ITALY'S DARKEST HOUR - EPISODE 6: THE AGONY OF NAPLES

Monday, 02 November 2020 09:50 Written by
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The landing of Salerno was designed to advance further north and free Naples as soon as possible, but it resulted in a painful time for the city.

In the last episode we left you with the crossing of the Strait of Messina. After the conquest of Sicily, Roosevelt and Churchill have decided to invade the Italian continent. The 8th Army, led by English Marshal Montgomery, has been assigned the task of advancing along the roads of Calabria towards Campania and Puglia. The landings at Salerno, further north, will be carried out by the 5th Army, led by American General Clark. The two armies will meet a few days after landing in the Paestum Plain. As it happened in Sicily, after months of tensions and rebounds British and Americans are going to fight distantly: the Americans will lead the main and most prestigious operation, the landings at Salerno, and Montgomery does not like the task assigned to him at all.
The Anglo-American landing area is a 50-kilometre coastline between Salerno and Agropoli, with sandy beaches easily accessible from the sea and allowing a rapid penetration for a few kilometers inside. The British, north of the Sele River, must point inland to Battipaglia and along the coast directly to Salerno, the Americans’ target south of the river is Eboli.
On September 9th at 3:00 a.m., the cannons of Allied ships open fire. At that time, American Rangers and British commandos touch land in Maiori and Vietri on the Sea, on the Amalfi Coast. On the first day of the fight, the British manage to conquer Battipaglia but are stopped after occupying Pontecagnano. These early fighting causes a deep disappointment in the British soldiers, who were convinced that the surrender of Italy would facilitate their task. The Americans go from the Paestum area to the village of Albanella in the hills, but here they are stopped by the Germans. On the morning of September 10, Battipaglia is recaptured by the Germans. The fighting continues on September 11th and 12th, on the 13th the Germans counterattack and break American lines, forcing them to retreat to the beaches. The German Command thinks it can even drive the Americans out to sea, it no longer fears an immediate threat to Naples. The outcome of the whole operation is at risk: Clark tells British Admiral Hewitt, commander of the Allied fleet in the Gulf of Salerno, to prepare for a possible evacuation of the entire invasion corps.
Clark directs available reinforcements to the front, reorganizes artillery, and pushes the American troops to resist as much as possible. On the afternoon of September 14th, the German attack fades. And Montgomery? His advance from Calabria is inexplicably very poor: some war correspondents drive to Paestum without encountering any obstacles, far preceding the avant-garde of the 8th Army.
On September 18, the Germans start to retreat towards Naples, launching a scorched Earth campaign. Bridges, roads, telephone stations, public buildings are systematically destroyed; along the streets of the retreat, towns, villages and individual farmhouses are raided mercilessly. The delay in advancing of the Allies allows the Germans to proceed with the systematic destruction of the infrastructure of Naples, particularly the port: ships and caissons are sunk while cranes, pontoons, pipelines, high voltage cables are destroyed and countless mines are scattered.
The Allies take a good 3 weeks to get to Naples. On October 1st, the first avant-gardes of British troops appear in the southern suburbs. As the Germans retreat, an allied column led by Clark heads to Piazza Garibaldi where a festive welcome of freed Neapolitans has been announced. There are few people on the streets: in fact, the bravest inhabitants have gathered in Piazza del Plebiscito. Clark still has his day of glory, immortalized by photographers and film-makers.
The great adventure of the landings at Salerno is over. The Germans have realized that it is possible to stop the allied advance north of Naples, along the various defensive lines set up on the Garigliano and Cassino. The Allies won but missed the chance to shorten the fight because of Montgomery's slowness, the inexperience of the generals, their insufficient coordination, the absence of a real strategic leadership centre. The next military target is Rome. But Naples is on its knees.
Before the armistice, on August 1st 1943 a terrible bombardment has hit the city, particularly the port, the industrial area and the railway station, but also surrounding neighbourhoods. On August 4th another devastating attack with incendiary and disruptive bombs, the most painful and serious incursion in 3 years of war. Throughout August and early September, the bombing has continued, without respite. More than 3,000 people have died in American bombings, many of them in the shelters that had been carved into the ancient cavities of Neapolitan underground, others in the cavities of the Bourbon aqueduct, others still in the railway tunnels. On the eve of the armistice, Naples is a city in ruins, semi-paralyzed, with rationed water, food reduced to a minimum, not enough for the entire population.
Berlin has ordered German commander Scholl not to leave Naples until it is "ashes and mud." On September 12th, after a few minutes of a terrorist bombing, the Huns break into houses and begin looting, violence and destruction. People are driven out, stripped of all their having, forced to witness the burning of their homes. The University is set on fire, thousands of volumes are destroyed. More than 4,000 military and civilians are taken prisoner and immediately sent to the station, to be deported to Germany. From the 13th to 27th, the city remains at the mercy of the Germans who methodically keep on looting and destroying technical-industrial facilities and everything they cannot take away. The distraught city is starving, gas and water are missing, to quench their thirst Neapolitans resort to dirty and infected wells; corpses lie beneath the rubble and in the streets. For Neapolitans, it is 15 days of martyrdom, ferocious violence, shootings.
On the 27th the city rises up: Carabinieri, police officers, workers and intellectuals, women of the people, artisans, all united storm weapons and ammunition depots in different points of the city. Finally, at 5 am on the 29th the Germans march through Via Roma and head north. Naples is finally free. But after one war, Naples will immediately begin another: survival during the American occupation.
Naples becomes the main logistics base of the Allied armies, and the Allies will remain until 1946. Two and a half tremendous years for men, women and children forced to live in poor sanitary conditions, struggling with recurring epidemics, starving. The port is reactivated as early as October 1943. The Pellegrini hospital is reopened, city connections are restored. But rubble is everywhere and the population is starving: there is no electricity, the distribution of water is occasional.
In December, the situation deteriorates throughout liberated Italy. In Naples, the situation is dramatic, because for food most people rely only on rationing, which is restored with some regularity only on October 21st but for just 100 grams of bread per capita. There are actually several cases of death by starvation. Inadequate allied supplies, the difficulty of bringing the products of the main southern granary production centres to main cities due to the crisis of internal transportation, the collapse of the rationing system inevitably lead to a sharp rise in the cost of living and impressive growth of the black market, crucial to ensuring the physical survival of the population.
For about 30 months the city will be the preferred post behind the frontline, where more than 100,000 soldiers will arrive. After the fighting on the front of Cassino, they will turn Naples into a place of fun, that is, an immense brothel. Until May 1944, Naples will be the main centre of attraction and entertainment for the allied military engaged on the front line.
Naples is a city dominated by hunger, totally unable to produce goods and services. People do not understand anything: stunned by hunger and bombings, astounded by the wealth of the newcomers, they are interested in nothing but solving, each on their own, the arduous daily problem. Prostitution reaches impressive proportions. The phenomenon of "signorine", women who luring soldiers, is rampant: widows who must feed their children, girls who lost their families under incursions, women tired of long deprivations. Necessity pushes them onto the sidewalks. With them are the "shoe-shine", children who for a few am-lires clean the shoes of soldiers and collaborate in smuggling and selling stolen cigarettes. Many of them are children of large and stray families, homeless, living on the edge. Typhus breaks out, but fortunately it is immediately blocked.
It is a terrible time, not only for Naples but for every Italian city in such conditions. Director John Huston, then a captain at the Signal Corps in charge of shooting propaganda documentaries, recounts in his memoir:
“The men and women of Naples were a disinherited, hungry, desperate people, willing to do absolutely everything to survive. People's souls had been raped. It was a city without a god."
With the complicity of the American military, in those months the black market becomes huge, involving broad strata of the poorest population. Smuggling is rampant, initiated by Italian-Americans soldiers and local criminals. The garbage-laden allied military trucks bound for the incinerators, under a blanket of garbage, carry all good things, which disappear at designated crossroads. It’s a gigantic business, "live and let live...", they say.
But, above all, the greatest disappointment among Italians derives from the climate of violence provoked by the behaviour of many allied soldiers, in particular the brutality often shown towards women, forced into prostitution by hunger. Allied and Italian police forces record an impressive number of acts of violence or lust and brawls with civilians and, above all, an impressive dribble of thefts and armed robberies in the streets, houses, shops, in which soldiers are involved. They are active in the illegal trade in cigarettes, food, gasoline and goods and all kinds of goods and instruments destined for allied units and diverted to the 'black market'.
Thus 1943 ends. The will to survive live, to overcome these tragic times, will prevail: people will look at the new year with hope, with the desire to live, to rebuild, to love again. A new Italy is being born.

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Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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