Italy Bombs Tel Aviv

All Israel’s terrorist attacks since the 1920s, all the bomb attacks of two intifadas and all the rocket attacks of two Gulf Wars, never afflicted more casualties than the Italian bombing raid of Tel Aviv on 9 September 1940. This was one of almost 30 air raids Italy, Germany, and Vichy France mounted against Eretz Yisroel.
Chaifa Blitz
Unlike World War I, Eretz Yisroel endured no land battles during World War 2. It even prospered as England turned it into an important economic and logistical center and industry flourished to supply the myriad needs of the massive war. On the other hand, the country’s first ever air raids caused bloodshed and damage in Chaifa and Tel Aviv.
The story began in the late 1930s as the Italians began building airbases on the Dodecanese islands near Greece, the only Italian territory within striking range of Eretz Yisroel.
Major targets of the Italian Air Force were a British naval base and the oil tanks and refineries of Chaifa. These served as a major sea terminal of Iraq Petroleum Company’s pipeline pouring out the lifeblood essential to power Allied tanks and planes. Other targets included Alexandria, Port Said and Beirut.
Chaifa suffered its first air raid on July 15 1940 when five planes reached the city after a two hour flight, set fire to three oil tanks and knocked out the city’s power supply. Chaifa was still burning two days later. Radio Bari announced to Arab listeners that “the heroic Arabs of Palestine could for the first time have proof of the strength of their great friend Italy, which has started to show the British that their undoing also in Palestine will not be late in coming.”
A second raid on July 24 killed over fifty Jews and Arabs. Two more raids in August did little damage and in general, the air offensive was described as “singularly ineffective.” By the time Italian bombers returned in June 1941, the Chaifa populace felt much in common with Londoners who’d been reeling from the Nazi Blitz until May that year.
“Haifa can take it, too,” the Palestine Post boasted after the June 1941 raids.
“’That Haifa can take it’ was well demonstrated by both the defenders and the population during and after last night’s heavy raid, the second within 48 hours, when the town and its surroundings remained practically undamaged,” the paper reported. “Everyone took pride in turning up punctually at work, although most had spent the greater part of the night in the shelters, and awake.”
“There was again a deafening rumble of exploding bombs and bursting anti-aircraft fire, as wave after wave of the enemy’s bombers dived through the low clouds to release their loads of heavy explosives,” the article added.
“It was almost incredible to find that the town had not suffered after having been shaken by fire for three hours, but soon after the All Clear went at daybreak, shelterers were able to convince themselves of this welcome fact.”
The article didn’t forget to mention that “the population reacted very calmly… and is doing its best to emulate the coolness and the ‘take-it-easy-touch’ of the Londoners.”
During raids against Tel Aviv and Chaifa in September, Italian planes dropped leaflets for Arabs that boasted of Italian conquests and advances towards Egypt and Kenya and ended with a promise that “You will recover ownership and freedom of your land with Italian assistance.”
From his exile in Baghdad, Haj Amin al-Husseini, former Grand Mufti of Yerushalayim was ousted by the British for leading the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, congratulated the Italians for the bombing of Tel Aviv and promised to create disturbances in Palestine if the Italians gave him money and a guarantee of Italian independence. However, despite Italian attempts to rouse the Arabs, there was little anti-British activity in Eretz Yisroel during the war.
Israel’s Greatest Civilian Slaughter
Meanwhile, the people of Eretz Yisroel prepared defenses and life went on.
“Urged along by a calm, relentless, invisible power, life goes on. Its hurrying stream, endless and evanescent, seems perfectly normal. Should a man from Mars appear (and succeed in escaping the vigilance of the anti-parachutists) it might take him some time to find the emotion beneath the surface,” a Tel Aviv writer wrote in the weekly Palestine Review. “Drawn features would first betray the feelings of the people about him. Then he would note the piles of sandbags and burrowings of workmen in basements and trenches. Finally at night he would find the country reduced to utter darkness. By then he would know that Palestine is a land ready to meet the worst, should it come.”
The worst hit Tel Aviv at 4:58 p.m. on 9 September 1940 when Italian Air Chief De Vecchi reported that his planes had bombed installations and warehouses at the Yaffo port. This was far from true. In reality, six threeengine wooden Cant Z 1007 bombers had dropped nearly four tons of bombs into the heart of residential Tel Aviv.
“A block of wooden huts was burned down when two bombs fell among them,” The Palestine Post reported. “In one street alone, 15 people lost their lives. Of two bombs falling together, one wrecked the wall of a synagogue where four people were killed, while the other crashed through two stories of a building.”
In later years, Tel Aviv resident Yehuda Lapidot described his experience of the raid during his teenage years.
“Strict blackout was imposed on all towns and settlements, and civil defense measures were adopted against the air raids,” he wrote. “These measures proved useless, however, when Tel Aviv was bombed in full daylight. I was playing with friends near home when we suddenly heard loud explosions. Before we could grasp what was happening, the Italian planes were on their way back to base. The entire bombardment had lasted only a few seconds, catching us unaware and leaving us no time to get to the shelter in the center of the neighborhood.
“From conversations around us, we understood that many people had been injured. I immediately ran home to report that I was safe and then went to see what had happened. The Nordiya quarter (where the Dizengoff Center now stands) had been heavily hit; the huts were in ruins, and among the debris lay the dead and injured. Here and there a fire had broken out. Damaged cars and wagons blocked the road itself… I gazed at the horror around me. Of what strategic importance could this residential area have been?
“A mass funeral was held for the 107 men and women who had died in the bombardment. The funeral procession left from the Balfour school and I still recall the coffins lying in rows on the trucks en route to the Nahlat Yitzhak cemetery. The lesson learned from this terrible raid was that our early-warning systems had to be improved to enable us to take shelter in good time.”
The official paper of the Tel Aviv municipality, Yediot Iriat Tel Aviv, published a message the Tel Aviv mayor Yisroel Rokach sent to President Roosevelt and the American people, apparently to persuade them to drop its neutrality and join the fight against the Nazis. America only joined the war after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7 1941.
“As mayor of an open city that serves no military function, the town of work and peace, Tel Aviv, I turn to the conscience of the residents of free America and protest against the lowly attack our town suffered today at the hands of aviators of Italy-Germany,” the mayor wrote. “Many quiet citizens – including children, women, and old people – were killed, and many were wounded. This attack again reveals the inhuman cruelty of the enemy that conducts a slaughter of the populace of a quiet town which loves human freedom.”
What prompted the Italians to bomb a residential district instead of concentrating on military targets? Italian historian Alberto Rosselli claims that the bombers set out to bomb the Chaifa port and refineries but were chased off by British planes. As a second choice the planes set off to bomb the Tel Aviv harbor, but mistakenly hit a residential area instead.
The aerial attacks encouraged the British to recruit Jews. In September, the British allowed a few dozen Jews to join anti-aircraft artillery units and a month later 87 members of the Haganah were trained and deployed around Chaifa, near a hydro-electricity plant at Naharaim, and near the Dead Sea works. The Italians filmed a Chaifa raid of 21 September, their most effective raid so far. In the surviving film you can still see the huge clouds of smoke swirling up from a bombed oil tank containing 90,000 barrels of benzene. The attack killed 40 Arabs.
German in Action
German forces arrived in the Middle East to help the weak Italian army and German planes joined the bombardment of Eretz Yisroel. The first German raid comprised one plane dropping a few bombs between Yaffo and Ramlah in January 1941. 20 bombers attacked Chaifa in June, inflicting little damage but triggering a huge exodus of Arabs from Chaifa to towns in the Galil. Other German raids that year and during 1942 did little lasting damage and had negligible effect on the cause of the war.
The Vichy French bombed Eretz Yisroel in two separate raids in July 1941. Bombs from one raid hit a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans and Italians, killing two of them and wounding 35.
Altogether, Italian, German and French aircraft killed over 200 civilians and damaged property and oil production. But they had little military or political impact on World War 2. In 1995, Tel Aviv erected a belated memorial to the greatest single catastrophe of Eretz Yisroels recent history and last year, the IDF unearthed an unexploded bomb in northern Tel Aviv believed to be the last calling card of Italy’s murderous raid against Tel Aviv.
(Sources: Nir Arielli, Haifa is Still Burning: Italian, German and French Air Raids on Palestine during the Second World War. Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 46, No. 3, 331-347, May 2010. Yehuda Lapidot, Besieged – Jerusalem 1948 )

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