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The buried city of Pompeii continues to provide many insights into Roman society , economy, and culture. The ash and pumice , that fell on Pompeii from Mount Vesuvius , froze the city in time. A recent study of its road system, however, has provided another fascinating insight. It appears that the resourceful Romans repaired roads with molten ore in the 1 st century AD.
A study of the roads that traverse the archaeological site was carried out by Eric Poehler of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, independent researcher Juliana van Roggen, and Benjamin Crowther of the University of Texas at Austin according to Archaeology. Org . They found that the narrow streets which are paved with stones became rutted and pot-holed over time. It seems that heavy carts and wagons cut deep ruts in the roads, over a number of years.
The poor state of repair of the roads would have made them very difficult to travel upon and even dangerous. A poor transportation system would have been bad for the local economy and would have disrupted daily life.
Deep ruts formed on Pompeii's paved streets as carts eroded the stones: ‘A’ shows an area of street with deep ruts; ‘B’ shows an area with repairs; section ‘C’ shows another deeply rutted section. ( Eric Poehler / Fair Use)
The New Road Repair Technique
The researchers noted that there was a great deal of “iron droplets, spatters, and stains found on Pompeii’s streets” reports Archaeology. They then concentrated on conducting a survey of the iron remains on the streets of Pompeii. According to the American Journal of Archaeology , they found “434 instances of solid iron and iron staining among the paving stones.” It soon became apparent that the Pompeiians had used molten iron to repair the roads in their city, before the eruption of Vesuvius. This was an exciting discovery because no-one had previously even suspected that the Romans used molten metal to repair their paved roads. The survey by the three experts proved for the first time that Romans used this ingenious road repair technique. The researchers believe that the use of molten iron was ideal for fixing the rutted roads in ancient Pompeii. Iron remains found on Pompeii's streets: ‘A’ shows an iron droplet, ‘B’ shows iron splatter, and ‘D’ an iron stain. ( Eric Poehler / Fair Use) Live Science reports that, “complete repaving in stone, was a difficult and expensive endeavor that might block important through-routes in a city for months.” Then the roads would have to be repaired regularly because the heavy traffic on the roads would wear down the paving on the road every few years. So, the Romans came up with a clever way to deal with the problem and one that demonstrates their great engineering skills . The study found that they would heat iron and they would pour it into the holes and ruts in the road. Once the molten ore hardened, the roads could even be used by heavy carts. The experts also found evidence that pieces of pottery and ceramics were used as a filler to fill in the holes and ruts. Live Science reports that “this method of repair was cheaper and faster than repaving a street, researchers found.” It would also have ensured that traffic disruption, caused by road repairs was kept to a minimum, something that was demanded by the citizens of Pompeii, just as it is demanded in modern cities. The general appearance of such a metaled road in an existing street of Pompeii. (Roede / ) It is something of a mystery as to how the Romans were able to apply liquified molten ore into the streets. They would have needed “to heat up iron or iron slag between 2,012 and 2,912 degrees Fahrenheit” reports Popular Mechanics . Based on recreations of smelters, the experts believe that the Romans had the technology to produce the necessary high temperature. However, this method of repairing the roads often left unsightly splatters of iron on the streets based on the study’s findings. The researchers found that repairs using liquefied ore were being carried out just before the city’s destruction . Roman Italy was a society that was built on slavery in the 1 ST Century AD. It seems likely that specially trained slaves would have been employed to melt the iron ore and were also responsible for pouring the heated metal into the potholes that developed in the streets. They would have had to carry the ore and pour it into the damaged stone paving. This was a dangerous job, but slaves were plentiful and expendable. The road repairs could have been carried out by ‘ public slaves’ according to Live Science that were owned by the municipality of Pompeii. Roman slaves built and performed repair on the roads. ( johnwoodcock) The team is continuing their study and they are at present conducting tests of the iron to determine its provenance. This study is demonstrating the great practical skills of the Romans, which was one of the factors that allowed them to conquer and maintain such as vast empire. How prevalent this practice was, needs to be studied further. The research also shows that ancient Pompeii developed a system of road repair that was possibly more efficient than many modern municipalities. You’ve probably heard of the Roman road and know about their famous baths and theaters, but what else have Roman inventions ever done for us? The Roman Colosseum , 70-80 AD, via University of Nebraska News Ancient Rome was famously home to the Colosseum, dozens of column-flanked temples, and numerous bathhouses, but the Eternal City was also filled with a number of more surprising innovations, from air-conditioned apartments to postal workers, and books to bacon. This article covers 10 important Roman inventions that you may not know about, and which prove exactly how important the civilization was to human thought, culture and history . The Roman surveyors were highly skilled professionals, able to use a number of tools, instruments, and techniques to plan the courses for roads and aqueducts, and lay the groundwork for towns, forts and large buildings. We half-jokingly talk about the Romans and their straight roads, but that throwaway statement is not far away from the truth.
Example of Roman Ingenuity
Public Slaves Did the Work
10 Ancient Roman Inventions That Will Surprise You
The Roman Surveyors
According to the American Journal of Archaeology , they found “434 instances of solid iron and iron staining among the paving stones.” It soon became apparent that the Pompeiians had used molten iron to repair the roads in their city, before the eruption of Vesuvius.
This was an exciting discovery because no-one had previously even suspected that the Romans used molten metal to repair their paved roads. The survey by the three experts proved for the first time that Romans used this ingenious road repair technique. The researchers believe that the use of molten iron was ideal for fixing the rutted roads in ancient Pompeii.
Iron remains found on Pompeii's streets: ‘A’ shows an iron droplet, ‘B’ shows iron splatter, and ‘D’ an iron stain. ( Eric Poehler / Fair Use)
Live Science reports that, “complete repaving in stone, was a difficult and expensive endeavor that might block important through-routes in a city for months.” Then the roads would have to be repaired regularly because the heavy traffic on the roads would wear down the paving on the road every few years. So, the Romans came up with a clever way to deal with the problem and one that demonstrates their great engineering skills .
The study found that they would heat iron and they would pour it into the holes and ruts in the road. Once the molten ore hardened, the roads could even be used by heavy carts. The experts also found evidence that pieces of pottery and ceramics were used as a filler to fill in the holes and ruts.
Live Science reports that “this method of repair was cheaper and faster than repaving a street, researchers found.” It would also have ensured that traffic disruption, caused by road repairs was kept to a minimum, something that was demanded by the citizens of Pompeii, just as it is demanded in modern cities.
The general appearance of such a metaled road in an existing street of Pompeii. (Roede / )
It is something of a mystery as to how the Romans were able to apply liquified molten ore into the streets. They would have needed “to heat up iron or iron slag between 2,012 and 2,912 degrees Fahrenheit” reports Popular Mechanics .
Based on recreations of smelters, the experts believe that the Romans had the technology to produce the necessary high temperature. However, this method of repairing the roads often left unsightly splatters of iron on the streets based on the study’s findings. The researchers found that repairs using liquefied ore were being carried out just before the city’s destruction .
Roman Italy was a society that was built on slavery in the 1 ST Century AD. It seems likely that specially trained slaves would have been employed to melt the iron ore and were also responsible for pouring the heated metal into the potholes that developed in the streets. They would have had to carry the ore and pour it into the damaged stone paving.
This was a dangerous job, but slaves were plentiful and expendable. The road repairs could have been carried out by ‘ public slaves’ according to Live Science that were owned by the municipality of Pompeii.
Roman slaves built and performed repair on the roads. ( johnwoodcock)
The team is continuing their study and they are at present conducting tests of the iron to determine its provenance.
This study is demonstrating the great practical skills of the Romans, which was one of the factors that allowed them to conquer and maintain such as vast empire. How prevalent this practice was, needs to be studied further. The research also shows that ancient Pompeii developed a system of road repair that was possibly more efficient than many modern municipalities.
You’ve probably heard of the Roman road and know about their famous baths and theaters, but what else have Roman inventions ever done for us?
The Roman Colosseum , 70-80 AD, via University of Nebraska News
Ancient Rome was famously home to the Colosseum, dozens of column-flanked temples, and numerous bathhouses, but the Eternal City was also filled with a number of more surprising innovations, from air-conditioned apartments to postal workers, and books to bacon. This article covers 10 important Roman inventions that you may not know about, and which prove exactly how important the civilization was to human thought, culture and history .
The Roman surveyors were highly skilled professionals, able to use a number of tools, instruments, and techniques to plan the courses for roads and aqueducts, and lay the groundwork for towns, forts and large buildings. We half-jokingly talk about the Romans and their straight roads, but that throwaway statement is not far away from the truth.
|Main Roman Roads of the Roman Empire (Public Domain)|
The Romans preferred to build straight roads wherever possible and relied upon their surveyors to chart the route of their great highways. In most cases, the military would be responsible for plotting the route of new roads, but civil surveyors were used to survey courses for aqueducts, settle boundary disputes, and prepare the groundwork for buildings. To help in their task, they used a number of instruments, most borrowed from earlier culture but refined and improved by the Romans. With these simple tools and a good knowledge of geometry, they managed to plot complex courses for roads and aqueducts, their skill so great that they could design huge aqueducts with a gradient of less than 1 in 400.
8 Nero&rsquos Hidden Chamber
When Nero ruled as the Roman emperor almost 2,000 years ago, he lived an opulent and cruel lifestyle. After his death in AD 68, his palace in Rome, known as the Domus Aurea (&ldquoGolden House&rdquo), was so luxurious that it even disgusted his successors. It sprawled 300 acres over several hills.
Piece by piece, the Domus Aurea was deliberately obliterated. Some areas were hidden under renovations or filled with sand. One famous piece that was built over became the Colosseum.
In 2019, archaeologists engaged in a restoration project of the Domus Aurea. While working on the Oppian Hill sector, they needed more light. The moment it flooded the room, the team noticed an opening in one corner. It led to a large chamber with a vaulted ceiling and painted walls.
The murals included the god Pan, centaurs, plants, aquatic animals, birds, and a warrior fighting a panther. The so-called Sphinx Room (there was also a sphinx) was filled with dirt. The rubble will not be removed as it could weaken the entire complex. But even half visible, it offered a tantalizing glimpse at a room in which Nero himself might have stood. 
Ancient Romans used molten iron to repair holes in their paved stone streets
Many of the streets of Pompeii featured stone pavements. However, a 2014 survey revealed that even the durable material eroded over time as wheeled carts rolled over them time and time again.
Eventually, the surface of the stone pavements developed deep ruts. The damage made travel slower, harder, and rougher for everyone.
It took many months and considerable resources to repave a stone street. Worse, the repair job would close down the route to traffic.
Everyone would have to use alternative paths that took more time. To compound matters, some of Pompeii’s heavily used streets eroded quickly.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) and the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) found that high volumes of traffic on narrow streets might wear down a stone-paved surface within a few decades.
“The Pompeians devised another option [for street repair] that was ingenious and unconventional: after heating iron or iron-rich slag to a molten state, they poured out hundreds of individual repairs onto, into and below the paving stones of the city’s most important streets,” they reported.
Romans in Pompeii Repaired the Roads with Molten Iron - History
Two learned Romans, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, and Sextus Julius Frontinus, wrote of surveying practices in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. Undoubtedly there were more works from their time, but many classical works were irretrievably lost in the destruction of the Alexandrian library in 642 A.D.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a master of architecture, presented De Architectura Libri Decem (10 books) to this patron Augustus Caesar, about 20 B.C. Vitruvius wrote of the CHOROBATES, an instrument used for leveling hydraulic gradients to cities and houses. The water supply for Rome alone was comprised of ten great a aqueducts, some coming from lakes as far as sixty miles from the city. The CHOROBATES is described as a rod 20 feet long with duplicate legs attached perpendicularly at each end. Diagonal pieces connect the rod and the legs, and both diagonal members have vertical lines scriven into them, over which plumb bobs are hung. When the instrument is in position, and the plumb-lines strike both the scribe-lines alike, they show the instrument is level. If the wind interferes with the plumb lines, the water level at the top of the horizontal piece is used. Vitruvius instructs that the water level groove was to be "five feel long, one digit wide, and a digit and a half deep". By using two or more chorobates, established levelly, the vertical distance between instruments could be established by sighting along the depth of the uphill instrument, to a rod placed atop the lower chorobate.
Also in his writings, Vetruvius describes a device handed down from the "ancients" for measuring traveled distances by a counter fixed to the wheels of a chariot, similar to our odometer.
Sextus Julius Frontinus (c35-104 A.D.), a distinguished hydraulic engineer, authored De Aqui Urbis Romae Libri II. It conveys in a clear and terse style much valuable information on the manner in which ancient Rome was supplied with water, and other engineering feats. He also made the distinctions clear between the practices of the Roman "agrimensores" (field measurers) and "gromatici" (GROMA users). The latter are named for the favored aligning instrument of the Romans (handed down from the Egyptians through the Greeks), resembling a surveyor's cross, that satisfied the bulk of their requirements - laying out straight lines and right angles. The GROMA consisted of a vertical iron staff (ferramentum) about 5 feet long, pointed at the lower end, and with a cross arm, 10 inches long, pivoted at the top, which supported the main aligning element - the revolving "stelleta" (star) with arms about 3-1/2 feet across: The two main roads at right angles in a Roman encampment were located by sighting beside the two plumb lines suspended from the end of the cross arms to coincide with the central plumb line over the selected central point. Areas of fields were measured by settling out two right-angled lines, joining their extremities by straight lines and finding the perpendicular offsets from these to the irregular sides. The metal parts of the GROMA, as well as rods and other equipment, were discovered in the ruined layers of Pompeii, in affirmation to Frontinus' descriptions.
An inspection of Roman roads, aqueducts, canals, buildings, city layouts, and land subdivisions confirms their unexcelled proficiency in the use of crude surveying instruments as measured by modern-day standards. Further inspection of archeological and written evidence suggests the following points:
1. The range of Roman instruments was restricted to the vision of the naked eye. (Magnification by telescopic sights came in 1608).
2. There is no evidence of the use of the compass.
3. Large scale maps were greatly distorted in the E-W direction because the methods used for locating relative latitude and longitude were not sufficiently accurate for cartographical purposes.
4. Their entire astronomical and geographical outlook was circumscribed by the idea of an earth-centered universe and a rigid Euclidean geometry excellent for earth measurements but elementary when projected into space. They understood a great deal of algebra and trigonometry but very little calculus.
Growing power, fading power
The Etruscan civilization was in essence a collection of powerful and independent cities, each with its own way of doing things, which was not always the best tactic and which would ultimately head to their defeat by the Roman empire.
The early and middle years were good though. By the fifth century, the Etruscans dominated the Italian coast and its seas. Thanks to lots of forests, they had amazing wooden ships powered by oars and used them to great advantage. This power did not go unchallenged, there were many battles with the Greeks and the trading rival Syracuse. It was after being heavily defeated by Donysius I of Syracuse, who basically attacked everything the Etruscans owned along the coastline, that they lost their control of the ports and seas and by the third century BC their maritime dominance had gone.
The Etruscans were warriors as evidenced by their grave goods: spears, shields, bronze breastplates and helmets, despite historians describing them as rather girly cowards. (Never believe history written by the winning side). They loved horses and were skilled riders, although the ornate chariots found in their tombs may not have been used in battle. They had a lot to defend and a lot of people to defend it from: the Celts from the north, the increasingly powerful Rome from the south, each other (sometimes city fought city) — there were wars, treaties, truces, sieges (like the 10-year siege of Veii by the Romans) alliances, more wars…
The end was inevitable as Rome’s power grew and the Etruscan cities failed to unite against the common enemy. Cities fell like ninepins: Chiusi, Perugia, Tarquinia, Orvieto and Troilum. When Cerveteri fell in 273 BC it was pretty much the last straw and Rome became the dominant force in Italy. The Etruscans still had to fight both alongside and against their Roman counterparts over the next couple of centuries, but really their days as the master civilization and superpower were over.
Stabiae – The Roman Resort Buried by Mount Vesuvius
Stabiae was an ancient Roman town and seaside resort near Pompeii, that was largely buried during the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius in present-day Italy.
The early settlement was founded during the Archaic period around the 8th century BC on the coast at the eastern end of the Bay of Naples, with evidence of Corinthian, Etruscan, Chalcidian and Attic origins.
By the 6th century BC, an Oscan (native inhabitants of Campania) port town had emerged, comprising of mainly Samnites, but this saw an economic slowdown in favour of the development of nearby Pompeii.
Stabiae would later serve as a military port for the Nucerian federation, alongside Nuceria Alfaterna, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Surrentum, but surrendered to the rule of the Roman Republic during the Samnite wars in 308 BC.
In 91 BC, the Romans fought in a conflict known as the Social Wars, against the “socii” confederates of Rome who demanded the right to vote and Roman citizenship. The Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (commonly known as Sulla) marched on Stabia, completely destroying the town as an example for other cities and tribes in Italy.
The town quickly recovered from the destruction and became a popular resort for wealthy Romans, consisting of a forum, temples, a podium, a gymnasium, and a tabernae with arcades.
Accounts by the Roman author Pliny the Elder records that several miles of luxury coastal villas were built at Stabiae along the edge of the headland, with notable Roman figures such as Julius Caesar, the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and the statesman-philosopher Cicero all owning properties there.
In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, releasing a deadly cloud of super-heated tephra and gases to a height of 33 km (21 mi), ejecting molten rock, pumice, and hot ash at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The resulting pyroclastic surges and heavy ashfall enveloped Pompeii and Herculanium, with large parts of Stabiae buried in thick tephra and ash.
Pliny the Elder died at Stabiae during the eruptions, but many of its inhabitants were spared and resettled. Publius Papinius Statius recites in a poem to his wife – “Stabias renatas”, meaning Stabiae reborn.
First Mount Vesuvius, then the Nazis
En route to bomb German troops at Cassino, Twelfth Air Force B-25s pass Italy’s Mount Vesuvius. Its March 1944 eruption caused turbulence aloft and did damage below.
MANY YOUNG GIS in Italy from 1943 to 1945 were making their first trips overseas, and the vivid traces of ancient culture they encountered fascinated them. Troops landing at Salerno in September 1943 gazed at the awesome Greek temples at Paestum. A month later Naples fell to the Allies. That battered gem quickly became a magnet for tourists in olive drab, along with the Roman city of Pompeii. That city was destroyed in 79 AD by Vesuvius—mainland Europe’s only active volcano—and subsequently excavated.
The volcano itself, just east of Naples, proved an irresistible draw. The Red Cross organized jaunts up the smoking slope via funicular railroad. At the base, British and American troops gaped at “droolings of lava issuing from fissures,” as one American recalled. GIs drank “volcano-made coffee” an urn of java lowered into the lava crust emerged piping hot. Volcanically toasted bread was popular. Souvenir hawkers did a brisk trade in ashtrays made from coins pressed into blobs of molten lava. GIs suspected—correctly—that not long ago the same vendors had been selling versions bearing Nazi insignia.
Vesuvius had erupted periodically for centuries and intermittently emitted reminders of its power. Small disturbances had been occurring more recently, but locals swore that when Vesuvio, as they called it, was noisy, all was well the time to worry was when the mountain got quiet. Until March 1944 the volcano had hardly figured in the war, except as a geographic obstacle between Salerno and Naples. Once the Allies moved beyond Naples, the region around Vesuvius became a quiet rear area where pilots occasionally reported bumpy air caused by thermals rising from the crater. At night a dull red creep of lava mocked Allied blackout procedures by marking the route to Naples harbor—10 miles due west—for German aviators.
Many Allied units set up housekeeping in the vicinity. Just east of the restive mountain, the 340th Bombardment Group was based at Pompeii airfield, a new strip and a big improvement over the outfit’s previous field at muddy and overcrowded Foggia. Headquarters staff took over a villa three miles from the flight line lower ranks made do with requisitioned houses or tents. Group headquarters and each of the four attached squadrons’ intelligence sections captured the experience in detailed histories and war diaries. “We found ourselves based on a fine field cleared among orchards and vineyards,” one such diary recorded. “Vesuvius reared up into a soft blue sky a few miles away, smoking and steaming quietly. ‘Used to erupt’—someone had said. We all knew that was away back in dead history somewhere.”
KNOWN AS “THE AVENGERS,” the 340th—part of the Twelfth Air Force—flew the North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. The unit began its war in early spring of 1943 based at Medenine, in southeast Tunisia, bombing Afrika Korps chief Erwin Rommel’s supply lines. By year’s end the crews were at Foggia, assisting the Allied slog up the Italian boot. With a Distinguished Unit Citation in hand the 340th’s fliers thought they were hot stuff—though even the hottest hands had to admit the unit’s bombing accuracy and formation discipline had slackened lately. Spells of bad weather, inactivity, and boredom had dulled the group’s edge. Change was in order.
New Year’s 1944 brought relocation to Pompeii field and a new broom. On January 8 Lieutenant Colonel Charles D. Jones assumed command, immediately laying on rigorous practice missions and scrutinizing the results. Another skipper making the same demands might have raised hackles, but Jones’s affable professionalism and high standards quickly won converts. Soon Jones was “whipping the group into its old-time condition of morale and efficiency,” a war diarist noted. By mid-January, the group was striking enemy transport choke points in support of the Anzio landings. By all measures, performance dramatically improved.
On March 10, 1944, over the Littorio marshalling yards north of Rome, flak took down the bomber in which Jones was flying. Observers saw five of seven crew members parachute safely before the blazing B-25 augered in. German radio soon announced that the “popular and esteemed” Jones was a POW.
A week later the unquiet Vesuvius became even more so. Daily, the crater sent an enormous pillar of steam and smoke miles into the heavens by night, huge lava spouts arced skyward. A new lava flow a mile long, a quarter mile wide, and eight feet deep began slithering toward Naples.
Even so, Pompeii field seemed safe. “From our side we could see only the usual bubbling red cone and silhouette, no lava flowing,” one war diarist wrote. The 340th’s new commanding officer, Colonel Willis F. Chapman, decided to stay put. He wanted to keep attacking the enemy, and avoid tempting Luftwaffe night raiders by crowding nearby fields. He also had faith in locals’ assurances. Flights of B-25s kept hitting targets through March 20, as Vesuvius, in the words of a nervous airman, continued to “grunt like a giant pig.”
Events of March 21 called Chapman’s judgment into question. “Vesuvius going stronger than ever,” a squadron member dutifully recorded. “At suppertime blasts were getting to be one continual rumble and just after supper it began to seem that the whole top of the mountain was going to come off…the lava started to come down our side, dropping in big hot flows like metal in a foundry. The towns of San Sebastiano and Massa di Somma were being overrun by the lava today, a stream 50 feet high, slowly engulfing everything in its path. Trees, a hundred feet away, suddenly swell and burst from the expanding sap and are immediately consumed with fire.” GIs hauled terrified civilians to safety, the impromptu convoys blocked by camera-toting soldiers heading to the lava flow the locals were trying to escape.
Near midnight the mountain seemed to calm itself, but at 2 a.m. the crater began spewing pea-size pellets. By dawn on the 22nd, a “black snow storm” of ash was falling “and the missiles had grown to walnut size with occasional baseballs,” wrote Captain Everett Thomas of the 488th Bombardment Squadron. Lightning, a frequent accompaniment to volcanic eruptions, added to the spectacle. Bolts at the summit seemed to summon larger spouts of lava. Still, group headquarters, in that sumptuous villa some three miles from the flight line, did not grasp the situation. Command staff instructed ground crews to “keep the wings shoveled off and the planes protected as well as possible,” Thomas wrote.
Now the volcano was throwing superheated pyroclasts the size of footballs that shattered on impact to reveal glowing white-hot cores. “The phenomenon had passed a bit beyond the purely interesting stage,” a droll ground crewman reported. Chunks of hot rock smashed plane turrets and cockpits, ripping through fabric control surfaces. Despite frantic sweeping, heavy ash accumulated on wings and fuselages. Finally, after several hours of confusing orders and counter-orders, the group’s personnel evacuated the shattered base, leaving behind not only ruined aircraft but most of their equipment and personal possessions. In trucks and jeeps, the bedraggled convoy crept along roads covered by a foot of drifting volcanic ash.
A B-25 whose fabric control surfaces have burned away stands useless. (National Archives)
By nightfall the worst was over. Civil and military authorities tallied 28 dead, mostly locals. The personnel of the 340th got off very lightly the only injuries were a broken nose and a broken arm. GI medics treated evacuated civilians. The sight of San Sebastiano horrified one British soldier. “Where it had stood was nothing but a big slag heap of lava, and a memory,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “Bombs make a terrific row and leave ruins. Lava makes no sound and leaves—nothing.” The men of the 340th returned on March 25 to Pompeii field, hoping to find only scorched paint and fabric and destroyed Plexiglas. But heaped tons of volcanic ash had twisted wings and tail surfaces, reducing many bombers to scrap.
German radio propagandist Axis Sally ballyhooed the disaster, claiming Germany had nature on its side. “We got the colonel,” she crowed, referring to the captive Jones. “Vesuvius got the rest.” German radio claimed the group had been wiped out to the last man and ship. “She was nearer right than she knew on ships at least,” one squadron historian lamented.
ASH AND SOOT SIFTED from the sky for weeks, but the Avengers recovered swiftly. Only four days after the evacuation the group was flying again from a field near Paestum with six borrowed B-25s per squadron. Replacements returned the unit to full strength, using the latest model B-25, by mid-April. All 88 Mitchells at Pompeii—$25 million worth—seemed to be shot to hell, but maintenance crews cannibalized hulks until, by the end of April, they had 14 planes in working order. From Paestum the unit followed the Allied advance, relocating in late April 1944 to Alesan airfield on the east coast of Corsica, so checkered with American bases that crews nicknamed the island “USS Corsica.”
As the 340th resumed its attacks on German infrastructure, the press of combat pushed thoughts of Vesuvius to the side. Jones’s admonition to watch for enemy sorties became sidelined as well. Even unit war diaries noted that complacency was again setting in. Aside from the occasional nuisance raider or photo-recon snooper, the Luftwaffe had never brought a serious attack to bear on the 340th at any of its bases. Protection by Allied night fighters patrolling out of other Corsican fields added to the sense of invulnerability.
On May 12, 1944, the airmen gathered for movie night. The popular 1943 comedy Holy Matrimony, starring Gracie Fields and Monty Woolley, had men rolling in the aisles—even after they saw tracer fire to the north, which they assumed was from nuisance raiders. “Like children,” a squadron diarist recorded, everyone enjoyed the sight of streams of incendiary rounds.
What 340th personnel were seeing was a heavy Luftwaffe attack on Poretta airfield, 15 miles north and home to the fighters that guarded Corsica’s Allied bomber bases. The Germans, knowing an enemy offensive was in the works, had coordinated efforts to disrupt Allied air cover for that attack and take pressure off fellow defenders. The Junkers Ju 88 bombers that hit Poretta returned to Ghedi in northern Italy to rearm and refuel, and set out again—this time for Alesan.
At 3:30 a.m. on May 13, a German pathfinder laid flares among the base’s dispersed B-25s, many of them brimful of fuel and loaded with ordnance for the morning sortie. “The flares make the field appear as though there is a night baseball game being played back home,” a 489th Bombardment Squadron member wrote. “I can hear planes overhead but cannot see them.” Enemy fragmentation and light demolition bombs shredded the parked planes. “Planes continue to burn,” the writer continued. “It is a holocaust but an awe-inspiring one.”
A repair crew hoists a fresh nose into position to replace one the eruption destroyed. (National Archives)
The Luftwaffe killed nearly two dozen men and injured more than 75. Ground crews—some in slit trenches, others caught in the open—took especially heavy casualties. Several of the dead were new arrivals, their gear barely unpacked. Tightlipped airmen trudged to the medical tent to donate blood for the wounded. Of the 65 B-25s the Germans hit, 30 were total losses. Some Americans noted that Vesuvius had done worse damage, but most agreed with a squadron diarist’s sentiment: “Vesuvius was bad but man wreaks much greater destruction than nature.” The string of funerals hit the 340th hard. Men lamented their carelessness in days past, when wearing helmets and digging slit trenches “was considered almost cowardly,” a diarist wrote. “Have we learned a bitter lesson?” All four squadrons resolved that if the Luftwaffe returned, the Germans would find everyone at last dug in.
The 340th rebounded, mounting a mission the next day. Colonel Chapman stayed in command, and welcomed the newly freed Jones at war’s end. In September 1944 the group received another Distinguished Unit Citation—and in time became unexpectedly immortal. Eight days after the Alesan raid, a replacement bombardier arrived. Lieutenant Joseph Heller, 21, soaked up chatter about the attack, flew 60 combat missions, and throughout took heed of personalities and events on Corsica. In 1953 Heller began transmuting his war into fiction in 1961, Simon & Schuster published his novel Catch-22, which became a bestseller and remains in print.
But that is another story.
Originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of World War II magazine. Photos: National Archives
Archaeology breakthrough: 2,000-year-old find changing history of Roman Empire revealedLink copied
Archaeologist shares incredible 2,000-year-old discovery
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The Durotriges were one of the Celtic tribes living in Britain, prior to the Roman invasion in 43AD, who resided in modern Dorset, south Wiltshire, south Somerset and Devon. Dr Mike Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman history at Bournemouth University, who is co-director of a project looking into the transition from the Iron Age to the Roman period. In 2015, his team of archaeologists discovered five skeletons at Winterborne Kingston, which gave an incredible insight into life expectancy, religious views and diseases at the time.
Dr Russell revealed at a lecture that same year explaining why these finds provide insight into Britain before, during and after the Roman Empire.
He said: &ldquoWe can age them, find to what the life expectancy was, if they are male or female, what their relative health status was and how they got on through life.
&ldquoTheir status, of course, we can look at that, you can gather an idea from what&rsquos buried with them.
&ldquoWhat about their religion? Most the burials we&rsquore excavating have got evidence of the religion in that grave with them.
Five graves are shining light on the Roman Empire (Image: GETTY)
Dr Mike Russell was speaking in a lecture in 2015 (Image: YOUTUBE/TED)
they truly shine a light into the Dark Ages
Dr Mike Russell
&ldquoFor these people, they certainly believed in an afterlife, because they&rsquove got things with them for that journey, they&rsquove got pots and joints of meat, some have a sword, or a spear, or arrow.&rdquo
Dr Russell said his team had uncovered evidence of a possible deadly infection which may have struck the population during the invasion.
He added: &ldquoWe can look at an aspect of disease, these are two bones from one of those burials, the lesions in the ribs suggest there&rsquos some kind of respiratory disorder, possibly tuberculosis.
&ldquoFrom our point of view, that&rsquos quite exciting, because it&rsquos one of the earliest examples of that particular disease in Britain, so we&rsquore trying to understand the way the disease spread and how it affected the ancient population.
&ldquoWe&rsquove got two individuals here showing this distinct cranial trauma, so we can see they died violently, perhaps a pickaxe to the head.
The Roman Empire spanned across Britain (Image: GETTY)
&ldquoIs that evidence of inter-tribal warfare or sacrifice? Have they been executed or punished? By analysing these, we&rsquore looking at the types of battles that played out.&rdquo
Dr Russell went on to explain how why the graves suggest this population was not Christian.
He added: &ldquoThe series of five graves we found in Winterborne had three females and two males graves.
&ldquoThe male graves, we are dealing with individuals who are lying on their backs, their heads at the eastern end, so we can say straight away they&rsquore not Christian.
&ldquoThey&rsquove got grave goods, which early Christian communities didn&rsquot have.
&ldquoThere&rsquos another one and around the body there are little iron nails, indicating where the walls of the coffins were.
The bodies reveal the history of the Roman Empire (Image: YOUTUBE/TED)
One of the bodies had a pot that dated 50 years after the Empire (Image: YOUTUBE/TED)
&ldquoThe two male burials have got evidence that they were wearing shoes.&rdquo
But, there was one body that baffled the team more than the rest.
A woman who had reportedly died at around 80 and another 40, when life expectancy was thought to be about 30 years during the Roman Empire.
Mr Russell continued: &ldquoThere is a rather deviant burial too, this is an elderly woman, aged about 80, who&rsquos been decapitated, so the cause of death is quite clear.
&ldquoBut she is still buried with care reverence, and grave goods, so the question is, how did she meet this rather gory end?
&ldquoWhoever put her into the ground, was still giving her the right stuff for the afterlife.
&ldquoThe best find from my point of view is this one, another female burial who was about 40 when she died.