The liberation of Europe marches on in the second volume of Atkinson’s sterling Liberation Trilogy—though readers may sometimes wonder how the Allies ever won.
After the German defeat in North Africa, writes Atkinson (In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq, 2004, etc.), the U.S. military and political leadership pressed to take the war to northwestern Europe. FDR pointedly said that he shrank from “the thought of putting large armies in Italy,” a country that was historically hard to attack and historically easy to defend. American commander George Marshall added that invading Italy would open a prolonged battle in the Mediterranean that would tie down men and equipment needed elsewhere; he proposed an air offensive instead. Yet the British were successful in arguing for an Italian front and “making the elimination of Italy from the Axis partnership an immediate goal,” even if the Americans did pledge not to reinforce the front and extracted a due-by date from the British for the invasion of France. How the British succeeded is a tale in itself, one that Atkinson relates with due suspense. How the Anglo-American rivalry played out in the field will be familiar to anyone who knows the film Patton, but Atkinson rounds the story out with a close look at the field tactics of Lucian Truscott’s infantry, who “covered thirty miles or more a day in blistering heat,” and of George Patton’s armor. The costs of advancing through “Jerryland” were appalling, and they forced changes in the order of battle—speeding racial integration in the American military, for instance—while occasioning unheard-of rates of desertion and dereliction: Atkinson observes that the U.S. Army “would convict 21,000 deserters during World War II, many of them in the Mediterranean.” Yet, despite rivalry, a fierce German resistance and other obstacles, the Allies eventually prevailed in Italy—even if the Italians, one soldier recalled, kept asking, “Why did it take you so long?”
Literate, lucid, fast-paced history—an excellent survey of the Mediterranean campaign.