On September 9, 1940, the Italian air force bombed Tel Aviv, killing 137 people. It was not the only air raid by Axis forces on British-controlled Palestine during World War II, but it was by far the most destructive in terms of loss of human life.
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Italy had joined the Axis war effort on June 10, 1940, declaring war on France and the United Kingdom. Two weeks later, it and France signed an armistice, leaving the Italians, with bases in Ethiopia and in the Dodecanese Islands in the Mediterranean, free to attack British targets in the region. In Mandatory Palestine, Haifa was the principal strategic target of the Regio Aeronautica, with a dozen sorties setting out from Rhodes during the summer of 1940 for bombing raids over Haifa.
The British were aware that Palestine could serve as an object of air raids, with either bombs or gas, and pamphlets about how to respond to such raids were distributed as early as 1938, with occasional air-raid drills taking place too. But the Mandatory authorities did not allow Jewish citizens to bear arms, and there were no anti-aircraft defenses in place.
The September 9 raid took place at 4:58 P.M., and lasted three minutes, during which time 32 bombs were dropped, from 10 Italian Cant Z1007bis bombers. What was strange about the attack was that all of the bombs fell on residential areas, principally in the region of Bograshov and Trumpeldor streets, with none hitting the port of Jaffa, the natural target. (This didn’t stop the Italians from releasing a statement declaring that “during the raid on Jaffa, port installations were hit and large fires started.”)
According to Italian historian Alberto Rosselli, the original target of the bombers was in fact Haifa, with its port and refineries, but the Italian planes were intercepted by British aircraft. The Italians were then ordered to drop their loads on the Tel Aviv port before returning to base, and the fact that their bombs hit residential targets was simply a mistake. Also hit was the Palestinian village of Sumail, which stood in what is today Ramat Aviv. Seven of the victims of the bombing, five of them children, were from there.
Local residents as well as Australian soldiers based in Tel Aviv took part in the evacuation of victims, with the most seriously injured being taken to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, because of a lack of medical facilities in Tel Aviv. By the morning of September 10, a Tuesday, 100 bodies had been recovered; 53 of the victims were children. In the coming days and weeks, another 30 Tel Aviv residents died of their injuries.
Bodies were taken to the Balfour School, where families came to identify them. Funerals for 65 victims began shortly after noon on that Tuesday, with burials taking place at Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery. Later in the day, another 25 bodies were interred.
Condemnations of the bombing came in from Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, and from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That same week, by coincidence, the British began to recruit Jewish residents of the country to undergo military training, and fight with the Allies. Several days after the Tel Aviv attack, British planes made retaliatory raids against the Italian bases in Rhodes and Leros.
The Tel Aviv air raid was the worst to hit Mandatory Palestine during World War II, although another bombing raid the following spring – by French planes based in Syria – killed another 13 residents of Tel Aviv, on June 12, 1941. A number of other raids were directed against Haifa.