'Titanic of train disasters': Italy finally commemorates hushed-up wartime tragedy that killed more than 600 people

Nick Squires
The disaster near Belvano is ranked as one of the worst and most unusual train accidents in the world

A freak wartime train accident which killed more than 600 Italians is to be finally commemorated amid claims that it was covered up by British and American authorities. 

On the night of March 2, 1944, a freight train packed with Italian civilians, who were travelling to the countryside in the desperate hope of buying food at a time of near starvation, stalled inside a steeply sloping tunnel.

Within minutes, the passengers, most of whom were sleeping, were asphyxiated by lethal carbon monoxide fumes from the coal that fueled the steam locomotives.

Ranked as one of the worst and most unusual train accidents in the world, it happened near the town of Balvano in the region of Basilicata, when southern Italy was under the administration of the Allies, who had retaken it from German and Fascist Italian forces after staging amphibious landings in Sicily. 

It was the Titanic of train disasters, but unlike the Titanic it is barely known

Gianluca Barneschi

“It was the Titanic of train disasters, but unlike the Titanic it is barely known,” Gianluca Barneschi, a historian who has written a book about the disaster, Balvano 1944, told The Telegraph.  “It was covered up by both the Allies and the Italians. For the Allies it was a potential public relations disaster – people whom they had liberated died on a freight train in a desperate bid to get food to feed their families.” 

The Allies were accused of censoring the story because it was an embarrassment and they were fearful of the impact it would have on civilian morale, while the Italian authorities tried to pass off responsibility to the British and Americans. 

On March 3, a commemorative stone will be laid in a ceremony that will be attended by relatives of the victims, mayors from the region and politicians.

“It will be the first time that national authorities in Italy will recognise the disaster,” said Mr Barneschi, who found classified documents about the accident at the National Archives in Kew, London.

“At the time that it happened, the Italian authorities claimed that all the people who died were smugglers and bootleggers and that none of them had bought tickets. 

“It was all part of the propaganda and it was very unfair, because most of them had, in fact, paid their fare.”

The civilians boarded freight train no. 8017 in Naples. Their objective was to travel into the countryside to buy eggs, butter, chickens and other products, partly to feed themselves and partly to trade on the black market. 

The Balvano railway station, with the station master pointing at the direction where the train left

The economy of the south was shattered after years of occupation and war and many people in towns such as Salerno and Naples were close to starvation. 

As the British Army intelligence officer Norman Lewis recounted in his classic wartime memoir Naples ’44, many women were driven to prostitution in order to obtain food for themselves and their children. “We were hoping to barter for things to eat – flour, olive oil, things like that,” Giovanni Scutiero, a survivor of the disaster, told an Italian television documentary.

Passenger trains had either been destroyed in bombing or been commandeered by the Allies, so civilians had to resort to travelling on freight trains. “The situation was disastrous. There were very few trains available,” Luigi Quaratino, a former railway telegraphist, told a History Channel documentary on the tragedy.

Train no. 8017 travelled into the mountains but, sometime after midnight, stalled in a mile-long tunnel near the town of Balvano, with around 700 passengers on board.

It had been raining hard, and the wheels of the locomotives spun on the wet tracks as they tried to haul 45 freight cars. Without knowing they were in danger, the passengers and engine crews were poisoned to death by carbon monoxide fumes emitted by the two locomotives that were hauling the train.

The Allies and the Italians blamed each other for the disaster. There was a typical ping-pong game of assigning responsibility

Gianluca Barneschi

The alarm was finally raised by survivors in the early hours of March 3, 1944, hours after the train had stalled. When rescuers finally reached the tunnel, they found a terrible scene - the freight cars were crammed with dead bodies. 

“I managed to survive but my uncle, my son – they died,” said Mr Scutiero, one of the few survivors. The bodies of 626 men, women and children were laid out on the platform of Balvano station.  Allied soldiers initially suggested burning the bodies en masse, but locals protested and the corpses were buried, without ceremony, in a mass grave in the town’s cemetery.

The tragedy was described by one contemporary newspaper report as “probably the most unusual and the most ghastly catastrophe in the history of world railroading.”

An investigation was launched, but nobody was ever prosecuted over the tragedy, which remains one of the world’s deadliest train disasters.  The Italians and Allies blamed the accident on the poor quality of coal used by the locomotives, which conveniently avoided the need for individuals to be found responsible. 

With so many lives being lost every day as Allied forces battled their way north against determined German resistance, the disaster was quickly forgotten in the wider tragedy of the war. 

Memories of the accident were further blotted out when Balvano was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1980, with dozens of people killed. “The Allies and the Italians blamed each other for the disaster. There was a typical ping-pong game of assigning responsibility,” said Mr Barneschi. “It was all covered up – a further insult to the memory of the victims and their relatives.”   

Mr Barneschi has previously written a book about a British secret agent who parachuted behind enemy lines during the Second World War and played a key part in securing Italy’s unconditional surrender.

Richard Mallaby, known to his friends as Dick, was a debonair agent with Special Operations Executive who was described by his peers as having ice-cold courage.

The young agent’s dramatic entry into the war came in August 1943 when he parachuted, at night and alone, from a Halifax bomber into Lake Como in northern Italy.

Codenamed “Olaf” for his blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the first Briton to be sent to Italy as an SOE operative.

His wartime exploits were commemorated last year at a ceremony in the town of Asciano in Tuscany, where he spent his youth.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes