The costly Italian campaign developed its own character during 22 months of vicious fighting.
By Michael D. Hull
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring admitted to only one serious mistake during his brilliant delaying action in Italy in 194345. He left the Roman bridges across the Tiber River intact when his armies left Rome, because the capital was an open city and, although sturdy, the bridges were historical artifacts.
“Smiling Albert” realized later that destroying the bridges to protect his northward retreat would not have been a violation of the rules of war. For his adversary, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied Fifth and Eighth armies, the venerable spans proved invaluable in his hot pursuit of the Germans–a pursuit that soon bogged down because of stubborn resistance, the terrain and the weather.
The 22-month Italian campaign was in some ways the most exhausting and frustrating Allied operation of World War II. When the Battle of Berlin got underway in the spring of 1945, fighting was still going on in Italy, and the Germans were in control of more territory there than in their own country.
In Italy, says George Botjer, a history professor at the University of Tampa, both the Allies and the Germans achieved their minimum stated objectives, without a clear winner emerging. Hoping that Italy would fall into their laps like a ripe plum, the Allies thrust into the “soft underbelly” of Europe to tie down a dozen scarce Wehrmacht divisions. The enemy, in turn, utilized the economic resources of northern Italy and the rugged terrain–ideal for defensive purposes–to delay the Allies’ push to the borders of the Reich. Neither side lost in Italy, says Botjer, and that was the real tragedy. From a military standpoint, the long, grueling campaign was a sideshow that did not have to happen.
Botjer’s book Side Show War (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 1996, $29.95) is a lucid, informed and vigorous overview of the Italian campaign, a thoroughly engrossing narrative that engages the reader’s attention with fresh and convincing interpretations. It will prove invaluable to any study of World War II.
Although the Allies constantly debated the value of such terminal objectives as Sicily, Naples, Rome and the Foggia airfields, they were never fully committed to liberating Italy as a whole, says Botjer. Motives were vague and unfocused, and leadership was too often indecisive.
Although a gallant and able officer, Alexander failed to exercise firm control over the glory-seeking General Mark W. Clark, Fifth Army commander, who sacrificed the 36th (Texas) Infantry Division at the Rapido River and chose to liberate the Eternal City instead of destroying large enemy concentrations after the Anzio beachhead breakout.
The author starts his narrative with a dramatic recounting of Operation Husky, the Allies’ shaky arrival in Sicily in July 1943. Two hundred men of Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway’s U.S. 82nd Airborne Division crashed and drowned before ever reaching the southwestern coast; and trigger-happy American gun crews brought down 23 C-47 transports, six of them filled with paratroopers and staff officers.
The swift political collapse of Italy in the summer of 1943 allowed the Allies to gain a quick unconditional surrender from the dispirited Italians, says Botjer, but the Allies’ campaign motives remained diverse. The only purpose seemed to be to keep up the military and political momentum in Italy until the Normandy invasion could be mounted. In the absence of defined goals, the Italian campaign took on a life of its own–developing its own character, its own logic and its own rules.
In addition to delving into the strategic and political aspects of the campaign in this excellent military history, the author points out that the Allied force in Italy was a notably international one, even before the signing of the United Nations charter in 1945. Along with the British and Americans, Alexander’s units were comprised of Canadians, Poles, New Zealanders, Indians, South Africans, Gurkhas, Free French, Brazilians and Moroccans. Botjer gives full recognition to many of the units that distinguished themselves in Italy: the British Guards and Fusiliers, the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, the 1st Special Service Force, the U.S. Rangers, the 442nd (Nisei) Regimental Combat Team, the British Commandos and the Polish Lancers, who captured the heights of Monte Cassino after costly efforts by British, American, New Zealand and Indian units failed.