In 2001, Rick Atkinson came out with the Pulitzer Prize-winning first installment of his “Liberation Trilogy,” which chronicles the U.S. Army’s experience in Europe during World War II. In his first installment, “An Army at Dawn,” Atkinson portrayed an Army still in its fetal crawl stage as it blundered about North Africa in poorly planned invasions and crushed defeats at the hands of the Axis powers. But he also shows how the Army matures into a functioning, if still slightly immature, being.
“The Day of Battle,” Atkinson’s second installment of the trilogy, shifts the focus from an inexperienced Army in North Africa to a blooded Army’s slog through Sicily and upward into Rome. Unlike “An Army at Dawn,” the focus is not so much about a maturing army, but instead about the brutal struggle in a campaign many assert need not have happened.
The Day of Battle: A|
TITLE: “The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944” AUTHOR: Rick Atkinson LENGTH: 816 pages PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Company Inc. PRICE: Hardcover: $35 list price
In his classic and refined narrative style, Atkinson portrays a picture where, in the words of an Allied soldier, “We are always on the bottom, and the Krauts always on top.” After arriving in Italy, the Germans fortified a line named the “Gustav Line,” which was anchored by titanic mountains on both flanks with a hearty slope in the center, all focused on the unfortunate town of Casino.
The result of this action and the four Allied attempts to break through was more reminiscent of World War I battles, consisting of massive firepower on both ends with a terrible no man’s land in between, rather than the battles of tactical maneuvering that typified World War II. In describing this situation, Atkinson’s skills launch themselves to the forefront.
As a senior Washington Post writer, Atkinson has a flair for description and poignant writing that is not often seen anymore. When his writing style is merged with his excellent research, he is able to vividly paint a depressing image of vicious close-quarters fighting, uncaring artillery barrages and the shocking aftermath of the violence.
While Atkinson is able to take the war down to an extremely personal level, he also spends an equal amount of time analyzing the generals who called the shots and enough time on the ambitions and personalities of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt and their decision to launch the Italian front. Drawing on orders, accounts, diary entries and letters home, Atkinson pulls together an exhaustive portrait of the Allied generals, their decision-making, the strains they felt and their ambitions.
While his book is one of the foremost primers about an almost completely forgotten front, Atkinson seems unsure in his footing on some of the more controversial issues about the campaign. The Italian campaign has been an intensely debated subject. While it engaged the Nazis on one front and relieved the Soviet forces from pressure on the Eastern Front, the campaign was extremely costly. The frontal assaults against mountain peaks and defended towns exacted seemingly meaningless casualties for the United States and Britain.
Thus, after creating such a quality book, it’s a shame that Atkinson was unable to take a definitive stance. Likewise, while being so definitive about certain generals, the campaign’s main character, Gen. Mark Clark, who was in charge of all U.S. forces in the theater, gets negative and positive coverage without a definitive result.
Yet, overall, perhaps the disappointments are so frustrating because, for the most part, the book was so phenomenal. Atkinson’s thorough research and wonderful writing style, as well as adroit observation, has created one of the most complete and readable accounts of the Italian campaign.