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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 contrived to contain it with a force that seldom exceeded twenty-three divisions, while Hitler never had fewer than 160 fighting the Russians.

The key Allied strategic decisions were made at the May 1943 Trident conference in Washington. They represented compromises, as always, between British and American aspirations. Churchill and his army chief of staff, Sir Alan Brooke, grudgingly bowed to the determination of Roosevelt and Marshall to secure a firm commitment to land in northern France on or around May 1, 1944. The US, in its turn, acceded to passionate British enthusiasm for a landing in Sicily.

They agreed thereafter to pursue such operations as seemed “best calculated to eliminate Italy from the war and to contain the maximum number of German forces.” Strategic objectives remained extraordinarily vague, chiefly because to make them explicit would have laid bare Anglo-American differences about the usefulness of Mediterranean operations.

The British, desperately anxious to deflect the desire of some Americans, notably Admiral Ernest King of the US Navy, to shift the weight of forces east to the Pacific, made rash predictions that the Germans would not fight hard for Italy. They suggested that in the long term, once Eisenhower’s forces began to be transferred north for the Normandy landing, just nine divisions should suffice for the Italian theater.

Though these prophecies were confounded, Atkinson wisely remarks that Churchill’s American critics offered no alternative vision of where, if the Allies did not go to Sicily and Italy, they might instead engage the Germans until May 1944: “all criticism of the Italian strategy butts against an inconvenient riposte: if not Italy, where?”

It seemed impossible to imagine that with the Russians fighting desperately every day of the war, the American and British peoples would have been content to see their armies do nothing against the Germans for a year. After the bruising experience of meeting Hitler’s armies in Tunisia, there were far fewer American advocates of advancing D-day to 1943 than there had been in 1942. However ill-advised and ill-conducted later operations were, the case for landing in Sicily in 1943 and then moving into Italy still appears persuasive to most historians, including Atkinson.

He is a superb painter of word portraits:

Across the great southern rim of the Mediterranean they staged for battle, the farm boys and the city boys, the foresters and the steelworkers and at least one horse mill fixer. Much of the American effort centered in Oran, two hundred miles west of Algiers on the old Pirate Coast, where billboards above the great port now advertised Coca-Cola and Singer sewing-machines.

Eisenhower was, of course, to command Operation Husky, as the Sicilian landing was code-named. On him fell the chief strain of mitigating the fact that, in John Gunther’s words, “lots of Americans and British have an atavistic dislike of one another.” Churchill’s minister in the Mediterranean, future prime minister Harold Macmillan, observed that the general was “wholly uneducated in any normal sense of the word,” yet “compared with the wooden heads and desiccated hearts of many British soldiers I see here, he is a jewel of broadmindedness and wisdom.”

When the first Allied paratroopers began to land in Sicily on the night of July 9, followed a few hours later by the Anglo-American amphibious force, Kesselring’s defenses were pitifully weak. His ten Italian divisions were under-strength, poorly equipped, and unwilling to fight. Only the four German formations on the island were ready, as ever, to give their utmost.

It was fortunate that the struggle for the island was so lopsided, that Allied strength was so overwhelming, because Eisenhower’s operations were chaotic. Transport aircraft dropped parachute forces piecemeal over hundreds of square miles of land—and sea. Hundreds of airborne soldiers died when their planes were shot to pieces by reckless gunfire from the invasion fleet as they made their approach. There were several ugly incidents in which US troops killed German prisoners in scores.

In some cases, inexcusably (and this was repeated later in France), American commanders sanctioned the execution of captured snipers, actual or supposed. General George Patton wrote to George Marshall that in his opinion, “these killings have been thoroughly justified.” He then inflicted a devastating blow on his own career by the notorious “slapping incidents,” in which he struck soldiers held in field hospitals with combat fatigue. Atkinson notes, significantly, that while many historians have been fascinated by Patton’s flamboyance, most of his own soldiers recoiled in disgust.

As for the battlefield, “this is not tank country,” a soldier lamented, as he contemplated an endless vista of rock and irrigation ditches. A British soldier complained that Sicily was “worse than the fuckin’ desert in every fuckin’ way.” Atkinson observes:

Here in Sicily was revealed a ground truth that would obtain until the war’s end twenty-two months hence: on no battlefield did topography dictate fate more than in vertical Italy…. A Gefreiter [private] with Zeiss binoculars and a field telephone could rain artillery on every living creature in sight.

Throughout the campaign, the Germans possessed the luxury of being able to remain immobile, almost invisible, holding their ground—always high ground. The onus of movement, exposure, and attack rested unequivocally with the Allies—who paid a full price in every plain and valley.

Sir Harold Alexander, the British senior ground commander, failed to grasp the importance of preventing the retreating Germans from making their escape to Italy across the Straits of Messina, an error in which Eisenhower, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, and Patton must also be deemed complicit. “Allied commanders had had no coordinated plan for severing the Messina Strait when HUSKY began,” writes Atkinson, “nor did any such plan emerge as the campaign reached its climax. Inattention, even negligence, gave Kesselring something his legions never had in Tunisia: the chance for a clean getaway.”

The Allies boasted of the 140,000 prisoners they took in Sicily, but almost all of these were Italian. The Germans lost over 4,000 dead there, against 2,237 US fatal casualties and 2,721 British. A further 29,000 Allied soldiers were wounded or hospitalized for sickness. Barely 50,000 Germans had held off almost half a million invaders for five weeks.

If the Allies were undoubted victors, Kesselring felt that he had gained “a clear sense of his foes for future battles.” The German commander had hitherto harbored doubts about whether, heavily outnumbered especially in the air, he could hope to defend the Italian mainland. Now, having observed the risk-averse behavior of Allied commanders and the limitations of their soldiers, he was much more confident. He believed, justly, that he could inflict enormous pain on the enemies of the Reich for every yard of their advance up Italy.

On the evening of September 8, 1943, a fortnight after completion of the capture of Sicily, Eisenhower announced over Radio Algiers the surrender of the Italian government, following weeks of secret negotiations. If some senior Americans still questioned the wisdom of moving forces into Italy, Italian capitulation emphasized the inevitability of the next move. Early on September 9, American and British forces under General Mark Clark landed at Salerno, on the Italian west coast, while men of Montgomery’s Eighth Army disembarked further south, at the toe of the peninsula.

At first, German resistance at Salerno was slight. Troops got ashore in good order. Within days, however, as Kesselring poured reinforcements onto the battlefield, Salerno became one of the bloodiest and most bitterly contested struggles of the campaign. The only saving grace of those days was that a mad plan to land the US 82nd Airborne in Rome, to stage a coup de main, was aborted at the last minute. Had it gone ahead, there would have been a slaughter. The German response to Italy’s surrender was so rapid, so ruthless, and so comprehensive that there were no opportunities for quick, easy Allied triumphs.

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