How an American spy helped liberate Rome, 75 years ago

Jessica Phelan
Jessica Phelan - [email protected]
How an American spy helped liberate Rome, 75 years ago
Allied troops in liberated Rome. Photo: War Office/Imperial War Museums

In the night between June 4th and 5th 1944, Allied soldiers arrived in Rome and the city became the first Axis capital to be liberated from the Nazis. One of those to greet them was an American writer and undercover agent who had spent months working with the Italian resistance to pave the way for Rome's liberation.


His name was Peter Tompkins and, despite being a native of Athens, Georgia, he had successfully passed himself off as an Italian in order to spy on Nazi troop movements from behind enemy lines. 

He wasn't a soldier. Barely 25 years old at the time American tanks were rolling past the Colosseum, a few years earlier he was studying at Harvard and the Sorbonne, then reporting from Italy in the early years of World War Two for the New York Herald Tribune.

Crucially, he had grown up in the aristocratic circles of Rome with his artist parents and spoke Italian like a native.

Peter Tompkins with papers and pistol. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

It was this combination of personal connections, political savvy and language skills that led the US Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, to recruit Tompkins in 1943. Back in the States at the time, he was flown to North Africa for training before being parachuted into Allied-controlled southern Italy, where he began recruiting anti-fascist Italians to become spies.

By January 1944 the Allies had set their sights on Rome, and the OSS realized that Tompkins would make an invaluable advance man. On orders to coordinate the fractured local resistance and funnel intelligence to Allied forces, he was flown to Corsica and smuggled by speedboat to the coast north of Rome.

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He had forged his own papers – it was still the early days of American spy ops – borrowing the surname of an Italian aristocrat he'd known at Harvard. "I figured the Germans and Fascists were still impressed with nobility," he would say decades later.

Tompkins made it to Rome on January 21st and spent his first anxious hours in his pre-war home, the splendid Palazzo Ricci near the Tiber, where the porter who'd served his family long before gave the infiltrator a place to rest before getting to work.

He wasn't counting on his mission lasting long: Allied troops landed at Anzio, some 60 kilometres south of Rome, the day after Tompkins arrived.

British soldiers landing at Anzio. Photo: War Office/Imperial War Museums

On the morning of the landings, "I sat disguised as a military policeman astride a motorcycle near Mussolini's former office in Piazza Venezia, watching truckloads of heavily armoured German paratroopers in their camouflaged black and tan uniforms speeding south toward the beachhead," he later wrote. He could see Germans hurriedly packing up their things and preparing to run.

But there the Allied forces stopped. They dug in on the beaches for what would prove a long wait. Tompkins' mission was now more crucial than ever, as his commanders looked to him to keep them informed on every Nazi move.

To do that, he needed the eyes and ears of Italian partisans. 

Within hours of arriving in Rome, Tompkins had made his most important contact: the true hero of this story, a 23-year-old Italian police officer named Maurizio Giglio. Despite being the son of a high-ranking former chief of the Fascist police, he was working undercover to radio out intelligence to Allied forces via a transmitter codenamed 'Radio Vittoria' – Radio Victory.

Maurizio Giglio as a young soldier.

Giglio, a talented soldier, had fought against the Nazis when they occupied Rome months before. But after making it out to Allied territory in the south, he volunteered to help American forces gather the information they would need to prepare an invasion.

Briefed by the OSS and assigned the codename Cervo ('Deer'), Giglio trekked back through enemy lines into the city he had escaped. He took advantage of his father's connections to get a job as a lieutenant in the mounted police, using the uniform as a disguise to coordinate informants and assist fugitives unsuspected.

It was Giglio's motorbike that Tompkins rode to observe the Germans in Piazza Venezia, Giglio's home where he hid out during his first days in Rome. Giglio introduced Tompkins to leading members of Rome's resistance, told him what was happening in police stations and which buildings the Nazis were using. 

They made an effective team. "Soon we had men and women watching every road in and out of the capital, 24 hours a day," Tompkins wrote. Giglio plugged him into a resistance network so well connected that they even had eyes inside the headquarters of the top Nazi field marshal.


What they learned would be radioed to the Allied forces five times a day via radio transmitters stashed in hiding places around Rome: which troops were on the move, where supplies were being sent, how many tanks, how many guns, even which tactical moves the Nazis were planning next.

More than once their intelligence would prove crucial: in mid February, they were able to tell Allied troops where and when to expect a huge Nazi offensive, as well as where bombers should target German ammunition and petrol supplies to stymy it. One general would say that the spy team "might well be said to have saved the beachhead". 

While Italian partisans were watching and reporting, Tompkins was collecting and translating their information from his hideout in a palazzo in the Jewish Ghetto, an area where many inhabitants had been sent to their deaths some three months before. He spent much of his time hidden in a concealed space behind the walls, accessed by a small hole that would then be covered over with a coffee table.

Watch a short documentary that shows Peter Tompkins' hiding place (in Italian):

That didn't stop him attending clandestine parties in chic apartments, tracking down black-market gin and ham in rowdy restaurants, or venturing out under one of his many assumed identities, from policeman to major in the Italian air force. His facility with regional Italian accents helped his cover, though the one thing he couldn't disguise was his native way of moving.

"The hardest thing for an American to mask is the way he walks and dances. It’s a different gait,” Tompkins told The American magazine in 2004. 

Nonetheless, Tompkins survived his six months spying in Rome without ever being discovered by the Nazis.

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It wasn't just luck that saved him, it was Giglio: following the arrest and torture of another member of the network, he was discovered with a radio transmitter, captured and brutally interrogated by Fascists for seven days. He revealed nothing, "though he easily could have saved himself had he chosen to betray me," Tompkins said.

Giglio, by then barely alive, was dragged to an old quarry outside Rome and, along with more than 300 other Italians, shot in the head by Nazis in retaliation for an unconnected partisan attack. Another 21 members of his network were also killed in what would come to be known as the Fosse Ardeatine massacre

Little more than two months later the occupying troops would be ordered to retreat, fleeing north, and Rome would be declared an "open city" – free to be claimed by triumphant Allied forces with minimal fighting in the city itself.

Allied troops welcomed by cheering crowds in liberated Rome. Photo: AFP

Giglio's grave lies in the Ardeatine caves today, and Tompkins had tears in his eyes upon visiting it 50 years later, according to film maker Maria Luisa Forenza, who collaborated with the American on various historical documentaries.

Tompkins himself returned to the US after Rome was liberated, but came back to Italy frequently. He wrote several accounts of his time in occupied Italy, but became best known as an author of New Age books. He died in January 2007, at the age of 87.

"A bright sun sparkled on liberated Rome," he wrote of the morning of June 5th, 1944, in his memoir A Spy in Rome. "Though it was barely eight o'clock the streets were full of parading, shouting, flag-waving Romans."

But even that day was tinged with loss: a comrade informed him that several members of the Radio Vittoria team had been executed by the SS.

"In a way it is a pleasant life," he had written in his diary months earlier, "if it weren't for the nightmare of knowing that all the time we are being hunted."



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