California Literary Review

The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

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November 14th, 2007 at 12:10 pm

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The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (The Liberation Trilogy)
by Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt and Company, 791 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

The Allied Invasion of Italy

This long, well documented book by Rick Atkinson is one of the best accounts of any war to appear in the last decade or more. The Day of Battle is the second volume in Atkinson’s planned trilogy on the Western Allies’ campaigns against the Axis in Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn, told the story of the invasion of North Africa, and the third will run from the Normandy invasion in June 1944 to Hitler’s end the following spring.

The new book begins with a fascinating account of how in Washington, early in 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the successful Allied campaign against the Germans and Italians in North Africa must be followed by an attack on Italy itself. Roosevelt and the U.S. chiefs of staff would have preferred to concentrate Allied forces in Britain, for an early attack across the British Channel into German-occupied France.

As always, the future was unknowable. Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, told his American colleagues that if the Allies mounted an attack on Italy, in Churchill’s phrase “the soft underbelly of Europe,” the overall war in Europe might be won by 1944. Without the invasion of Italy, a cross-Channel attack might not be feasible until 1945 or even 1946.

The British won the day. On the morning of July 9, 1943 Allied forces led by British General Bernard Law Montgomery and American General George S. Patton landed on the southern coast of Sicily. What few readers may know is that there was no full agreement in the Allied high command as to what should happen after Sicily was taken; perhaps the invaders would not go on from the island to invade the Italian mainland.

We have long known from military histories that things did not go well in that invasion. Atkinson brings it all out, quoting the famous front-line cartoonist Bill Mauldin: Nobody really knows what he’s doing. The 82nd Airborne Division, renowned today for its decades of skilled service, jumped into Sicily after receiving only a third as much training as some other divisions. Five-sixths of the paratroopers landed far from the planned drop zones because the pilots got lost. Some planes strayed into the British zone, and eight of them were lost to “friendly fire.” Not only the Americans had problems. The British Eighth Army planned an assault by 1,700 troops to be landed by 144 gliders. The towplane pilots got lost, the glider pilots were untrained, the weather was bad, and only 54 gliders made land–and a number of those crashed and killed the men they were carrying. There were atrocities, and some on the Allied side. In one case soldiers of the U.S. 180th Infantry murdered fifty to seventy Italian soldiers who had surrendered and been disarmed.

Atkinson relies mainly on American and British sources, published and unpublished, including a number of interviews he did with surviving participants in the Italian war. He also enlisted the help of people in Italy with translations. What is missing is a full account from German sources of how the Wehrmacht fought the invaders, in Sicily and later. We cannot, then, call this the definitive history of the Italian campaign; nor does Atkinson claim that it is.

The author nevertheless gives us an excellent feel for what the war was like on not only the Allied but the Axis–mainly German–side. The Wehrmacht commander was a brilliant, fearless, and ultimately cruel Field Marshal named Albrecht Kesselring, who had anticipated for six months that the initial Allied move into Southern Europe would be the invasion of Sicily. He thought all of Italy was defensible–if the Italians would fight alongside the Wehrmacht. The Italians had ten divisions in Sicily, the Germans just two. Soon after the Sicily invasion began, Kesselring began to receive reports at his headquarters in Frascati, outside Rome, that whole Italian divisions were evaporating. He flew down to Sicily, and brought two more Wehrmacht divisions to the island. These Germans were by and large skilled and experienced soldiers; more experienced than the Americans they opposed. Four Wehrmacht divisions could not, however, stand up to an Allied force that came to outnumber them in Sicily three to one–for after Mussolini was deposed on July 25 the Italians could not be counted on at all, although the new regime in Rome told Hitler that Italy would continue to fight.

Many Americans still recall the figure of George Patton, the brave and irascible general, played by George C. Scott in the 1970 film, who was castigated for slapping a sick soldier. He and his British counterpart, Montgomery, were two egotistical types, each intent on becoming the conqueror of Sicily. Montgomery moved without warning across Patton’s front, preventing Patton from cutting the main escape route for the Italian and German units that would need to cross the Strait of Messina to reach the Italian mainland. Patton, for his part, was hellbent on reaching Messina before the British, and disinterested in coordination with Montgomery.

As Atkinson makes clear, there was no coordinated Allied plan to prevent Kesselring from evacuating Sicily. The Germans knew the importance of getting what they called “our valuable human material” to the mainland, and with what the author calls precise choreography the Wehrmacht divisions crossed the Strait of Messina with minimal losses–because the Allies did not attack the ferrying operation with either their strategic bomber force or their ships.

One wishes that the author had drawn parallels between the successful German withdrawal from Sicily and Robert E. Lee’s successful retreat across the Potomac River into Virginia, after his Confederate army was defeated at Gettysburg in 1863. When the Union commander, George G. Meade, cabled President Abraham Lincoln triumphantly that the Confederates had fled Northern soil, Lincoln was distraught that Meade had not pursued the enemy. Lincoln saw, as his general did not, that it was the destruction of Lee’s army and not the liberation of Northern soil that would end the war.

Eighty years later, no one at the top–not President Roosevelt, U.S. Army chief of staff George C. Marshall, or Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, and not Churchill or his generals, including General Sir Harold R.L.G. Alexander, the overall commander of Allied armies in italy–saw the need to annihilate the Wehrmacht divisions at Messina before they crossed the strait.

In any case, Sicily at the end of August 1943 was lost to the Axis, and as Atkinson says, additional gains did accrue to the Allies. The Mediterranean became much safer for Allied shipping, including supplies bound through the Suez Canal to the Soviet Union and Allied forces in southern Asia.

The strategic problem of Italy however remained, indeed increased, when Hitler sent an additional twelve Wehrmacht divisions down into Italy to join the four divisions that had escaped from Sicily and retreated up the Italian boot. There was for the moment, Atkinson writes, no strategic guidance for Allied commanders; should a major campaign be mounted to push northward? Montgomery and his Eighth Army began a leisurely progress up through Calabria, meeting little opposition.

On September 8, 1943 the Italian government announced it was surrendering its armed forces. Soon the enlarged German force took over effective control of Italy. Mussolini was rescued from detention in an operation led by a daring SS colonel, and taken north to head a new puppet state, the Italian Social Republic, in Lombardy. One can read much, especially in Italian sources, of the anti-Wehrmacht operations of Italian partisans; those however came mainly later. The coming months would see war waged in Italy between the Wehrmacht and an Allied force composed of American and British armies that also included Canadian, French, and Polish divisions.

The Allies decided that while Montgomery’s army continued to make its way up the Italian boot, they should stage an amphibious invasion at Salerno, not far south of Naples. As Atkinson tells us, Allied intelligence learned much about German plans through ULTRA, the top-secret program that was intercepting Wehrmacht messages. But Kesselring also had means at his disposal, including reconnaissance planes, and after concluding that a landing would be made at Salerno he “displayed the agility so characteristic of his generalship.” When the Allies landed on September 9 the Wehrmacht was waiting for them.

The fighting at Salerno was more difficult than the invasion commander, U.S. General Mark Clark, had anticipated. After several days Clark wondered whether his force would have to be evacuated. He denied later having seriously considered this possibility, but meanwhile some other commanders, Atkinson says, privately questioned his fortitude. Questions about him remain even today, and Atkinson says frankly that he was in over his head at Salerno. Even less favorable is Atkinson’s description of how, while the Salerno beachhead was close to being overrun by the Germans, Montgomery and his Eighth Army of 64,000 troops continued to amble slowly northward toward them, “patching demolished bridges and holding medals ceremonies.”

After nine long days the Allies won out at Salerno and the Wehrmacht retreated. Naples was taken and the road to Rome lay ahead; but a brave American lieutenant colonel named John J. Toffey, whom we see much of in this book, wrote that it looked like the road to hell. There were difficult mountains to cross and soon enough winter weather arrived. The Germans had had time to prepare a well fortified line, then another, and it was not until the end of May 1944 that the Allies broke through and, on June 4, entered Rome. It is in Rome that the book ends, with an epilogue that summarizes the long battle that lay ahead until the war in Europe ended in 1945, with the Wehrmacht still in Lombardy. No one on the Allied side had foreseen how hard it would be to get as far as Rome. No one foresaw how difficult the battles beyond Rome would be; British General Alexander wrote Churchill that neither the Apennines nor the Alps should prove a serious obstacle to the Allied forces moving up Italy toward Germany.

The generals should, of course, have known by now that they should not make blithe predictions. After Naples had fallen and the Allied advance stalled in the mountains northward toward Rome, it was decided to make another amphibious landing, at Anzio. This was something Churchill pushed hard for; if it worked, Rome–just 34 miles north–should fall quickly. However, as Atkinson might have done well to recall, there had been a case in the First World War when Churchill, as First Sea Lord, had engineered an amphibious landing, in the Dardanelles, that proved a disaster.

The Allies went ashore at Anzio in February 1944 and things did not work well at all; for a moment it seemed that their beachhead might be destroyed; in the end, with good air support and what Atkinson calls “singularly good” American artillery, disaster was averted and the Allies won the day.

The author gives an excellent account of the hard winter war that was meanwhile being waged a little farther inland. The reviewer has walked over some of the mountains that were fought over; they rise only four or five thousand feet above sea level but their slopes can be steep and the vegetation thick and thorny–and in 1943-44, Wehrmacht machine guns sprayed the slopes. Readers of this book should also read And No Birds Sang, the stark account of this campaign that was published in 1979 by Farley Mowat, who became famous with People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf years after he had served as a Canadian lieutenant in Italy.

Many of the heroes in this book turn out to have blemishes, large or small. One who does not is young Colonel Toffey, killed by a tank round at Palestrina the day before Rome fell. The campaign to liberate Italy lasted 608 days and cost 312,000 Allied casualties, 40 percent of them American. German casualties were far higher, perhaps half a million, half of them dead or missing. The soft underbelly of Europe proved to contain much granite and gore.

  • Rob Gordon

    Having just completed “The Day Of Battle,” I can say that the analysis by Peter Bridges is accurate and complete, I was much taken by this book. I do not understand why this theater receives so little attention given the immense sacrifice of the allies. Thanks to the author for a quality book!

  • Sue Sloan

    My father was the soldier (front line medic) in WWII that had to give up his foxhole for the major – and then the major was killed when a plane was shot down and the engine fell onto him in that foxhole. My father passed away May 14, 2008, age 92 – a very humble, brave man – who figured anyone would do it. Sometimes in his last days, he relived those War days. His name was Walter Ray Schenck, Jr.

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