Thoughts on the war in Italy

Monte Cassino Abbey from Polish cemetery

Monte Cassino today (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading up on the campaign in Italy during the Second World War. The Italian campaign has undoubtedly been a poor relation in terms of historiography. We hear so little about it. There was no glamour, and no incidents or battles really jump out credibly. Yet is was, according to most reports, an extremely tough theatre on all who took part in it. 

Was the fighting in Italy worth it? History tells us that Churchill, Brooke and the Brits were obsessed with the Mediterranean, while the US top brass viewed Italy as a pointless distraction. How many men were killed, and what did it achieve, in strategic terms? The aim was, loosely, to tie down as many German Divisions as possible away from the Western and Eastern Fronts. Hitler played into the hands of this aim, with his blinkered refusal to give up even the merest foot of ground. Yet with its rugged terrain of mountain lines and rivers, Italy suited the defender perfectly. The Allies spent months banging their heads against Monte Cassino incurring huge casualties, and endured very traumatic amphibious operations at Salerno and Anzio. Could the war have been won solely via a liberation of Italy? probably not, at some point the allies had to set foot on Northern European soil. But in 1943 it was the only feasible way that the western allies could fight the Germans on European soil, and that was important from a morale point of view.

Something else we need to consider, is the very real threat of communism in the latter stages of the war. In France post-D-Day and Greece after liberation, Communist partisans were a very real presence and had to be held down. If the Allies had not cleared Italy, who knows what kind of regime might have taken hold in a strategically important country? Even if the Germans had remained in Italy, look at what happened in Yugoslavia – Communist guerillas under Tito effectively liberated the country.

A proportionally high number of men from Portsmouth were killed in Italy. Four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment fought in Italy – three of them grouped into a Hampshire Brigade – compared to only two in North West Europe from D-Day onwards. 126 Portsmouth men are buried or commemorated in Italy, as opposed to 139 in France – and that figure includes men killed in 1940, and RAF aircrew killed over France.

The Hampshires suffered significant losses at Salerno – Five men from Portsmouth alone being killed on 9 September 1943 – and then steadily as the allies advanced up the Italian peninsula. The Hampshires escaped the heaviest of the fighting at Monte Cassino, but incurred significant casualties in the Battle for the Gothic line in September 1944. The location of War Cemeteries, from Siciliy up the boot of Italy, show how slowly and doggedly the fighting progressed.

In fact, Italy was the scene of some brave deeds for Portsmouth men. Major Robert Easton of the Royal Armoured Corps won a DSO in the breakout in the Liri Valley after Monte Cassino, before being killed in September 1944. Captain Bernard Brown, a Medical Officer, had won a Military Cross in the Desert before he died of natural causes in Italy in February 1945. Lance Bombardier Edward Wait, a Signaller with the Royal Artillery, won a Military Medal at Anzio, and Private Mark Pook of the Hampshires won a Military Medal at Salerno.

While we’re thinking about Italy, is Mark Clark the most over-rated Allied General of the Second World War? The only person who seems to have had any regard for his ability was Clark himself. Some of the things he is on record as having said about the allies under his command were shockingly out of touch. A British General would never have been allowed to talk or behave like that - Montgomery has been vilified by American historians for far less serious misdemeanours. Like Patton, Clark seems to have had more regard for his own image than the lives of his men.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Thoughts on the war in Italy

  1. John Erickson

    Italy was never treated the same in the US military as it was in the British military. As you stated, the US wasn’t interested in Italy, and thus the US didn’t invest as heavily in Italy. Yet the US also didn’t want to be seen as a junior partner – hence Mark Clark. While not the most outstanding general (I’d say mediocre at best), Clark WAS quite the publicist. His most infuriating moment was June 6 – he had liberated Rome on the 4th, and expected to be THE headline in the US papers. Instead, Eisenhower usurped his glory (sarcasm intended) by throwing his own little party up in France. Clark had actually wanted an amphibious assault north of Rome to cut off the German retreat, but the landing craft were needed in Normandy. Anzio was a failure due to lack of ambition – the commander of the forces there (whose name escapes me at the moment) was so worried about a counter-attack, he ordered troops to dig in, despite the front-line officers urging to keep moving inland. By the time the Anzio beach head had enough forces for the commander to be happy, the Germans had reinforced the defenders, and turned Anzio into “the Allied self-made prisoner-of-war camp”. While the British correctly foresaw the collapse of Italian resistance, they failed to foresee Hitler’s slavish devotion to Mussolini, or his willingness to tap off valuable forces to use in defending Italy. The Italian campaign was a collection of poor decisions at all levels, compounded by a lack of resources from the Allies and bad Allied intelligence (Monte Cassino, case in point). While it was helpful to tie down the German forces and prevent Communism taking hold, better organisation and leadership could have reduced the casualties while still having a useful effect.
    Italy is definitely an under-studied arena, much like the China-Burma-India (“Confusion Beyond Imagination” to us Yanks ;) ) is when studying the Pacific campaign. Perhaps as we bear down on the 70th anniversaries of the various battles, some author (are you with me, James? :) ) will grant us more enlightenment on this critical, but often underrated campaign.

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