History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2, Writing

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Italian Campaign in WWII Part 1

“Tanks of an Armored regiment are debarking from an LST [US 77] in Anzio harbor [Italy] and added strength to the U.S. Fifth Army [VI Corps] forces on the beachead (WWII Signal Corps Photograph Collection)” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday marked the 77th anniversary of Operation Shingle, the Allied landings on the beaches of Anzio, Italy. There was a ceremony at the American Cemetery in Nettuno to commemorate the day, though I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere. Perhaps that’s not surprising—big current world events notwithstanding, the role of Italy in WWII doesn’t tend to get much press. Perhaps this is because it was a controversial theater from the get-go and considered something of a backwater, especially after the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches. The public attitude led the British troops in Italy to take on the ironic moniker “D-Day Dodgers.”

Still, Italy was the first major Allied incursion into mainland Europe. The campaign resulted in the fall of the first Axis capitol. Famous figures like Bill Mauldin and Audie Murphy slogged over its muddy roads.

Left: Audie Murphy, the most decorated American veteran of WWII. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Right: Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The 99th Fighter Squadron—also known as the Tuskeegee Airmen—earned its second Distinguished Unit Citation at the battle of Monte Cassino.

The 99th was the first black fighter squadron and the first to deploy overseas. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives. The item’s description: “Members of the 99th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Forces, famous all-Negro outfit, who are rapidly making themselves feared by enemy pilots, pose for a picture at the Anzio beachhead. In the foreground, head bared, is 1st Lt. Andrew Lane.”

Thousands of Allied troops—Americans of the 5th Army and British, Canadian, New Zealand, Indian and Gurkah troops of the 8th Army, as well as French and Polish forces (I hope I’m not forgetting anyone)—gave their lives on Italian soil. Controversial or not, the Italian campaign needs to be remembered.

Today, I’m going to pick up the thread of the WWII chronology that I’ve been building on this site with the war in Italy. (I dislike skipping ahead, and I’ll have to backtrack later. There’s still so much to cover in the Pacific, North Africa, Sicily… But as my fiction research is all set in Italy, Italy’s all that my brain has room for just now.)

First Things First: Why Italy?

Perhaps the best place to start is by asking the obvious question: Why Italy? Of the three Axis powers, I think it’s fair to say that the Italians were the least threat and while the United States and Britain had agreed on a “Europe First” strategy to their campaign early on, the French coast was always the preferred target.

However, a cross-Channel invasion of a fortified coast was no small matter. (This is demonstrated pretty clearly by the fact that, post-Battle of Britain, Hitler abandoned Operation Sealion, the German plan to invade Britain by the same route. )

According to Winston Churchill’s memoirs of the Second World War, the Allies hoped to invade France as early as 1942 or 1943, but the buildup of manpower, materiel and shipping just wasn’t fast enough. This did not please some. As the Soviet Union had thrown in with the Allies after German forces attacked them (even though Hitler had said he wouldn’t—shocker!) Stalin was calling loudly for a Second Front Now to split the German forces and pull pressure off the Russian front.

The invasion of France wouldn’t happen until 1944, but France was not the only occupied area. Joint American and British forces retook North Africa in the fall of 1942 and followed up by taking the island of Sicily in 1943. (Both campaigns—Operation Torch and Operation Husky—will definitely merit posts later.) With the Normandy invasion an impossibility until the next year, what would be the best way to follow up these successes? In Winston Churchill’s words:

It was particularly urgent to consider, “Where do we go from Sicily?” It was clearly necessary to keep employed the Anglo-American forces of over twenty divisions in the Mediterranean area.” (Churchill 793)*

A look at the map above gives one compelling reason for Italy being the next step: it’s right there, an easy hop across the Messina Strait from Sicily. Allied leaders theorized that an invasion of the Italian mainland might be enough to knock Italy out of the war entirely, as well as encouraging other countries (like Turkey) to offer the Allies support. Additionally, it would give the Allies control of the Mediterranean and grant them additional air bases. As to the call for a Second Front, Churchill said (before the invasion of Sicily, while still considering all of this):

If the Germans decide to move forces of the order of between six and twelve divisions into Sicily and Italy, we shall certainly have achieved part of our task in drawing, directly or indirectly, forces off our Russian Allies.” (Churchill 823)*

Win, Win, Win.

Why the Controversy?

Churchill and FDR in Casablanca. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

While there were points in favor of an invasion of Italy, many of them were based on hopeful possibilities. If the Italian government sued for peace right away…if the Germans did not decide to try to hold all of Italy…If the Germans instead withdrew behind the Po River and set up defenses there… if all of these things had happened, taking Italy would have been no problem. Even as things ended up, perhaps the campaign would have gone more smoothly but for a point brought up by Fred Majdalany (who served in Italy as a British infantry officer.)*

the essential point about the campaign in Italy is that it was handicapped from the start by a serious strategic difference of opinion between America and Britain, and by the peculiar tactical difficulty of the country as fighting terrain.” (Majdalany 16)**

In short, British leadership wanted to keep engaging the Axis immediately where they could until the time came for the strike at the French coast. American leadership wanted to focus on building up for the cross-Channel invasion.

‘The Mediterranean,’ General Marshall told a meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington in May 1943, ‘is a vacuum into which America’s great military might could be drawn off until there is nothing left with which to deal the decisive blow on the Continent.” (Majdalany 17)**

I won’t attempt to be an arm-chair general and take one side or the other. (Considering that I’m a civilian and my 8-year-old demolished me at a game of “Risk” a few weeks ago, I’m pretty sure I’m not qualified. I ended up only holding Britain. In spite of throwing out lots of Churchillian phrases about “fighting him on the beaches,” my cross-Channel invasion failed. Sigh. Back to history…) The POINT is, that the team-up of Britain and America was not in complete accord regarding Italy, which caused serious planning problems.

Even after the Allies all agreed to the invasion of Italy, the ultimate purpose of the operation remained unclear. How far up “the leg” of Italy would the Allies fight? Was the goal Italian capitulation? Space for new air fields? Rome?

The Allies went into the Italian campaign without firm answers to these questions, so when Hitler decided that the German army would fight for every inch of Italian soil the campaign quickly turned into a miserable, muddy, mountainous journey with uncertain goals and little public praise.

The second post in this series, “Getting a Foothold: The Italian Campaign in WWII Part II” can be found here: https://thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com/2021/03/20/getting-a-foothold-the-italian-campaign-in-wwii-part-ii/

Thank you so much for stopping by today! While I try to hit key points in these articles, there is ALWAYS more to the story. Do you have anything to add about this piece of history? I enjoyed the chance to write a history post again- writers, what are you working on in the New Year?

* Quotes from : Churchill, Winston. The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Print

**Quotes from: Majdalany, Fred. Cassino: Portrait of a Battle. London: Cassell & Co, 1957. Print

Next Time…

Looking ahead, new week “The Naptime Author” will be revisiting an older post on tips for finding reliable research resources—an essential skill for writers, and pretty handy when culling through the many sources of news these days. 😉

History-wise, we’ll soon return to Italy, touching on major points of the actual campaign, as well as revisiting a couple of terrific guest posts on the code-breakers of Bletchley Park.

Set in WWII Britain and Italy, “Whom Shall I Fear” combines wartime danger with a family’s dark past.

17 thoughts on “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Italian Campaign in WWII Part 1”

    1. Doesn’t he? He would’ve been only about 22 in Italy, Curt-
      As Joy points out, there were definitely some Allied gains through the invasion, but it’s interesting reading accounts of the campaign from American vs British historians (at least the ones I’ve read)- there’s definitely a different tone toward the whole thing.


      1. As I recall, Churchill and Roosevelt also had a different idea about the war in the Pacific. I think Mauldin could have passed for 15 in that photo. 🙂 I just scrolled through other photos of him during the war years. He seems to have maintained his boyish looks. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, interesting! I know that they agreed on Europe First as a general strategy, (poor people stuck on Bataan) but how that all played out between the leadership would make an interesting study.
        Didn’t he have a great grin? Between him and Audie Murphy, they hardly look old enough for everything they experienced. Not that war is considerate of ages. 😦


  1. Excellent summation of things. At least one history I read (John Keagan maybe? Its been a while) suggested the Italian campaign served a strategic purpose up until Rome fell, after that not so much. No doubt it was tough terrain for an offensive, and Anzio was not well executed. I think it was clearly important, just how important is where all the arguments start!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a fair assessment. The campaign definitely did keep a number of German divisions occupied so they couldn’t be elsewhere (i.e. Russia, Normandy…) Oh yes, terrain-wise, moving up from the south meant we were perpetually climbing up mountains that the Germans held until they withdrew to the next fortified line- one of my favorite Bill Mauldin cartoons has troops clinging to the side if a cliff being told to hit the dirt! Anzio…ah Anzio’s interesting. I’m working on some fiction set in that area, but the non-fic is coming…
      I think it was also Mauldin who said something to the effect of the most important part of the war is whatever foxhole you’re in (I should hunt that quote down.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The differences of opinion vis-a-vis the adoption of the strategy were completely understandable. It is not as if the British had unlimited manpower by which to confront vast Axis armies simultaneously. Still, the Americans were right as well — because to prolong a confrontation is only to guarantee that it becomes unbearably expensive in terms of lives lost. In wanting an earlier invasion of France, I think the Americans sought to cause the Germans to reposition their forces, which would have caused the Germans (possibly) to withdraw from Italy. Hindsight is 20-20. In 1944, the Normandy invasion was nearly a disaster for the Allied forces; in 1943, it may have been — and I think, there would have been no “second opportunity” for a surprise invasion. Anyone who thinks that amphibious operations are easy doesn’t know amphibious warfare … and the larger the operations, the more difficult they become.

    Both my father in law (British) and my uncle (American) fought in Italy … both made it through, but neither made it through unscathed.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much! (I’m sorry that I’ve been a little poky at responses- my/my kids’ school had to switch to distance learning for a week, then back to live- busy busy :))
        Thanks for the points you made- Yes, imagine trying for the Normandy D-Day a year earlier with fewer troop transports and less time for all of the detailed preparations! Not to mention that Italy, if nothing else, gave the Allied armies a few more chances to “practice” amphibious landings before France (and by saying practice I’m not, of course, minimizing the difficulty and danger.)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, there’s nothing wrong with diving into the research even if it’s a bit out of time, Anne! 🙂 I was just trying to map out a few future posts, and I realized how handy it would be to use a future conference presentation I’m doing for university about names as a blog post. Win win when we can overlap our duties, right? SUPER excited your edits are coming along, and I can’t wait to hear more!

    Liked by 1 person

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