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Date of Auction: 12th May 2015

Sold for £50,000

Estimate: £20,000 - £25,000

Sold by Order of a Direct Descendant

The important Second World War “Operation Tombola” M.M. group of five awarded to Private M. R. Ramos, Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (Alien), attached 3 Squadron, 2nd S.A.S., who was decorated for his gallantry in a spectacular fire fight at a Villa Rossi, an important German H.Q. at Albinea in Italy, in March 1945 - a fire fight enacted around the villa’s spiral staircase and landings and in the course of which he personally accounted for six enemy officers: owing to the crescendo of grenades and gunfire, it is debatable whether he heard the inspiring strains of “Highland Laddie” being belted out by fellow S.A.S. raider Piper Kirkpatrick but he did make good his escape from many ‘angry Germans’, passing four days on the run with a comrade - the pair of them conveying a wounded 13-stone S.O.E. officer on a makeshift stretcher to safety

Even by S.A.S. standards, it was a remarkable performance, but Ramos was a ‘natural’ for the task in hand, a Catalan who had fought for the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and afterwards been recruited by the French Foreign Legion.

The brainchild of Major Roy Farran, one of the most decorated soldiers of the 1939-45 War, “Tombola” was the first occasion on which the S.A.S. deliberately recruited and trained a mixed bag of cut-throats for the common cause - that is to say a mixture of partisans and escaped Russian P.O.Ws who became known as the “Battaglione Alleato” or, in deference to Farran’s wartime pseudonym, “Battaglione McGinty”. Thus Farran’s vision was for a large-scale - and protracted - tactical operation, rather than the usual hit and run tactics of a raiding party. It worked.

Contrary to an earlier S.A.S. operative’s report that ‘the partisans aren’t up to much but the Chianti is excellent’, Farran and his dedicated team welded their multi-national recruits into a highly effective fighting team, wreaking havoc upon the enemy in the mountains and plains of Northern Italy - latterly with the assistance of a howitzer and trademark jeeps, for the operation was supported throughout by air drops. They also enjoyed finer wines than Chianti and the company of a dozen or so female
Stafettas - intelligence gatherers - one of whom was ‘a tall, raven-haired girl with Irish blue eyes’ who was ‘as brave and dangerous as a tigress ... and worth ten male partisans’: small wonder that “Tombola” - imbued as it was with great daring, wine, women, bag pipes and song - has since been labelled by a B.B.C. documentary as “The Italian Job”.

Military Medal, G.VI.R. (BNA. 13301853 Pte. M. R. Ramos, Pioneer Corps), in its named card box of issue; 1939-45 Star; Italy Star; France and Germany Star; War Medal 1939-45, together with the recipient’s identity disc and wartime S.A.S. embroidered badge, good very fine and better (5) £20000-25000

Footnote

M.M. London Gazette 23 August 1945. Major Farran’s original recommendation for an immediate award states:

‘On the night of 26-27 March 1945, parachutist Ramos was a member of a party of mixed British parachutists and Italian partisans which attacked the Corps Commander’s Villa in the headquarters of the German 51 Corps at Albinea, ten miles south of Reggio nel’ Emilia.

During the very fierce fighting which ensued in the house, Ramos was always in the forefront, killing at least six German officers on the spiral staircase. In an attempt to ascend the staircase in the face of intense fire, a British officer was seriously wounded. Ramos picked him up and carried him to the door, returning afterwards to the fight.

When the party was ordered to withdraw and the villa had been set on fire, Ramos, with one other British parachutist, carried this officer, who weighed thirteen stone, through heavy machine-gun fire and an area alive with angry Germans, six miles to a cottage.

For the next two days they carried this wounded officer on a ladder through the plain to a safe house near Reggio, in spite of the searching German troops who knew they were in the area. Having ensured that this officer was safe and well looked after Ramos returned to his base in the mountains.

It is considered that Ramos showed remarkable courage both during and after the attack. His intelligence and initiative in a strange country thirty miles behind the enemy lines showed a devotion to duty worthy of the highest praise and resulted in preserving the life of a valuable British officer.’

Masens Rafel Ramos was born in Catalonia, Spain in May 1919 and was educated at a Jesuit boarding school in Madrid. His father ran a successful printing and publishing business in Barcelona.

Joining the Republican Army on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was taken prisoner at Ebro in March 1939, following Franco’s whirlwind campaign in Catalonia. However, he subsequently made a successful bid for freedom, crossing the border into France, where he was a natural recruit for the French Foreign Legion.

Making his way to England on the fall of France, he joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, one of a number of foreign nationals to be similarly enrolled. However, owing to their fluency in numerous foreign languages, “The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens” - as they became known - were often recruited by clandestine organisations, such as S.O.E.; so, too, by special forces. Thus Ramos’s recruitment by the Special Air Service.

“Operation Tombola”: the raid on Albinea - setting the scene

An excellent summary of the operation’s aims - and subsequent arrival in Italy - is to be found in Anthony Kemp’s The S.A.S. at War: The Special Air Service Regiment 1941-1945:

‘The main operation undertaken by the bulk of the squadron was Tombola which has been extensively written about, notably by Roy Farran himself. It is therefore only necessary to go into the highlights, although in terms of the history of the S.A.S., the operation is extremely important.

It would seem that Roy Farran himself was the instigator of Tombola and that he had every intention of leading it himself in spite of orders to the contrary. What he had in mind was a large-scale tactical operation, rather than a raiding party, using partisan formations. There were considerable numbers of such irregulars, of varying political allegiance, under a central command based in Milan. Each area command had a British Liaison Officer from S.O.E. attached, responsible for arming them and persuading them to fight Germans. The usual reservation was aired during the planning stage that infiltrating uniformed troops before the main battle started would bring down German reprisals and scatter the partisans before they could be of use. The liaison officer in Reggio Province, Michael Lees, however, had no such reservation and was keen to receive such uniformed support.

Farran described his squadron as ‘an odd collection of toughs’ who included two Spaniards, an Austrian named Stevens and a 60-year-old merchant seaman called Louis who had come out from Gallia with Walker-Brown. Without hesitation Louis agreed to parachute back behind the lines although he had no military status and was not even paid. Another character who had been on Gallia and who volunteered to return with Farran was Lieutenant Riccomini. Half Italian, he had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp with a Scottish officer, Captain Eyston, who was appointed second-in-command. Many of the new recruits had not completed basic parachute-training and did their first jump on the operation. By that stage of the proceedings, Farran had assumed the name of Major Patrick McGinty. As an ex-escapee from the Germans, he had the right to do so and chose that particular pseudonym from the well-known song about an Irish goat who swallowed a stick of dynamite. His D.S.O., awarded for his deeds during Wallace, was gazetted on 29 March 1945 in the name of Captain (temporary Major) McGinty.

An advance party under the command of Captain Eyston dropped in daylight on 4 March, accompanied by Farran who was supposed to have acted as dispatcher. He naturally had worn a parachute in case the aircraft got into difficulties, and equally naturally he had used it, in a sublime gesture of Nelsonian blindness towards orders. Eyston badly injured his shoulder on the drop but later recovered sufficiently to be able to take part in operations. The area where they were to work was in the mountains south of Parma which overlooked the wide plain that runs east-west across northern Italy. Farran’s party was received by Lees  on the DZ and an agreement was reached to form a Battaglione Alleata under S.A.S. command, absorbing various partisan units but remaining separate from the local command structure. The new formation eventually consisted of fifty S.A.S. from 3 Squadron. They were augmented by seventy Russians, most of whom had escaped from German prison camps, led by a former Red Army Lieutenant, Victor Pirogov, known as ‘Victor Modena’. They were well armed and efficiently led. The remainder of the force comprised 100 Italians commanded by a man named ‘Tito’. They were a mixture of an ostensibly non-political unit leavened with ‘Garibaldini’ or Communists. The first drop brought in supplies and weapons for the new battalion, plus three officers and the seaman Louis. Only one of them had ever jumped before, but Farran reckoned that parachuting ‘must not be considered a bogey and is only a means of getting into the objective’. The arrival of the equipment boosted Farran's prestige to great heights and ensured that he had the confidence of the partisans, which was all-important in dealing with such irregulars. On 9 March, twenty-four more S.A.S. arrived and were split up among the Russian and Italian groups as instructors. The following two weeks were devoted to weapon-training on 3" mortars, brens and heavy machine guns.

Farran had been ordered not to begin offensive operations before 23 March, but to concentrate on training his force, which was rapidly welded together. With a great understanding of human nature and people's need to belong, he asked Walker-Brown to provide feather hackles in green and yellow for the Italians to wear in their khaki berets. This gave them pride, and they adopted woven badges with the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ on their pockets. There was also a group of women who acted as couriers. They had ‘McGinty’ embroidered on their pockets and a badge consisting of a bow and arrow. The final touch of military swank, however, was the arrival of Piper Kirkpatrick, complete with kilt, dangling on the end of a parachute. He too had been provided by the indefatigable Walker-Brown in distant Florence and he was accompanied by a 75mm howitzer which had been dismantled for dropping. The Battaglione Alleata had acquired its own artillery to supplement a number of Italian 45mm cannon belonging to the partisans.

The initial disposition of the force was essentially defensive, to protect the base against a German attack, but neither Lees nor Farran was prepared to remain passive for long. They had received information about a German corps headquarters at Albinea, down on the plain where the foothills of the mountains ran into the Po valley, and resolved to attack it. The plot was hatched on 20 March and the plan was radioed back to Colonel Riepe at the 15th Army Group. The battalion received agreement and recent air photographs were dropped in. Farran dryly commented: ‘Later they revoked their decision. It was too late. We were already on our way to the plains.’

The sudden decision to cancel the raid on Albinea was the culmination of assorted intelligence reports that stated the Germans were on the brink of mounting a major drive against the partisans in the region - known as a rastellamento; confident in their force’s capability to defend itself under such circumstances, Farran and Michael Lees, the attached S.O.E. officer, sent higher command in Florence a signal headed ‘Rastellamento Balls’. Having already disobeyed the order not to accompany the force in the first place, it was widely believed that Farran would face a Court Martial on his return.

In his defence, however, the signal recalling the Albinea raid was received as his party were well into their approach march. Fearful that he risked the newly created force breaking-up and dispersing in the event of a cancellation, he chose to proceed.

Farran’s “Battaglione Alleata” strikes

Thus to events of the night of 26-27 March 1945, when the “Battaglione Alleata” tackled the headquarters of the German 51 Corps in a two-pronged attack - namely assaults on the Villas Calvi and Rossi, both buildings being enclosed within the military compound. The Russians were detailed to cover the perimeter and guardhouse. Farran, accompanied by the gallant Piper Kirkpatrick, took up a central position on the nearby road to direct operations - spurred on, like his comrades, by the piper’s sturdy rendition of “Highland Laddie” once the fireworks had commenced.

Ramos was among those detailed to storm Villa Rossi. His party comprised ten S.A.S. men, backed up by some Italian partisans, the whole under the command of Lieutenant Riccomini, with Michael Lees, the S.O.E. officer. Roy Farran’s Operation Tombola takes up the story:

‘I called for Riccomini and told him to start. I would allow him only three minutes before I let Harvey attack Villa Calvi in front of us, so it was important that he move fast. He was to remember that the main German strength lay to the south. That was the direction from which enemy machine-guns would probably fire. After twenty minutes, whether his attack was successful or not, he was to withdraw back to the mountains. If I fired a Very light before that, he was to withdraw anyway.

I watched him go, hoping as I did so that he was not infected by my obvious fear, by the difficulty I had in speaking. Lees lumbered by his side, a big hulk of a man in the darkness. Behind him came the ten British and the Goufa Nera led by Bruno and they disappeared into the darkness towards Villa Rossi, their weapons carried at the ready ... ’

Farran continues:

‘The silence was broken by a tremendous burst of fire from Villa Calvi above. It sounded like a whole bren magazine fired without pause and, as much as if it were a signal for which both Germans and ourselves had been waiting, it triggered automatic fire from every direction - from the enemy billets to the south, from Villa Rossi and from Villa Calvi. The night was shattered by the rattle of machine-guns. I heard the harsh rasp of a Spandau and knew the Germans were firing back. Bullets whistled over our heads as if the Germans could see us, which was impossible. All along the line to the south Modena's men maintained continuous fire and I saw tracers bouncing off the white walls of the guardhouse. A siren wailed from the direction of Villa Rossi. That was unfortunate because it meant the alarm had been sounded there before Riccomini entered his target. Even mortars added their thuds to the general racket and, between the rattle of small-arms fire at Villa Calvi above, I heard the thump of a bazooka.

Having loosed off the attack, I had no more control and I could only sit with Kirkpatrick and wait. I told him to play “Highland Laddie,” just to let the enemy know they had more than a mere partisan attack with which to contend. The British at Calvi cheered when they heard the defiant skirl of the pipes. Our job was to cause panic and confusion and, even if we failed to clinch our attack, this had already been achieved. An enemy Spandau singled us out and the bullets whizzed uncomfortably close. I pushed Kirkpatrick into a convenient slit-trench and he continued to play from a sitting position. I wondered whether I should join Harvey at Villa Calvi, but decided against it. Someone had to stay in the middle to fire the signal for withdrawal. So, while Kirkpatrick played his pipes, I sat beside him amidst the bullets, cursing myself for not having restrained Harvey a few minutes longer.

Only later when we were on our way back to the mountains, did I piece together what had happened.’

There follows Farran’s account of the action at Villa Rossi:

‘The story at Villa Rossi was similar except that there, because firing broke out at Villa Calvi first, our raiders did not have full advantage of surprise. Riccomini's men were still in the ditch beside the road when the fighting began at Villa Calvi. They had used more caution in their approach than time allowed and were still outside the grounds when sirens sounded from the roof of their villa. Realising that surprise was lost, the British shot the three sentries in the grounds, firing through iron railings that surrounded the lawn. Then they charged the house, cheering as they heard Kirkpatrick's pipes. Several more Germans were killed in outlying buildings and most of the thirty raiders - British and Goufa Nera - crashed through the windows into the house. In the ground-floor rooms, more Germans were encountered, two of whom surrendered. These two prisoners were locked in an outhouse and presumably lived to tell the tale.

As at Villa Calvi, a furious battle took place for the upper floor. The British led attack after attack up the spiral stairway, but were always repulsed when they ran into merciless fire on the landing. Mike Lees led one attack and was severely wounded, as was Bruno, the Goufa Nera leader. Riccomini and Sergeant Guscott tried again and almost reached the top, but, there on the second landing, Riccomini met his death. He was shot through the head and died instantly. Sergeant Guscott dragged his body down. Then, angry at the loss of his leader, Sergeant Guscott led another attempt. While shouting from the landing, urging the others to follow him, he too was mortally wounded and died there on the staircase. Both had volunteered for Operation Tombola although entitled to a rest after the operations north of Spezia. Both met their end at Villa Rossi.

Then the Germans, heartened by their success, attempted to come down the stairs. A hail of fire greeted them at the bottom and three more Germans died with Riccomini and Guscott on the staircase. Kershaw, Green and Taylor decided to light a fire in the kitchen. They poured petrol on the walls, heaped up curtains and bedding from the other rooms and started the blaze. Sergeant Hughes and Ramos, one of our Spaniards, carried the wounded outside.

Meanwhile I waited nervously, wondering whether to fire the signal for withdrawal. The planned twenty minutes had long expired and I saw flames licking around the roofs of both villas, especially at Villa Calvi. German return fire was becoming more intense and mortar bombs crashed into the trees of the half-moon wood at the foot of Villa Calvi. A few Italian and Russian stragglers had already joined me. And I knew that soon trucked reinforcements would be arriving in Albinea from other German-occupied villages nearby. The time had come for retreat if we were ever to return safely to our mountain base. I pointed my Very pistol at the sky and fired three red signal flares. Immediately the alert Spandau to the south sprayed bullets all around me, sending the Italians scuttling for cover.

I waited until all the British, at least, had rallied around me. They came down from Calvi in two's and three's, jubilant at their success. Corporal Layburn and Mulvey, the two wounded, hopped between them, supported by a man on each side. Those from Villa Rossi were less triumphant. They told me how Riccomini and Guscott had died and that Mike Lees was being carried on a ladder to safety by Burke and Ramos. And the
Goufa Nera, they said, were also carrying Bruno, their leader.

I waited as long as I dared, but Burke, a red-headed Irishman, and Ramos never arrived with Lees. In fact, they carried him on a ladder for four days and, by some miracle, escaped capture by the hundreds of Germans who scoured the area after our raid. Considering that Lees, who was seriously wounded, weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds, it was a tremendous feat. Both were awarded the Military Medal after they carried him to a safe hiding-place in the mountains. Bruno also evaded capture, and a few days later I arranged for a light aircraft to evacuate him and Lees to Florence. Burke and Ramos later rejoined us at Tapignola.

The sky was red from the blazing villas as we straggled west to the River Crostollo. We glanced occasionally over our shoulders at the burning headquarters and at the star shells now being fired over the area by the guns from Pianello. It was a satisfying sight. If only we could regain the safety of the mountains, the raid could be marked up as at least a partial success.’

Results and news of Ramos’s fate

In concluding his account of the Albinea raid, Farran wrote:

‘When all was reckoned, our raid cost us three British dead and three wounded, three Italian wounded, two Russians wounded and six Russians captured. At first we thought we had killed the German general at Villa Rossi, but apparently this was not so. However, we did kill Colonel Lemelsen, the chief of staff, and many other Germans. We destroyed the two main buildings in the headquarters together with many maps and papers. Above all, we made the enemy realise that he was not safe anywhere, no matter how far behind the front. I expected that German reaction to our impudence would not long be delayed. And I was right ... ’

And further mention of Ramos and Burke with the wounded Lees:

‘All were eager for news of the men wounded at Albinea. I told them Jock Milne, our battalion doctor, had dropped in and had already set up a hospital. Mulvey was safely back from the plains and we knew Burke and Ramos had arrived with Mike Lees in the next valley. Bruno, the Goufa Nera leader, was also safe. We were arranging for a captured Fieseler-Storch from Florence to fly them back to the right side of the lines. The men were in high spirits, although sad about the deaths of Riccomini and Guscott, both of whom had been popular members of the squadron. They expected a battle and were ready for it.’

“Tombola” continues apace

Once again, Kemp’s The S.A.S. at War contains an excellent summary of events - events in which Ramos undoubtedly played his part:

‘To return to Tombola itself, during the first week in April the enemy mounted a strong attack on the area, which was repulsed by Farran's defensive outposts. During the same period, orders were received to prepare to move the whole force down on to the plain to coincide with the main attack by the Fifth Army. A few jeeps had by then been received and on 5 April the party were informed that the main attack had begun. Their mission was to attack the main German line of retreat along Highway 12 on 10 April.

The Battaglione moved in four columns down on to the plain, their heavy weapons and equipment, including the famous 75mm howitzer and a good selection of mortars, carried on mules and in bullock carts. They concentrated in the village of Vitriola where they feasted on fried eggs and red wine, their staple diet throughout the operation. Roy Farran described the scene, as a partisan band prepared for action:

‘Long, greasy-haired pirates were sitting on the steps, cleaning their weapons in the streets. Jeeps dashed about everywhere with supplies. The night air was broken by the tap-tap-tap of Morse from our wireless sets and the Russians sang as they refilled their magazines. At night one could hear Modena's tame accordionist and occasionally Kirkpatrick's pipes, which were now suffering from lack of treacle, an essential lubricant for the bag, I am told.’

Results of attacks on the road were at first patchy owing to the lack of targets and enemy opposition. Farran therefore decided on 16 April to take the jeeps and the howitzer into action himself. They merrily fired seventy shells into the town of Sassuolo, scoring direct hits on German concentrations. The whole force kept up a furious pace of ambushes and mortar attacks, until on 20 April, word was received that the main offensive had succeeded. Farran reorganized his force into a ‘Victory Column’ which consisted of twelve British S.A.S., thirty Italians, three jeeps and the howitzer, intending to attack targets between Reggio and Modena. The remainder of the S.A.S. were deployed with various partisan bands, including a detachment with the 19-year-old Rhodesian, Lieutenant Harvey, who had been recruited from the replacement depot before the operation. He mounted a brilliant ambush on Highway 12, and was subsequently awarded the D.S.O. for his part in the attack on the German corps headquarters.

The battalion stores were moved down on to the plain from Vitriola, in ox carts groaning under the weight of 75mm shells, petrol and ammunition for the Vickers. Towing the gun, Farran set off to attack the provincial capital, Reggio. Having shelled it, Victory Column ambushed their way through to Modena, where they had a party and a sing-song and slept in beds. That was effectively the end of Tombola as orders were received for the S.A.S. to return to Florence. With the wounded on board, accompanied by one of the Italian partisan girls, a convoy of four jeeps, two civilian cars, two captured lorries, a German ambulance and the faithful howitzer in tow formed up for the long drive. The gun was cloaked in a swastika flag. Covered with the grime of months in the mountains the Battaglione Alleata drove through springtime Italy, welcomed in every village they passed through. Sadly they had to leave the Russians behind, to be ignominiously disarmed and herded back to death at the hands of the Commissars.

The above necessarily brief account can do scant justice to an operation which in its conception, strictly speaking, fell outside classic S.A.S. philosophy yet which proved that well-trained men from the regiment could rise to the occasion and, under an inspired leader, could themselves lead groups of irregular forces. It foreshadowed, perhaps, operations in Oman carried out by 22 S.A.S. regiment in the 1960s in conjunction with locally raised tribal levies ... ’

Instead of facing a Court Martial, Farran was awarded the American Legion of Merit, which distinction he added to his D.S.O., three M.Cs and French Croix de Guerre. Lieutenant Kenneth Harvey and Captain Robert Walker-Brown were awarded D.S.Os and Lieutenant James Riccomini, who was killed in Villa Rossi, the M.C. Ramos, in common with four others, including Private John Burke, who had assisted him carry the wounded Michael Lees to safety after the Albinea raid, received the M.M. Two others were mentioned in despatches.

Post-war

While on leave in London in late 1945, Ramos met his future wife, who had escaped the grips of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia with the assistance of a Russian ballerina.

He also attended an S.A.S. reunion in 1947, where he met Ernest Bevan, who obtained for him a Union Card, thereby permitting Ramos to find employment in the stereotyping department of The Express & Echo newspaper in Exeter. In the early 1950s, he transferred to the Birmingham Post & Mail.

A kind man, blessed with ‘a wide ranging sense of humour’, Ramos died after a short illness in 1961, aged 42 years; sold with two wartime photographs and two editions of the Birmingham Post, 27 November 1961, with obituary notices.