Remembering WWII; the Invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 11, 2007 | Go to article overview

Remembering WWII; the Invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943


Byline: John M. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Military historian Martin Blumenson may have put it best:

"Events generate their own momentum," he wrote. "We went into Sicily and Italy because we had been in North Africa." The dogged, slogging campaign in which the Allied Fifth Army conquered Sicily and Italy is now the subject of volume two of Rick Atkinson's projected three-volume history of the war in Europe.

It is a worthy successor to "An Army at Dawn," which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2003.

In the first ground offensive against the Axis, American and British forces had driven Rommel out of North Africa. By the summer of 1943 more than a million men were poised on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, and the preferred path to Berlin was the subject of endless debate in the highest Allied councils. The Americans pressed for an early cross-channel invasion of France; Churchill favored an offensive against either Italy or the Balkans, while Stalin demanded that Russia's Western allies do something. An attack on Hitler's Italian ally seemed a logical response.

The campaign against Sicily went deceptively easily, despite numerous Allied blunders. In perhaps the war's most tragic instance of friendly fire, paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were fired on by U.S. Navy ships, which shot down 37 U.S. aircraft with the loss of more than 400 lives. But morale in the Italian army was low, and the only determined opposition on the ground came from two German Panzer divisions. The campaign was over in little more than a month.

Italy was another matter. The terrain there was ideal for defense. The peninsula's central spine included many east-west spurs. In the deep valleys between them a succession of rivers provided a series of defensible lines. The German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, would prove a master of defensive warfare.

The initial Allied landing took place on September 9 at Salerno, south of Naples. The Fifth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, achieved complete surprise but was slow to exploit its initial advantage. The result was several days of savage fighting during which it seemed entirely possible that the invaders would be thrown back into the sea. But the Americans eventually stabilized their beachhead and began a slow advance north.

This was the beginning of a bitter and costly campaign to breach the lines with which the Germans defended the approaches to Rome. When advance along Italy's central spine proved impossible, the American Fifth Army and Gen. Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army were confined largely to plains by the sea. And they enjoyed none of the numerical superiority traditionally required for offensive operations.

The Italian winter proved to be a parody of sun-filled travel brochures. In describing one attack, Mr. Atkinson writes of how "several hundred infantrymen in ponchos began climbing the steep northeast face of La Difensa. Rain streamed from their helmets. In places nearly vertical they pulled themselves up hand over hand with manila climbing ropes."

In January 1944 Gen. Clark ordered the 36th Division to attack German positions across the Rapido River. …

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