Document source: Wild Bill Donovan OSS File, World War Two, German Capitulation Northern Italy

Gen William Joseph ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (Jan 1, 1883 – Feb 8, 1959) was an American soldier, lawyer, intelligence officer, and diplomat, best known for serving as the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. He is regarded as the founding father of the CIA, and a statue of him stands in the lobby of the CIA headquarters building in Langley (Virginia). A decorated veteran of World War I, Donovan is the only person to have received all four of the United States’ highest awards, the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. He is also a recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart, as well as decorations from a number of other nations for his service during both World Wars. Wild Bill Donovan is best remembered as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. He is also known as the Father of American Intelligence and the Father of Central Intelligence. A decorated veteran of World War I, Gen Donovan was of Irish descent.

Born in Buffalo, New York to first-generation immigrants Anna Letitia (Tish) Donovan (née Lennon) and Timothy P. Donovan, of Ulster and County Cork origins respectively. His grandfather Timothy O’Donovan (Sr.) was from the town of Skibbereen, being raised there by an uncle, a parish priest, and married Donovan’s grandmother Mary Mahoney, who belonged to a propertied family of substantial means which disapproved of him. They would move first to Canada and then to New York, where their son Timothy Jr., Donovan’s father, would attempt to engage in a political career, but with little success. William Joseph attended St Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. On the field, he earned the nickname Wild Bill, which would remain with him for the rest of his life. Donovan graduated from Columbia in 1905 and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, as well as the Knights of Malta. Donovan was a graduate of Columbia Law School and became an influential Wall Street lawyer. In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of the cavalry of the New York State Militia. This unit was mobilized in 1916 and served on the US-Mexico border during the American government’s campaign against Pancho Villa.

During World War I, Maj Donovan organized and led the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, the federalized designation of the famed 69th New York Volunteers, (the Fighting 69th). In France, one of his aides was poet Joyce Kilmer, a fellow Columbia College alumnus. For his service near Landres-et-St Georges (France), on October 14/15, 1918, he received the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war, he received a promotion to colonel, the Distinguished Service Cross, and two Purple Hearts.

Medal of Honor Citation
William Joseph Donovan
Lt Col, US Army; 165th Infantry, 42d Division; near Landres and St Georges in France on October 14/15 1918; entered service at Buffalo, New York; Born on January 1, 1883, Buffalo, New York; GO, No 56, W.D., 1922. Lt Col Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.

From 1922 to 1924, he was US Attorney for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition. In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge named Donovan to the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division as a deputy assistant to Attorney Gen Harry M. Daugherty. Donovan ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1922, and Governor of New York in 1932. Assisting Donovan in his 1932 campaign was journalist James J. Montague, who served as a personal adviser and campaign critic.

During the interwar years, Donovan traveled extensively in Europe and met with foreign leaders including Benito Mussolini of Italy. Donovan openly believed during this time that a second major European war was inevitable. His foreign experience and realism earned him the attention and friendship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men were from opposing political parties but were similar in personality. Because of this, Roosevelt came to highly value Donovan’s insights.

Following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of World War II in Europe, President Roosevelt began to put the United States on a war footing. This was a crisis of the sort that Donovan had predicted, and he sought out a responsible place in the wartime infrastructure. On the recommendation of Donovan’s friend United States Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Roosevelt gave him several increasingly important assignments. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan traveled as an informal emissary to Britain, where he was urged by Knox and Roosevelt to evaluate Britain’s ability to withstand Germany’s aggression. During these trips, Donovan met with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill and Britain’s intelligence services directors. Donovan returned to the US confident of Britain’s chances and enamored with the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.

On July 11, 1941, Donovan was named Coordinator of Information (COI). America’s foreign intelligence organizations at the time were fragmented and isolated from each other. The Army, Navy, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), United States Department of State, and other interests each ran their own intelligence operations, the results of which they were reluctant to share with the other departments. Donovan was the nominal director of this unwieldy system but was plagued over the course of the next year with jurisdictional battles. Few of the leaders in the intelligence community were willing to part with any of the power that the current ad hoc system granted them. The FBI, for example, under the control of Donovan’s rival J. Edgar Hoover, insisted on retaining its autonomy in South America. Nevertheless, Donovan began to lay the groundwork for a centralized intelligence program. It was he who organized the COI’s New York headquarters in Room 3603 of the Rockefeller Center in October 1941 and asked Allen Dulles to head it; the offices Dulles took over had been the location of the operations of Britain’s MI6.

In 1942, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan was returned to active duty in his World War I rank of colonel (by war’s end, he would be promoted to major general). Under his leadership, the OSS would eventually conduct successful espionage and sabotage operations in Europe and parts of Asia but continued to be kept out of South America as a result of Hoover’s hostility to Donovan. In addition, the OSS was blocked from the Philippines by the antipathy of Gen Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater. For many years the operations of the OSS remained secret, but in the 1970s and 1980s, significant parts of the OSS history were declassified and became public records.

As World War II began to wind to a close in early 1945, Donovan began to focus on preserving the OSS beyond the end of the war. After President Roosevelt’s death in April, however, Donovan’s political position, which had thrived because of his personal relationship to the President, was substantially weakened. Although he argued forcefully for the OSS’s retention, he found himself opposed by numerous opponents, including President Harry S. Truman, who personally disliked Donovan, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed the OSS as competition for his goal to expand the FBI’s investigative operations internationally. Public opinion turned against Donovan’s efforts when conservative critics rallied against the intelligence service that they called an ‘American Gestapo.’ After Truman disbanded the OSS in September 1945, Donovan returned to civilian life. Various departments of the OSS survived the agency’s dissolution, however, and less than two years later the Central Intelligence Agency was founded, a realization of Donovan’s hopes for a centralized peacetime intelligence agency.

Grace Tully (August 9, 1900 – June 15, 1984) was private secretary to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She succeeded Missy LeHand in June 1941 and served until FDR's death on April 12, 1945Memoranda for the President, Sunrise

Intelligence cables covering the capitulation of the German armies in northern Italy. Among the William J. Donovan papers are five volumes entitled OSS Reports to the White House containing carbons of memorandum predominantly transmitting or paraphrasing intelligence reports for the President’s personal attention. They are characteristically introduced by a note to the President’s secretary, Miss Grace Tully: Dear Grace: Will you please hand the attached memorandum to the President? I believe it will be of interest to him. They begin in modest quantity, the first volume covering a full two years and including some administrative matters such as requests for draft deferment; but those for the nine months beginning with July 1944 occupy three volumes, almost exclusively intelligence. After President Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war in Europe, they taper off in the fifth volume bound, curiously, in reverse chronology and again include non-substantive material, particularly concerning the formation of a peacetime central intelligence agency. The reports are for the most part, not the finished intelligence that the President might now be expected to examine personally. They do include summaries of some Research and Analysis Branch estimates of the age distribution of German casualties, for example, the Soviet Union’s population in 1970 – but the bulk of them are unedited reporting from individual case officers on subjects of particular importance or of particular interest to President Roosevelt. For the historian, the is minute but a choice fraction of the total of OSS raw reporting constitutes a pre-selected documentary source of considerable value.


Feb 9, 1945, Memorandum for the President

The following information has been transmitted by the OSS representative in Bern: Allen W. Dulles.

Alexander Constantin von Neurath, the German Consul in Lugano, has just returned from a meeting with FM Albert Kesselring, Commander of German Army Group C (Italy); Rudolph Rahn, German Ambassador to the Mussolini regime in North Italy; and Obergruppenfuehrer (Gen der Waffen SS Karl Wolff, the Higher SS and Police leader in Italy and chief of Himmler’s personal staff (*). Von Neurath declares that he did not gain the impression at the meeting that an immediate withdrawal of German forces in Italy was planned. According to Neurath, even high German officials in Italy appear to be somewhat surprised that the bulk of the German reinforcements for the Eastern Front have been coming from the West rather than from the South. Neurath feels that a possible explanation for this is that the German Army in Italy is being kept largely intact for eventual protection of the southern flank of the German ‘inner fortress’ which would be based on the Bavarian-Austrian Alps. Earlier memorandum had reported Von Neurath in contact with British representatives in Switzerland, seeking to arrange peace negotiations on behalf of SS Generals Wolff and Harster. Rahn had been mentioned early in December in connection with a Catholic Church plan for an understanding with the Partisans to facilitate the anticipated withdrawal of German forces from Italy with a minimum of war damage. Neurath also reports that Kesselring recently saw FM Gerd von Rundstedt. The two men are on friendly terms, Neurath declares, but neither is yet ready to come over to the Western Allies. Neurath has contact with Gen Siegfried Westphal, Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, but was advised by Kesselring not to attempt to see Westphal immediately because of the suspicions that such a trip might arouse.

Feb 24, 1945, Memorandum for the President

The following information, transmitted by the OSS representative in Bern, Allen W. Dulles, has been supplied by a source of uncertain reliability but appears plausible in the light of information from other sources available to the representative. An official of the German Embassy in North Italy whose name source did not disclose has come to Switzerland to convert to Swiss francs some marks belonging to members of FM Kesselring’s staff. This official declares that FM Kesselring and Rudolph Rahn, Ambassador to the Mussolini regime in North Italy, is ready to surrender and even to fight against Hitler if the Allies can make it worth their while. FM Kesselring, according to the official, feels that under present trends he is destined to retire to the Alps and, subordinate to SS officials, to die in the final resistance or be killed for not resisting the Allies. As long as Kesselring is still in Italy he feels he still has power and is willing to use that power to surrender, in return for concessions. The official did not make it clear as to whether concessions to FM Kesselring and his staff or Germany, in general, are desired.

Feb 26, 1945, Memorandum for the President

The following information, transmitted by the OSS representative in Bern, Allen W. Dulles, is a sequel to a memorandum dated February 9.

Alexander Constantin von Neurath, the German Consul at Lugano, while visiting his father (the former Foreign Minister and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia) near Stuttgart on February 10, received a telephone call from FM Kesselring, advising him to go to a secret rendezvous where he found Gen Siegfried Westphal, chief of staff to Rundstedt, and FM Johannes Blaskowitz, former commander of Army Group G on the Western Front. Von Neurath knew Westphal well, having served with him for two years as a liaison officer in North Africa; he knew Blaskowitz less well. The three frankly discussed the possibility of opening the Western Front to the Allies. Westphal and Blaskowitz questioned the value of taking such a step if they were merely to be considered war criminals. They added that it was increasingly difficult to organize any large-scale move to open the front because of the technical difficulties presented by the SS and the state of mind of the troops. They said that their armies included large elements of Germans from East Prussia and Eastern Germany whose fighting qualities had been stiffened by the Soviet occupation of their home areas.

These troops, they explained, motivated by the feeling that they have lost everything and having no homes or families to which to return, consider it better to stay on and fight. Westphal even declared that the troops sometimes refuse to obey orders from headquarters to retire, stating that since they are holding good positions and may not find as good ones in the rear, they prefer to fight it out where they are. Neither Gen Westphal nor Gen Blaskowitz made definite suggestions. They appear, however: (a) to be working with FM Kesselring; (b) to have uppermost in their minds the idea of opening up the Western and Italian Fronts to the Allies; (c) to be approaching the point where they might discuss such an arrangement on purely military lines with an American Army officer. Prerequisites to such a discussion would be adequate security arrangements and personal assurances that they would not be included in the war criminals list but would be granted some basis to justify their action, such as an opportunity to help in the orderly liquidation and to prevent unnecessary destruction in Germany. Von Neurath, now back in Switzerland, plans to report to FM Kesselring his conversation with Gen Westphal and Gen Blaskowitz and to determine whether a routine reason can be found for Westphal to visit Kesselring.

The OSS representative comments that while von Neurath may obtain further direct access to FM Kesselring without arousing SS and SD suspicions, he must exercise the greatest care. The representative doubts that von Neurath will be guilty of indiscretion since his own life is apparently at stake and since his background is non-Nazi. The representative describes von Neurath as not brilliant but a reasonably solid type who has excellent relations with the Reichswehr as a result of his long liaison work in North Africa. If Gen Westphal makes the trip to Italy he could probably stay only a very short time without arousing suspicion since FM Kesselring himself is already the subject of press rumors which may result in his elimination by Himmler. The London Daily Dispatch, (Feb 24, 1945), carried a story from its Bern correspondent stating that FM Kesselring has offered secretly to the Allies to withdraw under pressure, leaving North Italian cities intact and preventing neo-Fascist destruction, in return for which he has asked for assurances that he would not be considered a war criminal and would be allowed to retire his troops to Germany to maintain order.

The OSS representative declares that while he cannot predict the chances of successfully persuading Gen Westphal and FM Kesselring to open up the Italian and Western Fronts simultaneously, he judges them to be sufficient to justify careful consideration of the idea. He believes that no political quid pro quo or impairment of the unconditional surrender principle would be involved if conversations were held between an American officer and these German officers. Such conversations, which could be held in the Lugano area on the Swiss side of the Italy-Swiss border, would have to await the outcome of von Neurath’s forthcoming meeting with FM Kesselring. The OSS representative in Caserta reports that AFHQ is interested in obtaining positive and authentic confirmation of FM Kesselring’s disposition to negotiate with the Allies. AFHQ feels that if FM Kesselring wishes to dispatch an emissary with an official message, he could find means to do so

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