Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The War in Sicily and Italy

In reviewing Rick Atkinson’s latest volume on World War II, Patrick Garrity let’s us in on the larger strategic questions having to do with the war, why the allies decided on Italy, how it was conducted, with what consequences. A fine essay.    

Discussions - 7 Comments

Yea, I'm reading that book right now too. Atkinson tells a story well. But his take on Patton is skewed, to say the least. It seems that Patton's style grates on Atkinson, so Atkinson has his knives out for him. In the first volume, I just thought Atkinson was relating some Patton stories that hadn't been well circulated, but in the 2d volume it's pretty clear Atkinson has a personal dislike for Patton. Atkinson churns out Bradley's take on Patton's conduct of the Scily campaign. Atkinson seems to subscribe whole heartedly to the idea that Patton was pushing hard for nothing more than vainglorious reasons. One wonders if Atkinson even read Patton's diaries, let alone some of the better bios of Patton. And he barely touched on Patton's plan for the Sicily campaign, which was rejected by Eisenhower. He faults Patton for pushing hard through the Scilian hills, failing to observe that Patton's original plan would have left the boche in the hill country while he and the British were dashing for the whole point of the campaign, which was Messina. That plan was rejected mostly for ridiculous and wildly inflated political concerns, {with a touch of tactical and operational timidity on the part of Eisenhower thrown into the mix as well}.

Atkinson would have done better to have allowed VDH's assessment of Patton's generalship to inform his writing. Perhaps we'll see a more balanced and more accurate read of events in his final volume. One can only hope, for his bent on bashing Patton is beginning to detract from the overall work.

I'm listening to the book on the unabridged audio CDs, and I agree that Atkinson grinds his anti-Patton axe to way too fine an edge, but I'm hardly shocked: Atkinson is a lib ex-journo (a WashPostieToastie, in fact) and Patton's unabashed-warrior type of personality grates on those tea-sippers like fingernails on a blackboard. If you take a look at Atkinson's brief book In the Company of Soldiers (on the march to Baghdad in 2003) you can find politically inspired cheap shots at Bush and his advisors. On the other hand, there's also some good behind-the-scenes reportage on the planning for the mission, etc. (for instance, Atkinson explains why the debate among air-assault unit commanders over whether to use black spraypaint or tape on the edges of their helicopters' blades was so critical--fascinating stuff).

In contrast to his animus against Patton, I think Atkinson is way too easy on Ike when discussing the shameful way the Jerries (w/ a crewload of Eye-ties in tow) were allowed to slip across the Straits of Messina all-too-little molested in August 1943's Fall Lehrgang (Operation Curriculum).

One aspect of the book that surprised me (and I've read little about the battle for Sicily, so maybe no shock there) is how spectacularly badly all the parachute and glider operations went. The description of how the 82nd Airborne was dropped practically on top of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division without anyone even bothering to sync up their passwords and countersigns (the paratroopers were briefed to say and respond "Ulysses/Grant" while the ground-pounders' words of the day were "Think/Quickly") is appalling and heartbreaking. Atkinson says many of the circa 1500 paratroopers lost in the ill-fated night jumps of July 11-12, 1943, were friendly-fire casualties. He says that it was perhaps the worst friendly-fire incident ever. On the other hand, one hopes something was learned, and that the mistakes of North Africa and Sicily helped to make the successes of D-Day possible, or at least more likely, much in the way that muck-ups in the Gemini program a few decades later would teach valuable lessons that helped to make the Apollo moon missions so largely successful.

Ike is a fair-haired boy, whose military delinquencies are passed over in silence.

That guy was badly over his head, it's as MacArthur said of him: "Ike wasn't a fighting general, and he was lucky he had Georgie Patton to do all his fighting for him." Truer words were never uttered of SHAEF's performance.

On the other hand, Eisenhower had a quality that Patton lacked--the ability to smooth over differences among this subordinate commanders. Even Montgomery recognized that. Given that he would command a multinational force, this was of critical importance. Patton was a lot better at starting controversies than he was at settling them; he would've been a disaster in Ike's role.

Those differences have been wildly inflated in retrospect. Just recall that Churchill was begging for American involvement by the late Spring of 1940, throughout the remainder of that year, and throughout the entirety of 1941. The idea that differences in operational plans between the Generals would somehow have involved a genuine rupture between the Anglo-American alliance is something that only historians with an agenda would seriously push.

The relationship was not in any danger whatsoever. And could not be harmed by Eisenhower making military decisions that seemed to slight Montgomery.

Patton should never have gotten Eisenhower's position. That's true. What he should have been was the Senior American ground commander. He should have held Bradley's job. Bradley should have been back in the States training troops, which was about all he was good for.

Montgomery should have been given complete command of the Italian campaign, notice I didn't say the Sicilian campaign, but the Italian one. Italy devolved into one set piece battle after another, where the concentration of firepower and supplies proved critical. Italy wasn't suitable for the type of swift gains that a Patton could deliver. Thus Italy was custom made for a Montgomery.

Who should have commanded 21st Army Group? That should have been given to Alan Brooke.

We were all lucky that Eisenhower didn't command in the Pacific, because God only knows how many casualties he would have turned in. Few people know that Eisenhower sustained more casualties after the Bulge, than he did before. His inability to make a decision cost tens of thousands of Americans, Canadians and British their lives. And millions of Jews and Gypsies.

But when you see the movies about Eisenhower, that sobering little fact always seems to get left out. And that fact was nowhere mentioned in the Patton movie, which was mostly Bradley's version of Patton. That's another thing few people know, the Patton movie relied upon a guy who became bitterly hostile to Patton.

Patton was a true warrior. He studied war, he read war, he devised new tactics. Eisenhower and Bradley were corporate automatons. And their strategies reflected the unimaginative corporate ethos of the then American military. Guys like MacArthur, Billy Mitchell, Patton, they were unpopular, but history has recalled them favourably. Historians may have done their level best to veil the flaws of guys like Bradley and Ike, but the more one studies the events, the more one's judgement must indict Eisenhower.

The Soul of Battle, by Victor Davis Hanson is must reading on this subject.

John Moser and Dan, perceptive comments. Dan, which book is your preferred Patton biography (or military history)?

I think the best bio of Patton, isn't really a bio at all. VDH's THE SOUL OF BATTLE is a three part book, the first part deals with Epomindas, {sp?} the second with Sherman, the last with Patton. That last part, which is a small book in itself, is filled with the kind of detail needed to fully speak on Patton's merits, and his demerits. The endnotes make as much interesting reading as the actual text.

Allow that to be your point of departure. Hanson will then direct you elsewhere. Though if you pick up The Soul of Battle to read about Patton, you'll end up wanting to read about Sherman and Epomindas as well.

Hanson's observations about Patton, Ike and Bradley are unlike any other you'll encounter. It's a hell of a read, if you enjoy military history.

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