A few years back, Tom Brokaw referred to the generation of men and women who were in World War II as being the greatest generation. I knew and still know a few of those men. My Dad is one of them. The more I read of the boys who signed up to take on the Axis powers, the more awed I am.
Over the course of years, I have read quite a few books on World War II. I generally try to limit such reading. I don’t teach a lot or even enough on that war. We usually reach it late in the school year. I could easily devote a semester to the Second World War, or even a whole school year for that matter. But I have not had the chance to teach a class on World War II, so I try to not get too involved in that area of reading. (I have read only 3 books this year on it.)
I recently finished Rick Atkinson’s book The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. This is the second volume of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, told about the capture of North Africa by American and British Armies in the first major allied initiatives in World War II. The third volume, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 , hit the shelves in May and it is devoted to the campaigns from Normandy to the fall of Berlin in 1944-45. Atkinson deals with America’s allies, particularly the British, and our enemies, particularly the Germans, but his major focus is on the American armies and American leaders.
(My review of An Army At Dawn can be found at my beloved old blog site: http://benhouseblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/value-of-perseverance.html.)
There have been quite a few really good historians who have covered World War II and a vast library of really good books. Just carving a niche in the list of the great books and authors is quite a feat. With past and present historians like Cornelius Ryan, Stephen Ambrose, Anthony Beevor, John Keegan, and the inimitable Winston Churchill, who would even have the courage to pick up a pen? Atkinson has edged into a crowded room and has proven himself worthy of the task. In terms of worthiness, Atkinson has won a long list of awards, including Pulitzer Prizes and other honors. In his free time, when he is not writing epic histories, he has been the senior editor of the Washington Post.
Perhaps, the greatest strength of Atkinson’s history is the close up, individual, and personal angle on the battles. The big picture is always that of German General Albert Kesselring having 50,000 German troops stationed in a particular area, while the American General Mark Clark was opposing him with 65,000 troops. Add to those names and numbers the officers under the commanding generals and the number of guns, tanks, and supplies. That is the story of war, but not the whole story of war.
Every one of those individuals, like the many people Homer names in the Iliad, has his own story, often poignant, often tragic. War is the story of a 26 year old captain named Henry Waskow, a Texas boy of German descent, one of eight from a farming family, a young man interested in ministry. Suffering from the dangers and deprivations in the Italian campaign of the war, Henry longed for the chance to get home, buy himself “one of them smart-aleck toasters where you put the bread in and it pops out.”
A mortal shell fragment to the chest ended that hope. Waskow had written in a last will and testament, “I would like to have lived, but since God willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones, for life in the other world must be beautiful, and I have lived a life with that mind all along. I was not afraid to die, you can be assured of that.” (page 293)
I realized in reading this story that there is a connection here between Henry Waskow and me, or all of us. I grew up eating and enjoying toast out of a pop-up toaster. In part, the world I grew up in was possible because of men like Henry Waskow.
There are many wars that are questionable. I have some real reservations about the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, just to name a few. But of this, I have no doubt: The war that was waged to defeat Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich was absolutely necessary. That should not imply an endorsement of every battle, commander, political leader, and consequence of that war. But it is good that Hitler and the Nazis were defeated.
Does that mean that the campaigns to capture Sicily and the boot of Italy in 1943-1944 were necessary? The book raised questions all along and particularly at the end about the necessity of the Italian campaign. There were lots of questions raised about particular commanders, including George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, Mark Clark, and Harold Alexander. Great commanders make great blunders. The great egos that are necessary for leadership result in unnecessary deaths and horrible miscalculations.
Not just some things here and there, but lots of things went wrong when the Allies invaded Italy at Salerno. How the British and Americans kept from being driven completely off the beaches of Italy is still beyond me. The slogging drive up the boot of Italy, the debate over whether and how to take the abbey at Monte Cassino, and the miseries of mud, winter, and mountains of the Apennine Mountain range are all haunting stories, resembling the horrors of that other Italian campaign chronicled by Dante and told in his verse story, The Inferno.
If World War II had only consisted of the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, it would have been phenomenal and horrifying. The near war of attrition, the battle against terrain and climate, and the inch-by-inch struggle for battlefield supremacy is is hard to comprehend when being read in the comforts of our times. At least, it is beyond my understanding. And yet, in the larger battles and campaigns of the war, the Sicily and Italy campaigns are usually little noted and less studied than other aspects of the war.
The high tide of success in this campaign was the capture of Rome, Italy. There were all sorts of sub-plots and results of this event. The American and British forces had intense rivalries and jealousies. The American General Mark Clark was determined that the Americans would capture the city and the glory. The British forces had to settle for lesser prizes. The Germans had the tendency to pillage, plunder, and destroy whatever they had to abandon. For self-centered reasons, Hitler advised leaving Rome unscathed, lest the Allied propaganda make Germany look bad. (Wish he had done more to avoid that image problem!)
When Rome was captured, the news of that triumph was overshadowed by the Normandy D-Day invasion. It is highly likely that the Italian campaign provided the balance needed to make Normandy a battlefield triumph. The Allied forces learned a lot from the amphibious invasions of Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. Much of what they learned was the result of miscalculations. Wisdom in war is gained often by blood, wasted blood. Also, the Italian campaign diverted men and war materials from northern Europe. Another 20 or so German divisions in France in 1944 could have been really bad for the Allies.
I stand in awe of the men who fought in World War II. Many were American boys, including uncles, my father, and the men of the town where I grew up. In reading of their struggles, I hope I am doing more than just learning history. I hope I am paying tribute to their sacrifices.
I now look forward to acquiring and reading The Guns at Last Light, volume three of the Liberation Trilogy.