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  • Writer's picturePaul Press

Part 7: Operation Simcol (Italy) – 2nd to 25th October 1943

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Although there is no mention of Italy in Albert’s service records, his letters home, Field Service Postcard, and Christmas card from Italy, as well as the medical form he signed upon discharge, provide firm evidence that he was there. This has been accepted by the MOD Medals Office, and his family has received the Italy Star, posthumously on his behalf. From his letters, it would appear that Albert was still in ‘A’ Company throughout his time in Italy, but what is not clear is the role he played during the Italian campaign.

Albert’s testimony is suggestive of him taking part in Operation Simcol with Captain Timothy, where a ten-man stick dropped behind enemy lines from an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle. Timothy’s stick was one of five (four British, one American) that took part in this covert operation, between areas of Ancona and Pescara.

In addition to being assigned an Italian-speaking American interpreter, Timothy hand-picked the remaining eight men to accompany him on this operation. Timothy’s diary infers that he favoured men with operational experience, having a particular respect for the intense training undertaken by the early Parachutists. Since they would be jumping from an Albemarle for the first time, without the opportunity of a practice jump, it would also have been advantageous to take men with a proven history of dropping from different aircraft. Albert had been with the 2nd Battalion longer than any of the serving officers at that time, including both Timothy himself and Frost. Albert already had experience of jumping from a variety of aircraft, both operationally and experimentally and, whatever operations he had undertaken up to then, he was at least willing to take part in airborne raids. He would have been an ideal candidate for Timothy to take, and the gap in Albert’s letters home from Italy (24th September 1943 to 25th October 1943) fits the dates of this operation perfectly.

However, not only did Albert post a letter home on 24th September 1943, but he also sent a Field Service Postcard. Since these postcards were normally used during field operations, where it was not possible, or practical, to send a letter, it would be unusual for Albert to send one while the 2nd Battalion was encamped in Altamura – especially on the same day as he was also able to send a letter. During discussions on 8th July 2022, Albert’s sister-in-law, Mary, recollected that Albert and Marjorie used secret codes within their letters to get around censorship. This is supported by the uncensored letter that Albert sent while he was in the UK, where he asks Marjorie to sign her name in a particular way in her next letter, to verify that she had received his letter.

It is interesting to note, therefore, that Albert’s Field Service Postcard from 24th September 1943 is signed “A. J. Holtom”, which is different to all of his other postcards and letters, that are simply signed “Albert”. Also, in this postcard, Albert has chosen not to cross out the line that reads “I am being sent down to the base”. In the context of the 2nd Battalion’s position in Italy at that time, this statement makes no sense. However, it was not unusual for soldiers to use this particular sentence to send coded messages home; the most famous case of which is probably that of the English Poet, Wilfred Owen, during the First World War.

Additionally, in Albert’s corresponding letter from the same date, he states that he “cannot see much prospect of being able to [write to his mother] for a bit.” Followed by, “Always remember no news is good news. You should know soon enough if anything had happened to me.” All of this is suggestive that he knows he is about to be sent somewhere.

It may not be coincidental, therefore, that the date of this letter and Field Service Postcard is the day before the American contingent of Parachutists left Algiers for Bari in Italy, in advance of Operation Simcol, and around the same time that “Captain Timothy + 8 OR’s [other ranks] [were] warned to stand by for a small scale parachute operation.” Timothy and his eight ORs were transported to Bari, where they were assigned one of the “five EM [enlisted men] guides” from the group of American Parachutists (an Italian-speaking interpreter), who made the stick up to the full contingent of ten men.

Albert recalls in his testimony that, during the mission, he was to “meet released prisoners of war…and escort them to a submarine pickup”, but that the submarines “failed to arrive”. Paradata, the website of the Airborne Assault Museum, states that the men were to “be lifted off by chartered Italian vessels or Assault Landing Craft”, which seems to contradict Albert’s version of events involving submarines. However, on the 17th October 1943, Timothy noted in his diary that when he reached the original rendezvous point he found “two SAS men who explained that the original plan had been cancelled after [he had] jumped and that this [new] plan had been substituted.” The new plan involved the men being picked up from a different rendezvous point by boat and taken to Termoli. Stafford, in his book “Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943-1945” (2011), states that there were submarines in the area at that time, and that these were indeed involved in Operation Simcol. If the plans changed after Albert jumped, and he had turned up at the original rendezvous point, it is no surprise that he was not picked up. Furthermore, if the original plan had been for a submarine pick-up, then the only way for Albert to have known that was if he had been involved in the operation.

Of Timothy’s stick of ten men, it seems that only nine are accounted for in the publicly available records. Seven were reported missing in action (MIA) on 15th November 1943, and two are named as evaders in the 2nd Battalion War Diaries; Private Power, who was injured on landing, and Timothy. Six of the seven men reported MIA were later taken prisoner of war. The seventh, Private Harold Cook, eventually found his way to the allied lines of the 5th Army a week after being reported MIA, and was awarded the Military Medal for his “gallantry and devotion to duty”. The fate of the evaders is supported in the booklet, "History of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment - From its Formation to the Battle of Arnhem", written by Captain D McLean in 1946, which states that “Timothy and two other ranks returned”. Also, in the book “The Red Beret” (1950), which is based on personal testimony and eye-witness accounts, Hilary St. George Saunders reports that Timothy “with two others returned” from this operation. However, St. George Sauders states that Timothy dropped with “seven other ranks” and that five of his men were captured, while McLean says that Timothy parachuted with “a party of eight other ranks”. It is, of course, possible that these books, as well as the letter listing the men MIA, do not account for the American Interpreter.

Further analysis of the names of the seven men reported as MIA on November 15th 1943 suggests that one of them, Private Robert E Shefter, was listed with an American format Army service number on the letter (American service numbers being one digit longer than the British ones). His Prisoner of War record bears the same service number, although the first digit is missing, bringing it in-line with the British format, which could have been done to give the impression that he was British when he was captured. Alternatively, the additional digit in his service number on the letter may have just been a typographical error since, according to, Private Shefter was born, married, and died in England. However, from the same source, it seems likely that his father, Samuel, was a Polish immigrant traveller (born in a region formerly belonging to Russia), who may have been a naturalised American citizen. So, Private Shefter’s English heritage does not discount him from being the American Interpreter. All other men listed on the letter are detailed with British-format service numbers although, curiously, a few of them don’t appear to have birth records in the UK.

Unusually, each of the citations for gallantry awards on Operation Simcol (eight in total) bears a handwritten note stating “no publicity to be given to this citation”, and the recipient’s names weren’t announced in the London Gazette until 20th April 1944. Timothy subsequently received a bar to his Military Cross for his actions on the operation, yet it is noticeable that his citation is the only one not publicly available in The National Archives. This highlights the secrecy with which Operation Simcol was undertaken. As with other covert operations, it is entirely possible that some of the men felt the need to use pseudonyms. The identity, and ultimate fate, of Private Power is unknown and, unusually for a Simcol evader, he was not awarded a medal for his gallantry. Additionally, since it is plausible that the list of seven men reported MIA actually includes the American Interpreter masquerading as a British Paratrooper, it is difficult to determine the true names of the ten men who made up Timothy’s stick.

However, on the basis that Timothy set off for Operation Simcol with eight other ranks and an American Interpreter, then it does seem that one man’s name is missing from the records. This man was either the American Interpreter himself, or an “other rank” from the 2nd Battalion who, for some reason, is not named in either the War Diaries or Timothy’s formal report.

Timothy returned to allied lines in Barletta in the early hours of 25th October 1943 – the very day Albert wrote his next letter home. By coincidence, ‘A’ Company had recently relieved ‘B’ Company in Barletta as the duty company guarding the docks and a petrol dump, while the rest of the Battalion remained in Altamura. Albert’s letter, written on this date, uses different stationery to his other letters, suggesting that he did not have access to his regular supply of air mail letter cards; the censorship confirmation on the envelope is signed by Lieutenant Roberts (of ‘A’ Company), along with a rather unusually enthusiastic exclamation mark; and the letter was franked, sent, and delivered despite the absence of a stamp, meaning that Albert did not have to pay to send it. Like Albert’s other letters, this one was sent from Field Post Office number 613, but not until 29th October 1943, the day that the main body of the 2nd Battalion, along with its Field Post Office, joined back up with ‘A’ Company in Barletta. In the letter, Albert wishes his wife, Marjorie, “many happy returns” in case his last letter “went astray” and states that he had “not received any news from [her] recently”. He also makes an unusual reference to his watch, which had “decided to start again”. It is known that he and Marjorie sent coded messages to each other within their letters, so all of these could have been indications to his wife that he had safely returned from an operation. His reference to getting hold of a portable gramophone, however, was genuine, and he did indeed manage to bring it home, along with a set of Italian operatic records.

Also noticeable in the two letters that Albert sent either side of Operation Simcol, is that he used quotation marks in the Company title of the address, which does not match any other letter he sent. Interestingly, he placed them around “Coy” in his letter on 24th September, and around the “A” in his letter on the 25th October; a suspicious irregularity which could possibly be another coded message to Marjorie.

In addition to the gramophone, Albert returned from Italy with two different types of Italian currency. Alongside the Allied Military Currency that would have been issued to all men, in Albert’s possessions were genuine Italian 10 Lire banknotes, printed circa 1935-1937. Like the five Franc note mentioned previously for Operation Biting, these could have been issued to Albert in case he was left behind in the Italian countryside on Operation Simcol – something that his children and sister-in-law all remember him talking about. Paradata also confirms that the men who took part in this raid were “issued with money”.

Corporal John Walker, captured in Tunisia during the Battle of Depienne in December 1942, escaped from his Italian Prisoner of War camp and, coincidentally, attempted to meet up with Timothy on Operation Simpcol, but failed to do so. When he eventually found his own way back to allied lines – sadly, too late to sail back to England with the rest of the Battalion – he completed an Escape and Evasion Report, as well as signing a non-disclosure agreement, and a secrecy agreement. These last two documents outline exactly what he was allowed to say to anyone, including his family and friends, about his escapades in the Italian countryside. If Albert had evaded capture on Operation Simcol, he would have been subject to the same censorship following his return to Barletta, and would not have been able to divulge the details of his movements until after the end of the Second World War.

Although this suggests that Albert should also have completed an Escape and Evasion Report upon his return from Operation Simcol, there does not appear to be one under his name amongst more than 4400 such documents held in The National Archives. However, neither is there one publicly available for Timothy, or for Power.

So, there is no evidence to dispute Albert’s participation in Operation Simcol, and plenty of circumstantial evidence to support it. The timing, format, and content of Albert’s letters and Field Service Postcards, together with the oral tradition within the family, and Albert’s possession of Italian currency leaves no doubt that he was the missing tenth man from Timothy’s stick.

Albert’s association with Timothy continued after their return to England, where Timothy hand-wrote a temporary permanent leave pass for Albert, covering the month of January 1944, signing it as “Major Timothy, OC ‘A’ Company”, despite neither being a Major at that time, nor the Officer Commanding ‘A’ Company.

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