If history is written by self-flattering victors, then ambiguous and unfortunate battles are in danger of being forgotten altogether. We Americans never tire of the story of D-Day, of the great carnage on the beaches of Normandy that eventually put Allied troops across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany. But what do we know about Italy? The Allied campaign in Italy (1943-1944) is ambiguous at best and a colossal mistake at worst.
I just finished a book on the subject, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy by Rick Atkinson. It’s a great read and does a lot to put the campaign in perspective. Atkinson gives you the viewpoint of commanders and soldiers, although I wish there were more material from the German side of the line. Atkinson refers to Italy as, at times, employing the tactics of World War I with the weapons of World War II. The reason is obvious in hindsight: there was no clear strategic directive. In France there was a simple objective. Drive your tanks into downtown Berlin. In Italy the objective was… what? A diversion from Normandy? A thrust deep into the “soft underbelly” of the Axis? A battle of attrition designed primarily to grind down German divisions? All these things? Even to the commanders, it was never clear.
Although Atkinson shows what the generals are thinking, he gives the last word to war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Here’s how Pyle sums it up.
I looked at it this way—if by having only a small army in Italy we had been able to build up more powerful forces in England, and if by sacrificing a few thousand lives that winter we would save a half million lives in Europe—if those things were true, then it was best as it was.
I wasn’t sure they were true. I only knew that I had to look at it that way or else I couldn’t bear to think of it at all.
By the way, one of the nice resources available to the modern reader of military history is Google Earth. If you want to know why Monte Cassino was so important, you can just fly there and inspect the landscape. You can also find map overlays like this one of the Salerno landings.
My uncle fought in the Italian campaign for several months before being wounded north of Rome and sent home. I’m sending him a copy of Day of Battle to get his opinion, but in the past he has highly recommended Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang as an unblinking memoir of what Italy looked like to an infantryman. Maybe I can get Uncle Bill to set down some of his thoughts for reading on this site…