September 27, 2010

The Last Days of September: The "Four Days of Naples" Remembered

Scene from the siege of Naples (September, 1943)
By Niccolò Graffio
“See Naples and die.” (Vedi Napoli e poi muori) – Italian proverb (variously ascribed to Virgil, Goethe and Humboldt)
The city of Naples is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in all of Italy, if not Europe. Tradition has it Greek settlers from Euboea founded a colony at the site sometime in the 8th century BC. Archaeologists, however, believe the earliest settlers were Greek sailors from Rhodes who established a mercantile colony on the tiny island of Megaride almost 100 years earlier. They named this colony Parthenope.

Around the 5th century BC these settlers were displaced by new arrivals from the Greek colony of Cumae. Reaching the mainland, these displaced settlers founded a new colony they named Neapolis (Gr: “New City”). In time Parthenope came to be absorbed into the growing city, being renamed simply Palaiopolis (Gr: “Old City”).

The harbor setting for this city was ideal, allowing its inhabitants to harvest the fauna of its waters while simultaneously trading with peoples from far away. The wealth this brought in allowed the city’s rulers to construct a formidable set of walls to protect it from invaders. During the Second Punic War with Rome (218 – 201 BC) the mighty Carthaginian general Hannibal was forced to retreat from before them. Although by this time Naples was part of the Roman world, it never forgot its Greek roots. In fact, to this day the people of Naples still refer to themselves as Parthenopéi (“Parthenopeans”).

Under the Romans the city was enlarged and modernized, with the Romans installing public baths and aqueducts. Many of Rome’s elite came to the city to immerse themselves in Hellenistic culture. The notorious gastronome Lucius Licinius Lucullus maintained a villa around the Bay of Naples. It was said the Roman emperor Nero was quite fond of visiting the place.

The history of the city of Naples is closely tied in with the early history of Christianity. According to tradition, the Apostles Peter and Paul preached in the city. Januarius, the patron saint of Naples (in the Roman Catholic Church), was said to have been bishop there. Whether any of this is true, one thing is certain: several catacombs have been found, especially in the northern part of the city, which contain early Christian relics. These attest to the early presence of the faith there.

As Rome’s fortunes waned, Naples came under foreign domination and attack. The last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was imprisoned in Naples in 476 AD after he was deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer. During the Gothic Wars (535-554 AD) the city was devastated by rival Ostrogothic and Byzantine armies before finally falling to the forces of Emperor Justinian I in 552 AD.

In 661 AD the city of Naples became a duchy still beholden to the emperor at Constantinople but now increasingly acting on its own in terms of foreign affairs. In the year 1027, in a decision that would have far-reaching consequences, Sergius IV, Duke of Naples, granted the small county of Aversa as a feudal fief to a band of Norman mercenaries led by one Rainulf Drengot, in return for their loyalty. Thus would be set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the city of Naples being conquered by King Roger II of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1137.

Roger’s grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Federico II (Frederick II) of Hohenstaufen, made Naples his intellectual center, founding a university there in 1224. At the time of his death he ruled over a sprawling empire that stretched from the island of Sicily in the south to Germany in the north and Jerusalem in the east.


After his death his dominions in Southern Italy were awarded by Pope Clement IV to Charles of Anjou, who made Naples his capital. His harsh rule resulted in the infamous Sicilian Vespers in 1284 which caused the Kingdom of Sicily to be split in two, with Charles ruling Southern Italy and the island of Sicily being ruled by a king from Aragon. Both polities, however, continued to be officially called the Kingdom of Sicily, though in practice the northern part came to be called the Kingdom of Naples.

In 1442 the Aragon king Alfonso V expelled the last Angevin ruler of Naples, proclaiming himself Alfonso I, King of Naples and Sicily. Thus would begin two centuries of Spaniard rule over the reunited kingdom.

During this time the city of Naples grew in size and importance, its population swelling to 300,000, second only to Paris on the continent. It also became a leading centre of the Renaissance in Europe, with many artisans and scholars calling the place home. Michelangelo Caravaggio, Bernardino Telesio, Tommaso Campanella, Giordano Bruno, Giambattista Vico, Giambattista Marino and others were either born there or moved there at some point in their lives, adding to the prestige of the city as an important center of learning. This opulence, however, was interrupted in 1656 with a devastating outbreak of the bubonic plague, which wiped out almost half the population of the city.

The last royal dynasty to rule from the city of Naples was the House of Bourbon, installed in 1734 by Charles of Bourbon (Carlos III of Spain). Except for brief periods during the French Revolution when the short-lived Pathenopean Republic was installed (1799) and Emperor Napoleon I of France installed his brother-in-law Joachim Murat as figurehead King of Naples (1808-15), the House of Bourbon would rule over the whole of Southern Italy until it was overthrown by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860. Though he had promised the people a republic, he turned around and handed the kingdom over to the King of Sardinia, who proclaimed the newly created Kingdom of Italy on February 18, 1861.

It was in the safe comforts of Naples that Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini waited while his Blackshirts marched on Rome in late October, 1922. The early promise that Fascism gave to a hopelessly divided Italy, in the form of massive public works projects and a nationwide crackdown on crime disappeared as Mussolini’s reign became increasingly autocratic and totalitarian in nature. His utterly pointless invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 coupled with his signing of the infamous Rome-Berlin Axis with Adolf Hitler in 1936 caused many to rethink their earlier support of him, especially as it became obvious Italy was being reduced to the status of a vassal of Nazi Germany, a state with malevolent intentions towards its neighbors.

Naples would suffer terribly during WW2. While much has been written and spoken about the horrors of the terror bombings of German, Polish, Russian, English and Japanese cities, few seem to remember (or apparently want to remember) that Italian cities suffered this nightmare, as well.

Naples would get the worst of it! It has been estimated that over 20,000 Neapolitans lost their lives under the rain of bombs from American and British planes. Many may not like reading this, but these bombs were dropped indiscriminately. Schools, hospitals, churches and homes as well as factories and barracks were hit. On August 4th, 1943 over 3,000 people were killed in a single raid. That’s almost four times the number killed in the German blitz of Rotterdam on May 14th, 1940!

If the Battles of Britain and Moscow did not show the inherent weaknesses in Hitler’s "1,000 year Reich", the Battle of Stalingrad laid them bare for all the world to see! With the surrender of the German Sixth Army and its commander Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus to the Soviets on January 31st, 1943, the façade of Nazi military supremacy came crashing down. It was now understood by everyone that it would only be a matter of time before Allied tanks rolled into Berlin. Understood by everyone, that is, except Adolf Hitler.

It is an unfortunate fact that many people of all political stripes to this day speak almost glowingly of the Nazi resolve to defend Germany against its enemies right up to the bitter end. It is this writer’s contention, however, that only a fool bails water on a sinking ship! After the debacle at Stalingrad, any sane rulers would have immediately sued for peace, but Hitler and his Nazi cohorts knew the fate that awaited them once they did. Their necks were more important to them than the lives of millions of their countrymen and allies. Sorry folks, but I find nothing "heroic" about that attitude!

Like Stalin before him, Hitler pursued an aggressive “scorched earth” policy against the advancing enemy. Anything (and in many cases, anyone) that could have been of any value to the Allies was destroyed.

On May 16th, 1943 Allied bombers launched their first bombing raid over Rome, seat of the Roman Catholic Church, horrifying millions of Italians! On July 10th, 1943 the Allies launched a massive, amphibious invasion of the island of Sicily, determined to knock Italy out of the war and expose the “soft underbelly” of Germany to their attack. Nine days later another, more massive bombing raid killed thousands in “the Eternal City”.
"Mussolini expressed himself in harsh terms against the Genoese people, who are 'certainly the most hostile to the war and who have given proof of moral weakness.' On the other hand, he praised the Neapolitans, who have been made fatalistic by centuries of difficulties and misery to the point of composing ironical songs on the English during bombing from the air." – Count Galeazzo Ciano: The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943, Edited by Hugh Gibson, pg. 536, Simon Publications, 2001
By this time even most Fascists had had enough of their tinpot Caesar, his neurotic Austro-German master and their delusions of world domination. On July 24th, 1943 the Grand Council of Fascism met and condemned Mussolini, with the King placing him under arrest shortly afterwards. Hitler authorized a commando raid to free him, placing him at the head of a puppet regime in Northern Italy, where he spent his last days in tattered pomp. For all practical purposes, however, Axis-occupied Italy was now directly controlled by Hitler himself.

On September 3rd, 1943 Pietro Badoglio, acting on authorization from the King, signed the Cassibile Armistice, which effectively ended Italy’s participation in the war on the side of the Axis. The Armistice was publicly announced five days later.

By this time conditions in Naples were chaotic! Many high officials in the Fascist Party and the Italian Army deserted the city, followed by many soldiers in the army. Foodstuffs had ceased flowing into Naples, triggering a local famine. German soldiers, cognizant of the Allied advance, took to looting the city, when they weren’t robbing the citizenry.

Outbreaks of violence against the German occupiers were endemic in the time leading up to the Four Great Days. On September 9th sporadic shooting occurred between a group of Neapolitans and German soldiers at the Palazzo dei Telefoni. Over at Via Santa Brigida, a member of the local Carabinieri (national gendarmerie of Italy) opened fire on a group of German soldiers he witnessed attempting to loot a store. Tempers were flaring!

Things first came to a boil the following day, when a group of Neapolitans blocked off the road between Piazza del Plebiscito and the gardens below, halting the advance of a column of German motor vehicles. Trading fire, the Neapolitans succeeded in killing a total of six German sailors and soldiers. A local Fascist party official, brought by the Germans, was able to talk the Neapolitans into releasing some soldiers they had seized as hostages, and into laying down their arms.

The German retaliation for this "outrage" was as swift as it was brutal! In an act that would have made Caliph Omar proud, they set fire to the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III (National Library in Naples), then machine-gunned many members of the horrified crowd that gathered at the scene.

Tempers exploded! By September 12th numerous German soldiers were lying dead in the streets of Naples, victims of local, non-organized ambushes. The kettle was ready to boil over!

If one word could be found to describe Colonel Walter Scholl, that word would have to be “mundane”. A man of lowly birth and education, his most outstanding feature was a nervous tic in his left cheek. To those who worked with him he was in every sense of the term a consummate "pencil-pusher". That such a man rose to the rank of senior officer in the Wehrmacht showed the dire straits the German Army was in by late 1943.

It was just this lowly bureaucrat who assumed control of the military occupiers of the city of Naples on September 12th, 1943. The following day a curfew was established for the citizenry, who were forbidden to own weapons of any kind, and who were required to surrender any guns, grenades, etc immediately to German authorities. Failure to comply meant immediate execution, regardless of the age or sex of the perpetrator!

In other parts of Italy, especially in the North, groups of locals, disenchanted with the "1,000 year Reich", organized themselves into squads of partisans to take on both the Nazis and their Fascist cohorts. The Nazis imposed the infamous Rule of 10 (10 Italians killed in reprisal for every one German killed by partisans). In other parts of German-occupied Europe, especially in the Slavic lands, the order of the day was usually the Rule of 50. In Naples, Colonel Walter Scholl imposed the Rule of 100!

To show he meant business, following the posting of his proclamations on September 13th Scholl had eight Italian POWs executed in Via Cesario Console (in violation of the Geneva Protocols), several Italian sailors shot in front of the stock market and numerous students shot at the nearby University. In one particularly heinous act, a young sailor, falsely accused of a crime was shot on the steps of Headquarters (as he begged for his life) in front of thousands of Neapolitans, who were forced to applaud!

Naples is known for many things, not the least of which is the existence of the scugnizzi, the fabled street boys of the city. Ne’er-do-wells, pranksters and cutpurses, in another time and place they might be something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel. In the Naples of September, 1943, however, the Fates decreed they would be the vanguard of rebellion.

While their elders suffered largely in silence under the draconian excesses of Colonel Scholl’s iron heel, the scugnizzi began planning his overthrow. Without any external help or central hierarchical organization to guide them, they began gathering weapons and ammunition by breaking into an Italian artillery battery and school, all in preparation for taking on the full might of Naples’ military occupiers. As with the Russians at Stalingrad and the Polish-Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, without realizing it, the scugnizzi were laying the seeds of what was one day to be called urban guerilla warfare.

Adolf Hitler had decided to pull his forces back from Southern Italy and dig in to protect Rome. Before leaving Naples, however, Colonel Scholl was ordered to leave the place “ashes and mud”. Such an egregious order could not be kept secret however, and soon it filtered from German soldier to Fascist Italian to Neapolitan, who now was finally realizing they and their city were doomed.

The two straws that broke the camel’s back came on September 22nd, when Col. Scholl issued a decree demanding that all Neapolitan males 18-33 years of age report for deportation to Germany and Northern Italy for compulsory labor.

The decree was a smokescreen. The Germans had plenty of slave labor for their camps and factories. What they didn’t have was engineers and skilled laborers to aid them in constructing fortifications in preparation for the final Allied assault on “Fortress Europe”. They had planned to sift through the throngs assembled, finding those with the appropriate resumes and sending them where needed. What would happen to the rest was anybody’s guess.


The Neapolitans were not fooled. They refused to cooperate. While this was going on Scholl ordered all inhabitants of the coastal area (240,000 thousand people!) to move 300 meters into the interior of the city, presumably in preparation for dynamiting the port to prevent an Allied assault. On September 26th, as the Nazis began rounding up young, recalcitrant males for deportation, gangs of scugnizzi began taunting older Neapolitans for their cowardice, who responded by attacking the Germans, freeing many. At this time the rioters were joined by Italian Army deserters who had previously been in hiding.
The following day Scholl’s forces rounded up thousands of Neapolitans (presumably for summary executions). In response, hundreds of scugnizzi began firing on German soldiers wholesale. The first of the Four Great Days had begun!

Scugnizzi (Photo courtesy of EDITempoCreaEroi)
One of the first acts of the rebellion occurred when a truckload of German soldiers, after killing and capturing a group of Italian air force personnel trying to run their blockade, came under attack by a large group of scugnizzi. The Germans, surprised by the size of the group and the age of the attackers (some as young as 11), fell back rather than engage the enemy.

Elsewhere, crudely made barricades had been set up throughout the city. The Germans thought this was a joke, as their tanks could easily flatten them. The barricades were a ruse, however. Most of the scugnizzi were on roofs and terraces, ready to rain bullets, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades down on passing soldiers. The barricades themselves had been booby-trapped with land mines the boys had dug up from mine fields, hoping that one of the mines would find its mark on a tank tread. More than once it did.

While battling the scugnizzi, the Germans were also in the process of withdrawing their forces from the city, as they had heard reports (in error) the Allies were preparing to land at Bagnoli.

By the following day (September 28th), numerous adults were joining the rebellion against the Germans, who were now too busy fighting Naples’ citizenry to carry out their scorched earth plan of reducing the city to "ash and mud". Eremete Bonomi, the governor of the boys’ prison of Santo Efremo, unlocked a cache of weapons kept in the prison, distributed them to his young prisoners, then released them before joining the rebellion himself.

The Germans, in the meantime, rounded up large numbers of prisoners, detaining them in the Campo Sportivo del Littorio. They also began massacring scores of Neapolitans in reprisal.

If the massacres were intended to pacify the people of Naples, they failed miserably. In fact, they had the opposite effect. By September 29th the scugnizzi were forced to take a back seat to all the adults now fighting the Germans. The rebellion was now of such a dimension that it was a matter of who wasn’t fighting the Nazis!

The streets of Naples were in flames! Earlier hit and run tactics now gave way to brutal street clashes between rebels and soldiers. Colonel Scholl’s headquarters itself was now coming under increasing attack by rebel snipers. A dozen rebels were killed in Giuseppe Mazzini square by an attack of German infantry and tanks. Later that same day a young rebel man by the name of Vincenzo Stimolo approached Colonel Scholl at HQ and began negotiations for freeing the prisoners kept at Campo Sportivo del Littorio in return for allowing the remaining Germans (Scholl included) safe conduct out of the city.

September 30th, the last of the Four Great Days, would be the shortest day of fighting, and the most brutal. While Scholl in principle accepted the terms offered to him, he had some final "surprises" for the people of Naples. Even as the Germans were withdrawing the last of their forces from the city, an artillery battery Scholl had had set up on Capodimonte heights began shelling Naples from Port’Alba to Piazza Mazzini for the entire day, killing many.

In what can only be described as a vicious crime of spite, before leaving, the remaining Germans immolated the Naples Historical Archive, a building that contained priceless and irreplaceable documents concerning the long history of the city. The director of the building, with tears in his eyes, pleaded with their commanding officer to spare the building, reminding them that many of Naples’ earlier rulers were in fact Germans themselves. Thus, the Nazis would be destroying a part of their own history, as well. In response, he was allowed to take only what he could carry; the rest was given to the flames.

The last parting gifts Col. Scholl and his Nazi cohorts gave to the people of Naples were leaving the city heavily booby-trapped. For days, even weeks after they withdrew, these booby traps continued to kill and maim innocent civilians. The most spectacular example of this occurred two weeks after the German withdrawal, when a large bomb exploded in the main post office of Naples, killing many in the building who were there to mail letters to loved ones overseas. They were also nice enough to poison the city’s water supply.

On October 1st, at 0930 hours, the first Allied tanks rolled into the city to face a beleaguered and war-weary population. Respite would not come soon, however, as German planes continued to bomb the city intermittently until March, 1944. Many Neapolitans also looked upon the Allies apprehensively because reports had earlier filtered into the city of mass rapes of Southern Italian women by some Allied forces.

Memorial to the Giornate di Napoli
Photo courtesy of Around Naples Encyclopedia
While the people of Naples were mostly spared this, sadly, the inhabitants of Monte Cassino and surrounding areas were not so lucky. On May 19th, 1944, the day after the Allied victory at Monte Cassino, Goumiers (Berber, Arab and Senegalese irregular auxiliary troops in the Free French Army) raped over 3,000 Italian women and girls, murdering about 800 Italian men who tried to save them! So many rapes by Goumiers were reported throughout Italy during the war that the word marocchinate (It: “to be Moroccaned”) entered Italian slang. This nightmare was shown in the 1960 Vittorio De Sica classic Two Women starring Sophia Loren, for which she won both an Academy Award and an Award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961.

On August 21st, 1945 the government of Italy awarded a total of 12 medals (two bronze, six silver and four gold) to a group of Neapolitans for valor shown in fighting off the enemy. The Gold Medal of Military Valor (It: Medaglia d'oro al Valore Militare) is Italy’s highest military award and corresponds to America’s Congressional Medal of Honor and the UK’s Victoria Cross. The recipients of the medals (some awarded posthumously) aged 12, 13, 17 & 18 respectively.

Later, a special Gold Medal of Military Valor was awarded: to the people of the City of Naples.

Further reading:
Aubrey Menen: Four Days of Naples; Ballantine Books, New York, 1979
Jordan Lancaster: In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples; pgs. 235-37, I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd. 2005
John Santore: Modern Naples, A Documentary History, 1799-1999; pgs. 232-39, Italica Press, 2001