Not long ago I was having dinner at a small cottage beside a lake in central British Columbia hundreds of kilometres north of Vancouver. Among the guests seated around the table was Elio, a neighbour from down the shore. As we talked he mentioned that he had grown up before the Second World War in the Adriatic port city of Rijeka, where his father had worked in a factory making torpedoes. “Most of the torpedoes used by the Axis during the war were made there,” he informed me.
It so happened that I knew something about Rijeka, or at least I knew something about Fiume, which is what Rijeka was called before the war when it was a possession of Italy. I had once researched the city for a book that was never written, and I learned that Fiume/Rijeka is one of those places that are not allowed a peaceful history. Over the centuries it has been controlled by Romans, Magyars, Habsburgs and Italians. Today, Rijeka belongs to Croatia and lies not far from its border with Italy. The city is crowded onto a narrow flatland extending around the bottom of the Gulf of Kvarner. Behind the downtown, pale buildings mount the encircling hills. Though it dates back many centuries, much of Rijeka has been rebuilt since the war, when occupying German troops wrecked the port before abandoning it. Today the principal visitors are tourists, who make their way along the Turisticka magistrala (Tourist Route) and stroll through St. Vitus’s Cathedral.
In September 1919, when the city was still known as Fiume and had just been handed over to the new country of Yugoslavia, the flamboyant Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio drove down the road from the north in an open motorcar filled with flowers, leading a small army of his fellow Italian patriots. Believing that Italy had been promised Fiume by the Allies during World War I, which had ended the year before, they were determined to capture the city. Recruits spilled out of the villages and hills to join the passing column and by the time D’Annunzio reached the outskirts of Fiume he commanded a force of 2,500 men. When the military governor tried to stop him, D’Annunzio threw open his heavy greatcoat, exposing his war medals, and dared the general to shoot. Witnesses to this theatrical confrontation record that the general collapsed in D’Annunzio’s arms in tears, then joined his march into the city.
D’Annunzio declared Fiume “a symbol of liberty,” then unilaterally annexed it to Italy. The leaders of the Great Powers, who had promised the city to the Yugoslavs, decided to ignore him. When U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was told that there were thirty thousand Italians living in Fiume, he pointed out that there were a million Italians living in New York. Would Italy be claiming the American city next? Wilson and the other Allied leaders expected D’Annunzio’s freelance regime to collapse. But it didn’t, at least not right away. For fifteen months the poet ruled over Fiume like some pirate king, plotting the overthrow of foreign governments, declaiming long-winded speeches from the balcony of his palace (where he is said to have invented the fascist raised-arm salute), and dispatching his private navy to raid the shipping lanes of the Adriatic Sea.
Finally, in November 1920, Italy and Yugoslavia settled the matter themselves and Fiume became a free state. D’Annunzio turned around and declared war on Italy, but once Italian shells started raining down on the city during the so-called “Christmas of Blood,” he quickly surrendered and retired to his villa at Lake Garda to cultivate his eccentricities. When Mussolini came to power two years later, he annexed Fiume to Italy—just what D’Annunzio had wanted all along—where it remained until the end of World War II.
All of this I learned from my researches. But I had not known that on the western outskirts of the city lie the dilapidated remains of a torpedo factory that had been the city’s major industry. It was built in 1853 as a metal foundry making ships’ anchors. Production diversified under the management of an English engineer named Robert Whitehead, who began making torpedoes—the new long-range underwater weapon invented by Giovanni Luppis, a retired naval officer from Fiume. Eventually the company grew to be the largest torpedo manufacturer in the world. Elio told me that during World War ii it was turning out thousands of torpedoes a year for the use of Axis U-boats. Which is where world history and personal history collided.
On September 3, 1939, less than nine hours after Britain declared war on Germany, a German submarine fired a torpedo into the hull of a passenger steamer, the Athenia, making its way from Liverpool to Canada. It was the first shot fired in the Battle of the North Atlantic. One of the passengers aboard the Athenia was a young woman who would become my mother-in-law—twenty-six-year-old Dorothy Brealey, on her way back to Vancouver from a holiday in England. She spent all night in a lifeboat; then she was rescued and continued to Halifax. More than one hundred people died in the attack.
As I told Elio this story, its meaning seemed to become clear to him, but just in case it hadn’t I drove the point home. “So,” I said, “your father tried to kill my wife’s mother.”
Not many strangers meeting for the first time have such a connection, I thought, but what did it mean? I did not know what Elio was thinking. I was thinking about the tenacity of the past and how it reappears in the most unexpected places. Somewhat at a loss for words, we clinked wine glasses and changed the subject.