During the carnage of World War Two, one tiny nook in Italy managed to remain neutral: Vatican City. Being a country in its own right – the smallest nation in the world, in fact – the home of the Pope was able to “opt out” of the apocalyptic conflict, but its bubble of serenity was shattered on 5 November 1943, when bombs rained down on its historic buildings. Why did this strange, seemingly senseless surprise attack happen? And who was behind it?
The year 1943 was a decisive one for Italy. Several months before the Vatican bombing, there had been a rebellion against the leadership of Benito Mussolini. Once a key ally of Hitler against the Allies, Mussolini had suffered major defeats in the war, and was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism. On the very day he was kicked out of power, the Allies mounted an invasion of Sicily.
A few months later, Italy officially surrendered – but it was no cause for celebration. On hearing their former ally had thrown in the towel, German troops in Italy put up a stiff resistance, and the whole country remained a battleground. Then, one night in November, bombs exploded in the Vatican.
As one onlooker described it, “For over half an hour an aeroplane was heard circling insistently over Rome and especially the Vatican. At about 8:10, while an Allied squadron passed over the Vatican, the aeroplane that until then had been circling over Rome dropped four bombs and flew away.”
Nobody was killed, but it was a shocking assault, smashing walls and roofs, blowing in windows and making Vatican residents scurry desperately under tables. The mystery around it added to the sense of unease. The same onlooker, who would go onto become a cardinal, said that “General opinion, and general indignation, blamed the Germans and, perhaps more, the Republican Fascists.”
But was that the real story? Some time later, an American official called Walter Carroll reportedly told a cardinal at the Vatican that “In a conversation with the American Chief of Staff during the past week I was informed very confidentially that they feel that the bombing of the Vatican is probably attributable to an American pilot who lost his way.” Carroll followed up this bombshell by assuring the cardinal that the US Chief of Staff “expressed his sincere regret and gave assurances that strict precaution would be taken to avoid a repetition of this incident."
This was reflected elsewhere, with future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sending a telegram a few days after the incident saying “I think we probably did bomb the Vatican”. The thinking at the time was that an Allied bomber had developed engine trouble and was forced to jettison its bombs to make it back to base. Heavy cloud cover meant the pilot didn’t realise where he happened to be. But this story was later disproved by an official investigation, which found that the bomber in question had actually dropped its deadly cargo many miles away from Rome.
Since then, the finger of blame has pointed back at the Fascists, as the original witness testimony suggested. A book by journalist Augusto Ferrara, published in 2010, alleges the attack was very deliberate, and ordered by Roberto Farinacci – a top Fascist politician who was so fanatically anti-semitic and pro-German that even Mussolini thought he was a bit too extreme. Which is saying something.
Farinacci’s apparent motive for the bombing was to destroy a radio station based within the Vatican, which he believed was transmitting messages to the Allies. Remember that, even though Italy had officially surrendered, German forces still controlled much of the country, effectively making it Nazi territory. Phone conversations recorded by Italian agents confirm this version of events. One such chat took place between two priests, with one condemning “the attack of the Americans” and the other correcting him, saying “They were not Americans, they were Italians” before explicitly implicating Farinacci.
Debate still continues on this strange episode of World War Two. One recent essay by historian Patricia M. McGoldrick suggests that the Germans were the real brains behind the bombings, ordering Farinacci to carry out the operation and make it look like the Allies were behind it, in order to enrage Catholics in South America.
The bombing of the Vatican is a reminder that the fog of war still hangs heavy over some aspects of the conflict, all these decades later.