I Was There! - Catania Was a City of Chaos and Desolation

The War Illustrated, Volume 7, No. 162, Page 220, September 3, 1943.

Both before and after the Germans fled from Catania astonishing scenes were witnessed in the city. As this front-line Sicilian pen-picture (dated August 6, 1943) by a Special Correspondent of The Daily Telegraph reveals, chaos reigned supreme. Not until some time after the entry of our troops on August 5 was order fully restored.

Catania has all the air of a town that has been frozen into immobility. Of all the conquered towns I have seen there has been none where the machinery of civic life has so completely come to a standstill. There were no signs of any shop or hotel being open. It was a complete contrast to Tripoli, where within five hours of the arrival of the first British troops British officers were booking bedrooms and being served lunch bu white-coated waiters in restaurants.

But Catania is a city of desolation. Of its 250,000 population only 50,000 still remained when we arrived, and of these 30,000 habitually slept in air-raid shelters. Such has been the effect of our bombing – far severer than one had anticipated. This remnant population had been living a hand-to-mouth existence.

The departure of the last of the enemy troops signalized the breakdown of all semblance of order in Catania and the looting of shops began. It was worst in the Via Vittore Emanuele, immediately bordering on the central square, the Piazzo del Duomo.

Here the population had broken into the shops. Standing on a balcony outside the first-floor windows I saw men throwing down bale after bale to the populace below. There were women carrying armfuls of silk stockings and their drab working-class clothes – only the poorest were left in Catania – were in sharp contrast to the newly-acquired gay silk scarves they wore around their heads or shoulders.

I had a long talk yesterday morning with the Mayor of Catania, the Marquis di San Giuliano, immediately after the formal surrender of the town. Troops made a peaceful advance into the place. There was no street fighting, despite reports to the contrary. The Mayor is a nephew of the Marquis di San Giuliano, formerly Ambassador to Britain, who as Foreign Secretary under Signor Salandra in 1914 was largely responsible for holding back Italy from entering the war on the side of Germany.

The Mayor had received many insults from Germans during their occupation of Catania. On one occasion his car had been stopped in the street and he had been covered with a machine-gun while the contents of his car was looted by German soldiers. On another occasion a number of German officers entered his house at 4 a.m. and insisted on billeting themselves there. As there were not enough beds for all they turned out three women relatives of the Mayor.

Finally, that very morning, as he drove into the town from his villa on the northern side of Catania, the Mayor was held up by German soldiers, who turned him out of his car, telling him that it was wanted for carrying the ammunition to a battery near by. He had to walk into town.

“Fortunately”, he added, “it was only a few minutes before I met an officer commanding your advance troops, and I think I was able to give him some useful information about the location of that battery”.

This deterioration in the conduct of German soldiers towards the civilians of a technically allied country has become very marked in recent months, particurlarly since the end of the Tunisian campaign. But the change in their behaviour towards civilians seems to have gone hand-in-hand with their realization that the war could no longer be won.

“When the Luftwaffe first came to Sicily early in 1941”, said the Mayor, “they were a cheerful, laughing, jolly people. They enjoyed listening to the radio, which always recounted fresh German victories. The date they gave us then for the end of the war was July 1941.”

“Then came the Russian campaign, and presently the Germans began to admit that they had miscalculated the strength of Russia. But they were still convinced of victory. Tunisia was the real shock. They had told me that they would keep their foothold in Africa. They were dumbfounded at the completeness of their defeat.”

“After that their attitude was quite different. You never heard any more laughing and joking, and they did not seem to listen to the radio so much. Then they began to blame us Italians because the war was coming to Sicily.”

During the last days of occupation the Germans unashamedly began looting. There was little food available by this time, so they carried off furniture, beds, blankets, sheets, pictures, knives, forks and household utensils.

As may be expected, tension between the Italians and Germans has become very marked. In another day or two fighting would probably have broken out between them in the streets of Catania. In the neighbouring village of Mascalucia the population forcibly opposed an attempt by German troops to requisition their mules. Several civilians were shot in resisting before Italian carabinieri arrived and drove off their allies.

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