Santa Chiara dopo il bombardamento nel 1943.


It was a cold night between 10 and 11 March 1918. At 1:50 the city was quietly flown over by an Austrian dirigible. The LZ104 Zeppelin was the largest airship of epoch. 200 meters long, it had been strengthened and lengthened by 30 meters for a rescue mission to the German forces in Namibia. On the morning of 10 March it left the base of Yambol in Bulgaria with orders to bomb the port of Naples and the ILVA steelworks in Bagnoli (Naples).

The airship dropped his load of bombs in three waves from an altitude of 5,000 meters. The first bombing, narrowly missing the harbor, struck the area of Granili, to S. Giovanni in Teduccio. There were 5 dead and 40 wounded among civilians. Via Toledo, the “Quartieri Spagnoli” and Corso Vittorio Emanuele were struck in a subsequent launch. The victims of this second launch was 11, also were counted 24 wounded. Last bombing occurred in the area of Bagnoli where the ILVA industry was slightly damaged.

The attack was unexpected. The batteries of anti-aircraft did not enter into operation. The fighters did not take off. The airship had been sighted from the surveillance site of Termoli, but the communication lines did not work.

At first the authorities thought to attack based bombs by “squadristi” (terrorists). Only later it became clear that it was an air raid.

Two years later, after the war, the details of the bombing were known. The German authorities, in a statement, reconstructed the war activity of the airship LZ104, listing the three operations carried out by the airship: the second was the bombing of the city of Naples on the night of March 10, 1918. The military leaders of territorial air defense were all processed and exempt from duty.

This was just a small idea about what would happen during World War II in Naples. Already at the beginning of War, the authorities raised the problem of the effect that would have had the air strikes in places of strong human aggregation, such as large cities. A displacement plan was decided on the civilian population from urban centers, which had to be temporarily relocated in the countryside and small rural towns. In theory, the plan envisaged a number of measures to supply food and whatever else these small towns used to house the displaced. In reality the central authorities, as well as arrange the displacement, did not go beyond. So that all the problems were of local authorities, but they were often resolved by the citizens.

The displacement caused the war commuting phenomenon. Every morning employees, shopkeepers and all active people left the countryside to go to the city with makeshift, many bicycles, to carry out their activities. The afternoon was determined the opposite phenomenon. A lot of people were returning to the places where they were accommodated their relatives.

Three stages were in the displacement. the first stage regarded a minority of people displaced before they started bombing, they were families that had points of support in the countryside, houses of relatives, their houses, or at least they had the money to rent housing in these small towns. The second phase was determined by families who were surprised by the first bombing, only after they emigrated to the countryside. The third phase was in fact not a displacement. It was one that concerned the poor families unable to find themselves an out of town accommodation. They arranged in underground shelters or caves. Many citizens took refuge in tunnels and subway tunnels. Others found refuge in the Bourbon Tunnel, an immense underground cavity that connects the Royal Palace with Chiatamone.

The city of Naples had several strategic objectives that could be, and then actually were, the subject of the bombing: the port, the railway hub of Garibaldi Square, the steel mill at Bagnoli, the munitions factory in via Campegna, depot of explosives in Corso Malta, the aircraft engines factory at Pomigliano d’Arco.

Bombing of strategic targets (1941 – 1942)

On 1 November 1940 there was the first bombing in Naples by the UK bombers. In ’41 and in ’42 the bombings were carried out by British planes. They were performed by British aviation during the night in order to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible, because during those hours the war commuters had already reached the places of refuge. These missions were aimed at strategic entities such as roads, port, industries, barracks.

On 1 November 1940 the first bombing destroyed fuel depots located in the eastern industrial zone and the tracks of the “Stazione Centrale”. On 8 January 1941 there were collapses, following a bombing, on Corso Arnaldo Lucci and the “Stella Polare” (where today stands the Hotel Terminus). He followed that of July 10 that hit the refineries to the east of the city as well as on Stella and Speranzella districts.

The shelling continued throughout the year. The “Stazione Centrale” and the eastern industrial zone were mainly struck. In particular, the bombing of the station caused enormous damage since it was located in a densely built and inhabited neighborhood. There were numerous crashes and many civilian casualties.

November 18 was a date marked in red on the calendar of airstrikes since a palace collapsed on an underground refuge, full of people who had sought shelter there, in the piazza Concordia area (Quartieri Spagnoli). The dead were hundreds. The air raids continued throughout 1942, Having as strategic objectives artifacts of the city, always, unfortunately, accompanied by collapses of buildings and numerous victims among the inhabitants.

Carpet bombing (1943)

The bombing of Naples changed strategy with the US intervention in the war. Unlike the British who sought to minimize civilian casualties, the Americans adopted the tactic of carpet bombing done with their B-24 “Liberator” bombers. The bombings were done in daylight hours, the aim was also incensed the population and push it to revolt against the Germans.

Air defense in Naples consisted of batteries located on the roofs of buildings, equipped with light machine guns and antiquated. It was also dislocated a fighter patrol in the Capodichino airport and Capua. It was 22 ° “Gruppo Autonomo Cacciatori del Vesuvio” which was tasked to intercept American bombers with aircraft Macchi 202, Reggiane and Dewoitine (French war prey). The interception was inevitably frontal, only point defenseless of bombers. The fighter pilots had to shoot their shots just a few seconds against the enemy, the cumulative approach speed was more than 1,000 kilometers per hour.

On 4 December 1942 twenty American Liberators bombed the port where, hit by bombs, sank three cruisers that were moored: Attendolo, Eugenio di Savoia and Montecuccoli. The bombing continued on buildings and hospitals. It was badly damaged the Post Office building, in today’s Piazza Matteotti. In the city was a massacre. The raids became daily and did not spare any corner of the city.

People had learned to grasp the small signals of an impending raid. The radio, which broadcast from the Pizzofalcone studies, interrupted the broadcasts in imminence of the bombing. “E Cape ‘e fierre”, as they were called firefighters because of the distinctive helmet, just before the raids came from the barracks of Via Del Sole to move in scattered locations in the city, in order to intervene as early as possible. The occurrence of these events, without waiting for the alarm sirens, people coming down from the houses to reach the shelters.

In February there was the massacre of Via Duomo and Via Tribunali, in March were hit areas of Carmine, Pignasecca and Capodimonte, in April the bombing involved the entire city. Only in that month there were more than five hundred civilian deaths.

400 bombers took part in the raid on August 4 in which the Basilica of Santa Chiara was hit and severely damaged. The bombs spared the Gesù Nuovo church, a few meters away, as it is recorded on a marble plaque inside the church of Gesù Nuovo. The last Allied bombing of the city took place on September 8, after the signing of the armistice.

Explosion of MV Caterina Costa in the port (28 March 1943)

Caterina Costa was a new cargo ship, finished building in 1942. It was been requisitioned by the Italian Regia Marina to be used to transport troops and war material. It had already made four crossings of the Mediterranean to bring supplies to the troops in Africa.

In the early afternoon of March 28, 1943 a fire started on the ship, which was moored in the harbor near to Sant’Erasmo district. Even today it is not known if the fire was an act of sabotage or an accident. The ship was loaded with guns, tanks, vehicles, ammunition, fuel. Some hundreds of Italian and German military were on board. Caterina Costa was ready to sail for the coast of Tunisia.

The rescue operation took place in a general chaos. Port authorities did not do what was more logical to do, to tow the ship further out to sea and sink it. Orders crossed other orders. The firemen ran, but informed the imminent danger of explosion, they went away from ship. No one thought to send away the people from port. A large group of people stayed on the mole to see. They were unaware of the danger.  Many soldiers, who were on board, did not have time to save themselves, remaining trapped by the fire.

At 17:39 the fire reached the ammunition depots. The ship exploded with a deafening roar, similar to the outbreak of an atomic bomb. All the people who were standing on the pier were embossed away from the explosion. A piece of the ship shot down two houses to the Maddalena bridge. The turret of a tank crashed through the roof of a building in Via Atri. In the port several buildings caught fire. Pieces of metal flew like bullets in all directions, reaching all corners of the city: Lavinaio, Granili, the trains in the central station, the AGIP fuel depots, Borgo Loreto. Some came to the Vomero, others went further, even falling Pianura and Soccavo.

The “Maschio Angioino” was hit by a tank piece, even now there are clear signs of the impact on the walls of the castle facing towards Piazza Municipio. The San Carlo Theater was struck, which had destroyed the roof. The clock of bell tower of Sant’Eligio church stopped time of the outbreak.

The official casualties were 549, wounded over 3,000. Some witnesses told about a person who, as he walked to the square Port’Alba, was hit by a metal plate. The head ripped from the body. The body, though headless, continued to walk for several meters before it fell.

The Four Days of Naples (27 September-30 September 1943)

In that very hard September of ’43, the first signs of rebellion began to register of the Neapolitan peoples, which then resulted in the “Four Days of Naples.”

The Germans in that month made indiscriminate round-ups of civilians, many were those shot. There was an execution of a young sailor to Rettifilo to which the population was forced to attend. On September 9 there were clashes between citizens and German troops in response to the many abuses, in Piazza della Borsa and Via Santa Brigida. German were on the run. On September 10 the Neapolitan rebels began firing on German vehicles that were about to take the underlying Vittoria gallery from the balustrades of via Cesario Console. On September 11, the Germans opened fire on a Police station to the Riviera di Chiaia. The officers returned fire with their muskets type 91, forcing the surrender of the German military.

On September 27, after these sporadic episodes, the uprising of the Neapolitans against the Germans began. Vomero, in the locality Pagliarone, clashes took place to release the people who were captive in the nearby sports field of Vomero. Fighters went up on the roof of today’s police station, next to the sports complex, strafing German soldiers guarding the prisoners. In this four-day clashes flared across the city. Barricades were erected at Arenaccia (Piazza Carlo III) and the Duca di Aosta avenue (Salute district) to block the German convoys. The Germans found themselves trapped in the city with the Allied troops that were now only a few kilometers from Naples.

The German command was forced to come to terms with the insurgents to come out unscathed from Naples and reach the Gustav line, at Cassino, where later the troops of Germany tried to block the Allies were advancing towards Rome. On September 30, a column of military vehicles left Naples with all the Germans on board.

On 1st of October the Allied troops entered the city. They were greeted triumphantly by the people.

German bombing (September 1943 – March 1944)

The population was convinced that now the war, at least for Naples, was over after the arrival of the allied troops. It was not so, because the city of Naples was become the rearguard of the allies who fought on the Gustav Line. After the bombing of the British and American planes began the bombing made by German planes. They were not as frequent as the first, however, continued damage and bomb victims.

The deadliest bombing was what German planes carried on 14 and 15 March 1944. It was the last that had to suffer the city, but it was terrible. 300 dead and many injured were counted as well as damage to the few buildings still intact.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 1944

The citizenship suffering did not end with the bombings. In August of 1943, the Vesuvius issued only puffs of smoke from its crater, after it awoke with a lava eruption, which remained fairly contained. On March 18 of the following year an impressive eruption began.

The lava, with a front 10 meters high, reached the inhabited localities of Massa di Somma and San Sebastiano. The burning river was advancing slowly but inexorably swallowing, in its way, houses, churches, monuments, farmland. The dome of the church of San Sebastiano floated on the lava for some time before being destroyed. A silent crowd of people watched in astonishment. Someone, into a rage, ran to the front advancing stopping a few meters as to defy the volcano.

The Saints came out of the churches, were taken in procession to the lava front to stop it. The statue of San Gennaro, kept in the cathedral, arrived from Naples. It stopped in a side street of San Sebastiano, in order not to disturb the procession of the patron of the country. On March 23, the eruption ceased. The lava stopped a few meters from Cercola. Even Vesuvius wanted its death toll. 26 victims were counted.

Segnorine” and “Sciuscià”

The poorest and humble strata of the population, found themselves obliged, to survive the post-war years, to reorganize their lives on the new needs of the population and of the many military allies in the city. Naples was the rear base where the soldiers on leave came on vacation to forget the atrocities of war.

The “black market” developed to supply the city of a wide variety of goods. Smugglers every day reached the countryside where they stocked up on food from farmers and then they sold in the city at higher prices. Even aid of the Marshall Plan, that the Americans sent, were smuggled.

Children, armed with wooden boxes and brushes, were transformed into small “sciuscià” (shoeshine) to earn a few dollars. They were called “Sciuscià” from their invitation in English addressed to the American military: “Shoe shine”.

Another sad phenomenon due to poverty of many Neapolitan families was that of “segnorine”, girls and young ladies who, for their own survival and that of their relatives, prostituted themselves with the Allied soldiers in the city.

All this was shown incomparably by Eduardo De Filippo in his comedy “Napoli Milionaria”. The opening was performed at the Teatro San Carlo in 1945, starring Eduardo and Titina De Filippo. There were a few seconds of a deathly silence at the closing of the curtain. It seemed that Eduardo had flopped. Instead the audience wept bitterly. Then the audience erupted in applause and tears: too much real life in that play.

(Photo at the top: Santa Chiara dopo il bombardamento nel 1943.)