uring World War II, many cities were bombed, some even completely destroyed. However, Rome, the Eternal City, the center of the Catholic Church, but also the capital of fascism, remained untouched by Allied bombs until July 1943. Why is this? Why miss a target that would surely lower the morale of the Italians?
Why miss such a big target?
In a war in which the destruction of enemy morale was an end in itself, the capitals of enemy states were obviously becoming a possible targets for attacks. For example, in the case of Great Britain, almost half of the British killed in air raids were Londoners. In 1943–1944, the British air force tried to destroy Berlin. Even Paris, the capital of occupied France, was bombed in 1942.
Yet Rome, the capital of the most insecure of the Axis regimes, was left untouched by the Allies for three years. It was not until July 1943 that the first Allied bombs fell on Rome, and in 1944 the city suffered 51 air raids. There was a sudden change in the strategy of the Allies, which is explained to us by Claudia Baldoli, an Italian historian, in the current issue of HistoryToday magazine.
Although it was the capital of fascism, Rome was also the Eternal City, the center of the Christian world (from a Catholic perspective) and the place where there were many cultural and religious sites unique in the world and extremely valuable. This special status of Rome was the basis of the Allies’ hesitations to bomb the city, but it also reflects the ambivalent attitude of the Italians towards their own capital, especially the attitude of the Romans towards their own city.
In a 1960 film, La Ciociaria, in which the action takes place in Rome in 1943, when the Allies begin bombing the city, a character played by Sophia Loren has a memorable line, useful for our investigation: advised to leave the city because of the bombings, she says, “No, they will not come to Rome, because the Pope is here.” The film is based on a book written by Alberto Moravia, the husband of the writer Elsa Morante.
She would write about her experiences during the war, when she left Rome to take refuge in the province, and how the inhabitants of the capital had long been convinced that Rome would not become the target of bombing thanks to the Pope’s protection. The Romans believed that their city was sacred and untouchable. But from the spring of 1943, when raids in the country became more frequent and more violent, even they began to be afraid, especially after May 14, when following a bombardment of the port of Civitavecchia, located In the immediate vicinity of the capital, almost 300 people died.
Papa Pius XII
This idea is also found in some reports sent to Mussolini by informants: many considered the “protection of the Pope” shameful and wanted to have the “honor” of being bombed. There is an information report from December 1941 in which a Swiss source informed the Foreign Office that fascist and pro-Axis circles in Italy hoped that Rome would be bombed, primarily because they did not accept the idea that the Romans attributed the city’s immunity to papal protection. and so that the population of the city may be awakened from its lethargy.
Fascist informants reported that the confidence of the people of Rome was based on the fact that they believed they enjoyed the protection of the Vatican. This belief that the Pope was a mediator between Italy and the Allies is, to some extent, supported by concrete facts. Indeed, the bombing of Rome was an important and constant topic of debate between the Americans and the British and between the Allies and the Vatican until the liberation of the city in June 1944 and the fear that an international scandal would break out if the city’s monuments were destroyed.
According to the Foreign Office, the bombing of Rome had to be postponed until the morale of the Italians showed more signs of weakness, so that the attack on Rome was nothing more than a coup d’etat. However, a confidential note dated October 9, 1941, said that:
“even if the Romans do not like the bombing, the Neapolitans, Milanese and others would rejoice, so great is the jealousy between cities with the Italians.”
The assessment is largely correct. In a novel published in 1950 and based on experiences during the war, one of Carlo Levi’s characters clearly states that “In Rome, Rome should go. Not here … and it shouldn’t leave a stone untouched. That’s how it would really set us free. Rome is Italy’s disaster. “
There is indeed this idea among the Italians, that Rome is to blame for everything, being the capital of the fascist government of Mussolini, who led Italy to war and thus attracted all air attacks from the rest of the country. After the attacks on Rome began, Allied informants reported that cities in northern Italy received the news with discreet joy.
Bombing Rome would win the war
Everywhere in Italy, people began to openly declare that they wanted Mussolini’s city to be bombed because Rome was home to those responsible for all of Italy’s suffering. Even regime informants told Mussolini that the bombing of Rome caused “a monstrous sense of satisfaction” among all social classes and that the ruling elite was viewed with more hostility than enemies.
Even in the capital, fascist informants declared that the Romans were behaving deplorably, constantly cursing Hitler and Mussolini. While some wondered why Il Duce did not visit the bombed-out areas, others realized that Mussolini realized that the crowd was so hostile that he would lynch him on the spot.
After the fall of Mussolini, there was an increase in diplomatic attempts initiated by the Vatican to protect the city. The Vatican demanded that Rome be declared a non-belligerent open city, thus freeing it from other attacks. But Churchill did not want to grant such special status to Rome, especially since, as he told Eden in August 1943, Milan, Turin, and Genoa, cities whose populations were “most favorable to the Allies and the most anti-German,” had suffered serious bombardment.
But the Americans were more cautious, with Roosevelt telling Churchill that the Allies “would be in a difficult position” if they refused the Vatican’s proposals. Negotiations continued, but the issue was not resolved until June 1944, when the Allies finally reached Rome.
In the end, the decision not to bomb Rome was based primarily on strategic needs. From the Allied perspective, the city did not become strategically important until after the invasion of Sicily and southern Italy. And after September 1943 and the capitalization of Italy, Rome remained a target because it was in the area of German operations.
However, it was also important that the Allies feared the reaction of the world’s public opinion, which is why they constantly tried to justify the raids so as not to give the impression that their attacks targeted the entire city, including the Vatican, but only strategic points.