One of the many facts that I hadn't known about the Second World War is that Catania, because of its strategic position and the importance of its port, was the target of more Allied air raids than any other city in Sicily. No fewer than 87 air raids on Catania were recorded by Italian Supreme Command, as compared with 69 on Palermo and 58 on Messina. Ragusa, for the record, was targeted 27 times. In reality there were probably more raids than this, as it is possible that some were deliberately not noted in the interests of morale.
I learnt this and absorbed much more knowledge that was new to me as I walked, with my friend Carol King, through the Museo dello Sbarco or Allied Landings in Sicily Museum in Catania on Saturday. We had both wanted to visit the museum for some time but had never got around to it and we were pleasantly surprised by how well it is organised, its exhibits and excellent annotation.
As you enter the museum a guide tells you what to expect and about events leading up to the 1943 landings. There is backup on film as there is throughout the museum. The first exhibition area that you enter is a simulation of a Sicilian square of the time and you can see into meticulously recreated houses, offices and shops. Then you are invited into a simulated air-raid shelter, where you can experience a "bombardment", complete with vibrations. It was dark and quite scary! As you emerge from this room, you realise you are again in the square, only now two-thirds of it have been destroyed in the raid.
The museum occupies three floors and some 3,000 square metres of space, so there is a lot to see. There are exhibits of newspapers and the propaganda of the period, a mock-up of a street and rooms with octagonal tables featuring electronic chronicles of the progress of the various armies from day to day.
There is a simulated bunker which you can enter, a reconstructed field hospital tent, and further on there are armaments and exhibitions of the military uniforms of all sides. There are also waxworks of some of the main protagonists of WW2, including Churchill, Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler and King Vittorio Emanuele 111. Towards the end, there is a reconstruction of the tent where the Cassibile Armistice was signed.
Both Carol and I were struck by the newsreel footage of the civilian population and, in particular, how thin so many of the people looked. The museum's excellent guidebook points out that the "liberators" were hailed not so much for any democratic ideals which they might have brought with them but because they symbolised the end of the killing and an end to that older enemy of Sicilians, hunger. Episodes such as the Mafia's alleged role in the landings and the Massacre at Acate [Biscari] are not overlooked.
The very last exhibit is an electronic memorial plaque dedicated to all the soldiers who lost their lives during the landings and ensuing Sicily campaign. One thousand of their names, selected at random, are read out in their own languages. We both had a lump in our throats as we left.
A total of 14,864 soldiers from Italy, Germany, the USA and the Commonwealth lost their lives during the Allied Landings in Sicily.