Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44

Genre: History
Author:Rick Atkinson
This is the second book in former Washington Post staff writer Rick Atkinson's "LIberation Trilogy". The invasion is a desperate effort by the Western allies to attack "the soft underbelly of Europe" (Churchill's phrase) and provide some measure of a Second Front to relieve the pressure on Soviet forces in the East.

The invasion of France cannot come until the Spring of 1944, and these landings--at Salerno, Anzio, and other paratroop landings--are plagued by fratricide and mismanagement on a scale that heightens the "butcher's bill" of war above and beyond what the German enemy can accomplish.

Ultimately, despite the failures of strategy, the Allies succeed on raw attrition and war material in their chief goal of driving the Germans up the peninsula.

During the Sicilian Campaign in the Summer of 1943, the chief prima donna of the commanders appears to be Montgomery, followed closely behind by his rival, George S. Patton. Montgomery orders his commanders to take both roads to Messina in the drive to push the German and remaining Italian units off the island. He was only supposed to take the one road. Montgomery's estimation of American troops never fully recovered from the disaster of the Kesserline Pass battle of 1942, where the Americans were badly bloodied by Rommel's forces.

Humbled and not amused, Patton sends his lieutenants on a a dash north- westward for Palermo with the main part of his Army, a city of limited strategic value but one where he, like "Monty", can enter with his men as a conqueror. Both Armies join up in Messina to push off for Italy itself, but it is clear that joint operations are subject to unexpected change.

In Matt Clark, the head of America's Fifth Army, Atkinson puts together a portrait of a prima donna commander so xenophobic of his British, Canadian and New Zealand allies that that makes Montgomery look accommodating to a fault. Clark, an egomaniac who can give orders but often fail to carry them out.

In May of 1944, with a good part of the American Army still stuck at the Anzio beachhead they took in January, Clark deliberately defies orders from his senior commander, Britain's General Sir Harold Alexander, during the "Operation Diadem" offensive in order to ensure only the American Fifth Army, "Matt Clark's Fifth Army" as his press attaches call it, will arrive first in Rome.

Even his US commanders, like Major General Lucian Truscott, regard Clark's actions as utter folly. But he carries them out because there is no choice short of mutiny and to ensure morale.

Not only does the book focus on the efforts of American commanders--Eisenhower, Patton, Matt Clark, Lucian Truscott, et al, their immediate subordinates, but also the battle-scarred majors and colonels and the fast-disappearing green lieutenants and ordinary "jar-heads" and "dog-faces" as they slog through a Dante's Inferno from the mountains of Sicily in the Summer of 1943 to the European mainland.

Reading the narrative, one realizes how unremitting combat is for an invader (or liberator) trying to send men and mules and tanks up the Italian peninsula from the boot of Italy to the great goal of Rome itself. The action on the ground is ferocious. At one point, after the Anzio landing south of Rome in early 1943, the Allies make just seventy miles of headway up the Italian boot in five months! Getting stopped by murderous defenses at San Pietro, The Rapido River, Monte Cassino. The whole peninsula seems a piece of geography fiendishly set with a constant high-ground advantage for the defenders, in this case the Germans under Field Marshall Albert Kesselring.

This from the New York Times review, sums up the tone of the book well:

"Modern readers may be repelled by the amateurishness of the American generals, most of whom had been majors and lieutenant colonels just a few years earlier. Atkinson is unsparing of their blunders. Eisenhower allows the Germans to slip away from Sicily. Patton is high-strung, profane and unpredictable. Mark Clark is duplicitous. Yet they learn and grow. Eisenhower emerges after Italy as the indispensable leader of the war in Europe. Patton becomes a byword for bold, slashing attack. Clark matures in command. Soldiers, as always, pay the butcher's bill: Friendly antiaircraft fire shoots down our own paratroopers; battles are mismanaged at Gela, Brolo and Troina, where the fabled First Division -- the Big Red One -- gets mangled."

This book is one that covers a somewhat neglected chapter of the war and brings out the painful and fatal lessons all the forces learned in fighting ever uphill against an implacable foe. Atkinson does not neglect the efforts of the Free French/North African soldiers who make the first break-out toward smashing "The Gustav Line" in front of the fortress-like citadel at Monte Cassino. Or the Polish units that are the first to enter the destroyed monastery at the top of the mountain a few weeks before the fall of Rome.

It is as a researcher of the common soldier that Atkinson is at his best I think. Here is an audio transcript of him reading about "The Dead Country" the infantry of all nations faced in the long Winter of 1944 in central Italy.



  1. Part of a 1974 "World of War" British documentary, featuring Mark Clark and others, narrated by Laurence Olivier.

  2. Thanks Doug the book sounds very interesting. I love WW2 stories as well as the Korean war.

  3. My Dad lost a couple of close friends at Anzio.

    As to Clark, he was a moron. Truscott made the most sense, and the disagreement between he and Patton is pretty well documented vis-a-vis the advance in Sicily.

    (I was discussing this not too long ago with a couple of friends -- their teenage son chimed in and asked in all seriousness what kind of gambling was allowed at Monte Cassino.

    We are raising an entire generation of idiots.)

  4. You're welcome Mike. "Day of Battle" certainly brought me several new perspective on this brutal campaign. Atkinson does a good job going top to bottom in the battle lines and explaining the errors, disasters, monotony and madness of the whole war enterprise. Somehow, they made it to Rome...can't wait for volume three.

  5. Your dad must have had a very tough war Astra.

    Yes, Atkinson is too diplomatic to say it, but Clark to me should have been relieved after the Salerno landing. (It took General Alexander to get the guy to call off his contingency plans to retreat off the beaches there. "We're not doing that, General 'Alex" reportedly said. He told Clark in no uncertain terms there would be no with drawl plans at his HQ, period. No doubt visions of a Mediterranean Dunkirk and a huge Nazi propaganda victory were dancing in the British Commander's head.

    Clark was a George McClellan-sized egotist. "Mark Clark's Fifth American Army" was the official title he liked to use in press releases. Another self-serving and overly cautious guy who managed to get more people killed in the long run. He goes down as a "controversial commander", a polite term for a screw-up. I agree Truscott was probably the best general to take his place.

    I don't know how the hell people get out of school with such a dead-level knowledge of American history. With all the audio-visual and written resources around, every kid in high school should know the major battles of World War II, Korea, Vietnam any other the USA was in by the time they get out of high school, and what horrible things can happen to men and women in them.

  6. Well, Doug, any more I'd settle for knowing that Monte Cassino wasn't a reservation gambling-house....

  7. Yeah, at least that would be a better outcome Astra.

    Remember: Never play Texas Hold'em with a German guy who has a Panzer Division in the parking lot.

  8. Forgive me, don't know what I was thinking... but when I saw war and Sicily... for whatever reason my mind went directly towards the "Tomatoe Wars"... yes, I think very childishly, and do not know as much as I should, considering my eldest son's family is from Sicily (Volpino Family), and my husband's from Italy (Cabano family)...

  9. No so childish or unusual I think Growed. One of the things that common American soldiers took advantage of in their march through Sicily was the number of Italian and Sicilian-American troops who had a deep ancestral connection to the areas they were deployed in.

    It must have seemed surreal for mothers and fathers and grandparents who left Sicily and its poverty for the new world to get letters from their young men talking about seeing villages and towns they might have left behind decades earlier.