by Matthew Anthony Evangelista
London: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xiv, 217.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $160.00. ISBN: 1032325968
Questioning the Allied Bombing Campaign in Italy
The Allied bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan have been well studied, and British and American readers have good access to books criticizing their goals and methods, and others defending them. But there have been far fewer studies of Allied bombing of the rest of Europe. Matthew Evangelista, a professor of history and political science at Cornell, has written an unusual book about how Allied bombing affected Italian civilians, and how everyone from national leaders to bombardiers saw the bombing campaign as it occurred.
Italians were in a unique position: they were the targets of bombs from the summer of 1940—when the RAF began attacking the industrial cities of Northern Italy—to the very end of the war, when the last German units surrendered in the same region.
In 1940, of course, Fascist Italy was at war with the United Kingdom, and a few Italian bombers actually attacked England during the Battle of Britain. The British response was far more deadly. Once the war reached Italy in 1943 – and Italy was no longer an enemy – both British and American planes dropped thousands of tons of ordnance on towns and cities up and down the country, and eventually killed over 60,000 Italian civilians.
Evangelista argues that almost all of the death and destruction rained down on Italy was unnecessary, and that much of it was counter productive. He divides his book into five chapters —Diplomacy, Strategy, Resistance, Humanity and Memory—followed by a Conclusion.
In "Diplomacy," he focuses on Myron Taylor, an American appointed by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be his “personal representative to the Pope.” Taylor met repeatedly with Pope Pius XII—Eugenio Pacelli—whose major concern was that Rome, especially its churches and most importantly the Vatican, not be bombed by the Allies. This effort was a complete failure, as neither FDR nor Churchill was interested in accepting any limits to bombing policies.
In "Strategy," Evangelista looks at Solly Zuckerman, a scientist with great influence on British bombing policy. Zuckerman, he maintains, believed that bombing alone could force enemies to surrender, and Zuckerman advocated policies that caused thousands of civilian deaths—something he refused to acknowledge during the war, or in his books written in the 1950s.
The star of "Resistance" is Aldo Quaranta, an Italian anti-fascist who led the resistance to German forces in one region in northern Italy. The author’s point in this chapter is to emphasize how local Italian resistance leaders were eager to provide the Allies with intelligence about German forces, and even destroy bridges and tunnels themselves, but were ignored by American and British officers. The result, again and again, was bombing that killed civilians.
In "Humanity," Evangelista uses sources that most military histories omit. He begins with the books of British pacifist activist Vera Brittain, who passionately campaigned against all bombing of civilian targets, even in Germany. She was rebuked by leaders such as Churchill, who regarded the Italian people as enemies. As for ordinary American airmen, those actually doing the bombing, Evangelista has them speak through Joseph Heller, the B-25 bombardier who attacked Italian cities before writing his famous novel Catch-22. “Thus, Catch-22 reflects common wartime attitudes of soldiers who [were] keener to save their own lives than those of unarmed civilians,” as he comments.
So, the book concludes, neither those at the top, nor those at the bottom would alter their behavior to spare civilian lives. We then move from books to film.
"Memory" is an exhaustive look at The Battle of San Pietro, a “documentary” film by director John Huston, released to great praise in 1945. This 32-minute film, shot using actual American soldiers, in Italy, is false and misleading in almost every way, but has come to play an important role in how the horrors of war are remembered in Italy today. The film pretends to have real combat footage, but does not. It was not shot in the town of San Pietro Infine, but in a nearby area, and San Pietro itself was not destroyed by bombing, but by American artillery fire. The villagers shown greeting the GIs were acting, long after the battle. The film ends with the rebuilding of the village underway, yet the ruins still stand today—San Pietro Infine was rebuilt in a new location. The Battle of San Pietro was the result of a decision by the US Army Signal Corps, in 1943, to create a film to show the American public what their boys were fighting for. They hired Captain John Huston, before the war director of The Maltese Falcon, to make a documentary. When he was finished, the result upset top American generals because it was all too vivid. Yet ever since the war, the film has played a crucial role in Italians’ memories of the terrible destructiveness of war, and Allied bombing. Evangelista credits the movie with playing an important role in Italy’s general pacifist sentiments over the last 75 years.
All in all, Allied Air Attacks and Civilian Harm, a volume in the Routledge series "Studies in Second World War History," is an excellent contribution to the debate over Allied bombing policy during World War II, especially to the part of the debate concerning bombing “friendly” civilians, such as the over 100,000 French and Italian civilians killed. By centering the narrative around Italian partisans and villagers, along with novelists and a filmmaker, it brings in voices not usually heard in military history.
Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book the owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II, Enemies Among Us, Battle of the Bulge, Then and Now, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy From Triumph to Collapse, Engineering in the Confederate Heartland, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, and Armada
Note: Allied Air Attacks and Civilian Harm in Italy is also available in paperback & e-editions.
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