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Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy, 1943-1945

By Richard Bosworth | Posted 19th September 2011, 13:15
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Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943-1945
David Stafford
The Bodley Head   415pp   £20
ISBN 978 1847920652

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David Stafford has written many fine books on the Second World War. His Endgame (2007) is a riveting description of the last days of combat through individual case studies, with the author switching his focus from one to another with a dramatist’s skill. Mission Accomplished has echoes of the same technique and is sparked by telling vignettes of this, that or the other Special Operations Executive (SOE) action during the Italian campaign. However it is not as sleekly polished as Endgame, being overall a missed opportunity.

The work is an ‘official history, commissioned by the Cabinet Office’. After he thus informs his readers Stafford insists that he has still been as ‘honest’ as a historian can be. But a reader may have cause to question this effortless (and patriotic) virtue. Certainly it is no surprise to hear in Stafford’s last sentence: ‘No. 1 Special Force’s work in Italy was one of SOE’s most notable successes and it left an important legacy to that nation which has been too long forgotten but that deserves to be both remembered and honoured.’

Is there a hint here of foreigners failing to applaud Britain’s Second World War heartily enough? Your reviewer is an Italianist. Although Stafford attempts in his initial emphasis to disarm criticism that the book is ‘written from a British and not an Italian perspective’ (with a telling assumption that national identity overwhelms any others), I found his treatment of the Italian context troubling. Stafford dedicates the book to the memory of that fine English historian of the Italian peasantry, Roger Absalom, but he shows few signs of Absalom’s nuanced understanding of the society in which SOE operated in different parts of the Italian peninsula between 1943 and 1945. Stafford eschews any analysis of the complexities of Italian life while Fascism was falling and a version of it was collaborating with Nazi Germany in the Salò Republic. When his SOE operatives complain over the ‘endless obsession of the Italians with politics’ (for which read the span of leftist anti-fascist politics), Stafford provides no commentary or placement. He is similarly silent when SOE First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs) write home from Puglia ‘about the poverty of the local population, many of whom seemed to be of mixed Arab and European blood’. Mind you, the author also repeats without analysis a statement by Leo Valiani, a Resistance leader and prominent postwar historian, that the female FANYs he knew were ‘enchanting as though they had stepped out of the pages of a novel by Walter Scott’. What a reader senses here is a dialogue of the deaf, a ‘transnational’ ignorance and confusion that must have had an impact even on immediate efforts at subversion and approved terror and certainly on later memory of SOE’s place in Italian history.

As a potential study of how societies at war relate Stafford’s book thus contains sins of omission. Perhaps there is a sin of commission, too. The book starts brilliantly with the tale of a British officer obtaining crucial military information while Florence is being liberated. That description done, the purpose of Mission Accomplished, Stafford explains, is its account of such operations in Italy. SOE, we learn, ‘was designed to mobilise and support popular resistance in occupied Europe in the hope that, together with the continued naval blockade of the Continent and the strategic bombing of Germany, popular revolt would so weaken the Germans that the eventual landing of British forces in Europe would spark the collapse of the Nazi regime.’ The ghosts of Joseph Stalin and Private Ryan will cringe at this naive British summary of the war.

Between the lines and for all its effective portrait of events Mission Accomplished is perhaps best read as evidence of the fact that, of the ex-combatant societies, Britain clings most stubbornly to the myth of its virtue and centrality in the war, one that bears meagre relation to reality.

Richard Bosworth is the author of Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories (Yale University Press, 2011).

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