Orders, Decorations and Medals (25 March 1997)

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Date of Auction: 25th March 1997

Sold for £2,900

Estimate: £2,500 - £3,000

An outstanding M.B.E., M.C. group of six awarded to Lieutenant J. A. Riccomini, Royal Army Service Corps and Army Air Corps, attached 2nd Special Air Service Regiment, killed in action during the S.A.S. raid on the Villa Rossi

The Order of the British Empire, M.B.E. (Military) 2nd type, the reverse of the crown inscribed ‘J.A.R.’, contained in its Royal Mint case of issue; Military Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated ‘1945’ and additionally inscribed ‘James A. Riccomini’, contained in its Royal Mint case of issue; 1939-45 Star; Africa Star; Italy Star; War Medal, these all unnamed as issued, together with named condolence slip and card box of issue; the lot is also sold with a quantity of original documents, photographs and personal letters including bestowal document and Chancery letter for M.B.E., the recipient’s diaries (1940-41), forged Italian Identity Card, Marriage Certificate (1939), parachute wings and 2nd S.A.S. cloth shoulder title, extremely fine (6)

Footnote

M.B.E. London Gazette 1 March 1945. Lieutenant, R.A.S.C., ‘For gallant and distinguished services in the field’. The recommendation states:

‘Lieutenant Riccomini was captured at Halfaya Pass on 16th June, 1941, and was imprisoned in Camp 5 (Gavi) at the time of the Italian Armistice.

This camp was taken over by the Germans on 9 September, 1943, and the main body moved to Germany on 13th September, 1943. With several other officers, Lieutenant Riccomini hid in the camp while the move took place, but was discovered three days later and moved by bus to Mantova. On the evening of 18th September, 1943, he and 16 other officers were locked in a cattle truck for transportation to Germany. Immediately the train started they began to cut a hole in the back of the truck; this was completed in about three hours and they drew lots as to who should jump first. Lieutenant Riccomini and another officer jumped from the moving train just north of Roverto at about 0430 hrs on the 19th September, 1943, and walked south-east making for Yugoslavia. A week later they joined a partisan band led by an Italian ex-officer.

Lieutenant Riccomini and his companion remained with this band until January 1944, helping to organise resistance, getting together dumps of ammunition, and obtaining intelligence reports. The band was broken up by Germans, and these officers then organised a route to Switzerland by which they themselves and several other ex-Prisoners of War in the area crossed the Swiss Border on 11th January, 1944.’

M.C.
London Gazette 1 March 1945. Lieutenant, M.B.E., Army Air Corps, ‘For gallant and distinguished services in Italy’. The recommendation states:

‘This officer dropped behind enemy lines by parachute on the 27th December, 1944, as 2nd in command of an S.A.S. Troop. On the 11th January, 1945 he was commanding a detachment which ambushed a German column on the Genoa-Spezia road near Bocca del Pignone. One lorry was completely destroyed and a staff car was riddled with machine-gun fire. 30 casualties in killed and wounded were inflicted on the Germans. The success of this operation was entirely due to this officer’s personal skill and courage. He directed the fire attack on the column in full view of the enemy, completely ignoring the fire returned by them. On the 19th January, 1945, he again ambushed two vehicles on the road Pontrmoli-Spezia as they were crossing a bridge. One truck was destroyed and a number of casualties were inflicted on the Germans. When 10,000 enemy troops were conducting a “rostrellimento” against the S.A.S. contingent on several occasions it was entirely this officer’s skill and personal courage which prevented the enemy from capturing or killing personnel under his command. Despite a badly poisoned foot, in Arctic conditions of gales, sleet and snow, he made his way through deep snow drifts with his men, never failing to carry out any task allotted him.

Throughout the operations lasting from 27th December, 1944, to 20th February, 1945, he was a personal source of inspiration and encouragement to his men. His conduct could not have been excelled in any way being far above the normal call of duty.’

James Arthur Riccomini was born in 1918 and enlisted in the 5th Battalion Scots Guards. He was commissioned into the R.A.S.C. in 1940 and served with No. 5 Line of Communication Railhead Motor Transport Company on convoy duty and reconnaissance operations in Palestine and Iraq, and with 266 Company in North Africa. He was taken prisoner on 16 June 1941, and ultimately wound up at Gavi, the mediaeval fortress in Liguria used as a punishment camp for persistent escapers and prominent prisoners, who included the ‘Phantom Major’ himself - Colonel David Stirling of the SAS. At the declaration of the Italian Armistice on 8 September 1943, the fortress was surrounded by German troops and wrested from the Italians. A few days later Feldpolizei herded the POW’s into rail trucks bound for Austria. Notwithstanding the ruthless reputation of their guards, the sixteen officers in Riccomini’s truck determined to escape. Within a few hours they had carved a hole two feet by eighteen inches in an end wall, and having teamed up into pairs, the first officers jumped from the train. Riccomini was paired with an Italian speaker, Lieutenant H. A. Peterson of the 2/13th A.I.F., and, having successfully cleared the train, they headed for the hills above the town of Trento, where after two weeks they fell in with two Italian ex-officers.

Over the ensuing weeks they were involved in building up a partisan force with which to attack German forces during their eventual withdrawal north. In mid October a message was received from partisan headquarters in Padua asking Peterson to stay with the would-be guerillas in an advisory capacity, and informing Riccomini that arrangements were being made to take him out by submarine. Riccomini, however, whose knowledge of Italian was rapidly improving, remained with Peterson at his own request. In early December, feeling fairly confident, they agreed to meet a representative of the Swiss Red Cross in order to send Christmas messages to their families. The Red Cross man proved to be a German agent, and three days later a friendly Italian arrived at their hideout two minutes ahead of a lorry load of German troops. By jumping from the second storey windows they took to the hills once more. Hounded by the determined efforts of Germans, Peterson and Riccomini held a conference with the partisans who had already decided upon a show of force. The men and weapons, however, were too widely scattered for immediate action and that evening a message was sent through to Padua for further instructions. Within half an hour they were informed that the Padua headquarters had been almost completely wiped out.

At midnight a motor cyclist tipped them off as to the approach of motorised infantry, and they moved up into the mountains where, well above the snow line, they remained with the two Italian ex-officers for the next week, while in the valley below, the predicament of numerous Allied ex-POW’s and the Italian families hiding them became increasingly precarious as the area started to fill yet more German troops. In early January Peterson and Riccomini were informed that two ex-POW’s had been recaptured. ‘One we managed to rescue’, wrote Peterson, ‘and he informed us that both Riccomini and myself were badly wanted men. Despite the advice of some agents we decided to clear the British ex-POW’s through Switzerland. Riccomini and I decided to attempt the journey first and get through the information and reports we had compiled while they could be still of value.’ On 8 January 1944 they set out from Fara, and travelling by car, train and foot, crossed the Swiss border in the early hours of the 11th.

Riccomini joined the 2nd SAS Regiment but apparently did not undergo formal parachute training. On 27 December 1944 he made his first jump, an operational one, direct behind German lines in an area north of Spezia as second in command of Captain R. Walker Brown’s 3 Troop, B Squadron, 2nd SAS. The mission was Operation GALLIA, which with the help of partisans of the ‘1st Ligurian Division’, was designed to hold German troops in the area, and prevent reinforcements reaching the battlefront during a 5th Army offensive, as well as delay enemy withdrawals by ambushes and acts of sabotage. Walker Brown’s preliminary report on Gallia includes the circumstances surrounding the first of Riccomini’s actions (11 January 1945) which counted towards the award of his Military Cross: ‘Lieut. Riccomini and the remainder of the party moved into ambush position at 565243. ... [Captain Walker Brown’s] party took up a firing position 300 yards from the German Fascist HQ building in Borgeto di Varo and were about to open fire on 2 Fascisti playing tennis in the road when a column of vehicles was heard moving down the road towards the main ambush party and through the town ... The column consisted of a captured British staff car with trailer, with 6 Germans including an officer, a 10-ton lorry with large trailer, loaded with white canvas packages, and 27 German troops and 5 women.’ Walker Brown’s party held its fire allowing the convoy to pass along to Riccomini’s main ambush which duly engaged it - ‘32 Bren magazines were fired, both vehicles and trailers were totally destroyed, the 10-tonner and trailer being set on fire with incendiary rounds, 26 were killed.’ On 15 February Riccomini crossed German lines with Walker Brown’s Troop and infiltrated back into Allied lines as per plan.

In February 1945 Major Roy Farran was directed to send an SAS team into Reggio Province and organise a partisan battalion with which to harass German communications in the event of a proposed offensive by the 15th Army Group. Riccomini, described by Farran as ‘perhaps the most outstanding officer of the Troop’, was informed of his selection ‘with something akin to delight’, and on 10 March was dropped near Asta with Corporal Cunningham and Parachutist Carlisle to join Farran, who though ordered not to go on the operation himself, claimed to have tripped and fallen out of the aeroplane, and some 40 or so SAS personnel already on the ground. Shortly afterwards, Captain Mike Lees, a British officer with the partisans, supplied Farran with accurate information as to the disposition of the enemy at 51st German Corps Headquarters at Botteghe D’Albinea. Farran contacted 15th Army Group, who agreed to an immediate attack, and a mixed force, consisting mainly of Russian deserters from the Wehrmacht, under a ‘swashbuckling Russian Lieutenant called Victor Modena’, was drawn from the partisan battalion to assist in the raid. The chosen attacking force was divided into Farran’s headquarters and three columns; left, right and centre. Riccomini’s task was to lead the assault on the German Generals’ billet by centre column which comprised nine British other ranks and nineteen Russians and Italians under Captain Lees.

On 26 March ‘female staffetas’ were sent into Albinea to confirm all the locations of German troops in the town, and following their return in the evening, Farran’s force set out towards a rendezous on the edge of the target area which was reached unobserved at 0200 hrs on the 27th. Riccomini’s column then moved off from the RV and covered the two hundred or so yards to his target, the Villa Rossi, which contained the German Corps commander, a visiting divisional General and thirty-seven officers and men. Modena and thirty Russians swept right to form a defensive ring on the flank and the left column moved off to attack the nearer Villa Calvi. Unfortunately, Farran did not allow Riccomini’s column sufficient time to reach the Villa Rossi, and Lieutenant Harvey was forced to open fire prematurely outside the Villa Calvi thus alerting the Germans to the attack. With the German defences fully awake and with Farran’s piper playing
Highland Laddie in the background - ‘just to let the Germans know they had the British to contend with’ - Riccomini ‘killed four sentries through the iron railing with his tommy-gun and then rushed the door.’ It was open, but a hail of fire came from within. ‘After fierce fighting, the ground floor was taken,’ runs Farran’s report, ‘but the Germans resisted furiously from the upper floors, firing and throwing grenades down a spiral staircase. Capt. M. Lees led one attack up the stairs which was repulsed with heavy casualties. Lieut. Riccomini led another attack which was similarly repulsed.’ After twenty minutes the raiding party withdrew but Riccomini, Sergeant Guscott and Coporal Bolden were not among their number, all killed. In Albinea in 1985 a square hardby was renamed ‘Piazza Caduti Alleati di Ville Rossi’ (Square of the Fallen Allies of Villa Rossi).