I’m not sure about the height of Vesuvius, but I think it is about 4,500 feet. It has two peaks, Vesuvius being the highest by about 200 feet or so, while the other ends abruptly in a jagged edge. This was the volcano which caused such devastation to Pompeii and the neighbourhood in AD79. The whole thing is a perfect cone shape rising straight out of the great dead-flat plain of Naples. (We were located in Caserta Palace, about 15 miles away.)
For the greater part of the winter the upper half is covered in snow, and from the crater came a varying amount of smoke, not much more than from a factory chimney. One afternoon, when Jeff and I were out for a walk, we noticed a greater amount of smoke than usual, but thought no more about it. After dark, however, we noticed a deep red glow on the peak, and could see molten lava being thrown high in the sky and cascading down over the sides. It was a most amazing sight, and we watched it for some time. We still didn’t realise quite what was happening until we read in the morning papers that Vesuvius had given its most spectacular display for 15 years.
It got more and more spectacular as the days went by, and we saw millions of tons of molten rock slithering down the sides. The papers were saying this was the worst eruption for over two hundred years. Unfortunately, it was rather misty on many days, and all we could see was the steam and smoke from the streams of lava, which, by the fifth day, were almost down to the plain. It was much better at night as we could clearly see the lava being thrown high into the sky every few seconds, to fall back in a great cascade on the mass already moving down the mountain. All we could see of the stream lower down was the glow from burning trees and the face of the thirty-foot wall of lava advancing on the towns of San Sebastiano and Cercola, at 300 yards an hour. These were soon evacuated.
The slopes of Vesuvius are covered by some of the best vineyards in the country, and the whole area is very heavily cultivated. Hundreds of acres of this valuable land were being swallowed up never to see the light of day again. The uncanny part of this is that this was nature in action, and no one could do anything about it.
Ray Small, working in a special communications unit in Calcutta around a year after the eruption
San Sebastiano was the first town to get it. One evening I was listening to Advanced Press Headquarters where correspondents broadcast their reports to England and the States. None of the reporters mentioned the war – it was Vesuvius and nothing else. They broadcast a recording by two National Broadcasting Company commentators. They had spent a day with a portable up on the slopes, and they seemed to be having a hot time of it.
These guys had gone up so far that you could clearly hear the terrific roar as the lava shot out almost continually. Later they went into San Sebastiano and watched it slowly disappear. They said that in all their experience as war reporters, they had never seen such systematic and complete destruction. When 2,000 bombers wrecked Cassino, there were still skeletons of buildings, rubble and the rough outlines of the town to be seen, and the noise had been terrific.
In San Sebastiano they said there was a deathlike quiet except for a faint gurgle as the black crust of the lava broke and a mass of white-hot rock oozed out to advance a few more yards. About a third of the town had already gone; where it had stood was nothing but a big slag heap of lava, and a memory. Of the houses and shops that were there, neither stick nor stone remained in sight and would perhaps never see the light of day again. Bombs make a terrific row and leave ruins. Lava makes no sound and leaves – nothing.
Can you imagine a 10 to 30 foot mass of molten rock slowly engulfing Wembley High Street, and, when it is all over, not a stone was left in sight? Sounds crazy, but that’s the way it is. The lava slowly approaches a building, the heat setting it on fire, and starts seeping through doors and windows like a lot of thick treacle. The lava continues to flow in as into a mould, until the pressure of thousands of tons of molten rock becomes too much, and the building collapses, sinking through the thin crust and disappearing for ever.
The first stage of the eruption, when the lava was being thrown out, lasted about eight days. During this period, unknown millions of tons had been thrown out over the side, converting the mountain into a giant shifting slag heap. The main stream coming down the “Valley of the Inferno” had, at different times, caused the evacuation of three or four towns and several smaller places. San Sebastiano, along with scattered farms, was the only town obliterated and there had been no casualties.
The second, most amazing, awe-inspiring and fantastic stage followed. The lava stopped coming up, and in its place came smoke and volcanic ash. These came in such quantities as to be impossible to imagine. Gigantic, dense billows of smoke gushed up to 9,000 feet and more, before the wind could deviate it from the vertical. It was an amazing sight, and impossible to describe. It wasn’t just a vast plume, it was a dense, billowy, purple mass against the bright blue sky. The second day of this stage produced the most amazing sight of the whole eruption. The whole quivering, white-hot top of Vesuvius blew off with a terrific roar and a colossal, billowing mass of smoke and ash shot up to a height of three miles. It was really a most ridiculous and fantastic sight, this massive purple, black and pink mass soaring up into the sky.
It was the day after this that several of us decided to go and have a closer look at all this. It was another swell day, and as we drove the fifteen miles, we could see everything to perfection. As we got nearer and nearer, the gigantic mass of smoke towered higher and higher above us. It was continually billowing in and out, and the sun gave it every colour from black, grey and white to purple, blue, red etc.
Towering thousands of feet above us like that made us feel very tiny indeed, believe me. There was this colossal mass of smoke towering up into the heavens and merging to the right with a dense brownish fog. As we entered this fog, the sun vanished and it became very gloomy. We were rather puzzled at first to see that everyone was using some sort of head covering – umbrellas, saucepans and such like. We also noticed that everything was covered with what looked like rust-coloured snow, and the noise from the car on the road subsided into a quiet hiss. We therefore stopped and got out to see what all this was about.
Imagine our surprise when we were stung by millions of minute particles of rock. They were small, but they stung, and were thick enough to cause a fog. We got back in the car and went in search of a road up. We passed through a number of villages, and they were all strangely deserted. What with that, the gloom, the ash on the road silencing everything, and the great mass of smoke above us, it made us feel very queer. We went as far as we could in the car and then went on foot to look for the lava. Tons of ash were still coming down and I rearranged my cap to stop it going down my neck. Instead, I got it in my hair, and it took me three days to get it all out.
Unfortunately, we could not get very close to the lava as barricades were in place, but we got fairly near a great wall of it which was coming over a ridge towards us. We had a wonderful view where we were, however. We were only at the base of it, of course, but the smoke was going straight over the top of us, and was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen.
The second phase of smoke and ash lasted for about two weeks, gradually dropping off the whole time. No one had been hurt in the lava, but about twenty people died in the ash, either through houses collapsing under the weight of it, or, in some cases, from asphyxiation. That will give you some idea how thickly the ash came down at some stages. Needless to say, this ash has ruined crops over a vast area. Places as far away as Salerno and the Isle of Capri received it. Long term, however, the areas of ash become very productive agricultural land. The smoke was so immense at one time that chickens went to roost in Bari on the east coast, and it continued across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia.
It’s all over now and, except for its new shape, Vesuvius is back to normal. It was swell while it lasted, and I am tickled to death that I was lucky enough to see so much of it from beginning to end.