‘Perhaps the people of Dorset have no greater reserves of grit, spirit and honour than those of any other county, but if you wanted one man who embodied those qualities and more then you need look no further than Mike Lees.’ In any other circumstances a writer describing a character from his latest book would be no more than that, but this is different.
So committed is best-selling Dorset-based author Damien Lewis to righting a grave wrong done to Michael Lees, scion of the storied Lees family of South Lytchett Manor, that he has initiated a campaign to award a posthumous honour denied to Lees at the end of World War 2 for leading Operation Tombola, a daring raid on a key German headquarters.
Severely wounded in the attack – he could easily have lost his leg due to extensive nerve damage – Lees was evacuated home and spent months recovering in hospital.
At the end of the war his fellow-officer, SAS Major Roy Farran, wrote his citation for a Military Cross, hailing his comrade’s ‘gallantry, initiative and unequalled courage’. However, the recommendation was rejected.
The raid is now the subject of Damien Lewis’s new book, SAS Italian Job: The Secret Mission to Storm a Forbidden Nazi Fortress (Quercus). Damien has been writing and making films about wars and the people caught up in them for nearly thirty years: ‘And in all that time I have never come across a more clearly deserving case for honour that this one. It’s a no-brainer.’
After the war Lees carved out a successful career in industry before retiring in the 1970s due to his war injuries and going to County Cork to farm cattle and strawberries. However, he always kept a home in Dorset and visited often, retaining close family bonds not least with his daughter, Christine Bueno, who now lives at Hammoon, and his nephew, James Selby Bennett, who followed his uncle into the Dorset Yeomanry.
Michael Lees died on 23 March 1993 aged 71 after suffering a heart attack while marching up a steep hill at Milton Abbas, but although he had published a partial memoir of his war exploits some years before, the full extent of his active service and its aftermath remained unknown to his family until now. Many of the documents that Damien unearthed in writing the book were not in the public record during his lifetime and some have only been opened as a result of Freedom of Information requests.
Michael Lees was born on 17 May 1922, the son of Bernard Percy Turnbull Lees, who served with distinction in World War 1 with the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry, winning a Military Cross; and grandson of Sir Elliott Lees, the first Baronet Lees, a Major in the Dorset Yeomanry who fought in the Boer War and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. After his father was killed in a shooting accident when Michael was just two years old, he was brought up by his mother and elder sister.
It was no surprise when the 17-year-old Michael followed his father and grandfather into the Dorset Yeomanry. As war broke out he volunteered for airborne services and was posted to India and Egypt where, in 1943, he fell in thrall to the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Having talked his way in, he was duly put through the secret SOE training schools and dispatched to join Serbian nationalist Chetniks fighting with Tito’s Communist-led Yugoslav partisans. When the order was given to cease operations with the Chetniks, he interpreted it as a licence to go solo and embarked on a one-man campaign of terror that earned him the soubriquet, ‘Wild Man’.
In September 1944 he was sent to Italy and joined SOE agents fighting alongside Italian partisans in the Apennine mountains. Alerted by a deserter to the German 14th Army headquarters in two heavily defended villas in Botteghe, a 72-hour march into enemy territory, Lees hatched a plan known as Operation Tombola to destroy the buildings and kill as many officers as possible, thereby striking a blow that could alter the course of the war.
The 100-strong force assembled by Lees and Farran included SAS men, Italian partisans, Russian former prisoners of war, German deserters, Dutch, Irish, Spanish Civil War veterans, former French Foreign Legionnaires and a handpicked Estonian parachuted in to communicate directly with the Russians.
But no sooner had they deployed than the order came to stand down. Convinced that there wouldn’t be another opportunity, Lees and Farran ignored the command and successfully completed the mission with a ferocious attack on the two villas, completely destroying one and with it vital maps, the German registry and operations room.
The other was badly burned and many senior enemy officers, including the Chief of Staff, killed. The survivors were in disarray. By contrast, the raiders lost five men killed and another eight missing, presumed dead. Lees and the other wounded were evacuated after hiding out in a hay barn and being transported in a manure cart with a false bottom.
‘He came back to Dorset after the war, but couldn’t settle to his old life,’ says Damien. ‘There are family stories that even in later life he used to beg his doctors to amputate the leg, but the nerves were so shot that doing so wouldn’t have brought any relief. I asked his daughter if her father was ever bitter and she said he wasn’t. He said he’d learned a lesson in war, but rarely discussed it. It’s easy to forget he was a young man in his early twenties when all this happened.’
The reason Michael Lees was refused a Military Cross may never be known for certain. Damien Lewis suggests a range of possibilities, not least that it was an example of big picture politics triumphing over the kind of maverick fearlessness for which the likes of Lees had been recruited in the first place.
‘There was a covert policy towards the end of the war to stop arming the predominately Communist-led partisans lest Italy fall into the Russian sphere of influence at war’s end. This was the Cold War starting to cast its shadow. Lees was sharply anti-Communist and sharply anti-Fascist; he was only interested in getting the job done and the job was to stop the Nazis, so his actions were perfectly in line with that thinking, as they had been in Yugoslavia with the largely right-wing Chetniks. In fact, Lees might have been court-martialled were it not for his injuries and the support of Farran.’
Lees and Farran remained close friends and both revisited Italy, the former in 1949 to be made a freeman of the City of Reggio Emilia where he had hidden after the raid, and to see plaques unveiled at Villa Rossi honouring those who fell.
More than 73 years after the events of Operation Tombola, we live in an age when heroism is ascribed almost routinely across a wide range of endeavours. Was Michael Lees such a man, or more? Perhaps this son of Dorset is one of the last unsung heroes of a war that resonates to this day? In answer we might paraphrase Churchill: ‘People often act heroically because they don’t appreciate the dangers that lie ahead. Others see those dangers and are afraid of them but do what they do in spite of their fears. No man can be braver than that.’
• First published by Dorset LIfe – The Dorset Magazine.