Major Gordon Lett was born in Papua New Guiney to Australian parents (his mother was of Scottish ancestry) and was a soldier by profession. He was transferred to Sudan during the war, participated in the North African campaign, and was captured in Tobruk in July 1942. He was imprisoned in various Italian PoW camps in Libya and Italy, passed through Bari and Chieti, and finally arrived at PG 29 Veano (Piacenza), a camp intended for senior officers. The major spent a few months in this camp until the proclamation of the Armistice, when the camp’s commander, Colonel Giancoarlo Cornaggia Medici, freed the prisoners and the entire Italian garrison deserted. While Lett was leaving the camp, Medici went by in his car, waving at him.
Gordon Lett was now free, with two comrades: Sergeant Blackmore and a rifleman. They did not know what to do precisely but decided that their best bet was to reach the Ligurian coast, hoping the Allies would quickly land in Genoa. Initially, the group was wary of the population, but, pushed by hunger, they took the risk and knocked at a farm’s door. They were surprised by the friendly reception and realised they could count on the Italians in the future. After a month of marching, the group was in sight of the coast, which, however, proved to be heavily guarded by the enemies. Lett and his companions, thus, decided to withdraw towards the mountains and arrived in the Rossano Valley (a district of Zeri) on 15 October 1943, where the population welcomed them. It was clear that an Allied landing would not occur, and Lett decided to join the Italian Resistance. With the support of the Committee of National Liberation (CLN) of Genoa, he created an international battalion in November 1943, formed by former PoWs: British, Polish, Italians and even one Peruvian. The band soon took the name of «the British Major’s group».
Meanwhile, the unwritten alliance between the partisans and the population was sealed. The local resistance was intertwined with ancient forms of social and class struggle, as the local population, extremely poor, distrusted the city folks, who enjoyed much better living conditions: «taxes remained unpaid, and in spite of manifestos sent out by the Fascist authorities in the city of Pontremoli, they refused to send any of the produce of their fields to the State depositories. […] Their inherent suspicion of the city dweller, and particularly of the wealthy Fascist classes who lived securely in their villas in the plains, was accentuated […]».
In mid-December, Lett, thanks to the La Spezia CLN [Committee of National Liberation], managed to contact the Allied commands through Switzerland. Soon after, he received some supplies via an airdrop, the first step in the constitution of a real liaison mission in the valley. However, this first step proved to be complex. On 2 January 1944, the enemy (well-informed thanks to the numerous spies in the area) launched a sudden attack, which forced Lett and his men to withdraw to Torpiana (La Spezia). Here, they were welcomed by the local priest, who housed them in the Madonna sanctuary of Mount Dragnone. Moreover, Lett fell ill and was bedridden. He was brought back to Torpiana to be treated and was able to meet Giulio Bertonelli, a central figure of the Ligurian Partito d’Azione (Pd’A). However, these initial contacts brought little results: the enemy kept attacking and forced the partisans to move again, returning to Rossano.
When spring arrived, thousands of Italian youths fled the towns to avoid conscription in the RSI [Italian Social Republic] army, and the partisan bands grew in size. On 3 May, after a series of failed airdrops, the «London» mission of «A Force» reached Lett to evacuate as many PoWs as possible via the sea and transfer them to Corsica. Unfortunately, the «London» radio kit fell into the sea, but thanks to Lett’s help, they managed to organise the escape of 32 former PoWs for the night between 19 and 20 May. However, bad weather and enemy activity (and, according to Lett, the unscrupulous behaviour of the local partisans belonging to the Giustizia e Libertà brigade) caused the plan to fail. Now stranded in enemy-controlled territory, the agents joined Lett and his band.
At the beginning of June, Lett was visited by commander «Beretta», the leader of a partisan band in Borgotaro (Parma), who agreed to share with him some airdropped supplies (the Beretta were actually two brothers, Gino and Gugliemo Cacchioli). Thanks to this help, Lett could arm his men and those belonging to another band, led by «Franco», Franco Coni. Lett’s men then assaulted the enemy garrison of Teglia (Massa) on 15 June, taking their weapons. At this point, they decided to assault the garrison of Calice (Savona), stationed in the town’s castle. To do so, they joined forces with «Dani», Daniele Bucchioni, a partisan leader belonging to the Pd’A. The assault, however, did not follow the plan as the partisans had a few too many drinks before:
At nightfall, we approached the castle and reached a point where we could take up a firing position behind a bank less than a hundred yards from the northern face of the building. […] The approach march had taken place silently enough, and I began to hope that it might have dispelled the alcoholic stupor of my “soldiers”. […] Without warning, Tarquinio took it upon himself to burst into song – a very ride version of the Fascist hymn “Giovinezza” – and the others joined in. Secrecy took wings and flew away. […] Dani shouted “Fuoco!” […] Regardless of preliminary instructions on the art of controlled fire all the ammunition was quickly expended in a furious feu de joi [sic]. Then fell an oppressive silence. […] Dani resorted to bluff. “Is the mine laid under the door?” he shouted. “Sì!” came a happy chorus loud enough to be heard in Pontremoli. “Right. Set it off”, and he threw a hand grenade that burst with a roar near the door of the castle wall. Silence fell again, to be broken by a sudden volley of fire from the upper windows. In less time than it takes to read, Dani, Aldo and I found ourselves alone […] behind us we could hear scurrying footsteps and the snorting of mules as they were dragged along rocky paths into the woods. The incident is well remembered in Calice to this day, for in the resulting confusion I left my walking stick behind. It was discovered in the morning and kept by the townsfolk as an embarrassing souvenir.
However, the attack greatly preoccupied the Fascists. During the following days, lorries carrying reinforcements arrived in Calice, and the National Republican Guard started shelling the mountains with mortars. Finally, the Fascists abandoned their positions, and Calice was liberated, its castle empty.
Lett (in the middle) with his partisans
In the following days, more numerous and encouraged by the Allies’ advance on Cassino, the band made other attacks. This led to the liberation of the whole Rossano Valley. Lett and his men installed themselves in the village of Chiesa, in the Palazzo degli Schiavi, a palace previously used by the fascist militia. The town became the «capital» of the valley and Lett its governor. As he recalled, the locals came to him for various reasons, from property disputes to divorces.
In this period, however, the bands’ expansion led to friction with other partisan leaders, especially concerning the airdropped supplies. Lett’s relationship with the Communists and the Actionists was never good. The Major was firmly convinced that war had to be conducted by the military and did not appreciate the inherently political nature of the Resistance. On 25 June, he received by mistake an airdrop intended for the GL brigade, including a group of disoriented American OSS agents, which only increased the frictions to the point that Vero del Carpio, commander of the Lunigiana brigade, obstructed Lett’s men from lighting their signal fires, threatening to shoot them.
At the end of July, the Italians managed to create a unified command thanks to the Genoa and La Spezia CLN, led by colonel Fontana («Turchi», then «Cossu»), who asked Lett to join him as the Allies’ representative. In this way, on 27 July, while he was visiting Fontana, Lett ran into «Alfonso» and «Bianchi», the officers belonging to the «Blundell Violet» liaison mission. The two were there to contact Clifford, another escaped PoW. However, he was nowhere to be found, and the two had received orders to contact Lett instead. This way, the liaison mission «Blundell Violet» was established, and Lett was declared its commander with a radio message on 10 August.
However, peace in the Valley was soon broken. At the end of the summer, the Allies’ advance was swamped by the Germans, who could move more troops to their rear to fight the partisans. Moreover, Rossano was at the back of the Gothic Line, in a critical location for the German supply lines. On 3 August, Lett was wakened by his men, who told him they heard shoots coming from Pontremoli (Massa). The partisans were quickly overwhelmed, and the enemy burned all the conquered villages. After a brief reconnaissance trip, Lett joined his forces with «Falco» and then with «Beretta», who withdrew from the front line. Their communications with the central command were severed, and Lett decided that the battle was lost. To preserve his men’s lives, he brought them to Mount Gottero, hoping they could cross the pass during the night. Luckily, on the other side of the mountain, the Garibaldi brigade Cento Croci, led by «Richetto», Federico Silvestri, managed to repel the enemy attack and open a way out for the partisans. The central command miraculously escaped from the Valley and quickly re-established itself in the village of Buzzò (Parma), in the house of a local partisan. In the following weeks, refugees and escapees flock from every corner of the surrounding valleys.
At the beginning of September, the international brigade returned to Rossano. They were shocked by what they saw:
And then we saw what remained of Chiesa. […] Staring in gaunt obscenity emphasised by the bright sunlight was a blackened heap of ruins. The Palazzo degli Schiavi that had been our barracks consisted now of four high walls, with gaping windows, and broken tiles and rubble littered the grass at its base. […] We walked on through the ruins until we came to the house that had been Tarquinio’s. He pointed to it and said nothing. I was suddenly conscious of a lump in my throat and a feeling of hopeless rage. […] The whole village had been reduced to a powdery skeleton, its outlines marked by scorched stone walls.
The liaison mission managed to get back in touch with the Allies, and «A force» even organised the evacuation of some PoWs behind enemy lines. In October, the enemy launched another rastrellamento, smaller but equally deadly. October, however, brought also new recruits to Lett’s band. «Dani», in fact, sent him all the escaped PoWs that came his way, and the international battalion started growing again. Moreover, Lett also welcomed deserters: French, Dutch, and Belgians who ran from the ships in the Genoa harbour, Russians, Yugoslavians, and Polish who escaped from the Todt organisation, where they were used as forced labour. The band also received some airdrops, allowing it to return to the offensive. The partisans assaulted enemy patrols and isolated garrisons. Once more, the bands of Rossano became a thorn in the enemy’s side, from the valley to the Ligurian coast. However, old disagreements on how to conduct the war resurfaced. Soon enough, Lett found himself in conflict with the other commanders. Especially unwelcom for him was the order from the CLN of La Spezia that each band should have a political commissar (a standard measure taken by the CLNAI and CVL). From Lett’s memoir, it is clear that he sawthis evolution of the Italian Resistance as a step in the wrong direction.
At the end of December, Lett started organising the arrival of a group of 35 SAS coming from the south. It was the operation «Galia», led by Captain Walker-Brown. Their mission was to hinder enemy movements in the western portion of the Gothic Line, relieving the pressure from the Allies’ troops on the frontline. After a disastrous start, in January, the SAS managed to carry on their mission, assisted by Lett’s men and by the local partisans. These actions, however, alerted the enemy, and the partisans came once more under attack. Despite an initial partisan attack which slowed down the Nazi-fascists, the Germans quickly regrouped and launched their rastrellamento. Lett brought his men and some SAS soldiers on Mount Pecchiara and then on the Gottero, following the same route they had followed months before. However, they discovered that the Cento Croci had been dispersed, and the entire front line was lost. Lett, facing this situation, decided to go back. During their march, the major’s disheartened, tired, and hungry men ran into a house. To force her owner to open the door and give them some food, Lett pretended to be a German, terrorising her: «a thing that I have ever since regretted». At dawn, the group hid in a copse to rest, but they were noticed by a local woman passing by and Lett, who at this point mistrusted everything and everyone, decided to leave this hideout. The man crossed a stream and reached a small forest. From this position, they were able to witness the battle unfolding at the copse:
Mortar shells were falling into the copse, and puffs of smoke and flames rose from the innocent bushes. Encircling them was a ring of uniformed figures gradually closing in on the ferocious enemy, their rifles at the ready. We heard an order given, and they rushed the bushes, firing wildly as they did so. We were tempted to give a cheer of encouragement. Then silence fell upon the scene. […] [We] saw the attackers retreating from the copse in twos and threes. […] It could be assumed that our whereabouts were still an unsolved mystery to our irate pursuers.
Emboldened by this show, Lett’s men resumed their march during the night, guided by a local partisan who brought them to his home village, Sero (La Spezia), where they hid in his home. However, the Germans soon arrived, and they were forced to flee, while the village was the victim of the enemy’s reprisal. Finally, Lett reunited with «Dani» on the road to Calice. Protected by his partisans, the Major and his men managed to sleep undisturbed.
On the next day, Lett decided to return to the Rossano Valley. The enemy had left the area, and the International Batallion knew it could count on the local population. There, Lett was reunited with his partisans, at least those who had escaped the enemy. In the following days, the battalion started to regroup. The men left their hideouts and even Colonel Fontana, who was nearly captured, returned. The SAS went back into action and attacked enemy convoys on the roads. Soon enough, however, they were recalled south. «Galia» had been a clamorous success according to the commands, but it was no longer useful. After the SAS left, for a while, the area remained calm. Both the partisans and the Germans were licking their wounds. Nonetheless, the bands grew again in size; Lett was not shy in his disapproval of the methods of the Communists and the Actionists, who accepted in their bands even recruits whose past was murky. His disapproval also extended to the American mission, which supplied them with supplies and weapons via airdrops.
In February 1945, Lett received an unexpected visit from the bishop of Pontremoli, Giovanni Sismondo. Officially, the bishop came to discuss for the German command an exchange of prisoners. Unofficially, instead, he wanted to ask the major to get in touch with the Allies and ask them not to carpet bomb Pontremoli as they did with other towns in the area like Aulla and Villafranca. Lett replied that the only way to do so was to provide the Allied Command with the position of enemy troops in Pontremoli to allow for a precise bombing.
The bishop looked at me for a moment in silence. “That, Maggiore, is information that I cannot give you. As a leader of the Church, I would be betraying my faith if I helped you to kill others who, after all, are God’s creatures. But I understand perfectly, what the position is […]. “It is not a very satisfactory answer, Eccellenza – as you see, there is little that I can do at the moment.” “God will find a solution” he replied “I shall ask him for guidance at prayer this evening […]. […] Twenty-four hours later, one of Franco’s men came to find me in the Valle. […] Chris was with me when he handed over a bulky envelope. On opening it, I found a long report written with great care by one who was obviously not accustomed to writing anything, for the message included many spelling mistakes. It contained details of all the places in and around the city where the enemy garrison was lodged and a description of their daily routine. “Where did you find this?” I asked the messenger. He grinned at me. “Maggiore,” he said “I found it under a tree.”
The information was transmitted to the Allied command in Florence and later to the air force, which, soon after, bombed Pontremoli with surgical precision.
In mid-March, Lett crossed the frontline and arrived in Allied-controlled territory. It is unclear why he did so. In his memoir, the major claims it was his idea, as he wanted to clarify the role of the «Blundell» mission in the upcoming Allied offensive. The other explanation, which appears more likely, is that his relations with the other partisan leaders had finally broken down, and he was substituted as a way to calm the waters. This idea is reinforced by the fact that Lett was replaced and never returned to his operative zone, even though the commands had the chance and time to do so. In his place, on 7 March, arrived Major Henderson, who operated in the last weeks of the war with great efficiency, receiving another group of SAS.
Nevertheless, Lett remained a precious liaison officer for the V Allied army and accompanied the vanguard when it entered La Spezia. He was later nominated governor of Pontremoli, an experience which saddened him to see how his former partisans were treated by the Allied Military Government (AMG). Finally, he became consul in Bologna until 27 May 1950, his last assignment in Italy.
Gordon Lett was always tied to the Rossano Valley. In 1947 he had his daughter baptised in La Spezia and always tried his best to ensure that the partisans received appropriate recognition for their actions. He even quarrelled with General Montgomery through the columns of The Times when Montgomery made some disparaging comments about the Italian Resistance. However, it must be noted that Lett, unlike many other liaison officers, took a partial view of the Resistance, as he insisted that it was merely a military matter and he refused to embrace its complexity and inherently political nature.
TNA, HS6/831, Italy – Political&Military Liaison Mission – BLUNDELL VIOLET – CARROLLTON
Gordon Lett, Rossano a valley in flames an adventure of the Italian Resistance, Barnsley, Frontline Books, 2011.