Some Reflections on the Italian Campaign (Keynote, 2010 Military History Colloquium)

by | Jan 16, 2012 | LCSC, War and Society | 0 comments

This paper was delivered as a keynote address at the 2010 Canadian Military History Colloquium.

After five years of reading and archival research plus three fascinating trips to the Canadian battlefields in Italy, I continue to marvel at the endurance and accomplishment of the Allied soldiers and puzzle over the meaning and significance of a campaign that lasted twice as long as the advance from Normandy to the Baltic.  Most of the 30 articles I wrote for Legion Magazine deal with the campaign at the tactical level but my focus today is on strategic and operational level questions that British, American and especially Canadian historians should consider when writing about the campaign in Italy.

I want to begin these comments by placing the Mediterranean theatre within the meta-narrative of on the Second World War that I use in my classes.  My version of “Why we won the war” draws upon Professor Phillips O’Brien’s 1989 article in the Journal of Strategic Studies titled “East versus West in the Defeat of Nazi Germany.”[1]  Dr. O’Brien would be the first to agree that his work is suggestive rather than definitive but his careful statistical argument is a welcome change from the ideologically-influenced insistence that the eastern front was the decisive theatre where in Richard Overy’s words “democracy was saved by the exertions of communism.”[2]

O’Brien, using readily available manpower and war production figures, argues that by mid-1943 the majority of the German war effort was directed against the west especially in the defence of Germany against air attack.  He writes, “while only 15% of the efforts of the Wehrmacht were focused away from the Eastern Front almost all of Germany’s naval effort, 65% of its Luftwaffe commitment, 70% of anti-aircraft guns and munitions and 100% of air raid defence were used in the war against the west.”  O’Brien does not explore Germany’s investments in radar, the V1, V2 or V3 rockets and other high cost, science-intensive weapons research and production which were pursued in terms of the war against the west at enormous opportunity-cost to the German war effort in the east.

After mid-1943, the war in the Mediterranean began to add dramatically to the proportion of war materiel, manpower and airpower devoted to the war against the Allies.  In simple numerical terms, the Germans sacrificed 125,000 men in Tunisia and had committed 195,000 men to the defence of Italy before Operation Husky begun in July 1943.  That number rose steadily.  On 1 April 1944, the German total was close to 400,000 men, a year later, April 1945, Army Group C had 599,000 men on strength.[3]  These totals are exclusive of German forces committed to Greece and the Balkans, a proportion of whom were present to forestall or defeat an Allied crossing of the Adriatic.

One reason that Germany was willing to maintain such large forces in the Mediterranean after 1943 was the role Northern Italy played in the German war economy.  The industries of Turin and Milan together with the agriculture of the lowland plain became more important assets with the shrinking of German economic space in the east. This, together with Hitler’s irrational commitment to Mussolini, his oldest ally, are basic realities of any overview of what happened in Italy.

The Luftwaffe also committed significant resources to the Mediterranean.  As Williamson Murray has shown, German aircraft losses in July 1943 when the Wehrmacht was engaged in the battle of Kursk-Orel were 40% higher in the Mediterranean than on the Eastern front. [4]

The key question for students of Grand Strategy is how much Allied effort was actually required to hold a significant level of Axis forces in Italy.  Major-General Sir William Jackson, the British official historian uses divisional comparisons to argue that the Italian campaign succeeded as a holding action because after August 1944 the Germans committed more divisions to Italy than the Allies.[5]

The Canadian official historian, Col. G.W.L. Nicholson, accepts this ratio of division but adds that “throughout 1944 the total strength of Allied forces in Italy continued to exceed one and a half million.”[6]  So who was fighting the holding action?  The 1.5 million figure is only part of the story.  The total commitment of Allied forces, men and women to the Mediterranean theatre in 1944 was over two million.  All of them had to be fed, and clothed using resources shipped from North America or Great Britain.  Many of them had to be armed.  Very large numbers were hospitalized at some point during 1944, nearly three times the number admitted to medical units in Northwest Europe due largely to diseases such as malaria.[7]

More needs to be said about battle casualties in Italy.  An LCMSDS publication, Army Operational Research Report (AORG 2/54) titled, “Battle Wastage Rates of Personnel in War,” was prepared by a team of OR scientist-mathematicians to revise the Evetts scale for predicting casualties which had been in use during the war.

The report is a gold mine of information about casualties by arm of service, officer-other rank ratios, killed-wounded ratios and much else.  Maj. Gen. Evetts had failed to anticipate the nature of the war with its attritional battles resulting in a concentration of casualties among front line combat troops, especially infantry.  The senior researcher H.G. Gee was puzzled by the evidence from Italy where battle casualties as a percentage of troops engaged were 50 percent lower than in Northwest Europe.  His team concluded that divisions had committed fewer battalions to each action in Italy and the Evetts definition of “intense” periods of combat, “one or more battalion in direct action with the enemy,” needed to be revised as casualties appeared to be directly proportionate to the number of battalions engaged.[8]

Neuro-psychiatric casualties, battle exhaustion, or combat fatigue as the Americans called it, also raise some interesting questions.  As always, caution should be employed in citing numbers because so much depends, as it does today with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, on who is making the diagnosis.  Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that the toll of such casualties was much higher in Italy than in Northwest Europe; the figures for the British army, 30 per thousand are double the number when we annualize 1944 figures for NWE.[9]  American numbers show a similar pattern and it appears that the incidence of disabling psychiatric illness continued to plague soldiers inItaly in and out of combat, until the last days of the war.

The related problem of absence without leave and desertion also needs to be integrated into accounts of the campaign.  Always a serious problem in Italy, it reached crisis proportions in the winter of 1944-45 when deserters and absentees in the British army averaged 1000 men a month.  More than 5000 British soldiers were serving sentences for desertion in 1944 and the numbers for 5th U.S. Army were similar.  Most such offenses occurred “in anticipation of action against the enemy,” meaning soldiers took off after they learned their formation would be returning to the front lines.[10]

Staying with numbers, it appears that the casualty rates in Italyas between nations require further study.  Existing accounts do not really explain why Americans incurred 36% of all casualties (3 September 1943 to 2 May 1945) while British, as distinct from Empire losses total 29.1 percent.  Indeed, when French Expeditionary Corps numbers are added, 5th U.S. Army appears to have endured about the same number of casualties as all British and Commonwealth forces combined.[11]  Within 8th Army, the Canadians, New Zealanders, Indians and Poles account for fully 40% of the casualties.  One might explain this by noting that on average just 30% of British troops served within the combat-zone but we then must consider the significance of having more than 300,000 British soldiers serving behind the rear divisional boundaries in Italy.[12]  Particularly when in 1944, the British divisions were forced to reduce their establishments by one third.

The specific Canadian role in this vast enterprise needs to be better rooted in some contextual analysis.  The 1st Division and 1st Canadian Tank Brigade were sent to Italy because the Minister of National Defence, Col. J. L. Ralston was determined to get Canadian troops into action in 1943.  The British reluctantly stood down 3rd British Division, allowing the Canadians to take their place.  Despite three years of training in England, the division was far from ready for combat and the 3rd Brigade performed so poorly at the amphibious training school in Scotland that consideration was given to replacing it in the order of battle.[13]  Fortunately, the division’s introduction to combat was gradual and by the time heavy fighting began on 20 July, Simonds was able to selectively employ the best battalions of 1st and 2nd Brigades with the highly capable Three Rivers Regiment.  By the end of the Sicilian campaign, 1st Division was on its way to becoming a highly effective formation.

The 5th Armoured Division, the headquarters and ancillary troops of 1 Canadian Corps were forced on Alexander by Ralston and the long acrimonious debate over the employment of the corps and the capacity of Lieut-General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns to command it began.[14]

I have always been puzzled by the argument historians who insist that the divisions of 2 Canadian Corps “failed” in Normandy because they “did not get enough out of their training.”  When 1st Division, which had much less time to train before going into action, is generally highly regarded.  Perhaps we need a little more multi-variable analysis in our explanatory tool kit.

The successive commanders of 8th Army made extensive use of the Canadians, detaching 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, which many considered to be the best independent tank brigade in Italy,[15] to support British formations and committing the Canadians to the heaviest fighting at the Moro River and beyond.

A total of 92,257 Canadians served in Italy.  Of these, 5,399 lost their lives and 19,486 were wounded.  A further 1002 became prisoners of war and 365 died from “causes other than war.”[16]  Expressed as a percentage, this means that almost one third of the Canadians who served in Italy became casualties of war, not counting those who were evacuated for battle exhaustion.  The number of Canadians labeled as neuro-psychiatric casualties in Italy was exceptionally high with 5020 individuals so designated during the 17 months of the campaign.  This means that one in five non-fatal casualties was evacuated for “battle exhaustion” with much higher rates in periods of intense combat.  Bill McAndrew, who wrote the chapters on Italy in our book on the subject,[17] attributed this to the poor quality of reinforcements sent to Italy; but the character of the campaign and the professional views of A.M. Doyle, the Canadian psychiatrist, who was convinced that such casualties occurred among men who were pre-disposed to break down by heredity and life experiences, may also have been factors.  Doyle made considerable use of a catch-all diagnosis “psychopathic personality inadequate,” which was applied to individuals suffering from combat stress or physical exhaustion who did not fit into any recognized categories.[18]  This was the same garbage diagnosis used for men reported to be homosexuals.

Canadians rates for absence without leave and desertion were also striking.  When 1st Canadian Corps moved to Holland in February 1945, 1033 Canadian soldiers were left behind to serve out their prison sentences of one to five years hard labour.  “Another 100 were awaiting trial or sentencing and there were 500 deserters at large.”[19]  Almost all were from infantry battalions.  Clearly we are describing the outlines of a very large problem that got worse towards the end of 1944 when fewer and fewer front line soldiers retained any confidence in those who issued orders to continue a seemingly pointless struggle in the cold and rain of a second bitter winter.

Canadian casualties from August to December 1944 were very heavy, 4511 in the battles for the Gothic and Rimini Lines, and 2581 in the Battle of the Rivers, more than one quarter of all those suffered in Italy.[20]  But, as C. P. Stacey pointed out the decision to assault the Gothic Line and continue the attritional battle into the winter “was taken almost casually” without input or indeed information made available to the countries including Canada that would pay a disproportionate share of the human costs.[21]

If the decision to continue major offensive operators in Italy after the withdrawal of American and French divisions for Anvil-Dragoon is contested, what can be said of the decision to continue the struggle in the mud and misery of the Romagna plain?  The British official history suggests that “the least said about the autumn battles in the Romagna the better”[22] but Canadians should not take such a detached view.  Few of us have paid much attention to those who fought and died on the banks of the Lamone, the Senio or the streams in between, but an analysis of casualties raises important questions.

Was there a case for continuing costly offensive action in Italy when the threat of such action was proving sufficient to hold German divisions south of the Alps?  It seems to me that much of the impulse for action in the latter half of 1944 came from the grand designs of Churchill and Alexander who sought to pursue broader British strategic goals in the Mediterranean.  These goals included a major victory that would be seen to be won in a British-dominated theatre of operations. Ironically, there were few British troops available to pursue these objectives. Only one of the six active divisions in 8th Army was British in late 1944.[23]

The result was that the costly battles fought in December 1944 required Canada to pay a particularly heavy price.  Geoff Keelan, a graduate student and Research Associate at LCMSDS, has developed a Commonwealth Forces Fatal Casualty database for Italy that allows us to analyse fatal casualties by division, brigade and battalion.  It offers a much finer tool for comparing fatal casualties, including date and rank.  Keelan’s figures show that 515 of the 799 fatal casualties incurred by 8th Army in December were Canadians.

Where was the Canadian government or senior Canadian army officers in all this?  Prime Minister King had informed the British government that Canadian troops could not be employed outside of Italy in the various missions underway in Greece, the Middle East and Yugoslavia.  But, the army, apart from endorsing the view that 1st Canadian Corps ought to join their comrades in Northwest Europe as soon as possible, had no mechanism for expressing its view of the orders issued by 8th Army.  The Corps Commander, Charles Foulkes, who in theory could have declined to commit his troops, simply followed orders.  The Canadians in Italy, like the Poles, New Zealanders and Indians, functioned as Imperial troops pursuing an Allied holding action and the fading dreams of post-war British influence in the Mediterranean.

When we construct a Canadian memory of the Italian campaign, there is room for examples of operational and tactical effectiveness, individual courage and a significant contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.  There are however other stories that need to be told about the nature, purposes and cost of the campaign.  In 1994, I was presenting a paper at a conference in Edinburgh and was able to meet the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson who wrote 3/3 of the original version of the D-Day Dodgers.  He sang it for us in a light tenor voice, by the last verse we were all in tears.

If you look around the mountains

In the mud and rain

You’ll find scattered crosses

Some which bear no name

Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone

The boys beneath them slumber on

For they’re the D-Day Dodgers

Who stayed in Italy

A version of the D-Day Dodgers by the Leesides

[1] Phillips O’Brien, “East versus West in the Defeat of Nazi Germany,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 28 (June 2000)L 89-113.

[2] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, 3.

[4] Williamson Murray, Luftwaffe, 144.

[5] William Jackson, Mediterranean and Middle East, 351-352.

[6] Nicholson, 680.

[7] W.F. Mellor, Casualties and Medical Statistics, 241, 226. Numbers for the admissions to medical units in the British army for 1944 are as follows (annual rate per 1000 troops): All diseases:Italy: 525, NWE: 116; Injuries:Italy: 39, NWE: 35; Self-Inflicted Wounds: N/A; Burns:Italy: 6; NWE: N/A: Battle Wounds:Italy: 91; NWE: 97; Battle Exhaustion:Italy: 30; NWE: 15; Total:Italy: 690; NWE: 263.

[8] H. G. Gee, Battle Wastage Rates, British Army, 1940-45, 74.

[9] Ibid.

[11] E. F. Fisher, Cassino to the Alps, 222-223.

[12] Mellor, 241.

[13] Interview, Terry Copp with Brig. George Pangman, Copp Papers, LCMSDS.

[15] Michael Boire, “1st Canadian Armoured Brigade,” Paper presented at LCMSDS Military History Conference, May 2010.

[16] Nicholson, 681.

[17] Copp and McAndrew, 85.

[18] Doyle’s Report may be consulted in Terry Copp and Mark Humphries, Combat Stress: The Commonwealth Experience, (Canadian Defence Academy, 2010).

[19] Copp and McAndrew, 107.

[20] Nicholson, 642.

[21] C.P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments The War Policies of Canada 1939-1945, 198.  Fatal casualties for Infantry Divisions in 8th Army from October to December 1944 is as follows: 4th British: 132; 46th British: 300; 56th British: 121; 10th Indian: 517; 2nd New Zealand: 139; 5th Canadian: 291; 1st Canadian: 403.

[22] Jackson, Vol VI, 358.

[23] Nicholson, 642.