One thing you have to love in a historian (or even just a journalist-turned-book author) is attention to detail. Rick Atkinson has that in spades. His latest book, The Day of Battle, tells the story of the Allied invasion of Italy and Sicily in World War II. Part two of ďThe Liberation Trilogy,Ē itís the sequel to An Army at Dawn, detailing just how much the American army and commanders learned in the torturous campaign in North Africa, and how much it still had yet to learn. We also get plenty of information on the British, Canadian, and other Allied troops that took part in the slog that was Italy. Itís heavily researched and exhaustively referenced, with no stone left unturned in describing what happened.
An Army at Dawn came out five years ago, so it took at least that long to actually write this very thick book. After looking at all the notes and the extensive bibliography, itís no surprise. Atkinson quotes from other books and letters home from the soldiers on the front, as well as memoirs and probably even an interview or two. He gives us the trials and tribulations of the generals and other commanders, as well as what others thought of them (not just fellow commanders, but their subordinates as well). Each major persona is given almost a page of background detail, and this isnít limited to the popular personalities like Montgomery and Eisenhower. We also get this level of detail regarding divisional commanders and the like, such as General Truscott. This kind of writing lets us get to know the people weíre reading about, and while Atkinson does occasionally repeat things overmuch (such as some of the ailments suffered by various commanders), it still makes us care about whatís happening to these people. When a writer of a nonfiction book can do that, you know theyíre talented.
Atkinson begins The Day of Battle in Washington, where top U.S. and British politicians and commanders got together to figure out what to do after the victory in North Africa. The U.S. wanted to invade Western Europe and thought that all time, effort, and training should be geared toward that goal, even if it took another year. Churchill didnít want any part of that, partially because of Stalinís desire for a second front, and partially because he wanted to maintain, as much as possible, the British Empire. He thought an invasion of the ďsoft underbellyĒ of Europe would help that goal.
Atkinson then moves on to the invasion of Sicily and, after thatís finished, the virtual stalemate that the Italian invasion became. Between the landings at Salerno in 1943 and the January 1944 landings at Anzio to try and break the German line, we are presented with every battle and the events leading up to them. Atkinson does a wonderful job setting the scene, placing us in the middle of the drudgery, making us feel for the soldiers. We hear their grousing about their circumstances, the never-ending shelling, and the frontal attacks on fixed positions that just resulted in more Allied dead for little gain. He pulls no punches in discussing things like the rampant spread of venereal disease among the troops as they take advantage of the grateful Italian women, as well as some of the atrocities, such as the French-Moroccan troops who went on a rampage of raping and pillaging.
Some may find all of this detail tedious, and if you do then you wonít like this book. The Day of Battle is not a general history of the Italian campaign, which could probably be covered in 200 pages if you want to be really general. Instead, itís an in-depth look at the horror, pain, suffering, valor, and courage needed to survive this horrible year, as well as the mistakes (both out of incompetence and arrogance) that were made by the higher commanders. General Mark Clark is examined from both sides, sympathetically as well as critically. His paranoia that the British were going to try and horn in on his capture of Rome, as well as his desperate letters to his wife detailing what he was going through, both capture this complex man who was the focus of controversy for many years after the war.
There are only two small criticisms I can make about The Day of Battle; both of them are in common with An Army at Dawn, so I can confidently predict that they will be problems in the third book as well. First, the notation system is one that has always annoyed me. Instead of actual numbered notes, we get notes that have page numbers and a part of the quote to which the note is referring. When youíre reading the book, you have no idea whatís going to prompt a note. Thankfully, most of the notes are mainly sources for the information, so they can be safely ignored, but Iím sure thatís not what Atkinson wants the reader to think. I would prefer that the notes not even be at the back but instead be included as footnotes, but you canít have everything. Iíd settle.
Secondly, Atkinson once again is guilty of being a bit melodramatic in his prose, and itís always at the end of a section/chapter. Itís certainly not every break where Atkinsonís prose goes purple, but too often it happens. This is also a problem with the first book must be part of his style. Itís irritating, but certainly not enough to put down this riveting book.
The Day of Battle is an excellent all-around examination of the Italian campaign. I doubt that it could be any more comprehensive, and the only sad thing about Atkinsonís desire to be as complete as possible is that weíll have to wait even longer for the final book. As it stands, this book is a must-own for any person with an interest in World War II.