The Day of Battle (By Rick Atkinson)

Bravery and Blunder

A medic gives plasma to a GI in a Sicilian village.
A medic gives plasma to a GI in a Sicilian village. (Courtesy Of The Publisher)
Reviewed by Robert Killebrew
Sunday, October 14, 2007


The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

By Rick Atkinson

Henry Holt. 791 pp. $35

The airborne operations were a disaster. British gliders plummeted into the sea, American paratroopers were scattered all over the island. Seaborne landings went scarcely better: Troops plunged into murderous fire, often as not on the wrong beach. But somehow it worked. Grimly, tenaciously, groups of infantrymen bent over against the fire and shouldered forward into Sicily.

This is a season for remembering World War II. "Saving Private Ryan," "Band of Brothers" and Ken Burns's TV epic "The War" remind us that the generation that bore the battle is slipping away. Now comes Rick Atkinson's monumental The Day of Battle, a history of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, the second book in his planned trilogy of the U.S. Army at war in Europe. It shoves sentimentality aside and shows us, plainly, how unskilled the army was in 1943, its rawness and profligacy a perfect reflection of an outraged and rapidly mobilized democracy. Atkinson forces us to remember that even in a "good" war, error and waste march alongside bravery and sacrifice.

In An Army at Dawn, Atkinson followed the army from its almost comic-opera landings in French North Africa through its baptism in war at the hands of Rommel's Afrika Corps. The Day of Battle picks up from there, with the British and American armies regrouping in Tunisia while the allies debate their next step. The Americans argue for an allied buildup, to be followed eventually by an invasion of Europe through France. But Winston Churchill champions an immediate invasion to knock the Italians out of the war and relieve pressure on the Soviets. The British prime minister sways FDR, leading to the Sicily invasion and the costly campaign up the Italian boot, where names like Salerno and Anzio join in the American memory with Antietam and Gettysburg.

Beginning in 1943, war in the Italian theater is fought over mountains and valleys that favor German defenses. The weather is dreadful: blazing heat in summer, rain, snow and bottomless mud in winter. Stripped repeatedly of troops for the Normandy invasion in 1944, the Italian campaign gradually becomes a holding action, a sideshow. But to the soldiers who fought there, and to the U.S. Army's leaders, it was a bloody schoolhouse of war.

Modern readers may be repelled by the amateurishness of the American generals, most of whom had been majors and lieutenant colonels just a few years earlier. Atkinson is unsparing of their blunders. Eisenhower allows the Germans to slip away from Sicily. Patton is high-strung, profane and unpredictable. Mark Clark is duplicitous. Yet they learn and grow. Eisenhower emerges after Italy as the indispensable leader of the war in Europe. Patton becomes a byword for bold, slashing attack. Clark matures in command. Soldiers, as always, pay the butcher's bill: Friendly antiaircraft fire shoots down our own paratroopers; battles are mismanaged at Gela, Brolo and Troina, where the fabled First Division -- the Big Red One -- gets mangled.

After Sicily, the allies land at Salerno and later at Anzio, where cautious generals concede the high ground to the Germans, who then shell the stalled beachhead for months. (Afterward, two GIs in a Bill Mauldin cartoon stand on the hills and marvel, "My God! Here they wuz and there we wuz.") As the allies drive northward to relieve the Anzio beachhead, their way is blocked by the mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino, which must be taken.

And so the beautiful abbey becomes the abattoir of the European theater. Through the wet and miserable months of January to May 1944, German paratroopers in the rubble hold off repeated attacks by American, British, French, New Zealand, Indian, Gurkha, Moroccan and Polish troops. The U.S. 34th Division loses nearly 80 percent of the men in its rifle battalions; by the time the battered Poles raise their flag over the ruins on May 18, the allies have suffered around 54,000 casualties, the Germans about 20,000 -- imprecise numbers because many of the dead are still lost, pounded into the mud and rubble or in forgotten graves. How unbearably anonymous and squalid was their fate; yet Atkinson captures the dignity of those condemned to it. A dying Pole tells his comrades, "You don't know how dreadful death can be. Now I shall have to miss the rest of the battle." At the fighting's height, an enemy voice breaks into the radio net of the Coldstream Guards. "You are all brave," the German says. "You are all gentlemen."

With this book, Rick Atkinson cements his place among America's great popular historians, in the tradition of Bruce Catton and Stephen Ambrose. Though The Day of Battle's tone is appropriately somber -- the story of civilian deaths in Italy from allied bombing and German executions is especially sickening -- its underlying theme is optimistic, even triumphal. Atkinson skillfully conveys the growing power of the U.S. Army, pouring men and materiel forward in an inexhaustible stream and, at the front, the toughening of American troops as they advance and beat hell out of an expert and implacable enemy. This is gritty history. A sergeant in the 141st Infantry writes home about his friends: "There are so many of them sleeping under the sod, waiting for us, the living, to pick up and carry on." But the GIs understand the stakes, perhaps more clearly than any American soldiers before or since. Capt. Henry Waskow, whose death in Italy is the subject of correspondent Ernie Pyle's finest wartime dispatch, tells his sister in a final letter that he is not afraid to die, because "I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live. Maybe when the lights go on again all over the world, free people can be happy and gay again."

Military historians will long debate whether the Italian campaign was necessary. The final lines stabilized north of Rome, and there was no breakthrough until the last months of the war. The day Rome fell, the big news was the Normandy invasion. Many of the generals who learned their trade in Sicily and Italy -- Eisenhower and Patton among them -- would fight in France, leaving Clark and his weather-beaten infantry in the northern Italian mountains. But as Atkinson's history makes clear, it was Sicily and then Italy that became the American Army's bitter finishing school for battle. And after Salerno, Anzio and Cassino, the tide turned against Nazi Germany in the West. The errors the generals made, and the price paid by the troops, would already have receded into history but for the remaining few who keep yellowing letters and faded pictures -- and but for this fine book, a fitting testament to the GIs of the Fifth Army and the Italian campaign. *

Robert Killebrew is a retired U.S. Army colonel who writes and speaks on defense issues.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company