Nowhere at first was there any armed insurrectionary movement. We realize from this how complete had been the collapse of the organized patriotic states of the World War period. They had no national newspapers, no diplomats, no Foreign Offices any more. There had been no paper for the former and there had been no salaries for the latter. Lacking vocal organs, nationalism as such was silenced. There were, however, protests, in a considerable variety of ineffectiveness, from local self-appointed bodies, and much passive resistance and failure to comply. But even the removal of the winged sign was infrequent, and usually where that occurred nothing further ensued when the air police came whirring out of the sky to replace it.
This phase of tacit acquiescence was, however, only temporary, until the opposition could gather itself into new forms and phases and discover methods of organization. The elements of antagonism were abundant enough. The Fascist garrison in Rome, claiming to be the government of all Italy, was one of the earliest to make its challenge. It had a number of airmen, unlicensed for various reasons by the Transport Control, and it now sent a detachment of its Black Shirts to occupy the new aeroplane factory outside the old Roman town of Turin, and to seize a small aerodrome and whatever air material was to be found in it at Ostia. The winged disc at these two places was replaced by the national fasces. A proclamation was made and disseminated as widely as the restricted means of publication permitted, calling for an assembly of the old League of Nations and reviving a long defunct phrase of President Wilson’s, “the self-determination of peoples.” The King of Italy, after a diligent search, was found inoffensively farming in Piedmont, and the long closed palace of the Quirinal was reopened and made habitable for him.
The new air police had been waiting with a certain impatience for provocation of this sort. It had been equipped with a new type of gas bomb releasing a gas called Pacificin, which rendered the victim insensible for about thirty-six hours and was said to have no further detrimental effect. With this it now proceeded to “treat” the long resented customs house at Ventimiglia and the factory and aerodrome in dispute.
At Ostia the police planes found a complication of the situation.
An extraordinary ceremony was in progress in the aerodrome. Three new aeroplanes had just been brought thither from the Turin factory, and they were being blessed by the Pope (Pope Alban III).
For the still vital Catholic Church had always been given to the blessing of implements, shops, boats, bridges, automobiles, flags, guns, battleships, new buildings and the like. It was a ceremony that advertised the Church, gratified the faithful, and did no perceptible harm to the objects blessed. And this particular occasion had been made something of a demonstration against the World Council. The Pope had come; the King and the reigning Duce were present. Sound films made only a few minutes before the arrival of the air police show a gathering as brilliant, with its uniforms and canonicals, as anything that might have occurred before the World War. Choristers in cassocks and charming little lace collars chant, acolytes swing censers; the venerable Holy Father sits on a throne under a canopy, on a large crimson-draped platform. There was a muster of at least three thousand Black Shirts.
The action of the Council commander, Luigi Roselli, was precipitate.
The subsequent enquiry intimates pretty clearly that he betrayed anti-clerical bias. He had been chosen for this task because he was himself an Italian, and so, it was thought, less likely to exacerbate any latent nationalist feeling. (It is an interesting sidelight on the times that the Fascist commandatore on the ground was Mario Roselli, his elder half-brother.) His general instructions had been to seize the aerodrome and the aeroplanes with as little violence as possible. The Pacificin was only to be used in case of armed resistance. But the sight of the cassocks, the birettas, the canopies and ornaments and robes, the sound of chanting and the general ecclesiastical atmosphere were too much for the young man’s prejudices. His squadron circled in formation over the aerodrome. The ceremony proceeded with dignity in spite of the noise of his propellers. For it seemed incredible that any human being would dare to gas the Pope.
“Let go,” said Luigi Roselli, too malicious to realize the brutality of his outrage.
The gas containers came crashing into the arena.
“Just for a moment,” says one of the aviators concerned, in a memorable letter, “the chanting rose louder. They showed pluck, those priests. Hardly one of them broke ranks. Then they crumpled up in their places, drifting down on their knees for the most part. It was queer the way you saw the gas spreading among them; it was like a bed of flowers dying and the death spreading out from a lot of centres. The old boy on the throne didn’t turn a hair. He had his hands together and his head bowed. You couldn’t tell when it took him. The Fascist guard and the King’s party weren’t anything like so dignified. They gesticulated, they yelled. They were defiant and all that. And some ran about a bit before the stuff got them.
“Of course, you must understand, the whole lot thought they were being killed. None of them could have known anything of this new stuff. We didn’t know until a fortnight ago.
“We had no gas masks on our bird, so I didn’t take part in the landing party which seized the new ’planes.
“The last I saw of that aerodrome, it looked like some old Turkish carpet, gone threadbare in places but still with some brightish patches. Perfect garden of sleep. I hope nobody robbed any of them before they came to. But Roselli, I believe, dropped proper instructions about it all in Rome. . . . ”
Unhappily the raid had not been so completely bloodless as this young man supposed. A youthful priest, Odet Buanarotti, had been struck on the head by one of the glass containers and killed outright. He was subsequently canonized; the last saint and martyr to be inscribed in the Latin hagiography. . . .
At this point Raven’s written transcript breaks off abruptly.