Hope that title caught your eye.
In my capacity as a World War II historian and columnist, I receive a lot of mail. Some of it is friendly, some of it is cranky, and some is downright hostile, but I do have to say this: it is almost always interesting. My mailbag reinforces a notion that has guided me from the beginning: the war still matters. It matters for a lot of reasons and it matters deeply to a lot of people. And they know their stuff!
Recently I received a note from Bologna, Italy, from an interested reader who had just finished my most recent book, The Wehrmacht Retreats. The book deals with German operations in the year 1943, and so there is an entire chapter devoted to the Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky. As with most scholars who write on this campaign, I came down pretty hard on the Italians, describing what I have always believed was essentially a vanishing act. Although there were 100,000s of Italian troops on the island, the majority seemed to fade away within a few days of the Allied landing. The reasons were many: an impression of overwhelming and irresistible Allied strength (true), an Italian morale collapse as the hard hand of war descended for the first time on the homeland (understandable), and a refusal on the part of many Italian soldiers to die for Benito Mussolini (utterly sensible, I thought).
Whatever the reasons, they ran. I was especially dismissive of the so-called coastal divisions, who neither got the job done nor seemed particularly inclined to do so. “Resistance was spotty,” I wrote, discussing resistance against the British landings, “with Italian coastal batteries firing sporadically or not at all and with virtually no opposition on land.” The same was true in front of the Americans, I said: “Faced with the Allied onslaught, the vast majority of those Italian coastal troops (and not a few of the regulars) greeted the invasion by deserting their posts, throwing down their weapons and surrendering, or trading their uniforms for civilian garb and making off into the rugged Sicilian interior.” I was writing with assurance. If there was one thing in World War II that I was sure of, this was it: the Big Italian Bug-Out.
My new friend from Bologna wanted me to think a little harder about this traditional narrative, and for a simple reason, he said: “Because details matter.” The gist of his comments was that it is necessary to recognize more shades of grey in the analysis than I had been willing to admit. The coastal defense units were essentially territorial militia consisting of over-aged reservists—dads and uncles, we might say. Given their training, equipment, and morale, they “didn’t perform at all so badly as the received wisdom states.” He offered this reasonable comparison: “It is highly doubtful whether the British Home Guard would have performed any better in 1940 facing a German invasion.” Yes, many of them fled, but a lot of these older guys fought against what we might call impossible odds. Tough British regiments like the Seaforth Highlanders ran into resistance almost from the moment they landed, and they weren’t the only ones. Military historians like to criticize the British for the slow speed of their advance in Sicily, but the lackadaisical pace wasn’t just the fault of their overcautious doctrine. Italian units, including the despised coastal defense units, repeatedly stopped them cold and inflicted casualties in the opening days of the campaign. He also points out that British might have low-balled their casualty figures. A common figure is 2,300 Commonwealth dead during the fighting on Sicily. My Italian friend thinks that figure doesn’t wash, and he has a point. There are 1,049 Commonwealth dead buried at Syracuse (killed in the “landings and earliest days of the invasion, therefore killed in action fighting mainly against Italians”), another 2,142 buried at Catania, and 490 more Canadians at Agira. The true number appears to be closer to 3,700 dead. Officer casualties within the Commonwealth armies were especially high, a fact noted in many histories, but usually attributed to German resistance, not Italian.
Just so we aren’t picking on the British exclusively (and maybe because he didn’t want me getting too smug), he also pointed out that “of the 598 American prisoners taken in Sicily by the Axis, many were paratroopers picked up without much fight, or any fight at all, by Italian NAPs, anti-paratroop teams, little more than badly armed peasants.”
Ouch—that hurt! But in that pain was a learning experience, and not just about Sicily. The lesson is one I’ve had to learn before: don’t ever take anything you know about World War II for granted.