Wednesday 10 April 2024

The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943 by James Holland


James Holland, along with Peter Caddick-Adams and Alex Kershaw, forms my favorite trio of World War II military historians. For me, Holland, in particular, has become a niche writer, covering topics not frequently addressed by other writers (such as the Malta book) and adopting distinctive new angles when interpreting extensively researched battles or campaigns (as seen in the Normandy '44 book or the two tomes on the War in the West, 1940-43). For this reason, I tend to buy and read any new publication by him.

The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943 is Holland's latest book published in September 2023. As usual by the author, this is a thick tome of circa 600 pages, including a useful map section and lavishly illustrated with both contemporary photos and others taken by the author while walking the main battlefields 

The book epitomizes Holland’s approach. As the author rightly points out in the book's final pages, "the war in Italy is largely forgotten today, except for Cassino and Anzio…" Additionally, he covers in detail the poor design and execution of the campaign by both the Allies and the Germans. The result is a harrowing, brutal, and ultimately futile campaign, with casualty rates in the contending armies surpassing those of the Great War and inflicting a level of suffering on the Italian people hardly seen in other war theaters in the West.

"The Savage Storm" picks up where Holland's previous book, "Sicily '43," left off, with the retreat of Axis forces through the Messina Strait into Calabria, and concludes in December 1943 with the Allies halted at the Gustav Line in west-central Italy and at Ortona on the Adriatic coast. During this period between September and December 1943, the Allied Fifth and Eighth Armies suffered close to 35,000 losses, while the German Tenth Army endured 13,400.

The campaign faced numerous problems from the outset on the Allies’ side. The decision-making process was muddled by strategic political considerations and a significant disagreement between Britain and the US regarding where to concentrate the center of gravity in the West.

Political considerations included the fear of losing the initiative after Sicily if Italy was not assaulted, the presence of a powerful but inactive army in the Mediterranean, pressure from the Soviets on the Western Allies to open a second front in Europe, Prime Minister Churchill's ambition to extend British influence in the Mediterranean, British concerns that the US might prioritize the Pacific if no progress was made in Europe, and the opportunity to use Italy as a launching point for Allied air attacks on German and Austrian manufacturing centers.

The disagreement between US and British political and military commanders revolved around the center of gravity of Allied strategy in Europe. The US favored focusing efforts on assaulting France in May 1944, considering Italy as an undesirable distraction that could divert significant military assets from the main campaign. Conversely, for the British, Italy presented an opportunity to attack the Reich from its perceived "soft belly," remove Italy from the war, and force the Germans to divert resources from France.

Ultimately, the Allies greenlit the invasion of Italy but committed half-heartedly to the operation. There were no clear medium-term objectives set at its inception, aside from establishing advanced bases for the Air Force bombing campaign on the Reich or capturing Rome (more a political than a military objective). Many planning assumptions proved unfounded, lacking supporting intelligence evidence, such as the belief that the Germans would retreat to northern defensive lines without contesting Allied landings in the South. Moreover, the allocated resources were insufficient for the task, exemplified by the near disaster of the Salerno landings, and were further constrained by preparations for Operation Overlord.

Allied challenges multiplied as the mountainous terrain, numerous east-west flowing rivers, lack of modern road networks, and deteriorating weather hindered their ability to leverage mechanized mobility and air supremacy.

On the German side, the popular perception of a masterful army conducting strategic retreats and fighting to the last man hardly withstands scrutiny. The reality was an army poorly led by "Smiling Albert" (Kesselring) and hampered by Hitler's political interference and obsession with holding every inch of ground.

The Germans engaged in an unwinnable war of attrition, depleting irreplaceable human resources and diverting forces from other fronts. Once the main airfield at Foggia was captured, the strategic rationale for continuing to fight in southern Italy faded.

Ultimately, it was the Italian civilians who suffered the most, caught in the crossfire between the Allies, the Germans, and the incompetence of fascist leaders. James Holland vividly portrays their suffering, from mass killings and rapes by the Germans to the destruction caused by Allied offensives and the lack of effective Allied planning for the conquered territories, exacerbated by German destruction of infrastructure essential for survival.

There are no reliable statistics on civilian fatalities due to bombings, battle casualties, hunger, and diseases, highlighting the extent of civilian suffering during this brutal campaign, but they are surely counted by tenths of thousands.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the Mediterranean front during the Second World War. It provides much-needed information on the subject, and the author has announced on his Twitter account that a follow-up book is coming. The follow-up book will focus on the Monetcassino campaign and the Anzion landings that led to the liberation of Rome. It’s worth noting that Holland has written a book covering the 1944-45 period titled “Italy’s Sorrow,” completing the military history quadrology.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. I don't read much WWII and am struggling with this book which was a generous gift from friends. However I determined to read it and your review is an encouragement.