Friday, September 30, 2011

War In A Museum

Reading the obituaries in my hometown newspaper today, I saw the passing of yet another World War II veteran. The late Jack Joseph Lombardi, 93, served in the artillery, according to his obituary, "in places like Normandy, N. Africa, France, Germany, Italy and the Battle of Ansio [sic]." That would be "Anzio", for those not paying attention.

Those little words hardly do justice to the experiences the late Mr. Lombardi had. Having just completed Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle:The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, I can easily attest to the reality that Mr. Lombardi's experiences in that mountainous peninsula cannot really be captured in a few pithy phrases. The Allied invasion of Italy remains a point of controversy nearly seventy years later, as do the leaders of the Allied armies - Mark Clark for the American Fifth Army; Bernard Montgomery and Oliver Leese for the British - with that misspelled city, the point of an amphibious landing of dubious strategic value that became an abattoir of American and British lives being the most contentious.

Up until 1943, the war did not exist in Western Europe. The main German focus was in the east, where Stalin's Red Army, over the previous winter, had fought a new kind of war - house to house, sometimes room to room - to reclaim the southern city named after the man whose only title was "Marshal". It had not been easy. Stalin had issued multiple orders that not only desertion, but withdrawal and cowardice were to be answered with immediate execution. At some points near that city of Stalingrad, units fought with other units pointing machine guns at their backs. Through patience and a willingness to absorb horrific losses, as well as tolerate temperatures that killed as many on both sides as bullets did, the Russians routed the Germans from their city after having trapped the Wermacht troops who had entered it.

By contrast, the just-completed North African campaign, Operation TORCH, was a sideshow. Using the Italian colony of Libya and Occupied French colony of Tunisia as staging grounds, the Germans under Erwin Rommel had hoped to drive across the Sahara, taking control of the Suez Canal. By so doing, the British would be forced to go round Africa to resupply their forces fighting the Japanese in India. When Rommel was routed by Montgomery at El Alamein, it was because Churchill, ever the Victorian, was adamant that contact with the Jewel in the Crown not be severed. Control of the Mediterranean was roughly equal until the entrance of the US Navy swept Nazi U-Boats; the loss of the Suez might well tip the balance in the German's favor.

El-Alamein was the bright spot for the Allied effort in North Africa. Monty, who reveled in the fame and glory that followed victory, had made a fatal mistake of not pursuing Rommel's forces immediately, allowing them to retreat in good order - something at which the Germans became adept - until the Americans landed in Morocco, swept across the Atlas Mountain, and became the messy anvil to the British tiny hammer. Eventually trapping the German armies near Tunis, the hope was to destroy them there, a plan that did not go all that well. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in North Africa congratulated himself on having chased the Germans out of the desert, but it was clear no plan for the destruction of Germany in Europe was in place.

The decision to invade Sicily and Italy was determined as much by politics as strategy. The British wanted the Mediterranean to be clear of enemy navies. Chuchill continually referred to the southern coast as Europe's "soft underbelly", and wanted landings on the Adriatic coast of northern Italy to be a staging ground for an invasion of Austria and southern Germany, which he insisted would draw Wermacht troops not only from Italy, but also from the Balkans and Greece. Whether or not he was correct, whether or not it would have been possible for the Allies to fight across the eastern Alps to Austria is a moot point; Allied performance in the much less rugged Appenines up the spine of the Italian peninsula at least suggests that such a course would have ended in annihilation as easily as it would have victory.

The invasion of Sicily began with the command structure from Africa still in place - Eisenhower in overall command, Patton leading the American forces, Monty the British - and what amounted to an attempt to encircle most of the island, trapping or destroying the Italian and German armies - the former of which didn't have much heart in the battle; the latter of which was only effective at stopping Montgomery's movement up the east coast of the island. Patton managed to move quickly and easily, facing largely Italian troops who often seemed more eager to throw down their weapons than fire them. The British in the east faced two Wermacht units, one of which, the Herman Goring Division, was among the very best. Unlike the long open stretches of desert that favored the kind of rapid movement Montgomery insisted was possible, Sicily is a mountainous island, with little to no serviceable road mileage that would be available for massed, large vehicles. Facing the twin opponents of German troops and uncooperative landscape, Monty's relatively short trip to the eastern city of Messina, just across a two-mile straight from the Italian mainland, bogged down.

Patton, bedeviled by what he saw as Montgomery's incompetence or cowardice, swung wide and fast, aided in no small part by a coup in Rome that left the structure of Fascist rule intact even as Benito Mussolini spent a few months under house arrest until rescued by German troops arriving by glider. Once word reached the island that il Duce was gone, the Italian armies, who never really wanted much to do with the Nazi grand plans anyway, started surrendering en masse. Faced with the reality that his armies no longer had any will, the Savoyard King, Victor Emmanuel, surrendered. The Allies continued plans for an invasion of the boot, but considered it pro forma now that the Italians were out of the war.

The Germans, however, had other plans. From Hitler through Alfred Jodl, the Wermacht's top General, through the whole command structure, the Germans intended to contest every inch of Italian soil. It was General Kesselring, the top German Commander in Italy, who described fighting there as "war in a museum", and it was. Troops used remnants of the old Roman Appian highway to move on. Every little village and hamlet seemed to have stone pillars and monuments dating to antiquity. Some cities boasted birthing various Roman Caesars or generals, or claimed Ulysses or some other mythical hero as their founder. Of places as different as Capri, Salerno, and Anzio, various Roman writers such as Pliny, Juvenal, and Cato had written or spoken.

The Allied war effort in Italy was hampered by a combination of factors, not least of them the handing off of leadership from the top tier of Allied generals - Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley had all been claimed by preparations for OVERLORD, the invasion of northwestern Europe - and what amounted to a conspiracy of topography. Unilke the vistas across the deserts of Africa or the plains of northwest and eastern Europe, the mountainous spine of Italy was not hospitable to a war of fast movement. Roadways were restricted, and vulnerable to the side that controlled the high ground. Having arrived first, that would be the Germans, a fact the also kept the Allied war effort bogged down for months. The coastal areas were breeding grounds for disease and typhus, malaria, dysentery, and other diseases ran through the troops. Finally, the basic strategic goal of the Italian campaign became a matter of debate. Was the point the destruction of the German armies in Italy, or the occupation of Rome, now already an occupied city?

After landing at Salerno, with the British swinging wide to take ports on the Adriatic coast, the Allied effort looked an awful lot like the First World War. Two massed armies, facing one another across a relatively small front, with the Germans playing defense as the Americans, then the British, threw too-small forces against defenses in depth. Whole divisions were sacrificed in vain attempts at breakthroughs through the fall and winter.

It was Chuchill who saw possibility in an amphibious landing at Anzio, north of the stalemate. Landing significant forces behind the front lines, the Allies could then push, first, south, to break through the German defenses, the sweep north, both destroying the German army and retaking Rome.

The problems at Anzio, however, were a microcosm of problems in the rest of the Italian campaign. The troops, while brave, were too small to effect the decisive blow Churchill envisioned. Having gained the advantage of strategic surprise - the Germans knew an amphibious landing was coming, just not where - the Allies did not take advantage of the first 36 hours of relatively easy landing and expansion of the beachhead, giving the Germans time to regroup and mass forces. When they counterattacked, they nearly drove the Allies back in to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Anzio, like the rest of Italy, became a stalemate.

Atkinson's marvelous narrative of the Italian campaign moves back and forth in perspective, from the Roosevelt and Churchill right down to young draftee soldiers writing home. Capturing the confusion, boredom, and horror that was war in Italy, the reader comes to hear the voices of Patton and Clark, Leese and Juin, the leader of a Free French unit that included Berber tribesmen from Morocco, the goumiers, or "goumbs" as the Allies called them, who were the focal point for the Allied breakthrough in the spring with their assent of unscalable mountains and their vicious tactics that terrified the Germans they faced.

In a style reminiscent of such journalists-turned-historians as Barbara Tuchman and William Manchester, Atkinson has combed through official and private archives, in multiple languages, to present to readers a part of the Second World War we don't thing about too often, yet was the proving ground, and ending ground, for so many. We read in detail of the many horrors of modern warfare, as young men discovered that romance and gallantry disappeared under the weight of massed artillery and aerial bombardment. We read of generals who met their match, either in the terrain or the enemy or themselves, trying to continue the war of movement, yet finding it frustrated by German defenses and the mountains of Italy.

Atkinson has done us a favor by reminding us that the Second World War wasn't all hedgerows and fleet tank battles on open plains, but dirty, sometimes freezing slogging through mud and across small rivers, facing snipers and machine guns as well as official incompetence. For the late Mr. Lombardi, who was there at "Ansio", it is nice for those who have come after to have a place to go so that we can catch a glimpse of the reality behind that misspelled word.

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