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Sommergible HMS Urge: spionaggio in Sicilia (settembre 1941).

Platon Alexiades

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HM submarine Urge had a very interesting history and a mysterious disappearance, the latter has been the subject of an article and much discussion elsewhere in this forum. However, I would like to focus this time on a special operation carried out in Sicily in the last week of Septembre 1941. A little known episode of the war.


This was not the first special operation for this submarine, two saboteurs had already been landed near Sant’Alessio Siculo (north of Taormina) to blow up a railway tunnel on 27 June 1941.


On 24 Septembre 1941, the submarine landed a spy near Palermo. He was a French Jew named Alfred Rossi. Born in Beirut but living in Tunisia at the start of the war. Very patriotic and upset by the action of the Vichy government, he joined the Free French Mounier Resistance Network (involved in sabotaging Italian ships) and escaped to Malta in the Spring of 1941.


Unfortunately for him, he was almost immediately spotted by the SIM who put him under surveillance for six days before he was caught while trying to return to the submarine on the first night of their rendezvous (30 Sep/1 Oct). Initially the torpedo boats Dezza and Cascino and MAS 531 and MAS 543 were sent to hunt the submarine but could not locate it.


As the spy failed to show up, the submarine returned the following night to the same spot. SIM attempted to lay another trap for HMS Urge but her lookouts spotted a destroyer [either Climene or Cigno, both sailed from Trapani to catch the submarine on the second night]. At the same time, they heard machine gun fire from the shore and the submarine escaped. Not so lucky was Sub Lieutenant Lloyd who had gone in a rubber boat to pick up the spy and was killed by the carabinieri (there is a reference to this in the Diario Supermarina under the entry of 2 October 1941).


To save his life, the spy agreed to operate his radio under control of SIM (I think the operation was run by Maggiore De Leo under the supervision of Colonello Bertacchi). Starting from about 10 October 1941, he supplied the ISLD (name of MI6 in the Mediterranean and the Middle East) with false information fed by Italian counter-intelligence.


Lt Cdr Tomkinson of HMS Urge was certain that the spy had been caught because he correctly suspected that the presence of the destroyer was not accidental. However, he was not believed by the ISLD people in Malta who were certain that the spy was working for them.


In February 1942, an attempt was made by HMS Urge to bring money for the spy (actually for SIM!) but the rendezvous at Calla Rossa (near Capo San Vito) failed when a MAS boat and then an auxiliary A/S vessel showed up [i have been unable to identify these two boats]. This time the coincidence could not be ignored and finally British Intelligence realised that the spy was controlled by the Italians.


Contact by radio was maintained between Malta and Sicily until 1943 with each side trying to outwit the other. The Italians tried to find out if Sicily was the Allies’ objective while the British tried to divert their attention to the Balkans. Rossi managed to alert British Intelligence of his predicament with the intention of becoming a triple agent but there is some doubt if he succeeded. He attempted to escape while being transferred to another location and was shot dead by carabinieri (18 April 1943), a tragic end for a brave man.


Italian Intelligence tried to continue the radio game by pretending that he had escaped but was wounded in his right arm so his “morse touch” was no longer the same. This time the British refused to play along and the operation was terminated.


It is interesting to note that SIM was very successful in counter-intelligence during the war. Almost all the British spies (perhaps all?) were caught almost immediately when they reached Italian soil.


I would like to correct an error in my book “Target Corinth Canal 1940-1944” when I mention briefly this story (page 143). I wrote that the operation was run by the Abwehr (German Intelligence). This is incorrect as my source at the time was a German document and when “Abwehr” was quoted it only meant counter-intelligence in the generic sense. Last August, I found out that it had been a SIM operation all the time. For those who might wonder what my book had to do with the Rossi case, I was only citing a parallel story as the Abwehr (this time German Intelligence!) tried to use similar tactics to trap a submarine but in Greece this time.


Persons interested in the Rossi story and who can perhaps supplement it with new information are welcome to get in touch with me.


Many thanks.


Platon Alexiades

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