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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Underground Rome - the Royal bunker from World War II

Our guide points out the enormous double doors through which a car - carrying King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena - could be driven into the bunker.  The doors still have their rubber gaskets (to keep out poison gas).
The "bunker" built for the King and Queen of Italy to protect them from Allied bombing in World War II is now open for tours by the group that restored it - Roma Sotteranea ("Underground Rome"). The bunker is a fascinating reminder of the days of WWII and of Italy's role in the war.

Entrance to bunker today.

Villa Savoia, today, in the re-named Villa Ada,
one of Rome's largest and 'wildest' parks.
The building - Villa Savoia - now houses the Egyptian Embassy.
The underground space, at the southern end of Villa Ada, is about a quarter mile from the Royals' then home, Villa Savoia, but of course they weren't expected to walk that far under threat of bombardment, and no tunnels or underground walkways have been found. So the assumption is that they were driven to the bunker from their villa, hence also the need for a bunker large enough to accommodate cars.

A view of Mussolini's bunker under Villa Torlonia
According to Roma Sotteranea's archival work, the bunker was built from an extant underground area that held cast-off clothes the Queen periodically gave to the poor.  Though no records exist (and this is thought to be because the Royals didn't want the plans for the bunker to fall into the wrong hands), Roma Sotteranea estimates the bunker was built in 1940-42.

Mussolini apparently encouraged the King and Queen to have a bunker.  He had one for himself under Villa Torlonia, the site of one of his homes, a bunker we have visited (closed to tours since about October 2016 - not clear why).

There are no bedrooms in the Savoys' bunker. The assumption is that this was an area of temporary - not overnight - reprieve from bombing.  There is a 'living room,' complete with tea service, and two bathrooms.

There were various methods to prevent exposure to poison gas - the Italian government feared the Allies would use it, as Italy had in its African colonies.  Besides the rubber seals on the doors and other openings, there are existing gas masks and other devices to provide fresh air.  If power went out, there was a bicycle to be used to provide man-made power.  A servant would peddle to provide energy.
Gas mask and other accessories from World War II.

On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was at the Villa, possibly hiding in the bunker, when he was arrested just after meeting with the King.  On September 8, 1943, after a truce was signed with the Allies, the King and Queen left the villa for good.  On September 9, they left Italy.

Stai rcase leading to escape
hatch in park.  The materials
used were all first class -
like one would use in
the royal villa itself.
The bunker fell into disuse from September 8, 1943, and was the site of considerable desecration.  Roma Sotteranea crews spent almost 3000 hours beginning in 2015 working to restore it.
Before the intervention of Roma Sotteranea

Tours of the bunker generally are scheduled on the weekends and must be reserved well in advance.  The cost is 10 Euros.  As of now, tours are only in Italian. Information on the bunker is available in English on Roma Sotteranea's web site:


The bunker is circular - schematic below.


Unknown said...

Just a few lines to remind you that:
1. Italians used gas in Abyssinia war after Ethiopians used expanding ("dum dum") bullets and emasculated prisoners before killing them;
2. In 1943 an Allied (not Italian) ship in the harbour of Bari exploded with her freight of mustard gas, which was secretly carried in order to be used if necessary. By Allies, not by Italians.

Anonymous said...

Just to be clear, the allies did not use chemical weapons in WWII, but the Italians in the 1920's and 30's did against not only Ethiopia but Libya to widespread international condemnation. Both the Italians and Germans had significant stockpiles of chemical weapons in WWII which the allies were afraid might be used against them. To prevent this, they threatened retaliation against any use of chemical weapons against allied troops and this threat largely succeeded in preventing German use of chemical weapons against allied troops (though not, of course, against the millions of concentration camp victims). The allied ship that was carrying a secret cargo of chemical weapons, the SS John Harvey, was doing so in the event the allies needed to retaliate against German use of chemical weapons in Italy. Fortunately, that didn't happen. Unfortunately, the Germans bombed allied ships in Bari causing many deaths, including those killed when the ship carrying the chemical weapons exploded. A terrible tragedy, yes. But moral equivalence, no.