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Unknown soldier identified
Unknown soldier identified
Richard Owen, Rome
May 11, 2007
AN "Unknown Englishman" murdered outside Rome by fleeing Nazis was a secret agent who had been landed by submarine on Sardinia to organise anti-Fascist resistance, a historian said yesterday.
The officer, whose anonymous grave lay in a wood dedicated to victims of a 1943 massacre, was named last month by World War II veterans as Captain John Armstrong. But they cautioned this could have been an alias and appealed for those who might know the truth to come forward.
Yesterday, it was claimed that "John Armstrong" was Gabor Adler, a Special Operations Executive agent codenamed Gabriel, who arrived in January 1943 at Cape Sferracavallo, on German-occupied Sardinia. He was captured almost immediately together with Salvatore Serra, an Italian Carabinieri (paramilitary police) officer who had defected to British forces while in Eritrea.
The two were carrying a list of Sardinian anti-Fascist activists whom they hoped to recruit for sabotage operations, including Salvatore Mannironi, a Catholic anti-Fascist, who was arrested. Mannironi's son, Domenico Mannironi, a lawyer in Nuoro, Sardinia, said he had found Captain Armstrong's identity in SOE papers at the National Archives in Kew, west London.
"After the war, my father became a Christian Democratic deputy and served as minister of the merchant navy before his death in 1971," he said.
"He spoke little about his wartime experiences."
He said that SOE files on his father and on Emilio Lussu, a leading Sardinian anti-Fascist partisan who died in 1975, identified Captain Armstrong as Gabor Adler, described by SOE as "a man of astonishing courage" who had swiftly become a "first-class radio operator".
Colonel Tom Huggan, a retired army officer and historical consultant to the British embassy in Rome, said the embassy was now trying to trace Adler's birthplace and living relatives.
He said the name suggested Hungarian origins, but SOE records indicated his mother was either British or Italian and that his father was "a naturalised British subject of Italian origin".
The capture of Captain Armstrong and Serra with a list of partisan recruits may have been a deliberate SOE "double bluff" designed to fool German intelligence into believing that forces gathering in North Africa were preparing to land on Sardinia.
Instead, the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943.
At the end of the war, Serra, who died in 1974, told SOE staff that he and Captain Armstrong had pretended to collaborate with their captors to avoid being executed.
Captain Armstrong was transferred to a Regina Coeli prison in Rome and then to Gestapo headquarters in Via Tasso.
When Allied forces entered the capital on June 4, 1944, he and 13 other prisoners were taken in a truck by German forces retreating northwards up the Via Cassia.
Near the Rome suburb of La Storta, the Germans offloaded the prisoners, herded them into a wood, forced them to kneel and shot them in the back of the neck.
A monument on the Via Cassia records the massacre, and trees planted at the site carry plaques bearing their names - except for one, which simply reads, "The Unknown Englishman".