The Real Italian Job

REVIEW: 'The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943' by James Holland

U.S. troops in Italy (Defense Department via Wikimedia Commons)
February 4, 2024

December 7, 1941, and June 6, 1944, are iconic dates in the history of World War II, or at least when history was taught in school. There is no date commemorating the war in Sicily and Italy in 1943 and 1944. In his book The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson summarizes the view of historians of the Italian campaign with a quote from the American historian David M. Kennedy: "He decried a 'needlessly costly sideshow' … a 'grinding war of attrition whose costs were justified by no defensible military or political purpose.'" But nearly 30,000 Allied troops died there, and they must be remembered.

James Holland in The Savage Storm takes up the early phases of combat in the Italian theater from September to December of 1943. This is a book for those more interested in the experiences of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the brutality of World War II than in the strategy or tactics of conflict. For example, the prologue is a long reverie delivered by Hans Golda, a German second lieutenant, on the beauty of southern Italy and the coming combat, rather than a recounting of the Allied rationale for the Italian campaign in the first place. In fact, Holland doesn't get around to explaining the rationale for the Italian campaign until almost halfway through the book. After that, however, he goes on to portray the combat, the brutality, the fears and bravery of the soldiers, and the Germans' apparent resignation to defeat despite resolute combativeness, in a manner most moving and memorable.

What was the point of the Italian campaign? The goals were first to tie down as many German divisions as possible in Italy to enhance the likelihood of success for the landings in Normandy planned for May 1944. Second, capture airfields closer to Germany and the Romanian oil fields. Those airfields were crucial in destroying German aircraft factories in southern Germany—the Luftwaffe had to be decimated if the landings at Normandy were possible. They were too far from British airfields to allow consistent success. Third, force Italy to leave the war and turn on their German allies. This would mean more troops and particularly more ships that would help control the Mediterranean. This would enhance supplying Russia through ports in the Middle East and boost morale on the home front. There was also an ongoing need to satisfy Stalin that the Allies were committing sufficient men and materiel to the ground war against Germany. There was always ongoing concern by the Allied high command that Stalin might decide to sign a peace treaty once more with Germany.

The conflict between the Allies about the relative merits of invading Europe through its "soft underbelly" versus the Atlantic wall occupied many conferences between the leaders. Churchill never gave up the southern strategy despite ongoing reverses in the Mediterranean. By mid-1943, however, Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, became the dominant focus of the war.

The key to any successful invasion is thought to be a 3:1 ratio of invading to defending troops. While American war production had ramped up to astounding levels, there was a bottleneck in production of landing craft. Without sufficient amphibious transport, it was not possible to supply enough force to achieve the critical ratio of troops and arms to defenders both in Italy and in northern France. The Allies decided that the bulk of the troops and the landing craft required for a dominant force would be committed to the buildup in southern England. The invasion of Italy was thus under-resourced. The ratio of invading troops to the increasing German reinforcements was about 1:1. Nonetheless, the hope that airpower and particularly long-range bombers could pave the way for multiple airfields nearer German targets justified the invasion.

The plan to be in Rome by Christmas 1943 started to fall apart almost from the beginning. Mike Tyson's famous aphorism, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth," sums it up. Holland identifies the missteps: The Italians quickly fell into leaderless chaos and forfeited any possibility of overwhelming the lightly resourced German garrisons and seizing Rome. The Germans did not immediately withdraw from southern Italy and establish more robust defense lines above Naples. The Nazis had contemplated such a defensive move, but Italy's surrender and the Allied invasion occurred a few days too soon for the German withdrawal to occur. In fact, Hitler reverted to his maniacal insistence on holding ground no matter what and decided to rapidly fortify Italy and seize complete control of the country. The weather was terrible and precluded air dominance over this battlefield and forced the highly mechanized Allied forces to depend on mule trains as much as trucks. And the mountainous terrain made for ideal positions to defend and almost impossible obstacles for attack.

Nevertheless, the Allies invaded, persisted, and ultimately prevailed despite the contemplated 3-month campaign eventually lasting 14 months of brutal warfare. One key to the initial success of the invasion was the overwhelming firepower and excellent gunnery of the battleships that participated in the amphibious force and enabled expansion of the beachhead at Salerno.

The misery of mountain fighting in the cold, persistent rain that enveloped southern Italy in the winter of 1943 makes it hard to understand how these men kept going, but they did. Fighting in the villages involved hand-to-hand combat reminiscent of Stalingrad. Holland uses the diaries of both Allied and German troops to describe the loneliness, the fear, and occasionally the exhilaration of battle.

The book ends just before the legendary battle for Monte Cassino. To understand the full scope of the Italian campaign, including the criticism of the generalship of Mark Clark, the failure to perform adequate flanking maneuvers, and the ultimate conquest of Rome (ironically on the same day as D-Day), Rick Atkinson's volume two of the Liberation Trilogy is a better choice. But to understand the travails of the combatants in Italy, The Savage Storm is hard to beat.

A word of caution, however. I started reading the hardcover book and found it curiously without footnotes. This was particularly annoying because one had to wonder the sources of the thoughts and feelings portrayed by the various combatants. The digital version, however, did contain footnotes and larger type that was much easier to read.

The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943
by James Holland
Atlantic Monthly Press, 480 pp., $32

Stanley Goldfarb is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and father of Washington Free Beacon chairman Michael Goldfarb.