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Messina was heavily bombed from 1941 onwards, but mostly in 1943 (from January to August) during the lead-up to the invasion of Sicily and during the invasion itself, due to its strategic position as the main port that linked Sicily to mainland Italy (Reggio Calabria) across the strait. Troops and supplies sent to Sicily had to pass through Messina, and likewise this was the port used for the evacuation of the Axis troops during July-August 1943. As a result of this, Messina was one of the most bombed cities in Southern Italy; it suffered 59 air raids from January 1941 to August 1943. Altogether, 6,542 tons of bombs were dropped over Messina, 90 % in 1943 and over 4,500 tons between May and July 1943. The main targets of the Allied air raids were almost always the port, the ferry terminal and the marshalling yard, but the low accuracy of bombing back then meant that a lot of the bombs ended up hitting large parts of the city. By the time the Allies captured Messina, over a third of the city was in ruins, another third was damaged, and almost all of the population had fled; the local archives have recorded the death of 854 of its inhabitants due to the air raids, more than half of them in the month of July 1943. A September 1944 report recorded 1,361 buildings completely destroyed, 2,236 partially destroyed, 2,890 damaged and considered unfit for habitation, 239 damaged and partially habitable. This was the second time Messina was destroyed in less than forty years, the first time having been in 1908 due to a catastrophic earthquake that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
I also found this interesting account by Sub-Lieutenant Francesco Alliata di Villafranca, who at the time was in Sicily in command of an Italian Army film unit:
“In June 1943 I had been right in Messina, to film the bombings. Almost every evening, as the British aircraft attacked at night – the American ones, instead, did it during daytime – I climbed on the mountain till Fort Gonzaga, where the spotters of the Anti-Aircraft Defence had installed themselves. The fort owed its name to the Spanish viceroy that had built it in 1540. There, in 1861, four thousand soldiers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had been besieged for months, awaiting for the royal permission to surrender, but Francis II of Bourbon was already in exile in Rome and his Kingdom did not exist anymore. The spotters, ingenious and very good at their work, belonged to the “Voluntary Militia for National Security” [aka the Blackshirts, a.n.], “Mussolini’s Army”, in endless competition with the Italian Armed Forces. They detected the sound of the [bombers’] engines, coming from the sky, with an extravagant sound collector: a World War I helmet that, being turned towards the low wall that delimited the fortress’ emplacement, reflected the noises. Then, they just had to analyse the sounds and phone the data in to the AA defense headquarters, that along with the guns was hidden in the caves at the foot of the rock. The language was conventional: “Lieutenant, sir, they are three aircraft coming from the south, eleve o’clock”. The British air force, heavily committed to the war against Hitler, only sent against Messina two or three aircraft at most, but the attacks weren’t any less savage than the ones carried out by the Americans and, since they came at night, in order to locate the areas where they thought they would to the most damage the British dropped some sort of “lanterns” that, hanging on a parachute, descended slowly, lighting little by little the areas that were to be bombed. (…) When the British, on 13 June, hit the Messina Cathedral, I was already at Forte Gonzaga, so, upon seeing the flames from up there, I hurried down to film… Those were upsetting shots, but wonderful from a professional point of view: the Cathedral had caught fire, the church’s beams burned and collapsed, in the chapels the sculptures crumbled, disfigured by the heat. The firefighters tried to chase me away, even by pointing some hydrants against me. My soaked boots made “grisc-grosc”. The firefighters kept making wild gestures to me: “Go away, go away!”, and they shot water on me. I was soaked wet, but I only left the Cathedral when I thought it suitable, to do some shots from the outside. At dawn I saw the Archbishop of Messina, Monsignor Paino, whom had just recently finished rebuilding the Cathedral, that had been destroyed by the 1908 earthquake. He was coiled up on a bench, sitting out there among the new ruins of “his” cathedral, and he was weeping, weeping desperately. I did not dare say anything to him, I did not dare to speak at all, in respect of so much pain. I did not even get close to him. I waited for some time an then, with the films I had just filmed, I boarded the first train to Rome that I could find on that morning. There, I delivered the films to the Special Film Unit of the General Staff, located in the barracks of the 6th Engineers in Cecchignola, where they were immediately developed and shown in the “Luce” neswreels.
It’s all fun until somebody gets their carbonara put out.