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Two War Books Shine a New Light on Crucial Moments in World War II

August 11th 2008

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

Holland, James. Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945. (New York: St. Martin’s, 2008)

It is tempting to say that, just as the Allied campaign in Sicily and Italy in World War II was of less significance and decisiveness than the one that carried the Allies from Normandy to Germany, so the course of the historiography has tended to emphasize the last year of war in northern Europe. And no doubt there have been more books written about D-Day, The Battle of the Bulge, and the collapse of the Third Reich, than about the race to Messina, the Salerno and Anzio landings, the bombing of Monte Cassino, the capture of Rome, and what followed. But it can’t really be said that historians of the war have overlooked the Mediterranean theater. Douglas Porch has recently seen it as The Path to Victory for the Allies; Robin Neillands has followed the British Eighth Army from North Africa to the Alps; Lloyd Clark has revisited Anzio; and Robert Katz has recounted both the military campaign and partisan activity involved in the Battle for Rome. Rick Atkinson won a Pulitzer Prize for An Army at Dawn, about the war in North Africa with an emphasis on the U. S. Army; and James Holland has written about the Italian and German siege of the British-held island of Malta, and the stand of the British and American Allies, they having forged their alliance, in North Africa.

It is now tempting to say that in coming to these most recent World War II histories by Atkinson the American and Holland the Englishman, we can expect to see the perspectives and the prejudices of the wartime Allies researched and represented. Why Britain should have been fighting in North Africa in the first place; and why North Africa should have been the first place in which America would fight, are two points that must be covered in histories of the war in the Mediterranean theater. Whether and why the Allies should have gone from North Africa to Sicily, and from Sicily to Italy, are two more questions that call for historiography. And then it was indeed in the Mediterranean theater that the British and the Americans learned how to fight alongside each other, and to get along with each other as they fought the common enemy. The American troops who came ashore in Operation Torch were quite green; the British troops who had just defeated the Afrika Korps in the Battle of El Alamein had been battling Germans and Italians for over two years. This occasioned a good deal of condescension and resentment between the English-speaking Allies.

Though Winston Churchill knew well that Britain could not win the war without the Americans, and knew as well that before the war was won American manpower and industrial production would far surpass that of the Empire and Commonwealth, still he was determined to exert as much influence as he could, for as long as he could, on Allied war planning. Churchill argued for the North African landings, for following up that victory with the invasion of Sicily, and then for maintaining the Mediterranean strategy by attacking the long and mountainous soft underbelly of the Axis. He practically insisted upon Anzio, and repeatedly declared that the capture of Rome was the key to weakening the enemy ahead of the landings in France, which he assured the skeptical Americans he was all for, but not yet. Though Atkinson again emphasizes the American experience of the war, The Day of Battle begins with a Prologue recounting Churchill’s arrival in the United States for meetings with President Roosevelt in May of 1943. In his meetings with Roosevelt at Casablanca in January of that year, Churchill’s persuasion, and his staff’s preparation, meant that the Mediterranean strategy would not yet give way to D-Day. Just as the U. S. Army had improved its performance over the course of the North African campaign, so had the U. S. Army staff gotten better at preparing itself, and protecting the President, against Churchill’s adventurous diversions. By the end of the TRIDENT conference he and the British war planners had succeeded in holding their Mediterranean ground, but the final agreement did set a date for the Normandy invasion, and did stipulate that several army divisions and many naval vessels would be withdrawn from the Mediterranean and sent to England in anticipation of OVERLORD. More men and materiel would later be redeployed for the planned ANVIL invasion of southern France. These decisions would have a telling effect upon the daily battles of the year of war in Italy.

Atkinson’s narrative of battle begins with the execution of Operation HUSKY and ends with "the expulsion of the barbarians" from Rome. That, of course, happened just one day before D-Day; and so, like most of the journalists covering the war at the time and many historians ever since, Atkinson has decided that the capture of Rome is the perfect moment to turn his attention from what was after all a secondary theater to what was always going to be the main theater of Allied operations. The Third volume of his "Liberation Trilogy," according to the back flap of this one, "will recount the climactic struggle for Western Europe, from the eve of Normandy to the fall of Berlin." In complementary contrast to this Whiggish history of the war, Holland’s more sorrowful account begins on the eve of the battle in which the Allies would finally break through the Cassino Line and out of the Anzio beachhead, and ends just before the fall of Berlin with the surrender of German forces in northern Italy, who by that time were fighting the Allies in the midst of often barbarous partisans. Holland’s Prologue recounts not the colorful drama of political summitry but the setting and detonating of a partisan bomb on the Via Rassella in Rome which killed over 30 members of an SS police regiment and led to the massacre of more than ten times as many Roman civilians in the Ardeatine Caves. That was more than two months before the Germans left and the Allies entered Rome; but the capture of Rome was, for Holland, just the beginning of a brutal summer of fighting in which the Germans could hold their ground only by pacifying it, and the Allies could advance only by devastating it. The Germans massacred partisans and civilians quite indiscriminately; fascist and communist partisans also fought each other; and even in areas liberated by the Allies, Italian civilians sickened and starved, and women and girls sold themselves to their liberators for food and supplies. The war would continue through one more brutal winter in which rain, mud and misery was the infantryman’s lot, and one more stalemate would play out before the last offensive led to the end.

Both Holland and Atkinson have carefully researched and compellingly represented the human experience of total war in the Italian peninsula. They note that it reminded many people of the experience of World War I. Both authors make routine and telling use of oral and written accounts of common soldiers and noted journalists. In Atkinson’s book we hear more from Americans, and in Holland’s from all of the Commonwealth. Atkinson relies heavily on Ernie Pyle; Holland less obviously on Eric Sevareid and Martha Gellhorn. The BBC is heard only when it broadcasts coded messages to the partisans. Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin have prominent cameo roles in The Day of Battle; Italy’s Sorrow features such unknown but colorful characters as Sergeant Sam Bradshaw, a tanker from the north of England by way of North Africa, a South African subaltern named Kendall Brooke, Canadian infantryman Stan Scislowski, and Ken Neill, a fighter pilot from New Zealand. They all survived the war; and though their experiences do represent the mortal danger of it all, their survival does elide a bit the deaths and silences of so many others. Atkinson’s account, however, of the experience of Lieutenant Colonel Jack Toffey of the U. S. Army, who was killed near Palestrina as the Allies were on their way to Rome, conveys both the documentary plenitude of a survivor’s memoir and the unaccountable and incommensurable sense that death in battle can happen at any moment to anyone involved and that as the war ends for them it goes on as if interminably for everyone else. Holland also incorporates the accounts of many German soldiers – most of whom, somehow, survived -- and of partisans of all persuasions -- many of whom, in one way or another, did not. And both make the most of the fact that Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, survived the war, was spared the firing squad, and wrote his own memoirs.

In matters of strategy, involving again the commanding generals and their political superiors, Atkinson and Holland have more to say, respectively, about the Americans and British; but both focus appropriately on the exigencies of the alliance, and are equally even-handed in according praise and attaching blame to both sides. General Mark Clark was indeed a prima donna, but was also an able and courageous commander. General Sir Harold Alexander was a bit of an enabler, but his diplomatic handling of his American subordinate served the interests of operational harmony and efficiency. The Anzio operation was inadequately planned and insufficiently supplied; but General John Lucas was still not up to the job. Winston Churchill’s initial insistence upon SHINGLE turned predictably to officiousness about its execution; but he was justified in questioning whether Lucas should be put and then kept in command of it. When Lucas had been replaced by Lucian Truscott, and the Allies had broken out from what they called "the Bitchhead," Mark Clark did indeed disregard an order from Alexander to drive northeast toward Valmontone, and so cut off the German tenth Army then retreating from Cassino; and he did do this so that his Fifth Army would be the one to capture Rome to the northwest. But Alexander was being adamant about his strategy while Clark could make a case for maintaining tactical flexibility. And it was not certain that the German army could be cut off, or that the Allied army would not be taken in the flank as it made its way toward Valmontone. Still, what Clark did he did, in Atkinson’s words, "with duplicity and bad faith" (549); and it was, in Holland’s words, "seriously bad form" (162).

Both books are over five hundred pages long, but are filled with well-informed and illuminating detail; and both maintain an admirable and harrowing narrative intensity and momentum. They do complement each other very well, and very satisfactorily supplement the historiography of the Second World War in the Mediterranean theater. But neither author has a merely scholarly interest in the history. They are actively involved in the preservation of source materials and the dissemination of current understandings of the Second World War. Atkinson writes for the Washington Post, and has also written about the war in Iraq. Holland collects oral histories online, leads tours to battlefields, and has also written historical novels. The Day of Battle and Italy’s Sorrow show both the best and the worst of the war, and so should find an audience among those who both enjoy reading about it and appreciate what they are reading.

Mr. Knowlton is an Assistant Professor of History at Stonehill College in Easton MA.. The review was adapted from one which ran on www.HistoryNetworkNews.com.

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