Tribute for Windrush Day 2021: remembering ‘invisible’ RAF veterans

Tribute for Windrush Day 2021: remembering ‘invisible’ RAF veterans

Some of those on the historic journey of MV Empire Windrush in 1948 were returning, rather than seeing the UK for the first time: veterans who had served with the Allies during the Second World War, especially in the RAF. It remains the case that they and other black and brown veterans are largely invisible in mainstream historical studies of the wartime RAF. Their stories are, however, acknowledged in studies such as Mark Johnson’s Caribbean Volunteers at War, Stephen Bourne’s The Motherland Calls, and Marika Sherwood’s Many Struggles.[1] Some wrote memoirs recording their experiences, among them Cy Grant, E. Martin Noble and Ralph Ottey.[2]  There are ongoing projects, too, that seek to recover more personalities and experiences.[3]

Less remembered in the public imagination are the Maori crew who served in the RAF, or the few indigenous Canadians based in the UK with the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Some 45 Maori aircrew have been identified, the majority of them serving in 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, based in Cambridgeshire. Several of these aircrew were decorated and one, Flying Officer Porokoru Patapu Pohe of 51 Squadron was shot down and taken prisoner at Stalag Luft III. His story featured in the movie The Great Escape; he was one of those recaptured and murdered. [4]

There seem to be few traces of indigenous Canadians. The Royal Canadian Air Force, like the RAF, prevented all but those of ‘pure European descent’ from joining until 1940 and very small numbers seem to have volunteered as a result. Among them were James Ray Lightbown DFC, Jack Beaver, Willard John Bolduc DFC and Gib Whittamore.[5] Another is remembered in a poignant note written by veteran Phil James MBE on the back of a wartime crew photograph (above) in his possession: ‘I am on the far right, next to me is our W/AG [wireless operator/air gunner] a Canadian red indian [sic] JOHN YAKIMCHUCK, he shot himself, he could not cope with civilian life…’[6]

Source: BharatRakshak Indian Air Force| The twenty four Indian pilots (bharat-rakshak.com)

Thousands were recruited into the RAF from South Asia. A celebrated group of 24 pilots arrived from India in 1940; most flew with RAF Fighter Command; they are pictured on the left  .[7]

Yet there were many more. Some 200 Indians resident in Britain volunteered for the RAF [8] and according to the Open University’s ‘Making Britain’ database on South Asians in Britain from 1870 to 1950,

The Royal Air Force needed to make up a shortage in pilots by actively recruiting personnel from across the Commonwealth. It dispensed with the colour bar of the armed forces that stipulated that only ‘British subjects of pure European descent’ could join. After October 1939 people from across the Commonwealth, regardless of nationality or race became eligible to join the RAF. By the end of the Second World War, over 17,500 such men and women had been recruited, serving in a variety of roles. A further 25,000 served in the Royal Indian Air Force. [9]

Motivations for volunteering were many and varied – sometimes there was a strong family tradition of military service, sometimes there was a desire to escape and see the world. For most, fears of a return to enslavement should the Nazis emerge victorious were real.[10]  Caribbean and African volunteers hoped to fly, yet Cy Grant’s observation that ‘things were not to work out exactly as I had expected’ [11]  applied to the vast majority of the over 5, 000, who instead became ground personnel on RAF stations. As Jamaican Ralph Ottey, who trained at RAF Hunmanby Moor in 1944, recalls in his memoir,

My trade test was quite easy really. My tester told me:

  1. That there wasn’t much need for Air Gunners
  2. That there weren’t many vacancies for wireless operators
  3. There was a need for motor transport drivers

So that would be my trade … There was no point in arguing… [12]

Around 500 African and Caribbean personnel were accepted for aircrew training, mostly in RAF Bomber Command where the need was greatest.  The expectation was that all these volunteers would leave at the war’s end; some managed to stay, while many more returned to the UK after brief periods ‘back home’, some on the Windrush. As has been well attested, they generally had a very rough time: ‘Black ex-servicemen confronted racist exclusions in the job market as well as the housing market’ and their war service was doubted.[13]  This affected the way that they came to remember their war: the details of squadrons and stations were of less significance than the fact that they had served with pride and distinction.

One of the remarkable stories of ‘return’ is that of the Carby family, whose history has been traced by Hazel Carby in her award-winning study, Imperial Intimacies. In the late 18th century, the Carbys were living in the small village of Coleby, not far from the city of Lincoln. Several male members of the family joined the British army in the 1780s, possibly because of poor agricultural prospects.[14] One of them, Lilly Carby (‘Lilly’ was his mother’s maiden name), reached Jamaica with the 10th Regiment of Foot in 1789, but was soon discharged, possibly because of illness. He worked on various plantations before acquiring his own, which he called ‘Lincoln’. He named the enslaved people who worked for him, as well as his (known) children, after relatives in Lincolnshire,. Two of his children, William and Bridget, were born to a free woman of colour, Mary Ivey Mann; one, Matthew, was born to Bridget, an enslaved woman, in 1807 and though baptised, he was enslaved until abolition in the 1830s.

Four generations down Matthew Carby’s line, Carl Carby was born in Kingston in 1921. Although experiencing extreme poverty into his teens, he believed that education was his only means to social mobility and attended night school while working as the family’s main breadwinner. He was one of the first black Caribbean volunteers to be accepted for aircrew training in the early years of the Second World War. After completing his training in Jamaica and Canada, he was posted to RAF Coastal Command, later transferring to RAF Bomber Command. This transfer led to his being stationed at RAF Waddington, which is 2.4 miles from Coleby. Carl, who died in 2014, never knew how geographically close he had come to his origins; this only emerged during his daughter Hazel’s research.

Prof Hazel Carby being interviewed for the IBCC Digital Archive, March 2021

Listen to an interview with Hazel Carby discussing her family history and her father’s RAF service, at https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/32391.

Heather Hughes and Victoria Araj

[1] Mark Johnson, Caribbean Volunteers at War: The Forgotten Story of the RAF’s ‘Tuskegee Airmen’. Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2014; Stephen Bourne, The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women, 1939-45. Stroud, The History Press, 2012; Marika Sherwood, Many Struggles: West Indian Workers and Service Personnel in Britain 1939-1945. London, Karia Press, 1985.

[2] Cy Grant, A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race: World War Two Experiences of a West Indian Officer in the RAF. Bognor Regis, Woodfield Publishing, 2006; E. Martin Noble, Jamaica Airman: A Black Airman in Britain 1943 and After.  London, New Beacon Books, 1984; Ralph Ottey, ‘Stranger Bwoy’ in the Royal Air Force in Lincolnshire 1944-1948. Boston, 2004.

[3] See for example https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/ and https://www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com/ [accessed 20 June 2021];

[4] Compiled from https://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com/maori-aircrew-who-served-with-75nz-squadron-39-45/ and http://rnzaf.proboards.com/thread/17780?page=2

[5] Compiled from BC/Yukon Command Military Service Recognition Book Vol X, obtainable from https://www.dropbox.com/sh/sfuwolxzqyfanq4/AAB-eDD5P7Kbs7-ayCrBnw_ka?dl=0 [accessed 21 June 2021]; Jack Farley’s story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/82/a2244782.shtml; and Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields. Veteran Affairs Canada, 2005.

[6] Letter from Phil James MBE to Sue Taylor, no date, IBCC project.

[7] See the contemporary footage at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtLwn5sSmsI

[8] https://www.duhoctrungquoc.vn/wiki/en/India_in_World_War_II [accessed 21 June 2021]

[9] https://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/second-world-war-1939-1945

[10], Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields, p.22.

[11] Cy Grant, A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race, p.

[12] Ralph Ottey, ‘Stranger Bwoy’, p.3.

[13] Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies : A Tale of Two Islands. London, Verso, 2019, p. 240-41.

[14] Rex Russell, ‘Parliamentary enclosure, common rights, and social change: evidence from the parts of Lindsey in Lincolnshire’. Journal of Peasant Studies 27 (4), 2000, pp. 54-111.

Thanking our volunteers

International Archives Day is on the 9 June and this year, the IBCC Digital Archive team are marking the occasion by recognising and thanking the volunteers who participate in the Digital Archive’s workflow, as items move from scanning, photographing or recording, through to publication on the website. Our archive contents are so highly discoverable because of the work that they do.

Our digital technician, Robin Evans, is responsible for accessioning all new archival items.  His tasks include giving each new scan (or photo) a unique filename, ensuring all the paperwork is in order (permissions etc),  ensuring the digital master copes are safely stored,  and creating smaller files (such as PDFs and mp3s) from them, for purposes of publication.

A full set of cataloguing details, or metadata, must then be added to each item.  These include a description of the item, who created it, and date and place information. Once again, this information helps to connect users to items when they perform a search.  Our very skilled metadata creators are Nigel Huckins, Barry Hunter, Trevor Hardcastle and Peter Adams. Digital Archivist Alessandro Pesaro has trained them all and works with them on a daily basis. Many of the collections they created were then reviewed and proofread by Beryl George.

Written and printed documents are transcribed, so that text-based items are searchable. We have amazing teams of transcribers, led by David Bloomfield and Steve Baldwin. Our transcribers include Tricia Marshall, Steve Christian, Jan Waller, Peter Bradbury, Sue Smith, Robin Christian, Alan Pinchbeck, Frances Grundy, Claire Monk, Anne-Marie Watson, Georgie Donaldson, Roger Dunsford, Bradley Froggatt and Angela Gaffney. Transcription is a slow and painstaking task, yet they turn in impressive volumes of completed transcriptions every month.

We do not fully transcribe log books; however, we have developed a new standard for describing their contents, so that (like other documents) they can be searched.  Our experts in this area are Mike Connock, Mike French, David Leitch and Terry Hancock.  Callum Davies, a Bishop Grosseteste University student, is also helping out as part of his studies.  This example shows how the date of every operation is now captured, linking each log book with other events that took place the same day: https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/2205

Oral testimonies are processed slightly differently. As far as possible, these are transcribed – but with over 1200 now in the archive, we have not been able to do them all. At the very least, therefore, we ensure each one has a summary that is searchable. Both the full transcriptions and the summaries must be carefully checked for accuracy – another task that is painstaking and requires very careful attention to detail. Our archivist Dan Ellin does a lot of reviewing himself, but also has a fantastic team of reviewers: Jean Massey, Graham King, Steph Jackson, Chris Johnson, Yvonne and Nick Walker, Emily Bird, Caroline and Graham Smith, Eunice Watson, Michael Cheesbrough and Brent Lintin.

There are further ways we can assist users to find what they are looking for.  One is to add tags – these are words or phrases (for example, ‘childhood in wartime’ or ‘forced landing’ or ’166 Squadron’) that can be added to items, so that all items sharing a particular characteristic will show up in a search. Nigel Moore has quite literally checked every one of the over 24,000 items in our archive to ensure the tags are as accurate as possible: https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/tags

We also have an online map feature in the archive. Thanks to Graham Emmet’s skills over the past few months, we now have 2,000 places plotted on this map, each providing direct access to a host of documents; see https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/neatline/show/aerial-photographs-1.

Photographic images are among the most popular items in the archive. However, we have a large number of ‘mystery’ photos – individuals not identified, or places not identified – see https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/mystery-items. Andy Shaw has proven to be exceptionally talented at identifying places.  We did not think one aerial image of an industrial area could ever be identified but Andy managed it.

It is Dortmund, near the railway station, and he solved the mystery with the help of a more recent image of what is now a derelict area. “I am secretly very chuffed with this one! The wartime photo is of such a small area that I didn’t fancy my chances. However, I have got a perfect fit”, Andy commented.  So far, 438 aerial photos have been accurately positioned on a map and are accessible online.

 

Thank you, one and all! We could not have achieved so much without you.

Heather Hughes, Dan Ellin and Alex Pesaro

Learning leadership skills at the IBCC Digital Archive: Tilly Foster

Editors’ note

Tilly Foster has started volunteering with the IBCC Digital Archive in 2019. She has gone from strength to strength, learning new skills and gaining industry-specific insights in the process. She’s currently managing a team of dedicated volunteers producing summaries of oral history interviews available. As a consequence, usability has significantly improved, and life stories are now fully discoverable. We welcome her first contribution as guest blogger with an insightful piece on reflective practice; needless to say, we wish Tilly every success in her career.

The editorial team

 

I first visited the International Bomber Command Centre in 2019 and as a public history student, I was most intrigued by the thoughtful approach to the divisive nature of Bomber Command through recognition, remembrance, and reconciliation. After completing my MA in September 2020, therefore, the IBCC was my top choice to approach with the hope of gaining practical experience in the heritage sector through volunteering.

Tilly Foster

Luckily, as the archive is completely digital, I was able to begin immediately after expressing my interest. My first task was to listen to a variety of oral history interviews and produce concise, user-friendly abstracts to accompany these on the archive.

This allowed me to transfer my existing academic writing skills while also complying with the in-house rules and maintaining an objective tone. After completing a few abstracts, I was trusted to upload these directly to the archive myself.

Jack Harris. The summary of his interview was one of the first pieces of work produced. https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/16650

 

In January 2020, I was offered the chance to take on additional responsibility as a volunteer coordinator, leading a small group of other volunteers producing oral history abstracts. This involves assessing the audio quality of interviews and allocating them appropriately to volunteers based on their skill, proofreading and uploading written submissions, and communicating helpful feedback.

The most challenging aspect of this role has been editing and providing appropriate feedback to the volunteers. My academic background has trained me to edit written work thoroughly. So, when my supervisor provided a practice abstract to edit and give feedback, I channelled my academic training and edited it to my usual standard, explaining the reasons behind each change. My supervisor warned me that despite my good intentions, this approach may come across as somewhat harsh to volunteers. Instead, they explained that it was important to be more encouraging to keep the experience enjoyable for volunteers, thereby safeguarding the important work they’re contributing to the archive. I immediately recognised how my initial feedback could be taken in the wrong way and altered my approach. I have since transitioned to using a ratio when feeding back to my team, incorporating three things done well and one suggestion of how to improve next time.

In this role, I have been able to work on practical leadership and management skills that aren’t taught at university. Most importantly, I’ve learnt to consider who I’m providing feedback to and then alter the content accordingly. There is a difference between proofreading a friend’s university essay under the instruction to be as honest as possible and providing constructive feedback to a volunteer who has opted to offer their valuable time to the archive. Volunteers are the backbone of heritage institutions, so it is incredibly important to keep them on board. As I hope to pursue a career within the heritage sector, I’m grateful to the IBCC for giving me the chance to learn this lesson early on.

Tilly Foster

The War of Destruction. Military Strategy and the Role of Institutions: Turin as a Case Study

Aside

Editors’ note

Adalberto Di Corato researched the bombings of Turin as part of his MA in History. The official reports he quoted – here translated for the first time in English – may be of special interest for those who want to investigate of Bomber Command operations from the perspective of civilians. We welcome his contribution as guest blogger and wish him every success in his career.
The editorial team

 

Introduction

This blogpost summarises the dissertation “The War of Destruction. Military Strategy and the Role of Institutions: Turin as a Case Study” (supervisor Professor Marco Di Giovanni). It was produced in fulfilment of the MA in Historical Sciences I had attended at the University of Turin from 2016 to 2019. My research focused on the way Turin’s public institutions were involved in the air war from 1940 to 1945.

Bomb-damaged homes in Turin, circa 1943. Source: Wikimedia / Public domain

The first part of the research explored the preparedness measures implemented by the fascist regime during the 30s: adoption of gas masks, provisions of shelters, and arrangements for the defence of industries. The second part researched the way of public institutions (UNPA (1), antiaircraft defences, the Fascist Party, and the firefighters) responded to the unique challenges posed by the air war on Turin. This piece is an abridged version of the latter.

 

The Air War on Turin

The Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force started bombing Turin on 12th June 1940, immediately after Italy entered the war. Until late October 1942, Bomber Command carried out few small-scale operations, prioritising military targets while at the same time avoiding nearby areas. The RAF caused only a few casualties among civilians (36 deaths and 83 wounded), inflicting limited damage (2).
In a marked departure from the above, the British soon started a massive area bombing campaign on the city. It began in late October 1942 and culminated between July and August 1943. The area bombing doctrine was primary intended to target the whole city in order to cause as many casualties as possible, with the purpose of spurring the population to rebel against the regime. This phase resulted in 1,395 deaths and 1,582 wounded among the civilians, combined with widespread destruction (3).
Primary sources kept in local archives strongly support the view that local organisations (the UNPA, the Party, the antiaircraft defences, and the firefighters) were placed under enormous stress. This in mainly because the fascist regime, in the years leading to the war, ignored most of their requests for both funding and adequate equipment.
The main public institution tasked to train and protect civilians was the UNPA. Its pitiful state was eloquently captured by the following letter, now in the Turin State Archive, sent on 28th October 1941 by the Prefect of Turin:

I’m receiving many worrying complaints from depending units about clothes deficiencies, especially in regards of the early onset of intense wintry conditions. U.N.P.A. members are currently kitted out in simple canvas overalls, still waiting for the promised fabric uniforms from Rome. […] Even an extra allocation of blankets for the night is absolutely necessary, as repeatedly pointed out (4).

The overall precarious state of the UNPA and other institutions worsened once the British started their massive area bombing campaign on Turin in October 1942.

Turin, 9 Squadron, 18/19 November 1942 Commemorative picture of Lancaster for attack on Turin. In a circle at the top a Lancaster on the ground with engines running. Underneath a box with caption ‘Turin, 9 Squadron, 18/19 November 1942’. At the bottom a box with crew names ‘S/Ldr Clyde-Smith, Sgt Nancekivell, F/Sgt Webster, P/O Higginson, Flt Lt Skinner, Sgt Pleasance, Sgt Kearne’. Source: IBCC Digital Archive

After the heavy 20th November 1942 operation that caused 117 deaths and 120 wounded, the population started a spontaneous mass evacuation. More than 300.000 left the city (5). That caused a vivid impression on the Minister of Public Works Giuseppe Gorla, who visited Turin at that time: he compared it with the Biblical exodus of Hebrews (6).
Carlo Chevallard, a local entrepreneur, wrote in one of the most interesting Turin war diaries:

The most impressive aspect is the lack of leadership which became evident in the days following the two attacks: Fabbriguerra (7), Corporations (8), Prefecture, Trade Unions, Unpa, Gruppi Rionali (9) are all acting whimsically without an organic plan; orders and directives are often contradictory.

Chevallard noted lax discipline (in particular regarding traffic regulations and public transportation), but these trifling matters where not what he was most concerned about. It was rather

the outburst of hate for the Regime and the Duce: almost no one directs their anger to English who is waging war on us, but everybody is lashing out to whoever has dragged us into this predicament (10).

The documents in the historical section of Turin’s Firefighters Archive shed some light on the destruction caused by Bomber Command, and of the role played by the firefighters during the incident.
For example, 8th December 1942 operation (one of the most severe) is vividly described by the following report:

As per orders, we headed to Murazzi Po [a Turin district] with the firefighters. Upon arriving in Corso San Maurizio, house number 18, the enemy has already dropped incendiaries, and started bombing. Thus we decided to enter the shelter at 18 Corso San Maurizio. We have been inside for a few minutes when a bomb hit the left wing of the same house making it collapse. We tried to calm down the people who were inside. After tearing down a wall we came out via another passage leading to the garden. Meanwhile, incendiary bombs fell on the garage of the newspaper “La Stampa” situated at 20 Corso San Maurizio, where a substantial amount of flammable liquids were kept in the warehouse. By means of a car made available by “La Stampa” I sent immediately the firefighters Rolfo and Bobbio to headquarter, asking them to bring all the necessary to have at least a fire hose in place. Meanwhile, work started to contain the spread of the fire, which was getting out of control. This was helped by the garage caretaker and by some keen residents of the block of flats at 18. After almost four hours of hard work, we were able to contain the fire by using the hose, saving the flammable content of the warehouse and a part of the garage. All the men worked with zeal and eagerness, to the acclaim of bystanders (11).

Sometimes firefighters had to work continuously for hours. During the 13th July 1943 raid, which caused 792 deaths and 914 wounded, a report indicates that two squads have been dealing with an incident which lasted three days (12). The squads were relived every six hours, in turns:

The clearing of debris was started by the men and progressed faster with the help of the soldiers of the 1st Engineers Regiment. It proceeded without interruption until 7 PM of the day 16th July 1943-XXI (13). The rather dangerous job was accomplished with caution, factoring in all possible eventualities: all adequate measures were implemented, also securing unstable parts by improvised means. For instance, after having opened a breach in a corner of the shelter which was sealed off [by debris], we managed to extricate an unharmed soldier, who was accompanied to the hospital by some bystanders. Later, after having received instructions by the ‘capo fabbricato’  (14) about a spot where were three casualties were buried, these were taken out and identified as Bergasiani Bernardino son of Isacco, aged 18, Castagneri son of Giov. Battista, aged 58, Droetti Caterina daughter of Michele, aged 39 (15).

The bombings did not stop after the armistice of 8th September 1943. On the 8th November 1943, USAAF bombers attacked Turin en masse. Unlike the RAF, the USAAF zeroed in on specific targets such as the factories supporting Germany’s war effort and marshalling yards. Nevertheless, this bombing doctrine did not spare the civilians as the targets were near densely-populated districts and bombing was far from being accurate. One firefighters’ report describes the response after bombs hit a factory:

The “Squadra Celere” (16) was dispatched to the Microtecnica factory to put out a fire caused by incendiary bombs. Upon arriving at the scene, our work was not needed anymore, because the factory firefighters had done the job. Meanwhile, one employee pointed out that some people were buried under debris at 80 Via Pietro Giuria. We dashed to the place. As per report, the building was hit by a high-capacity bomb and collapsed. Some well-meaning people sprung to action and extricated a woman: Loro Angela, aged 67. A voice begging for help was heard among the broken beams and the rubble. We set about to the rescue and were soon able to establish a contact with the victim. Meanwhile, I required the assistance of the rubble-clearing squad, which after hours of work was able to rescue the casualty: Cattaneo Marino, aged 26. They then extracted two bodies, Loro Paolo, aged 63 and Beolotto Maria, the caretaker, who lived there. Other corpses still lie under the debris – clearing continues (17).

The results bear out the widespread lack of preparedness. All local institutions had to deal with an extremely difficult situation while poorly equipped and overstretched – despite that, as substantiated by reports, they worked above and beyond the call of duty. Their success is a testament to their abnegation and the spontaneous solidarity of civilians. Interestingly, the bombing did succeed in creating panic and the population openly voiced its disdain for the regime. The widespread dissatisfaction did not reach the intensity of an open revolt: the toppling of the fascist regime failed to materialise, contrary to the expectations of Allied planners. It is possible that the abnegation of responders, especially the firefighters, produced the feeling that damage can at least be contained, and a semblance of normality preserved. More research is needed to substantiate this hypothesis.

Adalberto Di Corato

Appendix. David Donaldson reminisces an operation on Turin

It was one of those clear moon-light nights and the stars seem stand out in the sky; you feel you can put out your hand and grab one. As we flew on toward the Alps we could make out some of the little mountain villages against the background of snow. You could see their lights twinkling in the trees. The aircraft was going wonderfully well and we cleared the highest mountains by 3 or 4000 feet. You could see the ridges and peaks well defined and the moon shining on the snow. Flying over this sort of scenery was something completely new to us and pretty awe-inspiring because the nearest we had got to it was on the Munich raid when we’d seen the Bavarian Alps in the distance. The navigator came up and pointed out Mont Blanc away on our port side, he was able to identify it from its shape because he had actually climbed it. He was telling us how he was beaten by the weather when he had got to within 600 feet of the summit. Immediately we got to the other side of the Alps with no snow about it seemed by comparison intensely dark for a bit, it was like coming out of a lightened room into the blackout. Soon after that we started to glide down, loosing height very gradually and arrived slightly west of Turin. Other planes were already over the target because you could see their flares and there was a barrage of anti-aircraft fire in the sky. Our target was the Fiat works, and the whole time we were looking for them we were still gliding down to our bombing height. Actually we picked the works up in the light of somebody else’s flare. They were unmistakable. I’d never had such a target before. There seemed to be acres of factory buildings. We almost wept afterwards because we hadn’t got any more bombs to give them. Having located our target, we flew four or five miles away, turned round and made our run up over it. The wireless operator came along and stood beside me to have a look at the bombing, otherwise he wouldn’t have seen anything from his usual position. When he saw the light flak coming up from the works he said ‘Gosh, look at the Roman candles’. We made two attacks. As we came round afterwards to have a look, the fires which we’d started were going strong. There was a big orange-coloured fire burning fiercely inside one block of buildings. Having finished the job, we climbed to get enough height to cross the Alps again. Altogether we were over or round about the town for three quarters of an hour, and, whilst we were circling to gain height we saw somebody hit the Royal Arsenal good and proper.

The passage “We almost wept afterwards because we hadn’t got any more bombs to give them”, has a rational justification. Bombers en route to Italian cities had a reduced bombload to allow for a longer flight time, hence the disappointment. Source: IBCC Digital Archive

 

Notes

1) Unione Nazionale Protezione Antiaerea (National Anti Aircraft Protection Union)

2) ASCT, Archivio fotografico- Ufficio Protezione Antiaerea, 1945_9F02-06 e 2031_9F02-08.

3) ASCT, Archivio fotografico- Ufficio Protezione Antiaerea, 1945_9F02-06 e 2031_9F02-08.

4) ASTO, Prefettura, Gabinetto, I Versamento, m. 513.

5) Marco Gioannini, Giulio Massobrio, Bombardate l’Italia. Storia della guerra di distruzione aerea 1940 – 1945, Rizzoli, Milano 2007, p. 383.

6) Giuseppe Gorla, L’Italia nella II guerra mondiale. Diario di un milanese, ministro del Re nel governo di Mussolini, Badini & Castoldi, Milano 1959, p. 377.

7) Ministry of War Production

8) State agencies coordinating different industries.

9) Local city sections of the Fascist Party

10) Carlo Chevallard, Torino in guerra tra cronaca e memoria. Diario di Carlo Chevallard 1942 – 1945, Ed. Archivio Storico della Città di Torino, Torino 1995, p. 27.

11) ASVFF, relazione incendi 1942.

12) ASCT, Archivio fotografico- Ufficio Protezione Antiaerea, 1945_9F02-06 e 2031_9F02-08.

13) XXI = 21st Year of the Fascist Era, an indication that in every public and even private document had to be added to the ordinary Christian calendar date.

14) The “Capofabbricato” was a minor Fascist party official, tasked to enforce civil defence preparedness discipline within a block of flats.

15) ASVFF, relazione incendi 1943.

16) Rapid response team

17) ASVFF, relazione incendi 1943.

 

Abbreviations

ACS – Archivio Centrale dello Stato (Central State Archive) – Rome
ASTO – Archivio di Stato di Torino (Turin State Archive)
ASCT – Archivio Storico della Città di Torino (Turin Historical City Archive)
ASVFF – Archivio Storico dei Vigili del Fuoco (Firefighters’ Historical Archive)

 

Further reading

Emanuele Artom, Diari: gennaio 1940-febbraio 1944, Centro di documentazione ebraica contemporanea, Milano 1966.
Pier Luigi Bassignana, Torino sotto le bombe nei rapporti inediti dell’aviazione alleata, Edizioni del Capricorno, Torino 2012.
Pier Luigi Bassignana, Torino in guerra: la vita quotidiana dei torinesi ai tempi delle bombe, Edizioni del Capricorno, Torino 2013.
Paolo Bevilacqua, [et al.], I rifugi antiaerei di Torino, Paolo Emilio Persiari, Bologna 2018.
Carlo Chevallard, Torino in guerra tra cronaca e memoria. Diario di Carlo Chevallard 1942 – 1945, Ed. Archivio Storico della Città di Torino, Torino 1995.
Marco Gioannini, Giulio Massobrio, Bombardate l’Italia. Storia della guerra di distruzione aerea 1940 – 1945, Rizzoli, Milano 2007.
Giuseppe Gorla, L’Italia nella II guerra mondiale. Diario di un milanese, ministro del Re nel governo di Mussolini, Badini & Castoldi, Milano 1959.
Nicola Labanca (ed.), I Bombardamenti aerei sull’Italia, Il Mulino, Bologna 2012.

EUMM and the Breda shelter. Local heritage and the memory of the bombing war in a Milan northern district.

Image

Editors’ note

Federica Lampugnani got in touch with the University of Lincoln during an IBBC Digital Archive presentation at Parco Nord Milan – her dissertation on the bombing war in Milan and its subsequent memorialisation immediately aroused interest. We are delighted to publish a summary of her dissertation in form of a blogpost. Needless to say, we wish Federica every success in her future career.

Federica Lampugnani

The IBCC Digital Archive Team

 

Introduction

This blogpost summarises the findings of my dissertation – EUMM e il bunker Breda. La patrimonializzazione della memoria storica nel Nord Milano (EUMM and the Breda shelter. Turning historical memory into local heritage in a Milan northern district. It was submitted in fulfilment of the Cultural Anthropology programme I attended at Bicocca University in Milan (Italy) from 2016 to 2019.
Its goal is to shed light on the many-faceted memory of the bombing war in a Milan northern district, researched from the standpoint of cultural anthropology. Fieldwork was carried out over two years, from September 2016 to January 2019. The aim was to demonstrate how a certain type of recollection, linked to the memories of the air raids of the Second World War, has been understood, lived, and reinterpreted by different social actors.

 

Post-remembrance

“I am, sadly, extremely pessimistic when people ask me «What will happen when all of you will be dead?». This is despite having spent the last 30 years of my life talking about Auschwitz. I think that a few years after the death of the last of us, the Shoah will initially be a chapter in a history book then a few lines and eventually even that line will disappear”

These were the words of Liliana Segre, lifelong senator (e.g. member of the Italian upper house of parliament) and Auschwitz deportee, who recently voiced her thoughts on Holocaust remembrance.[1] Loss and oblivion seem to pervade modern society. Faced with this sense of looming loss, scholarly enquiry has focused on the way remembrance and post-remembrance can turn memory into cultural heritage. My university background has allowed me to see remembrance from an historical point of view, especially when it comes to analysing Holocaust Remembrance Day and Shoah memorialisation through the lenses of political institutions.[2] With this research I have tried to show how Ecomuseum’s approaches can be framed as an anthropological process hinged on the shelter, which sits at the intersection of symbolical and tangible memories.

 

The shelter

The Breda Factory bomb shelter was built during the Second World War in the Sesto San Giovanni district of Milan. Originally used by workers of the fifth section (aviation), it is now located in what later became «Parco Nord», a vast, managed green space. In 2009, when the EUMM – Urban Metropolitan North Milan Ecomuseum was founded, the shelter was given a second lease of life thanks to the creation of a permanent exhibition. This undertaking is part of a broader landscape of actions carried out by the Ecomuseum in its northern Milan catchment. Their immediate purpose is to foster urban regeneration and the preservation of the collective material and immaterial memory – the overarching aim is to transform them into collective heritage.

Field research has been essential for me. It has indeed allowed to live ethnographically the process of creating cultural heritage from historical memory. My methodology has been Clifford Geertz’s hermeneutical circularity, a respected approach highly influential in the anthropological studies field. According to Geertz, the knowing subject is not a neutral entity, but rather a historically-situated one, shaped by their own culture and knowledge. This circularity brings the subject and the knowing object to a reciprocal interaction.[3] It became clear that my own point of view would be bounded by that. Even more, it would be the locus of a continuous negotiation between mine and other points of view. Within this circularity of knowledge and meaning, the practical aspect of the lived experience was especially relevant. This is influenced by the spatial-corporal data underpinning the incorporation studies of Pierre Bourdieu and Thomas Csordas.[4] I decided to take into account these methodological approaches after multiple visits to the shelter. The emotional and sensorial stimuli, the attention to the use of the body in a closed and hostile environment, plus the atmosphere of a 70-year old underground shelter were the most efficient approaches to communicate bombing war heritage and its contested dimension.

 

The bombing war in Italy

In can be argued that bombing warfare in Milan was predominantly aimed at gaining political advantage by using overwhelming air power and display of force in order to destroy morale and shatter will to fight. “That was a terror raid” commented Harry Irons reminiscing the 24th October 1942 daylight bombing, which concentrated mainly on working-class neighbourhoods and civilian housing, and only secondarily on military targets.[5]

Daylight raid 24th October 1942. Incendiaries falling down on a crowded residential area between Piazza 5 Giornate and the central fresh food market.

“We went through the Alps, and this is what I call a terror raid” Harry Irons reminiscing the 24th October 1942 Daylight raid.This aspect of the war entered dramatically and overwhelmingly in the daily lives of people, emphasizing a sense of collective trauma of the people living in Milan. This can be only marginally captured by official documents and the stories based on these sources – conversely, it can be potently felt by stepping inside the shelter and allowing to be transported by emotions.

What EUMM has been trying to do for years with the aid of the permanent exhibition is to allow visitors to re-live the experience of being at the receiving end of the bombing war, as endured by women and men at the time. In doing so, it creates a shared memory space. The Breda shelter, once framed in this way, does not only represent a place to be looked after and preserved as a relic of a past that is no more. On the contrary, it transforms itself into a memory object able to ‘make the past speak’ and brings it back to the present days.

This has been made possible by different choices. On the one hand, by leaving the space in its original condition: dark and cold, with uncomfortable wooden benches, and the claustrophobia given by a confined space. On the other hand, by recreating some immaterial elements of the past: digital video, or bombing sounds that accompany the visitor’s descent into the shelter.  In this way, memory becomes embedded into a material object and is transported into the present. This leaves the visitor with the feeling of having gone through what they just saw and heard. In a way, the war period is transposed into the present: the present intertwines with a past that seems to re-materialise now.

A further element is the synchronic and diachronic conversation that links place and individuals. Being confined in a dark and inhospitable space whilst hearing war sounds leads us to immediately empathize with those who went through such experiences. This applies to the workers that used the shelter, but also civilians who resorted to cellars or the few public raid shelters set up in Milan and elsewhere in Italy. At the same time, it compels us to engage synchronically with other fellow visitors. They were strangers until the feelings of anxiety, fear and unease kick in.

Another point of my research has been understanding the emotional impact that the shelter has on people. It is so powerful and immediate that it compels visitors to explore their feelings, coming to terms with them, and then discuss with friends and family members. They frequently come back – this process sustains footfall and broadened the scope of this memory preservation exercise.

My research has also involved other bodies operating in the area such as Sesto San Giovanni municipality, the district in which most of the Breda factory was situated. The intent was to understand how a public institution fulfills its responsibility of conserving and perpetuating the memory of the city.

What emerged was the constant dedication to engage with the younger generations by means of workshops and recreational activities. All this takes place within the ongoing process of having the city included in the Unesco World Heritage list in the category of evolving cultural landscape, a procedure which began in September 2010.

The similarities emerged between the Sesto Municipality and EUMM stem from their shared dedication to community engagements, as well as the multi-sensorial, hands-on experiences which were set up in different spaces. This is fostered by an open dialog among various local actors.

Lastly, my research drew on the life stories of eye-witnesses of the war who also visited the shelter in recent times.[6] Thanks to their testimonies, I understood how powerful Geertz’s paradigm is: the mind is never free and unspoiled but always shaped by the influence of the present time. This implies the re-construction and the re-elaboration of the testimonies. At the same time, this is a legacy worth preserving, especially in an epoch like ours which is rapidly approaching what scholar Mariann Hirsh, speaking about the Shoah, defined as «Postmemory». This a new phase of history in which all the direct witnesses have passed away, a condition which urges us to come to terms with our capacity to conserve and transmit to future generations the historical memory that has not t been experienced.[7]

My research left some questions open. For instance, what will happen to the district of Sesto (and its material and immaterial cultural heritage) if the UNESCO candidature is rejected? What will happen to EUMM if no longer supported by a public sponsor willing to increase its financial contribution as to sustain EUMM’s development?

These concerns are rooted in the fact that Milan is an outlier when compared with other mayor Italian cities. Being Italy’s financial capital and economic powerhouse, it does not look back to the past but steams full throttle into the future: an ever-evolving skyline, new branches of the underground mass transport system, the endless redevelopment of old neighbourhoods. The list goes on and on.

I subscribe the view that the crux will be ‘how’ this memory will be preserved.

The shared commitment to collective integration and a strong local presence are – in my eyes – the best and most effective way of conserving and transmitting heritage to future generations. The museum, with its emphasis on the practical and sensorial aspect of knowledge, will also play a crucial role.

Partial answers to these questions my come from a broader debate, in Italy and in other countries, regarding heritage landmarks. This should involve local institutions and other stakeholder in a broad-scope discussion.

Federica Lampugnani

 

Acknowledgments

I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Professor Ivan Bargna, as well as to Alessandra Micoli and Michela Bresciani (both at EUMM) for their constant support and for trusting my research skills. Their help was decisive for me, not only in terms of practical support but above all for its human dimension.

Finally, a heartfelt thanks goes to those who have entrusted to me their war time stories, in particular Inge Rassmussen and Giuseppe Pirovano. They were generous with their recollections, which are especially valuable for the emotional and the historic value.

Notes

[1] Speech by Liliana Segre during the event organised for Holocaust Day at the Arcimboldi theatre on January 15th 2019.

[2] Federica Lampugnani, ‘Il Giorno della Memoria. La commemorazione della Shoah in Italia. -The day of memory. The commemoration of the Holocaust in Italy’. University of Milan, 2014-2015.

[3] Geertz Clifford, The interpretation of cultures, First edition, 1973.

[4] Bourdieu Pierre, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, Droz, Genève, 1972; Outline of a Theory of Practice, An invitation to reflexive sociology, Bollati Boringhieri, 1992.

Csordas Thomas, Embodiment and experience. The existential round of culture and self, 1994.

[5] Parisi Sebastiano, Milano sotto le bombe (Raids on Milan), for the first time all the reports of the Allied forces bombings, Macchione, 2017.

[6] I’m referring myself, in particular, to Milena Bracesco, Inge Rassmussen and Giuseppe Pirovano. Milena is the daughter of Enrico Bracesco, a worker in Breda’s fifth aeronautical section, deported in working camps after the strikes in March ’43 and ’44. When Milena’s father died she was a year and a half old but she tirelessly worked all her life to piece together the story of her family. Inge and Giuseppe, instead, went through the bombings in Milan since, at that time, they were attending secondary school there. The interviews to Inge and Giuseppe have been recorded on the 5th and the 6th of December 2018.
See Federica Lampugnani, EUMM e il bunker Breda. La patrimonializzazione della memoria storica nel Nord Milano, University of Milano-Bicocca, 2019,  page 100 to 118.

[7] Hirsch Marianne, Material Memory: Holocaust Testimony in Post-Holocaust Art in Shelley Hornstein, Jacobowitz Florence (edited by), Image and remembrance: representation and the Holocaust, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indianapolis, 2003, page 115.