Operation Speedwell (1943)

Operation Speedwell was a parachute mission into Italy behind enemy lines to interrupt German military rail movements across the Apennine passes in 1943 undertaken by members of 2 SAS Regiment during World War II.

Preparations for the operation began in August 1943 with proposals to drop large numbers of men from 2 SAS Regt into Italy to disrupt German forces and sever supply lines. However, other competing priorities and a shortage of transport aircraft resulted in Op Speedwell consisting of thirteen men divided into two groups, tasked with attacking targets north of Florence and La Spezia.

Group 1
Captain Philip Pinckney
Lt Anthony Greville-Bell, Sgt George Daniels and Corporal P Tomasso
Sgt P Robinson L/Sgt Horace Stokes and Parachutist Curtis

Group 2
Captain Patrick Dudgeon MC and Parachutist Bernard Brunt
Lt Tom Wedderburn and L/Cpl Harold Challenor
Sgt William Foster and Cpl James Shortall

The plan required each group to split into pairs to attack targets in their assigned areas. In Group 2, Dudgeon and Brunt; Foster and Shortall were assigned sections of the line between Genoa and La Spezia with Wedderburn and Challenor given the line between La Spezia and Bologna.

Horace Stokes (left), age 18.
Horace Stokes (left), age 18.

The men were briefed two days before the operation on 5 September 1943 by Captain Pinckney and endured a long flight, after taking off in two Albermarles, from Kairouan airfield in North Africa.

Both groups appear to have been dropped off target on the night of 7/8 September 1943 with Group 2 dropped near the village of Barbaresco Tresana, approximately fifteen kilometers south of Pontremoli.

Group 1 was dropped in heavy winds from about 7,000 ft and widely dispersed on the drop zone (DZ). As a result Captain Pinckney became separated from the main group and Lt Greville-Bell was injured when he landed on the DZ. Group 1 subsequently split into two parties, rather than the three originally planned.

Unfortunately five members of the Speedwell team (Pinckney, Dudgeon, Brunt, Foster and Shortall) were captured in three separate incidents and subsequently executed, in spite of being uniformed and disarmed.

The remaining teams successfully engaged in sabotage activity of railway lines in the area and survived the operation, with mixed fortunes:

Sgt Robinson and Pct Curtis reached the safety of Allied lines on 30 October.
Lt Greville-Bell, Sgt Daniels and Cpl Tomasso also made it back to safety after 73 days and a march of 250 miles.
L/Sgt Stokes made his way to Rome by cycle, and worked with a British organized underground movement before his capture by the Germans. He was sent to Germany as a PoW and remained there until the end of the war.
Both Lt Wedderburn and ‘Tanky’ Challenor were captured after their sabotage activity. Wedderburn escaped twice but was recaptured on both occasions. Challenor later escaped from the PoW camp at Aquila, returning to Allied lines seven months after being dropped into Italy.

Lt Greville-Bell was awarded an immediate Distinguished Service Order on his return and Sgt Daniels awarded an immediate Military Medal. ‘Tanky’ Challenor was also awarded a Military Medal in 1944 following his seven months behind enemy lines.

by Harvey Grenville

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