Air Raids on Naples in WWII
Naples was heavily bombed in WW2. (see this note*) The city was struck for the first time on November 1, 1940, by RAF and Fleet Air Arm Bristol-Blenheim twin-engine light bombers (photo, left) flying out of Malta. It was part of a coordinated British attack against Naples and Brindisi. In Naples, the primary targets were the port facilities at the extreme eastern end of the Port of Naples as well as the rail, industrial and petroleum facilities in the eastern part of the city and the steel mill to the west, in Bagnoli.
(below) strike between theThe image below, right, is a cover from the Toronto Star Weekly magazine, published between 1910 and 1973. This cover is from April 25, 1942, titled "RAF bombs Naples." The magazine featured many such illustrations on the war effort. The illustrator for this one (and some others) was Montague Black (1884-1964), a well-known British commercial artist of the day. Like many idealized depictions of warfare, it's entirely too beautiful and rosy. And Vesuvius did not erupt in that year. But I guess it's an historical document.
attacks were part of a broader British campaign against
the Italian armed forces in the southern Mediterranean.
Although the British focus in the summer and autumn of
1940 was primarily on the home front—the great air war
(The "Battle of Britain") against the Luftwaffe—Britain had
an important second war going in the south. Italy had
declared war on June 10 against Britain and France; then,
Italy invaded Egypt on September 13 from the Italian
colony in Libya, and then invaded Greece on October 28. A
British failure to meet Italian moves in the Mediterranean
might have led to Axis control of the eastern
Mediterranean, including loss of the Suez Canal and the
British air and naval facilities on Malta and in Egypt.
|…The bombing of Naples port means that the British are now hammering at both ends as well as the middle of the Axis supply line to Africa. Eighty percent of the Axis supplies reinforcing the troops reaching the Libyan front is sent via Naples…It is through Naples also that German troops, who are now the only really effective fighting force the British need to consider in this wing of the Middle East, are funneled to transports en route to Libya…The two-ton bombs which the R.A.F. is now dropping on Naples are terrible missiles, the most terrible of any the powers have yet developed…|
B-24s in formation
Initially, Naples was not particularly well-prepared for air-raids. The initial anti-aircraft defense was from ship-mounted guns at the port. Air-raid shelters existed only because there was already in place a vast network of underground train stations, quarries and caverns (photo, left), including sections of the old Roman aqueduct. [A friend, Larry Ray, of Gulfport, Mississippi, has written and translated so much material about the vast and strange world beneath the city of Naples that the city fathers surely owe him an aqueduct or two. I borrow these lines from his excellent website:
The honeycomb of caverns and passageways
below were converted into air raid shelters under
Mussolini's UMPA or civil defense program. Whole
families spent weeks below ground, often emerging into
daylight to find their homes and entire neighborhoods
turned to rubble. . . so they returned to the cavernous
shelters to survive. Evidence of DC battery power,
showers and crude health and kitchen facilities can
still be seen in many of the shelters.
press is censored and, obviously, tries to put the
best spin on how the war is going. In the pages of il
Mattino, the large Neapolitan daily, the features on
the inside pages in early 1943 aim at putting the enemy in
a bad light, but are not that bad to read: for example,
the great apostle of peace, Mahatma Ghandi, is near death
from fasting in protest of the British occupation of his
nation; or even amusing—American women have petitioned the
US government to forbid their G.I. boyfriends from
marrying English women, and the editor of the Chicago
Tribune has suggested the annexation of the British empire
by the United States. The pages are full of praise for the
great German partners: Hermann Goering celebrates his 50th
birthday; the Führer
addresses his people; and there is a straw-grasping report
that the new German bomber, the Heinkel 177, has the
capability to fly the Atlantic, bomb New York and return.
[Actually, that airplane was a poorly designed dog, so
prone to fire that German air crews, who despised it,
called it a Feuerzeug
(lighter) instead of Flugzeug
Port section of
News from the war, is serious stuff, however, and is on the front-page: German advances in Russia, the Italian and German gains in North Africa, the bombing of London. The US bombings of Naples are usually reported beneath the headline, "Battle in the skies above Naples" with the focus always on the large number of enemy bombers shot down and on the "negligible" losses to the city. (That's a sad way to put it; one laconic report says, simply, "...four bombers downed, no relevant losses in the city... some collapsed buildings, 23 dead, 65 injured.") Yet, the inside pages carry some lists of civilian casualties, pictures of bombed out churches and columns of praise for the valiant people of the city in the face of the "brutal ferocity" of enemy "vandals" intent on destroying churches and killing civilians.
of Santa Chiara. (The
church, itself, was totally destroyed.)
the Allied invasion of North Africa in November,
1942, it became evident that Italy, itself, would have to
be invaded. Naples was an important
node of Axis naval and land communication and there was a
large and very potent German military presence in southern
Italy. It was crucial for the Allies to disrupt—destroy,
if possible—Axis supply lines in and around marshalling
points such as Rome, Naples, Foggia, Bari,
Manfredonia—those places that kept German and Italian war
machinery moving up and down the boot of Italy. Naples
was, quite simply, a target. Can you aim for a rail line,
factory or electrical sub-station from 20,000 feet and hit
a hospital or church instead? Of course you can. The San
Loreto hospital, for example, was obliterated—but that
hospital was 100 yards from the port. Estimates of
civilian air-raid casualties in Naples run to about 20,000
killed (although that estimate may be too high. See note,
below.) I have read one estimate that says 10,000 homes
Chanowitz, veteran of the Italian campaign and
long-time resident of Naples [and the source of some WW2 oral history pages in this
encyclopedia] reminds me that even after Naples fell to US
and British Forces at the beginning of October, 1943, shortly after the invasion of Salerno,
the bombing didn't stop; it continued for weeks as the
retreating Germans tried to destroy what they had missed
in their "scorched earth" retreat from the city. German
demolition teams had removed or destroyed all
communications, transportation, water, and power grids;
they mined buildings, blew bridges and tore up railroad
tracks. Ships in the harbor were sunk, adding to those
already destroyed. Amazingly, the
Allies had the port of Naples open to traffic again within
a week of its capture.
greatest symbol of the rebirth of Naples after WW2
was surely the rebuilding of
the church of Santa Chiara.
*note/update: August 2011:
The original entry read "Naples was the most heavily bombed Italian city in WWII." By one reckoning, that is a true statement, but it conceals an important—and often overlooked—detail about the war in Italy: on September 8, 1943, the nation of Italy, Germany's Axis partner in WWII, surrendered to the Allies. At that point, WWII between Italy and the Allies ended. Hostilities in Italy did not end, however. German forces continued their agonizing and very costly retreat up the boot of Italy from Naples through Monte Cassino, Anzio, Rome and to the north before finally leaving Italy in early May of 1945. During that period of 20 months, residual Fascist forces in Italy set up the so-called Italian Social Republic (essentially a German client state) in northern Italy and waged what amounted to a civil war against that part of Italy now reconstituted as part of the Allies. That civil war was bitter and costly.
Thus, "Naples was the most heavily bombed Italian city in WWII" is true if we use Sept. 8, 1943 as the cut-off date. Storia Illustrata (October 1964, no. 10, year VIII, Arnoldo Mondadori editor) in an article entitled "Allied Bombings of Italy" reports that between the first bombardments in November, 1940 until September 9, '43, Naples was bombed 76 times, more than any other Italian city. (Sources vary greatly on citing the number of air raids; presumably this is because some sources count separate waves in a single day of bombing as separate raids while others list them as a single raid.) When the whole nation of Italy was at war with the Allies (that is, until Sept. '43), cities farther north, such as Rome, Milan and Torino were struck 2, 13 and 24 times, respectively. During that period, the same source says that almost 21,000 Italians (18,000 civilians and 3,000 military) died in air-raids in all of Italy (which makes the above-cited estimate of 20,000 for Naples too high). But—and here is the oft-forgotten fact—after the armistice of Sept. '43, air-raids continued in central and northern Italy against the Fascist Italian Social Republic and produced 43,000 deaths (!), only 2,000 of which were military personnel.
"Heavily bombed" is also vague. It may refer to the number of air raids, but it may also refer to the bomb load —that is, how much ordnance was actually dropped. By that measure, the heaviest single air-raid in Italy from June 1940 until the end of WWII (May 1945) was the British bombing of Milan, a night raid on August 13, 1943, in which 400 British aircraft dropped 1900 tons of bombs. By comparison, the heaviest raid on Naples, as noted in the text, was in August 1943, when two separate waves of US planes dropped 590 tons of bombs.
Precise statistics do not seem to be available on the additional German bombings of Naples that occurred after they pulled out of the city and headed north towards Monte Cassino in late September, 1943. At least one source (see the link at the bottom of this apage -- 'other entries on WW2' - then --->WW2 Oral History (1) says that it was significant.
Readers should note that although the city of Naples was in Allied hands by the beginning of October 1943, the emphasis for a number of weeks was on securing the city. The main push north to pursue the retreating German forces towards Monte Cassino and Rome had not yet really started. This gave the Germans the opportunity to conduct air-strikes (from still German-held airfields farther north) against the city of Naples. (They had already left a considerable number of booby-traps in the city, which continued to go off well after they had left Naples). I still have not found precise numbers, but at least for a while, German air-raids on Allied-held Naples continued to be "significant" and certainly more than just harassment. This is evident in the following comments kindly shared with me by Mr. Elwin Green of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who writes:
"I have recently come into possession of a diary kept by my father [T/5* Illinois Green], who served in the U.S. Army in WWII... It includes this entry for October 11, 1943":
[*Technician 5th class,
corresponded to corporal]
"Arrived in Naples about 5:00 PM."
His style is laconic; the diary contains no wealth of detail. But after discovering and briefly perusing your web page on WWII air raids on Naples (for which I am thankful), I thought you might find this of interest, from October 21, 1943:
"Dispatched and fixed a flat tire on truck 4182779, hauled for 550 ration dump. German planes raid Napales (sic) and droped (sic) many bombs, raid lasted about one hour."
Then, on October 23: "Drove a new trk No. 547. An air raid."
On November 1, he lists items that he washed in his laundry, and a change of address to "O.M. Co. 58th O.B. Bn (Mobile), then ends the entry with: "An air raid."
(On a purely personal note, November 3, 1943 has "Birthday in Naples." He was 29.)
November 5: "An air raid that night, but no damage in our area."
November 6: "Went on night dispatch drove 437, shrapenal (sic) from a bomb hit my helmet."
November 9: "Went on dispatch. Went to 553 ration dump. Drove blackout...Enemy air raid about 3:50 a.m. but not much damage was done. First time going in an air raid shelter for security."
Things seem to quiet down for a couple of weeks, until November 26: "Air raid no harm done in area."