‘Bombing among friends’: Historian probes Allied raids on Italy

In radio broadcasts and in leaflets dropped from warplanes during World War II, U.S. and British air forces announced their status as liberators to “amici italiani” – Italian friends – on the ground.

“We do not want to bomb you, we are not fighting with you, we only want peace,” one leaflet read.

And yet, two-thirds of the 60,000 Italian civilian victims of Allied bombing were killed after the armistice signed in September 1943, when Italy was no longer an enemy. Hundreds of thousands of homes in more than 60 towns and cities – including Rome – also were destroyed in repeated raids by B-24 heavy bombers dubbed the Liberator.

Matthew Evangelista, the President White Professor of History and Political Science in the Department of Government, in the College of Arts and Sciences, explores this seeming paradox in a new book, Allied Air Attacks and Civilian Harm in Italy, 1940-1945: Bombing Among Friends.” Drawing upon previously untapped Italian-language sources and digital archives, memoir accounts, novels and films, including Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and John Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro,” the book examines the views of Allied political and military leaders, Allied air crews and Italian civilians.

Evangelista discussed his research with the Chronicle.

Question: Why did Allies continue to bomb Italy for some 600 days following the armistice?

Answer: The simple answer is that the Allies were at war with Nazi Germany, the Germans occupied Italy following the armistice, and aerial bombardment was one of the main ways of fighting. The more complicated issue that I explore is how the Allies used air power and how their choices increased the risk of civilian harm. Air Force leaders were eager to assert the autonomy of their service. They preferred to attack fixed targets that they could identify long in advance rather than to engage in close-air support of ground forces directly fighting the Germans – a much more demanding but potentially more valuable task. British air strategy was heavily influenced by the views of Solly Zuckerman, who favored attacking railroad junctures within cities to disrupt supply to the German forces. Given the poor accuracy of the bombers, those attacks rarely hindered the Germans for very long, but they killed, wounded and displaced thousands of civilians living nearby.

Q. This aspect of the war doesn’t seem widely known. Why is that?

A.  The numbers were much higher in Germany and Japan, with tens of thousands killed in a single bombing raid. The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo are the best-known cases, killing comparable numbers of people in a single day or night as were killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Italian situation was different, as there were no attacks on that scale. The attacks caused fewer “mass-casualty events” than in Germany or Japan, but they led to prolonged suffering over years as people were rendered homeless and starving.

Q. You focus on five individuals (one with prominent ties to Cornell) to illustrate five key dimensions of the war: Diplomacy; Strategy; Resistance; Humanity and Memory. Why did you take that approach as a historian?

A. The material lent itself to a topical focus, so that decision came early, and in some cases so did the emphasis on an individual. In Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, I examined the papers of Myron Taylor, the Cornell Law School graduate and benefactor, who served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s envoy to Pope Pius XII. There were four thick folders of material on the bombing of Rome, describing his efforts – ultimately unsuccessful – to use diplomacy to prevent the Allied attacks on the Eternal City. For my chapter on Strategy, I focused on Zuckerman and his debate with U.S. personnel – mainly economists – involved in planning air attacks. They disagreed with Zuckerman’s emphasis on attacking rail targets within cities and argued – correctly, as it turned out – that destroying rail and road bridges outside towns would do a better job of hindering German transport, and at less risk to civilians.

Q. What other Cornell connections did you explore?

A. The papers of Sidney Schneider (also at the library) – the father of Fred Schneider, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Computer Science at Cornell – gave me insights into the thinking of the air crews who carried out the bombing. Schneider was a crew mate of Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch-22,” whose novel closely tracks the real-world exploits of his unit as it bombed throughout the Italian peninsula and beyond. Another connection was Vera Brittain, the British pacifist and critic of Allied bombing practices. Her husband was George Catlin, a Cornell government professor, and she spent some time in Ithaca in the 1920s before they both returned to England. Her insights into the thinking of Allied air crews – that they were preoccupied with their own self-preservation and thought little about the people they were harming below – were reflected in Heller’s novel and other literary and journalistic sources I uncovered. Brittain came back to lecture at Cornell after the war on her proposals for world government.

Q. What was the military rationale for attacking civilian targets in Italy and elsewhere?

A. During the period when Italy was allied to Nazi Germany, and before the United States entered the war, it was the British Royal Air Force that determined the bombing strategy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his advisers favored what they called “dehousing” – attacking war-producing facilities in the main industrial cities, but at the same time destroying civilian apartment buildings nearby. The idea was to demoralize the working class as the most likely opponents of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini by killing and wounding and rendering them homeless. The strategy of directly harming civilians to influence their government is what the Russians are doing in Ukraine. We now consider it a war crime.

Q. How have memories of World War II and the Allies’ bombs continued to shape Italian attitudes toward war?

A. Italians as a whole have adopted a strong pacifist orientation thanks to the legacy of the war. One consequence has been Italian reluctance to deploy their own armed forces abroad, except in cases that can be deemed peacekeeping operations. Another consequence is current reluctance – probably higher than in other countries – to support Ukraine militarily in its defense against the brutal invasion by Russia.

Q. You see parallels between the Allied bombing of Italy and modern “humanitarian interventions,” as in Kosovo and Libya. What do they have in common?

A. The idea that your armed forces are liberating victims of a belligerent dictator is a common feature. So is the technique: bombing. I’ll focus just on the case of Kosovo, the site of NATO’s first war ever.  In 1999, in an effort to prevent Serbian atrocities against Kosovar Albanians, the United States led NATO in a 78-day campaign of aerial bombardment, without any “boots on the ground.” NATO called it a no-casualty war, but it was referring only to its own soldiers. Civilians suffered, and the bombing initially exacerbated the refugee crisis caused by the Serbian violence. The impulse to punish civilians for ostensibly supporting aggressive dictators remains a feature of the thinking of some U.S. Air Force officials even today.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Book cover: 'Bombing among friends"