“My hero of the month” for Britain at War

First published in Britain at War in July 2014.

Major Tony Greville-Bell DSO

Tony Greville-Bell survived a daring operation behind enemy lines in Italy, but his Army career and his personal life were never conventional. As Lord Ashcroft recounts in the latest of his “Hero of the Month” series, Greville-Bell was a maverick better suited to war than peace.

“The great thing about Major Tony,” said one SAS corporal, “is that he doesn’t get you killed unless he absolutely has to.” This was the affectionate Second World War tribute to Major Anthony Greville-Bell from one of his men of the officer who – despite being injured parachuting into northern Italy – had led a highly successful SAS sabotage team for seventy-three days behind enemy lines before a 250-mile trek back to the Allied forces.

Anthony Greville-Bell was born in Sydney, Australia, on 7 March 1920, the son of Captain W.E.G. Bell, and was educated at Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Devon. After enlisting, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. Perhaps the best tribute to the courage and commitment of Greville-Bell during his military career was written by Lieutenant Colonel William ‘Bill’ Stirling, who formed 2 SAS:

In his assessment, Stirling made referenced to Greville-Bell’s part in “Operation Speedwell”, which took place from September to November 1943. The aim had been to target the main troop-carrying railway lines – Prato–Bologna, Florence–Bologna and Bologna–Genoa–La Spezia. Greville-Bell was to be in one of the “sticks” – small groups of men parachuted into different areas. In his stick, there were seven men and he was second-in-command, but he had to take command when his commanding officer went missing, presumed killed or captured.

Stirling said. “Tony took part in operations in Africa, various enemy-occupied islands, and Sicily, but distinguished himself most noticeably on a classic SAS operation against the railways in northern Italy, which was a true strategic operation in that it probably did, as was intended, alter or at least affect the course of the war. The Germans were holding their Armoured Reserve, consisting of four divisions, well to the north while they waited to see where the Allies would make their expected amphibious landings. Owing to a shortage of petrol and spare tank tracks they were relying on the excellent Italian railway system to get them quickly south to wherever the landings took place. Between Bologna and Florence there are only three north–south railway lines, one on each coast and the third in the centre. SAS parties were dropped in all three areas to attack these lines and deny their use to the enemy, which they did very successfully, during the weeks following the landings at Salerno.

“As a result, by the time that the enemy Armoured Reserve began to arrive on the battlefield by road, the Allied forces were already well established and were able to defeat them in detail. General Alexander has since remarked that, had the enemy armour arrived punctually and in force, the outcome of the Salerno landings must have been in the gravest doubt. Tony commanded the party on the central sector. He was badly injured on the drop, but continued to lead his party and destroyed three trains, completely putting the railway out of action for nineteen days. After pausing for a few weeks in the Tuscan mountains to raise and train an army of Italian partisans – ‘The guerillas,’ he wrote later in his report, ‘were not all that good, but the Chianti was excellent’ – he continued south, and had the satisfaction of seeing ‘while trying to cross the road south of Florence, an apparently endless column of tanks heading for the battle, mostly on their tracks. It must have been depressing for their commander to know that with an effective track mileage of only 250 miles, they had a journey of more than 300 miles in front of them.’ Suffering badly from near starvation and very severe weather conditions in the Apennine mountains, Tony finally led his party safely through the enemy lines and rejoined his unit, a journey of some three hundred miles.”

The mission to Italy was not without its casualties. The fate of Greville-Bell’s senior officer, Captain P. H. Pinckney, who disappeared on the night that they parachuted into the country, has never been fully established. It is not inconceivable that he was captured and shot as per Hitler’s Nacht und Nebel decree – the “night and fog” order, issued in December 1941, which led to the kidnapping and disappearance of political activists and other German “enemies” found in the occupied territories. It is estimated that around a hundred SAS personnel who fell into enemy hands during the Second World War were shot – in breach of all conventions – even though they were attired in official regimental uniform.

The following extracts are from the official “after-action report” compiled by Greville-Bell. They indicate an example of sheer courage and absolute determination to see the job through, no matter what physical hardships had to be suffered:

“Day 3: Walked again, but was in great pain, and was finished after two miles. Decided to have one more night’s rest and if not able to keep up would send Daniels and Tomasso on without me.

“Day 4: Felt better and ribs beginning to knit, so decided to carry on, though every time I fell there was an unpleasant grating noise.

“Day 5: Head now normal, took over again from Daniels… Moved south parallel with road and railway, and went on railway to recce point of demolition. Chose tunnel which was unguarded.

“Day 6: Fixed charge 150 yards inside tunnel and retreated up mountain side. At 2205 we heard a fairly fast train approaching from north. It entered the tunnel and set off charge causing the power lines to short circuit. We were unable to see the results, but judging by the noise, I believe the train to have crashed. No traffic on this line observed during the day. Beginning to get very hungry.

“Day 7: Moved off towards the next line . . . Ribs merely hurt now, but not impossibly.

“Day 8: Found some potatoes and tomatoes to eke out our rations. Getting very weak through hunger.

“Day 10: Getting worse through lack of food. Could only make five miles this night.

“Day 12: Failed on this operation. Placed charge on the right-hand lines for southbound train. We were told quite definitely before we left that railway traffic keeps to the right. Train came down on the left line and we blew charge (pull switch) before we could see what happened. One line put out of action temporarily at least.

“Day 13: Found grapes and tomatoes . . . Repeated charge about one mile south of previous night with fog signal. Train of twelve mixed goods carriages blew charge.

“Day 14: Started south.
“Day 15: Rations finished, very weak. Went down to house and acquired a little bread and apples.
“Day 18: Reached villa of Marquese Roberti at Fiesole who fed us royally, as her sister happened to be a family friend of mine.
“Day 21: Rain worse, wet through now for 48 hours. Day 23: . . . Put in touch with some partisans.
“Day 24: Decided to spend a little time trying to organise these partisans. They had a great deal of armament and much ammunition.

“Day 26: Italians a little reluctant to do anything in the way of operations.

“Day 28: Bought civilian clothes and went to Florence . . . Had an ice at the Loggia bar in Piazza Michel Angelo. Full of German officers and ORs [Other Ranks], mostly drunk . . . The beer in this bar is very bad.

“Day 29: Took Daniels and two Jugoslavs off on an operation against railway north of Incisa.

“Day 30: Placed charge which was blown by heavy southbound train.

“Day 31: . . . Decided partisans were worthless and were not going to be of any use, so decided to move on.

“Day 40: While marching along near village of Foursa, were caught on the road by a German truck. Unterfeldwebel [German soldier of Sergeant rank] got out and opened fire with an automatic. We opened fire with carbines and two Germans surrendered.”

These above extracts were taken from his diary as Greville-Bell and his men moved steadily south. By the sixty-first day, they were high in the mountains and got lost in a blizzard. Greville-Bell and Daniels suffered from snow blindness and the former suffered from frostbite because there was a hole in his boot. A week later, Daniels was severely ill with dysentery. However, they reached the German front line on the seventy-third day and passed through safely. On 21 September 1943, Greville-Bell was awarded the DSO for his outstanding leadership and, in the words of the citation, “unfailing judgment in most difficult circumstances and inspiration to those under his command”.

After recovering from the ordeal of the Italian operations, Greville-Bell was promoted to command a squadron and was posted back to the UK with his squadron to train the newly formed French SAS Regiments. He subsequently served on two operations in France immediately prior to, and after the invasion. As a result of two serious wounds and various injuries he was downgraded medically and transferred to Airborne Forces HQ where he served as liaison officer. Later, he was seconded to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office where he remained for some years.

In 1949, Greville-Bell, a maverick better suited to wartime situations than peacetime ones, formed a squadron of SAS for service in Korea, but they were diverted to Malaya where they formed the nucleus of the now regular regiment of the SAS, 22nd SAS. In fact, at this point, the regiment was called SAS (Malayan Scouts). However, here he blighted his career by committing the “unforgivable sin” of complaining about discipline and other issues – over the head of his CO – to General Harding.

His career slightly stagnated and his final role before leaving the Army was as CO of the Regimental HQ of the SAS Regiment. Greville-Bell resigned his commission in 1956 after his wife, Diana, was killed in a car accident leaving him to bring up their two young daughters.

His civilian life, like his military life, was full and varied and he spent time in Sri Lanka where his father had worked as a tea planter before the war. Greville-Bell wrote several screenplays, three of which were made into feature films. Yet, by the late 1980s he was working as a commercial sculptor. His musical interests, which began with the flute, led to him eventually forming his own amateur orchestra so that he could play with others. Known as the Learning Orchestra, it began with ten instrumentalists but had reached almost sixty at the time of Greville-Bell’s death on 4 March 2008, aged eighty-seven. At the time, he was survived by his fourth wife, Lauriance Rogier.

Bill Sterling summed up his character perfectly when he said: “Tony Greville-Bell was the best type of SAS officer. He was serious about his job, enjoyed life and wanted everyone else to enjoy it as much as he did, and above all he took care of his soldiers for whom he had the greatest regard…”

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