An Army of Opera Lovers: The Resurrection of the Teatro di San Carlo during the Allied occupation of Naples

Teatro

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. The news that the theatre was about to reopen and in need of workers quickly spread around the city causing excitement among the Neapolitans. The first production of the theatre’s new course was an improvised Italian revue significantly titled So this is Naples.

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A Nice Cup of Tea

A woman in a grubby coat sorting items salvaged from her home stops to drink a cup of tea given to her by a member of the Salvation Army. Lytcott Grove / Playfield Crescent, Dulwich, London, 18 January 1943. © IWM HU 136931.

George Orwell calculated that the tea ration - 2oz per week during the Second World War - could be eked out to twenty cups a week. So important was tea considered to be for the welfare of the nation that pensioners were allocated a slightly larger ration. Orwell’s ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, published in 1946, illustrates its importance in British culture. He described the eleven stages required for making the perfect cup of tea, the etiquette surrounding tea-drinking and the varied uses for tea leaves from fortune-telling to cleaning carpets. Whether it was Lyons Green Label, Typo, Brooke Bond or Twinings, tea - along with cocoa for children - is referred to in numerous accounts about London during the Second World War as the favoured drink after bombing raids. Its importance is reflected in a significant number of photographs in the 'London bomb damage’ section of the Ministry of Information Press & Censorship Bureau Photograph Library at IWM London, which show both the realities for bombed Londoners as well as carefully staged propaganda shots. Londoners gathered together in groups drinking tea is a favoured trope in this archive.  

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The occupation of northern France in the First World War

German troops marching through the main square in Lille for the ceremony of Changing the Guard. © IWM (Q 55207)

In works on French history, the word ‘Occupation’ (often capitalised) is heavily associated with the Occupation of the Second World War, France’s ‘Dark Years’ of 1940–44. However, whilst this was and remains the defining experience of military occupation for the French, there were other instances of this phenomenon in the country’s modern history. In the case of the First World War, when the war of movement subsided in September – October 1914 around 2.1 million French people found themselves cut off from the rest of the country by the trench networks running from the coast to the Swiss border.

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From Desk to Trench

Recruits file into a recruiting office. Treaty Lodge, Hounslow, the HQ of the 8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, September 1917

In 1917 George Elliott Dodds, a writer and editor at the Department of Information, suggested publishing a series of photographically illustrated booklets showing various war activities on the Home Front. After three years of war, the potential propaganda value of such publications for combating war weariness and maintaining domestic morale was recognised.

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Working Lives and Memories of the Home Front

Part-time women war workers inspect cables in the Inspection Department of the ‘factory’ at Perrings furniture showrooms. They are producing electrical equipment for the Royal Air Force.

War generates unique and unexpected experiences in civilians’ ordinary lives. But war can also exist as a surprisingly uneventful setting for everyday working lives. At the European Social Sciences and History Conference three talks encouraged me to consider ways in which war work impacted civilians’ ordinary lives through memories that reclaim, forget and negotiate popular experiences of the Second World War.

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Resistance to the First World War Conference

Community day: Conscientious objection and resistance to the first world war

Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort.

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The Imperial War Museum Sound Collection

The Imperial War Museum Sound Archive contains well over 60,000 hours of professionally recorded, documented and preserved material.

As we look forward to the New Year and begin to plan the various projects which will keep us busy over 2016, it is always useful to take a step back and consider the progress already made.  For over forty years, IWM has preserved one of the most important sound archives of its kind in the world.  Established in 1972, the Department of Sound Records, as it was then called, was an offspring of the museum’s Library which at that point included a handful of gramophone records.  The following decades saw the collection grow in size until, following a major restructuring in 2010, it was merged wi

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“Cricket balls that were on fire". The RAF squadrons in the supply drops for the Warsaw Uprising, August 1944

A German prisoner being led away by troops of the Kiliński Battalion, Home Army after the capture of the PAST building on Zielna Street, 20 August 1944. © IWM HU 31070.

On 1st August 2009 I visited Warsaw to take part in the 65th anniversary commemorations. The occasion was organised by the ambitiously conceived Museum of the Warsaw Uprising which tells the story of this epic event.  On 1st August 1944 soldiers of the Polish Home Army, supported by citizens of Warsaw, rose up against the German occupiers. After five years of occupation,  “Operation Bagration” had brought the Red Army to the gates of the Polish capital.

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‘Visions from Above and Below’ at IWM, London

Simon Black, ‘The Martyr’, oil on canvas, © The Estate of Simon Black, Art.IWM ART 17558.

Visions of War Above and Below’ curated by Claire Brenard at IWM London explores how artists have used both the aerial perspective and that ‘from below’ to explore how these different, at times dramatic perspectives, can convey both power and vulnerability in the face of modern warfare.

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Versions of everyday survival in 1950s Britain: feeling fear without worrying.

Crown Film Unit production, The Waking Point, Film still, [00:14:32]; (Britain: Central Office of Information, 1951) IWM Collections; COI 1181.

The Cold War launched a new series of threats on Britain - from invasion by communists to atomic warfare. The military and moral implications of this ideological battle meant that fear was ever-present in the public sphere. My Collaborative Partnership PhD asks whether fear really was the most widely held emotion in 1950s Britain. At the British Social and Cultural History conference, held from 31 March to 2 April, I will be presenting my initial thoughts on this topic, using evidence gained through oral history interviews.

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