Naples '44

Norman Lewis's Naples '44 : an Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth has been described as "one of the great personal memoirs of the Second World War". Published 30 years after the events portrayed, but largely produced from diaries kept at the time, Naples '44, is a, at times, sickening account of the evils of conflict, as the barbarities of war affect both sides with impartiality.

Lewis was a sergeant in the Field Security Service of the British Army Intelligence Corps. He had previously served in North Africa, and was sent to Southern Italy in late 1943, spending much of the next 18 months based in and around Naples. The city had been devastated by Allied bombing - it was the most bombed Italian city of the Second World War. Families had been torn apart, with a high percentage of men missing presumed dead. Corruption was rife, American forces in the city had little idea of who to trust, and justice was seen to be dependent on who you knew - high-scale racketeers were rarely sentenced, family breadwinners could end up in jail for 10 years for trivial offences.

Prostitution (including child prostitution) was rife, life was horribly uncertain, and, shockingly, a proportion of the Allied forces turned a blind eye, or engaged in, rape. There was even a plan on behalf of the Intelligence Services to send prostitutes infected with VD behind the Allied lines to weaken the Axis army.

At times Naples '44 is a horrible read. Lewis is brutal and impartial. There is no glory of war here, and the Allied forces, though bringing liberation to Italy, can sometimes appear as far removed from liberation as Italy's former masters. Sickness and starvation are endemic, and an ancient culture seems to totter on the brink of destruction.

Mount Vesuvius eruption, 1944
DeGolyer Library, SMU
Quite how ancient that culture is becomes evident when Vesuvius erupts, and Lewis recounts the story of the eruption with a Pliny-like elegance. A return to an earlier culture is also clear as Neapolitan society seems about to return to a medieval past. With little hope of normality returning any time soon, superstition becomes everyday. Lewis soon realises that it doesn't take much for the veneer of 20th century man to slip, and glimpses of an earlier society peep through the flimsy modern veil.

Despite the horrors that Lewis witnessed though there are moments of light and humour. As one of the few Italian speakers with the Allied forces at this stage (Lewis had been married to a Swiss-Italian national), he was in a privileged position translating both in official situations, and also in the everyday lives of the men in his unit. His love for Italy, and all things Italian, shines through, even though he is not entirely convinced that he is accepted within Italian society.

Naples '44 speaks of the uncertainties that war brings. The events that Lewis describes, including the post-war reconstruction of Italy would continue to haunt the country far into the future. But if this book is about the depths to which humanity can sink, it is also about the human spirit, which can continue to survive in the most unlikely of circumstances. A sombre but enlightening read.


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