BOCCONI DI STORIA: Il colpo di Zurigo

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

There is not a hundred percent truthful version of this story. The events would only be recounted years later to avoid reprisals against those involved, but the consequences of this were inevitably different dates and facts according to the books that recounted them.

When Italy entered the war in 1915, Austria-Hungary already had an important espionage system ready for sabotage operations against factories and military facilities. The two most important episodes of sabotage by the enemy were the explosions of the flagship ‘Benedetto Brin’ and the ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ in 1916. These two tragedies convinced the High Command of the need to block the Austro-Hungarian espionage network in Italy.

However, not all Austrian sabotage operations were successful; the Italian counterespionage had identified a certain Giuseppe Larese and placed him under surveillance. One day, he was seen crossing the Swiss border and returning to Italy with a suspicious briefcase. At customs, the bag was inspected, and explosives were found, which were promptly replaced with defused explosives. The suitcase was then returned to Larese who, ignoring the exchange and the fact that he had been discovered, continued his mission, and arrived at the Marmore Falls. There was a dam there that was used to produce electricity for the Terni steelworks, which he was supposed to blow up with explosives he believed he had in his possession. After catching him in the act, the Italian police arrested Giuseppe Larese.

Questioned and probably tortured, he revealed that the head of the Austrian espionage network was in Zurich, his name was Rudolf Mayer, and he was “officially” the Austro-Hungarian consul in Switzerland. Pompeo Aloisi was sent as Italian consul to Bern so that he could control what Mayer was doing. After ascertaining that Rudolf most likely had all the information on possible targets, agents, and sleeper cells with him, Aloisi devised a plan to obtain those documents.

Men were needed: the first two volunteers were Ugo Cappelletti and Salvatore Bonnes, Navy captains, who were sent to Zurich as Italian diplomats renting a room in a building adjoining the Austro-Hungarian Consulate. They were later joined by Stenos Tanzini who had discovered that there was a safe in Mayer’s office. At this point, an infiltrator was needed: Livio Bini, a lawyer in Mayer’s pay, whom the Italian counterespionage had transformed into a double agent. Bini reported that there were thirteen doors between the entrance to the courtyard and Mayer’s office, twelve of which were locked: the lawyer later managed to steal and then duplicate a key.

One night, the “gang” makes its first attempt, but the duplicate does not open any doors. Two other people then came into play: Natale Papini, a well-known robber and expert in safes, and Remigio Bronzin, a former worker in the factory that had produced the gates and keys for the Austrian Consulate. In the following days, Tanzini would come in at night to make casts of the locks so that Branzin could make duplicates.

We are now on 20 February 1917: the four men enter the consulate by opening the outer gate, climb the stairs and open one door after another, discovering, however, that the ever-open 13th door is closed that night. They are forced to make a cast of the last lock as well and make a key. On the night of 27 February 1917, the quartet manages to get into Mayer’s office and open the safe with a blowtorch, covering the windows with thick sheets. Inside, they find lists, photos and names of the agents who had infiltrated Italy. One of them will take the documents to Berne the same morning, from where Aloisi will then inform his superiors about the success of the operation.

Thanks to this information, Italy dealt an almost definitive blow to Austrian espionage, which was left blind, deaf and without any possibility of striking in Italy.

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