Document dated July 1943. National Archives, Kew.

Italian women (leaflet, Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Rome).

Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945

The Bombing of Italy 1940 - 1945

According to official estimates, Italian civilian victims of bombing numbered around 60,000. The bombing of Italian cities began little more than 24 hours after Mussolini's declaration of war on France and Britain, while the last bombs of the war in Italy fell at the beginning of May 1945 on the route to the Brenner pass, to obstruct the return home of German troops. During the five years in between, almost every Italian city experienced bombing, first by the British and then, after the United States entered the war, by the Americans as well, and following the Allied invasion in July 1943, also by the Germans. Italy therefore experienced attacks by enemies as well as by ‘friends', bearing a promise of liberation.

On 11 June 1940 Turin was bombed for the first time, followed by Genoa and Milan, Naples and Taranto. The historic centre of Venice was spared, but not the region around it. However, the bombing campaigns that followed in 1942 and particularly in 1943 were much more intense than those of 1940-1941. By the first half of 1943 all Italian regions had been subjected to attack. On 19 July 1943 Rome was bombed for the first time. After Allied landings, southern Italy experienced bombing by both the Allies and the Germans: in August the Germans bombed Palermo while at the same time the Allies were bombing Taranto and Naples. In the spring of 1943, following the heavy raids in Turin, Milan and Genoa, which had been turned by then into little more than a heap of rubble, workers went on strike and demonstrated for peace. Although after the Italian surrender on 8 September 1943 the Allies were no longer targeting an enemy country, Italian civilians continued to be the object of attack, alongside German military targets in Italy; two-thirds of all the victims in Italy came in the period between the armistice and the end of the war.

Between 1940 and 1945, Italian cities experienced phases of intense attack as well as long periods of pause, particularly in the north and in the south. Central Italy was not attacked until the spring of 1943, but in the following 15 months it was the most victimised part of the country.1 In the south, the proximity to the Mediterranean and North-African theatres of war meant that airfields and ports became military targets, although bombs also fell on inhabited centres nearby. The Americans were mostly responsible for the bombing of southern Italy, the British for the north: while the RAF bombed communication and industrial targets at night, the American Army Air Forces attacked during the day using so-called precision bombing, though the high number and large scale of American operations produced results that were as devastating for the population as those of the British ‘area bombing' in northern Italy. According to Stephen Harvey (who has written the only existing article in English on the subject), the experience of being bombed, rather than military defeats or Mussolini's failure as a war leader, was perhaps the largest single contributory factor in Italy's war weariness – and in the collapse of Italian morale.2 This may well be an exaggerated claim since military defeats and lack of food also contributed alongside bombing to the collapse of popular morale, but air raids were the most visible sign of the war and the one that caused most panic.

The first air attacks did not cause large-scale damage or claim many victims, but they were the origin for Italians of the fears and anxieties provoked by the evident ease with which the enemy passed over defences alleged by Mussolini to be impenetrable. While British attacks on France were aimed, in principle, at specific targets linked to the German occupiers, never at French civilians, in northern Italian cities the British decided from the start to hit the civilian population living near industrial areas, with a view to testing its psychological resistance. The conviction that Italy was the ‘soft underbelly' of the Axis extended from the Allied view of the Italian armed forces to their assessment of the Italian home front, which the British had believed from as early as 1940 would collapse under bombing more easily than its German counterpart. The Italian ‘psychology' was considered ‘not suited for war'3 and the British therefore expected that the bombs would produce not just military consequences but also political. They hoped bombing would persuade Italians to withdraw their support for the regime, which in turn might lead to Italy's elimination from the war.

In the absence of much of the male population, women were disproportionately affected by air raids. Writer Miriam Mafai has underlined the aspect of resignation rather than protest during the period of bombing and hunger - a new way of living dominated by fear. Women were the pillar of a family life that had been disrupted: they looked after refugees and sought to find food.4 However, documents in Italian archives demonstrate that there was more to the reaction than this: resignation was not the only response. Women took an active part in the protests caused by the regime's inefficiency in protecting civilians. They also played a part in sustaining a separate world of myth and rumour which challenged the prevailing social propaganda generated by the state. Women were also the main target of the Allied leaflet campaigns on Italian cities, which sought to persuade the Italians to protest against Fascism, and particularly encouraged soldiers and civilians to refuse collaboration with, and to develop hostility towards, the Germans.

Another area of potential conflict was the public reception of anti-aircraft regulations. According to reports from theregional prefects, the blackout was often disregarded everywhere in the peninsula and for the whole period of the war. The disregard for blackout regulations is evident also from many newspaper articles, and from continuous problems of public order reported in files of both the ministry of interior and of the air ministry. However, non-compliance with blackout regulations should not be interpreted, particularly in the first years of the war, as a decision to resist the war effort, let alone as an expression of pacifism or anti-Fascism. Complicated rules suddenly had to be observed by a population which was not used to them; the alarms were continuous, used disproportionately and exasperating because the system of sighting approaching enemy aircraft was so imprecise; non-compliance was not the result of opposition, but of the difficulties of adapting society to the dynamics of war.
The outcome of the war, and the interpretation of the war as a conflict between Fascism and democracy, has settled in popular memory the idea that the Allies ‘had to' use bombing, and Anglo-American propaganda succeeded in persuading the Italians that there was a link between bombs, democracy and liberation. A woman's war-time diary, published in Rome in 1945, shows that this idea had already been successfully constructed even before the war was over:

An enemy that had to hurt us deeply, and to whom, however, we cannot bear resentment. On our poor defenceless body he had to strike the cancer that was devouring us, cutting the flesh just like the surgeon with the scalpel.5

However, the experience of being bombed did not bring straightforward answers; the civilians' feelings were often divided, even when they had become detached from Fascism. In her war-time diary, the writer Jolanda di Benigno, in Rome during the summer of 1943, noted:
And the bombing! We would have said that the ‘allies' were like Hitler .... Everyday we switched the radio on with shaking hand and the eye fixed on the terrible questions: which of our dear, illustrious, courageous cities has been offended last night? How many more dead?.… bombs, the bombs of 4,000 pounds, death that comes from where we look when we pray to God.6

Cities became symbolic and emotional spaces which had to be defended by their inhabitants when their ‘soul' was wounded by bombs: for many civilians, an outrage to their home town was an outrage to the motherland. Grazia Alfieri Tarentino, a young woman in Milan from 1941, for example, expressed a painful resentment of the enemy when she saw La Scala theatre burning: it was ‘all that had remained of the heart of the city'. In October 1944, when a bomb killed 200 school children in the Gorla working class district of Milan, she witnessed the pain and the tragedy of innocent children. The whole city was in mourning on the day of the funerals, the women in black beside the small white graves:

On the church square, among the silent crowd, someone dared to say: ‘these are the Anglo-Americans, assassins of children'. Among the sincere pain, propaganda was insinuating; on the walls posters appeared with images of death to remind those who persisted in refusing to believe it, that the so-called ‘liberators' were the enemies …. Ideas were confused.7

1. Marco Gioannini, Giulio Massobrio, Bombardate l'Italia. Storia della guerra di distruzione aerea 1940-1945 (Milan: Rizzoli, 2007), p. 11; see also Giorgio Bonacina, Obiettivo: Italia. I bombardamenti aerei delle città italiane dal 1940 al 1945 (Milan: Mursia, 1970).
2. Stephen Harvey, ‘The Italian War Effort and the Strategic Bombing of Italy', History , vol. 70, 228, February 1985, pp. 44-45.
3. Gabriella Gribaudi, Guerra totale: tra bombe alleate e violenze naziste. Napoli e il fronte meridionale, 1940-1944 (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2005), p. 48.
4. M. Mafai, Pane nero. Donne e vita quotidiana nella seconda guerra mondiale (Milan: Mondadori, 1987), p. 123.
5. Anna Garofalo, In guerra si muore (Rome: Universale Editrice, 1945), p. 8.
6. Jolanda Di Benigno, Occasioni mancate. Roma in un diario segreto, 1943-1944 (Rome: S.E.I, 1945), p. 95.
7. Grazia Alfieri Tarentino, La festa di Muncalè. Storia minore della gente di Milano che qualcuno vorrebbe mettere nella zona grigia senza averne conosciuta la vera natura (Genoa: Erga, 2005), p. 117, p. 176.