Italy, where 23,501 Americans and an estimated 48,000 Germans died in battle, is the forgotten theater of World War II.
Having swept the Axis out of Northern Africa in May 1943, the Allies found themselves more than a year away from the expected invasion of Western Europe.
As fighting raged in the east, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin pleaded and demanded that the United States and Britain open an immediate second front, lest all the Nazi blood being spilled was matched only by that of the Red Army.
In July 1943, American and British armies landed on Sicily and began pushing the Germans north and east and were shortly in Italy proper. For the rest of the war, well past D-Day, they climbed the boot, inch by torturous inch.
In The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1994, Rick Atkinson offers the second volume of his Liberation Trilogy, and traces those inches in agonizing, brilliant detail. (Vol. I, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for history.)
Relying on military histories and documents, the private letters and diaries of generals and front-line soldiers, news accounts and interviews, Atkinson creates a seamless, stunning narrative that is the equal of An Army at Dawn and keeps him apace, upon publication of the trilogy’s third volume, to have written the seminal account of the Allied land war against the Third Reich.
Atkinson’s success lies in his ability to render bare war’s wretched realities in astounding prose. He also paints it in all its dimensions, from the individual courage and carnage of the front line to the blundering commanders miles to the rear.
The contradictions, of course, are clear. Privates die and generals are glorified. In Sicily, Gen. George Patton retreated nightly to a castle in Palermo while needlessly risking his troops to beat the British to Messina.
But Patton’s ego seems tame compared to that of Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the American Fifth Army in Italy. Atkinson paints Clark as so obsessed with capturing Rome himself that he pondered turning his own guns on the British if he thought they would enter the city ahead of him.
At the heart of The Day of Battle, though, is the foot soldier, the men pinned down at Anzio, the troops sent relentlessly into fortified German lines. The Italian campaign was the battlefront that most resembled the battles of World War I, armies flinging themselves at each other again and again over the same ground.
Atkinson juxtaposes the fighting for inches with the grave realities of Allied war-making politics and how much blood was spilled because of clashing egos. He also explores many of the war’s darkest secrets, from its largest incident of fratricide (allied gunners in Sicily opening up on their own planes and paratroopers), to the disastrous results when a ship containing a cargo of mustard gas is bombed in an Italian harbor, to the atrocities committed on both sides.
His deeper exploration is whether the war in Italy needed to be fought at all. It was, history proved, of little strategic importance. But it was, Atkinson concludes, necessary for Stalin’s appeasement and diverting German resources from the preparation of defenses for the invasion of France.
It also put many American troops, over the winter of 1943-44, in some of the worst conditions of the war, and raises innumerable questions about the plodding strategy of their commanders.
Why didn’t the Allies, in either of their amphibious assaults on the boot, land north of Rome and cut off its supply lines? Why, at Anzio, didn’t the Allies break out of the beachhead when they had the chance, before the Germans launched a furious counterattack that created the war’s deepest quagmire?
As the Allies prepared for the invasion of France, troops in Italy suffered from a drain of resources and leadership talent.
Generals Eisenhower, Smith, Bradley and Patton (removed from the theater after slapping a soldier in Sicily) never commanded men there. That left Clark, as an ego-driven general on a par perhaps only with Douglas MacArthur, obsessed with the ancient Italian capital, ordering military reporters to begin their stories “Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army” marched and took the city.
But when Clark finally pushed through and captured Rome in early June 1944, he was, in turn, pushed off front pages around the world by news of the Normandy invasion — an irony not lost on Atkinson.
Countless books have been written about World War II. Yet it is Atkinson, through his research and narratives, who has set himself apart as the historian of record 60 years removed. No finer writer may have ever set pen to paper about the totality of war.
One can only hope that after finishing his European trilogy, he moves on to the Pacific. The dead deserve no less.