Friday 13 July 2012

Edda Mussoloni nursed on a hopsital ship

I'm just finishing writing a chapter about British women nursing on hospital ships in wartime, and I couldn't resist creating a panel about this Fascist celebrity nurse being bombed on the hospital ship Po in 1941.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s favourite daughter Edda Ciano nursed on hospital ships (navi ospedale) from November 1940 to 1943. She hadn’t finished the two-year Italian Red Cross training but her famous father persuaded them to take her. A 30-year-old mother she left her children behind (in Turin.

On Helen Dashwood's blog ( I found more information about Edda on her hospital ship (Helen has just written an ebook The Driving Ambition of Edda Mussolini.)

On the former Lloyd Triestino Navigation liner, newly converted into a hospital ship Edda (1910-1995) had her own separate cabin, separate from the fully trained nurses. It was probably it was more to meet the high-status needs of Il Duce’s distinguished relative than to segregate the amateurs from the professionals. In that case she would have shared a multi-berth inboard cabin.

It’s not clear how much this lover-loving socialite was on board. Her autobiography My Truth contains nothing on bedpans and mal de mer.

On Friday 14 March 1941, during the Greco-Italian War, Edda was reading a PG Wodehouse novel on the Po just offshore at Valona (the Albanian port now called Vlorë) when the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers attacked.

The British held that Italy’s seven smaller hospital ships were 'fair targets' as they were actually used as carriers to pick up ditched air crews. But some of the eleven larger hospital ships, such as the Po, were sometimes attacked too. At least ten had been hit by May 1943.

The Po sank, in 16 fathoms of water. An unknown number of people died. Edda swam to the shore. Her autobiography records that once her father learned she was safe he told her husband ‘"Edda must immediately resume her duties so as to set a good example." That is what I intended to do, but I had to wait for a new nurse’s uniform. Galeazzo [Ciano, my husband] did not understand how my father could be so phlegmatic.’

Edda was not the only celebrity nurse at sea. Susanna Agnelli of the famous Fiat dynasty also nursed on hospital ships during WW2, when only 18. As all eleven of the large navi ospedale were attacked at some point she would have been in a disaster. Later Italy's first woman Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli’s autobiography is, ironically, called Vestivamo alla marinara (We always wore sailor suits). Edda’s were surely haute couture.

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