A historian who leads tours of Pompeii used to rely on Pliny the Younger for a powerful eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried the ancient city. Now he can enlighten visitors with another first-hand description of the volcano’s fury — from his own grandfather.
British historian, archaeologist and author Dr Simon Elliott discovered that, during the Second World War, George Stokes was stationed less than five miles from the hotel where the tour groups he leads now stay. Stokes witnessed the most recent eruption of Vesuvius, in March 1944, and left a previously unpublished account of the soaring ash column and “merciless” flow of molten rocks and lava that evokes Pliny’s letters describing the eruption of 79AD.
Elliott, 57, of Mereworth in Kent, grew up hearing about the war service of his grandfather, who died in 1990. However, despite years of leading tour groups around the ruins of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum — which were preserved under layers of volcanic ash — he hadn’t realised how closely he was following in Stokes’ footsteps until this summer. “I never put two and two together until my dad — out of the blue this year, when he was following my social media posts from Pompeii — said, ‘You do realise where George was based? it’s next to where your hotel is now.'”
After seeing action in France, North Africa and Campania, Stokes, a Sapper, served as the senior electrician at 103rd British General Hospital at Nocera Inferiore just northwest of Cava de ‘Tirreni, where Elliot’s Andante Travels groups stay. In a typed postwar account, the former coal miner from Nottinghamshire, described the extraordinary sight that greeted him on his morning stroll on March 18, 1944.
He said: “The day started like any other in wartime Italy. It promised to be a warm spring day, dust flying everywhere as the heavy war transport drove by going to the 5th and 8th Army fronts, driving inland from the ports of Naples and Salerno … This particular morning I had not been out very long when I noticed the sky was clouding over. Then something I had not expected — fine rain began to fall. I was only dressed in bush shirt and K.D. drill shorts and after it had been raining a few minutes I noticed that my shirt was covered with a rusty coloured dusty powder which I brushed off with my handkerchief. Then it started to accumulate on my clothes again. Looking around I turned towards the hills and saw that the crater of Vesuvius was not only smoking as I had observed the day before but was sending up a dusty cloud.”
“GOD! what a sight to behold. Flames and rock shooting miles into the sky”George Stokes, March 1944
The eruption would go on to kill 26 Italian civilians and displace around 12,000. The scale of the disaster was far smaller than that of 79AD when up to 16,000 people died in Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding areas. Nevertheless, it came on the heels of heavy fighting in the vicinity following the Allied landings around Salerno in September 1943 in which Stokes had taken part. He remembered that, on March 18, civilians were already on the move after hearing the volcano grumbling and feeling minor tremors.
He continued: “During the day the sky continued to darken and the noise increased and flame belched from the top of Vesuvius. Then large chunks of rock and lava erupted from the crater and slid down the mountainside, slowly and mercilessly, overwhelming it. GOD! what a sight to behold. Flames and rock shooting miles into the sky. I just stood and watched it. It fascinated me, it was fantastic, an unbelievable sight I cannot correctly describe it. It was like a GIGANTIC VOLCANO FIREWORK as used on Guy Fawkes night.
“Days after the eruption had ended the dust was 3″ to 4″ underfoot and slowly the lava streams were solidifying and it was obvious that the volcano was now settling down again.”
Stokes recalled military transport being used to help in the evacuations, and seeing displaced civilians carrying their few remaining possessions. He said: “The big clean-up of the surrounding towns and villages was done with civilian labour and military trucks. The hospital grounds and surrounding areas were cleaned by military personnel… If the eruption of 79AD which buried Pompeii and surrounding villages is anything to go by it must have gone on for weeks.”
Describing his reaction to reading his grandfather’s words, Elliott said: “It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because, professionally, I’m using lots of academic and scientific terms to describe the Plinian eruption, saying that the column went up 30km and there were six pyroclastic flows. It was only the last pyroclastic flow that destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed by the first pyroclastic flow, and there’s tens of metres’ worth of volcanic material burying everything around the whole Bay of Naples. But that’s scientific and academic. What you’re getting from George’s account is first-person testimony about what it was like to see an eruption. It works on two levels, because you’re getting an analogous insight into what it would be like to be underneath an eruption of Vesuvius. Then you’re getting first-person testimony about serving in the Second World War.”
Stokes was 24 when the war started in September 1939. He had signed up for the Territorial Army beforehand as he did not want to be exempted from service as an essential worker. He was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force and served there until he was evacuated from Calais. He later served in the Middle East and North Africa, fighting in the Second Battle of El Alamein and in Operation Torch — the Allied invasion of French North Africa.
In addition to serving with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment), he revealed in old age that, in North Africa, he had some involvement with the Long Range Desert Group — the reconnaissance and raiding unit that worked with the Special Air Service, as portrayed in TV series SAS: Rogue Heroes.
In September 1943, the young married father landed at Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche and was injured in an explosion. It was a case of diphtheria, however, that brought him to be treated at 103rd British General Hospital. After he recovered, he was unfit to continue in frontline service and stayed on at the hospital as chief electrician, servicing equipment including iron lungs for tuberculosis patients.
It is evident from Stokes’ recollections that he was well aware of the account of the eruption of 79AD in letters by Pliny the Younger who witnessed it from Misenum, on the northern headland of the Bay of Naples. The Roman author wrote: “The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it. On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger.”
He described how, later, “We were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to stand up to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap.”
Scientists now believe that most of the victims of 79AD were not killed by fast-flowing lava but instead asphyxiated by clouds of hot ash and gas. Among the dead was Pliny the Elder, the uncle of the explosion’s chronicler. The elder Pliny, an author, naturalist and naval commander, was mounting a rescue expedition when he was overwhelmed at Stabiae, south of Pompeii.
It isn’t only at Pompeii and Herculaneum that Elliott now uses his grandfather’s story. He said: “I take people on tours of Paestum [southeast of Salerno] and the three wonderful Greek temples there. In 1943, that was a battleground where American troops landed and pushed the Germans back. On that day of the tour I talk about George as we’re driving down the Bay of Salerno. I can point to the mountains on our left and say, ‘That was ringed with German artillery and they were looking down, hitting everybody where we are’. That adds real insight into the modern history that’s there as well as the classical. George’s testimony adds really vivid colour.”
He added: “George was a fantastic grandfather. He was a modest man, but a strong man and a proper head of the family. He was very proud of his activities during the war.”
The top image shows the eruption of Vesuvius in March 1944, as photographed from Naples. Photo: Alamy