Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Day of Battle

I’m currently about 200 pages into The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson. Despite the one negative comment over on Amazon, and despite his being a reporter for the Washington Post, I doubt if Atkinson falls into the blame America crowd. He does present a case that much of planning around the Sicilian/Italian campaigns was flawed. If I recall The Longest Day and A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan correctly he also pointed out the flaws in Allied planning, and in the use of troops. For example in both OVERLORD and MARKET GARDEN, paratroops missed their LZs and gliders broke up, crashed, and landed in the wrong spot. Atkinson points out similar SNAFUs in both Sicily and Italy. One major flaw that he points out is the failure to use air power to destroy German divisions as they fled across the strait of Messina into Italy. Failure there let troops escape that had to be fought another day. Something similar also happened in August 1944 when 100,000 German troops escaped the Falaise gap. So there were dumb decisions made, including going for MARKET GARDEN rather than supplying Patton with gas.

Update [October 10, 2008]—I should finish up this weekend. Highlights so far:

Bari. The operation there was the scene of a horrendous poison gas incident. In expectation of German use of poison gas one ship was loaded with tons of mustard gas. This was struck by a German bomb, and released the stuff upon our own troops. The incident was covered up, but eventually disclosed. An interesting sidenote is that autopsies revealed the effect of mustard gas on certain types of cell and lead to the development of chemotherapy.

DDT. Typhus is spread by lice. It was responsible for widespread devastation in the aftermath of WW I. It was used in large quantities in Naples to prevent the spread of typhus. It also destroys mosquitoes, and helped prevent devastating outbreaks of malaria.

DDT is now banned, and the virtuous advocate the use of mosquito nets. Of course, that is not as effective as DDT, and the idea of spraying houses in Africa, where malaria is prevalent, with DDT is verboten. It’s so much better to be ineffective and virtuous than to be effective and unvirtuous.

Monte Cassino. This was a disaster, and probably an unnecessary one. The abbey was not occupied by German troops, and was supposed to be off-limits as a target. It became a symbol of German opposition, however, and was destroyed because of the hatred that was encapsulated around it.

Rape. I tend to associate Sherman’s March to the Sea of November 1864 with looting and rape. Looting was supposed to be discouraged, foraging (searching for food and supplies) was not. Rape was also punishable. As I say, I tend to associate the march with rape. This is based largely on historical fiction. In actuality there were between 1 to 6 rapes in the course of the march. The aftermath of Operation Diadem, the final push towards Rome, was a large number rapes and gang bangs by Moroccan troops. Readers who remember the movie Two Women with Sophia Loren may remember the rape of Sophia and her daughter by black troops. Those were the goumiers, Moroccan troops serving with the French.

Mark Clark as Courtney Massengale. Readers may remember Anton Myrer’s novel Once an Eagle and the contrast between Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale. The climactic passage of the chapters on WW II occur when Massengale orders Damon and his division to execute a pivot and the maneuver proves costly. Damon loses a regiment led by his best friend, but Massengale is enabled to enter the island in what is described as a “phony Roman triumph.” The fictional incident happened in the Pacific. During Operation Diadem Clark ordered Truscott to change from an attack on a northeast line that would have destroyed the escaping German 10th army to attack on a northwesterly line towards Rome. I think Atkinson tends to be critical of Clark and leans towards the belief that Clark ordered the shift in order to beat the British 8th Army to Rome.

Was Clark the inspiration for Massengale? I’m not really engaging in lit crit on this point, or even attempting to do any kind of analysis of the novel, I’m just pointing out the resemblance. Given Myrer’s hostility to MacArthur there was probably some of MacArthur there. There were probably some grandstanding generals in the Pacific as well, though none come to mind.

Was it worth it? Atkinson’s conclusion is that it was. Large numbers of German troops were tied up in Italy that would have gone to France. The allies could not have kept troops idle for 10 months between Sicily and OVERLORD without seriously upsetting Stalin. Ultimately the battle served, as said, to draw troops away from France, and facilitated the defeat of Germany.

Next up, some sci-fi by Steve White and Shirley Meier, Exodus.