Italy was bombed for only a month less than Germany during the Second World War. Yet the story of the bombing of most of Italy’s cities failed to attract the attention of the wider world in 1945 and has remained on the margins in most narratives of the conflict ever since. As many Italians were killed by bombing as died in the Blitz on Britain; more tons were dropped on Rome than on all British cities put together. Moreover, the damage to Italy’s ancient heritage filled two volumes when it was investigated by a British committee in 1945, set up to preserve for future generations the “artistic wealth” that Allied aircraft had been busy bombarding only months before.1
Italy’s part in the bombing war was more complex than that of any other European state. For at least three years, from June 10, 1940, when Benito Mussolini declared war on Britain and France, the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) had carried out an active bombing campaign: briefly against targets in France (before the French sued for an armistice in June 1940), against England in the late autumn of 1940, and throughout the Mediterranean and North Africa until final defeat there in May 1943. Some of this air activity had been carried out in loose collaboration with German air forces. Throughout this period, though not continuously, Italian territory was itself bombed by the RAF, from bases in England as well as bases in Malta and North Africa. On September 8, 1943, following an Italian request for an armistice, the Italian state ceased to be an Axis enemy and became, after a short interval, a cobelligerent with the United Nations and an enemy of Germany, whose forces now occupied two-thirds of the Italian peninsula. For the next two years, the few Italian pilots and aircraft remaining in the area not occupied by the Germans were used to attack German forces in the Balkans and the Ionian Islands, the first raids taking place against targets on Corfu and Cephalonia as early as September 1943.2 Meanwhile, in the occupied zones of central and northern Italy a new government under Mussolini was installed under German protection in what was called the Italian Social Republic, and here a small Italian contingent, the National Republican Air Force (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana), fought in German aircraft against the Allies.3 Since German forces were in occupation, northern and central Italy remained a target for Allied bombing up until the very last days of the war, while the southern liberated zone was subject to occasional German air raids. The bulk of the Italian population was the object of air attack first as an enemy people, then as a population waiting to be liberated. The only constant in the Italian experience of war was the threat from the air.
“Great Delay to the Trains”: Allied Bombing, 1940–43
The possibility that Italy might take advantage of the Allies’ war with Germany to open up a new theater in the Mediterranean was evident long before Mussolini finally seized the opportunity of imminent French collapse to join his Axis partner. The prospect presented the RAF with additional bombing opportunities to consider if, or when, bombing targets in enemy cities was permitted. In the last week of April 1940, the commander of British air forces in France, Air Marshal Arthur Barratt, wrote to the Air Ministry suggesting that bomber forces could operate from bases in southern France against industrial cities in northern Italy.4 After the War Cabinet on June 1, 1940, had considered ways to cope with Italian belligerency, Barratt was instructed to begin planning the supply and maintenance of British bombers on southern French bases. In case of war, Italy was to be attacked “without warning.”5 By the time Italy declared war on June 10, “Haddock Force,” as it was known, had operational bases, fuel, and supplies on two southern French airfields. On June 11 a dozen Wellington bombers arrived, but the French military authorities were now opposed to any bombing of Italy that might provoke retaliation against French cities, and they parked trucks on the runway to prevent takeoff. Only after days of inter-Allied argument did a force of eight aircraft set off on the night of June 15–16 to bomb the port of Genoa, but only one found it; the following night six out of nine managed to locate and bomb Milan. Then the order came to evacuate following the French surrender and the 950 men of Haddock Force left on ships from Marseille on June 18, leaving all their stores and equipment behind.6 Only on the eve of the armistice between France and Italy did French aircraft attack Italian targets in Sicily on June 23 and 24, killing forty-five people in a gesture of pointless defiance.7
The decision to begin bombing Italy—a campaign that continued uninterrupted in one form or another for five years—brought none of the anxieties over legality or retaliation that had governed the decision to begin bombing Germany four weeks earlier, in mid-May. From the outset it was assumed that Italian morale under Fascism was likely to be a more brittle target than German society under Hitler. Bombing could hence be justified by the expectation of rapid and significant political consequences rather than slow economic attrition. The first raids on northern Italy carried out by Bomber Command from British bases in June and August 1940—three in all involving only seventeen aircraft—were reported to have had “a ‘stunning’ effect on Italian morale.”8 Intelligence fed to the RAF leadership suggested that Italy was “the heel of Achilles” in the Axis war effort, short of resources and with a population unhappy about having to fight Mussolini’s war.9 Since Italy was difficult to reach from British bases or from bases in Egypt with existing aircraft, heavy bombing was not yet an option. But since Italy was regarded as politically fragile, a leaflet war was mounted to try to persuade the population to give up the fight; a total of 4,780,500 leaflets were dropped between 1940 and 1942.10
Leaflets could easily be delivered by small numbers of aircraft operating out of RAF airbases on the island of Malta, a British colony situated only fifty-eight miles south of the coast of Sicily. Italian aircraft had already bombed the island, starting with a small raid on June 11, 1940, on the morning after the Italian declaration of war, but the hesitant nature and small scale of most Italian raids thereafter failed to eliminate the threat from the RAF, small though it was at first. In December 1940 the RAF commander on Malta was ordered to begin a concerted propaganda campaign since leaflets were considered for the moment to be “more effective than bombs.”11 One of the first leaflets drafted on Malta in November 1940 called for an Italian uprising: “On hearing the great signal all of you on to the Square—armed with whatever you can lay your hands on, hoes, pickaxes, shotguns, even sticks.” The text called on Italians to create a civilized and democratic Italy and to be ready for the call (in block capitals) to “COUNTER-REVOLUTION.”12 Much of the leaflet campaign linked the call for Italian political resistance with the threat of bombing. A leaflet printed in January 1941 asked Italians to choose—“Mussolini or bombs?”—and 100,000 copies were flown from Luqa airfield to cities in southern Italy. In April 1941 a new leaflet under the headline “ROME IS IN DANGER” threatened to bomb the Italian capital if Mussolini ordered the bombing of Athens or Cairo.13 By this time a handful of Italian fighter and bomber aircraft had taken a brief and inglorious part in the late stages of the Battle of Britain, and British leaflets promised the Italian population that Mussolini would be paid back in kind for helping Hitler.
Nothing in the end came of the political initiative, and the bombing was in reality small-scale and intermittent, a “small switch,” as Charles Portal put it, rather than “a big stick.”14 Throughout 1940 and 1941 there were twenty-four small raids by Bomber Command (only four of them in 1941) and ninety-five raids from Malta, most of them by handfuls of Wellington bombers, seldom more than ten at a time, on their way to bases in the Middle East.15 In November 1940, for example, six Wellingtons attacked Naples, where they reported a poor blackout, no searchlights or enemy aircraft, and inaccurate antiaircraft fire. A raid on Taranto by ten Wellingtons on November 13–14 could be carried out from 5,000 feet because there were once again no searchlights, aircraft, or barrage balloons, and inaccurate gunfire. The blackout was poor in all areas and trains could be seen running between towns fully lit.16 There were points in 1941 at which intensified bombing of Italy was considered, but the priority in the Mediterranean was to prevent Axis victory in North Africa and to keep the sea lanes open, and this absorbed all the RAF effort in the theater. In October 1941 the Foreign Office suggested that at the right moment, when Italian morale was judged to be cracking, a heavy bomb attack might prove to be “a knock-out blow,” but Portal insisted that the war in Libya took priority.17 The Foreign Office suggested again in January 1942 a surprise raid on German field marshal Albert Kesselring’s headquarters at Frascati, near Rome, but the Air Ministry again demurred in favor of military targets in North Africa.18 In the first nine months of 1942 there was only one Bomber Command raid on Italy, in April against Savona on the Ligurian coast, and thirty-four small raids from Malta against airbases and ports, despite the heavy Axis bombing of the island. For most of the period from late 1940 to the late autumn of 1942, much of Italy was spared anything more than damaging nuisance raids.19 What Portal did allow was for RAF bombers from Malta to hit “centres of Italian population” if the primary military or economic target could not be hit, a policy already applied in the bombing of Germany.20
This situation changed suddenly and dramatically for the Italian population in late October 1942 when the war in North Africa turned in the Allies’ favor at El Alamein, followed by the invasion of northwest Africa in November. Imminent Italian defeat encouraged the view, as Churchill put it in early December, that “the heat should be turned on Italy.”21 Portal assured him that Italy would become “Bombing Target No. 1,” absorbing the same tonnage of bombs against the main ports and industrial cities as Germany.22 Bomber Command was ordered to begin area bombing of northern Italian cities as the weather deteriorated over Germany. In the last two months of 1942 six area raids were made on Genoa, seven raids on Turin, and one daylight raid against Milan. There was negligible resistance to the daytime raid, by eighty-eight Lancasters, and bombs were released over Milan from as low as 2,500 feet, though the post-raid report indicated that there had been too few incendiaries dropped to cause the kind of fire damage common in area attacks on Germany. Indeed, detailed research by the RE8 department for the Air Ministry showed that Italian architecture was less prone to either lateral or vertical fire damage than German because of the extensive use of stone and marble, the solid stone flooring, the thickness and mass of the walls, and the wide courtyards and streets. RE8 recommended dropping high explosive on modern multistory apartment blocks, which were more vulnerable than traditional pre–nineteenth century construction, and where a lucky strike in the enclosed courtyard would maximize the blast effect of a bomb.23 The Air Ministry nevertheless remained confident that incendiary damage in Italian cities would still be greater than damage from high explosive, as long as firebombs were dropped accurately enough on the most congested city-center areas, Zones 1 and 2A, and included a proportion of explosive incendiaries to discourage the firefighters.24
The onset of the air offensive in October 1942 revealed the extent to which the Italian armed forces, the Fascist Party, and the civil defense organization were unprepared for the effective protection, either active or passive, of the civilian population, and of the economic and industrial resources sustaining Italy’s war effort. The Italian Air Force had devoted little effort to constructing a network of air defenses to match the system in Britain or Germany. Its posture had been offensive from the start, still strongly influenced by the legacy of the Italian air theorist Giulio Douhet, who twenty years before had advocated large-scale bombing as the core of air strategy. After three years of war the chief of the air staff, Rino Fougier, was forced to admit that Italy was “in practice without effective defence.”25 Most fighter aircraft had been used in support of the ground armies in Greece and North Africa, while a night-fighter capability scarcely existed despite the fact that most raids until 1943 were by night. By September 1942, Italian night fighters had flown only 380 hours on operations, compared with 158,100 hours for day fighters.26Searchlights, antiaircraft batteries, and radar were available in limited quantities, but were not integrated into a national system of communication to cope with identifying and challenging incoming aircraft (even the daylight raid on Milan had prompted the air-raid alarm only after the bombs were already falling). Italian air defenses relied heavily on light 20-millimeter guns, which could not reach high-flying bombers; the plans for 300 batteries of 90-millimeter guns were never met.27 Fighters were supposed to provide protection during the day, when there were few, if any, raids, while antiaircraft fire was supposed to defend at night, but neither operated at local level under a coordinated command, since antiaircraft artillery was a branch of the army.28 There were severe shortages of aviation fuel and of modern aircraft, while air-to-ground radio communication had still not been introduced by the end of 1942. Reports from fighter units in the south, now facing daylight raids by American air forces, showed that in many cases scrambled fighters arrived too late to intercept bombers, or in other cases lacked the speed to catch them. One squadron in January 1943 was compelled to send aircraft out just one or two at a time; another group was forced to operate six different types of fighters, some biplanes, some monoplanes, one of them German and eight of them French, with all the problems of coordination and maintenance likely to arise from a hybrid unit.29
Following the first major raids in late 1942, an effort was made to find a way of disposing the limited defensive resources to maximize their effectiveness. It was decided that the German system should be carefully investigated to see whether lessons could be drawn for the Italian air defense system; in June 1943, Josef Kammhuber, commander of the German air defenses, came to Italy to discuss how to set up a collaborative air defense structure using Italian and German units and radar. By the summer only one Italian radar station had been completed, while the rest required between six weeks and two months before they would be available.30 Some Italian pilots were sent for night-fighter training in Germany, but on their return found it difficult to cope with the very different conditions on an Italian airbase.31 The organization of an integrated and unified air defense system had still not been agreed on when the Mussolini regime collapsed in July. As Italy’s military capability evidently declined from late 1942, so German forces stationed in the peninsula came to rely more on their own antiaircraft defenses. By 1943, 300 German antiaircraft batteries had been transferred to Italy, but German forces refused to allow Italian troops to man them, as had been agreed. By June 1943 the German Air Force had night-fighter bases and radar installed along Italy’s coastline in thirty-three “boxes,” imitating the Kammhuber Line in Germany; two months later there were also ten German night-fighter units protecting Turin, Milan, Genoa, and other north Italian cities as far as Brescia and Venice.32 This situation could produce its own friction. In Milan in February 1943, German antiaircraft guns opened up on four Italian fighters, forcing them to abandon their operation. When the local Italian commander complained, the German antiaircraft unit told him that as far as they were concerned Italian fighter pilots flew at their own risk.33
Italian Air Force leaders had counted from at least 1941 onward on German assistance in supplying aircraft, aero-engines, and advanced machine tools for the Italian aviation industry, but supply never matched requirements. A total of 706 German aircraft were delivered to Italian units over the whole course of the war, some 448 in the period when Italy was an Axis ally. The figure was a fraction of German output, and was divided among fifteen different types, of varying quality. Some 300 were Me109s, but most of these were supplied in 1943 and 1944 to the new National Republican Air Force; there were 155 Ju87 Stuka dive bombers, but the rest were small packets of aircraft for airborne operations or bombing. The Italian Air Force was supplied with only 14 night fighters for the campaign against night bombing.34 Italy also relied on German supplies of radar equipment. In the course of 1942, five Freya and ten Würzburg sets were made available, a fraction of what was needed. When a new air observation system was organized in the summer of 1943, the Italian Difesa Contraerea Territoriale (DICAT), which had hitherto employed an observer corps based on acoustic devices, was supposed to operate a system of radar “boxes” alongside German radar, but it had to wait for the slow supply of equipment from the German Telefunken manufacturer in order to be able to protect even the major target areas of Milan, Naples, Rome, Turin, and Genoa.35 German reluctance to supply more was based on a number of considerations. When the Italian Air Force asked for machinery to help them modernize the aircraft industry in the summer of 1941, the German Air Ministry replied that supplies were placed in three categories: essential equipment for German industry; essential machinery for industry in occupied Europe working directly to German orders or for neutrals supplying vital raw materials; and inessential orders, including Italian. The German side took the view that if they helped Italy, they would be assisting a potential competitor when regular commercial activity restarted after the war.36
The failure of Italian air defense was matched by the poor state of preparation of civil defense and the welfare and rescue services on which it relied. By a law of March 5, 1934, the provincial prefects, representing the state rather than the Fascist Party, were to assume responsibility for all local civil defense measures. Comprehensive instructions on all aspects of civil defense, including evacuation, shelters, antigas preparations, and firefighting, were first issued in 1938 by the War Ministry.37 In 1939, to avoid confusion between military and civil responsibilities, the War Ministry confirmed that the prefects rather than the local commanders of Italy’s military zones had to organize the protection of the population under the Ministry of the Interior, but instructions continued to be sent from the War Ministry department Protezione Antiaerea on into the war, creating regular arguments over jurisdiction between the two ministries. Each local prefecture had a Provincial Inspectorate for Anti-Air Protection to oversee civil defense measures, but action in the 1930s was slow and piecemeal.38 For one thing, the funds available were severely limited, around one-tenth of the sums allocated to active air defense. Given these limitations, the state had to decide on an order of priority. It was assumed that major industrial and military targets should be protected, but in case of total war it might be necessary to protect “all the centres of population, based on a scale of the number of inhabitants.”39 Since there was neither the money nor the materials and equipment to provide universal civil defense, resources were concentrated in the most likely target areas. Gas masks, for example, were produced in 1939 for only 2 million out of a population of 45 million, the majority allocated to Rome, Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Naples, the rest to just eleven other cities. The shelter program had scarcely begun in 1939, with places in public shelters for just 72,000 people and in domestic shelters for a further 190,000.40 Not until the day war was declared, June 10, 1940, did the War Ministry send out to prefects a list of cities ranked in order of priority for civil defense activity, including the blackout. Category “P” included twenty-eight major ports and industrial centers, where civil defense measures were to be introduced “with maximum intensity and speed”; category “M” covered twenty-three smaller cities where civil defense provisions could be introduced “with a slower rhythm and lesser intensity”; category “S” left forty-one cities (some of which, like Grosseto, were to be almost completely destroyed by bombing) where the authorities were free to carry out measures if they wanted to, “within the limits of possibility.”41
Unlike National Socialist Germany, Fascist Italy failed to mobilize a large mass movement for voluntary civil defense. Instead a more modest Unione Nazionale Protezione Antiaerea (UNPA) was set up in August 1934 under the direction of the War Ministry to educate the civilian population on how to observe civil defense requirements, to prepare for the blackout, to convert cellars and basements into improvised air-raid shelters, and to train volunteers for post-raid welfare and rescue work. By 1937, UNPA had recruited only 150,000 volunteers, in contrast to 11 million in Germany, and was constantly short of adequate funds.42 UNPA organizers had to be members of the Fascist Party and local block or house wardens (capi fabbricato), responsible for organizing civil defense in their neighborhood buildings, were also appointed directly by the party from among UNPA members. Most of them were men over forty-five (all younger men were reserved for the armed services), women, or youths; they had in many cases only limited training, and numerous civil defense exercises before 1940 demonstrated a persistent confusion between the responsibilities of the police, civil defense workers, and the military air defense authorities.43 There can be little doubt that Italy entered the Second World War with inadequate resources to protect the civilian population and a civil defense organization uncertain of its functions and short of trained personnel. The inadequacies were fatally exposed when nine RAF bombers arrived over Turin and two over Genoa on the night of June 10–11, 1940, to find both cities entirely illuminated despite a plethora of instructions on operating the blackout in priority areas and regular blackout practices for years. Although detailed orders for observing the blackout had been distributed in May, there were regular complaints throughout the early period of raiding about its inadequacy, conspicuously so on air force bases and in ministry buildings in Rome. When Ciampino airbase, near the capital, was asked in October 1940 to explain the bright lights visible through a large window, the commandant replied that they had been unable to find a curtain large enough to cover it.44
The first raids were militarily insignificant, but they prompted an immediate sense of crisis among a population unprepared for the realities of war. On June 18 the prefect of Genoa complained to the Interior Ministry in Rome that the raids and alerts (three raids and seventeen aircraft) “have caused great delay to the trains.”45 It was immediately realized that alerts had the effect of halting production for long periods as workers scrambled to use the factory shelters or disappeared for hours in panic, leaving machines unattended and electricity and gas switched off. Factories working on war orders received stern instructions to treat each worker “like a soldier, who has an obligation to stay at his post in front of enemy fire.”46 Although factory workers were not in the end militarized, the UNPA personnel found themselves transformed into the status of “mobilized civilian” in August 1940 to maintain standards of discipline and to prevent members from trying to abandon civil defense responsibilities in the face of the real menace of bombing. The capo fabbricato, by a law of November 1, 1940, became a public official to emphasize the role of serving the community.47 For most of Italy beyond the major ports in the south and Sicily serving the Axis armies in North Africa, the bombing ceased to be a serious threat almost at once. Throughout 1941 and the first nine months of 1942 there were almost no raids, and as a result much less pressure to speed up effective civil defense preparations. Shelter provision remained poor (the War Ministry told prefects to let civilians use shelters in factories and public buildings because of the evident deficiency in domestic shelter), while basic protection for industry, including blast walls or sandbagging, depended on the funds available or the good sense of the owner. The same problem confronted the effort to organize the protection of Italy’s vast artistic and architectural heritage. Decrees and instructions on protection were regularly published from 1934 onward, but a general law on the Protection of Objects of Artistic or Historic Value was only published by the Ministry of Education in June 1939.48 Its provisions had scarcely begun to be introduced when on June 6, 1940, just days before the declaration of war, the local superintendents responsible for the artistic heritage were instructed to begin packing up and moving any portable artworks and putting sandbags and cladding over major churches and buildings. Around 100 depositories were established in Italy and hundreds of monuments given minimum protection, enough to cope with shrapnel or a distant blast, but not enough for a direct hit.49
All of this changed with the start of the Allied offensive in the autumn of 1942. The poor level of preparation for attacks on this scale helps to explain their substantial material and psychological impact compared with raiding on Germany. The bombing of Turin, particularly the heavy raids of November 20–21 and 28–29 by aircraft of Bomber Command, which hit both the industrial zone and the city center, resulted in extensive and random destruction. Over 100 firms indicated some damage, but in important cases the loss was almost total. A radar workshop was “entirely destroyed” along with 90 percent of its machinery; a firm producing magnetos for aero-engines was almost completely eliminated by just one bomb; a major aircraft repair factory, Aeronautica d’Italia, was burnt out, leaving only one production line still operating. A report on the raids on Genoa on November 13–14 and 15–16 listed damage to rails, electric power lines, and tunnels, much of which could be repaired, but at the Marconi radio works, production was “completely paralyzed” and had to be transferred to a nearby town.50 The threat to Italian production, already suffering from severe shortages of materials and equipment, was immediate. The War Ministry on November 15 circulated to all ministries a warning that war industry would now have to be decentralized and dispersed to areas where it could continue to function without the threat of paralyzing air attack.
A few days later the Supreme Command agreed to a comprehensive dispersal program from the main industrial regions. Firms were to try to find tunnels or underground facilities nearby to prevent too much disruption to work patterns or the loss of workers; where these were not available, decentralization into smaller firms in the locality was recommended; in extreme cases a radical transfer to a different zone was required where inessential plants could be closed down and their labor and factory space used by the evacuated firm.51 For businesses that could not easily be moved—steel production, for example—efforts were at last to be made to supply more antiaircraft batteries, smoke generators to obscure the zone, and a program of camouflage. A special committee was set up in December 1942 composed of representatives from the defense ministries and the Ministry of Corporations to draw up lists week by week of firms that were then ordered to disperse their production. Most went to towns or villages nearby, some into caves or man-made caverns. The dispersal provoked its own problems: shortages of trucks for transport, inadequate rail links, a shortage of skilled workers to assist the transfer, arguments with the Finance Ministry over subsidies and compensation for bombed-out businesses.52 Italian war production continued to decline during 1943 as firms tried to cope with the sudden demand to improvise the transfer of their production or with the continued heavy bombing of the industrial regions. Firms that had chosen to stay put, like Alfa Romeo, were forced by the summer of 1943 to move, in this case to the Grotte di San Rocco, a system of caves where, despite the stale air and high humidity, it was hoped that the workforce would be more productive than had been possible with regular alerts.53
The psychological and physical shock to the Italian population was much greater, as the British had hoped. Secure from the bombing war since the small raids in late 1940, the home front had not developed the infrastructure for civil defense or the mind-set to cope with sudden heavy raiding. Much of the damage was done to residential areas, since these were intended to be area raids. In Turin some 3,230 residential buildings and forty-six schools were destroyed or heavily damaged in the November raids. The local prefect of Turin, whence some 400,000 had fled by December 1942, reported that the demoralized population was “depressed, nervous, irritable and alarmed” not only by the bombing but by a general “sense of exhaustion at the length of the war.”54 Evacuees made their way out to the surrounding countryside or more distant provinces. Iris Origo, an Anglo-American married to an Italian marquis, recorded in her diary the sight of families arriving in Tuscany from Genoa after living for weeks in tunnels under the city “without light, without sufficient water, and in bitter cold,” displaying a “healthy, elementary resentment” against those dropping the bombs but a profound anger at the incompetence and mismanagement of the Fascist system that had exposed them to bombing in the first place.55 The failure to prepare for or to oppose the raids was regarded as a standing indictment of the Mussolini regime. The workers who stayed behind in Turin, according to one report, had calmed down after displaying an “understandable agitation” at being bombed; but they remained in a continued state of anxiety largely because Allied aircraft could regularly be seen circling low over the city by day quite undisturbed. According to another report from Varese, north of Milan, the absence of any effective Italian defense against two Allied aircraft casually photographing the area below left the population “perplexed and alarmed.”56 Leaflets dropped during the raids in November and December listed major cities slated for future bombing (including the ones already bombed) and an appeal to “evacuate the cities” as soon as possible while casualties were still by comparison “very few.” Perhaps to rub the message home, small stickers were dropped printed in red letters with the single word “Merda!” (“Oh shit!”).57
Evacuation was not by 1942 an easy option. In the 1930s evacuating the population from the major cities had been seen as a way of reducing the threat of casualties in the absence of shelters or gas masks. A plan had been distributed to prefects in 1939 designed to halve the city population by encouraging voluntary evacuation where possible and insisting on the compulsory evacuation of children, the elderly, and the sick (as well as convicts, a category more difficult to understand). Those who remained were generally obliged to do so because of the nature of their work or responsibilities. In June 1940 the scheme was virtually abandoned. Voluntary evacuation was uncontrolled, and soon led to prefects insisting that people return home. In the absence of persistent or heavy bombing, urban populations generally remained where they were.58 The first raids in October 1942 transformed the situation overnight. In November new regulations governing evacuation were drawn up and circulated to all prefects; once again there were compulsory categories, help for voluntary evacuees, and provision for a new category of “evening evacuees” who worked in the city during the day and returned in the evening to families in nearby suburban or rural areas. On December 2, Mussolini publicly endorsed the new wave of evacuations as a “duty” to the community.59 The mass exodus in November and December was largely unorganized, though Fascist Party workers, mainly youths and women, helped provide food and find accommodation. Since many Italian city dwellers had family or friends in nearby rural areas (an estimated 40 percent in Turin), the social problems were less severe than they might have been, but the problem of overcrowding, the difficulty of organizing regular transport for the “evening” evacuees, and shortages of food soon made themselves felt. Protests from the prefects in March 1943 led to a reversal of policy and evacuees were encouraged instead to return home and run the risk of being bombed. The appeal had little effect. Half of the population of Turin remained away from the city at night, 55 percent in the hinterland, 45 percent in other provinces. A second wave of evacuation occurred in the summer of 1943, reaching two-thirds of the city population, many of the newcomers sleeping in woods and fields in conditions of deteriorating hygiene and widespread hunger.60
The crisis induced by bombing was more severe than anything experienced in Germany. As intelligence information filtered through to the Allies, the idea of bombing Italy out of the war suddenly became less fanciful. Sinclair told Churchill in late 1942 that Fascist morale would be badly rocked by bombing war industry and transport but that a final flamboyant attack on Rome “might bring the Fascist state toppling down.”61 An intelligence report to the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in April 1943 from Lisbon claimed that the Italian ambassador “expects revolt within a month.” A second report a few weeks later passed on news that Pope Pius XII was unhappy about the bombings and now hoped that the generals might seize power and take Italy over to the side of the Allies.62 As a result the political war on Italy was stepped up in the first months of 1943. American aircraft of the Ninth Air Force, which joined the campaign in December 1942, interspersed the bombing of Italian cities from North African bases with massive leaflet drops, 64 million items in the first eight months of the year. Their purpose, according to the Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB), was to “harden Italian opposition to Mussolini, to Germany and the war.” Bombing strengthened the message. There was, the PWB claimed, a special connection between airpower and propaganda.63 The leaflets explained that bombing was necessary as long as Italy fought at Germany’s side. “Why We Bomb You,” dropped in late 1942, challenged the Italian people “to refuse to fight the war of Hitler and Mussolini,” but warned them that the innocent would suffer if they did not.64 This propaganda effort did not go unopposed. Side by side with the leaflets, the Allies were accused by the Italian authorities of dropping explosive pencils to kill Italian children: “in one hand a hypocritical lying message,” wrote the Gazzetta del Popolo, “in the other a vile death trap.”65 The Fascist press issued its own leaflet accusing the Americans of using black airmen, “the worst men . . . the new tribes of savages.”66 A number of Allied leaflets were sent to Mussolini in July 1943 by his Interior Ministry with the assurance that Italians who read them remained calm and unaffected. Allied propaganda, so it was claimed, “has not produced any effect on public order.”67
The most difficult thing for the Allies to judge was the right moment to bomb Rome. The idea of bombing the Italian capital went back to the start of the war but was postponed again and again on political, cultural, and religious grounds. When bombers were based in Malta in the autumn of 1940 the practical possibility of hitting the city was hard to resist. On October 28, 1940, following the Italian invasion of Greece, the British Air Ministry immediately ordered the bombing of Rome in retaliation, but the following day the instruction was canceled. Churchill was happy to order the bombing of Rome (“let them have a good dose”), but only when the time seemed appropriate.68 In the spring of 1941 the Air Ministry told the RAF headquarters in the Middle East that Rome could be bombed at once, without further authorization, if Italian aircraft bombed the center of Athens or Cairo. When an Italian aircraft eventually dropped bombs on an army depot at Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo in September 1941, the RAF command in the Middle East wanted to bomb Rome without delay, hitting Mussolini’s official residence in the Palazzo Venezia and the central railway station, but again the War Cabinet demurred from fear of heavy reprisals against the Egyptian capital.69 “The selection of the right moment to bomb Rome,” wrote Portal to the Foreign Office, “is clearly a matter of some delicacy.”70
The arguments about bombing Rome rested in the end on its exceptional symbolic status. Rome was the heart of the Catholic world, home to the neutral Vatican City, whose neutrality had to be respected or risk worldwide condemnation from Catholic communities. It was the heart of the classical Roman Empire, taught to generations of British schoolboys, including those who now commanded the wartime RAF, as a model for the greater British Empire. It was also a primary center of European culture, packed with treasures from the classical world to the age of the high baroque. “Liberal opinion,” complained Sinclair to Churchill in December 1942, “regards Rome as one of the shrines of European civilization. This liberal opinion is a bit sticky about bombing.”71 Portal told Sinclair that reluctance could even be found among Bomber Command crews to bombing not only Rome but also Florence or Venice. Sinclair, though a Liberal politician himself, had no cultural scruples—“We must not hedge our airmen round with meticulous restrictions,” he scribbled at the side of a memorandum on bombing Rome—but even he could see that there were political risks in damaging “churches, works of art, Cardinals and priests” until the moment when a sudden blow might produce political dividends that outweighed the disadvantages.72 Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, was strongly opposed to bombing Rome except as a last resort; he resisted several offers from Arthur Harris to use the 617th Squadron (the “Dambusters”) for bombing Mussolini’s official residence, the Palazzo Venezia, or his private Villa Torlonia, on the grounds that the attacks were unlikely to kill him and more likely to reverse the decline in popular support for the dictator.73
The long hesitation over whether or when to bomb Rome was finally ended in June 1943 as the Allies prepared to invade Sicily after final victory in North Africa on May 13. To prevent German reinforcement, Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers favored bombing two important rail marshaling yards at Littorio and San Lorenzo, the second close to the ancient basilica of the same name. Churchill wrote to Roosevelt on June 10 asking whether he approved the raid, and four days later Roosevelt replied that he was “wholly in agreement” as long as the crews were given the strictest instructions to avoid dropping bombs on the Vatican or on papal property in Rome.74 This did not end the political arguments. At the Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting a few days later, the prospect of damaging Rome’s monuments and churches was discussed again. General George Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, endorsed the raid on the ground that after the bombing of St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, and the churches on Malta, the United States would “have no qualms about Rome,” and the chiefs sent Eisenhower their approval.75 In early July the archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote to Sinclair asking for assurance that the ancient and medieval centers of Rome, Florence, and Venice would be excluded from the risk of attack. The Air Ministry told Sinclair that the lives of Allied soldiers should not be placed in jeopardy for the sake of a sacred edifice—“are we to place the monuments of the past before the hopes for the future?”—and two days before the operation to attack the marshaling yards Sinclair told Archbishop Temple that the Allies could not refrain from bombing a military objective even if it was near old or beautiful buildings.76
Warnings were dropped by air on Rome on July 3 and 18, and on July 19, 150 B-17s and B-24s from the Northwest African Strategic Air Force, accompanied by 240 B-26s of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, dropped around 1,000 tons on the railway at San Lorenzo and Littorio, and the two airbases at Ciampino. Since the bombing of the marshaling yards was from altitudes of between 19,000 and 24,000 feet, there was extensive damage to the surrounding area. Only eighty bombs were observed to hit the target area around Littorio, and a post-raid interpretation showed that there was heavy damage to the Basilica of San Lorenzo and across twenty-seven residential streets.77 The following day the pope drove in his black Mercedes through Rome, the first time during the war that he had left Vatican City. The population greeted him with hysterical enthusiasm while aides distributed money among the crowd. There were over 700 dead reported by the emergency services, many in the working-class areas around San Lorenzo, the least Fascist quarter of Rome, but later estimates put the number killed between 1,700 and 2,000.78 When the king, Victor Emmanuel III, visited the ruins he was met by a sullen crowd that blamed him for the war. “The population is mute, hostile,” wrote an aide, “we pass through tears and an icy silence.”79
Rome’s symbolic status ensured that the raid would attract wide publicity. The Combined Chiefs sent Eisenhower instructions that he was to publish a communiqué promptly after the bombing, attesting to the fact that only military objectives had been hit, in order to avoid accusations that the “Shrine of Christendom” had been violated.80 According to an OSS report, cities in northern Italy welcomed the fact that Fascists in Rome “were getting their medicine at last,” and there was evident dour satisfaction among populations already bombed that the cause of their ordeal was suffering too.81 The papacy, which had appealed several times to turn Rome into an “open city,” used the bombing as an opportunity to launch a major diplomatic offensive over the months that followed to try to secure immunity from further attacks. The most significant consequence was the fate of the Mussolini dictatorship, for Rome also symbolized the heart of the Fascist regime. Mussolini had been meeting Hitler at Feltre in northeast Italy on the day Rome was bombed. A “pale and agitated official” had interrupted the two men with the news and Mussolini had hurried back to the capital. The days immediately following the bombing witnessed an atmosphere of mounting political tension. On the evening of July 24 a meeting was summoned of the Fascist Grand Council to which Mussolini was to report on the state of the Italian war effort. That afternoon, Mussolini later wrote, the tension was so acute that “Rome turned pale.”82 At the meeting he admitted that he was for the moment the most loathed man in Italy, but defended his record. By the morning of July 25 there had been a palace revolt; senior Fascists, army commanders, and the king withdrew their support, and Mussolini’s rule abruptly ended. The American Psychological Warfare Branch drew an obvious though speculative inference: the bombing of Rome on July 19 meant that by July 25 “the Government was out.”83
Did bombing bring about the collapse of Mussolini’s regime? A good case can be made that the sudden intensification of bombing in 1943 provoked a people already tired of war and fearful of its consequences to reject twenty years of Fascism and to hope for peace. The bombing from the winter of 1942–43 was on an unprecedented scale, 1,592 tons in 1942 but 110,474 tons in 1943, twice the tonnage dropped in the Blitz on Britain.84 From modest losses in the early raids, the destruction of housing escalated dramatically, 122,000 buildings by March 1943.85 Most of the operations were now carried out by American air forces that flew high and bombed with poor accuracy. The small town of Grosseto, for example, was largely destroyed when twenty-four B-17s were sent to attack an air force base but hit the residential districts instead, leaving 134 dead. Attacks on the airbase at Foggia, near the east coast, provoked an extraordinary crisis when bombs destroyed the town. After the raid on May 31, some 40 percent of the population fled, leaving shops and factories without manpower and services in disarray. The prefect reported that his city was a spectacle of desolation, “infested by the fumes from putrifying bodies not yet recovered.”86 The ports of the south were heavily bombed in anticipation of the Allied invasion of Sicily: forty-three raids on Palermo; thirty-two on Messina; forty-five on Catania. Naples was struck repeatedly throughout the war, small raids at first from Malta, but from the first heavy raid on December 4, 1942, there were repeated strikes that left 72,000 buildings damaged or destroyed by the spring of 1943. Neapolitans reacted to the bombing as a new war against the home front. “My war started,” wrote one, “on the 4 December.” The raid, recalled another, “grew infinitely in the memory . . . a monstrous roar of engines seemed to enter the room, in the brain, in every fibre of the body . . . everyone was resigned to die.”87 In Naples and elsewhere in Italy the raids exposed the failure of the regime to provide enough shelter space, to organize effective post-raid welfare, to train sufficient civil defenders, or to mount a serious defense against Allied incursions. Protests dated from the first raids in 1941 against poor food supply, long queues, and the inequality of sacrifice; the decline of support for a failing state long predated the raid on Rome on July 19, 1943.88
The evolution of popular disillusionment with the regime can certainly be linked to the more general failure of the state to cope with the consequences of the new offensive. In the spring of 1943 at the Fiat works in Turin spontaneous strikes erupted between March 5 and 8 in protest at the failure to provide an indemnity for all bombed workers, not just for those “evening” evacuees who went back and forth to their families in the countryside. Mingled with protest at rising prices and poor food distribution, the strike movement spread to other factories and eventually as far as Genoa and Milan, until they petered out in April. In Genoa protests against the lack of shelters had already followed the first raids, when crowds of angry women tried to storm the bunkers belonging to the rich.89 During 1943 a stream of reports reached Rome from provincial prefects indicating the growing demoralization and hostility of the population, though only some of this was due to bombing and much to do with Italy’s ineffective war effort. A report from Genoa in May 1943 indicated that “public morale is very depressed” due to food shortages and the complete incapacity of the Italian military effort, as well as the material and morale damage caused by the bombs. From Turin it was reported that workers could no longer see any point in working for a failed system but displayed instead “apathy and indifference.” Palermo, hit repeatedly by bombing in 1943, reported in May that almost all civilian activities were paralyzed, the population terrorized and the streets deserted. Even the reports from Rome, not yet bombed, indicated a population that was now “mistrustful and desperate,” awaiting a political upheaval of some kind: “Faith in victory seems to be almost completely lost . . . the conviction of the uselessness of past and present efforts is almost general.”90 Iris Origo, listening to discussions going on around her in Tuscany, complained that it was all “talk, talk, talk, and no action,” reflecting a “dumb, fatalistic apathy” among a people no longer willing to go on with the war, but unable to find a means to end it.91 Ordinary Italians turned to religion or superstition to help cope with the dilemma of being trapped between a remorseless bombing and a failed state. In Livorno (Leghorn) the absence of bombing until late May 1943 was attributed to the protection of the Madonna of Montenero (though it was also rumored that Churchill had a lover in the city, which explained its immunity). In Sardinia a prayer was composed against the bombing: “Ave Maria, full of grace, make it so the sirens do not sound, the aeroplanes do not come. . . . Jesus, Joseph, Mary, make it that the English lose their way.”92
The bombing of Rome was neither the occasion nor the cause of the overthrow of Mussolini, but a symptom of a state in the final throes of disintegration. In a body racked with ailments, it is not always easy to identify the precise cause of death. Moreover, the fall of the dictator brought neither peace to the Italian people nor an end to the bombing. Indeed, a better case can be made for the argument that bombing accelerated the decision of Mussolini’s successor, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, together with the king, to seek an armistice in early September to take Italy out of the war after the initial decision to continue it. At first the Allies were uncertain how to react to the news of Mussolini’s fall and bombing was briefly suspended. But on July 31, after a four-day respite, Portal told Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, commander of the Mediterranean Air Force, to start bombing Naples and Rome again in order to pressure the Badoglio government to seek “peace terms.”93 BBC Radio Algiers broadcast the news to Italian listeners that bombing would start again on August 1. Three million leaflets were distributed suggesting that abandoning the Germans was better than more “iron and fire”; another 6 million dropped in mid-August explained that as long as the government in Rome continued the war, so the bombing would continue.94
The situation was confused by the request from the Badoglio regime in late July to make Rome an open city. American bombing was halted while the implications were examined. On August 2, Marshall drew up the American War Department’s view of what constituted an open city—removal of all Italian and German forces, evacuation of all government agencies, cessation of all war production, and no roads or rail links to be used for military purposes—but a day later the War Cabinet in London rejected any idea of allowing Rome this status, even if the rigorous American demands could be met, as long as the war in Italy continued. On August 13, Eisenhower was notified that bombing could start again and Rome was bombed once more, the first of fifty-one further raids. The pope again visited the damaged area, accompanied by shouts from the crowd of “Long live peace!”95 Bombing spread out from Rome to other cities in central Italy. Pisa was struck on August 31 by 144 aircraft, leaving 953 dead and wide destruction in the residential areas of the city. Foggia was struck again, leading to its almost complete evacuation. On August 27, Pescara was bombed, with 1,600 dead. American intelligence reports suggested widespread rioting and anti-Fascist demonstrations once the bombing had restarted.96 On September 3, Badoglio bowed to reality, despite the looming menace of German occupation, and signed an armistice. On September 8, news of Italy’s surrender was formally announced, but for most Italians the war at the side of Germany was simply exchanged overnight for a war under German control.
“Certainly Bomb”: The Liberation of Italy
The bombing campaign in Italy from September 1943 until the end of the war had not been planned for. The sudden collapse of Italian belligerency provoked an immediate and violent reaction from the large German armed forces now stationed throughout the peninsula. The Italian armed forces were disarmed, interned, and in most cases sent north to Greater Germany as forced labor. Italy became an occupied country, like France, with the difference that in this case a new Mussolini regime, the Italian Social Republic (usually known as the Salò Republic after the town on Lake Garda) was set up following Mussolini’s dramatic rescue by German special forces from imprisonment. It was in effect a puppet government, entirely subservient to the military requirements of the German commander in chief south, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, but a number of Italian airmen and soldiers remained loyal to Fascism and served alongside German forces. German leaders were not so much concerned with re-creating the Fascist state as they were with preventing the Allies from reaching central Europe, but for the Italian people Fascist government remained in place, widely unpopular and despised, until Mussolini’s death at the hands of Italian partisans in late April 1945.
For the Allies, Italy presented both problems and opportunities. The priority from September 1943, after the conquest of Sicily and the first tentative landings on the toe of the peninsula, was to defeat the German armed forces and, if that could be done quickly, to liberate Italy and prepare to assault the German empire from the south. If it could not be done easily, as soon appeared the case, Allied air forces would be used to support the land war and to bomb when necessary more distant targets. Even a limited presence on mainland Italy, however, presented the opportunity of raiding German targets from the Mediterranean that were difficult to reach from British bases. These differing aims required a reorganization of the confused mix of air force commands that had grown up with the expansion of the Mediterranean and North African air forces, both British and American. In early 1943 targets in Italy were hit by the Northwest African Strategic Air Force and the combined Tactical Bomber Force, made up of some RAF units together with the American Twelfth and Ninth air forces. RAF units under Air Marshal Tedder formed the Mediterranean Air Force, which had operated chiefly in the desert war, but had begun to raid Italy after the defeat of the Axis in Tunisia in May 1943. In the autumn of 1943 these forces were amalgamated into the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces (MAAF), including both British and American air units. The British component was limited in size; the American element was enlarged to create a Fifteenth Air Force for long-range bombing missions, first under General Doolittle (until he replaced Ira Eaker in Britain as commander of the Eighth) and then under Major General Nathan Twining. The Twelfth Air Force under the command of Major General John Cannon was assigned to tactical missions, including bombing, to replace the Ninth, which was sent to support the Normandy invasion of June 1944. The overall command of MAAF, which was activated on December 10, 1943, was given to Eaker, who took up his post in January; his deputy was the British air marshal John Slessor. On January 4, 1944, the American component of MAAF came formally under the control of General Spaatz when he was appointed overall commander of all American strategic and tactical air forces in Europe, but in practice only the strategic Fifteenth Air Force was responsible to Spaatz, while the tactical air forces answered to the Mediterranean supreme commander—first, Eisenhower; then, from January 1944, General Henry Maitland Wilson. The Fifteenth Air Force was activated on November 1, 1943, with its headquarters near the ruined town of Foggia. Its squadrons were spread over a dozen bomber bases from where they flew missions to Austria, southern Germany, and the Balkans, as well as against Italian targets. The RAF strategic force, composed mainly of medium Wellington bombers, was based at Brindisi.97
A clear distinction between strategic and tactical bombing was difficult to make, since there were occasions when strategic forces were needed to support the ground war or to destroy communications far in the rear of German armies, while for the rest of the time they were expected to raid German targets. In December 1943, for example, out of a list of forty-eight strategic targets for Operation Pointblank supplied by the American Economic Warfare Division, only seven were in Italy, and only two (both ball-bearing factories) were included on the list of priorities.98 In November 1943 the operations director at MAAF, Brigadier General Lauris Norstad, ordered the tactical air forces to concentrate on supporting the ground war and bombing communications targets up to a line from Civitavecchia (near Rome) to Ancona on the east coast; the strategic air forces, by this time principally the Fifteenth Air Force, were to bomb all communications targets north of this line, using either Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers or their B-17s and B-24s when necessary.99 The line shifted with the fortunes of the ground battle, but not until March 1, 1945, did the tactical air forces assume responsibility for the whole area of northern Italy still under German occupation.100 The difference between a tactical and a strategic raid often made little difference to the population around the target, but the distinction was maintained in air force records. Out of 124,000 tons dropped on Italian targets in the first five months of 1944, 78,700 were deemed to be strategic, the rest tactical.101
Most of the raiding in the last twenty months of the war was carried out by American air forces. The statistical breakdown of air raids by the different Allied air forces is set out in table 5.1.
Table 5.1: Raids on Italy by British and American Air Forces, 1940–45
Of the 381 raids by the RAF Med., 135 were small raids mounted from Maltese bases.
Source: Calculated from Marco Gioannini and Giulio Massobrio, Bombardate l’Italia: Storia della guerra di distruzione aerea, 1940–45 (Milan: Rizzoli, 2007), Web site appendix.
The American raids were usually larger than those of the RAF, since at Brindisi the British kept only a small number of Wellingtons for strategic tasks. By the end of the campaign in the spring of 1945 there were over 1,900 American heavy bombers based in the Mediterranean out of an overall total of almost 4,300 American combat aircraft. Heavy bombers flew a total of 18,518 sorties in 1943, 90,383 in 1944, though some of their bomb load was directed at German or Balkan targets. From 1943 to the end of the war, American heavy bombers stationed in the Mediterranean dropped 112,000 tons on Italian targets and 143,000 tons on Greater Germany and German-occupied central Europe; tactical bombers dropped a further 163,000 tons on Italian targets, a grand total by Allied air forces on Italy of 276,312 tons.102
For the bomber crews flying in Italy the dangers were considerably less than in Germany, though the weather remained a persistent hazard despite the claim made by Harris that bombing could be conducted on all but 8 percent of days in the Mediterranean in January and 5 percent in July (compared with 51 percent and 21 percent lost days flying from English bases).103 In late 1942 the Italian Air Force had only forty-four serviceable night fighters, most of them biplanes incapable of effective intervention.104 The opposition from Italian antiaircraft and fighters disappeared in autumn 1943, to be replaced with a large concentration of German antiaircraft artillery around key targets. But the overwhelming air superiority enjoyed by Allied forces following the Axis defeat in Africa and the conquest of Sicily meant that by 1943 there was little effective fighter opposition from the German Air Force, with the result that higher levels of accuracy were possible than could be achieved over Germany. Bomber Command raids in summer 1943 using H2S radar dropped between 70 and 87 percent of bombs within three miles of their target, while most raids on Berlin at the same time could only achieve 30 percent—not precise by any standard, but more concentrated and hence more destructive.105 By late 1943 there were only 470 German aircraft dispersed between Sardinia, mainland Italy, and the Aegean. Maintenance problems meant a low level of serviceability, while numerical inferiority, a result of the diversion of aircraft to defend the Reich, provoked a constant attrition cycle that could not be reversed. By the summer of 1944 there were only 370 serviceable aircraft in the theater, most of them single-engine fighters flown by both German and Italian pilots.106 American bomber losses in 1944 and 1945 were largely due to antiaircraft fire or accident, 1,829 against 626 credited to fighter interception.107 Not for nothing was Joseph Heller’s antihero in Catch-22, a novel of the American air experience in Italy, afraid of the “goddam foul black tiers of flak . . . bursting, and booming and billowing all around.”108
Though the defensive threat was less, the question of what to bomb was not easily answered, partly because detailed intelligence on Italian industry and communications after the German occupation in September 1943 was difficult to acquire and partly because of the persistent uncertainty surrounding the fate of Italy’s historic heritage. There were disagreements not only over what to bomb, but what not to bomb. In contrast to the British attitude, Washington recognized that it was politically expedient to preserve Italian culture from unnecessary damage in order to limit accusations of Allied barbarism. On August 20, 1943, Roosevelt gave his approval for the establishment of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. The commission was advised by an academic working group set up by the American Council of Learned Societies, which produced 160 detailed maps of Italian cities using the Italian Baedeker guide, with most cultural monuments clearly marked. These were sent to MAAF and added to the dossiers for briefing officers when organizing an operation.109 In April 1944 a list was distributed to all Allied air forces in Italy, listing cities in three categories for bombing purposes. The first category comprised Rome, Florence, Venice, and Torcello, which could only be bombed with specific instructions from the high command; the second category of nineteen historic cities, including Ravenna, Assisi, Pavia, Parma, and Montepulciano, were not regarded prima facie as militarily important, but could be bombed under circumstances of military necessity; the third category was made up of twenty-four cities, most with architecturally outstanding city centers, such as Brescia, Siena, Pisa, Bologna, and Viterbo, which were deemed to contain or be near military objectives. These could be bombed freely “and any consequential damage accepted.”110 If any city in categories two and three was occupied by the enemy in a zone of operations, no restrictions were to be observed. Otherwise crews were instructed only to bomb objectives by day if not obscured by cloud, and by night if illumination made the precise military objective sufficiently clear. The rules gave a great deal of discretion to the individual pilot, and in practice, given the wide inaccuracy of high-level bombing, in Italy as elsewhere, protection for cultural monuments was observed only within wide operational limits.
Even the cities in category one came to be bombed when military circumstances dictated. “Nothing,” wrote Eisenhower for the Allied forces in Italy, “can stand against the argument of military necessity.”111 In February 1944, MAAF headquarters decided that the rail center at Florence would have to be bombed as part of the effort to cut German communications. British air marshal John Slessor told the Air Ministry that only the most experienced crews would be used. He pointed out that the famous Duomo was at least a mile distant from the target: “It would be very bad luck if any of the really famous buildings were hit.” On March 1, Churchill was asked for his view; he scribbled on the letter, “certainly bomb,” and the following day the chiefs of staff approved the raid.112 Luck stayed with the bomber crews this time and the Duomo remained intact. They were told that some damage to the city was inevitable, but should not be construed as “limiting your operations,” which explains the damage to two hospitals and the death of 215 Florentines.113 On April 20, 1944, bombs fell on Venice for the first time, contrary to instructions. An investigation showed that fifty-four American bombers, finding their targets in Trieste covered by cloud, defied orders and bombed the port of Venice as a target of opportunity from 24,000 feet. Once again, luck was in their favor; the city’s historic heart suffered no damage.114
This was not the case with the efforts to avoid bombing Vatican City. The bombing of Rome continued despite the persistent efforts by the papacy, the Badoglio government (now based in southern Italy in the Allied zone), and even Mussolini’s new Salò regime to get the Allies to accept the status of open city for the capital. Roosevelt, with a large Catholic minority in the United States, was more inclined to discuss the possibility, but Churchill worried that if Rome were made an open city, it would hamper Allied military efforts to pursue the Germans up the western side of the peninsula. The Combined Chiefs discussed the issue in late September but remained deadlocked.115 Then on November 5 four bombs were dropped on the Vatican, causing serious damage to the Governatorato Palace, the seat of Vatican government. The first reaction from the British ambassador to the Vatican, Sir Francis D’Arcy Osborne, was to blame the Germans for the raid as a propaganda stunt, but a few days later investigations showed that one American aircraft, bombing at night, had lost contact with the rest of the force and dropped bombs in error.116 Roosevelt once again tried to revive British interest in the demilitarization of Rome, but the British remained adamant that it would place too many restrictions on the Allied ground campaign, and on December 7, Roosevelt finally conceded that it was “inadvisable” to pursue the matter any further.117Rome continued to be bombed and over 7,000 Romans died in the course of the year from the first bombing in July 1943 to the Allied capture of the city in June 1944. The accidental raid on the Vatican showed how difficult it was under conditions of night, poor weather, or human error to avoid widespread damage to Italy’s cultural heritage even with the best of intentions.
There was nevertheless nothing accidental about the most controversial raid of all, against the fourteenth-century Benedictine abbey on the mountaintop overlooking the small town of Cassino on February 15, 1944. The building dominated the Liri valley position where the Allied armies were attempting to unhinge the German defenses along the so-called Gustav Line, which stretched from the coast north of Naples to Ortona on the Adriatic coast. On November 4, 1943, Eisenhower wrote to the Allied Fifteenth Army Group that the Monte Cassino abbey was a protected building; the pope asked both the Germans and the Allies to respect its sacred status. When Eisenhower was replaced by Wilson as supreme commander in January 1944, the principle that historic buildings would only be hit under conditions of “absolute necessity” still prevailed, though it did not prevent the bombing of the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo on February 11, which destroyed the convent and killed twenty-seven nuns.118 At Cassino all attempts to dislodge the German forces from the small town or the hilltop had failed, and it is not difficult to understand why frustration with the slow progress of the campaign and the likelihood of high casualties encouraged the local army units to ask for air assistance. There were strong rumors (but no hard evidence) that the abbey was already occupied by German forces. On February 11, the 4th Indian Division, planning its assault, made a request for “intense bombing” of the hilltop and its surroundings, including the monastery; on February 12 the commander of the division, Major General Francis Tuker, insisted that the monastery should be destroyed whether it was occupied by the Germans or not, since it would easily become a strongpoint if the Germans chose to use it.119 The decision should have been made at the highest level by the Combined Chiefs of Staff and agreed to by Spaatz, but in the end it was made by General Harold Alexander, overall army commander, and endorsed by Wilson. Eaker was instructed to launch an attack on February 15 using both strategic and tactical forces. He flew in a light plane over the abbey the day before and later wrote, to justify the attack, that he could see it was full of soldiers, radio masts, and machine-gun nests, though his initial judgment was quite different.120 The following day, wave after wave of heavy and medium bombers pounded the monastery with 351 tons of bombs, killing 230 of the Italian civilians who had taken refuge in the abbey precincts.
The destruction was welcomed by the troops on the ground, who were seen to cheer as the bombers flew in, but the results of these raids (and attacks by Kittyhawk and Mustang fighter-bombers during the two days that followed) were mixed. The vast abbey walls remained intact, in places to a height of thirty feet, making the gutted building ideal for the German forces who now obligingly occupied it as a hilltop fortress from where they repelled the Indian and New Zealand efforts to dislodge them. The operation suffered from the usual bomb pattern, some bombs destroying the headquarters of the local Eighth Army commander, General Oliver Leese, three miles from the abbey, and the French Corps headquarters twelve miles away.121 The publicity surrounding the destruction, much of it hostile, forced the chiefs of staff to investigate who had ordered the bombing and why. On March 9, Wilson replied that the abbey building was undoubtedly “part of the German main defensive position” and had to be eliminated to ensure success.122 Slessor, Eaker’s deputy, recalled in his memoirs that no one among the troops would have believed for a moment that the Germans were not using the building as a fortress, “so the Abbey had to go,” but he was critical of what the bombing actually achieved given that it took more months to capture the hilltop, now fully occupied by the enemy.123 A War Office investigation in 1949 into the circumstances of the bombing finally confirmed that there had been no evidence of German occupation to justify the raids, except for an unsubstantiated claim that a telescope had been glimpsed from a window. Eyewitness accounts were collected from Italian women who had sheltered in the abbey during the bombing. “Even allowing for the excitable tendencies of women of Latin race,” ran the report, their testimony gave a credible if “prosaic” account of what happened. Some 2,000 from the population of Cassino had sought shelter on German advice in the church of San Giuseppe behind the abbey; on February 3, after angry protests from the crowd of evacuees, some of whom had been wounded by shellfire, the monks let them into the abbey. There were no German soldiers or equipment to be seen, except for two German medical officers tending to the wounded Italians. After the bombing, the civilians made their way where they could. The four women who gave accounts of the abbey reached Allied lines and were interviewed less than two weeks after the raid had taken place.124
The Monte Cassino raid was one of the few times that the strategic bombers were asked to support a ground operation directly. A few days later they also obliterated what was left of the town of Cassino itself. In both cases the result was to hinder army efforts to profit from the bombing. On April 16, 1944, Slessor wrote to Portal to complain about how counterproductive heavy bombing was on the battlefield itself: “We hamper our own movement by throwing the debris of houses across roads and making craters that become tank obstacles . . . we are inevitably bound—as we did at Cassino—to cause casualties to our own people.”125 Most of the bombing that took place in 1944 and 1945 was directed farther away from the battlefront, designed to impede German communications throughout Italy and to destroy Italian industries working directly to German orders. The communications campaign was the more important. Italian geography worked both for and against the Allies. The narrow peninsula with its mountainous spine meant that communication by road and rail was mainly confined to narrow channels running down the eastern and western coasts of Italy. These channels represented tempting targets for interruption. On the other hand, the Allied armies were also confined to the hilly coastal zones where there were innumerable natural barriers to favor a defending army. In the winter, mud, heavy rain, and snow slowed up any ground advance, while poor weather restricted air attacks on transport and allowed the enemy time to restock and reinforce.
The origins of the planning for a systematic campaign against communications lay in the hurried survey of the bombing of Sicily carried out by Solly Zuckerman, who among his many duties had been allocated in 1942 to the British Combined Operations headquarters as a scientific adviser. In January 1943 he was sent out to the Mediterranean theater to investigate how Rommel had managed to escape across Libya despite massive Allied superiority on the ground and in the air. Zuckerman stayed on in an advisory role and was asked to supply evaluations for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, for which he recommended attacking the “nodal points” of the Sicilian and south Italian railway network, and particularly railway repair shops, depots, and shunting yards. His advice was followed and his eventual report, based on a survey of the results in Sicily and southern Italy, suggested the campaign had been “an outstanding success.”126 Early in 1944, MAAF discussed the possibility of applying the Zuckerman model to the railway system in central and northern Italy to cut Kesselring’s forces off from their supply chain. The preference was for attacks on rail centers rather than bridges and viaducts, which Zuckerman thought were too difficult to destroy, but there was considerable support among American planners for bridge bombing using fighter-bombers and medium bombers for a task that called for effective precision. In the end, the communications campaign targeted both.
On February 18, Eaker issued a directive for the communications campaign, detailing the northern marshaling yards for the strategic air forces and the rail links farther south for the tactical forces.127 The Fifteenth Air Force targets were the main railway yards at Padua, Verona, Bolzano, Turin, Genoa, and Milan, with secondary targets at Treviso, Venice Mestre, Vicenza, and Alessandria. The tactical air forces were detailed to attack rail facilities in central Italy, at least 100 miles from the German front line, to maximize the strain on enemy road traffic.128 The campaign was given the code name Operation Strangle, to indicate its purpose, and lasted from March 15 until May 11 using every kind of aircraft available. The heavy bombers dropped 10,649 tons, the tactical air forces a total of 22,454, for a total loss of 365 aircraft, chiefly fighter-bombers and mainly to antiaircraft fire.129 Of the bomb total, two-thirds were dropped on communication lines. In April a second campaign was ordered to coincide with an Allied ground assault designed to push the German army back past Rome. This operation was code-named Diadem and lasted to June 22, by which time Rome was in Allied hands and German forces were retreating rapidly toward a new defensive “Gothic Line” north of Florence. This time 51,500 tons of bombs were dropped, 19,000 by the Fifteenth Air Force, for the loss of only 108 bombers, a rate of only 0.4 percent of all sorties. Of this total tonnage, three-quarters fell on transport targets.130 The outcome was again mixed. The destruction of bridges and viaducts proved more effective than the assault on marshaling yards, which could be used for through traffic even when there was extensive damage. A disappointed evaluation by the MAAF Analysis Section showed that repairs were quickly carried out on rail centers in northern Italy and through tracks reopened. “Military traffic was not hindered to a significant degree by these attacks,” the report concluded. Nor did they cause “complete internal economic collapse.”131 Kesselring, when interviewed in August 1945 after the end of the war, confirmed that the transport plan had not been a great success. Bridges were quickly replaced by pontoon bridges, camouflaged in some way; urgent countermeasures had been taken to restore road and rail links. An air strategy exclusively centered on cutting off supplies, Kesselring concluded, was not likely to be effective.132
The second set of targets for strategic attack lay in the surviving industry of the area occupied by German forces in northern and central Italy. As soon as the Italian surrender was certain, Albert Speer, the German minister for armaments and war production, was appointed on September 13, 1943, as plenipotentiary for Italian war production; General Hans Leyers acted as his permanent deputy in Italy.133 The decision to exploit Italian production was taken for a number of reasons: first, to be able to supply German forces in the field with finished or repaired weapons; second, to supply Germany with additional equipment, resources, and raw materials; and third, to act as a large subcontracting base for components, engines, or subassemblies where there was a shortage of capacity in Germany. A number of committees were established to oversee the transition of Italian industry to German orders, but the priority was the exploitation of the Italian aircraft industry. Four companies made parts for Focke-Wulf, Heinkel, Messerschmitt, and Junkers, while Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Isotta Fraschini produced the Daimler-Benz DB605 and the Junkers Jumo 213 aero-engines. Once it was evident that production could be continued rather than have the machines and labor transferred to Germany, Italian producers cooperated with the German occupiers; workers, though in general hostile to both the Germans and the new Mussolini republic, had little choice but to work or face unemployment or deportation.134 In some cases German intervention encouraged industrial modernization and increased productivity in an industry that had failed to adapt to the needs of war, but the revival of production faced numerous obstacles in the supply of materials, transport facilities, and machinery and once it had begun, the major industrial regions again became targets for the Allied strategic air forces. Heavy raids were made in the spring and summer of 1944, hitting a total of 420 plants, particularly in the armaments, engineering, and steel sectors, and Italian oil depots at Trieste, Fiume, and Marghera.135 Extensive damage was done to industrial buildings, but a regular toll of Italian civilian lives was exacted with each raid, including deaths from low-level strafing of workers. One of the worst was the raid on Milan on October 20, 1944, which resulted in some of the aircraft dropping their bombs in error on residential districts, killing 614 people, including 184 pupils and 19 teachers at the Francesco Crispi school, more than three times the number killed in all the other seventeen raids on the city in the course of the year.136
The renewal of bombing prompted the German authorities to continue the program of dispersal that had begun in haste in the winter of 1942–43 and been suspended with the armistice. Advantage was taken of the extensive road tunnels and caves available in northern Italy. Work on parts for the Me262 turbojet fighter continued in the first months of 1945 in tunnels around Bolzano; the Fiat works moved production to a stretch of tunnel between Riva and Gargnano on the coast of Lake Garda, where 1,300 laborers continued to work until April of that year; Caproni produced parts for the V-weapons and the Me262 in a hydraulic tunnel between the River Adige and Garda. Of the twenty-eight sites chosen for underground dispersal, only ten actually reached the stage of production.137 From early 1945 onward, before the final offensive to drive the Germans across the Po valley toward the Alps, a renewed communications campaign against rail centers and bridges across northern Italy undermined the frantic efforts of the German authorities to extract what they could from the shrunken Italian industrial economy. By February the MAAF targets committee had difficulty finding any targets left in northern Italy that had not already been hit or were regarded as worth the effort of bombing. Nevertheless, raids continued to be made until the last days of the conflict. As in Germany, Allied air forces by the end of the war possessed a good deal of excess capacity for which there were no longer suitable objectives.138
The cost of the bombing campaign to the Italian economy is difficult to compute, not least because of the extensive damage done by artillery and battlefront aviation that resembled the consequences of bombing. The effect on German efforts to extract additional war production in northern Italy has been estimated at a loss of 30 percent in productive performance due to absenteeism and regular alarms. The overall loss of capacity for Italian industry has been estimated at 10 percent, since most industry was not an object of bombing; the loss for war-related industries was much higher, one-half for naval production, 21 percent for the metallurgical industries, 12 percent for machine engineering.139 By contrast, the textile sector lost 0.5 percent, the electrical industry 4 percent, and the chemical industry 6 percent of capacity. Damage to housing, though heavy in particular cities, has been estimated at only 6 percent of total housing stock. The chief target was the Italian transport system, where two-fifths of the rail network was destroyed along with half the rolling stock and an estimated 90 percent of all Italian trucks. The five years of war reduced Italian national income by 1945 to one-half the level of 1938.140 This mainly affected not the German occupiers but a large part of the Italian civil population, which endured widespread losses of housing and possessions, unemployment, and food shortages until well after the end of the conflict.
The Italian population was faced in the last two years of war with the bleak prospect of living on a wide and dangerous battlefield, caught between the German occupiers, the new Fascist regime, and the slowly advancing Allies. Most of the casualties from bombing occurred in the period after the armistice, since airpower was the one thing the Allies could project easily into the occupied zones. The Allied powers recognized the nature of the dilemma facing most Italians who had not yet been liberated, but they also wanted them to undermine the German occupation from within by acts of resistance or sabotage. An OSS report on the situation in Italy in September 1943 suggested a propaganda campaign to make Italians realize “that the real people’s war of liberation has started for them,” and to encourage them to make life miserable for the Germans.141 It was also recognized that bombing was likely to be politically counterproductive if it seemed to bring liberation no nearer. The ambassador D’Arcy Osborne warned the Foreign Office in March 1944 that bombing was “slowly but surely turning Italian opinion against us” because of the evident disproportion between civilian damage and military results. The Italians, D’Arcy Osborne continued, were beginning to think that German occupation was a lesser evil “than Anglo-Saxon liberation.”142 Eden was sufficiently concerned to ask Sinclair in May to ensure that bombing was carried out with strict precautions against a “friendly population,” whose will to resist the Germans was weakened, rather than strengthened, by bombing and who were likely to harbor “bitter memories of our method of liberation.”143 The first priority for both Allies was nevertheless to defeat Germany rather than inhibit military action from fear of alienating Italian sentiments. When in May 1944 news reached London of the bombing of the village of Sonnino, where forty-five people were killed, including thirty children, Churchill complained that the air force should not treat a cobelligerent population the same way as an enemy. Sinclair replied that it was not up to him to tell the air forces in the Mediterranean how to conduct their campaign; the vice chief of the air staff, Air Marshal Sir Douglas Evill, told Churchill that it was the fault of the Italian population for continuing to live near bombing targets.144 Throughout the campaign the political necessity of defeating Germany overrode any political considerations toward the population held hostage on the battlefield.
There is no doubt that the long experience of bombing did strain Italian support for their imminent liberation. Iris Origo noted in her diary in the summer of 1944 how much British propaganda was resented, with its “bland assumption that peace at any price will be welcomed by the Italians.”145Corrado Di Pompeo, a ministry official in Rome, recorded in his diary in February 1944 that at first his heart rejoiced “when American aircraft passed overhead,” but after regular raiding and the routine sight of blood-smeared corpses, he changed his mind: “Americans are zero; they only know how to destroy and how to kill the defenseless.”146 Nevertheless, the prospects for widespread rebellion against the authority of the Salò Republic or the German armed forces were unrealistic, and throughout the period acts of violent resistance were met by the Germans with atrocious reprisals.147 Under these circumstances rumor and superstition increased in importance as a mechanism for coping with the real dilemmas of occupation. The most remarkable was the claim, widely repeated, that Padre Pio, the Apulian monk (and now a saint), had safeguarded the region where he lived by rising in the air to the level of the bombers and staring the pilots in the eye until they turned back to base, their bomb loads still on board.148 In numerous cases, appeals were made to city saints or Madonnas to safeguard buildings and family from bomb damage. The Catholic Church also encouraged a mood of consolation and resignation. When he visited the damaged area of San Giovanni in Rome on August 15, 1943, the pope told the crowd, “Follow the path of virtue and faith in God.”149 Priests in Tuscany, writing of the bombing in 1944, talked of a “Calvary,” or “our hour has come,” or “for us the hour of trial” as they prepared themselves and their congregations to endure the cruelties of air war.150 By 1945, with the authority of the Salò Republic collapsing in northern Italy, the church came to play an increasingly important part in the daily lives of many ordinary Italians confronted with the continuous hardships imposed by bombing.
More important in terms of survival was the expansion of civil defense facilities and the widespread flight from the cities. For those who remained in urban areas, air-raid alerts became an almost daily occurrence. In Bologna province, for example, there were ninety-four air raids from July 1943 to April 1945, which killed an estimated 2,481 people, injured another 2,000, and destroyed 13 percent of Bologna’s buildings. In 1942 there was one alert lasting 1 hour 29 minutes; in 1943 the alerts lasted for 115 hours, in 1944 for 285 hours, and in 1945, 77 hours.151 In Bologna, as in many other cities, the provision of shelter spaces had expanded rapidly with the onset of regular bombing. In October 1943 there had been spaces for 26,000 people out of a population of more than 600,000; by the spring of 1945 it was estimated that the 84 bombproof shelters, 15 trenches, and 25 tunnels could accommodate 100,000.152 In Milan, where trenches, school shelters, and public shelters could hold 177,000 by October 1942, plans were begun to build a further 179 shelters to house another 38,000 people, while 8,000 domestic shelters were in the process of being overhauled to meet shelter standards.153 Since most raids occurred during the day from 1943 onward, it was important that there was adequate temporary shelter in inner-city areas for daytime workers. In many cases the shelters provided little protection from bomb blasts and suffered from poor ventilation and overcrowding. In two cases overcrowding caused heavy casualties, one in Genoa’s Le Grazie tunnel, where 354 people died, and one at Porta San Gennaro in Naples, where 286 perished. There was wide distrust of shelter provision, and with the onset of bombing, millions of Italians either left for the nearby countryside or found refuge in a local cellar or basement.154 The prefect of Palermo reported in May 1943 that all the public shelters hit had collapsed, leaving the population with “no faith in the remaining ones.” The inspector of air-raid protection in Rome, reporting on the raids in July and August 1943, found that no signs had been put up indicating where the shelters were, and that there was no list of domestic shelters, making it impossible to know where their entombed occupants might be.155
The response to rising danger in the cities was a widespread wave of largely uncoordinated evacuation from all the threatened cities and towns, accompanied by compulsory evacuation insisted on by the German authorities from major combat zones and the Italian littoral.156 As in Germany, the Fascist Party used evacuation as a way to try to tie the refugees more closely to the systems for party welfare and assistance, but the often spontaneous and large-scale evacuations were difficult to control, and were often followed by reverse evacuations as people returned to the risks of the city from poorly resourced rural retreats or realized that bombing could happen anywhere there was a railway. Most evacuees found temporary accommodation in nearby villages and small towns. In Turin province the population of nearby towns grew by up to 150 percent as 165,000 people abandoned the city.157 By May 1944 the number of evacuees in the main northern provinces had reached 646,000, of which 426,000 came from the main industrial cities of Milan, Turin, and Genoa.158 The total number of evacuees and refugees was estimated at 2.28 million by the spring of 1944, spread out among fifty-one separate Italian provinces.159 The crowds of evacuees were distrusted by the authorities as a potential source of social protest and closely monitored, but for most the chief issue was to find enough food to survive on. Italy by l944 was a very mobile society as people sought to find areas of greater safety, or were forced to move from military zones, or tried to return to the liberated south.160
Even here in southern Italy safety was not guaranteed, for German aircraft bombed southern towns on occasion, including six raids on the already heavily bombed port of Naples. On the evening of December 2, 1943, a small raid by thirty-five German aircraft on the crowded dock at Bari led to widespread devastation and, unknown to the local population, the release of a toxic mix of oil and liquid mustard gas. The presence of this deadly mixture was suppressed by British authorities in the post-raid communiqué but was evident on the wounded men taken from the water and tended in the local hospital, where the staff were only notified that gas burns were to be expected when the symptoms were already well established and patients dying.161 Unknown to the Italian population, the Allies held large stocks of chemical weapons in Italy, ready to be used at a moment’s notice. Since Mussolini had been responsible for using gas in Italy’s war in Ethiopia, the prospect of a desperate act by the enemy in Italy was not entirely out of the question, but Allied chemical resources in Italy dwarfed the quantities used by Italians in Africa. By 1945, American forces had over 10 million pounds of mustard gas and 3 million pounds of other gases in the theater, to be used principally by the air forces, which had 110,000 gas bombs in store.162 The air force was ordered to keep on hand sufficient weapons to be able to carry out at least forty-five days of continuous gas warfare from the air, aimed at enemy ports and military installations. In the event of a chemical attack by German or Italian forces in Italy, the Mediterranean Tactical Air Forces were ordered to use gas weapons in the immediate battle area without restriction, and to drop gas bombs on other military targets away from “heavily populated areas” but, by implication, on areas that were nevertheless populated. Stocks of gas weapons were held in store in the area around Foggia, which explains the ship at Bari whose contents were destined to boost existing supplies in southern Italy.163
Throughout the peninsula, air-raid protection for the cultural sites threatened by widespread bombing assumed a fresh urgency. In November 1942 the education minister, Giuseppe Bottai, issued directives to intensify the work of protecting cultural buildings and churches, but it proved impossible to provide adequate physical covering that would withstand a direct hit or the effects of large-scale conflagrations. In Naples the destruction of the church of Santa Chiara by fire was only intensified by the protective covering outside, which increased the internal temperature.164After Rome tried to claim status as an “open city,” other cities followed suit to avoid damage to their historic centers and collections of books and pictures. Padua, attacked forty times, finally submitted its request on February 1, 1945, by which time the damage had been done. With the advancing battlefront it was also decided that much of the movable art and book collections stored in depositories in the countryside were in danger from air warfare and the retreating German armed forces, and the order was issued in October 1943 to bring the collections back to the cities where local art superintendents could safeguard them as best they could in underground storage facilities.165 In the end the survival or otherwise of cultural treasures was arbitrary, dependent on where the bombs were strewn, or the intelligence of the curators who guarded them, or the attitude of the local German officials of the Kunstschutz (art protection) organization. In Turin some thirteen churches had protected status, but only six survived relatively unscathed. In the convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Leonardo’s fresco of The Last Supper survived a direct hit by a miracle, as the rest of the refectory that housed it was demolished.166 Among the other providential survivals was Botticelli’s Primavera, spotted by two journalists sent to interview Indian soldiers in a villa outside Florence in sight of German tanks, the painting unboxed on the floor among the men brewing tea.167 The strenuous efforts made meant that in the end much was saved, but a good deal of an invaluable patrimony was also destroyed or stolen.
The Allied hope that the bombing offensive might encourage Italian resistance to German exploitation, theft, and savagery was as ambiguous as the early ambition to unseat Mussolini by bombing Rome. Opposition to the German occupiers certainly did not need bombing as a spur. Indeed, some case can be made to show that bombing actually harmed the prospects for the resistance and alienated potential supporters of the Allied cause. This was not the case with the strike movement in northern Italy that was linked to the onset of repeated and heavy raids from the autumn of 1943 onward. Strikers at the Fiat works in November 1943 cited bombing as one of the reasons for running the risk of German intervention and Fascist brutality. The risks were substantial. In Turin a German deputy, sent to calm down the social protests, executed the protest leaders and deported 1,000 workers to Germany.168 In the summer of 1944 further large-scale protests against dispersal plans brought so many workers out on strike that the German authorities were unable to cope. In December 1944 a strike crippled Milan’s factories. Among these workers were some who risked acts of sabotage to accompany the bombing, while many workers who refused to be deported to work in Germany disappeared into the mountains to join the partisans. The partisan movement had close contacts with the Allies from 1944, and used these channels to explain that the poor accuracy, high flying, and inadvertent damage caused by Allied bombing alienated potential resisters, particularly as many of the areas hit were working class and anti-Fascist.169 Partisan protests in late 1944 highlighted many examples where tactical bombing hit neither the Germans nor an evident military target, making a “tragic situation” for the population all the harder. For the Allies this ran the risk, as intelligence information made clear, that the population might turn to supporting Soviet communism rather than continue to identify with the forces responsible for killing them. D’Arcy Osborne, in one of his dispatches from Vatican City, pointed out that many Italians contrasted the Western Allies unkindly with the Red Army, which was “the only one that gets results by fair military means,” unlike Anglo-American forces who “compensate their military inferiority by murder and destructive bombing.”170 In this sense bombing had a much greater and longer-term social and political impact in Italy than it had in Germany, and one that fitted imperfectly with the “liberating” image that Allied propaganda sought to convey. Communism continued to thrive in postwar Italy in cities where the housing losses, food shortages, and unemployment compromised the achievements of peace.
The human costs of the bombing war in Italy are difficult to compute, because Sicily and the Italian peninsula were the sites of two years of harsh warfare that raked its way slowly across the whole territory. Damage to buildings, the loss of artworks, deaths and injuries were caused not only by bombing but by artillery fire, rockets, fighter aircraft, and even by naval fire along the coastline, and from both sides, Allied and Axis. The 8,549 deaths in Sicily before the armistice, for example, were the result of all forms of military action, whereas the 7,000 in Rome were due almost entirely to bombing.171 The postwar statistical record drawn up to show the cause of deaths as a result of the war indicated a very precise total of 59,796, though other categories of “poorly specified” or “poorly defined” or “various acts of war” count a further 27,762, some of whom were almost certainly bombing victims.172 The total number of seriously injured has not been recorded. In cases where urban records provide a list of injured—for example in Bologna—the number is around the same as those killed, in this case 2,000. The number of those injured, whether severely or lightly, is not likely to be less than the figure of around 60,000 killed. Of the number of dead, about 32,000 were men, 27,000 women, a reflection of the extent of female evacuation and the compulsory requirement for men to carry on working in the cities on German orders or to help with post-raid rescue and clearance. That the level of casualty was not much higher, given that the weight of bombs dropped in Italy was almost six times the weight dropped on Britain during the Blitz, may owe something to the fact that many of the objectives for the tactical bombing attacks in 1943–45 were against rural or small-town targets rather than major cities. It certainly owed little to any Allied concern to limit damage to Italian society. The Allied view was that Mussolini had brought this destruction on Italy’s head by daring to attack Britain side by side with Germany in 1940: “He insisted in participating in the bombing of England,” claimed one British propaganda leaflet, “and so doing sowed the wind and condemned [Italians] to harvest the tempest.” In another leaflet produced in July 1943, the British Political Warfare Executive (PWE) reminded Italian readers that “the bombardment of the civil population is an official Fascist theory.”173 In the war of words and bombs, Douhet, Italy’s great theorist of unrestricted strategic bombing, came home to roost.