Turin under the Bombs
Adalberto Di Corato
When Mussolini took Italy into the Second World War on 10th June 1940, Italy was unprepared for the conflict. In Turin, the public institutions devoted to air defence, UNPA (National Union of Antiair Protection), Anti-Aircraft Defences, the Fascist Party, and the Firefighters were among the least ready for the onslaught to come. In the years leading up to the War, the Italian regime consistently ignored many of the organisations’ requests for funding and adequate equipment. Primary sources in the Turin archives strongly support the view that local organisations were placed under enormous stress but also that their response to the unique challenges posed by the bombing exceeded Allied expectations. Institutions such as the Firefighters continued to support the population during the bombing campaign and did not collapse. The Allied air raids on the city of Turin offer a dramatic and clear example of the level of destruction and suffering that could be caused by air raids on cities and the response of the public institutions devoted to the protection of the city.
Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command began their bombing of Turin on 12th June 1940, immediately after the entrance of Italy into the War. Until late October 1942, RAF air raids were few and light in nature, inspired by the precision bombing doctrine that aimed to accurately hit specific military targets whilst minimising civilian casualties. The RAF was able to minimise casualties within the civilian population (36 dead and 83 wounded), between June 1940 and October 1942, with very little damage to the city. Yet, from late October 1942, the RAF began a massive area bombing campaign against Turin, culminating in July and August 1943. Area bombing doctrine aimed to hit the city centre indiscriminately, including civilian areas, in order to maximise casualties. The objective was to provoke the civilian population to revolt against the Fascist Regime in order to knock Italy out of the war. Area bombing caused 1,395 deaths and 1,582 casualties, with heavy destruction in the city.
The UNPA was the principal public institution devoted to protection, training, and civilian alerts. Its state of preparedness was well described in a letter (in translation from Italian) contained in Turin State Archive, dated 28th October 1941, from the Provincial Head to the Prefect of Turin:
“I receive many worrying complaints from the depending units for deficiency of clothes in relationship with the intense and premature cold. The U.N.P.A. members are currently dressed in simple canvas overalls, waiting for the promised fabric uniforms from Rome. […] Even a supplementary of blankets for the night is absolutely necessary as repetitively pointed out”.
The overall precariousness of the UNPA and the other institutions worsened once the British started their massive area bombing campaign on Turin in October 1942.
After a tremendous raid on 20th November 1942 that caused 117 dead and 120 wounded, the civilian population began a massive evacuation of Turin on their own initiative. More than 300,000 civilians left the City, impressing the Minister of Public Works, Giuseppe Gorla, who visited Turin and compared “the impressive evacuation of the population” with the Biblical exodus of the Hebrew people. Yet the Regime failed to organise civilian relocation from the bombed cities to safer areas. Turin’s massive evacuation anticipated Mussolini’s last speech at the Chamber of Fasci on 2nd December 1942. He encouraged civilians to flee from the cities and take refuge in the countryside. Mussolini had essentially confirmed the lack of organisation for civilian evacuation, and indeed his approach resembled “every man for himself”.
Carlo Chevallard, an entrepreneur in Turin, in one of the most exciting war diaries from the City, commented on the November 1942 air-raids:
“The most impressive thing is the lack of authority that shows itself on these first days after the two raids: Ministry of War Production, Corporations (State agencies locally organising and coordinating the fascist trade unions), Prefecture, Trade Unions, UNPA, city sections of the Fascist Party, each of them act on their own account without an organic directive, with orders and dispositions often contradictory”.
Chevallard adds that he observed slackness in public behaviour and responsibilities, in particular regarding traffic regulations and the use of public transportation, but especially:
“more than these trifles is the explosion of hate against the Regime, against the Duce that strikes: nearly nobody inveighs against the English who are making their war, but everybody is angry with who dragged us to this predicament”.
Documents in the Turin Historical Firefighters’ Archive reveal insights into the destruction caused by the RAF and the role of the firefighters during the air raids. One of the heaviest raids carried out by the RAF on 8th December 1942 is clearly described by the following report:
“With the firefighters, as ordered, we were directed to Murazzi Po; when arriving at no 18, Corso San Maurizio, the enemy planes that have already dropped incendiary rockets, started dropping fragmentation bombs. We tried to calm down the people who were inside the shelter, and by breaking a wall, we came out from another passage connecting with the garden. We were able to bring under control the fire. All the firefighters worked with zeal and goodwill, receiving the approval of the bystanders”.
Sometimes the firefighters had to work continuously for many hours. During the heaviest raid on Turin on 13th of July 1943, which resulted in 792 dead and 914 wounded, a report shows that two firefighters’ squads had been involved for three days. The two squads alternated, switching every six hours:
“The removal of the ruins started by the squads hastened with the help of the soldiers of the 1st Regiment of Engineers proceeded without interruption until 7 PM on 16th July 1943. The rather dangerous job was accomplished with caution and according to the possibilities, adopting gradually those expedients that were necessary, securing the unstable parts by means of luck.”
The bombing did not stop even after Italy’s surrender to the Allies on 8th September 1943. Indeed, on the 8th of November 1943,the Americans bombed Turin heavily. This bombing phase coincides with the German occupation of the city and of the rest of Northern Italy after the Italian surrender. The Germans had started to exploit Italian resources, including factories, for military purposes, and so, Turin again became a target for air raids. Unlike the British, the Americans decided to bomb specific targets such as the factories used by the Germans and railway marshalling yards. Even so, the American bombing did not spare civilians because the targets were in heavily populated districts and because of the inaccuracy of their bombing. One firefighter’s report describes assisting the civilian population of the city after a raid which damaged a factory:
“The “Squadra Celere” was sent to the Microtecnica to extinguish a fire caused by incendiary bombs. After having arrived at the place, our work was not necessary because the firefighters of the factory had provided themselves to the extinguishing. In the meanwhile, one employee of the factory pointed out that some people had been buried under the ruins in a house at no 80, Via Pietro Giuria. We hastened to the place. A voice invoking for help was heard among the broken trusses and the ruins. We started the rescue, and we were able to establish a contact with the victim”.
The experience of the Turin public institutions during the bombing raids confirmed their widespread lack of preparedness. They had to deal with an extremely difficult situation while poorly equipped and overstretched. Despite their lack of preparation, as substantiated by reports in the archives, the institutions performed significantly above any reasonable level of expectation. Their response under extreme stress is testament to the resilience of their officials despite their lack of resources, coupled with the spontaneous solidarity of the civilian population. Interestingly, the bombing did succeed in creating some public panic, and the population openly voiced its disdain for the Fascist Regime. Yet this widespread dissatisfaction did not reach the intensity of an open revolt: the Fascist Regime was not toppled, contrary to the expectations of Allied planners. It is possible that the resilience of the responders, especially the Firefighters, created a sense among the population that damage could at least be contained, with a semblance of normality preserved. A hypothesis that merits more archival research.
Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011).
Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, Richard Overy (edited by), Bombing, States and People in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011).
Richard Overy, The Bombing War. Europe 1939-1945 (London: Allen Lane, 2013).
Adalberto Di Corato took Masters degrees in History and Digital Humanities at the Universities of Turin and Lancaster. He has a special interest in the development of GIS techniques to plot the impact of bombing raids on the City of Turin. Adalberto is currently engaged in a Digital Humanities project at the University of Leeds.