Bombing the eternal city
During the Second World War many cities were bombed from the air. However Rome, the centre of Christendom but also the capital of Fascism, was left untouched by the Allies until July 1943. Claudia Baldoli looks at the reasons why and examines the views of Italians towards the city.
In a war where the destruction of enemy morale was considered a crucial aim by all sides, capital cities had obvious attractions as targets. Nearly half of all British victims of air raids were Londoners. RAF Bomber Command was pushed to the limits of endurance over three months in 1943-44 in a fruitless attempt to destroy Berlin. Even Paris, capital of a state that the British were not at war with, was bombed in 1942. Yet Rome, capital city of the most insecure Axis regime, was left untouched by the Allies for three years. Only in July 1943 was the pattern broken and then, in the year that followed, it was bombed 51 times. This dramatic change in strategy needs explaining.
Although it was the capital of Fascism, Rome was also the Eternal City, the centre of Christendom and a site of unique religious and cultural significance. This dual status helps to explain the Allies’ long hesitation in bombing the city but it also reflects the highly ambivalent attitude of the Italian people to their capital, and especially that of the Romans themselves.
In one of the masterpieces of Italian neorealist cinema, La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960) directed by Vittorio De Sica, Cesira (played by Sophia Loren, in a performance that won her several international awards) is evacuated from Rome when the capital becomes the target of Allied bombing. Previously she had sold food largely obtained through the black market. Cesira is advised to leave the city with her daughter because of the bomb danger: ‘Let’s get away or we’ll all be killed’, to which she simply replies: ‘No, they won’t come to Rome, because the pope is here.’
The film was based on a 1958 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, who fled Rome with his wife, the writer Elsa Morante, after the German occupation began in September 1943, taking refuge in the mountainous countryside south of the capital. Later Morante devoted pages of her best-known novel, La Storia (History, 1974), to the wartime experiences of an ordinary Roman woman. ‘Every so often, at night,’ she writes, ‘the air-raid alarm sirens would resound through the city’. But the people of San Lorenzo, the working-class area where Allied raids were to result in at least 1,700 dead in July 1943, ‘paid little attention to them, convinced that Rome would never be hit, thanks to the protection of the pope, who in fact was nicknamed the capital’s ack-ack.’
News of raids on other Italian cities ‘did not shake the Romans from their trusting passivity’: their city, they were persuaded, was sacred and untouchable and they remained in their beds during alarms. But by spring 1943, with raids increasing in both frequency and violence all over Italy, even Romans began to feel frightened, particularly after May 14th, when a raid on Civitavecchia, a port just north of Rome, caused 295 deaths. Morante’s protagonist began to shelter in the basement of her block of flats whenever the siren sounded. Her eldest child Nino, a fanatical young Fascist, regarded nights in the shelter as opportunities to show his contempt for those who were frightened by the bombs:
He was stuck down there only because of his dog; as for himself, he didn’t give a damn about the bombs, in fact he enjoyed bombs even more than firecrackers! And if only these alarms were at least the real thing! But unfortunately these Rome alarms were all a farce, because everybody knew there was a secret arrangement between Ciurcíl [Churchill] and the Pope, declaring Rome a holy, untouchable city, and bombs would never drop here. Having clarified these points, not condescending to add anything else, Nino would enjoy the air raids as best he could.
Nino’s attitude is reflected in reports to Mussolini from the regime’s informers: many young Fascists found papal protection somehow shameful and wanted the ‘honour’ of being bombed, too. As early as December 1941 a Swiss source told the British Foreign Office that ‘pro-Axis and Fascist circles’ were hoping for me bombing of Rome, ‘the former in order that Rome [sic] population may be roused out of their lethargy and the latter because they resent the fact that the Romans attribute their immunity to the pope’.
Fascist informers also noted the population’s confidence that they enjoyed protection thanks to the Vatican. The widespread conviction that the pope was a mediator between Italy and the Allies was partly substantiated by the facts. Indeed the bombing of Rome was a key subject of debate between the British and the Americans and between the Allies and the Vatican until the city’s liberation on June 4th, 1944. The decision to bomb Rome was only taken after long discussions that reflected the concern about an unfavourable reaction from the Catholic Church and fears of an international outcry if the city’s artistic treasures and religious heritage were destroyed.
The view of the British Foreign Office was that the RAF should ‘hold the bombing of Rome in reserve until Italian morale shows further signs of cracking’, in order then to provoke ‘a knock-out blow to Italian morale’ by hitting the seat of Fascist power. A confidential note from British intelligence based in Lisbon, dated October 9th, 1941 added that ‘even if the Romans dislike the bombing, the Neapolitans, Milanese and others would rejoice, such is the inter-urban jealousy among Italians’. This was at least partly accurate. In L’Orologio (The Watch, 1950), a novel based on his Second World War memoirs, the writer Carlo Levi describes how, despite their fear of Fascist spies, workers on a commuter train in northern Italy in 1942 fantasised about the bombing of Rome:
There was always someone who said, however: ‘But what are they doing here? I know where they should go and it would be over once and for all!’ And someone else, more explicitly, replied with everybody’s approval: ‘To Rome, it’s to Rome they should go. Not here… and they shouldn’t leave a stone untouched. That way they’d really liberate us. Rome is Italy’s disaster’. Everyone applauded and laughed, happy as they pictured Rome’s destruction, and they almost forgot that only a few miles away their own houses were going up in flames. They felt safer at the idea.
According to one observer, the Florentine jurist Piero Calamandrei, the view of Rome as Italy’s disgrace, the capital of Mussolini’s Fascist government, which had taker. Italy into the war and attracted enemy bombing in the first place, was widespread from 1941. His diary entry for January 22nd notes that:
The Neapolitans, obsessed by the air incursions, say: ‘Blessed St Gennaro, please let them know that chillo fetentone [that 'smelly man'] does not live in Naples but in Rome!’
Churchill, who from the outset had been an advocate of targeting the city, told the House of Commons as early as September 1941 that: ‘We have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London last year’, although he knew that Italy had inflicted no more than token raids on Britain. Indeed, as if prompted by St Gennaro, British discussions linked bombing Rome with the aim of overthrowing Mussolini.
In early December 1942, in response to an enquiry from Churchill, Bomber Command proposed a daylight attack on the Palazzo Venezia, Mussolini’s residence in the capital, by six Lancasters with specially selected crews. However three days later, after consultation with Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, the prime minister decided that Rome should be targeted only when ‘the structure of the Fascist State has been thoroughly shaken by repeated bombings of the main centres of Italian war industry and transport and by close military approach to the heart of the country’. Instructed to call off the raid Bomber Command insisted that, when Rome was eventually to be attacked, the Italian population should be told that ‘it is Mussolini we are after’.
The issue became more complex as the US became involved in the conflict and particularly after the invasion of Sicily in June 1943 presaged an Allied advance up the peninsula. Hitherto a largely symbolic target, Rome now had strategic importance as a railway hub: its two marshalling yards at Littorio, on the outskirts of the city, and San Lorenzo, in the centre, handled almost all rail traffic between northern and southern Italy. Military necessity was balanced with American concerns about Catholic public opinion at home. Just before the landings in Sicily, at a combined chiefs of staff meeting on June 26th, 1943, the British expressed fears that General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander in the Mediterranean, might oppose the project to bomb Rome, which they now firmly supported. Invoking the air attacks on St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, as well as churches in Malta, the British argued that ‘if the USA had their churches bombed they would have no qualms about Rome’.
In fact the combined chiefs of staff had advised Eisenhower the previous day that the city should be bombed, but that it would be important to handle the press carefully once the attacks began. Newspapers and radio broadcasts must distinguish clearly between Rome’s rail targets as opposed to the city generally and must emphasise the careful selection of crews for such a mission. The Allied reports should be released ‘as quickly as possible after the event and before the enemy version gains a hold’, since the latter would seek to persuade public opinion that the Allies had attacked ‘the Shrine of Christendom’. However, Eisenhower was informed that ‘none of the above is intended in any way to hinder you in attacking this important military objective as soon as you see fit’.
On July 19th the ‘thoroughly briefed’ Northwest African Strategic Air Force (NASAF) crews bombed the San Lorenzo marshalling yards and Ciampino aerodrome; a simultaneous attack on the Littorio marshalling yards was made by units of the Ninth US Air Force. According to the mission report:
Four groups of NASAF heavy bombers dropped 443.75 tons of short delay action bombs on the Lorenzo marshalling yards. Six groups of medium bombers dropped 79.6 tons of 20-pound fragmentation bombs and 247.4 tons of short delay action bombs on the airdrome. The heavy bombers attacked at 1108 to 1143 hours from 19,000 to 24,800 feet. The medium attacked at 1259 to 1330 hours from 8,500 to 12,000 feet… Only eight enemy fighters were encountered by the heavy bombers over Rome, and one was claimed destroyed. Two groups of medium bombers encountered 10 to 12 enemy fighters over the airdrome, with one fighter claimed destroyed. The bombers over Rome experienced slight to moderate, mostly inaccurate, heavy flak. The flak over the airdrome was intense, very accurate, heavy. NASAF losses were two B-17s, one B-25 and one B-26.
The report also emphasised that the Vatican City and St John Lateran appeared intact and that, although the Basilica of San Lorenzo had been severely damaged, the historic buildings near the yards were unharmed.
Intelligence obtained for the US secret service from Switzerland reported on July 30th that northern Italian cities ‘received the news of the raid on Rome with silent joy’. All over Italy people began openly to express the wish that bombs would fall on Mussolini’s city, the home of those who were regarded as responsible for all Italy’s suffering. Fascist informers told the Duce that the bombing of Rome provoked ‘a monstrous feeling of satisfaction’ among all social classes and mat the ruling elite was viewed with far more hostility than the enemy.
In the capital itself Fascist informers stated that the behaviour of the Romans had been ‘by any measure, deplorable’, with scenes of unrestrained terror and imprecations against Mussolini and Hitler. If some wondered why Mussolini did not visit bombsites in person, others considered that he knew the crowd would have responded to such an appearance by lynching him.
The July raids revealed the full importance of the pope’s symbolic role. Police informers reported that ‘as the pope passed by, women knelt down and made the sign of the cross’. The report of his appearance in San Lorenzo by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano demonstrates how Pius XII had replaced the Duce in Roman hearts. He blessed the wounded, the victims, their families, the city and the whole country. The scene was repeated after a further raid on August 13th, which claimed more than 500 victims. By 1944, following his many attempts to make Rome an open city, the pope had become the only reference point for the Roman population.
Diplomatic attempts by the Vatican to protect the city had intensified after Mussolini’s fall from power on July 25th, 1943 and his replacement as Italy’s prime minister by Marshal Badoglio. Vatican and Italian requests that Rome should be made a non-belligerent ‘open’ city, exempting it as a target, continued to be discussed by the Allies. Churchill refused to see it as a special case, particularly, as he told Eden on August 1st, 1943 since Milan, Turin and Genoa, whose populations were ‘the most favourable to the Allies and the most violently anti-German’, had already taken heavy raids. The Americans were more cautious: on August 3rd Roosevelt told Churchill that the Allies ‘would be in a difficult position’ if they turned down the Vatican proposal.
On August 14th, following the latest bombardment, Badoglio unilaterally declared Rome an open city. The next day the combined chiefs of staff instructed Eisenhower to suspend attacks. However a second message that day cancelled the first: Eisenhower was authorised to resume bombing ‘subject to previous limitations regarding safety of Vatican’. A meeting at the War Office in London had concluded that since Italy remained allied with Germany and Axis troops were stationed in Rome:
The question whether a town can be legitimately bombarded from the air depends not on whether it calls itself open’ or ‘undefended’ but on whether it contains any military objectives.
Simply ‘declaring’ Rome an open city was ‘like raising the white flag while continuing the fight’. A capital city, ‘the nucleus of government and of war-direction’ and ‘the junction for military transport’, could not be transformed overnight into a non-belligerent area; what mattered was not what the enemy declared but what it did. On October 1st Eisenhower wrote to George Marshall, chief of staff of the US Army, rejecting the idea of the open city as ‘impracticable’.
The question was discussed again in November, with continued Vatican appeals, American uncertainties and British refusals. The British ambassador to the Holy See, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, worried that the Germans would profit from the declaration of Rome as an open city, ‘firstly, by saving their face in withdrawing voluntarily from the city for ostensibly noble motives’ and, secondly, by depriving the Allies of the use of the city and its communications. If the Allies refused Rome’s ‘open city’ status the Germans would proclaim ‘that we are gratuitously, or perhaps from anti-Catholic motives, condemning the world’s centre of Catholicism, the Vatican City and the pope to the worst ferocities of war.’ But Osborne’s chiefs in the Foreign Office disagreed and cabled Washington:
There is no question of preserving the status of Rome as an open city. His Majesty’s Government and the United States Government… have no intention of departing from their present attitude, which is to ignore appeals addressed to them on this subject.
On December 7th, after further talks with the British, Roosevelt considered it ‘inadvisable to reopen the matter’.
Although the bombing of Rome in 1943 demonstrated that the city was practically unprotected people from towns along the Gustav line (the German defensive line south of Rome) who found themselves in the war zone continued to flee to the capital between the autumn of 1943 and the spring of 1944, in the belief that its sacred character and its open status would make it safe. Gloria Chilanti, an adolescent member of the Roman resistance, wrote in her diary on March 11th, 1944 — the day after a heavy raid on the Piazza Bologna area claimed 200 victims — that there was widespread anticipation of the pope’s speech, because he was probably going to declare Rome a ‘holy city’. The next day she expressed her disappointment: ‘Disillusion about the pope’s speech. He said nothing of what we were expecting.’ Corrado Di Pompeo, a Roman employee at the ministry of corporations, reported similar expectations in his diary a month later:
Good news today, although they are still rumours, we can start relying on them at least partially. Indeed it seems that Rome will be declared an open city so that it will be illuminated at night, it will not be bombed, and the Vatican will assume the responsibility of dealing with food deliveries.
Between January and March 1944 Rome had been subjected to new attacks and on February 17th Osborne had prompted new discussion on the question of its status. In May the US ambassador to London, John Winant, informed Anthony Eden that his government had received appeals from the Spanish and Irish governments and the Catholic hierarchy in South and Central America and Australia; and that the United States joint chiefs of staff ‘would welcome an opportunity to examine any proposal for the preservation of Rome from damage, or at least placing on the Germans the responsibility’ for further destruction.
The Allies’ reply proposed to recognise Rome as an open city on two conditions: that the Germans did the same and that full transit rights were granted to the Allies. The joint statement, however, implied doubts that the conditions would be achieved and was mostly a declaration of good will:
The Allied military authorities, confronted by a ruthless enemy in Italy, are interested solely in the destruction and elimination of the German forces in that country. They have taken, and will continue to take, every possible precaution …to spare innocent civilians and the cultural and religious monuments of permanent value to civilisation. In particular, they are deeply conscious of the unique position occupied by Rome as one of the chief historical, religious, and cultural centres of the world, and of the fact that Rome is the seat of His Holiness the Pope and contains the neutral State of the Vatican City.
The issue was still unresolved when the Allies finally entered Rome on June 4th, 1944. At that point a German proposal to the Vatican to recognise it as an open city was interpreted by Osborne and the British Foreign Office as a ‘last minute German attempt to deny us the facilities for the passage of our forces through Rome’ and could therefore ‘not be entertained’.
In the end, the explanation for the decision to bomb Rome was based first and foremost on military necessity. From the Allied point of view the capital became a significant object for attack once the invasion of Sicily and southern Italy was underway and as long as Italy remained in the war. After September 1943 and Italy’s surrender Rome remained a target within the German zone of military operations. The decision to bomb was nonetheless a difficult one. The Allies worried about the worldwide reaction and tried to justify the raids by reassuring the press and the Vatican that only the most highly trained pilots would be used, capable of carrying out pinpoint attacks on legitimate military targets. Nevertheless the original British idea that the bombing of Rome would constitute a blow to the Italians’ morale was partly justified: elsewhere in Italy many approved of the bombing as part of their liberation from Fascism, while in Rome itself the people turned not against the Allies, but against Mussolini.
The 51 air raids to which the city was eventually subjected killed some 7,000 civilians — about 11 per cent of the total number of Italian victims of bombing. Many died in 1944 when bombs directed at marshalling yards and aerodromes on the outskirts hit mostly residential areas. But Italian memories of the bombing of Rome have so far been dominated by the July 1943 attack on San Lorenzo, the raid that finally shattered the peace of the Eternal City.
E Agarossi, A Nation Collapses The Italian Surrender of September 1943 (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
P Morgan, The Fall of Mussolini Italy, the Italians, and the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2007)
C Baldoli and A Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (Continuum, 2012)
C Baldoli and M Fincardi, ‘Italian Society under Allied Bombs Propaganda, Experience, and Legend, 1940-1945′, Historical Journal, 52 (4), 2009, pp 1017 1038
For more articles on this subject visit www.historytoday.com
Watch footage of the bombing of the Vatican City and clips from the film Two Women at www.historytoday.com/rome1943
Were art and religion inevitable victims of war? Richard Hodges and David Colvin discuss the impact of the British bombardment of the birthplace of the Benedictine order south of Rome in February 1944. www.historytoday.com/archive
The newly crowned Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) giving his benediction in Rome, March 1939.
Background: the bomb-damaged Basilica of San Lorenzo.
Roman citizens preparing sandbags to protect the city against possible bomb damage, 1939.
Smoke clouds over the marshalling hub in the San Lorenzo district after an Allied bombing raid, 1943.
Railtracks uprooted following a bombardment in San Lorenzo, 1943.
A poster for Two Women, starring Sophia Loren. Vittorio de Sica’s 1960 film centres on the wartime bombing of Rome by the Allies.
An illustration from the Almanack du Pèlerin, a French Catholic magazine of 1939. The papacy is shown as an immovable rock, the support of civilisation, standing firm against the towering waves of hell: Communism, Nazism and atheism.
Houses damaged by aerial bombardment in Rome after a raid in July 1943.
Residents crowd around the pope as he offers prayers in October 1943 during an inspection of bomb damage following the attacks of August 13th.
By Claudia Baldoli
Claudia Baldoli is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Newcastle. This article is part of a comparative research project funded by the AHRC, see www.centres.ex.ac.uk/wss/bombing.