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Bombing Pompeii: World Heritage and Military Necessity

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Bombing Pompeii: World Heritage and Military Necessity

By Nigel Pollard. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2020. Pp. 340. $54.95. ISBN 978-0-472-13220-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In the second sentence of the acknowledgments to Pollard’s volume, the author makes a surprising admission: “Long ago I swore I would never undertake research related to Pompeii” (xi). Although an odd beginning given the book’s title, to his credit Pollard has largely kept his word. This work is not concerned with the archaeological impact of dropping more than 160 bombs on the ancient city but rather with the place of those events within the history of cultural property protection during the Second World War. That distinction should inform, but not deter anyone interested primarily in the ancient city from coming to grips with this fascinating, if difficult, chapter in Pompeii’s history. 

The volume is divided into three sections of unequal size. Part 1, which takes up the first half of the book, describes the events of Pompeii’s bombing (ch. 1), the context of the bombing missions (chs. 2, 3), military tactics and their rationales (chs. 4, 5), and the contemporary ideas about why the bombing took place (ch. 6). Within these chapters, Pollard builds the case that Pompeii’s bombing was accidental, that it was an unintended consequence of military necessities, and that even if the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives organization (MFAA, commonly called the “Monuments Men”) had be consulted in advance of the bombing missions, the damage to Pompeii still would likely have been unavoidable. Chapter 6 is especially intriguing, as Pollard weaves together the evolving narratives (and their propagandistic values) understood at the time for why the Allies bombed the area, and who was believed to be at fault. 

These first chapters are replete with the detailed, acronym-laden evidence Pollard needs to make his case, but there are also harrowing scenes of war that remind the reader of the stakes of August and September 1943. One feels as much as one understands the urgency to bomb the roadways and rail lines surrounding Pompeii in order to stop a German counterattack on the Salerno beachhead, where the battle was so closely fought that artillery were leveled directly at the enemy. Other scenes are truly cinematic, such as the image of Amedeo Maiuri, the doyen of 20th-century archaeology at Pompeii, riding his bicycle through Torre Annunziata amid “piles of rubble, dead horses, smashed doors,” the town made “unrecognisable amidst the heaps of stone and the tangle of electrical wires” (76). Before reaching Torre del Greco, however, Maiuri was shot in the foot, most likely by strafing machine-gun fire.

The second half of the book places the bombing of Pompeii in the larger context of damage to cultural heritage during armed conflict. Part 2 begins by tracing the development of the British (ch. 7) and American (ch. 8) initiatives to protect cultural property during the war, then expands to examine the lessons learned at Pompeii (ch. 9) and the mitigated success of their implementation in Italy (ch. 10). Part 3 brings the history back to the ground by discussing the problems of heritage management in occupied territories, specifically at Naples (chs. 11, 13) and at the Museo Nazionale di Napoli, in particular (ch. 12). Like the first half of the book, the more technical discussions and arguments about the developments of cultural property protection are enlivened for the reader by the appearance of famous 20th-century archaeologists, including Leonard Woolley, John Ward-Perkins, Mortimer Wheeler, William Dinsmoor, Gisela Richter, Doro Levi, and Marion Blake. Wheeler is an especially fascinating character in these chapters. Forceful and “aggressively male” (111), he presents as an uncompromising scholar, speaking cultural truth to military power. At the same time, the quality of that truth (which was written, like Maiuri’s accounts, years after the events), was not always unimpeachable. 

Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is in this section of the book (chs. 7–9) that biases become apparent: those of the sources, the author, and his honest readers. This reviewer, who in the late 1990s was a student on the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii where the question of who bombed Pompeii—the British or the Americans—was a matter of some contention, found it a struggle to disentangle a slight pro-British bias in the book from his own pro-American equivalent in reading it. The reader should consider my biases as I claim that there is an important subtext running through part 2, one that seeks (perhaps correctly) to counter a narrative in which an undue amount of blame is placed on British forces for Pompeii’s bombing. That blame can be seen as implicit in the Italian (53) and explicit in the American sources (145–47) cited. The unacknowledged (and perhaps unintentional) counterargument is made first in the organization of the materials, which confines the British sphere of interest and responsibility for cultural property to occupied territories (ch. 7) and then downplays the value of maps of cultural property in Italy made by the American civilian authorities, the origins of which are said to be in the particularly American ideological construction of “Western Civilization” (ch. 8). 

These parallel discussions combine in chapter 9, in which the failure to even discuss the proximity of Pompeii to bombing targets is identified in beliefs about “the accuracy of bombing at the time, including a degree of British (military) realism about what could (or rather, could not) be achieved, and American (civilian) naivety about the accuracy of so-called ‘precision’ bombing” (141). It is here that the arguments seem to escape their equal application, as American assertions of precision bombing are ascribed to “a widespread naivety” (146), while an equivalent example of British opinion is embargoed for “successful” bombing missions (159). Contradiction seems inescapable when American naivety is also convincingly shown to have been a “carefully managed fiction” (143). These antithetical explanations become revelatory in the context of earlier assertions that British propaganda about North African cultural property was “pragmatic rather than moral or philosophical” for having its source in “practical archaeologists” on the ground (134). Although I find it easier to believe that American propagandists were blinded by their own rhetoric than to believe that British archaeologists were immune to the ideological structures of the world’s largest colonial empire, I find it better to believe that neither was true.

What really stands out about part 2 of the book is how much it differs from what comes before (and after). This section seems needlessly to pursue essentializing national distinctions in explaining why cultural property was not considered in aerial bombardment in 1943. American and British audiences therefore will likely read these chapters differently, but so, too, will Italians and others. Since part 1 admirably demonstrates that bombing Pompeii was both accidental, unavoidable, and justifiable, measuring levels of blame among the Allied forces serves only to fight the last war. Moreover, it produces some perverse rubrics for measuring responsibility and judging the value of trying, such that naively making imperfect maps is worse than being clear-eyed in a fatalistic belief that little can be done. This framework also undermines the culmination of part 2, making the success of late bombing missions over Venice (159–60) appear almost as accidental as the failures that led to the bombing of Pompeii. Readers should be aware of these apparent undercurrents, but not discouraged by them, as there is much to learn here from Pollard despite anyone’s biases.

Finally, I include a few remarks on formats. The print volume is very stylish and well produced, free of typographical errors, and reasonably priced. Compared to the digital version, however, the most informative and compelling images—those showing the plumes of bomb strikes at Pompeii—do not have the resolution needed to reward magnified attention. On the other hand, I was surprised by how poor the text transcript of the digital version is; there was at least one typo in every copy-and-paste operation I made. Clicking on notes (in Adobe Digital Editions at least) only opens an error page in a browser. This may seem only a minor irritation, but to accommodate Pollard’s endless energy for examining the many primary sources, the book’s endnotes comprise 56 small-font, single-spaced pages, which in word count approaches the length of the narrative (217 pages). Such technological failures only amplify the separation of narrative and note inherent in the endnote format. It is possible to overcome these issues by having both a digital and a physical copy, but most readers likely will not indulge that luxury.

In the end, however, none of these observations should detract from Pollard’s excellent scholarship. Bombing Pompeii makes its largest contributions to discussions far beyond ancient Pompeii, but nonetheless will find itself well placed among a growing collection of books on Pompeii’s impact in the modern world. 

Eric Poehler
Department of Classics
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Book Review of Bombing Pompeii: World Heritage and Military Necessity, by Nigel Pollard
Reviewed by Eric Poehler
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Poehler

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