Friday, 22 June 2018

Bombardments on Lake Maggiore: commonly unknown history

A commonly unknown chapter of the final phase of the Second World War in the Insubrica region is related to the bombardment of two hamlets and the sinking of three ships in two days. And all of this happened precisely on Monday, 25 September 1944, and the next day on Tuesday, 26 September, between Luino and Baveno-Intra in Italy.

In order to efficiently understand the dynamics of the events, it is necessary to see the bigger picture of what was happening:

At the beginning of September 1944, the Allied military forces advanced rapidly in the Italian peninsula. The North of Italy (the area adjacent to Lake Maggiore) was occupied by the German military forces and was politically administered by the Neo-Fascist government called "la Repubblica Sociale Italiana" (RSI). An increased aerial activity was observed over Lake Maggiore, precisely in the regions of Ossola and Mottarone. This activity was mostly associated with allied transport airplanes that were used for intelligence missions in order to help the guerrilla movements fighting against Germans and Fascists.

The combat missions took place predominately in the dead of night. The military pilots, who helped the partisans, had Polish nationality. They departed usually from Brindisi, Southern Italy, heading towards the North. Their flying course was over the Adriatic See situated between Italy and the Balkans. Once, they used to reach Trieste, they turned to the west, taking 270' degrees course, over the Italian alps. As a matter of fact, this indirect path allowed them to avoid the German and Fascist anti-aerial artillery. And at the end of September 1944, the allied forces occupied the town of Pisa, so fighter storms began to operate with superior potential despite the limited autonomy of the airplanes like Spitfires.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the results of two bombardment days in September 1944 on Lake Maggiore will be seen in detail below. These days created an unprecedented panic wave among the civil population, especially in Luino, Baveno and Intra-Verbania in Italy. The civil population in Baveno and Intra was terrified the next days after the air strikes, being afraid of all aviation related activities.

Bombardment of Fondotoce on 25 September 1944 at 15:10 in the afternoon:
The fighter storm composed of six Spitfire airplanes arrived from the South, across the lake, in Verbania-Fondotoce. Two aircrafts bombed a house in Fondotoce. To date, it has been impossible to ascertain with confidence which house was touched.

Bombardment of Intra-Alta on 25 September 1944 at 15:10 in the afternoon:
Four airplanes attacked Fondotoce, bombing in this case a large civilian workers' house called "il Cassinone" in the region of Intra-Alta. The bombardment of the house caused the death of 9 civilians (according to other sources 11 civilians were killed) and several civilians were wounded. 

Air strike of Baveno and sinking of the boat "Genova" on 25 September 1944 at 15:30 in the afternoon:
The locality of Baveno was attacked with six military airplanes. The air attack resulted in the sinking of the boat called "Genova" that carried apparently only civilians: 34 passengers were killed. The boat "Genova" was builded in 1912 by Bacigalupo, and it was 43.3 meters long. Like similar ships "Milano" and "Torino", it could transport 500 persons on board. The boat sank near the lakeshore. To date, it is unclear if the wrecks have been still laying on the lake floor, or if they have been scrapped after the war. No official documents have been released concerning this matter. 

Air attack of Luino and sinking of the boat "Torino" on 25 September 1944 at 16:00 in the afternoon:
The aerial intervention on Lake Maggiore on Monday, 25 September, culminated with the sinking of the second boat called "Torino" which went down in the port of Luino.

Air attack of Intra and sinking of the boat "Milano" on 26 September 1944 at 9:30 in the morning:
In the the morning, on Tuesday, 26 September 1944, ignoring the precedent air attacks, the battalion commander, Major Giovanni Ledo (1907 - n.a.), of the Fascist unit "Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana" (GNR) of the stormtroopers "Venezia Giulia", decided to sail from Laveno to Intra. He ordered to load ammunition and other military goods on board of the ship "Milano". The board carried also 40 soldiers and 30 civilians. Once the board was in the middle of the lake sailing to its destination, it was attacked by fighter aircrafts. Officially 12 civilians and 14 soldiers were reported killed, but most likely, there was a greater number of victims. As a matter of fact, historians have been debating on the subject. Major Ledo survived but was heavily wounded and did not return to his post.

Air attack of Intra on 26 September 1944 at 10:00 in the morning:
Following the sinking of the third boat called "Milano", the aircrafts persisted their activity on the lakefront and at the port of Intra, albeit without dreadful consequences. 

Even to date, there are blindspots concerning these events: 
  • It is not clear which aircraft type was involved in the actions. 
  • On 26 September 1944, later in the night, there were two spy missions (Mangosteen and Chrysler) in the regions of Mottarone-Coiromonte, only 5km away from Intra. It is likely that the bombardments created the premises for their successful launch.
  • The precise number of victims, particularly those on the boat "Milano", is still unclear even after more than 70 years. The events related to the sunk boards "Genova" and "Milano" have been still commemorated in Italy, albeit only by the organisations of the right political spectrum.
  • The newspapers of the Canton Ticino like "Popolo e Libertà" and "Libera Stampa" reported with confidence in 1944 that the aircrafts departed from the airfield of Domodossola and were directly involved with the partisan operations (eg. "Popolo e Libertà", edition Friday 29 September 1944, article: "La Divisione Piave libera Cannobio").
The boat "Milano" has been finally found by the team of international divers, among them there was a Dutch professional diver, Pim van der Horst.


The boat was located at the depth about 236 meters underground. The highly complex immersion required the team composed of 40 divers and the helicopter surveillance. It was authenticated by the South African Nuno Gomes (world depth record holder) and included in the "World Guinness Book of Records".  

The wrecks of the board "Torino" were found in 1945 as the ship had sunk in the shallow water. The engine was replaced, and the boat was transformed into a motor vessel; its superstructures were completely rebuilt.  Some necessary uplifting was done in 1969 that gave to the board its current appearance, which made it look similar to the other 50-year-old motorboats, albeit with a slimmer hull. The vessel has been still today in the use on Lake Maggiore.

Visits:
  • The boat Torino has been still sailing today on Lake Maggiore.
  • The victims of the sunk boats "Genova" and "Milano" are still officially remembered in Northern Italy. Every year, there is a ceremony that commemorates the victims.