Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy, 1943–45
The campaign in the Mediterranean is often considered the forgotten campaign of the European Theater of World War II, generally receiving much less coverage from historians than Northwest Europe, particularly after June 6, 1944.
This new volume takes another look at this theater by examining the strategic thinking and the subsequent influence of the major commanders on both sides that served in the Italian Theater, revealing their flaws and strengths and how they could have potentially changed the course of the campaign.
The authors choose Americans George Patton and Mark Clark, the British commanders Harold Alexander and Bernard Montgomery, and the German Albert Kesselring. These are revealing choices and the authors fit them into the overall examination of the operations in Sicily and the Italian peninsula.
When the Axis armies in North Africa surrendered in May 1943, the Allies faced a significant decision point on where to focus their strategy and resources. As the authors detail, there was a tension between the American and British military and political leadership on what direction their forces to take.
The Americans, eager to invade the continent and drive into Germany, did not want to get bogged down in an Italian campaign and were reluctant to spend significant shipping and personnel resources to further what many of them considered to be Britain’s imperial interests.
The British, still unsure of the fighting prowess of their American allies, considered maintaining control of the Mediterranean vital not only to secure access to the Suez Canal and Middle Eastern oil, but Winston Churchill harbored strong suspicions of the ultimate goals of the Soviet Union and wanted to keep his options open to influence the Balkans and other parts of the region. The Allies never really reconciled these viewpoints, and this fundamental disagreement would color all the strategic decisions made concerning Italy to the end of the war.
The authors alternate between presenting short campaign histories of the Sicilian invasion, the initial invasion of Italy, the operations to capture Rome, and the final campaigns into northern Italy leading to the German surrender in May 1945. In between these short histories and analyses, they critique a commander, offering some background on the service and formation of their leadership and tactical viewpoints before offering an unstinting critique of their command performance, both from their contemporary’s perspective and the more long-term assessment of historians.
Unsurprisingly, each of the Allied commanders had some significant flaws, in the case of Patton, Montgomery, and Clark mostly stemming from an outsized ego and desire for glory and recognition that sometimes got in the way of both their common sense and command ability.
Although Generals Patton and Montgomery are better known among many readers, General Mark Clark was a noteworthy commander in Italy who let his Anglophobia and desire to be the conqueror of Rome get in the way of his tactical decision making, leading to a missed opportunity to encircle and destroy over half the German forces in Italy during the early days of June 1944, which could have changed the entire campaign and perhaps shortened the fighting in Italy.
Field Marshal Alexander gets a slightly better review, but his inability to provide direction and control to headstrong subordinates, particularly Montgomery, lessened his ability to provide a more decisive outcome at a critical time in the Italian campaign.
The German Field Marshal Kesselring fares surprisingly well, emerging as the author’s choice of the most competent commander who performed above expectations given the material and manpower deficiencies of the German forces attempting to defend Italy. While he was convicted for war crimes after the war, these remain controversial, and his strategic and operational reputation continue to survive intact.
The authors offer a very different perspective on this campaign and are very frank in their assessment of the performance of the Allies and Germans on many levels. While the Italian Campaign has long been considered the “backwater war” of World War II in many respects, there was still a great deal of hard fighting done with heavy casualties, and the shortcomings of Allied leadership and strategy in many respects made this campaign more challenging than it might have been.