Authors: Jack Higgins
Open Road Integrated Media
For Sacha and George
The Mafia, the Honoured Society, has always fascinated me. I first wrote about it in an earlier book,
In the Hour before Midnight,
and during the research came across the career of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, the famous American gangster. The legend that he was taken out of prison by American Intelligence and dropped into Sicily to prepare the way for the Allied invasion had been around for years, but was not taken seriously by most people. However, when I visited Sicily to do essential research for
In the Hour before Midnight,
I actually met people who insisted that they had seen Luciano on the island before and during the invasion. It was enough for me. I stored the information until a more suitable time and so
In July 1943, American forces landed on the southern coast of Sicily and in an advance of incredible rapidity, reached Palermo in only seven days. That their success was due in no small measure to the cooperation of the Sicilian Mafia acting under the direct orders of Charles Lucky Luciano, then serving a sentence of thirty to fifty years in Great Meadow Penitentiary in New York State, is a matter of historical fact. What is particularly fascinating about this strange episode is that in Sicily to this day, there are those who insist that they saw Luciano in person with the American units during the early part of the invasion…
It was just before evening, when the jeep carrying Harry Carter turned in through the gates of the great Moorish villa called dar el Ouad outside Algiers, and braked to a halt at the ornate, arched entrance.
‘Wait for me,’ Carter told the driver and went up the steps past the sentries.
In the cool, dark hall inside, a young captain in summer uniform sat at a desk working on some papers. The plaque in front of him said,
Captain George Cusak.
He glanced up at Carter, noted the uniform, the crowns on his shoulder, the purple and white ribbon of the Military Cross with a silver rosette for a second award, and stood up.
‘What can I do for you, Major?’
Carter produced his pass. ‘I think you'll find General Eisenhower is expecting me.’
The captain examined the pass briefly and nodded. ‘Ten minutes to go, Major. If you'll take a seat, I'll tell him you're here.’
Harry Carter walked out on to the terrace through the open french windows and sat down in one of the wickerwork chairs. After a moment's hesitation he took out an old silver case from his breast pocket and selected a cigarette.
He was forty-two, of medium height, a handsome man with a calm, pleasant face which always seemed about to break into a smile, but never quite made it. And he suited the uniform to perfection which was surprising for he was the second son of a prosperous Yorkshire millowner, a scholar by nature, educated at Leeds Grammar School until thirteen and then Winchester. From there he had absconded in 1917, joining the Army under a false age, serving the last eighteen months of the First World War as an infantry private on the Western Front.
Afterwards came Cambridge and a brilliant academic career which had included spells at Harvard as visiting Professor of Greek Archaeology, the University of Florence and then a return to Cambridge as a Fellow of Trinity and Claverhouse Professor of Ancient History at thirtyfive.
Just after Munich, he had been approached by British Intelligence and had worked with Masterman at MI
, helping to destroy the German spy network in England. He then moved to Special Operations Executive, eventually transferring to Cairo to take responsibility for the Italian section. Sicily had come later, had never really been on the cards at all.
And it was beginning to show; in the weariness in the grey eyes, the flecks of silver in the dark hair. He flicked what remained of his cigarette out into the garden.
‘Careful, Harry,’ he said softly: ‘Next thing, you'll be starting to feel sorry for yourself.’
There was a movement behind him and he glanced up as Captain Cusak appeared.
‘Major Carter, General Eisenhower will see you now, sir.’
The room was as ornate and Moorish in its furnishing as was the rest of the villa. The only signs that it was the nerve centre of the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander for the North African Theatre were to be found in the maps of the Mediterranean pinned to one wall and the three trestle tables covered with more maps, which had been placed by the terrace windows to serve as a desk.
Eisenhower was standing outside on the terrace as they went in, smoking a cigarette, wearing boots and riding breeches for he rode most afternoons. He turned and walked in briskly, his face illuminated by that famous and inimitable smile.
‘Coffee, George,’ he said to Cusak. ‘Or maybe Major Carter would prefer tea?’
‘No, coffee would be fine, sir.’
Cusak went out and Eisenhower indicated a chair and opened a file on his desk.
‘And just how does a man with your background get by as a Sicilian peasant?’
‘Oh, you can thank the University Dramatic Society for that, General. There was a wild moment there when I was tempted to turn professional.’
‘You were that good.’
‘I wouldn't be here if I wasn't, sir,’ Carter said calmly.
‘When SOE sent you out to Cairo to take charge of the Italian section I don't think they envisaged your personal invasion of Sicily on…’ here he glanced again at the file, ‘… three separate occasions?’
‘I know, sir,’ Carter said. ‘But we didn't really have any choice. When it came to Sicily, there wasn't anyone else who knew the language or the people as well. I did a lot of work on archaeological digs there during the thirties.’
‘And now you're going in again. Don't you think you're getting a little old for this sort of thing?’
Eisenhower pushed a document across the desk and Carter picked it up. It was a typical SOE operation order in sparse, nononsense Civil Service English.
OPERATION INSTRUCTION NO. 592
For Major Harry Carter
Name on Papers: Giovanni Ciccio
We have discussed with you the possibility of your returning to Sicily to finalize the mission you were originally given when you left for that island in February of this year; namely, to coordinate the organization of resistance groups in the general area of the Cammarata so that the maximum cooperation is available to Allied troops in the event of invasion. You have made it quite clear that in your view, nothing prevents you from returning to the same area to carry out this task.
From Maison Blanche you will proceed to Sicily in a Halifax of 138 (Special Duties) Squadron and will land by parachute at a point 10 kilometres west of Bellona where you will be received by elements of the local resistance movement You have been given a cover story and papers in the name of Giovanni Ciccio which will enable you to live a normal life in the field.
Your channel of communication with the resistance movement in the Palermo area will be through the Contessa di Bellona who is at the present time in residence at her villa outside that town.
Your channel of communication with HQ will be by W/T radio transmission handled by Vito Barbera, co-ordinator, Bellona area.
At your discretion, but only those you consider essential for handtohand combat.
You are aware of the importance of this mission and nothing must take precedence over it. We anticipate completion in two weeks. Your return will be by submarine pickup and details of this will be transmitted by radio in fieldcode at the appropriate time.
NOW DESTROY… NOW DESTROY… NOW DESTROY…
Carter took a cigarette lighter from his pocket, flicked it with his thumb and touched the flame to the corner of the document. When it was well alight, he crossed to the empty fireplace and dropped it into the grate.
‘Even you shouldn't have that, General.’
The door opened and Cusak returned with coffee on a brass Arabic tray. ‘Thanks, George, I'll take care of it,’ Eisenhower said.
He poured the coffee himself and lit another cigarette. ‘I'd say it's a reasonable assumption that you know more about what's happening over there at the moment than anyone else in North Africa. So let's talk.’
‘What would you like to know, General?’
‘I'd like you to explain the Mafia to me.’
‘You have a file on the Mafia connection, presumably?’
Carter lit a cigarette himself without thinking. ‘Mafia began as a kind of secret society during a period of real oppression. In those days it was the only weapon the peasant had, his only means of justice.’
‘You have to understand the landscape, sir. It's another world. Sterile, barren, where the struggle is not so much for a living as for survival. A world where the key word is
which means manliness, honour, and never, never seek official help. If you have a problem, you go to the
means boss, chief, put it how you like. Wherever you go in Sicily there will be a
who rules the roost.’
‘And still does?’
‘Mussolini tried to crush the movement but it simply went under the surface. You can talk of Separatists, Communists and other political factions as much as you like, but in Sicily, it's still the Mafia which has the real influence.’
Eisenhower sat staring into space, brooding.
Finally, as if coming to a decision, he tapped the brown manila folder in front of him.
‘This is the file you referred to as the Mafia connection. Are you familiar with an individual mentioned in it known as Lucky Luciano?’
Carter nodded. ‘A New York Sicilian gangster and probably the most important
in American Mafia. He's serving a thirtytofifty year sentence in Dannemora Penitentiary at the moment. I believe the charge was organized prostitution.’
‘Not now, he isn't,’ Eisenhower said. ‘According to the file, he's been moved to Great Meadow at Comstock. It seems that after the liner
was burned out on the Hudson last year, Naval Intelligence became worried about increasing sabotage on the New York waterfront.’
‘I know, General, and when they approached the dockers’ unions, they discovered that the man to see was Luciano, inside prison or out.’
Eisenhower said, ‘Quite incredible. In the middle of the greatest war in history they have to go to a crook for help. As if that wasn't enough, I now find that our people have been putting agents into Sicily for some time now, usually Americans with an ethnic Sicilian background. Were you aware of this?’
‘It's a specifically American project, General, but yes, I did know about it. The aim is, I believe, to ensure Mafia cooperation in the event of an invasion.’
Eisenhower exploded angrily. ‘Aren't we supposed to be fighting the same war, for God's sake?’ He took another cigarette and struck the match so forcibly that it snapped. ‘They approached Luciano in the penitentiary again about giving his assistance. They seem to think he has some influence in Sicily also.’
‘Considerable, General. If he appeared in some of those mountain villages it would be like the second coming.’
‘Our Intelligence people certainly seem to think so. Apparently a yellow scarf with the initial L in black, which is Luciano's calling card, will be dropped extensively in apropriate areas at the right time.’