Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Mediterranean Campaign by Rick Atkinson

[ The tactical competence of the Allied Command in Sicily and Italy was bad. Coordination between the services- army, navy and air force- was poor and resulted in many deaths by friendly fire.  Supply services were chaotic. Landings at Salerno and Anzio poorly conceived and quickly bogged down  in defensive positions. The idiosyncratic personalities of the top generals got in the way of  sound thinking. Undue optimism, thin tolerance for self-criticism  and  under-estimation of the strength and capacity of the enemy  ruled the days.]

 The 608-day campaign to liberate Italy cost 312,000 Allied casualties, equivalent to 40 percent of Allied losses in the decisive campaign for northwest Europe that began at Normandy. Among the three-quarters of a million American troops to serve in Italy, total battle casualties would reach 120,000, including 23,501 killed.

German casualties in Italy remain uncertain, as they were in North Africa. Official U.S. Army history tallied 435,000, including 48,000 enemies killed and 214,000 missing, many of whom were never accounted for. Fifth Army alone reported 121,000 prisoners captured in the campaign. An OSS analysis of obituaries in seventy German newspapers found a steady increase in the number of seventeen- and eighteen-year-old war dead; moreover, by the late summer 1944, nearly one in ten Germans killed in action was said to be over thirty-eight years old.

As the war moved north, Italian refugees returned home to find their towns obliterated and their fields sown with land mines. The Pontine Marshes again became malarial, and nine out of ten acres around Anzio were no longer arable. The ten miles between Ortona and Orsogna held an estimated half million mines; those straggling home carried hepatitis, meningitis, and typhus.  Some who outlived the war died violently from mines, or while trying to disarm live shells to sell the copper and brass for scrap. Two young boys  were killed by a mine along the Rapido River on February 27, 1959.

[All the lessons of combat fatigue and the psychological consequences of killing learned in the Great War had to be relearned during the course of the Italian campaign, though no American soldier was executed for cowardice.]

Was the game worth the candle?

General Alexander thought so. "Any estimate of the value of the campaign must be expressed not in terms of the ground gain," he later wrote, "but in terms of its effect on the war as a whole." By his tally, when Rome fell six of Kesselring's nine "excellent mobile divisions had been severely mauled," and fifty-five German division "were tied down in the Mediterranean by the Allied threat, actual and potential." As the Combined Chiefs commanded, Italy had been knocked from the Axis coalition and hundreds of thousands of Hitler's troops had been "sucked into the vortex of defeat," in the glum phrase of a senior German general in Berlin. Churchill later wrote, "The principal task of our armies ad been to draw off and contain the greatest possible number of Germans. This had been admirably fulfilled."

Yet the Allied strategy seemed designed not to win but to endure. "There is  little doubt that Alexander fulfilled his strategic mission." General Jackson later observed, "[but]there is less certainty about the correctness of that mission." Two distinguished British military historians would voice similar skepticism.  John Keegan saw the campaign as "a strategic diversion on the maritime flank of a continental enemy," while Michael Howard believed the Mediterranean strategy reflected Churchill's desire to divert American combat power from the Pacific.  The British, Howard concluded, "never really knew where they were going in the Mediterranean."

Others would be even harsher. The Mediterranean was a "cul-de-sac," wrote the historian Corelli Barnett, "mere byplay in the conclusion of a war that had been won in mass battles of the Eastern and Western front."(There were 22 German divisions in Italy on June 6,1944; by comparison, 157 fought in the east on that day and almost 60 more in western Europe.) Another British eminence, F.F.C. Fuller, in 1948 would call Italy 'tactically the most absurd and strategically the most senseless campaign of the whole war."  B.H. Liddell Hart concluded that the Italian effort "subtracted very heavily" from Allied war resources, "a much larger subtraction from the total effort than the German had incurred by making a stand in Italy." And the American historian David M. Kennedy decried "a needlessly costly sideshow," a grinding war of attrition whose costs were justified by no defensible military or political purpose."

Even Kesselring, ever cheeky for a man who had lost both the battle and the war, would observe in September 1945 that Anglo-American commanders "appeared bound to their fix plans. Opportunities to strike at my flanks were overlooked or disregarded."  Although "German divisions of the highest fighting quality .  .  . were tied down in Italy at the time when they were urgently needed in the French costal areas," Kesselring later added, the Allies "utterly failed to seize their chances."

True enough, all of it, but perhaps not the whole truth. If "to advance is to conquer," in Fredrick the Great's adage, then the Allies continued in the Mediterranean, albeit slowly. When Rome fell, only eleven German U-boats still operated in the entire Mediterranean, and no Allied merchantman would be sunk there for the rest of the war; controlling the middle sea proved vital in liberating Europe, and in guaranteeing another route for Lend-Lease material to Russia via Persia. The bomber offensive continued apace from Italian fields that crept ever closer to the Rich; a sustained and ultimately fatal campaign against German oil production facilities included sic thousand Fifteenth Air Force sorties in the summer of 1944 that targeted vital refineries around Ploesti, Romania. As the historian Douglas Porch wrote, "One must not lose from view the Mediterranean's importance in breaking the offensive power of German arms, and forcing the Reich onto the defensive, after which any hope of victory eluded them."

Moreover, all criticism of the Italian strategy butts against an inconvenient riposte: if not Italy, where? "Events generate their own momentum, impose their own force, and exert their own influence on the will of men," wrote Martin Blumenson, who spent a lifetime pondering the Mediterranean campaign. We went into Sicily and Italy because we had been in Africa." No oceangoing fleet was available to move a half a million men from the African littoral to England, or anywhere else; nor could British ports, rails and other facilities, already overwhelmed by the American hordes staging for OVERLORD, have handled such a force. Moscow would not have tolerated an idling of Allied armies during the ten months between the conquest of Sicily and the Normandy invasion -a ten-month respite the Germans needed badly. "The Italian campaign," wrote the naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "was fought because it had to be fought."

Historical tautology may be suspect, and opportunism lacks the panache of grand strategy. From beginning to end, Allied war-making in the Mediterranean tended to be improvisational. The decision to continue pounding north after the capture of Rome remains especially difficult to justify. Yet the American commander-in-chief had grown comfortable with a campaign that in Italy more than in any other theater resembled the grinding inelegance of World War I. "Our war of attrition is doing its wok," Franklin Roosevelt had said a week after the invasion of Sicily, and he never renounced that strategy.

Certainly lessons learned in Sicily and southern Italy paid dividends later in the war, notably the expertise gained in complex amphibious operations and in fighting as a large, multinational coalition. [ ultimately the sheer material capacities of the Americans was the remedy for all their strategic and tactical shortcomings- JDS]. Many other lessons  were prosaic but sterling, such as the realization that the truck hauling ammunition to the front was no less vital than the gun firing it.

For the U.S. Army, which would shoulder the heaviest burden in western Europe for the balance of the war, there was also the priceless conviction that American soldiers could slug it out with the best German troops, division by division,  and prevail.

[ Exploiting a hitherto unrecognized gap in the German lines, Major General Fred I. Walker's thrust across Monte Artemismo, coming up in the  rear of the enemy's  last redoubt before Rome was an exception to the  usual tactical blunderings of the Allied forces.  Previously, after the attack across the Rapido river turned into a debacle, this disaffected commander had written that "The stupidity of some higher commanders seems to be profound." The gallantry and sacrifice of Polish battalions in finally seizing  Monte Cassino was unsurpassed.]

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