18 March 2016

Mount Vesuvius – the 1944 eruption

The last time the volcano was seen to blow its top

The volcano is being circled by American B-25 bombers
A dramatic picture of American B-25 Mitchell bombers
circling Vesuvius during the 1944 eruption
Mount Vesuvius, the huge volcano looming over the bay of Naples, last erupted on this day in 1944.

Vesuvius is the only volcano on mainland Europe to have erupted during the last 100 years and is regarded as a constant worry because of its history of explosive eruptions and the large number of people living close by.

It is most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and is believed to have killed thousands of people.

An eyewitness account of the eruption, in which tons of stones, ash and fumes were ejected from the cone, has been left behind for posterity by Pliny the Younger in his letters to the historian, Tacitus.

There were at least three larger eruptions of Vesuvius before AD 79 and there have been many since. In 1631 a major eruption buried villages under lava flows and killed about 300 people and the volcano then continued to erupt every few years.

Smoke billows from Vesuvius in this picture taken from San Sebastiano al Vesuvio, a village destroyed by lava
Smoke billows from Vesuvius in this picture taken from
San Sebastiano al Vesuvio, a village destroyed by lava
The eruption which started on 18 March 1944 and went on for several days destroyed three villages nearby and about 80 planes belonging to the US Army Air Forces, which were based at an airfield close to Pompeii. Some of the American military personnel took photographs of the eruption, which have been useful for today’s experts to analyse.

Since 1944 Vesuvius has been uncharacteristically quiet although it is constantly monitored for activity and an evacuation plan is in place. Experts believe seismic activity would give them between 14 and 20 days' notice of an impending eruption. 

The area was officially declared a national park in 1955. The crater is now open to visitors and there is access by road to within 200 metres of it, but after that the ascent is on foot only.

The crater is about 200 metres deep and has a maximum diameter of about 600 metres. The climb is said to be well worth it because the view from up there takes in the entire coastline from the Gulf of Gaeta to the Sorrento peninsula.

Travel tip:

The excavated ruins of Pompeii, gli scavi, are among the most popular tourist attractions in Italy and many important artefacts have been dug up. When Vesuvius started rumbling in August AD 79 and a sinister cloud began to form above it, some people left the area immediately. It is believed those who stayed died from the effects of the heat and their bodies were buried under the stones and ash for hundreds of years. Engineers rediscovered them while digging an acqueduct. The first organised excavations began in 1748 and the site soon became an attraction for wealthy Europeans on the Grand Tour.  Trains from the Circumvesuviana railway station in Naples run to Sorrento every half an hour, stopping at Pompei Scavi station. From the station it is a short walk to the main entrance to the archaeological site in Piazza Porta Marina. The ruins are open daily from 8.30 to 19.30 during the summer and from 8.30 to 17.00 between November and April.

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The ruins of the forum at Pompei with a now dormant Vesuvius visible in the distance
The ruins of the forum at Pompeii with a now
dormant Vesuvius visible in the distance
Travel tip:

Highlights of the excavations at Pompeii include Casa dei Vettii, where there are well preserved wall paintings, Via dell’Abbon- danza, where you will see the remains of shops, a tavern and a brothel, the main amphitheatre and the Villa dei Misteri, which is outside the walls of the city and has some colourful wall paintings depicting the myth of Dionysis.

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