Operation Gudgeon

'Gudgeon' was a British bombing raid on the northern Italian city of Milan undertaken in daylight to maximise bombing accuracy (?).

Milan was Italy’s second largest city and also the country’s economic and industrial core, and as such was subjected to heavy bombing during World War II.

Up to 1943, Milan could be attacked only by British bombers launched from English bases. The first raids were precision bombings carried out by small numbers of aircraft, largely against industrial targets, and caused insignificant damage and only a few casualties. The first raid took place during the night of 15/16 June 1940, five days after Italy’s entry into the war, and hit a few buildings and killed one person. On the following night, eight aircraft dropped bombs on the Caproni factory, again causing only slight damage.

The bombing was renewed during August 1940. On the night of 13/14 August, three bombers dropped bombs and propaganda leaflets: once more, the target was the Caproni factory, which was not hit, but several other buildings were struck, with 15 persons killed and 44 wounded. On the night of 15/16 August there was another raid, but the Italian anti-aircraft batteries shot down one Vickers Wellington bomber, and induced the others to drop their loads over the towns of Merate and Mariano Comense. On the night of 18/19 August another attack by four aircraft targeted the Innocenti and Caproni factories as well as Linate airfield. On the night of 26 August, 11 aircraft bombed the Idroscalo.

One final bombing, in this instance by three aircraft, was carried out on 18/19 December 1940, targeting the Pirelli factory but instead causing slight damage to a few houses, killing eight persons and wounding 16 more.

No bombings were carried out during 1941 and the first three-quarters of 1942. After Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command adopted area bombing as its primary tactic, and following a series of bombings of German targets during the spring and summer of 1942, in the autumn of 1942 an area bombing campaign was launched against Milan, Turin and Genoa, three of Italy’s most significant industrial areas.

Turin and Genoa suffered seven and six raids respectively, but in this period Milan was the least targeted of the three. Even so, on 24 October 1942 73 Avro Lancaster heavy bombers dropped 135 tons of bombs, including 30,000 incendiaries, over the city, in a rare case of RAF diurnal bombing: the 441 buildings hit included the San Vittore jail, the headquarters of a publishing company, two train stations and the Cimitero Monumentale. Some 171 persons were killed and about 300 wounded. The British lost four Lancaster bombers, only one of them to anti-aircraft fire. Although more than 330 fires were started, the British quickly appreciated that the incendiary bomb was considerably less effective than in previous raids on German cities as Italian cities were built largely of less flammable materials such as brick and stone rather than timber, and also with wider streets, which prevented fires from spreading across them. Milan cathedral was designated as the 'aiming point' for the bombing, although it was not hit during this raid, and the decision drew criticism from Harris’s superior, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, and some members of the British parliament.

Another raid, this time with 71 bombers, was planned for the following night, but poor weather dispersed the formation and only 39 bombers reached Milan: six aircraft were lost, and many others randomly dropped their bombs on several towns and villages of Lombardy, causing little damage. Two persons were killed, and thousands started to flee the city.

Early in 1943 the Italian anti-aircraft defences, which had proved largely ineffective, were joined by German Flak batteries, but the AA guns' successes did not improve significantly.

After a pause of nearly four months, Milan suffered a new area bombing on the night of 14/15 February 1943, when 142 Lancaster aircraft dropped 110 tons of high explosive bombs and 166 tons of incendiary bombs over the city. Several factories were damaged, including those of Alfa Romeo, Caproni, Isotta Fraschini and Breda, and the main railway station and the Farini marshalling yard were also hit. Some residential areas were badly damaged, with 203 houses destroyed, 596 heavily damaged and more than 3,000 slightly damaged; the headquarters of Corriere della Sera newspaper suffered heavy damage. Several historic buildings suffered various extents of damage, including the Royal Palace of Milan, the Teatro Lirico, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, San Giorgio al Palazzo and the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, and it was necessary to call firefighters from neighbouring provinces and even from Bologna. Some 133 people were killed in the attack, 442 were wounded and more than 10,000 were left homeless. Schools had to close, and more people left the city. The only British loss was a single Lancaster shot down.

After this attack, Milan was not bombed for another six months, but at the beginning of August 1943, following the fall of Benito Mussolini, it was decided to start a series of heavy bombings on the main Italian cities, to persuade the new government of Pietro Badoglio to surrender. Thus on the night of 7/8 August 1943, 197 bombers took of from English bases to make simultaneous attacks on Milan, Turin and Genoa. Milan was bombed by 72 aircraft, of which two were shot down by anti-aircraft fire: the aircraft dropped 201 tons of bombs, mostly of the incendiary type. Large parts of the city centre were set ablaze: 600 buildings were destroyed, with 161 dead and 281 wounded among the city’s population. The only factory damaged was that of the Pirelli company, while the headquarters of the Corriere della Sera was hit once more and partly destroyed. Among the public and historic buildings which suffered heavy damage were the Castello Sforzesco, the natural history museum, the Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte and the Palazzo Sormani. Public transport was no longer possible in the city centre, as most of the streets were obstructed by ruins or pocked with craters.

It was on the night of 12/13 August that RAF Bomber Command undertook its heaviest raid on Milan and, indeed, any Italian city, when 504 bombers (321 Lancaster and 183 Handley Page Halifax machines) took of from English bases. Of these heavy bombers, 478 reached Milan and dropped 1,252 tons of bombs: these 670 tons of HE and 582 tons of incendiaries included 245 4,000-lb (1814-kg) 'blockbuster' weapons and 380,000 incendiaries. The bombing caused great fires in many parts of the city, and this drew air from the surrounding area in a flew of air which reached a speed of 31 mph (50 km/h). This event usually presaged a firestorm, which did not, however, materialise as a result of the urban conditions already mentioned, the humid climate and the fact that the raid was heavy but not highly concentrated. Even so, many of Milan’s most famous buildings were hit during the raid: the Castello Sforzesco was further damaged, the city hall and Santa Maria delle Grazie were partly destroyed, and the San Fedele church and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II suffered heavy damage. Milan Cathedral was also hit by some bombs, and the Alfa Romeo factory and the fairground were also damaged. The death toll has been estimated 700 persons, but casualties were not higher because some 900,000 of the city’s normal population of 1.15 million had already departed the city as a result of the earlier attacks. Most of those still in Milan left on 13 August 13. The RAF lost three bombers.

On the night of 14/15 August some of the fires were still raging when another attack was delivered by 134 Lancaster bombers of the forces of 140 despatched. The bombers dropped 415 tons of bombs. Several factories, including those of Breda, Pirelli, Innocenti and Isotta Fraschini, and the Farini marshalling yard were badly hit; the Castello Sforzesco and the royal palace were further damaged, and the Teatro Dal Verme was partly destroyed, as was the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. The Basilica de Sant’Ambrogio also suffered major damage. The few remaining members of the population helped firefighters and the personnel of the Unione Nazionale Protezione Antiaerea (national anti-aircraft protection union) in their attempts to bring the fire under control, but the destruction of the aqueduct pipes hampered the efforts. The official death toll in this raid was of only nine killed, probably reflecting the small number of people still in the city.

On the following night, 186 out of a force 199 Lancaster bombers despatched carried out a final raid, losing seven of their number mostly to German fighters on their return flights. The raid saw the dropping of 601 tons of bombs, and several districts suffered further damage; the cathedral was hit again, the La Scala theatre and the Ospedale Maggiore were heavily damaged, the La Rinascente store was destroyed, and 183 persons lost their lives.

RAF Bomber Command now brought its campaign to an end as it was believed that the desired persuasive effect had been achieved, and further bombings could have instead fuelled anti-British sentiment. The four August raids had caused the deaths of more than 1,000 persons and hit half of the city’s buildings, destroying or heavily damaging 15% of them and leaving more than 250,000 people homeless. A force of 5,000 workers and 1,700 soldiers was needed to clear the ruins. Water, electricity and gas supplies were restored within 48 hours, but the public transport system had been almost totally destroyed.