We have waited too long for a comprehensive account of No 1 Special Force, the name given to the SOE branch in Italy. It was headed by the ‘half hero half pirate’ Gerry Holdsworth, and during the later stages of the war those doing base jobs at Rome or Naples, or slogging in the Apennines, felt a certain envy when stories filtered through of feats of amazing bravery, airdrops to partisans and sabotage. There have been histories of the SOE elsewhere in Europe but, as David Stafford says, its Italian achievements, in spite of being the strongest in the West, have been left undeservedly in the shadows. For his task he has had the benefit of documents recently deposited at the National Archives in Kew. Although this is an official history commissioned by the Cabinet Office, it is written with a light touch and Stafford is unafraid to give his own opinions.
The cast is necessarily huge, but star performers like Major-General Colin Gubbins, Max Salvadori and Malcolm Munthe stand out strongly. Stories like the rescue of Benedetto Croce and the daring crawl made by Charles Macintosh along the Ponte Vecchio in Florence make one long for more, especially when