The Day of Battle
The high price of blood
By Steven Martinovich
Fresh off the successful rout of German and Italian forces in North Africa, the Allies were faced with two difficult decisions. Where to fight next and when? The British favored a war in the Mediterranean, specifically an attack on Italy which Winston Churchill viewed as the "soft underbelly of Europe", while the Americans supported a cross channel attack into Nazi occupied France. Both strategies obviously carried immense risks.
As history and Rick Atkinson's stellar The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 records, the British won the debate. A follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize winning An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Atkinson's latest effort chronicles the battle the Allied forces fought against German and Italian forces from the attack on Sicily to the liberation of Rome in June 1944. The campaign proved that history truly does repeat itself as the mistakes of the past were once again revisited on the grunts ordered into battle.
British and American planners were deeply divided over the necessity of attacking Italy and it seemed to be reflected in the quality of their planning. Although Allied forces had learned many lessons in North Africa, specifically on how to launch combined arms attacks on targets, once again attacks against the ferocious defenders of Italy were often poorly planned and supported. The Allied landings at Sicily were successful, for example, but the Axis were able to evacuate most of their forces to Italy when the battle turned against them.
Oftentimes Allied forces were repeatedly thrown against nearly impregnable German and Italian defenses until commanders belatedly realized that a change in tactics was needed. The Allied attack against the German line at Cassiano saw repeated attacks which defined the terms stalemate and bloodshed. And yet despite being sometimes chopped up by the Axis in appalling battles which gained mere yards of mountainous terrain, the Allies were able to pound out a slow advance up Italy.
Without destroying his narrative, Atkinson manages to weave together historical detail, battle tactics, man on the line stories, profiles and big picture fine points into a compelling story. Other authors would inevitably drown the reader in detail but Atkinson manages instead to add even more depth and personality to his account thanks to the quality of his writing.
The essential question, however, is whether the invasion was ultimately necessary. Although Atkinson would rather report than editorialize, it seems clear from The Day of Battle that the Italian campaign took focus away from primary goal of defeating Nazi Germany. It is arguable that the campaign only really assisted the British in reasserting their control in North Africa and the Middle East and delayed the inevitable invasion of Germany by a year. That doesn't diminish the heroism by Allied soldiers but it does speak ill of men that would use them for mercenary purposes.
The Day of Battle is a worthy successor to Atkinson's An Army at Dawn. It once again shows that he has a deft hand not only at presenting strategic and tactical issues in an understandable manner, he is also superbly talented at allowing the reader to understand the day to day struggles of the soldier – whether those fighting the horrific battles or those tasked with the unpleasant job of ordering them to do so. Few have illuminated this chapter in the Second World War as ably as Atkinson has managed and it leaves the reader thirsting desperately for the third and final entry in this now classic trilogy.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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