The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943 
by James Holland.
Bantam, 565 pp., £25, September 2023, 978 1 78763 668 2
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Ortona,​ Christmas Eve, 1943. A thriving Adriatic port only days previously, it now lay in ruins. The population of ten thousand was gone. In their place were two battalions of elite Fallschirmjäger – German paratroopers – defending what was left of the town, and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, who were under orders to take it. There would be no festive truce. Allied shells had siled down all day, Sherman tanks blasting house after house, driving the enemy deeper into the rubble. Scores had died; bodies sprawled in the muddy streets. During an evening lull, Siegfried Bähr and a fellow radio operator pulled up armchairs in the room where they were sheltering, and warmed wine and sugar they’d found in the cellar. Later that night they each received a parcel containing a bun, chocolate, almonds and oranges, and, sharing memories of home, celebrated Christmas as best they could. Ortona would soon be known as Italy’s Stalingrad, but it also had something of Passchendaele about it.

The costly attritional fighting of the previous war was exactly what those planning the Allied invasion of Italy wanted to avoid. Speed and decisiveness would be key: establish beachheads on the mainland, press home the advantage, link up forces and blaze a trail to Rome. Allied forces were not to get bogged down, trapped by stalemate. Yet this involved some magical thinking. Even the assumptions underpinning the strategy were contradictory. The chief purpose of the invasion was to divert German men and materiel from the East in order to help Stalin, and from northern France so as to assist with the planned invasion there. But even as Hitler poured troops south through the Brenner Pass, the Allies hoped in vain that he would halt at a defensive line north of Rome, knowing that they lacked the strength to meet massed Wehrmacht ranks head on.

As Allied troops learned to fight within their means, the rains set in, churning up the strade bianche, and the advance slowed. Men of the British 8th Army, used to racing across the desert, now gained just a few hundred yards each day. Much of their time was spent languishing in foxholes, shivering and underfed because of the interruption of supply lines by wet weather and the demolition of bridges. ‘No one who had not seen that mud, those dark skies, those forbidding ridges and ghostlike clouds that unveiled and then quickly hid the enemy,’ the US war correspondent Ernie Pyle said, ‘had the right to be impatient with the progress along the road to Rome.’ An American soldier whose Italian father had rhapsodised about the Eternal City was disabused: ‘We ain’t goin’ nowhere but to another sonofabitchin’ mudhole crawlin’ with lice.’ Every inch of every mountain village had to be fought for. Men dug in, exchanged potshots with the enemy in locations ahead, and waited for them to make a move.

The impetuosity of Allied generals, and their masters in Washington and Whitehall, was gradually tempered by this reality. Their armies soon faced another string of defences – the Gustav Line – transecting Italy from the Garigliano River in the west to Ortona in the east, through the Apennines and across the northern road to Rome. There would be yet more lines to breach in 1944, more battles, more bloodshed. British infantry casualties were proportionally higher than during the First World War. The 3rd Coldstream Guards, a battalion of 845, lost a hundred men in the summer and autumn of 1943; by mid-December only 598 were left – a 30 per cent depletion in strength. American divisions endured comparable slaughter. By the end of the year, the US 5th Army and British and Commonwealth forces had each suffered around thirty thousand casualties. Nearly 1400 Canadians died at Ortona in ‘Bloody December’, a quarter of that country’s losses in the Italian campaign. Siegfried Bähr survived, but more than eight hundred of his German comrades did not.

Allied expectations had been inflated by victory at El Alamein in October 1942 and, nine months later, the success of Operation Husky – the invasion of Sicily. But the Western Desert had been mostly flat, open terrain where battles conformed more or less to the designs of generals around a map table. And for Husky, the Allies had pitched two armies against four German divisions, a division being a quarter the size of an army. In Italy, not only was the country mountainous, but a significant part of those two Allied armies, on the eve of the invasion, was still in North Africa and Sicily. The opposition, moreover, was greater than before: eighteen divisions. And there was a population of 44 million people whose homes and lives would be in the firing line. Yet the Allies were heartened by an enabling prejudice that the war in Italy was Italy’s fault and, however regrettable, collateral damage caused by fighting its German allies was condonable. ‘These Italians are a rotten crowd,’ Montgomery lectured his troops. ‘They just lie among their grapes and lemons and breed. Far too many of them. That’s the trouble. Far too many of them.’ How the men cheered.

The decision to invade Italy had been made at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, where Roosevelt granted Churchill’s wish to pursue the war in the Mediterranean further. The US was keener on invading Normandy as soon as possible, and agreed to a limited Italian campaign as long as Operation Overlord retained priority. This is why the armies in Italy were short on resources – not only manpower but shipping and landing craft for amphibious assaults. Furthermore, harking back to the Union’s terms during the Civil War, Roosevelt insisted on ‘unconditional surrender’, which perturbed Churchill but suited Stalin because it precluded the Allies lining up an Axis enemy as an anti-Soviet ally (for the rapidly approaching Cold War), even if it also prevented Stalin from concluding his own peace. The American mentality was that of a heavyweight flexing for a knockout in a couple of rounds: across the Channel, into the Ruhr and Saarland, then onwards to Berlin. The British, bloodied at Dunkirk and Tobruk, and haunted by the ghosts of Flanders, were more cautious: a welterweight contender jabbing for weaknesses. Churchill called Italy ‘the soft underbelly of the crocodile’, and, mixing his animal metaphors, was emboldened after Sicily to ask: ‘Why should we crawl up the leg like a harvest-bug from the ankle upwards? Let us rather strike at the knee.’

The landings at Reggio Calabria in the toe of Italy (Operation Baytown) began on 3 September, the intention being to draw German forces away from the main invasion at Salerno (Operation Avalanche), 270 miles up the Tyrrhenian coast. If not the knee, this was at least somewhere between instep and shin, and only forty miles from Naples, the prize on which Churchill had set his heart. From the outset, Allied forces were caught in the crocodile’s snapping jaws. An assault at Bagnara by the Special Raiding Squadron (formerly 1st SAS) on 4 September showed how quickly a simple plan could fall apart in Italian conditions. They landed in the wrong place then were horribly exposed under fire while climbing the cliff roads. This was the first contact on the mainland, and although the SRS finally took Bagnara, a defining characteristic of the campaign had emerged: the topography favoured defenders on the high ground, and consequently the conventional 3:1 manpower ratio required for military victories needed to be higher.

Confirmation came six days later at Battipaglia, south-east of Salerno, as Avalanche got underway. Attempting to hook up with the 2nd Scots Guards to encircle a German position, the 3rd Coldstream Guards were immobilised by co-ordinated mortar, machine-gun and sniper fire for 48 hours. The Scots Guards’ attempt to break the deadlock was a disaster: one company was overrun and most of the officers in the other two killed. A fortnight later, the Coldstreamers found themselves raked by gunfire near the summit of a wooded hill. Dazed by malaria, Lieutenant Christopher Bulteel witnessed men leaping from blazing fires; stick grenades being hurled from previously invisible trenches; and sickening scenes of hand-to-hand fighting. As Bulteel and his comrades withdrew, it began raining hard. They dug foxholes, sinking into the relative safety of the mire.

The gruelling, often grotesque nature of the Italian campaign is reason enough to remember it, but it’s been overlooked, idly regarded as filler between the defeat of Rommel and the Normandy Landings. Even during the war, not only did the Americans see it, initially at least, as a sideshow, but in Britain a myth set in that the soldiers fighting in Italy had it easy: they were, according to a popular song, ‘The D-Day Dodgers’. Cornelius Ryan’s book The Longest Day (1959) and the movie it inspired, and since then Saving Private Ryan and the miniseries Band of Brothers, fixed Normandy as the prologue to a dominant narrative that unfolds like a quest, destined to end in Berlin. It was as if we couldn’t think about Italy at the same time even if we’d wanted to. Resisting this tendency, James Holland’s previous works – on Sicily and the mainland campaign of 1944-45, among other things – have raised awareness of what happened in Italy and why. It was never an untold story, but definitely an under-told one, especially regarding 1943. As Holland observes, we remember Cassino and Anzio, but not Ortona, a tragic Canadian lieu de mémoire to stand alongside Vimy Ridge from 1917.

Holland meticulously stitches together stories from war diaries and operational reports, letters and journals and memoirs, swooping from the sober projections of politicians in smoke-filled rooms to the nerve-shredding phantasmagoria of battle. If a shell is fired, Holland does his best to show us where it lands – and on whom. And the nearer we get to the sharp end, the more cultural and political differences dissolve into the universal. The Germans, too, learned how difficult it was to deploy tanks in narrow valleys; the lethal exposure created by ascending hills; the terror of being half-interred in a bunker, strafed by fighter-bombers without adequate air cover or flak defence; as well as the age-old military adage that no plan survives contact.

The Savage Storm is humane and unflinching, and as befits a tragedy the plot is advanced by character. General Sir Harold Alexander, whose reputation Holland aims to restore, was described admiringly by the war correspondent Alan Moorehead: ‘He seemed to have that rare talent of seeing things clearly and wholly at a time when he himself was under fire, and when from all around the most alarming and confusing information was pouring in.’ Mark Clark, another general derided by posterity, is also treated to a makeover. Rommel, commanding forces in northern Italy, was brilliant but myopic; Albert Kesselring, his counterpart in the south, was the better strategist – but in the end neither man was where he should have been to prevent a German retreat to the Alps.

Military history has long been something of an academic outsider, excluded from most university curricula, I suppose, for being too male, pale and stale – in terms of practitioners and readers as well as subject matter. It can have a whiff of nationalism about it, masculine pride in sacrifice for imperialist causes, and generally be a bit Nazi Megastructures and ‘Where’s his poppy?’ Left-of-centre academics may also be put off by traditional military history’s penchant for narrative and its beguiling mono-perspectives. In its purely operational and strategic guise, military history is often dull, amassing punishing quantities of trainspotterish detail. All this may explain why UK courses, many at MA level, combine it with international relations, which adds not only intellectual depth but perhaps also respectability.

The military history sections in bookshops are nonetheless substantial. Many titles constitute a kind of war porn, offering specialist and, to certain readers, intense gratification: legions of the SS – that sort of thing. But there’s also a lot of ‘new military history’, drawing on 20th-century ‘new social history’ (infused with sociology) and ‘new cultural history’ (anthropology). Servicemen, from grunts to brass hats, experience war rather than just waging it, and there are women, too, sometimes centre-stage though more often in the background. Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme and John Keegan’s The Face of Battle are the mini-masterpieces I remember from school; this century, Antony Beevor, Max Hastings and Holland have led the British pack. The history of war is now certainly more palatable to academia: King’s College, London has a very reputable Department of War Studies. This type of military history, contextualised, nuanced and empathic, is practised by women and men alike, essentially immune to the old glories and instead devoted to exposing the manifold pities of war.

Holland doesn’t hide his passion for the hardware of the Second World War, and the podcast he hosts with the comedian Al Murray (We Have Ways of Making You Talk) thrives on enthusiasm for Spitfires and Shermans. In his writing, however, he keeps a tight grip and demonstrates why military technology matters. Lives depended on air superiority, the thickness of tank armour, the US Rangers’ skill in sneaking above enemy positions to direct naval gunfire. The ‘Fritz X’, a radio-controlled bomb that cruised into position before diving onto shipping, was a remarkable German invention, not just for its technical ingenuity but as a pitiless arbiter of life and death. Holland strips out his prose so that mad minutes of combat rush at you: ‘Confusion, senses pummelled. The noise. The shaking ground. Men falling. Hard to keep going in this.’ Machine-guns open up like buzz-saws, flares crackle, rockets fizz, shells screech and suck air. Shrapnel – here Holland quotes Ernie Pyle – ‘tinkled and clattered down upon the rocks around us with a ringing metallic sound’. We are prompted to imagine the smell of cordite, rubber, diesel, burnt flesh.

Mechanised warfare still seemed so unnatural that it spilled into the uncanny, defying conventional means to describe it. Surrealism abounded, as Paul Fussell captured in The Great War and Modern Memory – Holland notices similar flashes of absurdity in the 1940s. A combat-shocked soldier exclaimed to his German captors: ‘For heaven’s sake, you all have English faces!’ Alan Moorehead’s ‘madcap journey’ across the Strait of Messina on a Turkish ferry packed with Arabs is straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. But mostly the surreal is horrific: the incomprehensibility of how ‘a few minutes earlier these shattered pieces of human remains had been living, breathing young men’; the suddenly headless driver; the wounded man whose legs were sliced off when the mule carrying him stepped on a mine; the dead German sitting in a hedge smiling; the moonlit faces of corpses which ‘looked green, unearthly’. Then there are juxtapositions of violence and compassion: rum for a dying German, a sip of grappa for British prisoners, men comforting dying enemies – extemporary pietà of startling irony, like the famous shellhole scene in All Quiet on the Western Front. Appreciation of beauty and dread came together, too: the picture-postcard villa billets, beach jaunts where men ‘frolicked like fish and rejoiced like exuberant children’; shimmering violet peaks fading away like a dream; the serenity of a valley at sunrise.

Perplexed as they were by war’s strange encounters, men also learned how to survive – mainly how to be quick and accurate – and what they were capable of in extremis. Captain Lawrie Franklyn-Vaile of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was relieved to discover at Termoli, his first engagement, that he didn’t panic and was able to think clearly about how to lead his men. At the same time, courage was capital and men in battle were always spending it; when they were broke, they broke. (This was the insight of Charles Moran, a medical officer in the First World War, who appears in this book as Churchill’s doctor, when in December 1943 the prime minister suffered a heart attack.) After one of Franklyn-Vaile’s men was killed on a ridge at the River Moro, his best friend ‘went a bit mad, jumped up and began shouting and shooting wildly’, until one of his comrades knocked him out and carried him to an aid station. A German officer besieged in a house in Ortona suddenly dropped his machine-gun, asked the radio operator Siegfried Bähr for a cigarette, and strolled out into the piazza where he was mown down.

Another​ frequently encountered difference between military history and the history of war is the attention paid in the latter to civil and political affairs, as well as the impact of hostilities on civilian lives. The Savage Storm is not merely set in Italy: like its predecessor Italy’s Sorrow (2008), it is about Italy, even if it focuses on the Allied and German armies rather than the civil war between partisans and fascists. Italy’s forced departure from the war, accelerated by the bombing of Rome and the conquest of Sicily, had thrown up many new problems. High-stakes brinkmanship and exquisite timing were necessary if Italy was to be turned into an anti-Nazi ally. Even when Italy had little choice but to leave the war, its negotiators at secret peace talks demanded more collateral for mortgaging the nation’s immediate future than the Allies could honestly promise. The craving for reassurance made Italians vulnerable to deceit. After Mussolini was deposed in July 1943, the Allies pressured the new prime minister, Marshal Badoglio, to agree to their ‘Short Terms’ for an armistice, which failed to mention unconditional surrender and other severe political conditions – to be imposed by the held-back ‘Long Terms’. Badoglio had been faced with a dilemma, unable to fight the Allies any longer yet struggling to summon enough trust to join them when his country was swarming with Germans ready to fight for territory south of Rome.

Civilians bore the brunt of these decisions. Aerial and ground warfare ravaged a poor population, severely testing the morality of the cause. Allied troops entering towns were shocked to find sanitation primitive or non-existent, streets and buildings filthy, scattered rubbish and clouds of flies. Emaciated children covered in sores came begging, while old women, also starving, sat around helplessly on the pavements. Jack Ward from Eastbourne, a sergeant-major in the Royal Artillery, saw ‘the worst sight I have ever seen: a baby in arms just looked like a piece of skin and bone with a head of an old man.’ The picturesque Italy that officers on both sides knew from holidays, and the other ranks from magazines and movies, was scarred wherever they went: craters, discarded equipment, bloated dead cattle, splintered olive trees, charred hayricks, hastily dug shallow graves.

Many civilians were directly caught up in the fighting, like 24-year-old Carla Capponi dodging tank shells in the streets around the Colosseum, or the Masella family of San Pietro, cut down by American troops who mistook them for Panzergrenadiers. At Eboli, horribly burned people were laid in a stable and cared for by a medical student. In Termoli, an entire family was blasted from the doorway of their home, leaving only a boy who ran around with his viscera exposed until an SAS man caught him and delivered the coup de grâce with his pistol. Retreating Germans laid mines and rigged up booby traps, with tripwires strung in fiendish webs – ‘devil’s gardens’ – or tied to the sort of abandoned object, a pencil, say, that might be picked up by a curious GI, or, as often happened, a child.

The destruction of property was apocalyptic, most of it caused by the Allies. On 1 August 1943 an air raid on Rome claimed the lives of a thousand civilians and injured twice as many. A fortnight later, another thousand died in Milan, where 3000 buildings were flattened or damaged, including the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. One wall of the refectory was left standing – by extraordinary chance, the one bearing Leonardo’s Last Supper. Naples was bombed 180 times that year, inflicting unbelievable suffering on its inhabitants. In countless towns and villages, as families looked on, Allied tanks smashed through homes if their line of fire was obscured or they suspected the enemy lay behind. A shortage of infantry increased Allied reliance on artillery to level towns before they dared enter. Ortona was ruined partly because the Germans blew up streets to funnel advancing squads into crossfires, but also because the Canadians knocked through walls – a practice known as ‘mouseholing’ – so they could pass from house to house without exposing themselves to dangerous street-fighting. Canadian gunners shelled the dome of St Thomas’s to prevent its use as an observation post, and were ordered to destroy the cathedral, though mercifully this was avoided. The writer Norman Lewis, then an intelligence officer, blamed General Clark, the commander of the 5th Army, for the destruction of Battipaglia, which he thought resembled an Italian Guernica.

Lewis was stationed in Naples, where there were power cuts, water shortages, bread riots and epidemics of typhus and smallpox. The city had been in Allied hands since October 1943, but there were many more cities to be taken. After a bitter winter, the British and American armies pushed north throughout most of 1944, taking Rome and Ancona and Florence, and breaching the Gothic Line the following spring. By the end of April 1945, Bologna, Genoa, Milan, Turin and Venice had all fallen, and the Germans surrendered. The joy of liberation was all too often vitiated by trauma. The Allied troops who occupied Naples and other distressed cities had begun the campaign unsympathetic towards Italians. Now, however, their views were softened. Conscious of the devastation they had wreaked for freedom and democracy, some doubted their own righteousness and marvelled that ordinary people – the pillaged sharecroppers and bombed factory workers, famished urchins and mothers driven to prostitution – found it in their hearts to see the invaders as liberators, friends, even surrogate sons. Many Italians, it seemed, had been politically agnostic, indifferent or hostile to fascism, unmoved by its slogans, the most cynically hollow being: ‘War puts the stamp of nobility on those who have the courage to meet it.’ Mussolini’s gamble had delivered none of the promised rewards, and not even the victors believed there was nobility in war, unless it was in the fortitude and dignity of the Italian people.

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