Book Report: The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (World War II Liberation Trilogy, #2)The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is volume two of the “Liberation Trilogy” describing the western Europe and North Africa battles in World War II. Like the other two volumes, we see the war from three perspectives. Atkinson lays out the main strategies and tactics of the war with army positioning, thrusts and parries. Second he lays out the details of “war is hell”; while this is a truism, Atkinson shows the life on the front lines and just how purely awful war is. Finally, Atkinson lays out the details of the fascinating (and maddening) personalities of the allied generals.

How does a country learn how to wage war? Germany developed the concept of total war as a way of overcoming the reasons for its loss in World War I. Rather than becoming bogged down in trench warfare, Germany was determined to overwhelm and overawe the rest of Europe. Terror and destruction of this scale can’t be easily faced up to simply by desire or will alone; it also requires leadership, logistics, and training. “[T]he first eighteen months of war for the United States had been characterized by inexperience, insufficiency, and, all too often, ineptitude. A long seasoning, still unfinished, was required, a sorting out: of strong from weak, effective from ineffective, and, as always, lucky from unlucky.”(p 8). “The New York Times veteran military correspondent Hanson Baldwin, after a long trip through the war zone, had concluded … ‘the greatest American problem is leadership: the Army so far has failed to produce a fraction of the adequate officer leadership needed.'” (p 8) The learning would continue through Italy and pay off in Europe after D-Day.

The strategy for the war in southern Europe was weak; British and American leaders had different views that had to be reconciled. Churchill was fond of talking about the “soft underbelly of Europe” as if looking at it on a map made it so. Regardless, “The Allies had a plan where there had been no plan, but whether it was a good plan remained to be seen. Certainly it was vague. How Italy should be knocked out was left to the theater commander, General Eisenhower, and the concomitant goal of containing ‘the maximum number of German forces’ implied a war of attrition an opportunism rather than a clear strategic objective.” Maybe tying up the German Tenth Army was enough; one benefit was that it provided some relief for the Russians as they started their push back out of Russia.

Although Eisenhower often urged instead of ordered, Atkinson argues he was exactly what was needed “He was indeed a compromiser, a coordinator, but that was precisely what this war – this total, global war – required. Eisenhower had long recognized that in such an existential struggle the most robust coalition would likely prevail.” The allies had to learn to work with each other in the battle for Sicily which was successful but not as successful as it could have been. “Eisenhower, notwithstanding his growth since TORCH [the African campaign] ten months before, all too often he still failed to grip the reins of his command, day by day and hour by hour. He had yet to become a great commander because he had yet to demonstrate the preeminent quality of a great captain: the ability to impose his will on the battlefield”. (p174).

The other generals had glaring weaknesses as well. General Montgomery dithered and dallied when jumping over the Messina Strait between Sicily and Italy. “Eisenhower had prodded Montgomery to jump the strait sooner, but Eighth Army ‘wanted everything fully prepared’ before moving. Again Eisenhower did not insist.” Atkinson quotes C.J.C Molony’s official British history of the Italian campaign saying “[Montgomery] ‘had the unusual gift of persuasively combining
very bold speech and very cautious action.’ Again and again he chose limited objectives, which were attacked only after a painstaking accretion of men and matériel in such quantities that he could ‘scarcely fail, given tim, to take that objective’ as Molony wrote”. (p300) Atkinson argues that the problem was due at least partially to the “limits of this huge conscript army, including the capacity of staff officers and junior commanders to handle the immensely complex requirements of modern war.” (p 300)

American field generals are not spared either. General Mark Clark is excoriated for putting his personal glory ahead of what was good for the war effort. After three failed attempts to take Monte Cassino the allies pushed through. Clark, instead of cutting through German lines turned and headed to Rome, the political, but not strategic, prize. “Yet the harsh truth remains: with duplicity and in bad faith, Clark contravened a direct order from a superior officer”. (p 548) Neither did Clark give credit to his subordinates if it meant he could garner more credit.

Despite the lack of clear objectives and limitations of the generals, the Allies did win the Italian campaign. The generals, training, will, and logistics were good enough to overcome German advantages of interior lines of defense. American logistics and organization finally overwhelmed Germany. “To keep a single GI fighting for a month in Italy required more than half a ton of matériel.” … In February 1944, the U.S. Army shipped 3 million tons of cargo overseas, parsed into 6 million separate supply items that included not only beans and bullets but mildew-resistant shoelaces and khaki-colored pipe cleaners.” (p 450).

And that is the largest lesson I take away from reading this trilogy and other WWII histories: the arsenal of democracy turned the tide. There is such an enormous amount of organization and planning to support the rifle companies on the front, the artillery companies supporting them and the strategic air war. General George C. Marshall was the key this transformation; for a definitive analysis of this, read the biography “General of the Army: George C. Marshal, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray (Cooper Square Press).

This triology is a must read for those who want a comprehensive understanding of the United States role in Europe during World War II. I recommend that you read the series in order. I did not and miss the story of growth and improvement of the allies during the war.

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