Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy, 1943–45

  • Published

Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy, 1943–45 by Andrew Sangster and Pier Paolo Battistelli. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 288 pp.

Helmuth von Moltke has been attributed as saying that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”1 The enemy has a vote in whether plans pan out. Sound strategies, however, should survive the ravages of execution and guide campaign management.2 Considering its cost both in blood and resources, many criticize the effectiveness of the Allied strategy during the Italian campaign of World War II or question the campaign’s utility altogether.

In Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy, Andrew Sangster and Pier Paolo Battistelli blend two different historical approaches to provide an eye-opening analysis of the Allied and Axis strategies, leadership, and outcomes. A modern European historian and accomplished biographer, Sangster brings expert scrutiny of the leadership. Battistelli, a military historian proficient in the German-Italian partnership during World War II, brings analysis of campaign strategy and tactics. Noting that the Italian campaign “held endless disappointment,” they offer an analysis of its commanders, their strategies, circumstances, and campaign management decisions, and an explanation of the reasons for this disappointment (vii). The outcome of their collective effort is an enlightening exposé of personal traits and motives and how they impacted the campaign, concluding with separate observations from each author.

 The work is centered on five generals key to the campaign, four from the Allied side and one Axis leader: George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, Mark Clark, Harold Alexander, and Alfred Kesselring. The biographical study of the leaders is interspersed with analyses of the campaign’s various operations. The authors argue that both sides lacked a “grand strategy,” or a coalition-level military strategy, to guide campaigning, pointing at nationalistic rifts between coalition members as the primary cause. They further posit that the Allies lacked the mission-command culture the Axis enjoyed, making the effectiveness of the four Anglo-American generals crucial to the tactical success delivered by their subordinates.

Ironically, Kesselring was able by superior strength of character to benefit from both his German subordinates’ experience and greater autonomy and to wage an effective defensive campaign, although he knew at its outset that it was doomed to failure yet failed to dissent when assigned it. Unfortunately, the book reads somewhat like a collection of findings. While these arguments support the thesis that leadership flaws were causal to the Italian campaign’s disappointments, this is never emphatically stated.

Thematically arranged, the book first addresses the background strategies of the Western Allies and the Axis, pointing out the difficulties in their coalitions and how this affected strategy. It then exemplifies the impact of these rivalries and the associated command issues that resulted in flawed strategies in the Sicilian invasion. The book then turns to Patton and the post-Sicily scenario and invasion of mainland Italy. Subsequent chapters alternate focus between the other generals and the campaign in stages. The book could be said to be chronological, except that each leader-focused chapter looks back to analyze traits and behavior exhibited in earlier campaigns or battles.

The authors draw rich content from an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, including archival material, autobiographical and biographical texts, and historical accounts of the Italian campaign and other engagements. They primarily explore the campaign’s strategic purpose and the commanders’ strategies but also evaluate their leadership quality, based on benchmarks set out at the book’s start.

On the Anglo-American side the verdict is that “there was no plan, no grand strategy, no consensus on what to do with the immense Allied Army . . . concentrating in the Mediterranean” in the wake of the North African campaigns (3). This led to continuous “haggling” over military strategic objectives and left execution overly susceptible to operational commanders’ leadership foibles. From the British standpoint, taking Italy would at best knock the nation out of the war, persuade Turkey to join the Allies, support adjacent operations in the Balkans, and facilitate Allied access to the heart of Germany through Austria. At worst, it would tie down substantial Axis forces and draw troops away from the Russian Front, thereby answering Stalin’s demand for Allied action, and Normandy, where the Allies eventually hoped to land.3 The Americans, though convinced by the British to invade Italy, were in favor of concentrating on Normandy, suspicious of British imperial interests and keen to assert leadership. They insisted Italy remain a subsidiary to Normandy, rather than its precursor. This American “hedging” created a lack of clarity as to what the Allied strategy for the campaign was and hence limited its resourcing. The operational commanders’ planning failures, heightened by individual leadership failures owing to nationalism, indecisiveness, incompetence, and interpersonal competition, then fed into the resultant strategy confusion.

On the Axis side, the authors judged that General Erwin Rommel’s defeat in North Africa marked the end of a defined German grand strategy. They argue that Hitler’s mountain had begun to crumble with the failure of Operation Barbarossa. Moreover, Rommel’s failure to break through the Nile and penetrate the Middle East had left Germany with no credible defensive strategy against the expanded Allied coalition. Yet defense was the only option remaining and, particularly considering the importance of maintaining the Italian alliance, the strategic direction was clear and poignantly relevant to this campaign: “defend Europe in the ‘forward areas’ and keep the war away from the German border” (13).

Unfortunately, with a divided polity and forces unable to hold their own without German support, the Italians proved unreliable allies. This made Mussolini’s commitment uncertain and confused the Axis’ strategy. Eventually, however, vindicated by fallouts in the Mediterranean of Rommel’s defeat in Egypt and having demonstrated his prowess at defensive battle, Kesselring was charged with the defense of Italy. He brought excellent foresight and impressive organization to the Axis’ campaign. Under his leadership, highly professional German forces escaped encirclement in Sicily and filled in wherever Italian forces failed. Taking advantage of the Italian terrain and effectively applying an “interior lines” defensive strategy, Kesselring prolonged the campaign until 1945.

From a leadership standpoint, therefore, Kesselring ranks highest among the five evaluated in this work, even though the authors acknowledged he could be brutal to the point of committing war crimes. According to Battistelli’s concluding observations, Kesselring benefitted from a good knowledge of defense-supporting terrain, an efficient German sustainment system, resilient and experienced forces led by competent subordinates, and a command system that granted these field officers significant independence. Nonetheless, with limited resources, the Allies’ overwhelming numbers, and the collapse of his coalition partner, his was a brilliant defensive campaign doomed to only delay an inevitable loss though it forced the Allies to fight for every inch of ground. On the other hand, Battistelli assesses that unfriendly terrain, doubtful political guidance, varied goals, an inexperienced army deficient in unity, and a lack of leadership continuity hampered Western commanders.

On his part, Sangster highlights various flaws among the Western commanders: Alexander’s vagueness and lax command style negated his competence and allowed damaging competition to fester among his subordinates. Clark lacked planning skills, often disobeyed orders, and caused blunders, then vainly defended them. Montgomery was arrogant, disrespectful, and so careful not to spoil his El Alamein record that he changed his plans too frequently and moved too slowly during the Italian invasion. Though audacious and inspiring in the field, Patton was impetuous, bigoted, corrupt, and only too happy to commit war crimes. Sangster highlights fame-seeking behavior common to the latter three, contrasting their egotism with Kesselring’s quiet competence. Referring to a poll conducted during the book’s research, Sangster points out that—except for historians—most respondents knew Montgomery and Patton. Only a few knew the other three. Fame is not a function of competent leadership.

 Flawed Commanders and Strategy is very much a historian’s book, written with no prescriptive intent. This reviewer found the book somewhat awkward to read, because while it presents effective arguments that answer the research questions, it avoids explicitly outlining a thesis. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile read. The authors clearly recognize their style is unorthodox. Special notes are included to mitigate any reader confusion by explaining the reasons why information is presented as it is. The introduction, for example, contains a postscript. Otherwise, it is a well-researched work in which, by combining their research focus areas, two accomplished historians provide two sides of a story not often told together. The outcome is an enlightening work which highlights the impact human nature has on strategy.

Sangster ends the work with an inspiring send-off, reminding the reader that these men were simply human: “If any one of us were transported back in time to lead . . . we may well have made the same or even worse mistakes” (245). The authors present a poignant lesson in this book: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”4 Strategies, too, must during planning survive the ravages of planners’ flaws, and during execution the ravages of commanders’ flaws, before they can truly guide campaign management.

Group Captain KK Manukure-Atiemo, Ghana Air Force

1 Corelli Barnett, The Desert Generals (London: Purnell and Sons, 1960), 138.

2  Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, “Terrorism and Counterterrorism Challenges for the Biden Administration,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 1 (January 2021): 3, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/.

3 “The Battle for Italy,” National Army Museum, accessed October 30, 2023, https://www.nam.ac.uk/.

4 Barnett, Desert Generals, 138.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."