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The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944

by Rick Atkinson, Holt, 2007, $35.

Do we really need another book about the World War II campaigns in Sicily and Italy? In this case, the answer is an emphatic yes. If you’ve never read an account of these campaigns, this is the one you should read. And no matter how many books you have read, read this one anyway. You’ll be amazed by its freshness.

The Day of Battle is the second volume of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The first, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943 (2002), won the Pulitzer Prize. Once again, Atkinson provides us with a historical tour de force as he dexterously zooms in to the level of the individual American GIs, British Tommies and German Landsers fighting along the line of contact and then pans slowly back out, up to the highest operational and strategic levels of the senior commanders and their political masters in Washington and London and Berlin.

The result is a rich tapestry, a complex yet clear and intelligible picture of one of the most muddled and controversial campaigns of World War II.

Through the skillful use of his own narrative, interspersed with the voices of those who lived through the cataclysmic events, Atkinson conveys the agonies and hardships endured by the soldiers during the endless series of almost suicidal frontal assaults and, at the same time, the flawed and gut-wrenching decisions forced on their generals by the impenetrable fog of war. Atkinson’s harrowing account of the disastrous attempt to cross the Rapido River by the 36th Infantry Division is unparalleled.

One of Atkinson’s strongest gifts is the authenticity of his voice. A military historian or professional soldier can read his narrative without having to stumble over terms and concepts that are not presented quite correctly. At the same time he avoids jargon and technobabble. His story can be read, understood and appreciated by laymen and military insiders alike—which is no mean feat of writing.

Although never a soldier himself, Rick Atkinson has spent a considerable portion of his life around the American military. Born in Munich, Germany, the son of a U.S. Army officer, Atkinson grew up on military posts worldwide. From 2004 to 2005 he held the General Omar N. Bradley Chair of Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College. He understands soldiers and the world they live in, thus his writing is replete with empathy, not only for the common soldiers but also for their commanders all the way up the chain. He dissects, analyzes and critiques the battlefield decisions, but objectively, without moralizing or preaching. Rick Atkinson is one of the most respected members of the civilian press corps among today’s soldiers.

Atkinson put an impressive amount of research into this book, including numerous trips to battlefields. As he so aptly notes, “The ground speaks even when eyewitnesses no longer can.” The chapter notes and biography total 169 pages. The sources run from books to contemporary newspaper and periodical accounts; to papers, letters, personal narratives and diaries; and to interviews he personally conducted with participants of the actions. He made 29 visits, averaging two to three days each, to the Military History Institute at Carlisle, Pa., which he accurately describes as “among the nation’s finest archival repositories and the mother lode of Army history.”

The last section of the book contains seven pages of acknowledgments to a large and impressive number of historians, journalists, current military leaders and institutions that helped him in his research or in some way contributed to his understanding of the complex issues of the campaign. (Truth in lending disclosure: I am listed, although at the very most I gave him one or two insights into the way the German army operated in World War II.)

I met Rick Atkinson in November 2006, when the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, General David D. McKiernan, invited him to participate in a battlefield staff ride to Anzio, Cassino, the Rapido River and the Liri Valley. The staff ride, a high-level training exercise for the army’s senior generals in Europe, was coordinated by Maj. Gen. Bill Stofft and Brig. Gen. Hal Nelson, two former chiefs of military history, and Col. Scott Wheeler, another distinguished army historian. The purpose of the exercise was to use the lessons of the Italian campaign as a laboratory in which to evaluate the current American experience with coalition warfare since 2003.

For three days we stood on the battlefields that had soaked up so much blood 60 years ago and tried to put ourselves inside the heads of our predecessors at the general officer levels of command. These were some high-level and extremely complex discussions. Throughout, Rick Atkinson took furious notes, posed questions and made contributions as an authoritative and fully accepted peer. There can be no better testimony to the level of his credibility with today’s professional soldiers. During one of our evening synthesis sessions, he held us spellbound with a summary of his key conclusions from the book, which was then almost a year away from publication.

If there is anything at all to criticize in this book, it is the point made by Brig. Gen. John S. Brown in his review for Army magazine. The Day of Battle essentially ends with the liberation of Rome. The war in Italy, of course, slogged on for another year. But at 588 pages, this was probably a good stopping point. The third volume of the Liberation Trilogy will cover the Normandy invasion and the war in northwest Europe. Once that project is complete, I can only echo General Brown’s hope that Atkinson will someday find the time to refocus on Italy and bring his marvelous narrative powers to bear on the fighting in the Apennines and the Po Valley. This is another story of the American soldier that deserves Rick Atkinson to retell.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.