Exclusive online content

Of Wildcats and Whales

By: Patrick J. Garrity
June 19, 2013

Rick Atkinson, a journalist and historian, has recently completed a three-volume series called the Liberation Trilogy. The series covers the role of the United States (largely the U.S. Army) in defeating Germany and its allies in the European theater of operations in World War II. The first volume in this series, An Army at Dawn: The War In North Africa, 1942-1943, published in 2002, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.

The second volume, delayed in part because Atkinson took time off to cover the war in Iraq, was published in 2007. The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, like the predecing volume, covers the war comprehensively, from grand strategy and the generals in command down to the details of daily life and small-unit combat. Atkinson's perspective on war writ large, colored strongly by the experience of ordinary soldiers, is decidedly unsentimental and un-heroic, although he gives full due to the actions of heroic men (and women). In Italy, as in all campaigns, soldiers and civilians died badly and often unnecessarily. Atkinson writes that war is marked by camaraderie and duty, and by honor and courage, as well as by inscrutable fate; but also "that war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained." His narrative weaves these themes together, with the accent on fate and corrosion, despite his acknowledgment that the cause was just.

In An Army at Dawn, Atkinson described the U.S. and British operation in North Africa from November 1942 to March 1943, which cleared Axis forces from that continent. Most high-ranking American officials, save President Franklin Roosevelt, had originally opposed this campaign as an unnecessary diversion from what they regarded as the decisive effort of the war: the drive to Berlin across northern Europe, beginning with a cross-Channel invasion of France. American planners hoped to undertake that invasion in 1942 or 1943. Winston Churchill and the British commanders, in contrast, urged large-scale operations in the Mediterranean first, in order to occupy and destroy German combat forces before the invasion of Normandy. The North African campaign (and the bombing of Germany) also offered the most feasible, albeit indirect, means to provide near-term relief to Soviet forces fighting in the East. The Americans tended to regard this plan as a cover for London's real objective: to preserve the British Empire and interests in the Mediterranean and the greater Middle East. The British, for their part, doubted that the still-green American army and its inexperienced commanders were ready to fight the Germans.

* * *

Atkinson agrees with the British. The American military—his Army at Dawn—was still in the process of making the transition from a small, poorly funded, peacetime cadre into a world-class fighting force. Sports teams need pre-season games to work out their problems; armies do not have this luxury. They must be blooded as the British would say (which was scant consolation to the families at home who lost loved ones while the military learnt the necessarily painful lessons of how to fight and who could lead). In 1942-43, the Americans also had far to go in developing the material and logistical infrastructure which would be necessary to pull off the massively complex cross-Channel invasion. In Atkinson's view, the North African campaign saved Washington and London from a disastrously premature landing in northern Europe. "France," as Atkinson notes, "would have been a poor place to be lousy in." But that left the question of what the Allies should do beginning in the spring of 1943, after the defeat of the Axis in North Africa. Was the American Army now ready to take on the German army in a home game, in northern Europe? Not yet, at least in the British view. At the TRIDENT conference in Washington in May 1943, with which Atkinson opens the book, Churchill and the British again pressed for further operations in the Mediterranean. They advocated a campaign to knock Italy out of the war, beginning with the already agreed-upon invasion of Sicily. The Allies could then exploit opportunities in the "soft underbelly" of Germany's European empire and perhaps end the war altogether without a dangerous and bloody cross-Channel invasion (or at least greatly improve the prospects of that invasion, which might be delayed until 1945 or 1946).

American officials, now including FDR, once more favored the more direct approach. They argued that the Allies should avoid becoming caught in the cul-de-sac of the Italian peninsula and instead concentrate their resources in England for a spring 1944 invasion into France.

* * *

The result of the Trident Conference, Atkinson writes, was an uneasy compromise. Italy would be eliminated from the war—whether by invasion or diplomacy—and its captured airfields would support the bomber offensive against Germany and its allies. Allied forces could then exploit further strategic opportunities in the Mediterranean theater if they opened up as a result of success in Italy. The commitment of resources to the Italian campaign would be limited, however, and Allied forces would be transferred from the Mediterranean to prepare for OVERLORD on a strict schedule. "In an effort to square the circle, a slightly cockeyed strategic scheme emerged that would guide the Anglo-Americans until the end of the war," Atkinson writes,

a relentless pounding of Festung Europa from the air and from the southern flank, setting the stage for a cross-Channel invasion aimed at Berlin. Whether a meaningful Mediterranean campaign could be waged without endless entanglement, and whether the enemy reacted as Allied strategists hoped he would react also remained to be seen.


The answer to that question as things played out, beginning with the invasion of Sicily (Operation HUSKY, July-August 1943), proved highly disappointing on all counts. According to Atkinson, the conduct of the Sicilian campaign inflamed British and American antagonisms, already strongly felt in North Africa, in a way that high-level commanders on both sides neither could forgive nor forget. The Allies, especially the British under Bernard Montgomery, failed to prevent the bulk of German forces from evacuating Sicily. Those troops would kill thousands of Americans in the coming months. Churchill, meanwhile, pressed for an invasion of Italy proper as far up the peninsula as possible. "Why should we crawl up the leg like a harvest-bug from the ankle upwards? Let us rather strike at the knee.... Tell the planners to throw their hat over the fence." The Americans agreed to an invasion and to throw their hats over the fence with a major amphibious operation at Salerno (AVALANCHE); but in the meantime, General Montgomery, in a separate action, took his sweet time moving northward from the toe of Italy in an operation no one really favored.

* * *

Throughout the resulting campaign, Allied commanders consistently underestimated German resolve. The Germans did not withdraw from the peninsula, as many planners expected when Mussolini was ousted in July 1943 or when the new Italian government surrendered to the Allies in September of that year. Instead, the capable German commander Field Marshal Albert Kesselring created a series of formidable fortified lines that took full advantage of hilly and mountainous terrain admirably suited to the defense. "The Germans are high up, with good cover," was the repeated order of the day in the hills and mountains. "A Gefreiter [private] with Zeiss binoculars and a field telephone could rain artillery on every living creature in sight," Atkinson notes. The Salerno operation was also under-planned and undermanned. According to Atkinson, the American Commander, General Mark Clark, came close to panic and withdrawal before the situation stabilized. (Atkinson paints a mixed but largely negative portrait of Clark, one of the most controversial senior commanders of the war.) The fighting around Salerno settled into a stalemate reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I.

The Allies might have halted in place in Italy when seven of their divisions, as scheduled, were shifted from the Mediterranean to support OVERLORD. Eisenhower agreed with Churchill that it was necessary to retain the strategic initiative in some fashion. Nevertheless, the Americans—who now provided the bulk of combat forces in Europe—finally imposed their preference that the cross-channel invasion should have the highest priority. Italy officially became a secondary theater. The Allies did have the option of trying to outflank the German defenses with further amphibious operations up the coast, but the attempt to do so at Anzio (SHINGLE) was nearly pushed back into the sea. ("We were hurling a wild cat on the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale," Churchill memorably complained.) It took four major offensives between January and May 1944 by combined American, British French, Polish, and Canadian Corps to push out of the Salerno area. Allied firepower—artillery and air—finally began to dominate the operations. In Atkinson's view, as the struggle played out, it was a war between productive systems capable of generating sustained offensive combat power, rather than a war between ideologies or tacticians. That was a war the Americans were sure to win, if they were determined to do so. When the Allied forces finally broke out of the Anzio beachhead, Clark turned them to the capture of Rome rather than attempt to cut off a large part of the retreating German Army. American forces took possession of the Eternal City on June 4. But that news, which once would have electrified Allied capitals, was almost immediately overshadowed by D-Day.

* * *

After the successful occupation of Rome, initial Allied optimism gave way to the reality that Italy would become a bloody backwater, as resources were drawn off elsewhere, even within the Mediterranean. Eisenhower remained intent on a late summer invasion of southern France to reinforce the Normandy landings. But even if these forces had not been drawn off from Italy, in Atkinson's opinion, the Germans still would have held the advantage of fortified high ground. By August 1944, even Churchill realized that the Italian theater could no longer produce decisive results. It became a vast holding operation. The final German defenses, the Gothic Line, did not collapse until April 1945. The American butcher's bill was 120,000 total casualties, including 23,501 killed.

Atkinson's account raises two fundamental questions. Was the invasion of Italy a strategic mistake? Could it have been fought better, in a way that would have made it a strategic success?

Churchill later argued that the Italian campaign, and other Allied threats in the Mediterranean, tied down 55 Axis divisions and mauled some of the best maneuver units in the German army. "The principal task of our armies had been to draw off and contain the greatest possible number of Germans," Churchill observed. "This had been admirably fulfilled."

Distinguished military historians, including John Keegan, Michael Howard, Correlli Barnett, J.F.C Fuller, and B.H. Liddell Hart have disagreed with that assessment, to a greater or lesser extent. According to the critics, the Italian campaign lacked purpose and cost the Allies greater resources than it did Germany. "By one account there were 22 German divisions in Italy on D-Day, as compared to 157 divisions on the eastern front and almost 60 more in Western Europe," writes Atkinson. The contrary view, to which Atkinson largely subscribes, is that control of the middle sea—which meant controlling at least southern Italy as well as Sicily—proved vital to the liberation of Europe. It was in the Mediterranean that the Allies forced the Axis on the strategic defensive. The sea lines of communication through the Mediterranean offered the best means of maintaining the lend-lease route to Russia via Persia (Iran). Air bases in Italy supported the bomber offensive that crept ever closer to the Reich. Even admitting all the controversy about the overall efficacy of strategic bombing, the sustained campaign against German oil production facilities in Romania clearly did have a major impact on the Wehrmacht.

* * *

Moreover, as Atkinson notes, the criticism of the Italian strategy butts up against an inconvenient riposte: If not Italy, where? The Allies lacked sufficient shipping and infrastructure with which to stage OVERLORD any sooner. With limited resources, calculations of grand strategy trump mere strategy—in this case, by the need to maintain the anti-German coalition and to sustain American public support for the conduct of the war. Stalin would not have tolerated an idling of Allied armies between the conquest of Sicily and the Normandy invasion ten months later. Nor would public opinion in the United States have accepted the European ground theater remaining quiet while thousands of U.S. soldiers died in the Pacific. Italy offered the only feasible place to kill Germans in large numbers in 1943 and early 1944.

Italy also offered a place to further refine the skills and tactics that would eventually carry over successfully into OVERLORD and the subsequent campaign in northern Europe. As Atkinson demonstrates, the American military often had to re-learn lessons that it supposedly had been taught in North Africa, such as the penchant of the Germans to mount an immediate counterattack after losing a position. Unfortunately, this necessarily meant that Italy was also a place where Germans could kill Americans in large numbers. (The military historian Max Hastings likes to quote a British commander: "The Germans punished mistakes—always.") Atkinson provides considerable details about the planning difficulties that plagued the Italian campaign. "[A] cruel inflexibility gripped both plans and orders." Some SOB always didn't get the word, as in the case of a horrendous friendly-fire incident during HUSKY in which American ground and naval forces shot down numerous aircraft carrying U.S. paratroopers, even firing on the paratroopers themselves. The lessons learned in Sicily and southern Italy paid dividends later in the war, notably the expertise gained in complex amphibious operations and in fighting with a large multinational coalition. Kesselring later suggested that without this experience, the Allied invasion of France "would have undoubtedly become a failure." The U.S. Army gained "the priceless conviction that American soldiers could slug it out with the best German troops, division by division"—in the toughest conditions—"and prevail." Could the Italian campaign have been fought better, perhaps turning a necessary evil into a strategic success? Could, at the least, casualties have been minimized? As to the unnecessary loss of life, Atkinson is highly critical of the performance of a number of prominent Allied commanders besides Clark. He also points to the ambiguous strategic direction of the campaign, which masqueraded as strategic flexibility. But he believes that the tyranny of limited resources, terrain that strongly favored the defense, and a highly competent adversary determined to fight it out, meant that Italy was bound to become an operational cul-de-sac, albeit a worthwhile strategic diversion in preparation for the landings in northern Europe. Atkinson concludes that on this fundamental point—the need to focus on OVERLORD in 1944—the Americans were right. Given that assessment, there was no easy or clever or brave way to change fundamentally the conditions on the ground in Italy. Atkinson argues that the landing at Anzio, for instance, was a good idea, or at least not a bad one. The plan demonstrated audacity and surprise, something generally lacking in the Italian campaign. But the amphibious force was (necessarily) too small and Allied planners underestimated and mis-estimated the German response. Clark was perhaps wrong in focusing on Rome rather than trying to bag the German army in May-June 1944, but Atkinson thinks it unlikely that the ever-resourceful Germans could then have been bagged.

* * *

Atkinson discusses but does not consider fully the British argument for an alternative Mediterranean-based strategy, while putting off OVERLORD if necessary (or at least devoting more resources to exploit opportunities in the former region). Atkinson waves away Churchill's "soft underbelly" approach, pointing out that Italy proved to be anything but soft. But there were other things going on in the Balkans in 1943-44 that Atkinson does not discuss, such as British support for Tito in Yugoslavia. Grand strategy is concerned not only with victory over the immediate adversary but also with establishing the conditions for security after the war. The British were looking after this larger game, as well as minding their own imperial store. By the same token, the Americans were not wrong in trying to get to Germany as directly and as rapidly as possible, even if it would take them a while to appreciate the post-war importance of a having a substantial U.S. military presence as far east and south as possible. Whether Churchill's peripheral alternative would have succeeded better is a matter of debate, but the Americans soon found themselves deeply engaged in Mediterranean affairs after the war as the strategic heirs of imperial Britain.

In a perfect world, one with unlimited resources, the Allies could have waged big wars both in the Mediterranean and northern Europe—and in the Pacific, which turned into a big war despite the Americans' Europe-first strategic priority. Some of those constraints were self-inflicted, such as the belated American military preparations during the 1930s. The limited number of landing craft was a constant bottleneck that hampered amphibious operations throughout the war in all theaters. Unlimited size and quality of force theoretically would have created the sort of comprehensive strategic flexibility that the Western Allies lacked in World War II. But in the real world, campaigns like Italy, however unsatisfying and bloody, will be required by the remorseless logic of war.