Roderick Stephen Hall was an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agent during World War II and conducted one of the most daring behind-the-lines operations of the war. His mission, which he himself proposed, dropped him and other OSS operatives deep inside Italy where they conducted sabotage missions against the German military in the Brenner Pass region.
They were to attack bridges to disrupt the Nazi’s supply route to their troops farther south in Italy as well as organize and resupply bands of Italian partisans. He lived on his wits and mountain skills for six months. But in late January 1945, Hall was betrayed by a partisan and he was arrested by the German SS (Schutzstaffel). He was sent to a concentration camp at Bolzano where he was tortured and then hanged on Feb. 20, 1945. His murderers were caught after the war, three were executed and one of them was given a life sentence in prison.
Hall was born in China in 1915 to an international businessman father and a doctor mother. He attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass, graduating in 1934. After graduation, Hall traveled and spent many months in the Brenner Pass area of Italy, hiking, mountain climbing, and skiing. As a result, he was intimately familiar with the area.
Returning to the United States, he enrolled at Yale University but eschewed academics for the war effort once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He left school and enlisted in the Army as a private.
It didn’t take long for Hall to make an impression on his superiors and before long he was a second lieutenant. While assigned to an Engineer unit, Hall wrote a letter to the OSS in 1943, outlying the importance of the Brenner Pass to the Germans and offering a plan to attack the strategic bridges and volunteering to lead it. CIA has copies of not only this letter but several others he wrote during his wartime service to his family. It provides amazing detail on what was transpiring in Italy.
Hall didn’t believe anyone would read, let alone pay attention to his letter. But the Special Operations Branch of OSS read it and they were sold. He received orders to report to OSS Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
When looking at the kind of eclectic group that General William “Wild Bill” Donovan was putting together for OSS operatives, Hall, known as Steve to his friends fit the bill exactly. Born overseas to well-to-do parents, he was an Ivy Leaguer who traveled the world extensively and was an above-average athlete, who excelled at hiking, skiing, and climbing. And the fact that he was intimately familiar with the proposed target area made him a no-brainer to bring on-board.
After going thru training for hand-to-hand combat, sabotage techniques, demolitions, and guerrilla warfare tactics, he was sent to North Africa to teach demolitions. But soon after, he was pulled from there and reassigned to Caserta, Italy where Company D, 2677th OSS Regiment awaited. His proposed mission was going to be a reality. He returned to Algiers for parachute training and then it was back to Italy for quick language immersion and survival training course.
The Mission of a Lifetime:
Hall and the rest of the team parachuted into at Monte Pala in the foothills of the Alps of northern Italy. However, they were 85 miles from the Brenner Pass, so the men would be walking a long way to their target area.
The 5-man team consisted of Captain Lloyd G. Smith, the commander, 1LT Joseph Lukitsch, Hall, radio operator Stanley Sbeig, a Navy specialist, and Technician third grade Victor Malaspino.
Their first target was the bridge at Tolmezzo, that was unguarded due to how far behind the lines it was. Their explosives didn’t destroy the bridge but damaged it enough so that no heavy loads would be able to cross it. The team kept moving farther north, on the way, targeting several smaller bridges that could be used to ferry supplies and maintain their communications. The team also made contact with local partisan forces and arranged some supply drops and gathering whatever intelligence they could glean about the German troop dispositions.
As the weather turned to winter, the snow and frigid cold hampered their operations. Hall’s feet froze with frostbite and he went into the small town of Todesch di Vallada where Hall had hoped to recover and lay low until the war was over.
After six months, the bodies of the team in the extreme elements of the mountains began to break down. Hall, however, was determined to keep going. On January 25, 1945, he set out in blizzard conditions to attempt to blow the hydroelectric plant at Cortina d’ Ampezzo. It wasn’t long before his feet became so frostbitten and swollen, he couldn’t continue.
Hall was found by a game warden who promised to send help. Hiding out with a local priest, Hall was arrested when the game warden, instead turned him over to the Fascist police. One of the local partisans then identified Hall as a member of OSS.
The Fascist police then turned Hall over to the SS. Soon after that, Hall was sent to the nearby Bolzano concentration camp. Here, Hall was tortured brutally for two weeks and then despite being captured in uniform was hung in Bolzano’s torture chamber on Feb. 20, 1945. The Nazis tried to cover their blatant disregard for their war crime under the Geneva Convention by having the doctor on-hand say that Hall’s death was a suicide.
The doctor was an inmate himself at Bolzano and wasn’t allowed to even examine the body. The doctor knew that if he didn’t sign the death certificate, the Nazis would bury Hall in an unmarked grave. So, this camp physician wrote the cause of death was “paralisi cardiaca” (cardiac paralysis), even though that condition doesn’t exist.
After the war was over, Hall’s burial place was found and he was exhumed and reburied with full military honors in Florence American Cemetery and Memorial in Florence, Italy. He was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit.
War Crime Trial:
Four SS officers were tried for war crimes, relating to Hall’s death. Untersturmführer Heinrich Andergassen, and three others, Sturmbannführer August Schiffer, Oberscharführer Albert Storz, and Gendarmerie officer Hans Butz were all tried in Naples in 1946 for war crimes.
Andergassen admitted his role during interrogation and quickly implicated the others. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death on July, 19,1946. Andergassen, Storz, and Schiffer were hanged. Butz was sentenced to life in prison.
A book was written about the entire operation titled “The Brenner Assignment” by Patrick K. O’Donnell and can be ordered here:
As we mentioned above, CIA has a treasure trove of Hall’s letters, some of which were hidden by Italian citizens to send to Hall’s family after the war. They contain in exquisite detail, what Hall and the team were doing in Italy. Those can be read here:
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