The Office of Strategic Services and the SIMCOL Operation in Italy October 1943

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

At the time of the Italian Armistice on September 8, 1943, there were almost 80,000 Allied prisoners of war in Italian prisoner of war camps.[1]  When the Allied prisoners of war learned of the Armistice, most were in a quandary as to what action to take.  Under orders received earlier in the summer, the majority remained in their camps under the mistaken impression Allied forces would soon liberate them. Italian camp authorities also faced their own quandaries.  Without clear orders as to what to do, many simply opened the gates to allow the prisoners to leave their camps. During the first days after the Armistice, perhaps as many as 50,000 prisoners remained in their camps and quickly became prisoners of the Germans. Another 30,000 left their camps.  Some 16,000 were recaptured and 4,000 found safety in Switzerland.  The remaining 10,000 found safety in hiding with the help of Italians, and many began trying to get to the Allied lines.[2]

As the scope of the ex-prisoner of war problem in Italy became apparent, Lt. Col. A.C. (Tony) Simonds, the head of M.I.9’s Cairo office (technically known as “N” Section of “A” Force), was ordered on September 23, to launch an operation to rescue as many ex-prisoners as he could. Later he recalled being told that the instructions to this effect had come from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who himself had been on the run behind enemy lines after escaping from the Boers during the South African War.  Simonds came up with a plan to drop uniformed parties by parachute along the Italian coast where they would contact ex-prisoners of war and escort or direct them to four preselected rendezvous points on the coast, during the dark periods of the moon, beginning the first week of October 1943. At those points they would be met at prearranged times by parties coming by sea who would embark them to Allied territory. The troops forming the operational parties were drawn from the First Airborne Division (British), the 2 Special Air Service Regiment, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and No. 1 Special Force of Special Operations Executive (SOE). The latter personnel would be involved in the SIMCOL seaborne operations. [3]

The OSS contingent of the operation, codenamed SIMCOL, would be composed of members of an Operational Group (OG). The OGs, composed primarily of second generation American soldiers with language facility, were assigned to operate only in enemy or enemy-occupied territory. Their primary function was in connecting guerrillas – to organize, train, and equip resistance groups in order to convert them into guerrillas, and to serve as the nuclei of such groups in operations against the enemy as directed by the Theater Commander.[4]  Company “A” of OG arrived in Algiers on September 8 and went to Section “X,” the OSS headquarters at the time. There the OGs trained at the various areas while awaiting further combat orders. During the period from September 9 to September 27 nearly all officers and enlisted men of the unit underwent parachute training. The unit at this time went under the designation of “Unit ‘A’, First Contingent, Operational Groups, 2677th Headquarters Company Experimental (Provisional) AFHQ [Allied Force Headquarters].”[5]

Selected to head the OSS component of the SIMCOL operation was 1st Lt. Peter Sauro.  The 5’6” 142-pound Sauro, who went by the name Pete, had been born in Yonkers, New York, on December 27, 1911.  His parents had been born in Italy and he spoke and read Italian fairly well.

After graduating from high school in Nutley, New Jersey, he was self-employed in gardening and tree work from 1931 to 1936 when he became a tree surgeon with the Essex Country Park Commission. He left that employment on March 10, 1941, to join the U.S. Army.  Subsequently he was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers and assigned to parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia.  While there, he was promoted to 1st Lt. on May 1, 1943, and on June 2, 1943 applied for transfer to the Office of Strategic Services.  On his application wrote that he had “military training & experience to qualify for duty of a special nature where a combination of military engineering and parachute duty is required.” The OSS liked his qualifications, and on June 29 he joined the OSS and assigned to Operational Groups.  Sauro departed the United States for North Africa on August 10, 1943. [6]

On September 25, Major George Stapleton ordered Sauro to take 18 enlisted parachutists, including one radio operator, and one officer, Lt. Paul J. Traficante, on a combined operation with the British behind German lines in Italy. The area of operations was fixed between the cities of Ancona and Pescara and from the Adriatic coast west into the Apennines. The purpose of the mission, Sauro was informed, was primarily to find and direct Allied ex-prisoners of war who were liberated from Italian prison camps after the Italian armistice to Allied boat rendezvous at various points on the Adriatic coast, and secondly, to get information regarding the enemy. Before leaving Algiers, Stapleton instructed Sauro that upon the beginning of the operation in enemy territory to radio back that they were in operation, and that upon completion of the mission to either make the last boat at one of the rendezvous, try to get back through the lines, or hide in the mountains until the Allied armies arrived.  During the 24 hours before departing, Sauro supplied the men with clothing, equipment, arms, and ammunition. The weapons consisted of one 9mm sub-machine gun and one .45 cal. automatic pistol per man. All were given extra clips and cartridges. Maps and Italian currency (15,000 lire) were distributed to each man. The men were told the nature of the mission, and they left the unit on September 26, travelling by plane from Algiers to a field near Gioia, Italy. The next day they left for and arrived at Brindisi, and the following day, Bari, where he reported to Simonds. [7]

From his arrival at Bari until October 1, Simonds explained the plan of operation to Sauro during conferences, which included the participating British organizations. The time schedule was set and Sauro was instructed to keep in radio contact with the British headquarters by radio. During the conferences it developed that Sauro’s men were needed to a certain extent, singly. Consequently, he broke down his men in the following manner: one man for each of the four British groups who were going to parachute in their respective areas (to act as guides and interpreters for the British groups), one man for each of the five British groups who were to operate in boats, five men to Lt. Traficante, and four men, including a radio operator, to himself.[8] 

On October 1, Lt. Traficante was taken sick and sent to a hospital, and the men assigned to him, Sauro added to his group.  At the Bari airfield on October 2, while parachute containers were being loaded, the OSS personnel were instructed on how to jump from their plane (an English Albemarle), fitted with English parachutes, and given a final briefing by Simonds. [9]

Late in the afternoon of October 2 they took off and parachuted at nightfall on their pinpoint in the vicinity of Catignano, province of Pescara, some 20 miles west of the Adriatic coast.  It was late that night when Sauro collected the men and the four equipment containers. One equipment chute containing food and an extra radio battery had failed to open and the contents were rendered useless. He requested several friendly Italians to bury all the chutes and containers, to distribute the food among the ex-prisoners, and to send a representative from each group of prisoners in the area to him in the morning.[10]

On October 3 the first group of ex-prisoner representatives, fifteen in number, were given instructions and directions to the boat rendezvous, and were also instructed to disseminate the information to all other ex-prisoners with whom they might meet on the way. With that accomplished, Sauro and his men left their place of landing and proceeded to work in their area.  Very soon they found six British ex-prisoners and Sauro directed them toward the boat landing locations.  During the remainder of the day Sauro’s group found approximately 250 ex-prisoners.  Sauro and his men told them that on the nights of October 4, 6, 8, 10, the boats would pick them up between midnight and 1am in the Francavilla area along the coast. They told them there would be light signals every fifteen minutes which they should watch for and Jack London was the password.[11]

In order to cover a greater area as the prisoners were scattered all over the mountains, on October 4, Sauro assigned four of the nine men with him to the senior non-commissioned officer and gave them an area in which to operate. That day he sent the first radio message to the British at Bari and his own headquarters at Algiers. He received no reply from either. Also that day Sauro and his men started to keep an actual count of ex-prisoners who were representing small groups (usually three to six in a group) and to whom instructions were given. [12]   

During the period October 5-8, while contacting ex-prisoners and providing them with assistance, Sauro’s radio operator unsuccessfully tried to make radio contact with the British and OSS headquarters at all the appointed hours each day. On October 9, Sauro personally contacted the group under his senior non-commissioned officer and ordered them to return to the Allied lines the following day, October 10, as it was the last day for the boat rendezvous during the dark moon period of early October.  Sauro figured that at this point that the actual number of ex-prisoners given instructions and directions from October 2-9 inclusive was 400, and estimating from the number of men in each ex-prisoner group as 2 to 5, he and his men were responsible for directing from 800 to 2,000 men to boat rendezvous.[13]

On October 10, Sauro returned to an area where they landed to check on food left for ex-prisoners. He found that all food had been distributed to passing ex-prisoners.[14] After October 10, all ex-prisoners were instructed to try to get through the lines, or at least to move toward the south as Allied troops were scheduled to arrive (as he was told by Simonds) in the area of Termoli (100 miles south of  Sauro’s location) by the latter part of October or the beginning of November. [15] 

Toward the end of October the Germans began patrolling along the natural barrier (Pescara River) in order to recapture prisoners making their way toward the lines. Many were recaptured and others came back to relate to Sauro what was happening along that line and to seek his advice. At this time the Germans had also taken control of boat usage along the coast to prevent ex-prisoners from escaping by sea.[16]

SIMCOL was called off at the end of October when Simonds had to return to Cairo to take care of his many other similar responsibilities in the Balkans and Middle East.  On his own reckoning, Simonds believed about 900 ex-prisoners had come through southern Italy by the end of the year. “But overall,” according to one historian, “SIMCOL, had not been a great success.” [17]  Another British historian observed: “All in all, SIMCOL was not a great success.”[18]  At the end of the year Lt. Col. Russell B. Livermore reported to the commanding officer of OSS’s 2677th Headquarters Company Experimental (Provisional) that OSS still had one officer and nine enlisted men “in” on the SIMCOL operation but had never been able to contact them by radio. He noted that the radio end was handled by the British. “My reaction to these reports [from those they had returned], he wrote, “is that hereafter we carry out all our own operations and discontinue these ‘joint’ ones with the British.”[19]

In the meantime, on November 3, Sauro asked three of the four men still with him to form a group to try to get through the lines by heading west over the mountains to a certain point thence south towards the lines eliminating the necessity of crossing the patrolled Pescara River. He ordered the group to start that day. [20]

During the days that followed, Sauro, as he later recalled, realized that it was a great morale factor for the ex-prisoners to find someone in uniform who was behind the lines and through whom they could get information and encouragement. Thus, from November 1943 to April 1944, he contacted many ex-prisoners and gave encouragement and hope and helped materially whenever possible. During this period he made several attempts to get through the lines and evaded capture a number of times. On January 13, the man with him was captured, and finally, on April 26, Sauro was captured in civilian clothes on a bus. After capture he attempted escape on three different occasions and was frustrated each time. [21]

As it turned out, three other men of Sauro’s party were captured.  The remainder made it back to Allied lines.  Some had remained behind the lines for a least a month while several continued to operate for as long as ten months.[22]  While SIMCOL may have not been a great success, the OSS element under Sauro had contacted hundreds of ex-prisoners and assisted them in ex-filtrating through the front lines into Allied-occupied territory.  For these ex-prisoners, SIMCOL was a success. [23]

As for Sauro, he remained in German prisoner of war camps until May 1945, when he was liberated and returned to the United States.  He was promoted to Captain on August 22, 1945 and separated from the military and OSS on September 19, 1945, and returned to Newark, New Jersey.[24]  Before Sauro left the OSS, Colonel Russell B. Livermore, then Commanding, Headquarters, Operational Group Command, OSS, recommended Sauro for the award of the Silver Star for gallantry in action.  He drafted the following narrative and proposed citation:

SIMCOL_001

Enclosure to memo, Russell B. Livermore, Col., AC, Commanding, Headquarters, Operational Group Command, Office of Strategic Services to President, Citation Board, OSS, Subject: Recommendation for Ward, September 5, 1945, File: Sauro, Peter (NAID 2185127), OSS Personnel Files, 1941-1945

In mid-October 1945, Brig. Gen. John Magruder, director of the Strategic Services Unit (successor to the OSS) wrote the Army Adjutant General that “the gallantry in action displayed by Captain Peter Sauro proved to be an inspiration to his associates and was of definite aid to the prosecution of the war” and recommended that Sauro be awarded the Silver Star. [25]


[1] Memo, H. J. Byrnes, Maj., Officer Commanding, Allied Screening Commission (Italy) to G-2 (P/W), AFHQ, CMF, Subject: Allied prisoners of war held in Italian Concentration Camps prior to September 8th, 1943, January 15, 1945, File 2-5 Correspondence with G-2 (PW) AFHQ CMF File July 1944-March 1945, General Correspondence (NAID 25777725),  Allied Screening Commission (Italy), Records of the Allied Screening Commission (Italy) and Prisoner of War Claims Screening Commission, Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331.

[2] Company A Report, n.d., Operations, p. 13, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Box 11, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244), Records of the Office of Strategic Services, RG 226; David Stafford, Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943-1945 (London: The Bodley Head, 2011), p. 52.

[3] Company A Report, n.d., Operations, p. 13, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244); Stafford, Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943-1945, p. 53; Brooks Richards, Secret Flotillas, Volume II: Clandestine Sea Operations in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Adriatic 1940-1944, 2nd Ed., (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2013), pp. 293-295.

[4] Company A Report, n.d., Operations, p. 13, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[5] Company A Report, n.d., Introduction, p. 6, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[6] File: Sauro, Peter (NAID 2185127), OSS Personnel Files, 1941-1945, Records of the Office of Strategic Services, RG 226.

[7] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 32, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[8] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 32, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[9] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 32, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[10] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 33, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[11] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 33, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244); Interrogation of Sgt. Frank DeLuca of 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Present: Lt. Col. Russell B. Livermore, Capt. George C. Corbett, Capt. James Montante, Sgt. Frank Deluca, Headquarters, 2677 Regiment OSS (Prov.), August 9, 1944, p. 2, File: Interrogation of OSS Agents-“SIMCOL,” Folder 119, Box 97, CASERTA-OSS-OP-13-14, Bern Field Station Files (NAID 6423862), ibid.; Report given by T/5 Arthur Roberta, T/5 John Nicolich, and S/Sgt Albert A. Ingegni to Lt. Col. Livermore, Capt. Millas, and Capt. Thompson, Operational SIMCOL, HQ, 2677th Headquarters Company, OSS (Provisional), n.d. [March 27, 1944],  p. 1, ibid.

[12] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 33, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244); Report given by T/5 Arthur Roberta, T/5 John Nicolich, and S/Sgt Albert A. Ingegni to Lt. Col. Livermore, Capt. Millas, and Capt. Thompson, Operational SIMCOL, HQ, 2677th Headquarters Company, OSS (Provisional), n.d. [March 27, 1944],  p. 1, File: Interrogation of OSS Agents-“SIMCOL,” CASERTA-OSS-OP-13-14, Bern Field Station Files (NAID 6423862); Interrogation of Sgt. Frank DeLuca of 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Present: Lt. Col. Russell B. Livermore, Capt. George C. Corbett, Capt. James Montante, Sgt. Frank Deluca, Headquarters, 2677 Regiment OSS (Prov.), August 9, 1944, p. 2, ibid.

[13] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 33, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[14] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 33, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[15] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, pp. 33-34, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[16] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 34, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[17] Stafford, Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943-1945, p. 55.

[18] Richards, Secret Flotillas, Volume II: Clandestine Sea Operations in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Adriatic 1940-1944, 2nd Ed., p. 301.

[19] Memo, Russell B. Livermore, Lt. Col., AC, Commanding, Headquarters, Detachment “C”, 2677th Hq. Co., Exp. (Prov) to Commanding Officer, 2677th Hq Co Exp (Prov), Subject: Reports of Three Enlisted Men of Operational Groups, Unit “A”, who were on the “Simcol” Operation with British 2 S.A.S. and “A” Force, December 30, 1943,  File: SIMCOL, Reports, Aid to Escaping Allied Personnel, Reports by Returning Personnel, 1944 (NAID 6274803), Algiers Field Station Files, Records of the Office of Strategic Services, RG 226.

[20] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 34, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[21] Company A Report, n.d., Report of SIMCOL Operation: Captain (then Lt) Peter Sauro, p. 34, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[22] Company A Report, n.d., Operations, pp. 13-14, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[23] Company A Report, n.d., Operations, p. 13, File: Caserta-OG-OP-5 Operational Group Reports, Caserta-OG-OP-5, Field Station Files (OSS Field Station Operations and Services Records) (NAID 6267244)

[24] File: Sauro, Peter (NAID 2185127), OSS Personnel Files, 1941-1945

[25] Memo, John Magruder, Brig. Gen., Director, Strategic Services Unit, War Department to The Adjutant General, War Department, October 18, 1945, File: Sauro, Peter (NAID 2185127), OSS Personnel Files, 1941-1945

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