The SAS Italian Job: Many of those murky events in the spring of 1945 remain governed by secrecy to this day

 
 
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If you glance through the list of other works by Damien Lewis at the start of the book on offer here, you will see a distinct pattern with his World War II-era writing that leans towards espionage and unconventional warfare that really prods the imagination.

I’ve read a few of his books and have to say this latest tale of daring do and mayhem is definitely my favourite by a long way.

In it he tells how a mixed bag of SAS troopers, Italian partisans and other renegades attacked a German army headquarters during the spring of 1945 just as the Allies prepared to attempt to breach the Gothic Line.

Mr. Lewis builds up an enthralling story with considerable care as he recounts the adventures and, frankly, misadventures of the leading characters that bring them to the main event where many perform wonders while others die in those cruel weeks before final victory.

We meet some pretty heroic and quite piratical individuals who seemed to have had no fear when they stepped into the maelstrom and it is little wonder how the SAS, in particular, became such legends; but make no mistake – the author pays full attention to the bands of Italians and, indeed, Russian fighters who were taking their own kind of war to the Nazis.

German soldier examining the papers of an Italian civilian outside of Milan, 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-477-2106-08 / Freytag / CC-BY-SA 3.0

We meet people from several nations, including Spanish exiles and Jews who had escaped Germany, who helped build a genuinely Allied force that attacked the German HQ in question.

There are some great heroes here, who so typically it seems, faced the wrath of conventionally minded superiors on their own side who were in a position to exact revenge on men they should have lauded. These injustices serve to make admiration for the band of brigands even more intense.

There are so many amazing characters in this book that it is invidious of me to single one out – but I must and the hero for me is Mike Lees, a British SOE officer who paid a high price for his stubbornness and immense bravery but who does not appear to have held lasting animosity towards anyone.

Mike Lees

His support for the rainbow alliance of warriors in his little army is admirable, to say the least. Lees just wanted to keep on attacking the Germans and he would accept no nonsense from his superiors who had other ideas.

By that time in the spring of 1945, just defeating the Germans was not enough for some elements of the Allied political-military circle. They were terrified of communist skulduggery, especially so since there was a strong belief that Stalin would inspire leftist movements to seize power before democratic forces could take control in Italy and elsewhere.

While these fears seem quite reasonable the political masters of men like Mike Lees had set opinions from which they would not budge and their machinations to withdraw support from areas they thought were in danger of a communist coup caused no end of hardship and dismay for the patriots and adventurers ready to wage war on the fascists.

Men of 2 SAS attend an open-air mass in the Italian town of Cuneo, to celebrate the end of the war in Europe. © IWM (NA 25417)

Mr Lewis’ book rattles along at a helter-skelter pace where he uses considerable skill to create imagery of the war to suit the widest of audiences, not just those who know their Hanomags from their Kubelwagens.

While devotees of military hardware may find this a little awkward at times, the author is right to create a dynamic that turns a bewildering sequence of events into a classic page turner without getting bogged down in nomenclature and pedantry.

I can’t believe for one minute that the author hasn’t kept a weather eye on the likes of Netflix or other TV drama makers because this epic has all the makings of an amazing action adventure.

All the elements are there, reminding us of a melange of earlier gems from Navarone and the Dirty Dozen to Where Eagles Dare and Inglorious Basterds. There are even hints of Hannibal Brooks, but without the pachyderm.

A 3-inch mortar team of 2 SAS in action in support of partisans in the Alba area of Italy.

This is the sort of book that will leave you wanting more as you race from first to last. While it is aimed solidly at the general reader there is enough here for military enthusiasts to keep us on our toes.

The mix of good and bad guys wearing all manner of uniforms will keep you fully engaged and I am quite sure you will find yourself totally onside with the SAS and SOE men and their hotchpotch band of brothers as they set out on their daring mission.

Many of those murky events in the spring of 1945 remain governed by secrecy to this day and we have to thank Mr Lewis for bringing the likes of Mike Lees and his comrades out of the shadows to bask in the light they so greatly deserve.

Parts of this story will leave you angry and not a little dismayed, but you will have found a whole new band of heroes to take with you.

Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy

Mr Lewis underscores all the commentary I’ve read that printed books are making a comeback. I don’t doubt it for one moment. SAS Italian Job is another reason why my love affair with history books will never fade. It may be as subtle as a flying chainsaw, but it is an absolute hoot and I commend it to the house.

Book cover

SAS ITALIAN JOB

The Secret Mission to Storm a Forbidden Nazi Fortress

By Damien Lewis

Quercus

ISBN: 978 1 78747 513 7

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.