An illuminating study of the southern front in WWII Europe, an operational theater that many historians have dismissed as a sideshow.
So, too, did political and military leaders of the time, writes Porch (History/Naval War College; The French Secret Service, 1995, etc.). Hitler, for one, was reluctant to commit German troops to a “South Plan,” which conflicted with his planned invasion of Russia but was necessary to shore up a flagging Italian ally: “Like the American generals whom he would later confront,” writes Porch, “Hitler realized that once assets were committed to a peripheral theater, it would become difficult to extract them for other purposes.” Yet, the author argues, the Mediterranean was anything but peripheral—it was instead “the pivotal theater, a requirement for Allied success.” Dominance there allowed the Allies access to the Suez Canal and, more important, Middle Eastern oil, a resource in constant shortage in Germany after 1942; Hitler’s failure to recruit Arab and Persian allies in his war against the Jews was a fatal error. Other errors emerged as the theater became ever more hotly contested: Italy’s hitching its wagon to Germany’s star was one such mistake, and its army’s poor structure—“the average Italian infantry battalion in North Africa had one, or at most two, regular officers” and was made up of illiterate peasants, “poor material from which to fashion a modern army”—was another. But so, too, was Bernard Montgomery’s failure to capture Erwin Rommel (who, Porch notes, was never highly regarded by the Afrika Korps soldiers he commanded) after the Battle of El Alamein; as Porch remarks, “even the British official history calls Rommel’s retreat at the head of almost 70,000 beaten troops ‘remarkable.’ ” Errors aside, the Allied victory in North Africa, and then in Italy, was the key to defeating Hitler, even though, Porch writes, “that victory was achieved at a considerable political price.”
Porch’s analysis is sharp and to the point, and his skill as a storyteller will please readers of narrative history.