© 2005 Jeff Matthews

Around Naples


Air Raids on Naples in WWII


Bristol BlenheimNaples was the most bombed Italian city in WW2. It 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.

That attack, itself, was 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 initial air strikes against Naples were strategic and effective in disrupting the Italian war machinery in the south. [The strikes against southern Italy included the bold—and unprecedented—attack on November 11, 1940, against the large Italian naval facility in Taranto.  British Fleet Air Arm planes from the aircraft carrier Illustrious, 170 miles out in the Ionian sea, successfully attacked the port, devastating the Italian fleet. That attack was the first major victory for naval air power in the history of warfare and has been called "the blueprint for Pearl Harbor".]  The air-raids were coordinated to assist the British desert war against Italian forces in North Africa, an offensive that would begin in December, 1940. British air raids on Naples were night-time raids that lasted until November of the following year. The attacks trailed off in 1942, when the British attacked Naples only six times in the entire year. The air strikes were intended to be against precise targets and, revisionist historians to the contrary, can in no way be described as random "terror" raids against a civilian population, much less "carpet bombing" of the entire city.                                                                                   


                                                                                            B-24s in formationB24 formation

Heavy raids started with the American bombings on 4 December 1942. They involved great numbers of four-engine B-24 "Liberator" long-range bombers from the US 9th Air Force flying from bases in North Africa (and, later, from Sicily). The initial attack killed 900 people. The raids were in the daylight and were massive. The raids lasted until the armistice with Italy on August 8, 1943.



photo from larryray.comair raid shelter  
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."


A wartime 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" (airplane).]


   Port section of Naples                              
Port section of NaplesNews 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.



                                                                                   Capodichino airport in Naples
(photo: H. Chanowitz)
Capodichino airport
The largest raid was on  August 4, 1943 when 400 planes of the US Mediterranean Bomber Command dropped bombs for one and one-half hours, an attack that destroyed the famous church of Santa Chiara.  Again, some people who write about this claim that they were random raids on no specific targets, meant simply to terrorize the population and destroy the city. I don"t believe a word of that. [Here"s something else I don"t believe a word of. From Breve Storia della città di Napoli (Short History of the City of Naples) by Giuseppe Campolieti, Mondadori Editore. 2004: "They say that in those days, bombing Naples and other Italian cities had become a kind of very exciting sport for American pilots, to the point where the pilots" gracious wives would accompany their husbands on flights and thus taste the thrill of the atrocious entertainment." (My translation.) That"s right, the 9th Air Force flew in wives from Omaha and Hoboken so they could get in on the fun. Even as a "They say-" anecdote, anyone who lends credence to a fairy-tale like that is giving gullibility a bad name.]


Courtyard of Santa Chiara. (The
church, itself, was totally destroyed.)

Courtyard of Santa Chiara After 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. All in all, there were 180 US air-raids on Naples in 1943. Estimates of civilian casualties run to about 20,000 killed. I have read one estimate that says 10,000 homes were destroyed.

Herman 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.

The greatest symbol of the rebirth of Naples after WW2 was surely the rebuilding of the church of Santa Chiara.

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