Damien Lewis reports on how research for his new book became part of a campaign to gain recognition for a war hero
I first came across the story underpinning my new book, SAS Italian Job, in the SAS War Diary - the regiment's official record of its WWII campaigns. A short report, barely a half-a-dozen pages, penned by legendary SAS commander Major Roy Farran DSO MC, outlined the seemingly impossible mission to storm a major German Army headquarters, housed in two supposedly impregnable, fortress-like villas.
Despite the dry, military-speak of that report, it had the feel of a Where Eagles Dare kind of story. Intrigued, I began to dig. First stop, the National Archives, Kew. The spring 1945 mission, which aimed to break the bloody deadlock in Northern Italy, actually had two codenames: Operation Tombola and Envelope, the former coined by the SAS, the latter by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Churchill's shadowy "Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare".
The raid was a joint undertaking, and it was agents of the SOE who were first on the ground, linking up with the Italian resistance. After the war, SOE was summarily disbanded and some 85% of its files destroyed - whether deliberately (in the battle against Nazi Germany, SOE was charged to break all known rules of war, and it did), or by short-sighted expediency. But in this case, I was lucky. A wealth of research materials had survived.
"The recommendation that Captain Mike Lees receive a Military Cross (MC) remained unknown to many of the Lees family"
What I hadn't expected was a signal stroke of luck, always so very welcome when embarked upon such a leap into the unknown: the SOE agent who spearheaded the mission, Captain Mike "Wild Man" Lees, was from a storied family local to where I live, one with a distinguished military pedigree. If I could contact any surviving family members, I reasoned that they would surely harbour a rich archive from the war years.
Via local Dorset connections I reached out to Sir Christopher Lees, whose uncle, James Lees, had been Mike Lees' first cousin. Mike Lees had earned his "Wild Man" nickname in the then Yugoslavia, carrying out daring sabotage operations with Yugoslav guerrillas. He and James had been "like brothers". James would go on to be killed in action in spring 1945, serving with British Special Force.
Via Sir Christopher's good offices, I was introduced to Mike Lees' nephew, James Selby-Bennet, whom Mike Lees had treated like his own son - he had none of his own - as well as Mike Lees' charming daughter, Christine Bueno. When I arrived at Selby-Bennet's lovely Dorset farmhouse, what struck me most was how he was the spitting image of his late uncle. I had unearthed audio tapes at the Imperial War Museum of Mike Lees being interviewed about the war years. James Selby-Bennet spoke in the same gruff, no-nonsense, let's-get-the-job-done tones.
After reminiscing about the war hero he had known and loved, James took me into his gun-room, where carefully locked away was Mike Lees' Commando knife - the one that he had carried all through the war, including on the Italian raid. That blade, via James's recollections, had a plethora of stories to tell.
But if anything, meeting Mike Lees' daughter Christine unearthed an even richer seam of revelations. Many of the files that I had found in the National Archives hadn't been opened during Mike Lees' lifetime. He died in 1992, and many were closed under the "70-Year Rule" - those from 1945 only to be opened in 2015. Few family members had seen what they revealed.
Most significantly, the recommendation that Captain Mike Lees receive a Military Cross (MC), for his heroic actions on the Italian raid, remained unknown to many of the Lees family. The citation, penned by Major Roy Farran, spoke volumes: "He organised his partisan division into an efficient guerrilla force and by his courageous example inspired the Italians to attacks on the enemy which they would not otherwise have performed."
Sadly, the recommendation for the Military Cross - supported by both SAS and SOE - was blocked at the highest level. Lees was refused an MC for a raid in which he was shot five times while storming the staircase at the headquarters. He barely survived, and would be plagued by his injuries for the rest of his life. That much Christine, his daughter, related to me in great detail.
Lees' decoration was refused because he had executed the raid "prematurely and recklessly in spite of express orders". It was true that Farran and Lees had gone ahead with the raid against 11th-hour orders to stand down. They had decided, Nelson-like, to turn a blind eye to their orders, knowing they would never again raise such a fighting spirit among their motley band of Italian partisans, escaped Russian POWs and even German deserters.
The results spoke for themselves: the German Army headquarters controlling 100,000 troops was hit a knock-out blow, enabling Allied forces to punch through. Days later, Italy was liberated. But those in high places decreed that Mike Lees be punished mercilessly. As he lay in hospital for months after the war, recovering from his injuries, his MC was denied and his reputation traduced by faceless, desk-bound mandarins.
Piqued by such revelations, Christine headed up to the attic of her Dorset home to retrieve her late father's war chest. Flicking through photos and documents, most of which she had never seen, she came across the most extraordinary testament: a 1992 faxed letter from Major Roy Farran, sent to Mike Lees' wife, Gwendoline, upon his death, in which Farran exonerated him of any blame.
"His superiors punished him for allegedly ignoring a signal to delay the attack... In reality only I received - and chose to ignore - the signal... Bureaucrats in command... would never appreciate the subtleties of morale or esprit de corps. But Mike did... I have met many great and distinguished people in my life, but none greater than Mike Lees."
The story of valour denied - Lees remaining "unwept, unhonoured and unsung" as Farran put it - resonated powerfully with the British media and public alike. A campaign was launched, and a petition on change.org calling for Mike Lees to receive his MC garnered thousands of signatures. Politicians were briefed; further action is pending. All of that kept the story told in SAS Italian Job in the public eye, leading up to paperback publication.
Compelling SAS tales from WWII prove enormously enduring: a few courageous and maverick-hearted souls taking the fight to a seemingly invincible enemy. Invariably, they are peopled by utterly unforgettable characters - like Mike Lees and Roy Farran. In their incredible missions - like the epic raid by a band of motley pirates on the German Army headquarters - they are rich in plots that Hollywood would be challenged to make up.
Damien Lewis is the Sunday Times number 1 bestselling author of books including Zero Six Bravo and Churchill's Secret Warriors. His new book, SAS Italian Job: The Secret Mission to Storm a Forbidden Nazi Fortress, is out from Quercus today (30 May).