Tuesday, March 17, 2009

09.08 The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (2007) by Rick Atkinson
Hardcover, New York: Henry Holt. 791 p.

The Day Of Battle is the amazing second volume in Rick Atkinsons three volume history of the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army At Dawn, tells the story of the war in North Africa and was published in 2002. The third volume will recount the struggle for Western Europe, from the eve of the Normandy invasion through the fall of Berlin.

Atkinson writes clear and well researched history. Always readable, he sometimes goes a little to deep into speculating on a description of how something might have been. My only other complaint would be that he focuses too much on the internecine political battles between the various generals. I would have liked to have read more analysis on the actual tactical battle details.

The Day of Battle recounts the epic struggle of the Allies as they invade Italy and ultimately push north to Rome. When the war in Africa was over there were hundreds of thousands of men and millions of tons of materiel sitting idle in Algeria and Tunisia. Leaders knew that an invasion of France was not possible in 1943 and so they decided to invade Sicily. Operation HUSKY, as it was called would give the Allies practice at launching an air and amphibious assault which they knew would be necessary for Western Europe. There was no clear mandate for what was going to happen after Sicily was conquered though. Several large armies (American, British and Canadian) landed in Sicily with very little coordination and virtually no battle plan for when their soldiers left the beach. In effect it was something of a free for all. While never quite as bad, this would be a recurring pattern throughout the Italian campaign. American and British generals mistrusted one another and were often out for their own glory leaving the troops to suffer the brunt of their lack of professionalism.

The Sicilian campaign should have been a fairly simple one. The Allies were close, prepared and the island was defended mainly by Italians, not known for their military prowess. Nevertheless, may things that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Eventually after nearly 30,000 casualties on each side and 140,00 Italians POWs the island was in Allied hands and the retaking of Europe had begun.

Churchill always advocated for the invasion of Italy. He felt that this would siphon off troops and supplies from the German eastern and western fronts. Further, Italy could serve as a resupply point for fighting in the Middle East and Far East. The Americans resisted this plan because they wanted to concentrate on an all out invasion of western Europe. In 1943 this invasion was not going to be ready and rather than have it's troops idle they signed on the the invasion of Italy.

The Allies invaded Italy at Salerno in September of 1943. The Germans were strongly dug in to the hills above the beaches and casualties were heavy. It was only the combined power of the Allied naval and air bombardments that allowed them to gain a foothold. German counterattacks nearly succeeded in destroying the Salerno beachhead but the Fifth Army managed to hang on. The Germans, realizing that they were over matched fell back to a series of defensive lines that crossed the country from Naples to Rome.

By early October, the whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands, and the Allied armies stood facing the Volturno Line, the first of a series of prepared defensive lines running across Italy from which the Germans chose to fight delaying actions, giving ground slowly and buying time to complete their preparation of the Winter Line, their strongest defensive line south of Rome. The next stage of the Italian Campaign became for the Allied armies a grinding slog against skillful, determined and well prepared defenses in terrain and weather conditions which favoured defense and hampered the Allied advantages in mechanized equipment and air superiority. It took until mid-January 1944 to fight through the Volturno, Barbara and Bernhardt lines to reach the Gustav Line, the backbone of the Winter Line defenses, setting the scene for the four battles of Monte Cassino which took place between January and May 1944.

Monte Cassino was an ancient monastery perched on a hill which anchored the German Winter Line. In February of 1944 the Allies, erroneously thinking that Axis troops were using the monastary to spot positions, dropped over 1400 tons of bombs on the monastery, town and surrounding hills. The Germans promptly took up positions in the ruins and proceeded to stave off repeated Allied attacks resulting in about 54,000 Allied and 20,000 Axis casualties. The Allies eventually pushed through based on the sheer weight of metal and men.

One of the real lessons that I learned in this book was that the Allies for the most part did not have an imaginative general among them. Again an again there are examples of full frontal attacks on fortified positions occupying the high ground which would fail until the Germans were overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Finally, only weeks before the invasion at Normandy, the Fifth Army led by General Mark Clark liberated Rome. There is controversy surrounding this maneuver because the Fifth Army was supposed to sweep around behind the mass of the retreating Germans and cut off their retreat northwards. It is suggested that Clark's thirst for glory meant the Italian Campaign would sputter on for nearly another year. With the invasion of Normandy though The war in Italy was quickly forgotten but not so for the friends and relatives of the over 600,000 combined casualties.


Olman Feelyus said...

Great summary!

You can draw a line from the Allied materials and men superiority to America's economic superiority, which is in turn connected to it being the largest and most fruitful continent on the planet. It's kind of like playing Age of Empires and you start on a square that is totally surrounded by an excess of resources within easy reach. Makes it a lot easier to win the game.

Man, WWII was insane.

Crumbolst said...

It's amazing how much happened during that war. An unbelievable war. let's hope it doesn't happen like that again.

Great review!