conducting Operation Strangle to cut all German lines of communication; however, bombing in the mountainous terrain along the coast had not succeeded in cutting the Genoa Livorno line.
The Allied G-3 Special Operations branch suggested that the best way to cut the line was to demolish one of its tunnels by means of a sabotage party landed from the sea. At about 15 miles northwest of La Spezia, a tunnel between a small station named Stazione di Framura and the small fishing village of Bonassola was deemed the best target. Passed down to the 2677th, Operation Ginny was born.
The task of developing the tactics needed was assigned to the unit’s operations officer, 1st Lt. Albert R. Materazzi. The aim was to destroy the northern tunnel entrance, located some 500 yards southeast of Stazione di Framura. Materazzi’s plan was for a team of 15 men—nine demolition experts and six security riflemen—to land under cover of darkness from two PT boats.
Reconnaissance indicated that there was a natural ravine the team could move through to reach the tunnel entrance. The team consisted of Americans with Italian backgrounds and some who could speak the Italian language fluently. All were to be dressed in U.S. Army field uniforms and would not carry civilian clothes. After neutralizing the signal house, they would blow the tunnel entrance then retrace their steps to the three rubber boats, and reboard the waiting PT boats.
Risky, But With a Reasonable Chance of Success
The operation was carefully timed. The team would launch at 11 pm, reach the target by no later than 12:30 am, and be picked up at 3:30 am. There were contingency plans. If the commanding officer decided the operation could not be accomplished that night, he would notify the PT boats no later that 2 am, the men would hide, and the operation would be rescheduled for the following night with pickup at the same time. If contact could not be made with the PT boats after blowing the tunnel, then the party would proceed inland to a safe house about 40 miles away. On the surface, it looked like the plan was risky but that it had a reasonable chance of success.
In 1944, the German forces in Italy were commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. All of northern Italy was under the command of Army Group von Zangen, led by his subordinate, General Gustav von Zangen. The targeted area of the Italian coastline was defended by the 75th Army Corps under General Anton Dostler, with his headquarters at San Andrea near Parma. The 135th Fortress Brigade, commanded by Major Kurt Almers, was guarding the area around La Spezia.
After the go-ahead for the operation was received, the first attempt was made on February 27-28. It was called off when the correct landing area could not be found in the dark. When the party got to shore, it could not find one landmark and returned to the PT boats. The unit then did a more complete target study based on profiles of the railway and intelligence gathered from engineers of the Italian Railways Maintenance Section. The 52nd Fighter Group flew a photographic reconnaissance mission of the area on March 10. The 15-man group made a complete dry run of the mission during the night of March 20-21 near Ile Rosse. The timing and emergency plans were left in place, and the group pronounced itself ready for insertion on March 22-23.
Going Awry Near Midnight
The U.S. Navy’s PT-214, commanded by Lieutenant R.T. Boehel, and PT-219, commanded by Lieutenant Harold Nugent, left Bastia at 5:55 pm and made landfall west of Stazione di Framura at 10:45 pm The overall mission and demolition team were commanded by 1st Lt. Vincent Russo. The security party was under 1st Lt. Paul J. Traficante. Radio contact was sporadic, but the PT boats did hear Russo report that they had reached shore and were looking for a place to land.
At 11:45 pm, things began to go wrong. A convoy of German torpedo boats was sighted returning from a mine-laying mission. PT-219 took diversionary action and got into a firefight, while PT-214 idled along the coast on one engine and tried to keep in contact with the shore party. The radiomen on the boats kept trying to reach the shore party, but all was silent. At 2 am, the two PT boats rendezvoused five miles out to sea. Their radar indicated numerous targets along the shore, and they had to lie quietly until 3 am At that time, they moved in close to the rocky cliffs in an attempt to raise the mission party on the radio. PT-214 reported its main steering mechanism had malfunctioned, and it was 4:15 a.m. before it was repaired. No transmissions were heard from the mission party, and the two boats returned to base.
Scrounging for Food After a Botched Landing
Russo realized the team was in the wrong spot. He left 12 men to guard the rubber dinghies while he and two others headed off to reconnoiter the area. Climbing up the steep, rocky embankment, the three discovered they had landed near the village of Carpineggio, about halfway between Bonassola and Stazione di Framura. The group had landed two miles from its intended initial point and about one mile from the target. By the time the reconnaissance party returned, several hours has passed and daylight was at hand. The radioman reported that contact with the PT boats had been lost and that they had probably returned to base.
Russo decided on a contingency plan requiring the men to hide during the day, establish contact with the PT boats the following night, and then accomplish the mission. He would not blow the tunnel until contact had been made. Like the dark clouds of an oncoming storm, the problems of Operation Ginny continued to mount.