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Servizio Informazioni Militari in WWII

by Giulio Poggiaroni

The Servizio Informazioni Militari, or SIM, was the military intelligence branch of the Regio Esercito between 1900 and 1946. In English, it translated to Military Information Service and it existed as an agency until 1949.

Servizio Informazioni Militari and General Cesare Amè

The actions of the Servizio Informazioni Militari during World War Two are often ignored by the English-speaking literature and by most Italian sources. However, it is a story of incredible achievements, delusions, and bravery of a group of agents. General Cesare Amè, a veteran of the Italo-Turkish war and the Great War, wisely led the agency during WWII.

General Cesare Amè of the Servizio Informazioni Militari.

General Cesare Amè of the Servizio Informazioni Militari.

As discussed in a previous article, the Italian secret services were highly fragmented at the beginning of World War Two. But General Amè led his men through several difficulties. He increased the number of foreign clandestine bases of the SIM from 5 to 28. He also orchestrated bold operations in all theatres Italian forces participated in, including the Soviet Union and the Middle-East.

French Campaign

When Italy entered the war in June 1940, Mussolini decided to launch a “symbolic” attack against France. SIM agents already gathered a considerable amount of information relative to the French defense system in the Alpine region, along with troop dispositions. Unfortunately, senior leadership completely disregarded this valuable information. This dismissal resulted in a loss of life that could have been avoided.

The SIM discouraged an attack given the lack of preparation of the Regio Esercito and given the heavily fortified mountainous terrain. However, this information did not help Mussolini’s political scheme. The data was not shared with commanders on the field, leading to disastrous results.

Greek Campaign

A similar situation occurred four months later, following the decision to invade Greece. A high-level meeting held on 15 October 1940 to plan the invasion did not include representatives of the secret services. Neither the Navy or the Air Force received invitations. Mussolini and his generals believed the Italians outnumbered the Greeks 2:1. In sharp contrast, all the reports coming from SIM agents in Albania identified the Italian and Greek forces in the area as on par. Once again, political and military leadership ignored the intelligence, leading to the Greek campaign’s disaster.

Yugoslavia Campaign

In April 1941, when the Germans intervened against Greece and Yugoslavia, General Amè personally achieved a significant victory that possibly saved thousands of lives. When Yugoslav forces began attacking Italian positions in Albania, Cesare Amè remembered a secret document that SIM stole from a British diplomat years earlier. It listed the names of all the Yugoslav high ranking officers.

Amè acted quickly and transmitted a radio message to the Yugoslav attacking forces, signed by Dusan Simovic, head of the Yugoslav Army. The message ordered the troops to cease the attack and withdraw deep into Yugoslav territory. The bluff worked perfectly and discovered three days later after it was too late. In a matter of days, the entire country became overwhelmed by the German advance, and Greece fell shortly after.

SIM Achievements in North Africa

In September 1941, two SIM officers, major Manfredi Talamo and captain Eugenio Piccardo, disguised themselves as Doormen. They managed to infiltrate the U.S. embassy in Rome and achieve a significant victory. They stole the Black code, a series to decryption and encryption keys used by American military attachés.

Luckily for the SIM, the Americans did not change these keys after entering the war. Therefore, Italian intelligence could read the communications sent to Washington by various military attachés.

In particular, one message proved to be of great importance to the Axis forces in North Africa and Erwin Rommel. Frack Bonner Fellers, an American colonel well placed in the British Middle-East Command, regularly updated Washington on the military developments of the North African theatre. Many of the updates centered one British preparations and operations. By intercepting and decrypting these messages, Rommel acquired valuable information that arguably played a significant role in helping him advance to El Alamein. The Allies realized their hacked communications in July 1942. This knowledge occurred after the 9th Australian division captured an Afrika Corps Radio Intercept Company possessing a piece of the black code.

The Russian Endeavour

As soon as the German forces invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Mussolini hastily offered Hitler his help. He initially sent an Army Corps of three divisions that, within a year, grew to become the 8th Army. This new effort meant new duties for the SIM, which received orders to operate in a country where Amè had no agents nor recruited sources.

The difficulties they encountered in this theatre did not stop General Amè to submit a full report to Galeazzo Ciano. In July 1941, Amè claimed the Soviets would be able to hold the front by the end of the year. A further report in May 1942 traced a dark picture of the situation, underlying the low morale of vast sections of the German army. He also noted the increasing number of suicides. These reports, mentioned in Ciano’s diary, increased the fascist leadership’s skepticism that there will be a positive conclusion of the war as the German ally.

Meanwhile, Major Ranieri di Campiello managed to recruit a considerable number of “Cossacks,” which opposed the Soviet leadership. These cavalry and infantry units later fought alongside Italian units.

All SIM operations in the area ceased soon after the collapse of the Italian 8th Army in late 1942 and the following rout during the harsh Russian winter.

Last Major Act in WWII

The last notable, and partially successful, operation occurred in early 1943. Captain Arturo Michelini recruited and trained Ukrainian nationalist forces that would have carried out guerrilla operations against the advancing red army.

Sources

Andrea Vento, In silenzio gioite e soffrite: storia dei servizi segreti italiani dal risorgimento alla guerra fredda (2014).
Arrigo Petacco, L’armata nel deserto (2001).
Gabriele Bagnoli, Cesare Amè e i suoi agenti: L’intelligence italiana nella Seconda guerra mondiale (2019).
Marc’Antonio Bragadin, Lo spionaggio nella Seconda guerra mondiale: Italia, published on Storia Illustrata n.144 (1969).

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