Bombing Pompeii

A review of Bombing Pompeii by Nigel Pollard

Between the night of the 24 August and the 26 September 1943, allied planes bombed the archaeological site of Pompeii. Several important buildings were damaged including the House of Epidus Rufus.

In an important new book, Nigel Pollard examines the decisions which led to this action and the impact that followed it.

Via dell’Abbondanza, the main street in Pompeii (CC-BY-SA 3.0 Mentnafunangann)

The bombing of Pompeii, is a relatively little known chapter of the terrible events in the middle of the Twentieth Century. 

It is often reported that the reason was because allied planners thought that German forces were quartered in the ancient town. Indeed, many people reported this in their memoirs or reports from the war years and it is often repeated in guidebooks to the site.

In fact the site was never the target. The bombing was an accident of war.

On the morning of the 9th September, allied forces landed in Campania, Italy, establishing a beachhead at Salerno. The Germans counterattacked on the 13th September. At this point the allied command had only one option in order to gain tactical superiority. They could not commit more troops. Aerial bombing of the Italian transport infrastructure would prevent the Germans from concentrating forces in the south and might in turn lead to an allied breakthrough.

The major local transport infrastructure, then and now, is located close to the ancient site of Pompeii. 

The only planes available to the allies were B-17 heavy bombers, B25 and B26 medium bombers and Wellington bombers. 

These planes bombed from a height which decreased the level of accuracy they could achieve. For example, the B-17s flew over Pompeii at an average height of 15,800 ft and 20,200 ft. They used the Norden M-9 bombsight, a sophisticated piece of kit, which ultimately in active conditions did not result in accurate targeting. 

Military planners estimated that around 82.4% of bombs fell within 1 mile of a specified target and, as Pollard argues, this number does not account for flight path and other variables.

“The decision to bomb targets so close to the site meant that it was inevitable that some bombs would hit it. If anything, given the level of accuracy achievable at the time, it is surprising that more bombs did not strike the site.”

In archaeological terms it is a small mercy that the bombs did not cause more damage. 

Pollard does not touch on the ancient remains, but the Superintendent of the site reported that 100 buildings had been hit and 1378 archaeological finds had been destroyed.

Was the attack justified?

It is impossible to read and discuss the bombing of Pompeii, without taking an ‘anachronistic’ stance.

The Italian front was perhaps where new standards of behavior were introduced and tested by allied leaders, to mixed results. During the war, several allied organisations and military units were developed in order to protect cultural sites both in Europe and Asia.

The perceived importance of European culture reflects the educational and cultural background of many senior belligerents (then and now). Many American universities had a core Western civilization class, whilst Britain’s privileging of classical education is still notorious. Even people who did not attend university, could have engaged in the classics through popular books or just through cultural osmosis.

One American scholar wrote ‘the history of civilization and liberty is written in the historic and artistic monuments of Europe’. We might disagree with this statement today.

Several lists were developed between 1942 and 1945, by various groups but perhaps the most important was the ‘Bombing Book’, the Ancient Monument of Italy: Aerial Photographs, compiled by Squadron Leader Peter Shinnie. It used aerial photography to identify important cultural sites. The photos were useful as they resemble what bomber crews would actually see from their aircraft. 

The book also categorised cities into three levels: A, no bombing without authority, B, avoid bombing, no military objectives nearby and C, bombing necessary due to military objectives. 

Venice was listed as category A, alongside Rome, Florence and Torcello.

In March 1945, the allies planned a precision aerial attack on German supply ships in the port of Venice using Mustang and Kittyhawk fighter-bombers which could dive bomb more accurately than the planes used in the Pompeii attacks 18 months before. This was partly to avoid collateral damage to the City’s cultural heritage. It was a success.

Curtiss XP-40 “11” used for test purposes by the Materiel Division of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the battle against the evil of Nazism, the scars still borne by Pompeii are a regretful but proud reminder of those years when all sections of society entered the conflict.

This is an important book which analyses the post life of an important archaeological site, and the enduring impact which the war had on cultural protection.

Bombing Pompeii: World Heritage and Military Necessity by Nigel Pollard is published by University of Michigan Press.978-0-472-13220-1. Available as a hardback or ebook

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