Monday, April 1, 2013

Book review - A Hard Way to Make a War: The Allied Campaign in Italy in the Second World War

The Italian campaign of WWII featured important battles and involved hundreds of thousands of German, Italian, American, British and French soldiers but for some reason authors usually devote little attention to it.

A Hard Way to Make a War: The Allied Campaign in Italy in the Second World Waris a single volume history of the Italian campaign by Ian Gooderson who also wroteAir Power at the Battlefront’.

This book covers the fighting in Sicily, the invasion of mainland Italy and all the major battles (Salerno, Gustav line, Anzio, Gothic line). In addition there is analysis of the political and strategic situation guiding the Allies and the Axis leaderships, the tactics that both sides developed and the overall cost of the campaign.

After defeating the Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 the Anglo-Americans were faced with the difficult choice of what to do next. The British favored a peripheral strategy with the aim of attacking the soft underbelly of the Axis but the Americans did not want to invest resources in a secondary theatre, especially since they had to prepare for the invasion of France.

In the end there was a compromise whereby powerful forces would invade Italy in order to force Italy out of the war and draw German units from Western Europe. However these operations were not to interfere with the planning of operation ‘Overlord’.

In July 1943 the Allies landed in Sicily and after hard fighting moved inland and took over the island. The German forces in Gela put a fight and came close to overrunning the invasion beaches. It took massive aerial and naval support to throw them back.

After the loss of Sicily the Italian Army and the King had decided to exit the war but the secret negotiations that followed were inconclusive. Unfortunately the Germans came to realize that the Italians were double crossing them and started moving units into Italy. When the Italians finally announced their surrender in September 1943 the Germans were ready to pounce and they quickly disarmed the Italian formations.

The Allies landed again in Salerno and this operation was heavily opposed by German units forcing the Allies to once again rely on airpower and naval fire in order to keep the Germans from overrunning their forces.

Once this operation succeeded the Allies expected the Germans to evacuate their forces from Southern Italy. In this aspect the Allies were betrayed by their faith in signals intelligence. Through diplomatic and military decrypts they learned that once the Italian mainland had been invaded the Germans would retreat to the north of the country. This was actually Hitler’s first response.

However General Kesselring was determined to fight the Allies in the south and he did not want to give up ground without a fight. Obviously this was a strategy that appealed to Hitler and when the German strategy changed this caused a crisis for the Allied planners. As the author puts it ‘had the Germans been working to an elaborate deception scheme they could not have better misled the Allies and set them up for a complete and unexpected overturning of their strategic hopes in Italy’.

The fighting in Italy was hard for the Allies since the terrain did not favor mobile operations. This meant that their superiority in tanks and vehicles could not be brought to bear. Instead the Germans were able to dictate their rate of advance through demolition of roads and bridges and heavy mining of the roads.

Under the command of General Kesselring the German forces established defensive positions in the South and blocked the Allied advance.  The Allies tried to bypass the Gustav line by landing in Anzio. Their plan did not work since the Germans rushed units to the area and were able to contain the bridgehead for several months. Eventually attrition from the Anzio battle and the Allied offensives against the Gustav line forced the Germans to retreat farther north.

After mid ‘44 many Allied formations were withdrawn for operation Dragoon and the fighting slowed down. In April 1945 the German forces in Italy surrendered.

In the end the fighting in Italy was hard both for the Allies and the Germans.

For the Allies the Italian geography negated their advantage in mobile warfare and forced them to advance slowly. Efforts to bypass the German defenses with naval landings were only partially successful due to lack of landing ships and troops, as they were needed for the invasion of France.

The Germans engaged in one of the most successful defensive campaigns in history but on the other hand the whole theatre was a drain on their limited resources.

1 comment:

  1. In June-November 1943 Luftwaffe lost more aircraft in Mediterranean than in Eastern Front (2 000 vs. 1 841).

    (Phillips Payson O'Brien: "How The War Was Won - Allied air and sea power")