Compared to their previous exfiltration from Eastern Europe aboard the badly damaged ‘Black Cat’, the journey to Catania this time is a short one, as the RB-17G trusts to its impressive armaments to keep it safe over enemy territory. The plane is also a great deal roomier than the Catalina, and so they are able to nap a little.
As a result, around 0430, the Flying Fortress comes in to land at Catania. As the RB-17G slowly comes to a halt on the runway, the party members peer through the perspex windows in the plane. The place is hardly recognizable from the bombed out airport that they saw when they were last here some five weeks ago, the 814th Battalion of the US Air Force Engineers having done a fine job in the meantime.
The plane comes to a halt and a ‘deuce and a half’ truck soon comes to join the plane. Inside it is the familiar face of Captain Matthews who met them last time they were here.
“Good to see you back here again, chaps,” says the Captain, shaking each of them by the hand. “I’ve arranged some digs for you for the night – and some fresh uniforms. Probably best that you get 40 winks ASAP as the boss wants to see you tomorrow bright-eyed and bushy tailed.”
The party members hop in the back of the truck and are escorted to some barracks – better than the ones that they were in before, but still fairly spartan. At least there are no Military Police watching their every move this time around.
Mindful of the Captain’s words, everyone takes a quick shower and then takes advantage of sleeping in a real bed for the first time in quite a while.
All too soon, they are woken up once again my the Captain:
“Wakey, wakey, chaps,” he says with an irritating smile. “You have an hour to get ready and some breakfast inside you before you have a meeting with the boss at 1000.”
They dress in the smart battledress which has been provided for them. Terry has US Army issue while the others all have British issue. After a decent breakfast, Captain Matthews escorts them towards a quite impressive looking villa just outside the perimeter of the airport. They wait in the lobby area for a few minutes before an orderly tells them to come through.
They come through to a comfortably furnished lounge area where they find two men waiting for them – one of them wearing the uniform of a Royal Navy officer, while the other seems to be an officer in the Regio Aeronautica -the Italian Airforce, of all things. The Royal Nay Officer is smoking a cigarette through a pretentious filter, while the Italian is sipping an espresso piccolo and eating a cannoli.
“Ah, gentlemen, thank you for coming. Please make yourself comfortable,” the Royal Navy Officer says.
The party members all find themselves a seat on one of the large, overstuffed sofas in the room.
“I’m Commander Ian Fleming,” the Royal Navy Officer says. “And this is Comandante Franco Bordoni-Bisleri.”
The Italian raises his microscopic coffee cup in greeting with a smile.
“First of all, well done on your missions in Czechoslovakia,” Fleming continues. “Normally you would be due for some well-earned R&R after a mission like that. Unfortunately though, a mission has some up of the utmost urgency and you are the only chaps available for it at the moment.”
“Let me brief you on the situation in Italy at the moment. In summary, it’s a complete bloody mess.”
“A couple of months back, King Emanuel III took control of the country back from Mussolini, imprisoned him and installed General Pietro Badoglio as the country’s leader. They continued to fanny around though, not making any decisions until we invaded the mainland of Italy on 3 September. They finally announced an armistice on 8 September. Because of all their messing around, the Hun were able to increase their forces in Italy from one division to seven and so have control of the country. General Badaglio urged Italians to rise up against the Germans and fight alongside the allies on 11 September – some 10 days ago – but by that time, Jerry was already in control of Rome and the king and General were already in exile.”
“So everything is a ruddy mess. Most of the Italian army don’t know what to do. The smart ones simply threw their weapons away and ran home to their mammas, but unfortunately this is not the situation with most of them. Some are now loyal to the allies, some are fascists who are loyal to Hitler and a lot more have been captured by the Hun and given a choice of continuing to fight with the Axis or become a slave labourer in Germany. So basically, you don’t know where the loyalties of any Italian lies at the moment until they either hug you or shoot you.”
“It’s a ruddy mess.”
“In amongst all this mess, we’ve asked for Mussolini, but the Italians won’t give him up. If he is in our hands, then we should be able to get more of the Italian troops on our side. The Italians want to keep him to themselves as a bargaining chip though. Naturally the Krauts want him as well because Mussolini is a personal friend of Hitler’s and would be very useful to them as a figurehead which will ensure that Mussolini’s supporters (of which there are still many) will continue to fight for the Axis.”
“Through German communiques which we have recently intercepted and decoded, we believe that they have found out where the Italians are hiding_ Il Duce_ – they believe that he is being held at the Hotel Campo Imperatore in the Gran Sasso range around 100km north-east of Rome. It’s a good spot for hiding someone as it can only be reached by cable car.”
“We know that the Krauts are going to try and snatch him, but we don’t know how and we don’t know when – for all we know they may have already taken him yesterday. This is why time is of the essence. We need to get him before the Krauts do.”
“We have not had much time to put a plan together, but this is what we have so far. In two hours’ time, we will fly you to the plateau, together with Comandante Bodoni where you will parachute next to the hotel. Although Franco is one of Italy’s top fighter aces, he is no friend of Mussolini’s as a result of Il Duce having killed his father and having seized his family business. Franco is very much on our side now and will assist you in negotiating with the Italian troops guarding Mussolini in order that they let him go without bloodshed.”
“If-a I do this, I will get to pilot a Mustang P-51D against the Nazis, si?” Franco asks.
“Yes, Franco,” Fleming replies with a sigh. “That was the deal. You help us get Mussolini and you get your Mustang.”
“Anyway,” Fleming continues. “So you need to take Mussolini – alive – bring him down on the cable car and then escort him on the 20km trip to L’Aquila airfield, where Franco is going to beg, steal or borrow some kind of a plane that will bring you all back to Catania.”
“it’s as simple as that.”
“You leave in two hours, which should give you just enough time to pop to the armory and rearm and ammo yourself for the mission. You can also take a spare canister of equipment if you need it, but we don’t think that you are going to face too much heavy opposition on this mission.”
“Is this all clear? Does anyone have any questions?”
“Seems clear enough to me, Sir,” says Bruce.
He looks to his companions:
“The sooner we get out of here, the more time we have to get our gear together.”
The others nod in agreement.
“Very good then, chaps,” Fleming says. “Best of luck to you all. You are dismissed.”
The party members all throw the Commander a stiff salute and then exit the building, with Franco following them. Captain Matthews escort them straight to the Quartermaster’s where they spend the next hour resupplying with ammo and other consumables which they all used up on the Czech jobs and then start packing up a standard canister with spare materials and items which are too bulky to carry on their persons.
They then expect the parachutes which they have been issued with.
Once they have all of their gear checked and ready, they are moved out to a waiting B-24 Liberator. Franco is impressed that it is flanked on both sides by a couple of Mustangs. He looks at them enviously, mutters something in Italian and smiles.
Compared to the long flights that they have been taking recently, the journey to the Gran Sasso plain is a short one. The Mustang escorts proved to be unnecessary as the only planes that the party members see are all Allied. After a little over 90 minutes in the air, one of the crewmen opens the door and tells them to tether themselves to the line. It is a little after 2.30pm when the green light comes on and the party members start to leap one by one from the plane onto the plain.