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Italy '43-44 Part 2

by Kevin

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25 February 2005

Naples. Visit of 13/3/44
First visit for 2 months, owing to Typhus. Town still out of bounds, but go into to see M.O with cracked top denture. After 2 months find Naples has been cleaned up somewhat & on sunny day have better impression of some of the main thoroughfares & sea front. Go to see San Carlo to see La Forza *** Destino. Extraordinary that I should see this Opera in Naples, when I remember the Gigli records of it we bought, & were thrilled with 16yrs ago. Never thought I should see this Opera in Naples!! As expected, it is not a great opera. Do not like it as much as P or C.R or La Boheme or Butterfly etc. but there are some marvellous solos & duets in it. It really needs a Gallic Aria, De Lucca & a Gigli to ‘make it’. The Baritone Suvaresse was very good, the tenor Augusto Ferranto & soprano Meeritza fairly good (1st class, but not wonderful) It is a disjointed, tripey story- 4 Acts & 8 Scenes. The dresses & scenery were as usual at San Carlo, very fine & one peasant crowd scene 50/70 on stage very fine & good chorus singing. The latter applied to church & monk scenes. Would not like to see this opera, unless Gigli or some world star was singing in it. Although tenor has several good solos & duets, surprised Gigli chose this opera for his debut at Covent Garden. Rex Paghinini gives a far greater part. Perhaps he did not wish to have himself compared with Caruso, which I suppose would have been inevitable if he had chosen Pag.
Article in Union Jack 13/3 on Typhus in Naples by Pete Wilson. In the catacombs used as shelters he says 12/20,000 people live in filth, squalor almost indescribable. Not all this poverty due to war. Pre war the slums of Naples were extremely bare & this I can imagine is no exaggeration.

Vesuvius — Night of 18-19 March ‘44
V. was certainly in eruption this night. Very much stronger than ever we have seen before. One could see the summit, just one ball of red hot lava with a wide stream of brilliant red lava running a considerable distance down the side of the Mt. The sky above and all round was brilliant red- grand extraordinary sight.
Vesuvius 21st
Has now been erupting for three days its worse since 1872. Has flowed passed [sic] mark that it made in 1872. Two villages have been evacuated on the slopes. The flow is ¼ mile wide 50-60ft high & flows 300yds an hour. Tonight it was grand sight from our tech. site. Summit ball of red fire & steam 1/3 way down mountain side, brilliant reflection in the sky. We only saw it from the west side.
22/3 Vesuvius Eruption (cont.)
Today I went Dental Sick (to collect repaired top denture) & as D.C is comparatively near V. took opportunity of paying V. a visit. Was very lucky to get a lift in Yankee Jeep, the occupants of which were sight seeing. We went to the village of San Sebastiano, which is on edge of lava stream & half the village is wiped out. Had very good view from top of church tower. Unfortunately the stream was still not flowing. Looking from the church tower one had a scene as follows: A broad (about 1 mile) of black slag, 20/30ft deep, which had flowed about 1-2 miles beyond San Sebastiano. In a few spots one could see just the tops of 3 storey flat dwellings sticking a few feet above the slag & our church tower just a few feet above the slag, the rest of the buildings were just swamped, nothing to be seen of them. San Sebastiano is almost at foot of mountain. All the time V. was rumbling, just like continuous thunder, & spouting out terrific smoke, which billowed & rose to 20,000ft. In eruption V. is comparatively safe whilst gasses can get away in smoke, but if crater is ‘blocked’, the gasses expand & simply blow the top off the mountain & the lava streams down. This is what happened in a small degree (compared to the time it ‘swallowed’ Pompeii) this time. One of our fellows was in hospital at El Greco, the next village below San Sebastiano & at night the sight was very grand- a storm of fire. The ‘Thunder’ there was terrific when V. exploded & some windows were broken with the explosion. In the middle of the night, all were awakened & dressed ready for evacuation. They were afraid the explosions would do damage to the hospital. However, no evacuation took place until 2 or 3 days later after San Sebastiano had been engulfed. One mustn’t imagine that the whole countryside all around is devastated or that it is dangerous all around. The lava flow was about 1 mile wide down the mountain side & when one remembers the circumference round the base of the mountains must be 30/40 miles, I suppose it is of course only one area in danger. The lava was flowing at 300yds per hour, so one had time to get away O.K. Three days after visiting San Sebastiano we have an organised run to see the eruption site. The roads to the engulfed villages were closed, so the trip went along the strada, nearest point on road to V. & to Pompeii. The mt. was emitting terrific black smoke & ashes which the wind blew over a wide area. An area of 2 miles in width & right to coast (6-7 miles) & beyond, in fact ash & dust settled in Capri even. In Pompeii the streets were six inches thick in black dust & ash. Some people walked about with umbrellas up & on our gharry you could hear the small pieces of ash falling like hail. The countryside was covered in ash & dust. All the vines & trees covered in white ash. The Pompeii ruins & even inside Pompeii Cathedral it was covered in ash. Here the altars were covered with cloth to keep them clean. Extraordinary sight. Naturally we were also covered & looked like chimney sweeps. This is in Pompeii too 6-7 miles from Vesuvius.

Facts about Eruption
Lava flow 300yds per hour- reached & passed lowest mark down Mt. since 1874. 26 people killed. Twelve when roof of houses collapsed in Nocera, in Salerno Province. Two children killed in San Sebastiano when an underground cistern, heated by thee passage of lava around it, exploded with sudden burst. About 3,200 people rendered homeless. Angre [?] Authorities arranged evacuation by U.S.A trucks & **** of people from S Sebastiano. Many windows broke in hospital 2/3 miles away. As result of eruption the contour of summit is absolutely altered- Cone gone. All villages & towns here have moved outside its approach. Same in Sicily. Good idea. Should be so in Blighty. Also height of place in metres above sea level.
Most impressed with Roma. Very fine city. Finest & cleanest I’ve seen anywhere, including C>T Slums practically non existent & the few not bad at all. All people were dressed & clean. What a contrast after Naples & its province. No industry. The old & the new blend very well & certainly do not clash at all. There are lots of very fine modern blocks of flats. Many magnificently wide roads & heaps of Piazzas everywhere. Also heaps of wide open spaces & greenery around old ruins. None shut in by buildings. The Tiber is narrow & whitish (chalk) river. Bridges every little way connect each side of the city. Some of the bridges quite good erections. The Coliseum is show piece of old Rome & St. Peters of course of Medieval Rome. The C. is colossal & impressive. Marvellous structure, when one considers when it was built. St. Peters marvellous also. The mosaics wonderful & one statue in particular by M. Angelo very beautiful. Sculpted when 26. No one could believe one so young could have done it. It was signed by him & never again would he sign a piece of sculpture. He always left a small piece in rough, unfinished state- his signature. Went to an audience by Pope. Most interesting. He is carried in, shoulder high on plush gilt chair, preceded by his soldiers & Swiss Guardsmen. Terrific pomp & ceremony. Ridiculous. He spoke a few words of welcome to us in English & then French. He speaks ten languages. He only welcomed us & blessed our loved ones. As usual very non-committal & would offend no nation. Expect he had said each day exactly the same to German troops before our arrival. Was quite applicable to everyone, whatever nationality. As Pope left, most people crowded to side of corridor in centre of room down which he passed, so that he could touch & bless rosaries, bibles & anything people happened to have on them. Extraordinary in a scientific & enlightened age such as ours, that fully grown, intelligent, brave fighting men (not to mention women) should worship a mortal man in this way. All I saw in St. Peters & other churches only confirms my opinion that R.C Church is far removed from the simple spirit of the N.T. Must say, however, there is much of great beauty (very ornamental & decorative of course) in these Churches. The best art of M. Angelo, Bernini etc. etc., was put in them & what marvellous visits!! Spent a few minutes in Cistine Chapel. Popes private Chapel. Behind the altar & ceiling is M. Angelo’s best work- creation of the world, etc. etc. Very, very marvellous. Also on walls eight marvellous masterpieces by Bernini etc... Very wonderful. Visited C of E (All Saints). Quite lovely- simple & such nice contrast from all the Rome highly decorated Churches. Bit of England. Really lots more beautiful than all Rome’s Churches put together, such were my feelings as I knelt & prayed, first time in English Church in 16 months- last was in Alex.
The women were very beautifully dresses in summer frocks. Also very attractive & vivacious & good figures. Such a pleasant change after Naples where most of the females are inclined to be fat. Very impressed with Rome in all ways.
Country from Rome to Vallatri & V. to Grosette is very pleasant. Just like Blighty. Plenty of tree-lined roads, hedges (not as many as in England), rolling country, corn (already harvested in June) & hills & often Mts always in view. Plenty of beautiful wild flowers, especially on our site on Gacta Headland. This little place was very beautiful. From site we had simple picture postcard view of Gacta bay with Mts. Behind. Might have been a Swiss lake. Many of wild flowers are very large, almost as large as cultivated varieties in Blighty e.g. Sweet Pea, scabeus & antiherbenius. Saw one of two fields, marvellous thick carpet of brilliant red poppies, purple geraniums & yellow- very, very beautiful indeed. In field near Grossetto, where we were camped- bags of tiny flies, tiny ones, bite & leave small red marks. Also squeaking of bullfrogs & cockroaches as in C.T & Switzerland. As I write can hear cuckoo- all day- great. I love the country. In Rome get fags for C rations. Impossible to buy. When you ask- no fags in supply, but if one says ‘mangere’, fags are forthcoming. Short of meat & perhaps other foods, however all look well & properly fed. The war has just ‘by passed’ Rome. Extraordinary- not affected- no damage- all services, towns etc. about normal. Short of coal which is to be remedied by August in 3 weeks & then full electricity services, etc. etc.
Visited on day trip 11/9. 80 mile run from S.E from our parking site near Fouciano. Very bumpy ride, lumps of ‘Bailey’ Bridges & diversions owing to Jerry demolition. Very nice country all the way. Very disappointed in Firenze. Narrow streets, some smelly- buildings & Cathedral (marble outside) not at all beautiful. All M. Angelo & other artists’ works either stowed away or barricaded up. Even strips of carving round Campanile. In fact all that, pre war, one went to Florence to see is not on view. Great pity. This was first day Allied troops allowed in Florence. Fairly well organised, film shows, concert, N after city centre. Also milky, muddy, slow flowing river. Ponta Vicchio- supposed picturesque with houses on bridge. Moderately changed. Hardly any damage on north side of the river.
20 miles from parking site. Typical little village or small town right (as many are in N. Italy) on crest of hill. Fairly clean, narrow streets- fairly picturesque! Old walled town. From gardens have immense panorama of large plain below. Quite beautiful. Can see western end of Lake Trasamino. Fellows went along to L.T on way to Perugia. Not very beautiful. There is quite a nice lido & is holiday centre, I believe. Perragia typical I-ti town. Towns in north are somewhat cleaner than Naples province.
Old walled town. We passed round it. Told it is fairly clean, interesting town- modern as well as old. The modern outskirts I saw were clean & well built.
Women attractive & well dressed like in Roma.

Badly damaged- typical town, nothing special.
Using railway as far N. as Arrezzo. Was electric, but they are using junky diesel engines. Saw a couple of long goods trains in action.
In North Sienna, Florence area. Maize cobbs drying everywhere, grapes, tobacco plants, pumpkins, melons. Peasants work very hard indeed- dawn to dusk & girls also. Large communal farms, no separate one family farmhouses.

This is the last entry in the Italian Campaign diary. There were three unwritten, black and white postcards in amongst the documents.
1. Molfetta — Seminario Regionale Pio XI
2. Molfetta — Via Margherita di Savoia
3. Molfetta — Processione Della Madonna dei Maitiri Otto Settembre

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Message 1 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 26 February 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Although the heading states that Mr Gibson was somehow associated with the RAF, there is no mention of what actually he was doing in that part of the world during wartime.
It would be very easy to understand that he went only as an Opera critic and/or a potential travel agent with in depth reviews of the various tourist traps from Pompeii to Florence, and staying closely to the Eastern Coast.
How he can equate the many beautiful Roman Catholic churches all over Italy, with the splendour of the work of the finest craftsmen of their age, to the simple unadorned Anglican Church makes me question his statements that Guiseppi Verdi's "The Force of Destiny" compares badly to Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalerria Rusticana" - Giocomo Puccini's "La Boheme" - "Madam Butterfly" or even Pagliachi, whether La Luca - Scipa - Simonetta or Gigli sang the main roles or not. He obviously never heard Renata Tebaldi or the upcoming Tito Gobbi sing anything, while he was in Rome. Pity his travels never took him all the way to Vienna where he might have heard a very young Elisabeth Schwartzkopf sing German Leider or the more popular Comic Opera, with Christa Ludwig or Irma Koch and Herman Frey. That was singing of the highest order.
To each his own I guess !


Message 2 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 26 February 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I found both parts of interest, although I am puzzled by the initial introductory line "observations and experiences in the Italian Campaign during World War II". So far, at any rate; perhaps there is more to come.


Message 3 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 26 February 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Peter -
exactly my point, while is it of enormous interest to me that he managed to see and hear all those wonderful Operaticsingers...Vesuvious belching forth etc, there was a bit more going on at the time as you well know from your youth in Northern Italy during those years.
Hopefully there will be more which will clarify things as we all had various opportunities of leave in the main centres, for two days usually....Ron Goldstein tried to get into a Florentine Museum recently .... using a 1944 pass ! Now that is cheeky !
The Alexander Club was invariably first call when in Rome for a welcome shower and change and the Char & Wads ! Plus the entertainment offered by less than sober Paras & Commando's in swinging from the main chandalier, until it broke and the para, who was the unfortunate victim, reckoned it would probably his last jump...with broken back I would have to agree with him ! Those and other incidents
were to be beheld... as well as the battles for Montecassino !


Message 4 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 27 February 2005 by Kevin

Mr. Gibson's Service Number is: 1507942- A.C GIBSON, L.W, RAF. So he was not a reporter.

Another diary refers to his experiences in North Africa (Egypt) and other bits of papers related to his journey overseas- Mess Pass, photographic negatives showing K.D Dress, censored telegrams to his wife etc.

I will endevour to get these onto a word document as time allows!

He may not have been at 'The Sharp End' very often, or at all, (and don't forget, the keeping of any diary was forbidden), but he did a valuable job in support.

Diagrams in the diaries lead me to believe he was something to to with Comms, either radio or Radar.

I think that Mr. Gibson was 'educated', and liked Opera. His comparisons with things 'in Blighty' were honestly made, given his up-bringing. I posted this document on the BBCi site (as well as donating the original to the RAF Museum) as a matter of fact. I have no idea of his qualifications to be an opera critic! (It may just be he knew what he liked!) No comment was made as to his (obviously C of E) religious beliefs by me. The document was typed as, far as I could, honestly & accurately.
There is a good source of information available at
digitallibrary.smu.eduAbout links

Thank you for your comments, Kevin.


Message 5 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 27 February 2005 by Kevin

The title is my own, I'm sorry if it misled or confused you!

It seemed to best sum up the scant info that were in them!

There is another diary refering to his experiences in Egypt- Please bear with me as I try to find the time to get them posted!

Please see my reply to the first comment on my article for further details.

Thank you for your comments...



Message 6 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 27 February 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Kevin -
thank you for your clarification(s)as we now see more clearly.

The fact that he was at the Rapido - which was the opening of the battles for Montecassino - even for a short time tells me that he did see something of the action which was all around him and that he did indeed do a job in the support of his comrades.

Both Peter and I - and I am sure he needs no support from me - were puzzled that all he seemed to do was go to the Operas and a lot of sightseeing.

From what you now say is that he did a bit of sightseeing also in Egypt ...

Fine ! I look forward to your next installment.

We do get an increasing amount of weird questions and articles on this site and sometimes we have to dig deep to get the authors to tell the whole story...a case in point is an obvious young person asking what would he find on the sleeve of a British "ground" soldier, between his elbow and wrist - the immediate answer is "notta lot" ! But that cannot be the whole story !

regards - tomcan


Message 7 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 27 February 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


Thanks for the link, very interesting. You will already know, but for others the full collection of photos is here links




Message 8 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 06 March 2005 by Kevin

Tomcan & Peter, Thanks for your reply. I suppose thet Mr Gibson was mindful of the Regs in regard to keeping a diary- Hence the lack of any detail relating to the miltary events which were happening all around that part of the world at that time. It seems to me he wrote of the countryside & what he observed as a private comparison (to perhaps while away the boring times on night duty?) and perhaps never thought a sprog of 40 would get hold of them 60- odd years later and plaster them all over the internet! I have researched the town mentioned as a comparison with the Sorrento/Naples Bay area,(Clovelly) and find it's in Cornwall. It really does appear to have a similar landscape. (That's next years holiday sorted out!)
I am working on the transcript of the 'Egypt Diary' at the moment. It's in much the same vein though, I'm afraid. He has obviously got hold of some info & copied it (re the ancient Egyptians, Aswan etc), but I noted he made comment on the 'Palistinian Question', which is frighteningly relevant even today. Watch this space!
Thanks again for your comments.


Message 9 - Italy 43 & '44

Posted on: 07 March 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Kevin -

unfortunately - the question of Palestine has been with us since 1922
when Lord Balfour - who seemed to be - according to History - an honest man made an agreement which would have ceded some land to Israel for their return 'home' after centuries of wandering - on the understanding that the Arabs would also agree.

unfortunately he was dealing with other men who were not quite as honest as himself, which strikes a current chord !

I look forward to your efforts on this view of the Palestinian Question
I would have thought that the Naples/ Sorrento area was more akin to the Lynmouth area - facing west of course !
tom can

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