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.
At Salerno, the Americans and British made cardinal errors which were repeated later at Anzio—but from which the lessons were mercifully learned before D-day in Normandy. First, the air forces failed systematically to destroy rail and road communications to the battlefield, so that the Germans were able to rush forces south. Second, US reporter Don Whitehead noted in Sicily the “sense of absolute confusion that falls over every amphibious landing.” The transfer of soldiers from sea to land is not a mere mechanical process, but one of the most complex and difficult of all operations of war, during which momentum is almost invariably lost when troops advance inland.
Third, the establishment of an initial beachhead is a significant achievement, but it is not decisive. What matters more than anything is which side wins “the battle of the build-up”—the race to reinforce in the days and weeks following invasion. This was the struggle which the Allies came so close to losing at Salerno, with precious little help from Montgomery’s forces, which were crawling painfully slowly northward despite meeting little opposition.
Finally, at no stage in Italy did the Allied command structure and personalities match the simplicity and effectiveness of those of Kesselring and his subordinates. Alexander, who became senior Allied commander when Eisenhower left the theater to command D-day, was a perfect Irish military gentleman, adored by Churchill for his poise, courage, and impeccable tailoring and manners. His chief virtue, in Allied matters, was that he made it his business to get along tolerably well with Americans, as Montgomery did not. His crippling vice was stupidity. He lacked the intellectual capacity to plan beyond Friday.
Among the Americans, General Mark Clark of the Fifth Army possessed an admirable mental toughness in good times and bad, allied to physical courage. But he hated and despised the British, and possessed little tactical imagination. He was notoriously obsessed with personal glory, and his headquarters soon boasted a fifty-strong public relations staff. Yet Atkinson observes:
Imperfect as a commander and at times insufferable as a person, Clark knew what he was fighting for. Few men would love him, some would detest him, but most recognized in him a forceful field general who was willful enough, indomitable enough, to wage the hard war that the Italian campaign had become.
If American suggestions that the British fought less effectively than themselves were no more justified than vice versa, Churchill’s generals in Italy inspired little confidence. Oliver Leese, who took over the Eighth Army when Montgomery returned to England, was another unimpressive thinker. The performance of Clark’s and Leese’s subordinates ranged from adequacy to bungling. Lieutenant General Bernard C. “Spadger” Freyberg, who led the New Zealand corps, had won a Victoria Cross in World War I. He exemplified a key principle about command appointments: any man possessed of the suicidal courage required to win a VC or Medal of Honor is unlikely to possess the judgment or imagination to make much of a general.
By far the ablest Allied senior officer in Italy was the French Marshal Alphonse Juin, who voluntarily dropped a star to avoid embarrassing Clark by outranking him. Juin handled his forces with a skill and shrewdness of the highest order, though his French colonial troops became a byword for brutality in the rear areas. It is hard to overpraise the nuanced judgments of Atkinson on the respective performances of Allied generals. There is no hint of nationalism. He merely dissects the actions of these often driven, haunted men with sympathy for their dilemmas and piercing insight on their shortcomings.
When the Allies at last prevailed at Salerno and began to drive north, the Germans adopted the tactics with which they persisted to the end of the campaign: retreat from ridgeline to ridgeline, each one defended with savage skill, and attended by a large-scale program of demolitions: “The scorching and salting of the earth had begun,” writes Atkinson.
Horses and mules were stolen or shot, and even surplus saddles and horseshoe nails were put to the torch. An estimated 92 percent of all sheep and cattle in southern Italy, and 86 percent of all poultry, were taken or slaughtered. “Rail rooters”—huge iron hooks pulled behind locomotives—snapped railroad ties like matchsticks. The echo of demolitions rolled from the mountains, and oily smoke smudged the northern skyline.
Alexander quipped: “All roads lead to Rome, but all the roads are mined.” By late October, amid torrential rain in which vehicles bogged and men shivered and squelched, he was obliged to report to London that all hopes of a quick advance on Rome were gone. With seven Allied divisions dispatched to Britain to prepare for D-day, Italy had become “a slogging match.”
A Texan captain named Henry Waskow, who was killed on December 14, 1943, after playing a heroic part in one of innumerable hilltop assaults, wrote a letter home opened by his family after his death, which is quoted by Atkinson:
I would have liked to have lived. But, since God has willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones, for life in the other world must be beautiful…. I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live. Maybe when the lights go on again all over the world, free people can be happy and gay again…. If I failed as a leader, and I pray God I didn’t, it was not because I did not try.
A host of men—American, British, Canadian, Polish, New Zealanders, French—tried extraordinarily hard at the Sangro and Rapido River crossings; at Monte Cassino; and on a host of lesser, now forgotten mountain battles of 1943–1944. Though it is true that their senior commanders often lacked imagination, at root there was never a realistic chance of achieving a fast breakthrough amid the best terrain in the world for defense; against the finest soldiers in the world; and possessing a superiority of numbers that was usually marginal rather than decisive.
Command of the sea and air, which it seemed to those in Washington and London should confer immense advantage, counted for much less than the Allied warlords hoped. It was Winston Churchill who conceived the vision of a bold amphibious thrust at Anzio, just south of Rome and well north of the Cassino battlefield, to break the stalemate. By sheer force of personality, at a time when Allied generals conceded that they themselves had run out of ideas, he imposed the project upon the Anglo-American command.
Relations between the Allies had plumbed bottom. On the eve of the January 1944 crossing of the Rapido River, US corps commander Geoffrey Keyes wrote in his diary: “God forbid we ever have to serve with or near the British again…. Clark insists we are not being sold down the river but I am not convinced.” When the Anzio landing began on January 22, it was the turn of the British to complain. They considered the US commander John Lucas to be an incompetent old man.
Having taken the Germans by surprise, Lucas sat his troops down on the shoreline and allowed Kesselring to rush forces from all over Italy to contain the perimeter. Thereafter, at Anzio the British shared with the Americans one of the most unpleasant experiences of the war, through months of frustration and shocking losses.
The senior British airman in the Mediterranean, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, wrote to a colleague in London five days after the landing:
I have not the slightest doubt that if we had been Germans or Russians landing at Anzio, we should have had [Highway 6] two days ago and maybe Rome by now and the whole right of the enemy line opposite the Fifth Army would have crumpled.
That Lucas was a weak commander is probably true. Clark was right to sack him, at Alexander’s urging, when the Anzio battle relapsed into bloody stalemate, and Lucas retired to his bunker. But Rick Atkinson will have none of the argument that the Allies could have triumphed had they dashed headlong for Rome after the initial landing:
More than sixty years after the Allied perdition at Anzio, Lucas’s caution seems sensible and even inevitable, given Clark’s wooly instructions and Alexander’s hail-fellow approbation.
Churchill’s original idea of landing at Anzio was inspired. But no strategic concept can be judged sound or otherwise in abstract terms. Everything hinges upon what resources are available to execute it. Given the limited Allied forces in the Mediterranean and the paucity of landing ships to move them after the removal of most amphibious shipping to prepare for D-day, Alexander could not have put ashore a sufficient army to change the Italian campaign—unless the Germans panicked.
This they almost never did. Alexander wrote ruefully to Brooke in March during the long, long struggle for Monte Cassino: “Unfortunately we are fighting the best soldiers in the world—what men!” I remember one of Montgomery’s commanders in northwest Europe telling me many years ago: “The Germans punished mistakes—always.” If a British or American force exposed a flank, failed to secure an objective against counterattack, or stuck out a neck too far, the Germans noticed—and acted. It is not too fanciful to compare the likely consequences of an Allied dash for Rome from Anzio in January 1944 with what happened in the Netherlands at Arnhem in September that year. Excessive boldness was met by an amazingly rapid and brutal German response, as it would have been in Italy.
Four months of siege war at Anzio was a ghastly experience for the combatants. But its final outcome—deliverance and the capture of Rome on June 4 by Mark Clark’s army—was surely preferable to the extinction of the Allied landing force. This Kesselring’s forces could indeed have achieved, had Lucas’s columns exposed a long salient in attempting to seize the Italian capital.
Atkinson concurs with the longstanding view that after the breakthrough in late May 1944 Clark willfully ignored the possibility of cutting off the retreating German armies, to gain the personal glory of capturing Rome. He writes:
With duplicity and in bad faith, Clark contravened a direct order from a superior officer. His assertion…that the British “are scheming to get into Rome the easiest way,” was predicated on no substantive evidence.
The author retains some doubts, however, about whether even if the Fifth Army had made an all-out attempt at encirclement, this would have succeeded. Kesselring’s forces, masters of the disciplined retreat, were able to retire swiftly northward, to fight another day and indeed almost another year.
Most Americans found the Italian people doubtful of the virtues of the crusade for their soil. “They hate Mussolini, the Germans, and I believe they hate us,” wrote Lieutenant Ivar Aas to his parents in Minneapolis. “I don’t think they go for this liberation idea too well.” Given the appalling destruction of their land by all the warring parties, the rapes, pillage, and casual killings of which Allied soldiers were not guiltless, this is unsurprising.
The 608-day campaign to liberate Italy, which finally ended in May 1945, cost 312,000 Allied casualties, equivalent to 40 percent of Allied losses in the decisive campaign to liberate northwest Europe that began in Normandy in June 1944. Three quarters of a million US troops served at some time in Italy, suffering 120,000 battle casualties including 23,501 killed.
The fate of those who made such sacrifices left a sour taste among the survivors, because they perceived themselves as having received infinitely less honor and laurels for their share of victory than did the invaders of Normandy. “We are the D-day dodgers, in sunny Italee!” sang British soldiers of the Eighth Army, with bitter irony and no little resentment, as they contemplated the sea of mud and misery in which they fought most of their campaign.
Atkinson’s book is a model of historical narrative and analysis. His accounts of the great battles evoke in vivid detail the horrors endured by the participants. I find it hard to quibble with any of his judgments. This is not least because he understands so wonderfully well the doubts and difficulties of the men of 1943–1944. He does not seek, as do too many historians, to impose upon them the values and perspective of the twenty-first century.
Atkinson, like Douglas Porch in his splendid 2004 study Hitler’s Mediterranean Gamble, believes that while the Italian campaign was a horrible mess, it is hard to see at what stage the Allies could or should have got out of it. The British public, especially, was profoundly embarrassed that the Russians were doing so much to defeat Hitler, while the British and US armies seemed to be doing so little.
A D-day in Normandy in 1942 or 1943 would have been a disaster. Invading Italy sustained, at a cost that seemed heavy to the Western democracies though trivial to Stalin’s Russia, a serviceable and indeed important legend of Anglo-American participation in the ground struggle against Hitler until the cross-Channel Operation Overlord could take place. The British historian Professor Sir Michael Howard, himself a veteran of the Italian campaign, often remarks: “We make war as we can, rather than as we should.” This was profoundly true of the Italian campaign, which Rick Atkinson chronicles with glittering distinction.
April 3, 2008