The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943: detailed sketch of darkest episode in ancient Roman city’s history

Garrett Ryan, “The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943” (Told in Stone, 25 September 2021)

Not too many popular histories and documentaries on Pompeii and Herculaneum mention that over August and September in 1943 the Allied forces (primarily UK and Canada) dropped about 170 bombs over the archaeological site of Pompeii. Garrett Ryan’s short video gives a quick blow-by-blow sketch of what happened, starting with the reason why the bombing campaign was begun: US, UK and Canadian troops landed at Salerno near Naples, beginning in September 1943, but encountered resistance and counter-attacks from German forces along the coast so Allied bombing missions to cut German supply lines began dropping thousands of bombs. The archaeological site of Pompeii was close to railway yards and important transport links leading to Naples so bombs that were supposed to hit those sites landed in Pompeii instead.

Every part of the Pompeii site was bombed and a number of important historical locations in the site including the amphitheatre arena; the House of Sallust (an important Roman mansion) which held a life-sized fresco detailing the myth of the hunter Actaeon, punished by being turned into a deer and torn apart by his hounds for accidentally seeing the goddess Diana bathing in a pool; the House of the Faun which contains the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating Persian shah Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331BCE; and the House of Trebius Valens, a modest building with significant graffiti on its walls that were destroyed by the bombing. The Antiquarium Museum, which housed thousands of artefacts from the sites and casts of victims of the Mt Vesuvius volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE, was also bombed and lost nearly 1,400 artefacts as a result. The Museum was restored but many items in its collection remain shattered.

After World War II, many of the destroyed buildings and locations in Pompeii were rebuilt or restored but much damage caused by the bombing is permanent and there are still unexploded bombs at the site.

Ryan passes no judgement on the Allied forces who bombed the Pompeii site. Some online digging by Yours Truly turned up information that the Allies believed that German forces were hiding in the site and storing ammunition there, and even the Allied Military Command fell for this belief. This is confirmed by another, much more detailed video presentation by Dr Ardle MacMahon in July 2021 about the Allied bombing of Pompeii. Both videos agree that British and Canadian forces were responsible for the most of the bombing. Contrary to most current popular opinion about differences between American and British cultures – in which Americans are seen as boorish and ignorant and British as refined and cultured – the British seem to have been much more viciously gung-ho about destroying other people’s cultures and heritage during World War II, as evidenced by the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 by UK-led forces.

Even in a short video as this, the visual presentation which features archived photographs of pre-WWII Pompeii and informative maps is stunning. Ryan’s rapid-fire voice-over narration packs in fact after fact after fact and the video needs a couple of viewings to be fully savoured. Possibly much more could have been said about the fragile nature of the Pompeii site: Mt Vesuvius is still an ever-present threat to the site’s survival as are also mass tourism and the continuing economic woes of Italy itself and the impact they make on the country’s ability to fund archaeological research and restoration projects.

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