The USAAF bombing raids on Palermo in January 1943

Palermo, capital of Sicily, has been shaped by events that changed the course of Europe’s history.

But an impact of an unprecedented kind followed Italy’s declaration of war against Britain and France on 10 June 1940.

Palermo was one of the first targets of French bombing raids at the end of that month. Starting in January 1941, British bombers based in Malta attacked its harbour. Civilian casualties were an inevitable consequence. A raid on 4 February 1942 killed more than a hundred.

Palermo became a target for US Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers operating from bases in French North Africa following operation Torch the previous November.

The first USAAF raid on 7 January 1943 sank the destroyer Bersagliere; many bombs also fell on the city centre, killing 139 civilians.

The air assault intensified as the Allies prepared for Operation Husky on 8/9 July. Palermo was captured by America’s 7th Army on 22 July, but it wasn’t the end of the city’s torment.

The city then became a target for the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe. The last Axis air raid took place on 23 August 1943, six days after the end of land operations in Sicily and 10 days before the Armistice of Cassibile ended the hostilities between Italy and the Allies. This forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw from its bases in southern Italy.

It is estimated that around 40 per cent of Palermo’s pre-war housing stock was lost in 1940-43 leaving 60,000 people homeless in the city centre alone.

Cultural buildings hit by bombs included Palermo’s Cathedral and Royal Palace. A total of 119 historic buildings suffered damage. Eleven were completely destroyed.

Civilian casualties from the air raids amounted to 2,123 dead and several thousand wounded.

Find out more about the Sicily in Second World War at the Sicily 1943: Peace, Security & Prosperity conference in Catania’s Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicilia 1943 on 7-8 July 2023.


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