At War on the Gothic Line: Fighting in Italy, 1944-45

ISBN: 978-1250065179
Review Date:

The Italian Campaign is sometimes described as the "forgotten campaign," though that term is applied by various writers and historians to any campaign they are writing about which they feel deserves more attention. For Western writers, Italy is something of an embarrassment. Allied plans, though strategically valid, often went awry and the Nazis were able to inflict significant casualties in a battle of attrition.

American writers tend to be the most critical of the Italian venture, sometimes conveniently blaming the British or Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the mess, in particular poo-pooing his goal of limiting Soviet influencing by seeking to use Italy as a springboard for attacks into the Balkans. Churchill's "soft underbelly" of Europe wasn't so soft. Yet, the campaign followed a standard principle of Sun Tzu's Art of War. In 1943, Allies struck at and eliminated the weakest link in the Axis coalition and forced the Nazis to expend manpower and resources to defend and occupy Italy. Although the Allies themselves also committed major resources to Italy, they could far more easily afford to do so than could Germany. While a rapid advance up the Italian peninsula was probably out of the question, the Allies missed by a close margin significant victories that would have brought the war to a quicker end.

Nevertheless, the Italian campaign has been the subject of some rather bad history, such as the assertion that after the fall of Rome, the campaign was essentially over. Adding to the confusion, the Allied coalition was made up of a huge, multinational grab bag of troops including British, Americans (including Japanese- and African-American units), Canadians, Indians, Italians, Poles, French (including many Moroccans and Algerians), Greeks, Brazilians, and a Jewish brigade under British command. Many of these groups-which played keys roles in the campaign-are largely incomprehensible to British and American authors who, lacking knowledge or sources, tend to invent things or substitute opinion for fact.

Into this messy mass of military history strides Christian Jennings, a British journalist residing in Turin. His At War on the Gothic Line attempts to cover the period after the fall of Rome. This is a rather hopeful approach for this part of the Italian campaign is poorly covered in the genre of popular military history. A competent book on this topic would be a welcome thing. Unfortunately, Jennings' book is anything but competent.

The author tries to take on the multinational character of the Italian campaign by focusing much of his book on accounts of Indian, Italian, Canadian, African-American, and Japanese-American participants. The book's saving grace is that it incorporates a lot of first-hand accounts from veterans such the late U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, perhaps the best known member of the heroic Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Most of these accounts come from previously published sources. Jennings' own writing is most compelling in the book's preface where he describes the service of his own father who was in a British armored division in Holland.

As narrative history, the book is something of a dog's breakfast. Topics are introduced, dropped, and reintroduced in a confusing and occasionally repetitious way. There are long digressions (such as a detailed account of the Dieppe Raid) that have little bearing on the main story. Important topics are raised only to see the author get diverted by minutia or interesting personal stories. In one section, for example, the author spends a significant amount of time trying to describe efforts by the OSS and SOE to cement a broad political coalition of Italian partisans in northern Italy. After the lengthy description of Allied agents trying to avoid the Gestapo in Milan, the topic is dropped with no mention of what the result of the mission might have been. Only later, does the author mention in different context that the Comitato di Libertazione Nazionale Alta Italia issued an important unified manifesto following the Allied missions.

Jennings is fairly accurate when discussing former British colonials, such as Americans, Canadians, and Indians. Yet, when it comes to Italians, Brazilians, Poles, Greeks, or Yugoslavs-distant nations of whom our people know little, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain-things fall completely apart. Jennings is rather surprised to discover, for example, that while the Italian Campaign maybe forgotten in England or the U.S., it is not forgotten in Italy (xxi). Of all places! As can be sadly expected of too many British and American authors, Jennings manages to get nearly everything about the Poles wrong, repeatedly emphasizing the modest number of Polish conscripts in German uniforms (mostly those who signed the Volksliste under duress in western Poland) while largely ignoring the role of the Polish Second Corps, its capture of Bologna, and the drama surrounding the Corps' reception of news of the Yalta accord. Because he never investigates his sources much, he claims (based on the words of SS officer Walter Reder) that in 1939 the Einsatzgruppen in killed "Polish communists" when in fact they killed Polish civilians and POWs few if any of whom were communists (28, 89). He claims that Poles captured in 1939 were also conscripted by the Germans and later fought for the British (a claim that he appears to have simply invented, 68). He claims the massacre of villagers at Sant Anna di Stazzema was the second largest civilian massacre by the Nazis outside of the Holocaust, demonstrating utter ignorance of the nature of the war conducted by the Germans in eastern Europe against gentile civilians from 1939 onward. Jennings also erroneously claims that SOE was prevented from conducting missions in northern Italy because the RAF was diverting too many aircraft to drop supplies to the Polish resistance fighting the Nazis in Warsaw (99).

While getting everything about Poland in World War II wrong is standard practice for most British and American authors, Jennings isn't content to stop there. He claims that the non-communist Greek resistance sympathized with and fought for the Nazis and that only the communists opposed the Germans (262). This is beyond preposterous. Jennings is quite bemused to note an apparent cultural affinity between Brazilian troops and the Italians, a claim which could only be surprising to one who was unaware that Brazil was home to large communities of Italian immigrants (156).

At some points, Jennings devolves into sheer silliness, such as suggesting that Indian troops were adept at mountain warfare because they were "accustomed to . . . chasing goats, running from tigers, and outwitting British redcoats in the early days of the Raj" (72). He also claims that the Polish forces in Italy used "cavalry" (158).

More serious are the errors of interpretation in assessing Joseph Stalin's policy toward Yugoslavia (which ends up as another of the book's many digressions). In Jennings' rosy-red view of things, the wise Stalin deliberately stayed away from trying to intervene in Yugoslavia due to the country's potentially volatile ethnic mix. The image of the wise, beneficent Stalin avoiding ethnic conflict would be amusing if the reality were not so gruesome. The Soviets fomented ethnic conflict wherever and whenever they could in order to more easily disrupt and control subject or potential subject populations. Ethnic cleansing and the manipulation of ethnic tensions were a Soviet specialty from the 1920s to the end of the Cold War and millions died as a result. During the war, Stalin's operations against the Crimean Tatars and the Chechens and the NKVD's efforts to encourage Belarussians and Ukrainians to turn on their Polish neighbors are just a few notable examples. Stalin's failure to add Yugoslavia to his orbit was due to British resistance to giving the Soviets a completely free hand and the practical limits on Soviet military power in 1945 and 1946.

Aside from its obvious political bias and its sad illustration that a large proportion of the chattering classes in Europe and America are still wedded to the Stalin mythology, Jennings' book illustrates the pitfalls of amateurs trying to write military history ala Stephen Ambrose. Compelling stories of heroism and tragedy make little sense when authors cannot provide sufficient context or be bothered to conduct basic research or check their sources. The final year of the Italian campaign still awaits a definitive account in English.

John Radzilowski
University of Alaska


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