Troubled translations. Perception of bombing war in Italy


Comics in Italy have a long history which dates back at least to 1908. That year the Corriere dei Piccoli (“Courier of the Little Ones”) started to make a regular feature of publishing comic strips. Over the following decades some series received critical acclaim and enjoyed enormous popularity, some catered for niche markets. Collana eroica (“Series of heroic stories”) featured an array of graphic novels intended to appeal to a male readership interested in wartime action, adventure and escapade. Originally published by Fleetway Publications London, the series was translated into Italian by Editorale Dardo, a Milan-based publisher that re-issued the comic strips for the Italian market in the early Sixties. Cover arts are uncredited and may have been reproduced under licence; titles and subtitles, by necessity, were produced by Milanese editors.

Some titles are straightforward such as Un’ombra nel cielo (“A shadow in the sky”) or Paura in fondo al cielo (“Fear [lurking] deep in the sky”). Others covers cast light to the unresolved ambiguity that marks the cultural reception of the bombing war in Italy. Allied air forces inflicted suffering and damage on an unprecedented scale, but were at the same time the liberators who helped defeat Axis powers.

The three bombers with invasion stripes featured on the cover are straightforward and unproblematic, but the wording reflects a rather intricate situation. To begin with, it is surprisingly difficult to translate into English the sentence Gli occhi della notte. Passano nella tempesta di fuoco come angeli votati allo sterminio, as it is based on a probably deliberate vagueness and double entendre.  A possible English equivalent is something like: “The eyes of the night. They fly through the firestorm, like angles united by a covenant of annihilation”. However, the sentence can also mean: “The eyes of the night. They fly through the firestorm, like angels expecting to die”. The latter reverses the meaning also conveying a somber, pensive undertone. A reader conversant with aerial warfare could immediately associate the firestorm to the bombings of Hamburg and Dresden, but the Italian tempesta di fuoco could refer equally well to heavy artillery barrage, especially flak. There is also an even more unsettling innuendo, because the noun sterminio (lit. extermination, annihilation) is a widely used synonym for the Holocaust in spoken Italian. It’s fascinating to see how consumerism media intended for mass consumption may be overflowing with symbolisms, multi-layered allusions and ingenious word plays. It’s not unexpected that the mystique of flying – combined with a mythology of manhood – had an enduring appeal to an action-thirsty readership. What may come as a surprise is that this happened in a country which suffered heavily as a consequence of the bombing war, less than two decades after the end of the conflict.

These covers have been featured in the International Bomber Command Centre as digital interactives, a fitting example of the fascinating complexity of war heritage.

Alessandro Pesaro, Digital Archive Developer

African airmen in RAF Bomber Command

It is reasonably well known that some 550 aircrew and 6000 ground crew of African origin served in Bomber Command. They were a tiny proportion of the whole: the total number of aircrew in this Command was 125 000 and the figure for ground grew and other ground personnel was close to one million.

RAF Hendon’s exhibition a few years back, ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’, remembered the contribution of black aircrew – an online version is still available to view. Another very good overview is Mark Johnson’s talk in the National Archives podcast series. One of the reasons for the low numbers of black personnel, as Roger Lambo explains, is that it was RAF policy at the start of the war that black volunteers should be encouraged into the army: ‘at the time [1940], aircrew were essentially needed to man the heavy bombers. Such crews had at all times to be in the most intimate contact, and it was felt that “the presence of a coloured man in such a crew would detract from efficiency”’. [1]

As casualties mounted, however, official attitudes changed markedly: black colonial subjects were invited to volunteer and the colour bar was declared a thing of the past. Yet other stumbling blocks remained. Racial dynamics in colonies and former colonies of significant white settlement meant that avenues into the armed services were difficult, if not impossible, for well-educated black people. Again, recruits were required to be free of malaria and this was often impossible to prove. And there was a general unease about black personnel in the armed forces at a time when independence movements against Britain were becoming a feature of colonial relationships almost everywhere.

Even though the official position had changed, many recruits recounted incidents varying from discrimination to abuse at the hands of fellow personnel or civilians. Ground crew were probably worst off. When two West Africans were posted to Waddington to service the aircraft of 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, their white counterparts demanded they were removed – which they were. They had come all this way and were made to feel very unwelcome. Officers were to some extent shielded by their status but by no means immune. Also at Waddington, Doug Rail, a Rhodesian pilot with 44 Squadron, arrived with a black rear gunner, Sgt Gus Batty.  He faced considerable opposition from other Rhodesian air crew but stuck to his position that Batty was an excellent asset.[2] These examples suggest another intriguing dimension to service in Bomber Command: white colonists who volunteered were evidently fighting to defend a racially privileged social order, while black ones were fighting for just the opposite.

The West African colonies of Sierra Leone, the Gambia, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Nigeria were responsible for virtually all those who successfully volunteered for Bomber Command from the continent of Africa. Some applicants, frustrated at the slowness of the process at home, made their own way to Britain in the hope that they would be accepted into the RAF there. Why were they so determined? There were probably a multiplicity of reasons, but a compelling one had to do with a memory of Britain’s role in ending the slave trade and a fear of the return of slavery should Hitler win the war. The Nigerian Flt Lt Emanuel Peter John Adeniyi Thomas recalled,

My great-grandfather was a chieftain. One day his rival betrayed him to a slave dealer. He was put on a ship along with 100 other slaves and was soon on his way to America. Ten days out in the Atlantic his ship was intercepted by one of Her Majesty’s ships. The slaves were rescued, and at Freetown (Sierra Leone), my great-grandfather regained his freedom.[3]

The IBCC Digital Archive has interviewed the sons of three West African fliers who served with distinction in RAF Bomber Command: Eddy Smythe on his father, John Henry Smythe; Olu Hyde on his father, Adesanya Hyde, and Neville Shenbanjo on his father, Akin Shenbanjo.

As a child, Eddy Smythe was never really aware of how much of a war hero his father was. Born and raised in Freetown, John Henry Smythe served with 623 Squadron. On an operation to bomb Mannheim in 1943, his aircraft was badly damaged and the crew baled out. He spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft I; he helped others to escape but did not attempt it himself: ‘I don’t think a six-foot-five black man would’ve got very far in Pomerania’, he noted in an interview much later.[4] Within the RAF, he said that the issue of colour never came up: they were one band, fighting for one cause.[5] One thing that Eddy remembers vividly is his father starting violently and screaming when awoken, one of the effects of having been bombed by the Germans while in a training camp near Hastings.[6]

J H Smythe during his training as an RAF navigator. ©IWM

J H Smythe during his training as an RAF navigator. ©IWM

Fellow Sierra Leonean Adesanya Hyde joined 640 Squadron as a navigator. He escaped unhurt when his crew’s Halifax crashed on take-off in June 1944. A few weeks later, he took part in a daylight operation to bomb a chemical plant at Le Chatellier in northern France. Their aircraft was attacked and a fragment of flak pierced Ade Hyde’s shoulder. Badly injured and in severe pain, he continued to navigate the aircraft over the target. It was only when the English coast was in sight on the return journey that he made his wounds known to his fellow crew, accepted morphine and collapsed. He spent the next three months in hospital and returned thereafter to his squadron. He was awarded the DFC for his tenacity and devotion to duty.

His son Olu remembers learning about his father’s distinguished war record from outside, rather than inside the family. In this way, he realised how famous his father was, although he felt considerable pressure when asked if he would follow in those footsteps and be as brave. Ade came to reject violence and aggression as a solution to political problems, something that Olu shares. At the same time, he feels that the role black personnel played in defeating the Nazis should be better remembered: he finds that white Britons are surprised to learn that there were black officers in the wartime RAF.[7]

Adesanya Hyde.  Olu Hyde Collection.

Adesanya Hyde. Olu Hyde Collection.

Akin Shenbanjo was one of those who made his own way to Britain in the hope of being accepted into the RAF. Of Nigerian princely birth, he enlisted in 1941 after the Battle of Britain and underwent extensive training.  In fact he told the story that when he finally reached a squadron as Pilot Officer in mid-1944 and was expected to crew up, a Canadian pilot named Jimmy Watt was disbelieving of all the courses he had undergone. ‘I’ve done so much training that I could win the war on my own!’, Akin is said to have replied.[8] The two flew together in 76 Squadron throughout the war, Akin as the crew’s wireless operator/air gunner. They named their Halifax ‘The Black Prince’ in his honour. On an operation to bomb the railway yards at Lille in April 1944, their aircraft was badly damaged and they flew home on three engines; Akin was awarded the DFC for bravery. He completed a full tour of 30 operations.[9] Neville remembers his father coming home on leave in his smart RAF uniform, which turned heads in Leeds and made him feel ‘really good’.[10] Like Ade Hyde, Akin Shenbanjo taught his son to reject war; he felt a sense of remorse for the damage caused by the bombing.[11]

Neville Shenbanjo holding a photo of his father Akin and himself as a young child. Neville Shenbanjo Collection.

Neville Shenbanjo holding a photo of his father Akin and himself as a young child. Neville Shenbanjo Collection.

Among other West Africans whom Lambo identified as serving in RAF Bomber Command are: David Oguntoye, V.A. Roberts, N. Akinbehim, Godfrey Petgrave, Claude Foster-Jones, William Leigh, Robert Nbaronje, Bankole Oki, Bankole Vivour, Akinpelu Johnson, Valentine Oke, M.O. Audifferen, Sammy Bull, Archie Williams and Emmanuel Dadzie.[12]

Heather Hughes, Professor of Southern African Studies and Head of IBCC Digital Archive.

[1] R. Lambo, Achtung! The Black Prince: West Africans in the Royal Air Force, 1939-46’. In Killingray, D. (Ed) Africans in Britain London: Frank Cass, 1994, p. 149. The quote within the quote is from a circular letter to Colonial Governors, dated 30 may 1940 and lodged in the National Archives, Kew.

[2] R. Leach, An Illustrated History of RAF Waddington From Longhorn to Lancaster 1916-1945. Bognor Regis: Woodfield, 2003, p.147-8. Batty is identified only as a black ‘West Indian’.

[3] As quoted in the ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ online exhibition at

[4] M. Plaut interview with John Henry Smythe, 1989, Imperial War Museum. Interview 34156.

[5] H. Hughes interview with Eddy Smythe, 2 August 2017, Oxford.

[6] H. Hughes interview with Eddy Smythe, 2 August 2017, Oxford.

[7] H. Hughes interview with Olu Hyde, 30 August 2017, Malvern.

[8] Information in an email Neville Shenbanjo to Heather Hughes, 7 July 2016.

[9] Lambo, ‘Achtung!, p. 155.

[10] H. Hughes interview with Neville Shenbanjo, 30 August 2017, Leeds.

[11] H. Hughes interview with Neville Shenbanjo, 30 August 2017, Leeds.

[12] Lambo, Achtung!, pp. 145-163.

Italy and the bombing war

Unlike other European countries, there isn’t a received narrative of the bombing war in Italy and aerial warfare has been an inherently divisive topic since the end of the Second World War. Allied air forces have been, at the same time, liberators and tormentors – they were instrumental in ending the war but technically responsible for massive loss of life as well as for destruction of property and cultural heritage on a scale unseen before.

Bomb damage in Trieste. Graffiti reads 'God curse the English'.

Bomb damage in Trieste. Graffiti reads ‘God curse the English’.

Italian scholars tend to use the notion of memoria divisa (‘un-shared’ memory) as overarching concept in approaching a period of Italian history which remains contentious and divisive. Language itself highlights deep fault lines within Italian society. For instance, Nazi reprisals and mass shooting of civilians are consistently interpreted as war crimes and these events are usually termed eccidio, the erudite and almost literary synonym for bloodbath; victims are frequently presented as martiri (martyrs). Conversely, there isn’t a specific Italian term for the casualties of the bombing war, who are almost invariably described with the most generic term vittime (victims) which is a rather nonspecific noun in modern Italian.

Only a minority of Allied bombings are now remembered with officially-sanctioned public ceremonies, marked by prominent public art, or otherwise memorialised. The perception of bombing war has remained ambiguous and the prevailing aspiration in post war years was simply to forget and move on. Nowadays, the bombing war is still far from being a mainstream topic; it’s rarely covered by media and research has mainly been confined to academic circles or independent researchers who explore the topic from the military history perspective or discuss the facts from a specific political stance. Not surprisingly, the lives and personal stories of people who were caught up in the bombing war have been largely forgotten, except at local level, or shared only among family members.

Since the inception of the project, the Archive team has been liaising with individuals, institutions and organisations which share the core tenets of the International Bomber Command Centre and have expressed interest in collaborative work. I undertook a research trip in July and August 2016 – thirteen meetings were arranged in nine cities over the course of nine days, involving 32 people in total. The Interest in the project was very high and the IBCC’s ethos elicited favourable comments. To begin with, its choice to include military and civilian stories from both sides of the conflict in a spirit of understanding and reconciliation has been systematically praised as comparable initiatives tend to be more limited in scope or have a narrower focus. Unlike the IBCC, integration of professional expertise and voluntary work tends to be used more cautiously and digitisation projects are usually entirely carried out by paid staff.

Three dissertation projects have since been assigned by professors based at the universities of Pavia, Trieste and Venice. Two projects revolve around recording oral history interviews of bombing survivors in Italy. The resulting audio files and associated metadata have been shared with the Archive. Furthermore, there are concrete opportunities that future research agreements will provide even more material on a regular basis. Some of the scholars contacted are respected figures among contemporary historians and may be instrumental in building a support network abroad.

Among the Italian volunteers trained to conduct oral history interviews, there are five public historians belonging to the Lapsus association. They have delivered excellent results, working with minimal supervision thanks to a well-established network of local contacts.

Three Italian volunteers have spent a total 12 weeks in Lincoln, helping out as OH interviewers, transcribers, researchers, metadata creators, and event support staff.

Contacts with local specialists and cultural heritage institutions have led to veritable treasure trove of documents which shed a unique light on the lives of those who were at the receiving end of the bombing war: propaganda posters and leaflets, correspondence, toys, and everyday objects excavated from shelters. The most striking piece is probably a board game from the 1930s devised to teach young children anti-aircraft precautions. It is in surprisingly good condition for an object of such vintage and will be featured in the civilian gallery of the exhibition. The archive also managed to get permission to reproduce the temperas of a self-taught wartime artist who explored a broad range of subjects, including Royal Navy actions and well-known Bomber Command operations such as the bombing of Dresden and the attacks of the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams led by Victoria Cross recipient Guy Gibson. Other works focus on Nazi brutalities, the deeds of the resistance movements, as well as civilian life in wartime Europe: bomb disposal units, and British evaders being helped by civilians. The emotional intensity of the events depicted emerges strongly from each image and some of them have been selected for the exhibition panels.

Alessandro Pesaro, Digital Archive Developer

The Exhibition Audio–Visuals and Interactives

Heather Hughes, Dan Ellin and Nicky Barr from the IBCC recently met with people from Centre Screen and Redman Design at a studio in Manchester to see how the exhibition’s interactive and audio-visual elements are progressing.

Members of the IBCC, Redman Design and Centre Screen exhibition design team.

Members of the IBCC, Redman Design and Centre Screen exhibition design team.

Centre Screen showed us their soundscapes and immersives, the films to introduce the exhibition, and the interactive ‘Bomber Crew Challenge.’ It was wonderful to see ideas we have been discussing and researching for so long begin to take shape. The studio was large enough to mock up the Chadwick Centre’s three exhibition spaces, so for the first time we could see and hear the interactives and audio visuals almost as they will be.

It was especially pleasing to see our animated map of the bombing war in Europe on a seven metre screen, but the highlight of the day was testing the ‘Bomber Crew Challenge’. Unfortunately when they took part in the challenge, Heather and Dan’s operations ended with their aircraft ditching in off the coast of Norfolk.

Meanwhile, work on other parts of the exhibition continues. The team are choosing and editing clips from the IBCC’s collection of oral history interviews for the exhibition’s ‘Orchestra of Voices’, and writing exhibition content that will be accessed by visitors through an APP or on the centre’s handheld tablets.

Dan Ellin, IBCC Archive and Exhibition Curator

The IBCC exhibition

Since we began work creating the IBCC Digital Archive in 2015, we have recorded over 700 oral histories and digitised approximately 100,000 pages, letters, diaries and photographs. The team at the Digital Archive have used this wealth of material to create the exhibition for the International Bomber Command Centre. The centre will open in 2018 as a world-class facility in Lincoln, and will serve as a focus for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for RAF Bomber Command. None of this would have been possible if our core team of six staff had not been assisted by scores of volunteers.


Much of the content for the exhibition, around 10,000 words of text and 100 images for the graphic panels, has already gone through the process of drafting, proof reading, testing with focus groups and will shortly be set in acrylic. Writing content for the graphic panels has been like writing a chapter or an article, but in 150 word bite sized pieces. Like academic writing, we’ve had the usual issues clearing copyright for externally sourced images, but sometimes we’ve also struggled to find content from our own archive as our collections are only now becoming fully searchable as transcriptions are being written and metadata prepared. It has also been hard to convey some of the subject’s complexity in so few words and to keep our target audience, an intelligent 15 year old, in mind as we write. The final digital elements of the exhibition will be delivered over the next few weeks before the construction company moves into the centre to fit it out.


The content and tone of the exhibition follows the interpretation plan we first drafted in May 2015. It sets out how we deal with the ‘difficult heritage’ of the history of Bomber Command. Aerial bombing does not fit easily within the narrative of the Second World War as a ‘good war’. Often, when the bombing war is remembered it is in the context of either the Dam Busters or the firestorm of Dresden. RAF veterans can be regarded as either heroes or villains. They themselves perceive that their contribution to the war has been neglected, and the last seventy years has been a struggle for recognition culminating in the dedication of the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park and the awarding of the Bomber Command Clasp in 2012.

The IBCC aims to tell the stories of all those who served in, supported the efforts of, and/or suffered as a result of the activities of Bomber Command. These narratives will be told using material from our archive, the personal everyday experiences of those who were caught up in the bombing war, civilian and military, in the air or on the ground, on both sides of the conflict. Their voices will be complemented by non-judgemental and inclusive interpretation in the IBCC’s official voice. We hope that the exhibition will encourage visitors to engage with the content of the Digital Archive hosted by the University of Lincoln.


The exhibition will have three galleries. In the manner of Len Deighton’s novel Bomber, our first space will tell the story of the bombing war from a military perspective using a 24 hour timeline of a typical bombing operation, the second will tell stories from the home fronts, while the third space, ‘Remembering Bomber Command’ discusses the lives of those affected by Bomber Command and its legacy over the 70 years since the end of the war. The first two spaces are ‘black boxes’ much favoured by museum designers, but the last gallery is flooded with ambient light and has a view of the memorial in an attempt to encourage visitors to reflect on the war.

There is little wartime history to the site, and it was decided early in the project not to display ‘bits of bent and twisted metal.’ Rather than focus on aircraft, politics, strategy or technical advances, we aim to tell stories about the people involved. Our exhibition will contain only a handful of physical objects, each chosen to illustrate shared experiences. One of these will be a board game produced in Italy to educate children about air-raid precautions. Our galleries will also contain both physical and digital interactive exhibits and interpretation. An ‘orchestra of voices’ taken from our oral history interviews with veterans and survivors will be key to the visitor experience. Visitors will access these through several 1940s style Bakelite telephones and digital screens.


Such audio visual interactives make up a large part of our exhibition, and students and staff from the university have played a large part in creating them. University students are about the same age as many bomber aircrew; over the summer members of the university’s performing arts and media production departments helped in the creation of filmed performances based on our oral histories. These will be shown on high definition screens in two of our galleries. Students are currently putting the finishing touches to an interactive for the Home Fronts gallery based on photographs and letters from the archive, and a system that will enable visitors to leave feedback and help add to the archive.

The exhibition has required many separate research projects, small and large, carried out by the archive staff and the project’s volunteers. One of the largest research projects has fed into another of the exhibition’s audio visual displays. Based on almost 380,000 fields of data, an animated map of Europe will be projected on a seven metre screen. It will show every bombing operation carried out by the RAF, the USAAF, Luftwaffe, and Nazi vengeance weapons for six years of war.

geog of war pic

We have been working closely with Redman, our exhibition designers and Centre Screen, our audio visual contractors, to develop the exhibition content they are responsible for. We will be meeting soon to finalise their designs and hopefully approve them. In the meantime, our work continues, choosing clips from the archive for the telephone handsets and writing extra content and interpretation to be delivered on the centre’s handheld tablets or the visitor’s own mobile devices. We are on track to meet the deadline to deliver the final content to the fit-out company towards the end of October so the centre can open in January 2018.

When the centre opens we hope that its visitors will leave the exhibition with an understanding of shared experiences of the bombing war, some knowledge of the complexities of the history of Bomber Command, and perhaps new questions about the contemporary use of Air Power. Above all we hope that our exhibition will assist with the remembrance and recognition of the human cost of Bomber Command’s war.

Dr Dan Ellin, IBCC Archive and Exhibition Curator