Robert Bentley, who has died aged 90, won an MC in Italy as an SOE officer operating behind the German lines.
On the night of January 6 1945, in an operation code-named Saki, Bentley was landed by speedboat near Bordighera, on Italy’s Ligurian coast. He and Corporal MacDougall, his radio operator, wore civilian overcoats over their uniforms and were accompanied by three Italian guides. Their mission was to arrange for the delivery by sea of arms and equipment for the partisans. Five hundred yards from the beach they were halted at a German checkpoint, but one of the guides engaged the sentry in conversation and they passed through.
The following days were spent dodging German patrols while trying to identify sites that could be used for landing arms. Bentley then learned that one of his guides had been killed and another had made his way to France; meanwhile, all the group’s weapons and equipment had been lost.
Having joined up with a small band of partisans, they continued to evade the enemy for the next few weeks. Then, at the end of January, their transmissions were intercepted by the Germans, who instigated a search for the radio in all the surrounding villages.
Forced to move, Bentley, MacDougall and the partisans found a hunter’s straw bivouac in a wood where they set up a new base. Several attempts were made to arrange a rendezvous to receive weapons and equipment at night from motorboats; but faulty navigation, bad weather and the alertness of the German coastal batteries, which used powerful searchlights and star shells, frustrated every effort.
In mid-February the Germans shelled the forest where Bentley and his group were concealed, as Junkers aircraft circled overhead. Enemy patrols followed this up, and on February 17 three squads, each 100-strong, surrounded them. A partisan had been captured and had given away their position.
As a result, many of the sea reception parties were captured or killed. Some were tortured and, although promised their lives if they “talked”, were executed a few weeks later. The search of a house revealed a pair of Bentley’s khaki drill trousers. The Germans set light to the building and shot the owner.
On February 20 the enemy strafed Bentley’s hiding place all day. They were, however, apprehensive about advancing into the forest as they had been duped into believing that he was leading a group of commandos and was equipped with armoured cars.
There were lighter moments. One evening Bentley and his companions, having taken refuge in a derelict mountain hut, placed a bomb on the path leading to their hideout to avoid being taken by surprise by the Germans. A goat had been skinned for their supper and was hanging from a hook near the door. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion. They rushed outside, scattering into the trees and taking up defensive positions. It turned out that a dog had detonated the bomb and was tucking into the goat. It was unhurt and was allowed to finish its meal.
Bentley was at this stage a marked man and was being pursued with great ruthlessness. The group moved to a monastery in the centre of Taggia, which was next to the German HQ. They slept in the loft for a week and were well looked after by the monks.
Since all the roads inland were patrolled and barricaded, as a means of getting about undetected Bentley employed the most notorious thief in the town as a guide.
In March they moved north to supervise an air and land attack on Molini di Triora, a key feature. On the way, they found themselves in the middle of a big round-up being carried out by 500 Germans and sought refuge in a small, damp cave. The enemy garrisoned all the neighbouring villages; the population was terrified and unfriendly; MacDougall’s radio was broken; and, faced with starving to death, they had to move again. After a 24-hour march over high mountains they reached Upega more dead than alive.
On April 18 the partisan HQ where Bentley and his comrades were staying was attacked. They fled, pursued by a hail of bullets. By midday they had assembled enough support and opened up on the Germans with two heavy machine guns.
The Germans pulled out, taking 37 hostages including children, young girls and old men, all of whom they murdered the next morning before throwing hand grenades on the bodies. Bentley reported at the end of his mission that atrocities committed by the Germans had been a daily occurrence.
Bentley was awarded an immediate MC, the citation stating that under his leadership the partisans had been able to rebuild their strength and play a notable part in the final liberation of Italy.
Robert Clement Bentley was born in Cairo on December 20 1922. His father was an agricultural engineer, his mother was from the banking dynasty of JN Mosseri et Fils. He was educated at the English School in Cairo.
A fluent French, Italian and Arabic speaker, in 1940 Bentley was attached to the Eighth Army in the Western Desert. He was commissioned and swiftly promoted to captain. After serving as a military governor in part of Tripolitania, he was recruited by SOE and, in summer 1944, was parachuted with a radio operator into France, near Nice. From there he was ordered to Italy.
Bentley retired from the Army in 1946 and went to the University of California, Los Angeles, to read Science. He then worked for Bank of America, subsequently joining Pacific National in San Francisco and the Manufacturers Bank in London, where he became vice-president.
After retiring in 1985, he lived in Provence until 1994 before returning to England .
Robert Bentley married, in 1970, Susan Balderson. There were no children.
Robert Bentley, born December 20 1922, died March 3 2013
Via: Forces War Records Blog.