The story of ‘King Bomba’ – Emidio Recchioni (1864-1934)

Emidio Recchioni (1864-1934) Kensal Green Cemetery, Harrow Road, London (© Hey, mippy)

Emidio Recchioni (1864-1934), a republican railway worker, born in Ravenna, who converted to the anarchist Idea in the early 1890s under the influence of Ancona-based Cesare Agostinelli, publisher of the anarchist newspaper Sempre Avanti.

Arrested in 1894 in the repression that followed the assassination attempt on hated Prime Minister Francesco Crispi by the anarchist Paolo Lega, Recchioni was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Released in 1897 he, Errico Malatesta and other comrades launched another Ancona-based newspaper ‘L’Agitazione’ which led to his rearrest and deportation to the prison island of Ustica (one of Italy’s many island prison colonies) in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Escaping in 1898, he fled to London where he opened a popular delicatessen in Soho’s Old Compton Street, specialising in Italian wine, pasta and smoked hams. He also traded in Carrara marble, Carrara being a centre of Italian anarchist activism, and supported financially — and wrote for under his pen name ‘Nemo’ — the Italian anarchist press, especially La Protesta and the Galleanist paper L’Adunata dei Refrattari.

‘King Bomba’ (the guys in the Trilby’s and macs look suspiciously like Special Branch)

Named ‘King Bomba‘ — an ironic reference to the tyrant King Ferdinand II of the two Sicilies (1810-1859) — Recchioni’s shop was frequented by British writers, intellectuals and political and literary exiles of the day and, later, following Mussolini’s accession to power, Italian anti-fascists. As a political activist and sociometric star of the radical and literary Soho milieu, Recchioni acquired a wide and influential friendship circle of British socialists and liberals, among them the man who in 1924 was to become the first British Labour prime minister, James Ramsey MacDonald.

‘L’Adunata Dei Refrattari’

Recchioni’s influence, his wealth and his key role as a facilitator and funder of the Italian anarchist and anti-fascist movement (including the clandestine ‘Arditi del Popolo’ movement) made him a high-priority target for Mussolini’s secret police, the OVRA (Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell’Antifascismo — “Organisation for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism”, a body formed in 1927); it also earned him the obsessive hostility of Lieutenant Colonel John F.C. Carter, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a mercifully incompetent right-wing, anti-labour union fantasist and former MI5 officer who, in 1928, had been appointed head of the MP Special Branch. (It was around this time, according to a contemporary eye-witness, the late R. Stuart Montague — an old, rather  posh unattached Marxist who used to hang around Speakers Corner in  the sixties and had taken part in unemployed demonstrations in the  thirties — that only half a mile or so away members of the British Fascisti were using the firing range at Great Marlborough Street police station for small-arms  training and practice.) Carter’s information on Recchioni originated almost entirely from OVRA and pro-fascist, right-wing, private industrial intelligence agencies, the so-called ‘Casuals’. (In 1921 Mussolini’s Fascio had opened an office close to King Bomba’s premises in nearby Noel Street, the object of which being to monitor and intimidate London’s large Italian community, an office that later became OVRA’s unofficial base in the British capital.)

Lt. Colonel John F.C. Carter (Metropolitan Police Special Branch)

Arturo Bocchini, 1931 (head of Mussolini’s OVRA)

In 1929 OVRA agents, working with Metropolitan Police Special Branch officers, began circulating stories in British and Italian political and newspaper circles that Recchioni was organising and funding plots to assassinate Mussolini. Colonel Carter gave credence to these stories by providing Rome with Special Branch surveillance reports and photographs of Recchioni meeting other Italian anti-fascist émigrés. He also informed his OVRA colleagues that he was limited in his abilities to act against Recchioni as the latter had ‘a personal friendship with Prime Minister MacDonald’. Home Office files show that Carter successfully opposed Recchioni’s application for British citizenship under the previous Conservative government, but was overruled when MacDonald came to Downing Street. The subsequent Police Commissioner, Lord Trenchard, wrote in a top secret note that: ‘Recchioni was naturalised in spite of a bad report from the Superintendent of the Special Branch who described him as an “ intriguer of the first order”’. Carter eventually withdrew his opposition to Recchioni’s naturalisation following a ‘full and frank discussion‘ with Sir John Pedder, the Principal Assistant Secretary at the Home Office.

It is hardly surprising that Ramsay MacDonald gave little credence to the conspiratorial and anti-trade union obsessions of the Special Branch and MI5, the competing security service. He was fully aware that it was they who, in all probability, were the facilitators of the so-called ‘Zinoviev letter’ (the White Russian forgery published in the Daily Mail) that led to the downfall of his first and short-lived Labour government in 1924.

In 1931 Recchioni travelled to Brussels on his new British passport, followed closely by a Special Branch officer called J. O’Reilly, whose report, which was due to remain closed until 2035, is heavily redacted — but it does reveal that instead of the trip leading to Recchioni’s arrest, the then Home Secretary and Police Commissioner, Lord Trenchard, chose to obstruct the course of justice rather than allow sensitive information come to light. What that information was remains unknown to this day.

Angello Sbardellotto (1907-1932)

The purpose of his trip, according to Special Branch officer O’Reilly, was for Recchioni to meet with members of the Brussels-based International Anarchist Defence Committee (CIDA), and a 28-year-old Italian anarchist coalminer by the name of Angelo Sbardellotto*. Sbardellotto was arrested in June the following year with two handgrenades, a pistol and a forged Swiss passport. His mission, according to his confession  — extracted by OVRA officers under torture — had been to assassinate Mussolini. Recchioni, he claimed, had provided him with the money, weapons and plan for the attempt. The Italian secret police sent Sbardellotto’s signed confession to London with a list of the dates on which they were alleged to have met, and a request for Recchioni’s extradition.

Emidio Recchioni (1920-21) with son Vero (left) and daughter Vera
© Archivio Famiglia Berneri – Aurelio Chessa

The Home Office ordered a search of the register of cross-Channel passengers at Dover and Folkestone to establish Recchioni’s movements and to see if they corresponded with the dates allegedly provided by Sbardelotto in his confession. According to the Special Branch, perhaps unsurprisingly, they matched perfectly. In a fearless leap of the imagination they went on to affirm that ‘from a record of journeys it seems likely that he (Recchioni) is in fact the person who supplied the bombs.’

Matters were further complicated when a Daily Telegraph article — quoting Italian sources — identified Recchioni as one of those involved in the alleged, and unsuccessful, assassination plot. Recchioni immediately sued the Daily Telegraph for damages to his reputation, as a ‘virtuous man’. Shortly before the action — against the Daily Telegraph’s owner, Lord Camrose — was due to be heard in the King’s Bench Division, the newspaper’s lawyers asked Colonel Carter for help. Lord Trenchard, the new police commissioner, then wrote to Herbert Samuel MP, the Liberal Home Secretary in MacDonald’s National Government: ‘The DT have applied to Colonel Carter to know if he can help them, but we have told him that the only possible reply is that he has no evidence that he can give.

This was patently untrue. There was much Carter could have said, but had he gone into the witness box he would have had to explain, under oath, why — against his strongest advice and on the basis of what he knew and where that information originated from — OVRA informers and agents provocateurs — which included intelligence on an alleged attempt by Recchioni to purchase an aeroplane in Britain for an unspecified mission in Italy — the Italian anarchist’s naturalisation process had been  ‘fast-tracked’ upon MacDonald’s arrival in Downing Street.

‘Only a handful of earth and ashes, but impregnated with the spirit of a man who lived, suffered, and deserved well of mankind. He knew no fatherland but the world, no family but the human race, no religion but love. No tomb can prison his soul. From such rare spirits must spring the roots of a society worthy of memory in which life will be worth living.’ 31 March 1934. © hey, mippy

In a secret note, sent ‘by hand as I thought you ought to see it first’ Trenchard remarked to Samuel: ‘It is unfortunate that Recchioni may get damages out of the DT , but I do not see how it can be helped’. Samuel approved this decision, Carter never appeared at the hearing and the Telegraph lost the court case. Recchioni, who spent, apparently, a mere £35 in paying Sbardellotto’s costs to kill Mussolini — received £1,177 in damages. He died two years later while undergoing medical treatment in Paris.

* Angelo Pellegrino Sbardellotto, Italian anarchist and coalminer, was shot in the back at dawn on 17  June 1932, at Fort Bretta in Rome, by a fascist militia firing squad, after refusing to see a priest.