The Bombing of Castel Gandolfo and the Quest for Reparation

Author: Johan Ickx

The Bombing of Castel Gandolfo and the Quest for Reparation

Johan Ickx

Myron C. Taylor, Personal Representative of the President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Holy See from 1939, published the correspondence between the President and Pope Pius XII during World War II in 1947. Among these letters there was one dated so July 1943 — 70 years ago — announcing the Allied landing and the American and British military operations on Italian soil. In August 1943 Taylor received from Harold Tittmann, Chargé d'Affaires and his assistant, at the request of the Holy See a detailed description of the Castel Gandolfo estate so that the papal residence might be avoided during the bombing. At the same time the President assured the Holy Father that the neutral status of Vatican City and of Papal domains in Italy would be respected.

Harold H. Tittmann III, son of Harold Tittmann, noted in his memoirs: " father's dealings with the Vatican authorities during the first five months of 1944 were almost exclusively related to Allied air activity, as the Holy See tried desperately to persuade the British and American governments to spare the Vatican, Rome, and papal property elsewhere in Italy" (cf. Inside the Vatican of Pius XII, p. 199).

The President's guarantees, it seems, were not enough: the Pontifical Villa in Castel Gandolfo was near the front where the Germans were deployed in the Alban Hills. The Allies meanwhile had landed in Anzio in an attempt to bypass the Gustav Line. Two buildings in the papal residence were accidentally hit. The Villa, like a gigantic Noah's Ark, at that time was home to 15,000 displaced people. It was hit four times: on 2 and 10 February, 31 May and 4 June 1944 and hundreds of people were killed. The Propaganda Fide Villa, also a shelter for refugees, evacuees, political refugees and Jewish families, was attacked from the air as well on 2, 7 and 10 February 1944. This caused the death of more than 500 people and the building was destroyed, according to the report of Emilio Bonomelli, then Director of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo (cf. Cronache di Guerra nelle Ville Pontificie di Castel Gandolfo, Marino 2009). The Americans claimed that the attack was due to the fact that papal territory was "bristling with Germans". Reality was otherwise: the Holy See was well aware that Field Marshall Kesselring had prohibited the use of Castel Gandolfo and the area around it for war purposes. The situation was similar to the bombing of the Basilica of San Lorenzo al Verano and of the adjacent neighbourhood, and of Monte Cassino Archabbey. The story of San Lorenzo, celebrating its 70th anniversary, was recently honoured by Pope Francis. The bombing inexplicable from a strategic viewpoint caused consternation among the population and international observers, with the risk of jeopardizing British-American military intervention.

Various documents preserved in the Bureau of European Affairs of the Office of Italian Affairs which can be consulted at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park: "Record Group 59, Lot 68D436, Box 7: Italy Ecumenical Council 1964 24.9 Vatican file, Vatican relations with U.S. 1940-1956" allow us to reconstruct, though to a limited extent, the issue of compensation for the damage done during the bombing. On the website ( it is possible to consult the Archival Records Catalogue (ARC) with the internal search engine.

After the war the Holy See, represented by the Governor of Vatican City, did not fail to protest, indicating the damage, and applied for compensation in 1948. Similar cases occurred in other neutral States including Portugal and Switzerland. The United States recognized a sum corresponding to the estimated value at the time of payment for compensation. However, the Holy See received different treatment. The cited documents in Washington show that the necessary negotiation was prolonged before reaching a conclusion and required constant supervision by Vatican diplomacy.

According to Gordon Gray, U.S. Defense Secretary, since the damaged properties in Castel Gandolfo were in Italy — a nation with which the United States was at war — in 1949 he rejected the claim for compensation presented by the Holy See. For Secretary Gray the Holy See's request depended, at least partially, on the Lateran Pacts which recognized the immunity of papal properties, equal to the status accorded to embassies. Nevertheless, since the properties were not located in neutral territory, they were not subject to special violation: the military incidents did not in any way violate the sovereignty of a neutral State.

After that negative response in 27 October 1949, there were three other interventions by the Apostolic Delegate in Washington (the Nunciature was set up in 1984), respectively on 18 June 1951, 9 June 1953 and 30 March 1954. One after another, each was firmly rejected by the U.S. State Department: "In the Department's view, this Government is not legally responsible for accidental and incidental damage, in the course of combat operations against legitimate military objectives, to the diplomatic mission of a neutral state on belligerent territory, but is legally responsible for accidental and incidental damage inflicted on the territory of a neutral state". These American notes attentively reviewed the juridical status of the bombed territories. Furthermore, the issue of juridical status had already been raised at an international level by the press during and for a short time after the wartime events of 1944. Should the Holy See and its States in Italy have obtained neutrality like Switzerland? Or should it have corresponded to the recognized juridical status of the International Red Cross? The study of various lawsuits in Italy (such as Trenta v. Ragonesi, a sentence in 1935 which interprets paragraph n. 15 of the Lateran Pacts), underlined that American officials were initially of the opinion that the indemnity for damage of the Holy See should not even be considered, since the land accidentally bombed enjoyed extraterritorial status. That is to say, it was in Italian territory and thus in "enemy" territory. Therefore, the Holy See should have been satisfied with the compensation relevant only to the diplomatic immunity of Embassies, Nunciatures and Legations (Apostolic Delegations).

Pope Pius XII expressed his indignation at this decision in June 1954 during an audience granted to Ambassador Taylor. He convinced the American administration to review the issue and resolve it. On 8 February 1956, the Undersecretary of State Robert D. Murphy and Apostolic Delegate Msgr Amleto Cicognani met and agreed to accept the estimate made by the American military, which amounted to 96,419,935 lire; instead of the Holy See's proposal: 190,956,998. In the end the exchange rate of 1945 was applied instead of that of 1956, allocating a considerable sum: U.S. $964,199.35. The sum proposed by Congress, approved with the law H.R. 10766, ratified the payment of compensation "as an act of grace independent of the question of the legal liability to pay".

This brief summary — compiled on the basis of partial documentation from the office of the U. S. State Department alone and from previously published memoirs — offers the context for reflection from which a broader and more articulate evaluation can be made and be corroborated and enriched by documents in the various archives of the Holy See.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 September 2013, page 12

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