Up Against ‘the Finest Soldiers in the World’

After World War II, when American and British veterans were quizzed about which theaters offered the most unpleasant experiences of combat, the Pacific and Burma were agreed to be the worst, but Italy ran them close. Far from being a land of sun, wine, and cheery peasants singing arias at their plows, it proved a hellish battlefield where for two years men strove against mud, mountains, malaria, and a boundlessly ingenious enemy.

Worst of all, it became perceived as a place of failure, where each small territorial gain was achieved at such cost that talk of victory became choked in ashes. Salerno, the Rapido, Anzio, Cassino were names inscribed in blood and grief in the annals of the American and British armies. When the breakthrough to Rome belatedly came in June 1944, it was promptly eclipsed in the world’s attention by D-day in Normandy.

“How do you like that?” exclaimed General Mark Clark of the US Fifth Army with great bitterness. “They didn’t even let us have the newspaper headlines… for one day.” Correspondent Eric Sevareid wrote likewise: “We had in a trice become performers without an audience…a troupe of actors who, at the climax of their play, realize that the spectators have all fled out the door.”

In American minds, it was all the fault of the British. Winston Churchill had insisted upon assaulting that huge, damnable peninsula of summits and rivers in the first place, against the vehement objections of General George Marshall and the US Army, who only wanted to go to northwest Europe. It was Churchill who conceived a landing at Anzio, Churchill who persisted with fantasies of driving north into the Balkans.

It is hard to overstate the rancor of many senior American commanders toward their allies, for getting them stuck with what they perceived as the most thankless campaign of the war. Far from being, as Britain’s prime minister frequently asserted, “the soft underbelly of Europe,” Italy as defended by Hitler’s formidable General “Smiling Albert” Kesselring proved rock and steel all the way through.

The Day of Battle is the second volume of Rick Atkinson’s monumental history of the US Army’s western experience in World War II. It chronicles, with all the verve, perception, and insight for which he has become celebrated, the painful advance of Allied forces from the beaches of Sicily to the grand piazzas of Rome.

Atkinson cherishes no illusions about the US Army’s blooding in North Africa: “The first eighteen months of war…had been characterized by inexperience, insufficiency, and, all too often, ineptitude. A long seasoning, still unfinished, was required, a sorting out: of strong from weak, effective from ineffective, and, as always, lucky from unlucky.”

In 1943 the Germans were still better than we were, even after their calamitous defeat at Stalingrad and the relentless hemorrhage of losses in the East. Between the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943 and D-day in June 1944, the Italian campaign represented the main Anglo-American ground effort against Hitler. Yet Kesselring…

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