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© IWM, LBY 83 / 726: The façade of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, in 1943. Photos and quotations extracted from F. Fesel’s personal account, titled: ‘San Carlo souvenir: Personal Impressions of a Season of Opera at the San Carlo Opera House, Naples – 1943/44’.

“The place seemed to be a theatre. The doors were locked and he wanted to enter. […] The place had been hit, and a bomb had made a big opening there and, before he realized what he was doing, he was climbing up over piles of masonry, and was soon among the ruins of the former lounge.”

On 4 November 1943, just over a month after the first Allied troops entered war-torn Naples, Lt. Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery made his first acquaintance with the ruins of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in the world. The theatre had been closed in 1942 and it was now in a terrible state: bomb damage had blasted the foyer, debris and layers of dust covered the internal surfaces, there was no electricity or water and a German machine gun nest was still installed on its roof. The British requisitioned the building and, under Peter Francis’s authority, on 15 November 1943, with the frontline just 30 miles away, the theatre officially re-opened its doors to soldiers and civilians.

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During the First World War, the troops made an effort to mark Christmas, despite the obvious difficulties. Words, objects and images from Imperial War Museums’ collections and elsewhere reveal how the soldiers negotiated some space for family, sharing and festivity.

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Image of Inscription on a cell wall in the former Gestapo headquarters at 145 Via Tasso, Rome. Today it is the site of a resistance museum, the Museo Storico della Liberazione. © Roderick Bailey

Inscription on a cell wall in the former Gestapo headquarters at 145 Via Tasso, Rome. Today it is the site of a resistance museum, the Museo Storico della Liberazione. © Roderick Bailey

The Special Operations Executive was a secret British organization set up in 1940 to encourage resistance and carry out sabotage in enemy-occupied territory. As the seventh of SOE’s official historians, I have the task of researching and writing the history of SOE’s cloak-and-dagger work against Fascist Italy between 1940, when Mussolini declared war on Britain and France, and 1943, when Italy reached an armistice with the Allies.

It is a unique piece of work that is a privilege to undertake. The public image of SOE remains dominated by the exploits of its agents in Nazi-occupied France, but its reach was global, and opportunities to shed light on SOE activities in countries other than France are important. In the case of Mussolini’s Italy, the risks run by SOE agents who were prepared to resist the Fascists were immense. Italy was an enemy country, not an enemy-occupied one, and anti-Fascist Italians who volunteered to return as secret agents faced a traitor’s fate if caught. The courage of those Italians who were prepared to face the firing squads deserves recognition, and stands as an effective counter to enduring images of Italy’s fighting abilities.

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