Among the many controversial operations launched during the “Second World War” the invasion of Italy is among the most debated. While Winston Churchill touted the Mediterranean as the “soft underbelly of Europe” the Italian campaign ultimately cost the allies more casualties than the Germans for what were arguably few obvious results. However, the much maligned Italian campaign was probably the best the Western allies could have done in 1943 and produced more benefits than has generally been recognized.
It is difficult to articulate what the allies could have done in the summer of 1943 that would have done more to damage the Axis war effort than invading Italy. The supposedly obvious answer would be a cross channel invasion of France that would have taken off pressure from Soviet forces fighting on the Eastern front and shortened the length of the war. While supporters of this view usually cite the fact that Germany had fewer divisions in France in the summer of 1943 than when the allies actually invaded in 1944, they ignore more important considerations.
These considerations include that the allies had only just gained the advantage in the “Battle of the Atlantic,” during the summer of 1943 which was necessary to keep Britain in the war, and build up sufficient U.S. forces in Europe, let alone launch such an ambitious invasion. In fact, the turning point for the allies in the Atlantic came only in May following a disastrous period where the Germans had been sinking ships at a faster rate than at any other time in the war. May was also the month the considerable German and Italian forces in North Africa were forced to surrender and it would arguably have been difficult, if not impossible, to transport significant forces from the Mediterranean to Britain and launch an invasion of France in the summer of 1943 as the allies were just starting to recover from the shipping losses of the previous five months.
Additionally, the allies had yet to gain air supremacy over France, in order to dominate the air space over the invasion area and interdict enemy forces trying to reinforce the German army in Normandy. While the allies certainly had air superiority (as in they had more warplanes than the Germans) they did not have aerial supremacy which meant they could fly anywhere, or bomb anything, at will. For example, while the Germans always had aerial superiority over the R.A.F. during the “Battle of Britain,” they never wore down the R.A.F. to achieve air supremacy to allow them to mount an invasion of Britain. While it is plausible the allies may have had enough planes to cover an invasion of France in 1943 it would have been in the face of a still relatively strong Luftwaffe. This means that the allies would have been forced to spend much more effort defending the landings, and escorting their bombers, and less emphasis on ground support and interdiction, both of which were crucial in the “Battle of Normandy.” Thanks to the allied aerial supremacy in 1944 they could accomplish all these tasks rather simply, but it would have been extremely difficult in 1943.
It should be kept in mind that the U.S. bombing offensive against Germany was ultimately unsuccessful in 1943 and therefore would not have been very effective during the summer at destroying German communications such as railroads, marshaling yards, tunnels and bridges that did much to isolate the German army in Normandy from sufficient reinforcements the following year. Only the introduction of fuel tanks and better aircraft gave the U.S. air force the edge over the Luftwaffe to wear it down in the spring of 1944.
Add this to the facts that the allies did not have overwhelming forces in England to land in Normandy, the shortage of landing craft in the European theatre (which was barely addressed in time in 1944), and that the allies did not even have an agreed upon invasion plan until late 1943, it is hard to see how a cross channel invasion in 1943 would have succeeded. There is also the point that the allies had not sufficiently mastered amphibious warfare by the summer of 1943 as seen by the near disasters at Anzio and Tarawa that occurred after that period. Pundits who cite the fact that the Allies landed more troops the first day on Sicily than Normandy conveniently ignore that there were no serious fortifications on the southern Sicilian coast and that the landings were virtually unopposed. Even when all these conditions had been rectified in the summer of 1944 the invasion of Normandy could arguably have failed, or at least been much more bloody, had the Germans not have been so thoroughly deceived by the massive disinformation campaign launched by the allies that convinced them to concentrate most of their forces in France around Calais instead of Normandy.
Once a cross channel invasion in 1943 is ruled out there was not much for the Western allies to choose from. An invasion of Norway would have been both logistically difficult and offered few strategic rewards. An invasion of Greece would have arguably been the same unless it could have enticed Turkey to enter the war much earlier, though there is little reason to expect it would have (and even then Turkish belligerence would hardly have proven to be decisive in any case). Finally, an invasion of Corsica, Sardinia, and/or Southern France would have likely been unpractical due to the considerations listed above, as well as the lack of sufficient port facilities in the Western Mediterranean to support such endeavors.
Therefore, in the summer of 1943 all the allies could do towards causing significant damage to the Axis war effort was to mount an invasion of Sicily and Italy. While such operations had little prospect of defeating the German army decisively in 1943, or to seriously appease the Russians, who were fighting the overwhelming bulk of the German forces, it offered the allies significant strategic advantages.
Firstly, it offered the chance of knocking Italy out of the war. While “World War 2” literature is generally uncharitable regarding the performance of the Italian armed forces, the fact remains that Italy was Germany’s most important ally in Europe and had significant amounts of troops and naval assets to oppose the allies. Perhaps most threatening to the allies was her sizable navy and geographic position that cut Britain’s tradition trade route to the Far East via the Mediterranean. The British estimated that securing the Mediterranean would drastically shorten their sea lines of communication and save the allies a million tons of shipping a year (not a bad consideration as the allies were on the brink of losing the “Battle of the Atlantic” during early 1943).
There were a considerable amount of Italian divisions that either fought against the Western allies and Russians, or served as garrisons in Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and France. While admittedly they did not always fight well, they at least freed up many German divisions to fight elsewhere. Knocking Italy out of the war had the potential to force the Germans to send a significant amount of divisions there, usually from the Russian front, as well as to replace the Italian forces garrisoned across Europe. The number of troops the Germans had to disarm and replace was not insignificant, it involved nearly 250,000 in the Aegean and Greece, 150,000 in Yugoslavia, and 600,000 in Italy. A week after the Germans had initiated operation “Achse” to forcibly disarm the Italians after Italy’s surrender to the allies, the German high command estimated it had completely disarmed 56 Italian divisions, and partially disarmed another 29. To suggest that eliminating nearly 1,000,000 soldiers from the enemy’s order of battle in wartime (even if they were of questionable quality) would not produce positive strategic results would be absurd.
Besides these advantages there were other benefits that were produced by the Italian campaign. While the Russians were not pleased that the Western allies decided to attack a subsidiary objective instead of invading France, it was the best they could do and arguably did enough to steer Stalin away from being serious about exploring a separate peace with Hitler in 1943. Many scholars, pundits and academics often forget that Russia did most of the fighting in Europe during World War 2 and that they, not the Western allies, broke the back of the German army. They seem to forget that while the British and Americans were invading tiny Sicily in 1943 that the German army was far from defeated and was launching the greatest battle in “World War 2” around the Kursk salient on the Eastern front. It was only after this intensely contested battle (in which the Russians lost far more men and tanks than the Germans) had been won by the Soviets that the initiative really passed to the allies. Thus, while the battle in Italy may not have impressed the Russians, it at least convinced them that the Western allies were doing something significant to fight the Germans.
Also, the numerous amphibious assaults launched during the Italian campaign (Sicily, Salerno and Anzio) gave the allies considerable experience in amphibious warfare. Keeping in mind the poor showing at Dieppe in 1942, the slaughter the Americans experienced at Tarawa in late 1943, and even the near disaster at Omaha beach on D-Day, the allies seemed to have needed all the experience in combined operations they could get. It is simply too optimistic to believe that the allies could have successfully landed in France in 1943 considering their less than impressive record regarding amphibious assaults, let alone all the factors mentioned above. Additionally, much like the Desert campaign, it gave the allies valuable experience in fighting the German army before the main contest, in Normandy, the following year. While this seems like a rationalization, it should be noted that besides the fighting in Algeria and Tunisia following the Torch operation, the Americans had no other combat experience fighting the German army, and the potential consequences of a complete reversal in Italy were a lot less grievous than if the allies had failed invading France.
However, despite the advantages the invasion of Italy gave the allies there is arguably much to criticize regarding the Italian campaign. While it made sense to invade Italy from a political and strategic point of view, the allies could not have asked for a worse battlefield from a tactical point of view. With its narrow length, mountain terrain, and lack of open areas, Italy was arguably a defender’s paradise. Despite the overwhelming numerical, material, and firepower advantages of the allies, the Italian campaign was epitomized by attrition and produced few moments of spectacular military excellence.
Put bluntly, the Italian campaign was useful in appeasing the Russians, diverting German forces from vital fronts, giving the allies valuable experience, but not as a means of severely degrading German military power. This was all that was ever realistically expected of it. Despite Churchill and other British strategists’ wishes to fight a major war in the Mediterranean, there was never any chance of it happening considering the Americans, who were always unequivocally committed to invading France, were destined to have the final say in strategy due to their unquestionable material supremacy vis a vis the British.
However, if there were sound strategic and political reasons to invade Italy, the execution of the campaign itself was controversial to put it mildly. It is one thing to suggest the topography of Italy is generally not suitable for maneuver warfare (which is true), but quite another to imply that it was the route of all the setbacks during the Italian campaign. Napoleon’s decisive campaigns in Italy, the German victory of Caporetto during “World War 1” and Germany’s swift conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941 show that well trained, well equipped and sufficiently motivated forces can accomplish significant offensive gains in mountain terrain. This is not to suggest that the allies could have decisively defeated the German army in Italy in “World War 2” but that they arguably could have conducted the Italian campaign with more skill.
Even though the allies ultimately triumphed in Italy, the campaign itself, much like the North African venture, showed that the allies had much to learn when fighting the German army. The snail’s pace in the Sicily operation, the near disaster at Salerno, the “beached whale” as Churchill put it, at Anzio, and the brutal slogging matches at Monte Casino, were catalogued by what were arguably poor operational and tactical decisions by the Western allies. And perhaps the one chance of inflicting a serious defeat on the German army in Italy was wasted when General Mark Clark decided to take Rome for the sake of glory instead of surrounding a good part of the German 10th Army.
While allowances such as Italy’s horrible topography, the undoubted tactical superiority of German forces over the allies, and least of all hindsight, do much to explain the relatively unexceptional military results shown by the allies advancing up the Italian peninsula, there is little doubt that the execution of the Italian campaign did not mirror the considerable strategic and political advantages it ultimately conferred towards the allied war effort. Yet, much like the overly criticized British army during the “First World War,” the allies in Italy ultimately won the military contest and deserve respect rather than condemnation.
Indeed, the Axis leadership was hardly blameless regarding their performance regarding its operations in the Mediterranean theatre of operations. The failure to take Malta and secure Rommel’s lines of communication in Libya, the decision to reinforce a doomed battle in Tunisia, and the practice of contesting every inch of Italian soil instead of initiating sensible withdrawals when necessary, provide sufficient evidence that on the strategic level at least the Germans did not live up to their Clausewitzian reputation. In fact, whereas the allies were arguably correct in their strategic appraisal of the Mediterranean theatre of war, but not as proficient regarding their tactical means to accomplish their objectives, the Germans fought the Italian campaign with considerable tactical skill at the expense of critical strategic considerations.
Simply put, the Germans could have defended Italy with far less resources (which were needed more critically in Russia or Western Europe), had they decided to enact a strategy of gradual withdrawal up the boot of Italy, instead of fighting linear defensive battles across southern and middle Italy. While such battles caused severe allied casualties, they also tied down significant amounts of German forces that could have been used elsewhere. Likewise, such stationary defense allowed the allies to deploy their unmatchable superiority in numbers and firepower, that no matter how long or how costly, would eventually triumph over the Germans. In other words the Germans could easily have sacrificed space for time in Italy and reinforced more important fronts instead of subjecting their forces to brutal attritional slogs that they had no chance of winning. Given the Russian and Western allies’ vastly superior resources and manpower, the Italian campaign definitely provided a bigger inconvenience to the Germans than it did to their enemies.
The invasion of Italy was the best option available to the Western allies in 1943 and did much to further the allied war effort. The allies did not have the resources, or the experience, to invade France and inflict a decisive defeat upon the German armed forces in 1943. The campaign knocked Italy out of the war, forced the Germans to send many divisions needed more critically elsewhere to the Italian peninsula, and to replace Italian garrisons across Europe. Doing so took significant pressure off the Russians on the Eastern front, increased the Western allies proficiency at mounting amphibious assaults and gave them (especially the Americans) vital experience fighting the German army. While the Italian campaign lacked the glamour of the Normandy invasion or the mind boggling scale of the titanic struggle on the Eastern front, it was a necessary, if inglorious, undertaking.
Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
Bishop, Chris. German Campaigns of World War 2. London: Grange Books, 2001.
Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: Closing the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951.
Lewis, Jon. The Mammoth Book of Battles. London: Robinson Publishing, 2000.
Macksey, Kenneth. From Triumph to Disaster. London: Greenhill Books, 1996.
Warner, Philip. World War Two. London: Cassell, 2002.
Article from the “Comando Supremo, Italy at War”: The Second World War in Italy: was it worth it? The folly and brutality of war, from Sicily to the Po Valley by Michael Howard, June 25, 2008. http://www.comandosupremo.com/forums/topic/5783-michael-howard-on-italian-campaign-was-it-worth-it/
Wikipedia article on “Operation Achse”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Achse [August, 2012]