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A new book details the remarkable life of Lord Rennell the unsung British hero who took on the Mafia

A new book details the remarkable life of Francis Rodd, diplomat, oyster seller, of a friend of Lawrence of Arabia, and scourge of mobsters

Major General Lord Rennell, Chief of Civil Affairs in Sicily in 1943 CREDIT: Imperial War Museum

When 48-year-old Francis Rodd, 2nd Lord Rennell, was appointed Chief Civil Affairs Officer of Allied-occupied Sicily in 1943, he had a major bone of contention with the Americans. They had sacked all the Italian fascist officials but replaced them with local Mafia bosses. Some of the American officers were too close to the mobsters and the British administrator vowed to break their hold over the island. It was a dangerous task, but for Rennell, who left his career in the City to explore the Sahara in his 20s, it was just another interesting challenge. During the time he was in charge of law and order on the island, he perhaps came closest to smashing the pernicious influence of the Cosa Nostra. The eventful life of this unsung British hero is now fully revealed in the first biography of him, The Life and World of Francis Rodd, Lord Rennell by Dr Philip Boobbyer, which has just been published. The son of a poet and diplomat, Rennell served in the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, befriended Lawrence of Arabia, won the Royal Geographical Society’s Medal for his study of Tuareg nomads in the Sahara, and then, towards the end of his working life, was seconded to wartime Sicily for his most difficult mission of all.

Lord Rennell with a Tuareg guide at T’ekhmedin in 1922 (photo originally from his book, People of the Veil) CREDIT: Philip Boobbyer

I first came across Rennell while researching Mafia activities during the Second World War in the National Archives. Confidential War Office notes revealed the extent of his concerns about the resurrection of the Cosa Nostra. “Here, my difficulty resides in the Sicilian omertà code of honour,” he explains. “I cannot get much information, even from the local Carabinieri who, in outstations, inevitably feel that they had better keep their mouths shut and their skins whole if the local AMGOT [Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories] representation choose to appoint a Mafioso, lest they be accused by AMGOT of being pro-fascist.” Mafia enforcers, newly released from fascist prisons, were murdering rivals in order to reassert control over their criminal empire. To combat local corruption, Rennell deployed 65 London Metropolitan Police officers. (“A British bobby seems to be able to turn his hand to most things,” said a later report.) To avoid intimidation of local jurors, serious Mafia cases were transferred to military tribunals. Death sentences were carried out rapidly by firing squad. With Rennell, there was a new sheriff in town and he would be no pushover – even for the Mafia. When not being chastised by him, Americans were generally amused by his upper-class eccentricities, including “gracefully indulging in a piece of snuff taken from a silver snuff box”.

Ultimately, American Cold War interests allowed the post-war return of the godfathers to battle communism in Sicily, but Rennell had shown how a determined outsider could suppress organized crime during his stewardship.

Born in 1895, Rennell was the son of diplomat James Rennell Rodd, the 1st Baron Rennell, posted to Rome and British East Africa. A prize-winning poet, his father moved in bohemian circles, too, associating with James Whistler and Oscar Wilde. An earlier ancestor, James Rennell, was surveyor-general to the East India Company and a pioneering oceanographer. Educated at Eton and Oxford Balliol, Rennell joined the diplomatic service in 1919 but quit to work as a stockbroker at the Bank of England. Ever hungry for new experiences, he took time off to explore the Sahara, where he lived among Tuareg nomads to write People of the Veil, a groundbreaking study of their culture.

On camels in the Sahara in 1927 – Lord Rennell is on the right CREDIT: Philip Boobbyer

With full access to his family papers, historian Boobbyer, also Rennell’s grandson, was determined to chronicle the “extraordinary variety of his life.” But despite his many achievements, Rennell’s private correspondence reveals he was riven by self-doubt and was clearly a “restless person”.

It was while serving in the Middle East during the First World War that Rennell met T E Lawrence, and his passion for exploring desert landscapes was triggered. “There are few people in this wide world I have greater admiration for than Lawrence and I like him very well besides,” he wrote. His first expedition to the Sahara was conducted while he was still at the Foreign Office. The second trip in 1927 allowed him to escape his “dog’s life” working in the City of London. He and his companions mapped 400 square miles of unknown territory. His reports on centuries-old nomad road networks suddenly became highly valuable when war broke out again, and he passed this on to Ralph Bagnold, founder of the Long Range Desert Group, guides to the SAS in their missions behind enemy lines. Rennell also played a key role in military intelligence in West Africa while forging links with General de Gaulle in 1940 during his time in Lagos discussing French colonies following the fall of France. “All this is very odd and awkward,” he noted. “[De Gaulle] will not be ordered about; the more people tell him what to do the more strongly he reacts.”

In moments of boredom in Nigeria, Rennell set up a business selling oysters from the coast. Rennell’s work in banking became vital to national security, too. Transferred to Rome with the British-Italian Bank, he was close to Benito Mussolini. His easy command of Italian, thanks to his father’s earlier placement there, enabled him to talk directly to the fascist leader. Although he was not attracted to totalitarianism, his younger wayward brother Peter Rodd married Nancy Mitford, with both of them initially becoming fans of the British Union of Fascists.

While remaining a director at Morgan Grenfell, Rennell joined the Ministry of Economic Warfare in 1939, where he sought to detach Mussolini from Nazi Germany with the offer of a trade deal, buying Italian aircraft engines and weapons in return for British coal and bank loans. “I am sure we should play into Mussolini’s court and give him as many balls to return as possible,” he said.

In the end, demands to align with Germany undermined the deal, but it had been a clever idea to put economic pressure on Mussolini and, if it had come off, could have changed the course of the war in the Mediterranean. Rennell partly blamed the slowness of British bureaucracy to seize the moment and this may well have led him to be far more assertive in Sicily, acting directly and decisively against resurgent mobsters.

Boobbyer’s biography finally gives full credit to

From bold explorer to the international banker to hammer of the Mafia, his service to his country and the wider world was extensive and ingenious – a great British hero rediscovered.