Saturday, February 2, 2008

Rick Atkinson: The Day of Battle

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943 - 1944 by Rick Atkinson is the second volume in the Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, An Army at Dawn dealt with the North Africa campaign. This volume covers the invasions of Sicily and Italy, through the capture of Rome.

The book starts with the strategic discussions of what to do with all these troops that just finished conquering North Africa. The Americans were all for invading France across the channel, while the British were wanting to keep the war in the Mediterranean. The Americans suspected that the British placed higher priority on protecting their worldwide empire than on defeating Hitler. And American leaders were not interested in expending American lives to protect the empire.

The invasion of Sicily in July, 1943 was very poorly executed. Only the greater incompetence of the Italian troops gave the Allies their chance to establish themselves. As German troops reached the front the battle of Allied egos became dominant. Hard as it is to imagine, the British Bernard Montgomery may have had a larger ego than the American George Patton. Military decisions seemed to be made more on the basis of who would get the credit than on how to best defeat the Germans. Patton on the other hand had the greater ruthlessness – with less regard for the welfare of his troops – and so won the race to Messina.

A seldom told story from the invasion of Sicily is that of the paratroopers from the 82d Airborne trying to reinforce the beachhead on the 3rd day. At this point there was no need for a night drop, but that was the plan so that’s what they did. But no one got the word out to the navy or the shore anti-aircraft batteries. When the planes showed up, the Allies opened fire. Formations scattered with some making it back to Africa with their loads intact. Twenty-four of 144 transport plans were shot down. Many more troops were machine gunned as the descended in their parachutes. The Americans lost 410 of the 2,300 troops that set out. All in a mission that was not needed. I always heard that sticking to a plan when conditions have changed was worse than not planning at all. This incident is a case study of that point.

Montgomery’s troops crossed to the toe of the Italian boot and started taking their time moving North. With no apparent progress or sense of urgency from Montgomery, the allies decided on another amphibious assault. In September, 1943 they picked Salerno because it was as far north as they could go and still have air cover from Sicily. They got lucky with a relatively unopposed landing. The Allied success was aided by the negotiated Italian withdrawal from the war just before the invasion. The Germans had not fully redeployed to oppose the landings.

But the advance stalled in the mountains south of Rome. Rather than a war of maneuver that is so characteristic of World War II, the armies settled into a dug in World War I style fight of attrition. Casualties were horrible on both sides, again to virtually no purpose.

With the stalemate in the mountains, the Allies again decided on an amphibious assault, this time at Anzio in January, 1944. By this point planning and buildup for the Normandy invasion were well underway. So the Anzio invasion was sized by what was available, not by what was necessary. Again, pride and arrogance seemed to weigh more than military judgment. One more time the Allies were lucky in the landing, as the Germans were not expecting them. But planned advances stalled. The beachhead was unable to expand southward to hook up with the Allied forces stalled in the mountains.

Finally in May, 1944 the Allies won the war of attrition and broke through German lines both in the mountains and at Anzio. But in a final demonstration of pride versus strategy, the American General Mark Clark violated orders and swung his forces to capture Rome rather than cut off the German retreat. He reaped the glory, but maintains a controversial reputation for allowing the Germans to escape. Of course there is a good chance the Germans would have escaped anyway. But capturing Rome had no effect on the outcome of the war. An certainly the question of whether British or American forces entered the city first was irrelevant to the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Rick Atkinson paints a picture of an unnecessary and costly campaign in Sicily and Italy. I think it would be easy to argue that the capture of Sicily relieved pressure on Allied shipping through the Mediterranean, perhaps helping the war effort. And perhaps the Allies learned enough from three more amphibious assaults in Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio to contribute to the success of the Normandy invasion. But it is hard to see any true justification for the cost in lives and material of the campaign to capture Rome.

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