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The Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson

Review by W. J. Rayment / ConservativeBookstore -- Sicily and the Italian Campaign of World War II evoke images of Patton driving his forces toward Palermo, or cheering Italian women greeting the American Liberators. But these kinds of images are hardly reflective of the reality of the bitter struggle between Allied and German forces.

Rick Atkinson, in his book, Day of Battle, reveals all the dirt, grime, suffering, killing, atrocity, drama, and pathos that were part and parcel of the Mediterranean Campaign. It is interesting to note the differences between the battle for Sicily and the subsequent advance by the allies up the Italian Boot. Patton led the U.S. effort in Sicily and the battle is remarkable for its slapdash advance and near disregard for logistics. It was conducted with panache and hell-for-leather glory characteristic of Patton's aggressive style. While the drive up the Italian boot began with an almost unopposed crossing at the Straits of Messina, and vigorously opposed landing at Salerno. Mark Clark a tough fighter ended up slogging up the peninsula, initially committing his forces piecemeal and watching them get ground up by the German War Machine. After Anzio (an attempted flanking by amphibious assault on the German right) he finally built up forces sufficient to overpower the German defenses and drive them beyond Rome.

Which was the better general? Which strategies and tactics led to victory with the fewest number of casualties? It is difficult to judge, modern military experts would undoubtedly say that Patton was on the cutting edge of modern warfare, while Clark was somewhat mired in the past. This may have been partly a reflection of the terrain over which they were obliged to fight. In Day of Battle Atkinson clearly has his favorites when handicapping generals.

Atkinson is very good at depicting war, especially the second world war, on all levels. We see it from the soldier's point of view as well as from that of the generals. We even get given peeks inside the doings of the Wehrmacht. Kesselring, who commanded German forces in Italy, is painted as a rather urbane fellow, sly, intelligent, and tough, a foe of the first rate who could and did punish every mistake made by the Allies in their push to liberate Italy.

Every aspect of the campaign is dealt with, from its political roots in the quick mind of Churchill, through its planning, and execution. It is true that "war is hell". In his writing, Atkinson uses a dark pallet. This has both positive and negative effects. It shows the grueling struggle that soldiers made in order to rid the world of evil. It is a fact that in the course of this struggle that the allies made some dreadful, costly, and atrocious mistakes. For example the destruction of Bari by a German Air Raid resulted in the release of mustard gas from a store of the substance on the SS John Harvey. The desire to have chemical weapons close to the front to retaliate for any German use of same resulted in poor management and the exposure of this store to enemy attack. Its release caused terrible casualties. Reading of such little known incidents makes the reader's blood boil.

In Atkinson's writing one feels the inner struggle he must have gone through in putting together this book. It is clear he detests war, but it is also clear that there is a recognition of its necessity, at least in the context of the Second World War. He decries the horrors, plays down the glories, exposes the foibles, yet uplifts us with the idea that all the fighting is done in a cause greater than the petty jealousies, desires, and needs of the individuals enmeshed in the conflict.

Reading Day of Battle is the closest any human will get to reliving the vital events of the Italian Campaign at our remove of history. This is great read on its own and vital part of Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy".

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