It felt as if we had had travelled forward through nearly twenty centuries in barely twenty metres. We had just finished exploring as best we could Ancona’s semi-excavated Roman amphitheatre, but heading back down the hill towards the city centre my eye was caught by a small commemorative plaque high on a section of blank, imposing brick wall with a pair of securely padlocked arched wooden gates set into it. It looked like the buttress of an ancient fort but turned out to be part of a 19th century prison that had been used as an air raid shelter during WW2, and the plaque was in remembrance of those who died there in an allied bombing raid in November 1943. Beneath the plaque was a poster: to mark the anniversary of the raid the shelter was going to be opened for a couple of days of guided tours. The very next day I called the number on the poster to book our places.
A week later, on a wet and windy Sunday morning, we made our way up through maze of streets on the slopes of Monte Guasco that rears up to the south of the city centre, our shoulders hunched against the driving rain blowing in off the grey and restless sea. When we reached the gates that were now flung wide revealing a long, broad tunnel, we were surprised on such a dismal day to see so many people milling around after their visit or waiting for the next one to begin. Having had our booking and our Covid Passes checked, we were directed across the road to a small patch of bare land where a guide was just about to start our tour. As he tried to stop the wind tugging his slightly soggy notes from his hand, he began his talk with some historical context.
From the start of the war until autumn 1943, Ancona had never come under attack, notwithstanding its strategic location, as it lay beyond the range of both UK and US bombers. All that changed, though, as soon as German forces occupied Ancona barely two weeks after Italy signed the armistice with the allied powers on 3rd September 1943, and the Allies’ advance into southern Italy also brought the city into bombing range. However, through either complacency or naivety, the city had built only small numbers of shelters after war had been declared, and planned to rely on little more than peals of church bells to warn inhabitants of imminent aerial attack. Not only did the city appear to think its lack of fascist fervour and its centuries-long tolerance of the Jews would make it less of a target, it seemed unaware of its strategic significance, despite its major port and its position on a major north-south rail line. And even after US 12th Air Force rained down bombs on the railway marshalling yard (as well as many other parts of the city) a month after the occupation began, air-raid warning systems and shelters remained staggeringly inadequate; it was as if with this key target now disabled, the powers that be thought that further attacks would be unlikely.
Our guide ushered us back across the road, through the tall wooden gates and into the chilly gloom beyond. He explained that this grave misconception was shattered only a fortnight later when at just after midday on 1st November some 50 American B-25 Mitchell bombers approached the city from the Adriatic Sea. In two waves, one at 12.16 pm, the other at 12.55 pm, they unleashed a ferocious air attack on the port and shipyard that lay no more than 500 metres down the hill from the prison. Many of the bombs missed their target, however, and four of them hit the L-shaped tunnel in which we were now standing. It had been built between 1940 and 1942 by the prisoners themselves so they and the prison staff, along with local civilians and children from neighbouring schools and an orphanage could find shelter from any air strikes. The structure was no match for 250-to-500-pound cluster bombs, though: one hit the prison entrance, which had originally been located on the still bare piece of land where our tour had begun, two more collapsed the roof of the middle section, trapping all those inside within the rubble, and a fourth hit the school immediately behind the tunnel, cutting off the only remaining escape route and rendering any rescue effort all but impossible. In just 40 devastating minutes, 724 people lost their lives, many of them children.
We tried to take in the tragedy of these numbers as we stood in the musty half-light of the tunnel whose now-restored walls still seemed to echo with the cries of those who had perished there. In sombre silence we pondered the exhibition of grainy black and white images showing the extent of the damage the raid had wrought that lined the walls of the end section of the tunnel. After some minutes, we slowly made our way back along the tunnel and out into the grey November light, and above the wind we heard a nearby church clock strike one o’clock. I can’t think I was the only person it made shiver.
In the aftermath of this horror, all but 4,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants fled the city, which at least meant that there were few casualties in the raids that continued into early 1944 – more than 130 in total. However, by the time Ancona was liberated by the Polish 2nd Corps just eight months later in July 1944, more than two-thirds of the pre-war city lay in ruins, including nearly all its Renaissance-era buildings around the harbour, and over 30,000 of its citizens were left homeless. It took until the start of the 1960s for the city to restore some degree of normality. And we could still see the scars left by those months of bombardments as we made our way back down the hill through the hotchpotch of utilitarian, post-war apartment blocks slotted in between tired but elegant neo-classical palazzi that still characterises the centre of this gritty, resilient and fascinating city today.