Close Call During a German Raid: A Story Passed Down
As a dentist working well behind the lines, my grandfather Robert Silverman’s World War II experience was considerably more comfortable than soldiers at the front. Nobody in the theatre of operations was completely safe, however, as one story illustrates. Though he said almost nothing about the war, Robert Silverman told his sons about one incident in particular. He said that a German bombing raid scored a direct hit on the hospital complex, but the bombs didn’t detonate because they had been sabotaged by the resistance. My grandfather died years before my birth, so I never heard the story directly from him.
Both my father and uncle recalled that there were more than one bomb, which didn’t detonate because of sabotage. My father recalled the incident as having occurred in Italy. My uncle thought that Robert had stated it happened in North Africa, but recalled additional details that my father did not. As my uncle recalled the story, the Germans had dropped two 500 lb. bombs on the hospital. When disposal teams examined the bombs, they apparently found they had been sabotaged; the bombs were stuffed with newspapers from Czechoslovakia. The contradictions about location are understandable considering that it had been decades since they were told the story.
When I first heard the story as a child, I specifically remember that I considered my grandfather’s survival to be the very definition of a “miracle.” As an adult, the story has intrigued me and I finally set out to learn more. Although I found some of the answers I sought, many questions remain unanswered.
As my research continued, this article ended up so long that it could easily be mistaken for a master’s thesis. I recognize that not all readers may be interested in this level of detail, but encourage them to at least scroll down far enough to examine Dwight McNelly’s fascinating photographs from the incident.
Account by Lieutenant Colonel Harold L. Goss, 32nd Station Hospital Commanding Officer
Lieutenant Colonel Harold L. Goss wrote an account of the bombing in his “Historical Report of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 1 May 1944.” Located in the National Archives, the account matches my father’s recollection of the location (Caserta, Italy). The description of the size and number of bombs matches my uncle’s, albeit without the sabotage details. The document has a section entitled “Outstanding Events – 32nd Station Hospital, 1 January to 1 May 1944” which states:
Bombing: On 24 April 1944, beginning at 2120 hours a Red Alert was sounded. Within 10 minutes the sky from Naples to Caserta was as bright as day from a series of flares dropped by enemy aircraft. One of these series was dropped near the Hospital Area and floated our way. An enemy plane diving to a low level dropped two of its bombs. Dirt, stone, and ruble was thrown over a wide area in front of Headquarters. A hole approximately 7×7 feet was breached in the wall of Ward 18 and the bomb buried a distance of 21 feet in the ground. One bed was broken but no patients were injured. The patients were immediately evacuated to an empty ward. When the 500 lb. bombs were removed the next day by a Bomb Disposal Squad, there were more jitters than on the night before. The second bomb fell in the main highway 20 yards from the hospital. Fortunately both bombs were duds and failed to explode.
Beyond proving without a doubt that Star Trek didn’t invent the term “Red Alert,” the document also provided a date. The omission of the sabotage detail in the report is curious. It seems unlikely that Goss would be unaware of the bomb squad’s findings if evidence of sabotage was indeed found. The question is, then, did Lieutenant Colonel Goss not consider it relevant for a report going to a medical audience? Might he have omitted the detail in his report for security reasons?
I had assumed that the Ward 18 bed destroyed by the impact simply didn’t have a patient assigned. On the contrary, according to a fascinating detail recounted by Frances Rubin (Mann), one of the 32nd Station Hospital’s nurses, the bed was indeed occupied by a patient minutes before the raid. According to Rubin’s daughter: “The way she told the story always included the miracle of the patient whose bed was hit and how he had just gotten out of the bed to use the latrine – and how ‘his need to pee saved his life.'”
Even though the bombs hadn’t detonated outright, the hospital was still in a precarious situation until they were verified as safe by bomb disposal personnel. The Germans used not only time-delayed fuzes, but also anti-disturbance ones designed to detonate the bomb if it were moved after landing. Some bombs had both kinds of fuzes installed. To make matters worse, some bombs also had anti-withdrawal devices intended to detonate them when disposal personnel removed the bomb’s fuzes.
Today, when dud World War II bombs are located in Europe, sometimes thousands of people in surrounding areas are evacuated as a precaution until E.O.D. personnel can address them. Evidently, owing to wartime constraints, the 32nd Station Hospital was not evacuated.
Dwight McNelly’s Account
The Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library not only contains a detailed account of the bombing in two drafts of an unpublished manuscript, it also contains the only known photos of the bombs themselves.
The collection at the Pritzker includes at least two drafts of McNelly’s manuscript. It is not clear when exactly he wrote them, but it was most likely in the 1980s (and certainly no earlier than the 1970s based on the terms he used). In January 1987, he made an audio recording in which he states he wrote his manuscript “quite a while ago”. Examining the manuscripts, it is unclear to me which was written first. I’ve included the account below, which I believe is the clearer and more detailed of the two. McNelly wrote that the bombing occurred “during the push out of Anzio.” He recalled:
The beginning of this alert gave us no indication of the severity of the raid to be. We had just gotten into our cots and taps had been sounded. The sirens, others than our own, were heard and they seemed to keep up the whine. We didn’t rush out into the open area any faster than usual, and in fact some of us ran between the wards and to the road, as the flares started to light up as they came down through the low clouds. Here it seemed all at once they descended on the small [parachutes] attached some hung in the branches by the buildings. They burned brightly and I didn’t have my camera on me. It was in the clinic. I would have had time to get it for the area was light as day for some time. All we felt were some hard ground thuds and of course the bombs descending and then no explosions. We had heard some noise up by the palace grounds and this was usual, for they went for the train yards up there and the airfield behind us. When we milled around later on, we saw some damage to one of the ward buildings near where we had sat on the ground. We figured it to be a dud. Boy, it was not until daylight that we did see the hole in the road by us and the wall of the ward building. Talk was that many duds were being checked out. We had three in our area. The road, the ward, and the edge of our ballfield and tent area. How deep they had penetrated the earth, we had no idea.
McNelly truly deserves the title of shutterbug. A bomb landed in the road nearby (“less than 50 feet” from him according to the other draft of his manuscript), but looking back he only wishes he had been able to take advantage of the flares to take nighttime photos! Whereas Lt. Colonel Goss mentioned two duds, McNelly recorded three. The third bomb landing in the field outside the compound itself probably explains its omission in Goss’s report.
It was not until the daylight on [the second] day that we saw the bomb squads removing these 500 [lb.] bombs. Right at the one noontime [sic], we stood, at a distance, as they pulled out this dummy. The truck hauled it away and they had to go twenty feet to reach the one that went through the [Macadam] road. What damage? It would have simply obliterated the 32nd Sta. Hospital, for the three duds were aimed to go off in a wave pattern as the planes crossed the ground. Even with the fins removed, the bomb itself is waist high. One of the opened bombs, so we were told, had been sabotaged by some French workers- -they had put a note in it and had added steel wool and rags instead of powder.
So my grandfather wasn’t the only member of the 32nd Station Hospital who attributed the bombs being duds to sabotage. The other draft gives slightly different details of the sabotage, and better suggests the scale of defective German ordinance in the raid:
It was found to have been assembled in France and there were rags and wire and paper jammed into the [mechanism]. Thank goodness for the French workers who really saved us. The palace grounds had many to deal with. I believe that thirty in all had been released, that turned out to be defective.
Here is an excerpt about the air raid from a recording Dwight McNelly made reading one draft of his unpublished “Italy” manuscript. The recording was apparently made sometime in the 1980s (but before 1987).
Analysis by Lieutenant Colonel Bob Leiendecker, U.S. Army
Anecdotes about saboteurs leaving notes in dud munitions aren’t uncommon, but I have yet to find scholarly research about the topic. I searched the Bomb Disposal Reports (1943 – 1945) in the National Archives to try to find which unit examined the bombs and whether there was any hard evidence of sabotage. Unfortunately, all surviving reports were from units attached to the Fifth Army rather than those assigned the Peninsular Base Section (P.B.S.) like the 32nd Station Hospital was. The P.B.S. was comprised of various support organizations (medical, ordnance, engineer, supply, etc.) located in areas behind the Allied advance. The boundaries under P.B.S. jurisdiction changed as the front lines extended northward, but included both Naples and Caserta in April 1944.
I was unable to find unit histories or other reports from any bomb disposal companies assigned to the Naples or Caserta area when the bombing occurred. This may be because about two weeks after the raid, the 235th Ordnance Bomb Disposal Company was reorganized into twelve separate bomb disposal squads assigned to the P.B.S and the 236th into squads for the Fifth Army. Although the unit histories for the new squads are in the National Archives, it appears that records for their predecessor company are lost.
After this unsuccessful research trip, I corresponded with Lieutenant Colonel Bob Leiendecker, a retired U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal expert. I asked for his take on the details in my grandfather and Dwight McNelly’s accounts. Regarding sabotage of munitions, he wrote:
As of the sabotage of ordnance, yes it was done. There were some sympathetic Germans who did not want the war and sabotaged ordnance in the facilities where they worked. Most of such actions were done by slave labor from countries the Germans conquered. These people [in] particular hated the Germans and would go out of their way to sabotage ordnance they produced. Leaving out an important part of a fuze, a booster element, or [as] you mentioned stuffing non explosive material in the middle of the normal explosive chain were the common methods. Such actions were particularly difficult for the Germans to discover because once the ordnance was assembled there was no way to see the sabotage unless the ordnance was disassembled. The Germans would periodically pull ordnance from the production lines and do that, but it was a small percentage of the items produced so most of it got through and into the field where it malfunctioned.
One thing Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker clarified is that when my grandfather and McNelly told of the bombs being stuffed with paper, rags, wire, and/or steel wool, it wouldn’t mean that 287 lbs. (130 kg) or so of explosive (based on the bomb being an SC 250) was replaced with inert materials. Rather, he wrote:
They are not making reference to the main filler of the bomb. It would contain all of the explosives that it should have. They are talking about either modifying the booster or the fuze and it is hard to tell which from the information available. There were several different types of fuzes, that functioned differently, impact, long delay, anti-disturbance, etc. Regardless of the fuze type they would all initiate the bomb in the same manner. When the fuze functions there would be a series of things happen in the fuze mechanism that would eventually initiate a small booster explosive. The smaller events in the fuze do not have enough power to detonate the bomb main filler, hence the need to “boost” the functioning with a larger amount of explosives. When the fuze is assembled it would be easy to not install a live booster, but just the empty cup with the steel wool and the note. I would assume that in the case of the German fuzes though what the partisans did was to insert the steel wool and note in the bomb fuze pocket between the fuze booster and the main filler of the bomb. This would no doubt interrupt the transmission of the explosive wave from the booster and degrade it enough that the bomb might not function. Once the fuze was removed from the bomb body you could then see the steel wool and note in the bottom of the fuze well.
Dwight McNelly Photographs and Analysis from an E.O.D. Expert
There are seven photos of the incident in the Dwight McNelly collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library. One depicts the crater in Route 87 outside the hospital and one is basically a duplicate of the third photo below.
Here are the remaining five pictures from the collection. The last four photos were taken after bomb disposal personnel had finished digging them up and removed the bombs’ fuzes. I believe the bombs depicted are SC 250 (250 kg/551 lb. general purpose bomb) but feel free to browse the full menagerie of German ordinance.
I showed the photos to Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker. His observations, however, raise as many questions as they answer!
One oddity of the photograph is the fact that hospital personnel and/or patients appear to be watching the action from maybe 200-300 feet away (61-91 meters). Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker observed: “Normally they would have been evacuated much further away because of the size of the bomb.” This is a relatively minor discrepancy compared to others that Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker observed. I’ve seen a photograph of a U.S. Army World War II bomb disposal units working with a civilian looking on from maybe 10 feet (3 meters) away. One photo even showed local civilians helping dig the bomb up!
In terms of size, Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker concurs that it looks like an SC 250 bomb, but the appearance doesn’t quite match: “The puzzle is that the profile of the rear of the bomb matches that of the SC 500, not the SC 250.”
As for the fins being missing, he wrote:
The bomb fins may have come off in the ground. Depending on the soil type as the bomb passed through the ground the friction would tar the fins loose and the bomb would continue on. The fins could also have been removed after it was brought to the surface either because they were twisted and damaged or to make handling easier. There is no tail fuse, or nose fuse for that matter, in these bombs.
Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker described himself as “shocked” by the photo of the dud bomb being dragged, writing, “That violates every safety and common sense precaution of all bomb disposal men.” He also wrote that the truck’s markings don’t match what they should for a bomb disposal unit:
First, by this time in the war all BD vehicles, especially ordnance transport vehicles were clearly marked on the the rear as “Bomb Disposal” vehicles to alert other vehicles to stay back a respectable distance. They were also marked in other locations in a similar manner.
Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker wrote that if the truck belonged to the 235th Ordnance Bomb Disposal Company (the local disposal unit based in Naples) it should have a three digit number, 235, visible on the right bumperette rather than a two digit one. (At least part of the 236th Ordnance Bomb Disposal Company was also nearby in April 1944 but the markings aren’t consistent with their vehicles either.) In addition, he argued, “The vehicles would have also had red fenders by this time and there does not appear to be a color difference that I can see in the photo between the fenders and the truck itself.” Finally, he observed:
I also get a kick out of the guy in the back of the truck holding the rope that is tied to the bomb. The rope passes through the pintle on the rear of the truck but does not appear to be wrapped around it or tied off. If it isn’t that is one very strong man to hold the rope tied to a minimum of a 250 kg bomb. I would think as the truck accelerated he would be pulled right out of the back of the truck. The rope must be at least wrapped around the pintle one time to provide some friction.
Based on the background buildings, trees, and other details, the fact that the photos were taken at the 32nd Station Hospital compound in Caserta is beyond dispute. The dig location matches Lieutenant Colonel Goss’s report. As for the curious details raised by Lieutenant Colonel Leiendecker, was this a particularly sloppy group of bomb disposal personnel with a loaner vehicle, or is there some other explanation?
Jeffrey M. Leatherwood, in his history of U.S. Army World War II bomb disposal, Nine from Aberdeen, mentioned that sometimes engineers would perform bomb disposal duties when BD units were spread thin. At the time, two bomb disposal companies and a handful of independent squads had to cover all Allied-held territory in mainland Italy, plus Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica!
Another E.O.D. expert I corresponded with, Sergeant Major Mike R. Vining (U.S. Army, retired), mentioned:
In Vietnam engineers claiming to be EOD would mess up destroying ammunition and scatter it all around. We would get a call and the caller was mad at EOD. Come to find out no EOD personnel [were] in the area. Then we would go and have to clean up the mess.
Could something similar have happened in this case? Unless further documents or photographs come to light, we may never be able to explain the discrepancies.
Account of the Raid in the “History of the Peninsular Base Section”
The “History of the Peninsular Base Section Volume III 1 February 1944 to 1 May 1944” includes a more detailed description of the raid. However, the report appears to only cover damage to Naples rather than that to P.B.S. territory in the Caserta area:
The air raid warning “Red” alert on 24 April was given at 2115 hours followed by a “White” alert at 2200 hours. 48 planes were over the area. There were an estimated sixty bombs dropped, well scattered over the city. Ten bombs were dropped in the Port Area, two of which landed in the water. Twenty-one unexploded bomb reports were received by P.A.D. Three locomotives and six railway cars were damaged at the round house located at N 24.27-50.3. Seven trucks were damaged at Dump E 250 motor pool and seventeen trucks were damaged at the motor pool located at 24.0-49.0. 13,000 gallons of gasoline were burned and two large gasoline tanks destroyed at the Port refueling station. One enemy JU-88 was brought down by anti-aircraft fire.
Casualties listed (again, possibly limited to the Naples area) were 16 soldiers killed, 30 injured, and 14 missing (14 of the fatalities, seven of the injured and all of the missing were Italian soldiers who were co-belligerents with Allied forces). Nine civilians were recorded as killed and 21 wounded.
It’s unclear whether the entire raid consisted of 48 aircraft or whether that was the portion of the attack directed at the Naples area alone. Even with its limitations, the report does provide some useful details. The raid was at least partially made up of JU-88s. Based on the report, approximately 35% of the bombs dropped in the raid were duds, so the 32nd Station Hospital was very fortunate indeed that all of the bombs dropped in or near the compound failed to explode. Although McNelly’s account implied that most of the bombs that fell in the Caserta area were defective, clearly that wasn’t the case for the entire raid.
Tools of War: An Illustrated History of the Peninsular Base Section (published December 1946), gives somewhat larger figures for the raid, stating that 110 bombs fell on Naples with 28 duds (a 25% failure rate). The book lists 25 military and 116 civilians casualties but without any distinction in terms of fatalities or injuries.
How Close a Call?
Would the hospital have been “obliterated” like McNelly thought? Here’s a strictly amateur analysis. Based on the site today, the hospital compound was wedge shaped, about 950 feet (290 meters) long with a width varying between roughly 475 feet (145 meters) and 360 feet (110 meters). Individual ward buildings appear to be about 105 feet (32 meters) long by 20 feet (6 meters) wide, with a row of four buildings about 135 feet (41 meters) wide.
As of 1945 the 32nd Station Hospital had 341 personnel assigned. Supposing that the hospital had between 250 and 500 patients at the time of the raid, there would have been perhaps 600 to 850 people in harm’s way. Colonel Goss listed many improvements to the compound in his 1944 report, but there’s no mention of anyone installing bomb shelters to replace the ones left by the Germans and Italians (deemed useless and blocked off by the Americans). Though the concrete walls of the main ward buildings might have provided some limited protection to some patients and personnel, it’s fair to say nobody at the compound really had adequate shelter.
A September 1945 report, “Effects of Impact and Explosion” gave figures involving the similar sized American AN-M64 (TNT filled) 500 lb. (227 kg) general purpose bomb fuzed for instantaneous detonation as follows:
- Mean radius of “Buildings completely demolished”: 20 feet (6 meters)
- Mean radius of “Damaged beyond repair and requiring demolition”: 33 feet (10 meters)
- Mean radius of “Seriously damaged and requiring repair before being used”: 59 feet (18 meters).
The SC 250 was slightly larger than the AN-M64. At a minimum, Ward 18 would have been destroyed and the surrounding buildings heavily damaged. There may have been additional casualties in the far less sturdy enlisted men’s bivouac (tent) area from the bomb that fell in the field, and among personnel caught in the open (like McNelly was) close to the bomb that fell in the road. Though the entire hospital probably would not have been destroyed, dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people would have been killed or wounded.
Conclusions and Remaining Mysteries
The inclusion of the sabotage detail in the McNelly manuscript supports the story Robert Silverman told his sons, albeit with some differing details of method and national origin of the saboteurs. Still, the details in the Robert Silverman and Dwight McNelly accounts were consistent with how munitions sabotage was actually performed.
Some questions are likely to remain unless new evidence comes to light. In the absence of documents or accounts from disposal personnel, that the bombs failed to explode as the result of sabotage remains unproven. If sabotage did occur, the nationality of the saboteurs is also uncertain. The identity of the responding disposal unit and their puzzling actions also remain mysteries.
Regardless, I like to imagine a factory where some anonymous Czechoslovakian or French munitions worker faces the choice of risking death to perform one…two…even three more small acts against the Nazi war machine. What an agonizing calculus it must have been, knowing the chance of detection increased with every sabotaged bomb. It’s a peculiar thing to consider that, but for the courage of this unknown individual or individuals, Robert Silverman may have been killed in action and his descendants never born to, at some later date, marvel at his miraculous deliverance. At the very least, his life would have been changed by the tragedy.
Even if it wasn’t sabotage in this particular case, similar acts must have occurred thousands of times over throughout occupied Europe, with virtually all of those stories lost to history.
“Effects of Impact and Explosion.” Division 2, National Defense Research Committee, Office of Scientific Research and Development, September 1945. Accessed at http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p4013coll11/id/1133/rec/23
German Explosive Ordnance (TM 9-1985-2). Departments of the Army and the Air Force, March 1953. Accessed at http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/TM/PDFs/TM9-1985-2-German.pdf
Goss, Harold L. “Historical Report of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 1 May 1944.” World War II Operational Reports, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office (Record Group 407), National Archives, College Park, Maryland.
Havemeier, Willard O. “Africa to Italy with the 32nd Station Hospital World War II.” Last modified 2009. Accessed at https://www.catherinegibsonart.com/blog/havemeier/
“History of the Peninsular Base Section Volume III 1 February 1944 to 1 May 1944.” Unit Histories, 1943 – 1967, Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations, 1917 – 1999 (Records Group 338), Nation Archives, College Park, Maryland.
Leatherwood, Jeffrey M. Nine from Aberdeen. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
McNelly, Dwight A. “Italy.” Unpublished manuscript, circa 1987, located in Box 1, Folder 6 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago, Illinois. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
McNelly, Dwight A. “Italy Binder Photos #2.” Collection of photos, located in Box 3, Folder 3 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
Tools of War: An Illustrated History of the Peninsular Base Section. Leghorn (Livorno, Italy: Public Relations Section, 1946.
Request for Materials
I can use your help expanding this site and adding to knowledge about the 32nd Station Hospital in general. If you have photos, documents, oral histories, or anything else involving the hospital or its members (especially about the air raid), I would love to know about them! Since there is no known roster of the 32nd Station Hospital’s enlisted personnel, even a name might help me to better piece together its story.
Last updated March 30, 2019