‘Monuments Men’ at the BSR: Pompeii, Naples and Benevento in the BSR’s Ward-Perkins War Damage Collection’

Nigel Pollard is an associate professor in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University. An archaeologist and historian of the Roman world by training, he was a research fellow at the BSR in 1996-7. Today his research focuses on cultural property protection in conflict zones, both historical and contemporary. He is a founding board member of UK Blue Shield (the ‘Red Cross for heritage’) and has contributed to the development and training of the new UK military Cultural Property Protection Unit.

As many readers with BSR connections will know already, John Ward-Perkins, director of the School from 1945 to 1974, was one of the pioneers of British military cultural property protection in 1943 to 1945. In 1943, Ward-Perkins was serving as a major in a territorial army anti-aircraft regiment commanded by his pre-war archaeological mentor Mortimer Wheeler. As British forces occupied Cyrenaica and Tripolitania after the battle of El-Alamein in late 1942, Wheeler and Ward-Perkins on their own initiative took measures to protect archaeological sites such as Lepcis Magna from damage caused by occupying troops. Eventually, in late 1943, Ward-Perkins was seconded to the newly-established Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Sub-Commission in Italy, the branch of Allied military government established with the aim of limiting damage to art, monuments and cultural institutions, and the real historical prototype of the ‘Monuments Men’ of the George Clooney film. Ward-Perkins remained an officer in the MFAA in Italy until the end of the war, when he took up the directorship. The BSR archives retain a wealth of photographs and documents that Ward-Perkins brought with him, providing valuable evidence for the origins of military cultural property protection.

UK armed forces are currently in the process of re-establishing their cultural property protection (CPP) capability for the first time since 1945 with the establishment of a small Cultural Property Protection Unit of reserve officers with relevant peacetime skills — just like Ward-Perkins — under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Purbrick. The unit’s first training course was held in October 2019 at Southwick House near Portsmouth, in wartime the headquarters from which Eisenhower and other Allied commanders oversaw the D-Day landings in Normandy. Besides UK officers, the course was attended by personnel from other nations, including the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, that provides, in many respects, fine examples of best practice in many of the new UK unit’s intended activities.

I also attended that training course, and contributed a briefing on the new unit’s wartime roots as well as historical case studies of CPP issues. I undertake historical research into wartime CPP with the aim of extracting from that historical experience lessons of value to contemporary protection of cultural heritage. The BSR War Damage Collection has proved a very valuable source of images and documents for my work, along with materials from the UK and US national archives and elsewhere. Some of those images and documents have found their way into my current monograph, Bombing Pompeii: World Heritage and Military Necessity, to be published by the University of Michigan Press in late 2020.

One of the central themes of my book is the extent to which the damage to cultural sites in Campania in 1943 served as a catalyst for improvements in Allied cultural property protection policy and practice in 1944. One of the major deficiencies of the MFAA organisation in 1943 was that its activities were focused on the protection of cultural sites in areas occupied by Allied ground forces. CPP concerns were not integrated into the planning of operations, and certainly not into the planning of air force operations, even though aerial bombardment caused about 90% of wartime damage to cultural sites. Some vivid illustrations of this damage are provided by the BSR War Damage Collection.

Some of the damage, along with civilian casualties, was inflicted by RAF strategic night bombing before the Allied landings in mainland Italy. Pompeii, for example, was hit in error on the night of 24/25 August 1943 by some bombs intended for the steelworks and railway marshalling yards at nearby Torre Annunziata. The damage included the destruction of the on-site Antiquarium near the Porta Marina. An even more serious loss was the near-destruction of the (originally 14th century) church of Santa Chiara in Naples on 4 August 1943. [Image 1]

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Image 1. Naples, S. Chiara, tomb of Robert of Anjou (Courtesy of BSR Photographic Archive, War Damage Collection, wpwar-0033)

A second major phase of damage to cultural heritage in Campania took place in the aftermath of the Salerno landings. On 13 September 1943, German forces began a counter-attack against the beachhead that threatened to drive Allied forces back into the sea. One response to this counter-attack was an intense campaign by Allied air forces to attack routes and infrastructure that were being used to transport German reinforcements and supplies to the battlefront.

One of the most intensively bombed target areas was the cluster of roads, railways and bridges between Torre Annunziata and the town of Pompei that connected Naples and Salerno, struck by both US and British air forces by day and night. It was in this context that most of the damage to the ancient site of Pompeii was done, as the intersection of the autostrada from Naples and the SS18 highway (at that time the main road to Salerno) was an important aiming point for Allied bombers. Given the limitations of bombing at this time, and given that no consideration had been made for the target’s proximity to the archaeological site, it was almost inevitable that some bombs (Italian authorities estimated a total of over 160) would hit the latter. While some civilian accounts at the time (including the memoirs of Amedeo Maiuri, the archaeological superintendent of Campania) suggested that the archaeological site was targeted deliberately because there were German forces stationed on it (or at least that the Allies thought there were German forces there), contemporary Allied air forces documentation shows the site was never targeted deliberately and the damage was accidental.

As an example, this photograph from the US National Archives (with my annotations) shows an attack by US bombers against that transportation infrastructure on 20 September 1943. Bombs have largely missed the stated target and overshot onto the archaeological site. As on other days, most of the damage was concentrated in the Porta Marina — Forum area of the site, but some damage was more scattered. In this case there is at least one bomb-strike in the immediate vicinity of the House of the Faun (VI.12.2), probably the strike that caused the substantial damage to that house that was characterised in immediately post-war Allied reports as ‘the most unfortunate individual loss’ at Pompeii.

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Image courtesy of US National Archives with Author’s annotations

Another structure at Pompeii that was severely damaged by bombing was the House of M. Epidius Rufus (IX.1.20), and the damage caused by a bomb strike in the atrium is here documented in one of the photographs from the Ward-Perkins War Damage Collection (image 2):

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Image 2. Pompei, House of Epidius Rufus (Courtesy of BSR Photographic Archive, War Damage Collection, wpwar-0056)

The damage, like that to the House of the Faun, was repaired quite quickly, as shown in these 2018 photographs. The tile course in the second photograph marks the delineation between the pre–1943 structure and (above the tiles) the post–1943 reconstruction.

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Image 3. Photograph by Nigel Pollard

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Image 4. Photograph by Nigel Pollard

The places worst hit by the bombing directed against the German Salerno counter-attack were the towns of Battipaglia and Eboli, close to the Allied beachhead, where the targets were German troop concentrations. However Benevento, a crucial node on the alternative inland road and rail route from Naples to Salerno, whose position was in many respects analogous to Torre-Annunziata Pompei, also suffered severely. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed and, in the words of a contemporary Allied report ‘the lower town between the DUOMO and the PONTE VANVITELLI has been obliterated’, and is ‘a mass of ruins’. This image from the Ward-Perkins War Damage Collection (Image 5) records the damage to the cathedral at Benevento:

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 Image 5. Benevento, Cathedral (Courtesy of BSR Photographic Archive, War Damage Collection, wpwar-0058)

At the time of all this destruction, the MFAA organisation already existed, and American academics of the Roberts Commission had drawn up lists of cultural property throughout Italy that were intended for military use in efforts to mitigate damage. Those lists included the archaeological site of Pompeii (a three-star monument, the highest category in a ranking system from three stars to zero stars but still important enough to be listed), Santa Chiara (two-star), and the cathedral at Benevento (two-star). However, the lack of liaison between the MFAA and Allied air forces meant that this ‘cultural intelligence’ went unregarded.

The destruction of cultural heritage in Campania caused great concern in London and elsewhere. The specific examples of Pompeii, Santa Chiara and Benevento were cited in lobbying efforts by, among others, Mortimer Wheeler, who had commanded a brigade at Salerno and seen the damage at Pompeii and in Naples at first-hand before returning to London, while Ward-Perkins stayed in Italy after his transfer to MFAA. This lobbying bore some fruit from spring 1944, in that cultural property protection became a factor in the planning of Allied air operations. For example, Mediterranean Allied Air Forces produced an atlas of ‘cultural intelligence’ — aerial photographs of Italian cities with heritage sites marked on them for use in planning operations. But even as Allied air forces advertised success in avoiding damage to cultural sites in attacks against rail targets in Florence in 1944 and against shipping in Venice harbour in 1945, bombing continued to damage other cultural sites. A key part of the problem was the inherent inaccuracy of bombing using 1940s technology and tactics.

One important change between 1943 and the present day is that bombing has become (potentially, at least) more accurate, with the use of precision-guided weapons by many air forces. One thing that has not changed, however, is the need for ‘cultural intelligence’ to advertise the locations of cultural sites that need to be considered in the targeting process. The Ward-Perkins collections at the BSR provide excellent evidence for the early days of such ‘cultural intelligence’.

Nigel Pollard (Research Fellow at the BSR in 1996-7)