This Week in History: Italy bombs Tel Aviv

137 people lost their lives on September 9, 1940 to the Italian air force bombers, in an event which has been largely forgotten over the years.

italy bombing tel aviv 311 (photo credit: Courtesy: Tel Aviv Municipality)
italy bombing tel aviv 311
(photo credit: Courtesy: Tel Aviv Municipality)
On the afternoon of September 9, 1940, a squadron of Italian air force bombers appeared without any warning in the skies over Tel Aviv, killing 137 people in a bombing run that caused the city’s first casualties of World War II.
Just one year into the war, France already been defeated by the Italians and the Germans, leaving Italy the freedom to direct its assault on British-controlled territories in the Middle East.
Months earlier, the Italians had already begun bombing Haifa’s strategic oil facilities and port, but neither the British nor Tel Aviv’s Jewish residents expected an assault on the first “Hebrew city.”
With minimal air defenses and warning systems in place, by the time a response could have been mounted by British forces, the Italian bombers were on their way back to their home base in the Mediterranean islands of Rhodes and Leros.
The bombing, far from any military targets in the then-British controlled territory of Palestine, struck the heart of Tel Aviv, nearby to where the Dizengoff Center shopping mall sits today.
Haya Chessner, a child at the time of the bombing, later recalled to Italian news agency ANSAmed: "We were at the Esther Cinema on the central square of Dizengoff. The film started with Mickey Mouse cartoons - we were all laughing. But suddenly the lights went on, and we could hear the first explosions in the distance."
While those lucky enough to be in sturdy structures were largely spared the destruction raining down from the sky, inhabitants of wooden and tin shacks in the area between Bugrashov and Trumpeldor streets had little protection from the bombardment.
"A block of wooden huts was burned down when two bombs fell among them," The Palestine Post reported at the time. "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."
Fires started by the explosives caused even more damage and injuries. One stray bomb killed seven people including five children in an Arab town northeast of Tel Aviv.
The destruction was massive and widespread.
For the first few days after the attack, the number of killed stood at around 50 people with dozens more wounded. Tel Aviv lacked a full hospital with surgical capabilities at the time, so the seriously injured were evacuated the long distance to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
As more bodies were discovered and the injured succumbed to their wounds, the death toll eventually rose to 137.
But along with destruction, the bombing also brought out perseverance in the pre-state yeshuv.
The day after the Italian air raid, the Palestine Post’s sub-headline read: “The public preserved complete calm during and after the raid."
Prideful comparisons were made to British perseverance in the Blitz on London.
"Life was quickly resumed, cinemas opened as usual and within an hour of the raid cafes, including one which had its plate glass windows blown out, again had their patrons." Later that evening, a nearby conference of the General Zionist Federation took place as scheduled.
Along with further attacks against Haifa, the Italians would bomb Tel Aviv once more during WWII, although the city was prepared the second time around and large numbers of casualties like those in September were avoided.
Although it was a major event in Palestine during World War II and one of the few instances where the Axis caused Jewish deaths in the area that would later become Israel, the Italian bombing of Tel Aviv has been largely forgotten over the years. While it caused many deaths, in the context of other battles taking place in the war, the destruction rained on Tel Aviv that September afternoon has become a side note in history.
In 1995, however, the Tel Aviv Municipality erected what may be the only lasting memorial to the victims of the Italian air raid on Tel Aviv. On the corner of King George Street and Ben Zion Boulevard, today stands a small stone memorial, honoring those killed on Monday September 9, 1940.