When we read or hear the name “Vesuvius”, we usually think about the horrific eruption in the Roman Empire of 77 CE. The images of the ancient Roman city, Pompeii, come to mind. The first hand descriptions of the disaster add to the dramatic impact of that ancient event.
Many of us give only passing notice, if any, to the last major eruption of Vesuvius that started on today’s date in 1944. Perhaps less notice of the eruption is due to the many stories of battles taking place during World War Two. Oddly enough, the eruption of Vesuvius caused a major delay of the Allied invasion plans for Italy.
It’s also interesting that a major city and several important towns have been built in the vicinity of such a dangerous geological hazard the likes of Vesuvius. Apart from being near Italy’s only active volcano, the site is almost ideal for city planning. The prosperous people of Pompeii to Naples have enjoyed the area and its climate. Because people have long settled that area, the volcano’s many eruptions have been recorded for posterity.
Meantime, American military intelligence and possibly Italian intelligence, too, failed to detect or interpret the minor events prior to March 18th. There had been reports of some activity starting on January 6, 1944. A minor lava flow filled the smaller cone in the volcano. There were small flows until the 26th outside the cone. Then, until February 23rd, there were a few minor flows within the rim until the activity abruptly came to a halt. Then on March 13th, there was a partial collapse of the small cone. The next few days, minor explosive activity rebuilt the conelet with lava reportedly present.
It was around 4:30 PM on March 18th that a major lava flow was rapidly forced from the small cone and quickly filled then overflowed the main volcanic crater wall on the north side. By 11:00 PM villages in the vicinity of San Sebastian were overcome by molten lava. The flows continued steadily until the 21st. At that time the flows increased and a major explosion ejected ash and particles into the air. This activity was more or less continuous through March 26th.
On the 26th a major sustained ash plume shot out over 5 kilometres above the crater. This final event was accompanied with smaller lava flows and particles. By the 27th, the explosions subsided and then, on the 29th, the eruption came to a halt. Some 26 people were killed due to the eruption.
Coincidentally, the Allied invasion of Italy was taking place at around the same time. The U.S. Army Air Force’s 340th Bombardment Group was at Pompeii Airfield, close to the base of the volcano. Fortunately, there were no fatalities at the base and only some very minor injuries were reported.
However, the damage to aircraft was insurmountable. Crews put forth a major effort to salvage and fix the wrecked airplanes. The large particles and hot ash ruined the fabric covered control surfaces on the wings and tails. The engines sustained major damage, too. The Plexiglass gun turrets and windshields were made useless from the hot projectiles. Altogether, the military estimated about 80 airplanes were destroyed by the eruption. Needless to say, the aerial war effort over Italy was postponed or stopped until replacement bombers arrived.
Today, because of the proximity of the major city of Naples and the surrounding towns and villages, Vesuvius is constantly monitored by sensitive equipment from a network of locations. Naples’ Osservatorio Vesuvio keeps track of the slightest ground movement and gasses from the fumaroles.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that if you’re visiting Italy, you may wish to visit the Vesuvius National Park and hike the spiraling footpath to the crater.