No. 299  NAI DFA Secretary's Files P77

Memorandum by Michael MacWhite
'The Aerial Bombardment of Rome'

ROME, 19 July 1943

The aerial bombardment of the Railway yards, the airports and other military objectives in Rome and the immediate vicinity on July 19th, 1943, by the Anglo-American air forces was an event of far reaching importance. It was entirely unexpected as it was only a few days previously President Roosevelt had given an assurance that the neutrality of the Vatican City and, as far as possible, of the other Papal domains throughout Italy would be respected. This, it was thought, would include the many Basilicas and other Churches so intimately associated with Christian worship, as well as with the Art and Culture, characteristic of the Eternal City.

Towards the middle of July indications were not wanting that Rome would soon receive serious attention from the Allied air forces. In the early part of the month bombs were dropped at Ostia and other neighbouring towns. On the night of July 16th, the city was startled by the Air Raid siren soon after midnight and the Anti Aircraft guns were in action for about 90 minutes. Nothing more dangerous than leaflets were dropped, but these contained the announcement that Rome would be bombed within a few days. This was not taken very seriously as most people regarded it as part of the ‘war of nerves’ that plays such an important role in the present conflict.

Towards 11 a.m. on the 17th July American planes flew over the city probably for the purpose of taking photographs and verifying the objectives that were to form the subject of their attack two days later. On the night of July 18th, towards 1 a.m., the Air Raid defence Batteries went into action again for half an hour at the end of which the Allied aviators must have realised how ineffective the shooting was. The moon was full or nearly so and the visibility was good when all these surveys were made.

Then, on July 19th at 11 a.m., the Air Raid warning sounded and within a few minutes all the Defence Batteries had entered into action. At this time I was sitting at my desk talking with the Prior of San Clemente when suddenly the windows shook violently at which I remarked that bombs were falling in the vicinity. On looking towards the Railway Station the façade of which is only 250 yards away, I noticed smoke rising from the marshalling yards about 500 yards further on. Because of the bursting bombs and the anti aircraft guns it sounded as if pandemonium was let loose so we went downstairs where we remained nearly three hours until the 'all clear ' was sounded about 2 o'clock.

On returning to my apartment volumes of smoke and flame were issuing from the marshalling yards and the San Lorenzo goods depot further down the line. The Basilica situated about 300 yards from this depot was partially destroyed, the old part, dating from the time of Constantine the Great containing the tomb of Pius IX, being but little affected. Outside of a number of apartment houses in the immediate vicinity of the Railway Yards this seems to be the only prominent building of non-military importance that suffered from the raid. Between Porta Maggiore and the San Lorenzo Goods Yards, the railway line forms a bottleneck after which it curves round to the right and left into five or six branches. Here many of the bombs fell with destructive effect on the workmen's flats which were mainly jerry built since the coming of Fascism between these branching lines collapsed like house of cards. Hundreds perished in the ruins of their own houses. A train carrying about 1,000 passengers making for the main station was completely destroyed. The railway lines leading from the main station in whatever direction were bombed so effectively that it was not until ten days later the first train from the North was able to enter the city. North bound refugees and other travellers had in the meantime to use whatever accommodation they could provide, or afford, in order to get to the station of Sette Bagni some twelve miles outside the city. In all about forty kilometres of the railway lines were destroyed.

Facing the Basilica of San Lorenzo to the North about 250 yards distant is the University City. Many of its buildings including the Polyclinic were destroyed. Here, the German Air Force had set up its Headquarters and amongst the other military objectives installed in these buildings was the Military Chemical Experimental Laboratories. This latter had a direct hit.

The large military airport of Ciampino situated about 10 miles south of the city was rendered inutilisable and about 200 planes on the ground, many of them German, in the process of tuning up to take off for Sicily, were completely wrecked. All the military barracks, hangars, repair shops and other installations were literally pulverised. Three hours earlier in the morning the Duce took off from the Airport for the historic meeting with Hitler which took place near Belluno.1 He was escorted by all the fighting planes in the Rome Command which accounts for the fact that the English and Americans had the sky to themselves. On his return the same evening the flames and smoke issuing from the burning buildings must have been visible many miles away and far more spectacular than that which met the gaze of Nero, another ruler who wielded absolute power on his return to the city a couple of thousand years before. Nemesis in her own good time has a peculiar way of catching up with those who outrage her laws.

Eight miles north of Rome stood the civil and military Airport of Littoria. Here, also, the hangars, barracks and repair shops were blown to fragments and a number of persons killed. The petrol reserve cisterns which were underground continued to explode for 48 hours. It was from this airport that planes took off on all International transport lines such as that linking up with Spain, Portugal, Germany and Bulgaria.

Both Italian and Foreign military experts were much impressed by the precision of the bombing. Outside of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the residential quarters in the immediate vicinity of the marshalling yards, the bombs fell directly on or very close to the objectives aimed at. It was remarked that scores of them fell in the middle of the railway tracks which were marked out for destruction.

The victims of the bombardment are officially stated to have been 717 killed and 1,599 wounded, include civilians only and not the members of the fighting forces amongst whom there were many casualties. On the date they were published scores of victims were known to be buried under many of the collapsed buildings as the task of cleaning up was slow due to the lack of sanitary materials. Some forty-eight hours after the bombardment a large number of German trucks with special equipment for dealing with disasters of this kind arrived in Rome from Northern Italy.

Despite the official list of casualties it is known that the Municipal authorities furnished over 3,000 coffins and many corpses are still buried in the ruins. The homeless are estimated at 14,000.

[signed] M. MACWHITE
Minister Plenipotentiary

1 On 19 July 1943 Hitler and Mussolini met at Villa Gaggia, close to the town of Feltre, itself located near Belluno, a city in northern Italy approximately 80 kilometres north of Venice.

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