Friday, October 19, 2007

Day of Battle

If you read books about the Second World War, put Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle at the top of your pile. If you don't, this is a great place to start. The focus of the book is on the American Army experience in Sicily and Italy from 1943-44. The British, Polish, Canadian, Free French, and New Zealand forces are also covered, but the emphasis here is on the American forces.

The book is admirably balanced between the problems of command and the daily lives and deaths of the foot soldier. Like in other wars, early thoughts of being home by Christmas were broken on the realities of the Italian terrain. The many hills and valleys, poor roads and the in depth German fortifications made the war primarily a slow moving and grinding infantry war. Allied commanders often seem like World War One generals, perplexed by the tactical problems facing them and limited resources at hand. The increasingly desperate situation of the soldier on both sides is a major theme as well.

The book covers the near-disaster at Anzio, where a large army held onto to a postage stamp sized beachhead and failed to break-out for months. A Nazi radio propagandist called it the largest self-run POW camp in the world. Atkinson goes into great depth about the Cassino struggle. The casualty heavy attempts by Allied Armies to break the German lines and the pointless destruction of Monte Cassino are heartbreaking.

The book ends with a brief discussion as to whether the Italy campaign made sense at all. Atkinson briefly argues that it did, but the grand strategic context is not the heart of this book. It is instead a warning and a memorial about the costs of war.

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