I decided that while I was reading about Italy this month, I might as well really get into it and make my WWII books Italy as well. As one of the members of the Axis (albeit weak), there’s plenty written about that country during that time. I opted for The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson, and it turned out to be more illuminating than I bargained for. I didn’t think I had many illusions about the Allies and WWII, but apparently I did. For instance, the United States didn’t join the Allies and proceed to trounce the enemy, especially in Italy. The Mediterranean theater of war was a horrifying, bloody experience for all involved.
The book starts with Winston Churchill’s visit to Washington D.C. when the United States first came on board. Atkinson included this part—the prologue—because as part of the war plan and negotiations. Roosevelt and Churchill (to be honest, mostly Churchill convincing Roosevelt) decided to send Allied troops up through Italy as well as via Normandy. The American generals weren’t super-excited about this, thinking it was a bad idea, but they eventually came to an agreement.
Jump to the book’s epilogue, and there’s still heated discussion among historians about whether this was a good idea or not to invade Italy. You know how the war ends, so I’m not giving away anything when I say that what was supposed to be a fairly easy campaign up through Italy from Sicily to the Po Valley in the north turned into a two-year ordeal. The Brits argued that the fighting in Italy divided Hitler’s forces between France and Italy, but the Americans thought it divided their forces as well when they really needed to be united on one front in the West.
So, the Allies invaded Sicily, and then laboriously moves northward with Rome being the big prize (even if it had no strategic value). Eisenhower and Patton, two of the well-known names in WWII and American military history were present for the first leg of the journey, Sicily, while Clark was the major American general during the rest of the campaign. Add in Alexander, a British general, and Churchill who insisted on the campaign and you get an interesting, insightful, horrifying story.
This is war. This book is war. As such, either I review the writing or the war itself. As I’m a history enthusiast but not a professional, I can hardly judge the accuracy of the writing. Atkinson uses a multitude of sources from journal entries and news reports to letters and public files. As far as I know, he’s accurate and his conclusions well-researched. The writing is interesting, sometimes irreverently funny and sometimes deadly serious.
Because I can’t judge the writing, the only thing left is the war and I cannot do that; I refuse to do that. I’m not omniscient or omnipresent, which are—as far as I’m concerned—the only methods in which to accurately make a judgement on the decisions and actions of millions of people nearly 80 years ago. In short, I’m not God, and I refuse to condemn or judge anyone.
But I can tell you how reading this made me feel.
The Characters. I think only of the biggest surprises of this book—or rather one of the biggest surprises about myself while reading it—was that despite being an adult and well-read and no dummy, I found that I wanted the Allies to be all good and the Axis to be all bad. I know shades of gray exist, but my basic subconscious sees right and wrong.
War is not that simple. Soldiers fought for many reasons. Some were drafted; others believed in a cause; others still wanted to believe in a cause. The typical German soldier was probably no more evil than the typical American.
Mostly, though, I was torn—and pleasantly surprised—about the generals. These were the main characters of the book (especially Clark). To put it bluntly, Italy was a stupid-fest. The top brass were under-prepared and unorganized. They underestimated the Germans and failed to communicate with each other. They made dumb decisions. They wanted glory. But they were also loyal and fierce and determined. They were tough fighters and smart tacticians. They were complicated.
The Storyline. I find it interesting that the book mostly ended with the Allies took Rome. They still had northern Italy and the Po Valley, but that was rushed through in the epilogue. Why, you ask? Well, Rome was the magnetic draw for Clark and Alexander. Everything else was anticlimactic. Plus, the day after Rome fell, the Allies invaded Normandy, so Clark and his Fifth Army had their thunder stolen.
The Writing. I already mentioned how interesting it was. Some of the battle scenes were a little bit too real, but that’s hardly a complaint.
What I learned the most from this book wasn’t the details about the Italian campaign or the millions of specific moments that contained it, but it was the truth about the people who fought in it: The Allied generals weren’t heroes without flaws; they were ordinary men thrust into a difficult situation and expected to be extraordinary. They made mistakes, but they also did the best they could. They were heroic enough.