01 November 2007

The Day of Battle

The title of this blog entry is that of a new book by historian Rick Atkinson, about the war in Sicily and Italy in 1943 -- 44.

This is the middle part of a projected trilogy on the Anglo-American armies and the liberation of (western) Europe.

The first book, An Army at Dawn, discussing the liberation of North Africa, was very highly praised -- and won the Pulitzer Prize.

The third book will of course start with Normandy and end at the Elbe.

But let's get to it: the first sentence of the second book reads: "She could be heard long before she was seen on that foggy Tuesday morning, May 11, 1943."

The "she" in question, it soon transpires, is a ship -- the Queen Mary -- which on thatdate brought Winston Churchill into New York harbor. He was coming, with a sizeable retinue of staff and generals, to argue with Roosevelt and his retinue about the next step in the war, as well as to offer Congress a first-hand taste of his oratorical skills.

At that time, the American high command was very wary of moving up the boot of Italy. Thegenerals' preference was to mass forces in England in preparation for a Cross-Channel landing on the presumption that when Hitler fell, Mussolini would be just a mop-up operation. They didn't expect that the cross-channel invasion could happen until another year had passed, but they figured there was enough to do in the Pacific and Asian theares during that intervening year anyway.

Churchill was an enthusiast of an Italian campaign, a strike at what he called the "soft underbelly" of Europe. At best, it might inspire the Italians to change sides quickly, and the assist their new allies in a quick war-winning strike north, across the Alps, to Berlin, making a cross-Channel action unnecessary. At worst, it would pressure Hitler to send troops south, relieving pressure on the Russians.

What they adopted -- an Italian campaign coupled with continued plans for the cross-channel invasion the following years -- might or might not have been the best thing militarily. If it was, the fact was an accident. The compromise wasn't a result of a strategic breakthrough but was a political deal to paper over the profoundly different perspectives of the allies, and Atkinson explains the wheeling and dealing that went into this quite well.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.