Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Capture and Liberation of Naples, Italy

Today is October 4, 2012. I wanted to post this blog entry in remembrance of Bill’s birthday, which was October 5, 1922. By a coincidence the events covered here occurred at the time of his 21st birthday. While he did get to see October 5 in relative safety, as  you will discover, Bill was extraordinarily lucky to have survived the events of  just two days later.

At the end of the battles for Salerno, German casualties were about 3,500 men. American losses were much the same. At approximately 5,500 it was the British with the highest number of soldiers lost. Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Salerno to Cassino”, Blumenson, M., 1993, p. 144

The majority of the fighting on the part of the American forces was done by the 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions. To be sure the 82nd Airborne was responsible for a key part of the victory with the 504’s sacrifices made at Altavilla and for helping to plug the gap in the line.  They also contributed by dropping the 2nd Battalion 509th PIR, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne, in rugged terrain in the region of Avellino about 20 miles north of the town of Salerno to block mountain passes. These men were badly misdroped, but managed to cause the enemy considerable confusion and havoc.

“The value of the [82nd Airborne] reinforcement stemmed less from the actual number of troops than from its psychological lift to the commanders and men in the beachhead who were beginning to feel uneasy; they had no way of knowing that the worst had passed”. Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Salerno to Cassino”, Blumenson, M., 1993, p. 145

When talking about Salerno, in acknowledgement of the men from the 36th Division he saw lying dead on Hill 424, Bill often mentioned that rightly or wrongly the 82nd Airborne got the credit for the breakthrough at Salerno which led to the advance on Naples.

Trooper Henry Covington in his excellent 1949 book “A Fighting Heart: An Unofficial Story of the 82nd Airborne Division” captures well the contributions made by the 82nd at Salerno from an airborne (particularly a 509th) perspective:

“How well the 509th troopers did their job is shown in the fact that the Germans became so jittery about airborne activity that they deployed more troops for preventive and corrective action then we had airborne troops in the entire Allied Airborne Army. These enemy troops naturally were unavailable for decisive and critical action at Salerno.

We saved the Salerno beachhead all right. We had it from none other than General Mark Clark, himself:

‘At a moment when the scales of defeat or victory hung in the balance the weight of airborne troops tipped them to the side of victory.’” Source: H. Covington “A Fighting Heart: An Unofficial Story of the 82nd Airborne Division” 1949 p. 41

Bill’s sentiment represents another dimension to the battle and to the war in general; and it’s one expressed by many airborne troopers I’ve interviewed. In his typically humble way, he perceived the victory in a larger context which reflected a deep love for his fellow American soldiers and hinted at his hatred of war as an insanity haunting the human condition. In a letter home in June 1945 he wrote:

“From what I can hear most people back in the States think that all of the fighting was done in France and Germany. People who are like that should see all of the graves at “Kasserine Pass” in Africa. Also at Bizerte, Sousse, and Cape Bon. Also hill 609 near Bizerte. I have more respect for men who have fought through Africa than all of the rest of us put together. Because from what I’ve seen it was a rough war there and the climate didn’t help matters any.” Source: William Clark, letter dated June 13, 1945

Bill said the 82nd Airborne fought with the 45th Division and the British to break through the German lines and capture Naples. Map 1, below shows the progress made and lines of attack by the Allies and defenses by the Germans.


Map 1: Advance to the Volturno River

(Click on this link to see the map in full size)

Source: “United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations Salerno to Cassino.” Blumenson M., 1993, page 133. Retrieved from



Here’s a 3 minute portion of news reel covering the battle for Salerno and the advance to Naples.



On September 28 the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 505 PIR were loaded onto LCIs at Paestum in the south of Salerno Bay, moved across the bay and landed at the coastal town of Maiori in the north, just a few miles west of Salerno itself in Map 1 above.

Third Battalion 505 had departed the day before to meet up with the Rangers and Company H of the 504 PIR. The latter units had been fighting all through the Salerno battles to seize and defend the Chiunzi Pass. It was a key strategic mountain gateway which linked the invasion beaches to the south with the flat plain leading to Naples in the north (See Map 1 above).

With the 3rd Battalion in the lead, and the rest of the regiment following behind, the 505 fought the rear guard of the retreating Germans through the mountains and down onto the plains in front of Mt Vesuvius.

By October 1 they reached Naples.


Aerial reconnaissance  photo of smoldering Mt. Vesuvius with Naples on the right Oct. 1943

The 82nd advanced on Naples from the south crossing the plain between the coast and Mt. Vesuvius


The Germans had left Naples a crippled city. The electrical power and water supply were cut. The sewage system was destroyed. Stockpiles of coal and liquid fuel had been set on fire. Railways and the docks had been sabotaged. Railway junction boxes and critical line switches were blown.  Many ships birthed in the port had been holed and sunk. Not all the damage was done by the Germans. Allied bombing raids, conducted when the city was in German hands, left their own destruction mainly on  the port and its docks. These bombing raids were necessary to put pressure on the Germans, thereby providing an advantage to liberating Allied forces invading at Salerno and further south.


Pictures of the damage done by the Allied bombing campaign

(click on them to view in high resolution)

NaplesBombing1 Naples is bombed by 100 flying fortresses of the US Army Air Force on April 4 1943

This raid by 100 flying fortresses from the US army air force destroyed or damaged 23 ships including 3 submarines. Several smaller craft were hit and a floating dock was damaged. Three of the ships were ocean liners.


NaplesBombing2 The docks of Naples burning after a US Army Air Force raid


NaplesBombing3 Craters, scorch marks and fires after an Allied raid on Naples

(Click on the picture for a larger view)


NaplesBombing4 Ground level view of Naples destruction by Allied bombing


NaplesBombing5 Demolished cranes at the port of Naples probably by Allied Bombing raids


NaplesBombing7 Largest warehouse in the port of Naples bombed by US Army Air Force


NaplesBombing8 Ship on the left is ocean liner "Sicilia" a 480 foot hospital ship probably bombed by US Army Air Force

Ship with two smoke stacks is the 590 foot ocean liner "Lombardia". She was bombed in two then caught fire and burned during an Allied air raid


Pictures of demolitions made by the retreating Germans

(click on them to view in high resolution)

NaplesBombing6 Ship sunk in Naples by Retreating Germans

(Docks destroyed by Allied bombing)


GermanDamage2 Dry dock flooded by Germans



Same dry dock and ship. The dry dock emptied and repaired by US Army Engineers


General Ridgway later described with disgust the scene of Naples’ destruction:

“By this time we were beginning to realize what tremendous damage the retreating Germans had done to this old and beautiful city. The harbor area had been subjected to the most complete destruction I have ever seen in war. Every big crane was down, damaged beyond use. Ships of all sizes, from a twenty thousand-ton passenger vessel, which lay on its side, half submerged, down to little launches, clogged the harbor, holed and wreaked by explosives. Cruisers and destroyers had been sunk at their anchorage, with nothing but their top masts showing. The water had a thick scum of oil over it.” Source: Ridgway, M. Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway, 1956, p. 88

While some of the damage reported by General Ridgway, particularly the sinking of vessels, was done by the Germans, the destruction of Naples’ port facilities and ships was the mostly the result of Allied bombing. In any case, as we will see, the Germans weren't quite finished.

In the meantime, the 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with policing Naples, cleaning it up, and restoring some semblance of order. General Ridgway ordered the city divided into three sectors. Each sector was assigned an infantry regiment from the 82nd. With their German masters gone, the local Neapolitans set about reestablishing order in their own way. Family feuds were reignited. Nazi collaborators were hunted down. The Germans had opened the city’s prisons and criminals were being targeted and targeting their enemies in turn. It was a dangerous place especially at night.

As the new Assistant Division Commander and Commander of the 505, Colonel Gavin (very soon to be General Gavin) was chosen by General Ridgway to implement orders to restore civility lest the city descend into anarchy.

After the war Gavin wrote candidly of this unenviable assignment:

“As darkness neared, I did not see how I could get the city under control, and General Ridgway was emphatic in his orders to me as he outlined my responsibilities. Occasionally a carabinieri, or city policeman, came by the command post, and while these men shrugged their shoulders and said the Neapolitans were difficult to control, they offered no help. Apprehensive about what would happen during the night, I told the Chief of Police just before darkness set in that any Italian, regardless of his sympathies, who possessed a weapon in the vicinity of where a weapon had been fired would be shot at once. He seemed startled and gulped a bit as we explained exactly what we meant; then off he went. A few minutes later a weapon was fired in a side street. I took a platoon of troopers and went right out to get anyone with a weapon. The men had orders to shoot. No one with a weapon could be found. Almost at once quiet descended over the city. The next morning the situation was well under control, and we began to clear up the debris, clear the port, get the utilities back in operation, and provide food.” Source: Gavin, J. “On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943 - 1946” 1978 p. 73

General Ridgway set up his Divisional Headquarters in the former Secret Police Headquarters or “Questura” at the city’s center square where all of the grand government buildings were located.

On October 4 the 505’s 2nd Battalion and part of 1st Battalion were attached to the British 23rd Armored Brigade. The force moved out to the north to fight the Germans retreating to the Volturno river which was the western part of the first of several subsequent and highly effective  German defensive lines spanning the Italian peninsula.

The 505 units returned to Naples on October 8 to find that while they were gone tragedy had struck. Unsatisfied with destroying the city’s infrastructure, the Germans had set time bombs throughout the city, with a preference for buildings which would be used as sleeping quarters, command posts, or congregation areas for the Allied liberators and civilians alike.

One massive device was planted behind a cleverly designed false wall in the basement of  the Naples post office, just 300 yards away from the 82nd Airborne’s Divisional Headquarters at the Questura across the city’s square. At around noon on October 7, (two days after Bill’s 21st birthday) it detonated. A huge explosion tore through the building and rocked the square.

“The post office building across the square from us was being used by some troops (not 82d men) when, suddenly, at mid-day when men were having chow, there was a tremendous explosion. At the time I happened to be leaning out of the Questura’s second floor window talking with someone on the street below, and felt a great sucking-in of air followed by an outward rush of air and noise coming from the bombed building. Heavy explosives had been left by the Germans, who assumed the building would be used by our troops, and they had set delayed timers. There were many deaths and everybody rushed over and pitched in to dig out the grisly remains.” Source: Lebenson L., “Surrounded by Heroes: Six Campaigns with Division Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division, 1942 – 1945. p. 72 2007

“Back in Naples on the 7th, a huge time bomb left behind a false wall in the main post office building by the retreating Germans, exploded, killing or wounding upward of one hundred people, primarily civilians.” Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 148

After the war, Bill told a story about this explosion which differs in some details from these accounts. He said that while in Naples his unit (the 505th PIR Service Company) was quartered in a post office. He said a German shell or some other unidentified explosive agent blew up the post office. Bill said he was inside the post office when the device detonated. Somehow he miraculously escaped the blast without injury. Source: Interview with William Clark by Herd Bennett, January 26, 2000


Naples Post Office Explosion

Source: Dawson “Saga of the All American” 1946

Other descriptions of the bombing support Bill’s recollections of an “unidentified explosive”, possibly a “German shell”. This one is particularly relevant because it was written by paratrooper Peter Turnbull, a combat engineer present during the liberation of Naples. Turnbull was assigned to the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.

“The building [Naples Post Office] had already been checked by 111th Engineers but they had not discovered the bomb, Lt Sinclair of the 43rd Bomb Disposal Section R.E. who inspected the site after the explosion stated that the charge must have been 1000-2000lbs and that they found a tail fin from a 250kg German aerial bomb amongst the debris and it would have taken three or four of these to cause the damage.” Source: Turnbull, P., “I Maintain the Right: The 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion in WWII” 2005, p. 37

Below are two news reel videos of  the post office bombing aftermath. The first video is a US news film. The second one is British.

US news report of the Naples post office time bomb


British news report of the Naples post office time bomb


With some success, British and American engineers had been frantically checking for time bombs and booby traps ever since they entered Naples. In one building they found a device attached to 1,700 pounds of TNT. They defused it just a few minutes before it detonated. Despite their herculean efforts, the post office explosion was followed on October 10 by another bomb blast in the former Italian Artillery Barracks where the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion and a company of engineers from the 36th Division were quartered. This bomb exploded at 8:30 AM on the southern side of the barracks. Many of the troopers were still asleep. Twenty-three men were killed and 21 more were wounded.

General Ridgway was shocked by the bombing:

“On Sunday morning, I went with General Clark to services at the Cathedral, and while we were there we heard a tremendous dull explosion. We left at once, to find that the barracks where the engineer battalion had been quartered had blown up. I will never forget the tragic site. Arms and legs of American soldiers, killed in their sleep, were sticking pitifully out of the rubble of the second floor. Twenty men were killed, and many more were wounded. We were never able to establish definitely whether the explosion was the result of a time device left by the Germans, or whether some of the engineers’ own demolitions went off by accident. I still believe, though, that it was the result of a German booby trap.” Source: Ridgway, M. Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway, 1956, p. 90

Airborne Combat Engineer, Peter Turnbull elucidates on General Ridgway’s suspicions:

“Sgt Frank Miale had a theory that boxes of German TNT stored in the basement of the barracks were not thoroughly checked after their removal from other buildings, and that a time device in one of the crates set off the resultant explosion.” Source: Turnbull, P., “I Maintain the Right: The 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion in WWII” 2005, p. 40

In a spirit of frustration and with a desire for revenge, General Ridgway wrote:

 “We did everything we could to find and capture the German colonel who had been in command at Naples, but he had moved on by the time we entered the city. We later learned that he was killed in battle, which for the peace of his soul, is a good thing. If we had caught him, he would have been tried by court-martial for the useless, senseless, needless slaughter that he caused.” Source: Ridgway, M. “Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway”, 1956, p. 90

October 10 must have been a day of mixed feelings for Jim Gavin as it was also the date on which Colonel Gavin officially became Brigadier General Gavin in a formal ceremony held in the morning. Gavin was now formally the Assistant Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

He later remarked:

“I hated to leave the 505th, since I had been through so much combat with it, but it would still be in the division with me.”  Source: Gavin, J. “On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943 - 1946” 1978 p. 73

This wasn’t be the last time the now General Gavin would express strong feelings for his 505 men, especially the veterans who had been with him from the first combat jump into Sicily.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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