A review of the remarkable documentary “Naples ’44”

On Sunday evening, BBC Four broadcast an 80-minute documentary entitled “Naples ’44: A Wartime Diary” [if you’re in Britain, you can find it on iPlayer].  I recorded it and watched it last night and I’m still haunted by it.

The documentary has a powerful personal resonance for me because my Italian mother was born in Naples in 1920 and lived there until she met and married my father – who was then serving with Britain’s Royal Air Force – in 1946 and soon after left Italy for the first time to start a totally new life in the UK. She was the oldest of four children living with a widowed mother; her sister married a member of the British Army; while her two brothers remained in Italy.

The documentary is based on the memoirs of a British intelligence officer named Norman Lewis and uses his words, narrated by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, together with amazing archive footage. It tells a harrowing tale.

Following the Allied invasion at Salerno and the capture of Naples from the Germans, the local citizens faced an immediate crisis of no water followed by chronic shortage of food and clothing, a huge black market, rampant prostitution, and casual violence. The Wehrmacht left delayed-action bombs; then there was an outbreak of typhus; then Vesuvius exploded.

I don’t know how much of this my mother experienced personally. She barely spoke of her wartime in Naples and I was too young to ask. But it must have been an immensely challenging time for her, her family and all Neapolitans. She always insisted that we never waste food.

Many, many years later (when she was dead), I wrote a short story very loosely inspired by my mother. It was less about the life I think she led and more about the life I would have liked her to live. She had a very tough time and I owe her so much.

You can read the story here.


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