Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entries Jan 2006, 2016, 2019       

   There are 3 items on this page: 1.  Air Raids on Naples   2. The German Air Raid in Bari, Dec. '43)    3. from The Serpent Coiled in Naples

Air Raids on Naples in WWII

Bristol Blenheim

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.

The 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 But I guess it's an historical document.
(below) strike between the
train station and the port

The 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.

irst Attack from an Aircraft Carrier
— The Battle of Taranto

The initial air strikes against Naples were effective against 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 by 21 British Fleet Air Arm "Swordfish" torpedo bombers (image, left) from the aircraft carrier Illustrious, 170 miles out in the Ionian sea. The attack devastated 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 assisted 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. These raids were crucial to the British effort to interrupt Axis movements of men and material to the war in North Africa. A report filed to the New York Times on October 27, 1941, said, in part:

…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…

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 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 in September, 1943.

  photo from
air 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.

Piazza dei Martiri             

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.
[Also see "A Brief History of Capodichino Airport"]

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

Courtyard of
                Santa ChiaraAfter 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 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.


*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 whom 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 page -- 'other entries on WW2' - then --->WW2 Oral History (1) says that it was significant.

 ^back to * in text

added June 2016 -

More on "additional German bombing" (this, from the final paragraph, above).

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."

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  - 

2.  added 9 December 2018

--disaster, scandal, cover-up

German Air Raid on Bari, 2 December 1943

By December 1943, the Allies had invaded successfully at Salerno, taken Naples, and were miles to the north, inching north (that is not a metaphor) through "Death Valley", the murderous approach to Monte Cassino and taking heavy losses. It would take months to reach and liberate Rome (July '44). Southern Italy had surrendered months earlier in September independently from their German Axis partners and were now part of the Allied forces. In any case, Nazi Germany was through in the south, although they still managed occasional harassing hit-and-run air raids on the port of Naples. German forces, about 20 divisions and a significant number of aircraft and naval vessels, were all in the north of Italy propping up the Italian Social Republic, the newly founded Nazi puppet partner state and wartime ally. There was no longer any fear in the south of a renewed German offensive.

The air raid on the port of Bari by German bombers on 2 December 1943, was, in fact, no such offensive tactic from the German point of view. It was another defensive maneuver to stall the Allied drive to the north by shutting down the port of Bari, one of the major marshalling points for Allied supplies on the move north up through the Italian peninsula. The British 1st Airborne Division had taken the city and port of Bari unopposed on 11 September 1943. (The Salerno invasion had just started 2 days earlier on 9 September and the outcome was still in doubt). The Allies quickly converted the port of Bari into one of the major points for moving supplies inland to the north. Bari is almost directly across from Naples, 210 km / 130 miles away on the Adriatic in the Italian region of Puglia (Apulia).

From the German point of view, Bari was an easier target than Naples (obviously also a marshalling point). Bari had no "triple A" (anti-aircraft artillery) at all and no nearby effective RAF or US fighter aircraft to mount a defence in the air. (Naples had AAA as well as the large Capodichino airport with fighter aircraft ready to go up.) Little thought was given to the possibility of a German air raid on Bari. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham issued one of those "famous last words" in military complacency: "I would consider it as a personal insult if the enemy should send so much as one plane over the city." (If this were a funny film about war, you can imagine Peter Sellers sniffing out those lines through his RAF mustache seconds before the bombs fell.)

The attack came in the form of 105 (!) German Junkers Ju 88 bombers (top image). This was not a chintzy harassing tactic. This was a massive air raid to destroy a port. The JU 88 was a twin-engined, multi-role, combat aircraft introduced in 1939 and a versatile aircraft. It served as bomber, dive bomber, night fighter, torpedo bomber, reconnaissance aircraft, heavy fighter and could even outrun many fighters that might come after it. It generally carried a crew of 3/4. Depending on how the fuel tanks were configured, all versions of the JU 88 had a range of at least 2000 km/1200 mi.

The attack was a complete surprise and was a devastating success for the Germans. They had flown down from the north, then out over the Adriatic and swerved in from the east to confuse potential Allied defenders and make them think the raid was coming from the east, from the Balkans. The raid started at 1930 hours and lasted little more than one hour. The raid was on 2 Dec '43 and put the port out of action until February '44. No flares were necessary; the port was ablaze with lights for the unloading of supplies and was running at full capacity. Thirty ships of American, British, Polish, Norwegian and Dutch registry were in the port of Bari at the time. The raid sank or disabled 27 of them. The loss of life was heavy: 1,000 military and merchant marine personnel and 1,000 civilians were killed. There is a report of one German plane lost.

It has to be the most under-reported heavy engagement in the history of wartime aviation. Even Allied troops elsewhere in theater were kept in the dark about what had happened. (I started this wartime portal for the oral history of U.S. Capt. Herman Chanowitz, a dear friend, who went from North Africa to Italy and up to the death camp at Dachau in the war. (That account starts here.) He was a walking, talking encyclopedia of WW2 in Italy and even he didn't know or he would have blabbed it to me.... pssst, Jeff, don't tell anyone I told you this, but...) That never happened. No one knew. Records were sealed for years after the war. Why?

One of the US ships, a Liberty ship —the U.S. John Harvey— was carrying a secret cargo of 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each holding 60–70 lb (27–32 kg) of the agent. That's right, poison gas. The Allies were preparing to answer a German threat to use poison gas against advancing Allied troops. The Allies were getting ready for a tit-for-tat poison gas battle. Welcome to WWI!

The destruction of the John Harvey caused liquid sulfur mustard from the bombs to spill into waters already contaminated by oil from other damaged vessels. The many sailors who had abandoned ship by jumping overboard to escape the bombs became covered with this oily mixture, an ideal solvent for the sulfur mustard. Many of those seamen died after winding up in the hands of unsuspecting medical personnel who had no idea what they were dealing with. They were prepared to handle blast and burn victims, but not this. Within a day, symptoms of mustard poisoning appeared in over 600 patients and medical staff, with symptoms including blindness. This was complicated by Italian civilians also seeking treatment, who had been poisoned by a cloud of sulfur mustard vapor blown over the city when some of the John Harvey's cargo exploded. There was little information about what was causing these symptoms because the U.S. military command wanted to keep the presence of chemical munitions secret from the Germans.
By the end of the month, 83 of the 628 hospitalized military victims had died. From the start, the Allied High Command tried to conceal the disaster so the Germans wouldn't think the Allies were preparing to use chemical weapons, provoking the Germans to strike first. In February 1944, the U.S. Chiefs of Staff finally issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasizing that the U.S. had no intention of using chemical weapons except as retaliation, but U.S. records of the attack were not declassified until 1959. The episode remained obscure until 1967 when author Glenn B. Infield published the book Disaster at Bari. The British high command issued a statement that a number of personnel in Bari had died "from enemy action." In 1986 the British government admitted to survivors of the raid that they had been exposed to poison gas and amended their pension payments.

    Bibliography about the incident includes:

-    Atkinson, Rick (2007). The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6289-0.
-    Infield, Glenn B. (1976). Disaster at Bari. Toronto: Bantam. ISBN 978-0-450-02659-1. (shown in text)
-    Mason, Geoffrey B. (2004). Service Histories of Royal Navy Warships in World War II.
-    Morison, Samuel Eliot (1975) [1954]. Volume 9: Sicily-Salerno-Anzio January 1943 – June 1944. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-58316-2. OCLC 313489807.
-    Reminick, Gerald (2001). Nightmare in Bari: The World War II Liberty Ship Poison Gas Disaster and Coverup. Palo Alto: Glencannon Press. ISBN 1-889901-21-0.
-    Saunders, D.M. (September 1967). "The Bari Incident". United States Naval Institute Proceedings. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute.
-    Southern, George (2002). Poisonous inferno: World War II tragedy at Bari Harbour. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing. ISBN 1-84037-389-X.
 -   "Naval Armed Guard Service: Tragedy at Bari, Italy on 2 December 1943". U.S. Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center. 8 August 2006.

Further note: I have taken the basic details of the air raid (and the above bibliography) from the English-language Wikipedia entry "Air Raid on Bari." It is the only Wikipedia entry in any language devoted to the air raid. The German-language Wikipedia entry on "Bari" notes simply in a short list of historical events: "On  2 December, 1943, a German air raid, consisting of 105 Junkers Ju 88, destroyed 18 Allied ships and damaged others, killing about 1000 persons. The US Liberty ship SS John Harvey, loaded with  AN-M47 mustard gas bombs, exploded, injuring 628 soldiers, of whom 83 later died." (my translation-jm)  

As regards the lives of people living in the grotesque conditions of these bombardments, I am particularly moved by this passage from Marius Kociejowski's [MK] forthcoming (as of July 2019) book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples. The reference title in the excerpts table, below, is the same as the author's original title in the book. Thus, from

Old Bones

She speaks of how outside the door of her apartment, in the arched corridors, the neighbours would have their Christmas and Easter meals, each of them contributing something, all of them now ghosts at ghostly tables. These days she will not allow anyone in. She is afraid of what is out there. Suddenly came words that at first were almost impossible to believe, which made the shapes in the plaster come furiously alive. This she saw with her own eyes. The story as she told it was verified by other women present. During the earthquake of 1980, the wall to the right of where we were sitting burst open and from it issued a baby’s skeleton, a small clatter of bones landing on the kitchen table. It is believed there are further bodies similarly immured. I had somehow imagined these events took place in another century, but, no, they were in the final years of the Second World War. The priest of the time would pay visits to the nuns at odd hours. Those dead babies were the consequence. Presumably the babies, or at least this one, had been smothered at birth and buried inside the convent wall. Catarina called the superintendent of the building who carefully replaced the skeleton in the
cavity of the wall and plastered it over.

‘You mean the bones are still inside?!’
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘they’re still there.’
‘And the priest was never accused?’
This was met with a shrug of the shoulders. It is not known whether what he did was ever brought to the attention of the church authorities, but then there is nothing as secretive as common knowledge.

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts in Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item from MK (after #15).

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