Sideshow? The Mediterranean Campaign

By Robert M. Citino
11/23/2009 • Fire for Effect

Talk about not getting any respect.  The long Allied campaign in the Mediterranean–from the TORCH landings in November 1942 to the drive into the Po river valley in 1945, from Morocco to Milan, as it were–was the ultimate “sideshow,” and even today it remains the classic example of an unappreciated campaign. 

It’s easy to make the case.  In 1942, a war to destroy German and Japanese aggression suddenly changed course to confront a mere nuisance:  Italy.  The result was a mountain of manpower and materiel devoted to some questionable strategic goals.

A comparison with what was taking place on the Eastern Front is instructive.  While vast armored battles unprecedented in their fury were raging on the Volga and in the Caucasus in late 1942, Anglo-American forces were swatting a strategic gnat–tiny Vichy French forces in Morocco and Algeria.  Even though the campaign ended successfully with the Axis surrender at Tunis, the vast majority of the POWs taken there were Italian.  The summer of 1943 saw more of the same.  The Wehrmacht and the Red Army grappled at Kursk in one of the greatest armored clashes of all time, while the western Allies were invading Sicily. 

They overran the island, sure–which did lead to Mussolini’s fall–and there was an exciting “race to Messina” between General Patton’s 7th Army and General Montgomery’s 8th, a race won, inevitably, by the hard-charging American.  But war is not a race, and the campaign ended in frustration with the defending Germans escaping to the Italian mainland. 

Of course, every student of the war knows that we followed them there.  Montgomery’s crossing into Calabria (Operation Baytown) was vintage Monty, a huge build-up and men and materiel for what proved to be an unopposed landing.  A simultaneous landing at Salerno by General Mark Clark’s 5th Army (Operation Avalanche) nearly turned into disaster when German Panzer formations positioned close to the beach launched a counterattack.  Even after Monty and Clark linked up, the task ahead was daunting:  mountains, rivers, and terrain seemingly designed by the Almighty for tactical defense.  The Volturno.  The Rapido.  The Gustav Line.  Monte Cassino.  Another landing at Anzio in early 1944 that only resulted in more stalemate.  Somewhere, there is a quote from Napoleon that Italy, as a boot, “has to be entered from the top.”  The Allies were fighting their way up from the toe and the heel, and sometimes the fit was just too tight.

It’s a damning operational resumé.  American historians usually blame the British for conceiving it, especially Winston Churchill. And yet, the more deeply we study it, the harder it becomes to assign any blame at all.  Indeed, it is almost impossible to see how the Mediterranean could have been avoided.  “Sideshow”?  How about the “inevitable campaign”?

Tune in next week for more.

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