on October 2, 2007
When it comes to writing military history, Rick Atkinson's narratives, in my view, are as good as it gets. I have an entire bookcase devoted to books about World War II and I would argue that very few, if any of them, meet the standard set now by Atkinson as far as depth of research, a flair for the truly visual and personal, and where an easy and readable prose-style is of concern. So I would not hesitate to nominate Atkinson as the best living author of books about World War II, if not of history in general. This current effort is the second volume of a proposed three-volume set of works about that devastating war. The first book in the series was "An Army at Dawn" -- a winner of the Pulitzer Prize -- which dealt with the North African campaign. Now, in "The Day of Battle," Atkinson takes on the campaign in Sicily and Italy in 1943 and 1944. And does he ever!
I have a large collection of videos dealing with WWII and, of course, one can get "up front and close" to the action when watching them. The images, combined with the narration and the accompanying music in the background, provide the viewer with a true "you are there" experience. I felt almost the same experience while reading this book. Atkinson's ability to linguistically describe a situation so that the reader feels he or she is right there within the phenomenal frame of a battle is awesome. And I don't use the word "awesome" very often. But in this case it is genuinely applicable. I could actually visualize all the action as it was occurring; such is an excellent writer's ability to translate words into mental pictures.
There is one other thing I found absolutely compelling about this book. Over the past few years, I have been studying (revisiting again for the umpteenth time, but more in-depth) the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Sicily and Italy, of course, played a significant role in the history of that era. One of the things that Atkinson does in "The Day of Battle" is correlate the geography of the exploits during the Sicilian and Italian military campaigns to activities that occurred and places that were important during the period when the Greeks and the Romans were active there.
For instance, in the first chapter in a section titled "Calypso's Island," he relates the following information: "Over the millennia, a great deal had happened on the tiny island [Malta] the Allies now code-named FINANCE. St. Paul had been shipwrecked on the north coast of Malta in A.D. 60 while..."; in the second chapter we read: "Few Sicilian towns claimed greater antiquity than Gela, where the center of the American assault was to fall. Founded on a limestone hillock by Greek colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688 B.C. ..."; and in the tenth chapter we read: "Not far from here, in 217 B.C., Hannibal had found himself hemmed in by the mountains and Roman troops."
And the above are just three of the numerous references that Atkinson gives us as a classical background to what is going on during the 20th-century conflict. I love it, of course, because it makes the narrative so much more meaningful. One can say, "Well, men were there a couple of thousands years ago, basically doing the same thing and in the same places where the action was occurring in 1943-44." This goes a long way toward placing the whole narrative within a sweeping historical context.
And who can resist being impressed when, on page 573, Atkinson relates to us, when describing the entry into Rome of the American commander, General Mark Clark, that "In classical Rome, a triumphant general returning from his latest conquest made for the Capitoline, ... His face painted with vermilion, his head crowned with laurel ..." and so on; unfortunately this paragraph is too long to be quoted here, but it should be noted that Clark was not the first military commander to enter Rome triumphantly, although in this case with less pizzazz than did the ancient Roman generals.
I really think what separates Atkinson from other military historians I have read is the way in which he puts a "human face" on the whole subject. He provides us with the thoughts and feelings of the individual soldiers on both sides in the heat of the battles. He quotes from letters sent home to loved ones from both the men on the front line as well as from the officers in charge. He informs us intimately of the sufferings endured, the human toll incurred, the grand strategies and tactics planned, the successes achieved and, of course, of the fatuity displayed and the foibles exposed. No battle plan is ever perfectly executed and Atkinson does not shrink from critically evaluating those that took place in Sicily and Italy during World War II.
Now, I do not want to give the impression that "The Day of Battle" ignores the "big" events and personalities of the Italian theater during this conflict and is nothing more than a somewhat "soap-opera" presentation or a "made-for-TV tear-jerker." Atkinson writes serious military history. The Allied and Axis commanders, the presidents and prime ministers, the major military conflicts, the politics involved, and so forth -- all the things that one would expect to be covered in any scholarly work in military history -- are discussed and analyzed. What I am saying is that the author goes beyond the usual, to include the "bricks and mortar" of the wartime experience as well as the grand issues and characters involved. It is truly comprehensive in its scope. It is military history at its best.
Furthermore, the book is more than generous with its aids and references. There are twenty maps, including a two-page spread of the entire Mediterranean and European theaters on the endpapers, two 16-page sections of relevant photographs, 140 pages of reference notes, a selected bibliography that runs to thirty pages, and an extensive topical index to top it all off. What more could a World War II history buff ask for? Well, to be honest, one thing right now. And that is the third volume of Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy" which will cover the final struggle for Western Europe, from the dawn of the Normandy invasion to the final victory in Berlin. I definitely look forward to reading it.
on October 9, 2007
Rick Atkinson's "The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944" is a masterpiece of military history that should be read by anyone with any interest in World War II or American military history. Following on the heels of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "An Army at Dawn," this is the second work in Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy" and deserving of yet another Pulitzer Prize. This book is awash in details about the difficult - and often forgotten - fighting in the Mediterranean Theater, but it also clearly and effectively describes the bigger picture of the war in Sicily and Italy.
Two things will immediately strike the reader about this book: the detail with which Atkinson describes the fighting, and the dazzling prose that he uses to tell this story. Atkinson describes the personalities and details of the main characters in the story - the leaders, from Eisenhower to Kesselring to Patton to Mark Clark to - and also gives telling glimpses of the personal lives of the "grunts" who did the fighting on the ground. His emphasis on detail knows no bounds, as he describes Churchill's meals, the furnishings in Mark Clark's office, and the "Anzio Ritz" - the underground cinema at the Anzio beachhead that showed movies to the soldier's at the world's largest self-sufficient POW camp.
For many authors, these details would detract from the story, but through Atkinson's incredible writing, these details instead add life, character, and flavor to this story. He captures the frustrations and difficulties of preparing and leading these forces, such as when he says that "for reasons known only at echelons above reason" a typical convoy required more than six thousand pages of names.
My only complaint or criticism is that, in his effort to weave a seamless narrative, some of the militarily-significant details - the exact unit's designation, the exact date and time, the number of casualties - are omitted. That prevents this book from being a definitive source on the fighting in Sicily and Italy and means that anyone trying to do research on these campaigns needs to look elsewhere.
But despite that extremely minor criticism, this book stands head and shoulders above most other military histories. I've waited for this book for over three years, since reading "An Army at Dawn," and it was well worth the wait. I am already anxiously awaiting Rick Atkinson's concluding work in the "Liberation Trilogy."
on October 2, 2007
Quick summary: a major history of the US Army's campaign to capture Sicily and mainland Italy during WWII. It covers the years 1943 - 1944 and reveals the maturing development of the US Army from a raw green force in North Africa to a more confident professional army capable of actions involving large scale operations.
With the passage of time, the release of more documents (>50 years since the end of WWII) and the longer arc of history, it is now possible to write more objective and critical history of the US side of the ETO. The first work, Army at the Dawn, revealed how badly prepared the US Army was at the outbreak of WWII and how green they were when they landed in North Africa. In hindsight Operation Torch was necessary in order to help sort out what tactics and weapons worked, which generals and officers were up to the modern shooting war, and what was the character of the American Army. Though West Point supplied a professional officer cadre, every American Army has essentially been an amateur one - from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish American War, and WWI. Large numbers of keen volunteers which needed several years or campaigns to become a serious fighting army. The Second World War proved no different. Atkinson continues his narrative of the evolution of the American Army with a detailed discussion of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns - the flaws and successes, the personalities, and lesser known but important figures.
This work should interest all readers who have an interest in military history in general, and US military history in particular.
on October 14, 2007
This is probably one of the most anticipated books in the military history field in a good long while, especially among amateurs. Rick Atkinson's books have all been bestsellers, and the previous volume in the Liberation Trilogy won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2003. This current volume is slightly shorter than the previous one. I suspect that this may be because Atkinson took off a year or two to write In the Company of Soldiers about the war in Iraq in 2003. That book was a bestseller, and I expect it did Atkinson some good in that the author was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division's commander, the then-obscure David Petraeus. This allowed Atkinson to view a divisional command in combat, something most of us have never seen, and probably informed his writing a bit afterwards.
The Day of Battle is an interesting book. When originally announced, the series was ambitious, and this volume was to cover the war in Italy from the invasion of Sicily right up through the race through the Po Valley at the end of the war. The book that has emerged is somewhat shorter in scope, only covering the fighting up through the capture of Rome in the summer of 1944, apparently leaving the events in Northern Italy for a later, presumably last, volume. No matter, the events portrayed in the book are complete, given that after the fall of Rome the theater became something of a backwater.
This is a large, detailed, intelligent book. Atkinson's favorite characters from An Army at Dawn, Terry Allen and Teddy Roosevelt Jr., depart during the fighting in Sicily, victims of Omar Bradley's distaste for flamboyance. Bradley himself, and Patton, depart for England after the conquest of Sicily, and Montgomery leaves at the end of 1943, having been frustrated in his attempt to conquer Italy quickly, without moving fast. Much of the remainder of the book revolves around Mark Clark, and his relationship with Monty protégé Oliver Leese, theater commander Harold Alexander, and his various American and multi-national subordinates. This part of the book could be of use to modern American soldiers: there's much here about wounded nationalist pride, and how thin-skinned other soldiers can be. There's also much about how other nationalities and soldiers can fit into a coalition if they choose: Alphonse Juin, the commander of the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) in Italy, voluntarily relinquished a star so that he wouldn't outrank Clark, who was his superior in the chain of command.
All of the battles of this part of the campaign in Italy are covered in considerable detail. The fighting in Sicily doesn't convey quite the controversy here that it has in other volumes: Atkinson almost plays down the supposed rivalry between Patton and Montgomery, and also makes it clear that both men played fast and loose with the rules: Montgomery sent his troops up a road reserved for Patton's 7th Army, violating the boundary between the two formations, and Alexander refused to order him to turn them around. The landings in Salerno are examined carefully, and Dawley's relief is one of the more interesting parts of the book. The author makes it clear that all of the withdrawal plans that were devised were impractical in the extreme, and probably wouldn't (and couldn't) have been implemented regardless of the circumstances. The further campaign in the peninsula, with the travails of the Rapido, Cassino, and Anzio, make up the remainder of the volume. Especially of interest is the section on Cassino, where the author makes the point that the bombing of the abbey was largely at the insistence of the commander of the New Zealand Corps, Bernard Freyberg. This is interesting because historians have long held (Atkinson agrees) that if Freyberg had been an American general commanding American troops, he probably would have been ignored. Since he led a contingent from a smaller national ally, Clark was unwilling to ignore his entreaties for air support, and sent in the bombers.
I enjoyed this book a great deal. Atkinson's an exceptional writer, and this book is full of trivia and interesting side-notes. Did you know, for instance, that when the Luftwaffe bombed the port of Bari in the winter of 1943, they blew up a ship carrying a cargo of mustard gas bombs? The subsequent disaster (which killed over a thousand Allied sailors and soldiers, and unnumbered Italians) led, indirectly, to a significant advance in chemotherapy which helped fight Hodgkin's disease. I would recommend this book to almost anyone interested in World War II or history, and frankly I predict that it will be a bestseller.
on January 13, 2008
"The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944", Rick Atkinson's second volume in the Liberation Trilogy ("An Army At Dawn", 2002), is another tour de force of historical writing. Atkinson is certainly one of this generation's most gifted writers, and he has no problem putting words to page (Day of Battle clocks in at 588 pp., minus nearly 200 pp. of notes and bibliographic information). Most reviews of "The Day of Battle" are nearly glowing to the point of being not very useful. In fact this reviewer feels like many of the glowing reviews focus solely on Atkinson's prowess as a writer and less on his attributes (or lack thereof) as a historian. This is historiography after all, so shouldn't we expect the best? Of course, and in terms of writing an engaging story that the masses will read and having read recommend to friends and colleagues, Atkinson does a bang-up job. Few of today's historical writers are even in the same league. But as a piece of enlightening history "The Day of Battle" is less fulfilling. Most readers not familiar with this portion of the Second World War (Italian campaign in particular) will find loads of 'new' information, but those more versed will be left wanting at the end of the read. Atkinson certainly covers the ground well but he provides little that is new or novel. One could say that there is little 'new' to be learned, and while this rings somewhat true there is always more the historian can do to provide insight into events of history. Atkinson doesn't blaze any new trails in this regard either. So while his story is sound and historically accurate there isn't much for the more serious students of history to chew on - beyond an enjoyable read on well-trodden ground.
So in the end this reviewer feels the need to break ranks with other reviewers and give "The Day of Battle" a solid 3 star rating, 5 for sheer enjoyment of the writing and 2 for historical impact. Moreover, this reviewer feels that Vol. 1 of the Liberation Trilogy is a better book all the way around. Having said all "The Day of Battle" is highly recommended for those with a new or passing interest in the Second World War. For those savvy among you read it if you have a few evenings to spare and simply want a good read, want to refresher about the Italian Campaign, or want to see how engaging prose can make historiography exciting to read.
on April 2, 2008
Atkinson is a good writer and he tries to accomplish much here in 600 pages. He is trying to describe in good authoritative narrative style the causes, courses and consequences of the Italian campaign. It is a worthy ideal, but, given the nature and scope of the campaign, almost doomed before from the start.
But Atkinson does write well enough and on engendering sheer excitement he passes very admirably.
What this book is about:
This is primarily an American description of the campaign in Italy. He does an great job of rendering the reality of some of these men who are larger than life and (much to Atkinson's credit) all flawed. From the odious Patton to aloof Alexander, British and American, NewZealander, Canadian and French Commanders all come up for their very necessary critical analysis. I liked this very much. Atkinson destroyed a few of my heroes (Terry Alan, General Alexander), chipped a few down a block (Churchill and Eisenhower). And shreds a few all to pieces -- Patton, Dawley. Some are flawed but tragic, Lucas (Anzio beachhead commander) and Walker (Texas Div Commander), and Freyberg, the crusty and incorrigable New Zealand Commander. For better or worse there are almost no military commanders who survive being anything else than tragic -- in that sense they are complete mirrors of this campaign.
Atkinson also describes the folley of waging war without specific objectives. It is clear that at almost any part of the campaign, there were no solid objectives: the first objective was to be Sicily, if that went well, according to the judgement of the theatre commander, they were to have a go at the boot of Italy. Then Salerno and then Anzio and the creep up and battle at the Gustav Line. Plans were haphazard at best. At no point was any commander endeared with forsight,tactical or strategic genius. When resistance was encountered, it was addressed with frontal assault and heavy artillery in much the same way as WWI. And the Allied grunts and many Italians sufferred.
What the book is not about:
Atkinson has an American feel to his writing and is best at home when he describes American unit action (in which he weighs the narrative). It is clear that the British Commonwealth regimental sctructure is not his forte. He refers to British regiments in ways that are not normally used and he he rarely uses the British shorthand terms. While he refers to Americans and there hometowns by state, Brits are just Brits. Indian division officers are quoted -- they are not however Indians, they are British officers attached to the Indian Divisions. How were these divisions structured? What makes the fact a person is attached to the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada is part of a regiment and not a division that defines him? What and how were the Poles integrated into the British Commonwealth Armies? All of this is a rich narrative that most Americans find confusing and have traditionally little understood. It does however go to the heart of the British way of war.
Having said this he almost pulls off a good overview of both sides in a balanced fashion at times. But while there is good description of the American Battle at Triona in Sicily, there is virtually nothing about the British battle at Catania -- which consumed many more troops and casualties. Nothing of the War north of Rome. This is the nub of the matter. In overall terms of troops deployed and casualities taken, the Commonwealth forces contributed more men and took more casualties than their American cousins. This should not detract from this book as a great read. It should encourage American readers to move beyond their often rather narrow interpretation of WWII. I should note in tribute to Atkinson, that he does included a 10 page segment -- and even an map!! -- on the pointless and particularly brutal battle of the Canadians at Ortona.
There are other things that should be included: there is nothing on the use of airpower or history of the Air Forces in this sector (ditto for the Navy). There is also an annoying use of contemporary terms such as "parse" which Atkinson seems to use to mean everything from "to sort" or "arrange" to also mean "separate." Also using the contemporary term "tube" to describe any artillery piece does little for understanding the discrepancy between allied and German artillery power and usage. As mentioned by another review Nebelwerfers were rocket launchers, not mortars.
The book does give and excellent idea of the tragedy of this campaign, the personalities and the parts they played. The tragedy comes from the fact that not only do we know ex post facto that these men will be thrown into many hopeless battles, but that their commanders on the ground at the time also knew. A magnificent book that pleases warts and all... maybe being flawed is an essential element to great narrative.
Early in the Allied invasion of Italy, U.S. forces commander Mark Clark cautioned his wife: "You must look upon this Italian campaign as one little part of a world war where perhaps we do something the hard way in order to make successes in other places easier."
Decades later, debate continues. Was the awful toll in life and property that resulted from the invasion an almost-total waste? Or did it begin in earnest the process of ridding the world of Hitlerian terror?
Rick Atkinson comes down on the latter half of the argument, but with reservations. His latest and middle volume in "The Liberation Trilogy", which covers the Allied invasion of Europe, is too full of the facts of the matter. There were atrocities aplenty on both sides, pointlessly bloody attacks, destroyed works of art, and enough light shed on the evil of men to make one sick. "War is corrupting," Atkinson writes, and this was especially true in a country where the toll so often ran so deep.
Atkinson's vision is relentless, which is part of the problem. Reading about children buried alive, men falling out of aircraft, and sudden acts of meaningless cruelty played over again is downright depressing, however on point and accurate. This is why I don't read Martin Gilbert. I think you can't knock Atkinson for making an unpleasant book about such a thing, but unpleasant it is.
Another problem is Atkinson's justly-won Pulitzer Prize for his previous book in this series, "Army At Dawn", seems to have gone to his head. A sometimes pompous style undercuts his better points. He never uses a word like "toughening" when "annealing" can be employed instead, and strives throughout this book to make some parallel to classical fables, which come off stretched. He has a rich vocabulary, and used it in "Army At Dawn", but I missed the almost accidental eloquence with which Atkinson made his points.
I can't fault him on his facts, except for the utterly minor point of a Washington Nationals game being played in 1943. Atkinson may use secondary sources, but he draws a lot of value from them, and produces for the reader a lucid and, at times, intoxicating distillation of many learned, contemporaneous voices, both in academia and on the battlefield. He is a frustrating fencesitter regarding the generalship of many, including Clark, but it beats blowhards like Stephen Ambrose riding their favorite hobby horses every 15 minutes, however entertaining that can sometimes be.
There's nothing so entertaining in "Day Of Battle"; it's a good tough book I doubt I will read before reading "Army At Dawn" a third time. You feel like you know more about combat, though not the way you might want to. One British soldier describes its capricious workings like that of a purblind officer, telling a random group of men. "You and you - dead. The rest of you, on the truck."
So much for glory. In Italy, most of the glory was getting out alive.
on May 5, 2010
World War 2 is our low-fat war. One we can indulge in as much as we want, secure in the knowledge that the glorious fallen do not remain to lard our consciences, but rather have been transported to light, airy heaven. With other wars, we may have to rationalize, but there's little doubt that fighting the Nazis was the Right thing to do.
When you get to the question of when and where we fought them, though, things get a little stickier. Not every battle or campaign is so easy to justify, and as Rick Atkinson shows in "Day of Battle", the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy is the ten-pound ball of deep-fried butter ruining our no-guilt diet. The campaign left 100,000 soldiers dead, perhaps four times that many wounded, without striking any decisive blow against the Germans or sufficiently distracting them from other theaters. Was it worth it?
Mr Atkinson equivocates on the question, but he does so beautifully. "Day of Battle" forms the second of Mr Atkinson's planned "Liberation" trilogy following the history of US armies in the major European campaigns of World War 2. The series began with 2002's Pulitzer Prize-winning "An Army at Dawn", an engaging, in-depth history chronicling the US landings in North Africa. "Day of Battle" maintains this high standard of writing, even if it lacks the former book's driving narrative.
Mr Atkinson brings a humanist touch and eye for detail to the little-studied invasion of Italy. His book combines memoirs, first-hand as well as official accounts, and stacks of letters to from soldiers to those waiting at home. This intimate look at the war, combined with a heavy dose of poetic license, makes this a surprisingly readable book despite its 600-page-plus length. The only fault in the style is the aforementioned poetic license, which crops up in Mr Atkinson's tendency to embellish his descriptions. "The dappled sea stretched to the shore in patches of turquoise and indigo," he says, which is nice to read but hardly good history.
The supporting maps are likewise something of a mixed bunch. While clean and informative for the most part, in the paperback edition I read a number of printing errors had left some names with missing letters, so that "Monte Lungo" is rendered "Lun o" and Major-General Hawkesworth "Awke w r".
The level of detail of Mr Atkinson's account is, however, amazing, covering the US involvement in the campaign from the Anglo-American conference in May 1943 where it was conceived, to its climax in the fall of Rome in June 1944. Altghough the descriptions of acutal battle are sometimes a little vague, "thrusts met stout resistance", "a flanking attack ... unhinged the German line", Mr Atkinson's coverage of the leading personalities, from US commanders George Patton and Mark Clark, to divisional commanders like Lucian Truscott and even more junior officers, is much stronger. Mr Atkinson projects genuine respect and admiration for these men, though you feel he might be too easy on them sometimes. Mr Atkinson lists their ailments and worries sympathetically, but I can't stomach commanders sleeping in sprawling Italian villas and complaining about stress or tiredness, when a dozen kilometers away their men are getting dismembered by the truckload. Clark in particular gets off lightly, despite coming across as slighly insubordinate and egocentric.
Rather, Mr Atkinson saves his venom for the real enemy: the British. "Day of Battle" is a fine account of the campaign, provided you are utterly uninterested in the involvement of the British, Canadians, Polish, New Zealanders, Indians and other nationalities who made up the Allied force. Whenever the "cousins" do pop up, they soon disappear under a barrage of criticism for poor leadership, lack of offensive spirit, and failure to support or appreciate their American allies enough.
The most troubling part of the book, however, is Mr Atkinson's attempt to justify the campaign as a whole. In "An Army at Dawn", he convincingly argued that the African campaign helped steel US forces for the war in Europe. The argument doesn't work as well here, especially as he himself notes that soldiers not killed or wounded tended to become psychiatric casualties after 200-240 days; men can only be tempered so far before they break. Instead, Mr Atkinson falls back on the stale comfort that, in the words of war correspondent George Biddle, certain qualities "give war its justification, meaning, romance and beauty. The qualities of valor, sacrifice, discipline, a sense of duty". This flies in the face of the evidence Mr Atkinson presents in the previous 600 pages, that the war was horrible, meaningless, savage and hellish.
Far better is another quote by Biddle, "I wish the people at home, instead of thinking of their boys in terms of football stars, would think of them in terms of miners trapped underground or suffocating to death in a tenth-story fire." Sometimes, I think, it's only right that our consciences should be troubled.
on March 29, 2008
I had read Rick Atkinson's book, An Army at Dawn and found myself with renewed interest in studying the history of World War II. Set in the battles between the Allies against the Axis in North Africa, it had won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was eagerly looking forward to the second volume in The Liberation Trilogy.
Now Atkinson turns his skills to the next move in the war. Napoleon had said that Italy was shaped like a boot and to conquer it, you had to treat it like a boot and enter from the top. Unfortunately, the Allies didn't have that option -- France and Germany and the Balkans were in Nazi hands, and there was just one route that British and American forces could take -- first the triangular island of Sicily and then to invade the mainland. On maps it looked easy enough -- all they had to do was bring men, tanks and supplies from Tunisia, move over Sicily, and then head for Rome.
Part One describes what it really took to take Sicily, and the personalities of both the troops, and the generals that led them. Several vibrant generals come through -- especially George Patton, Omar Bradley, Lucian Truscott and Eisenhower. In the second half of the book, when the action shifts to the 'boot' of Italy, a majority of the details shift to other generals, especially the commander of Fifth Army, Mark Clark, and British general Sir Harold Alexander. But most of all what caught my attention was the ordinary soldiers who fought for the Allies, and hailed from ordinary towns in the States, Great Britain and even from France and India, and especially the New Zealanders. There are journal entries, letters and offical reports, all of which give life to what appears to be an ordinary campaign.
But it wasn't. As I read, especially when it came to the assaults on Salerno, Naples, Monte Cassino, and Anzio, I realized what a truly tragic undertaking all of this was. From the never-ending lack of shipping, to bungling in intelligence, lousy air recognance and bombing (with one very notable exception), miscommunication, and the fact that many of these generals that were involved were just plain human and egotists to boot, it helps to understand the immense amount of courage and determination that it took to not just fight but also survive in situations that appeared to be a 'no-win' scenario. What struck me the most was the not just the desperate fight of the Italian people to survive, but that many of them wanted nothing at all to do with their fascist overlords, and the German troops that had moved in after the collapse of Mussolini's government. While they did take opportunities whenever possible to help themselves, many of them fought right along side the Allies, provided transportation in the form of mule trains over mountainous terrains and guides.
But there are some moments of truly black humour that made me both cringe and laugh out loud. Some GI's in Naples paid the local prostitutes with Monopoly money, insisting that it was military 'scrip;' the working girls in return set loose an epidemic of the clap that proved to be resistant to all forms of treatment -- a fair exchange in my opinion. Or the tactics that many of the troops holed up at Anzio waiting for the breakout resorted to relieve boredom -- horseracing, farming, and the camp favourite, cockroach racing.
Sometimes, the story takes on a surrealistic appearance, and Atkinson gets downright poetic when describing the firestorms that occured during bombardments, or the men who fight on despite horrific wounds. It were these that broke my heart to read, as men before heading off into battle write up 'just-in-case' letters to loved ones back home, speaking of the terrible situations that they are facing, but never revealing the details. Instead, the reader discovers that that the reality of warfare is not the santized, bloodless versions that tend to creep over our televisions and movie screens, but a truly awful business that most civilians can not even begin to comprehend.
It's not surprising that as I read this account that I found myself thinking of the never ending situation that the United States finds itself embroiled in today. Nowadays it seems that the politicians are running the wars, and the generals caught in crossfire, and the ordinary soliders and airmen paying the final price along with unnamed, unknown civilians. Atkinson doesn't preach to his readers, he just assembles the stories into sections and uses an immense amount of research to let the reader decide for themselves. Reading of the treatment of Italian civilians by the Germans, and the atrocities committed, it's pretty clear that World War II had to be fought, and that it was run on propoganda as much as on ammunition. How this current conflict sixty years on will be read in a century from now is impossible to predict.
But what I was left with was a sense of the sacrifice paid not just by the troops, but also those who worked and waited back home. I had known very little about how the Allies drove the Germans out of Sicily and Italy, but after reading this I had a great appreciation of what it took. Atkinson's research is very detailed -- there are more than 200 pages of notes, along with an extensive bibliography and index. There are two black and white inserts of photos, and many maps showing not just the movements of armies, but also gives a good idea of scale as well.
For anyone insterested in what happened in Italy, this is bound to become a classic. Second in the proposed trilogy by Atkinson that details the Allies in North Africa and Europe, titled The Liberation Trilogy, this makes for excellent reading by both those familiar and unfamiliar with the topic. While it did get to be rather dry reading in spots, once I started reading about the conflicts to take Monte Cassino and Anzio, I realized that I could not put the book down.
Overall, a five star read.
on September 24, 2013
I purchased the trilogy, and just started the third book, "The Guns at Last Light"...the first book was superb, but the second book, "The Day of Battle" wasn't as good a read...still good, but not AS good as the first...
The Italian campaign cost a great number of lives, and Atkinson doesn't disrespect their sacrifice; however, I had a difficult time connecting with the flow of events - the terrain, the battles, and the personalities of the different "players" - American, German, and Italian...I thought the sidelight on Mussolini was great, but too short...and the disposition of troops and the campaign after Rome / D-day was non-existent - although the Italian campaign continued to the end of the war...
In short, I didn't think the book "sucked me in" to the sense of battle - as the first book did...
I still recommend it - but not as enthusiastically as I recommended "An Army at Dawn"...