Category Archives: military

Fates of Foreigners in Shanghai, 1942

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 129-132:

Once Britain and the United States declared war against Japan, life for Shanghailanders—the foreigners—swiftly changed. Immediately after December 8, 1941, all Allied nationals aged fourteen and above had to report to the Hamilton House near the Bund to register with Japanese gendarmes and receive ID numbers, as well as the red armbands they would have to wear at all times when in public.

Worse yet, Japan froze all bank accounts belonging to its enemy nationals. They were allowed to withdraw only two thousand yuan each month—a paltry amount for foreigners accustomed to pampered Shanghai lifestyles, effectively reducing them to the same income level as their Chinese servants. Each day, the Japanese military issued new edicts that further restricted where foreign Allied nationals could go, what they were allowed to do, how they conducted their lives.

Faced with bitter austerity, the Allied nationals were in a bind. Many expatriates worked for American telephone, gas, and electric utilities or the British waterworks, police, port, and customs. Now these entities were controlled by Japan, aiding its war effort. If Allied Shanghailanders quit their enemy-supervised jobs, they’d be stuck in China, destitute. Plenty of British bobbies, former coworkers of Pan Da, stayed on as members of the Shanghai Municipal Police—enforcing the will of Japan to crush all resistance. When their fellow Americans and Britons back home learned of their work for the enemy, they angrily denounced them, accusing them of collaboration, even treason….

At the start of the war in Europe in 1939, after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Denmark had been a neutral country. As a Dane in Shanghai, Kristian Jarldane had expected his Danish passport to shield his family from trouble. Before Pearl Harbor, his household in the French Concession had carried on as if things were normal, in spite of the war outside their home. Bing and Ma watched baby Ole while Elder Sister socialized. Kristian still had his engineering job with the Shanghai Water Conservancy, which paid him in foreign currency—better than gold in the inflationary wartime economy. He joined other Shanghailanders in maintaining the three-hour lunchtime “tiffins,” as well as afternoon high tea. Kristian would return to the apartment promptly at four o’clock for some strong English tea and thick slabs of dark bread from his favorite Russian-Jewish boulangerie, to be served with eel, fish, or some other meat fried in pork fat and onions.

But the expanding world war began to disrupt everything. The first shock hit Elder Sister and her husband on April 9, 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark. The Copenhagen government immediately surrendered to the Third Reich, becoming part of the Axis with Germany, Japan, and Italy. The couple wondered if that would be a plus in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. As a Dane, Kristian wasn’t required to wear an armband, nor was he subject to the mortifying financial restrictions confronting other Shanghailanders. He had plenty of company, for the nationals of other Axis-occupied countries were also exempt, as were the stateless White Russians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Indian Sikhs. But then, one week after all Allied nationals had to register, Kristian received orders from the Danish consular staff. He was required to provide them with the names and contact information of all Danish members of his household. Everyone in occupied Shanghai was to be accounted for….

In early 1943, the Japanese issued the order that Shanghailanders had dreaded: All citizens of Allied countries were to be imprisoned. Kristian and Elder Sister watched helplessly as friends and neighbors were loaded onto trucks and shipped to one of the eight crowded and squalid internment camps on the outskirts of the city. Most of them were British and American men, women, and children. Some were forced to walk for miles and carry their own baggage, like coolies. Because the prominent Sassoons, Hardoons, and Kadoories—wealthy Baghdadi Jewish families who had lived in Shanghai for many years—were British citizens, they, too, were subject to internment. About seventy-six hundred Americans, British, Dutch, and other civilians were imprisoned between January and July 1943 to “prevent fifth-column activities and guarantee stabilized livelihood for the enemy nationals,” according to the pro-Japan Shanghai Times. Ironically, this same rationale was being used by the U.S. government to incarcerate 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in 1942—and duly noted by Japanese propagandists to label critics as hypocrites.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, Eastern Europe, economics, Germany, Japan, migration, military, nationalism, Scandinavia, U.S., USSR, war

Nettuno Cemetery, Memorial Day, 1945

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle p. 578:

The muddy field, redeemed with bougainvillea and white oleander, soon became the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, a seventy-seven-acre sanctuary where almost eight thousand military dead would be interred.

Here, on Memorial Day in 1945, just three weeks after the end of the war in Europe, a stocky, square-jawed figure would climb the bunting-draped speaker’s platform and survey the dignitaries seated before him on folding chairs. Then Lucian Truscott, who had returned to Italy from France a few months earlier to succeed Mark Clark as the Fifth Army commander, turned his back on the living and instead faced the dead. “It was,” wrote eyewitness Bill Mauldin, “the most moving gesture I ever saw.” In his carbolic voice, Truscott spoke to Jack Toffey, to Henry Waskow, and to the thousands of others who lay beneath the ranks of Latin crosses and stars of David. As Mauldin later recalled:

He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart that this is not altogether true. He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances…. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, Italy, military, religion, U.S., war

PTSD in Italy, 1944

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 507-509:

The newest units to join Fifth Army—the 85th and 88th Infantry Divisions, both in Keyes’s II Corps—were the first into combat of fifty-five U.S. divisions built mostly from draftees; their worth had yet to be proven. Four of six infantry regimental commanders in those two divisions had already been relieved, as Clark advised Marshall, “for a combination of age and physical reasons.”

There was more: the two British divisions still at Anzio remained so weak that both Truscott and Clark believed they would contribute little to any renewed offensive. The British Army since Salerno had suffered 46,000 battle casualties, with thousands more sick, yet replacements had not kept up with losses. Moreover, as Gruenther also noted, “Many British troops have been fighting for four or five years, and are in some cases pretty tired.”

Few British commanders disagreed. “Absenteeism and desertion are still problems,” wrote General Penney, back in command of the British 1st Division at Anzio after recovering from his wounds. “Shooting in the early days would probably have been an effective prophylactic.” On average, 10 British soldiers were convicted of desertion each day in the spring of 1944, and an estimated 30,000 “slinkers” were “on the trot” in Italy. “The whole matter is hushed up,” another British division commander complained.

Nor was the phenomenon exclusively British. The U.S. Army would convict 21,000 deserters during World War II, many of them in the Mediterranean. Clark condemned the surge of self-inflicted wounds in Fifth Army and the “totally inadequate” prison sentences of five to ten years for U.S. soldiers convicted of “misbehavior before the enemy.” A psychiatric analysis of 2,800 American troops convicted of desertion or going AWOL in the Mediterranean catalogued thirty-five reasons offered by the culprits, including “My nerves gave way” and “I was scared.”

A twenty-two-year-old rifleman who deserted at Cassino after seven months in combat was typical. “I feel like my nervous system is burning up. My heart jumps,” he said. “I get so scared I can hardly move.” Those symptoms affected tens of thousands, and added to Clark’s worries. “Combat exhaustion,” a term coined in Tunisia to supplant the misnomer “shell shock,” further eroded Allied fighting strength in Italy, as it did elsewhere: roughly one million U.S. soldiers would be hospitalized during the war for “neuro-psychiatric” symptoms, and half a million would be discharged from the service for “personality disturbances.”

All troops were at risk, but none more than infantrymen, who accounted for 14 percent of the Army’s overseas strength and sustained 70 percent of the casualties. A study of four infantry divisions in Italy found that a soldier typically no longer wondered “whether he will be hit, but when and how bad.” The Army surgeon general concluded that “practically all men in rifle battalions who were not otherwise disabled ultimately became psychiatric casualties,” typically after 200 to 240 cumulative days in combat. “There aren’t any iron men,” wrote Brigadier General William C. Menninger, a prominent psychiatrist. “The strongest personality, subjected to sufficient stress a sufficient length of time, is going to disintegrate.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, disease, Italy, labor, Mediterranean, military, U.S., war

Evacuating Monte Cassino, 1944

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 398-399:

THE holy road up Monte Cassino made seven hairpin turns, each sharper than the one before. Hillside tombs and a Roman amphitheater stood below the first bend, along with remnants of Augustan prosperity from the ancient market town called Casinum….

Rounding the last bend, fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, the great abbey abruptly loomed on the pinnacle, trapezoidal and majestic, seven acres of Travertino stone with a façade twice as long as that of Buckingham Palace. On this acropolis, in an abandoned Roman tower, a wandering hermit named Benedict had arrived in A.D. 529. Born into a patrician family, the young cleric had fled licentious Rome, avoiding a poisoned chalice offered by rival monks and settling on this rocky knob with a desire only “to be agreeable to the Lord.” Benedict’s Rule gave form to Western monasticism by stressing piety, humility, and the gleaming “armor of obedience.” Black-robed Benedictines not only spread the Gospel to flatland pagans, but also helped preserve Western culture through the crepuscular centuries ahead. It was said that Benedict died raising his arms to heaven in the spring of 547, entering paradise “on a bright street strewn with carpets.” His bones and those of his twin sister, St. Scholastica, slept in a crypt hewn from his mountain eyrie. Over the span of fifteen centuries, the abbey had been demolished repeatedly—by Lombards, Saracens, earthquakes, and, in 1799, Napoleonic scoundrels—but it was always rebuilt in keeping with the motto “Succisa Virescit”: “Struck down, it comes to new life.” After a visit to Monte Cassino, the poet Longfellow described the abbey as a place “where this world and the next world were at strife.”

Never more than in February 1944. The town below had first been bombed on September 10, and within weeks more than a thousand refugees sheltered in the abbey with seventy monks. “To befoul the abbey,” complained the abbot, Dom Gregorio Diamare, “was a poor way of showing gratitude.” As the war drew nearer and wells ran dry, most civilians decamped for the hills or cities in the north. An Austrian lieutenant colonel, Julius Schlegel, who before the war had been an art historian and librarian, persuaded Diamarea to remove the abbey’s art treasures for safekeeping. Throughout the late fall Wehrmacht trucks rolled up Highway 6 to the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, hauling treasures in packing cases cobbled together from wood found in an abandoned factory. The swag was breathtaking: Leonardo’s Leda; vases and sculptures from ancient Pompeii; eighty thousand volumes and scrolls, including writings by Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca; oblong metal boxes containing manuscripts by Keats and Shelley; oils by Titian, Raphael, and Tintoretto; priestly vestments and sacramental vessels made by master goldsmiths; even the remains of Desiderius of Bertharius, murdered by Saracens in the eighth century. An immense thirteenth-century Sienese cross was “so large that it could only be carried diagonally across a lorry.” The major bones of Benedict and Scholastica remained in their monastery crypt, but silk-clad reliquaries holding mortal fragments of the saints also went to Rome after a special blessing by the abbot. Two monks rode with every truck to keep the Germans honest; even so, fifteen crates went missing and later turned up in the Hermann Göring Division headquarters outside Berlin.

As the evacuation concluded, Monte Cassino on Hitler’s orders became the linchpin of the Gustav Line. Kesselring in mid-December promised the Catholic hierarchy that no German soldier would enter the abbey, and an exclusion zone was traced around the building’s outer walls. But day by day both the town and surrounding slopes became more heavily fortified. A Tenth Army order directed that “allein das Gebäude auszusparen ist”—only the building itself was to be spared—and Hitler in late December ordered that “the best reserves must stand on the mountain massif. In no circumstances may this be lost.”

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Britain, education, France, Germany, Italy, military, religion, U.S., war

Short Truce on the Rapido River, 1943

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 350-351:

Some hours after the final shots faded on the Rapido, a captured American private who had been released to serve as a courier stumbled into the 141st Infantry command post carrying a written message for “den englischen Kommandeur.” The panzer grenadiers proposed a three-hour cease-fire to search for the living and retrieve the dead. GIs fashioned Red Cross flags from towels and iodine, and even before the appointed hour paddled across to both regimental bridgeheads.

They found a few survivors, including Private Arthur E. Stark, known as Sticks, who had carried a battalion switchboard across the river for the 143rd Infantry before being hit by shell fragments. For three days he had lain exposed to January weather. “Did you have a big Christmas? You should have seen mine,” he had written his eleven-year-old sister, Carole, earlier that month. “The little boys and girls over here didn’t have much Christmas.” Sticks lingered for two days after his rescue, then passed over. Other cases ended better: a forward observer with half his face blown away appeared to be dead, but a medic noticed the lack of rigor mortis. Surgeons would reconstruct his visage from a photograph mailed by his family.

For three hours they gathered the dead, reaping what had been sown. Wehrmacht medics worked side by side with the Americans, making small talk and offering tactical critiques of the attack. German photographers wandered the battlefield, snapping pictures. An American reporter studied the looming rock face of Monte Cassino with its all-seeing white monastery. “Sooner or later,” he said, “somebody’s going to have to blow that place all to hell.”

The short peace ended. Dusk rolled over the bottoms. The mists reconvened. A final clutch of medics emerged carrying a long pole with a white truce flag that caught the dying light. More than a hundred bodies had been retrieved. But hundreds more remained, and would remain for months, carrion for the ravenous dogs that roamed these fens. Here the dreamless dead would lie, leached to bone by the passing seasons, and waiting, as all the dead would wait, for doomsday’s horn.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Germany, Italy, military, U.S., war

Destruction of Naples, 1943

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 241-242:

Naples itself—“the most beautiful city in the universe,” in Stendahl’s judgment—had been mutilated. German vengeance at Italy’s betrayal foreshadowed the spasmodic violence that European towns large and small could expect as the price of liberation. Half of the city’s one million residents had remained through the German occupation, but none now had running water: Wehrmacht sappers had blown up the main aqueduct in seven places and drained municipal reservoirs. Dynamite dropped down manholes wrecked at least forty sewer lines. Explosives also demolished the long-distance telephone exchange, three-quarters of the city’s bridges, and electrical generators and substations. Among the gutted industrial plants—about fifty in all—were a steelworks, an oil refinery, breweries, tanneries, and canneries; others were wired for demolition though they had been not fired. Saboteurs wrecked city trams, repair barns, and even street cleaners. A railroad tunnel into Naples was blocked by crashing two trains head-on. Coal stockpiles were ignited, and for weeks served as beacons for Luftwaffe bombers. The Germans had extorted ransom from Italian fishermen for their boats—a small skiff was worth one gold watch—and then burned the fleet anyway. Even the stairwells in barracks and apartment buildings were dynamited to make the upper floors inaccessible.

The opportunities for cultural atrocity were boundless in a city so rich in culture. A German battalion burst into the library of the Italian Royal Society, soaked the shelves with kerosene, and fired the place with grenades, shooting guards who resisted and keeping firemen at bay. The city archives and fifty thousand volumes at the University of Naples, where Thomas Aquinas once taught, got the same treatment, leaving the place “stinking of burned old leather and petrol.” Another eighty thousand precious books and manuscripts stored in Nola were reduced to ashes, along with paintings, ceramics, and ivories.

Worse yet was the sabotage around the great port, which compounded grievous damage inflicted by months of Allied bombing. Half a mile inland, the city’s commercial districts remained mostly intact, although looters had rifled the Singer Sewing Machine showroom and the Kodak shop on Via Roma. But along the esplanade—where the corpse of the beautiful Siren Parthenope was said to have washed ashore after Odysseus spurned her “high, thrilling song”—all was shambles. Bombs had battered the Castel Nuovo, the National Library, and the Palazzo Reale, where every window was broken, the roof punctured, and the chapel demolished by a detonation beneath the ceiling beams. Grand hotels—the Excelsior, the Vesuvio, the Continental—had been gutted by bombs or by German vandals who torched the rooms and ignited the bedding in courtyard bonfires….

Not a single vessel remained afloat in the port, a drowned forest of charred booms, masts, and funnels. Thirty major wrecks could be seen, and ten times that number lay submerged. All tugs and harbor craft had been sunk; all grain elevators and warehouses demolished; all three hundred cranes sabotaged or toppled into the water. Vessels had been scuttled at fifty-eight of sixty-one berths, often one atop another. An Axis ship with seven thousand tons of ammunition had blown up at Pier F, wrecking four adjacent city blocks, and fires still smoldered on October 2. At Mole H, slips were blocked by a dozen rail cars and a pair of ninety-ton cranes shoved off the pier. Quayside buildings were dynamited so that their rubble tumbled like scree across the docks. To complicate salvage, German demolitionists had seeded the harbor with ammunition, oxygen tanks, and mines.

Only rats still inhabited the waterfront, and hungry urchins with knife-edge shoulder blades who reminded Paul Brown of “small, aged animals.” Although U.S. Army engineers reported that the sabotage had been conducted “by a man who knew his business,” a closer inspection revealed that the Germans “planned their demolitions for revenge, to wreck the economy of Naples, rather than to prevent Allied use of the port.” As the Allies learned from each campaign, so did the Germans, and they would be less sentimental and more comprehensive when the time came to undo Marseilles and Cherbourg.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, economics, education, France, Germany, industry, Italy, labor, military, U.S., war

Field Marshal Montgomery’s Reputation

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 125-126:

“What a headache, what a bore, what a bounder he must be to those on roughly the same level in the service,” a BBC reporter wrote of Montgomery. “And at the same time what a great man he is as a leader of troops.” That contradiction would define Montgomery through Sicily and beyond, confounding his admirers and infuriating his detractors. “A simple, forthright man who angered people needlessly,” his biographer Alan Moorehead concluded. “At times a real spark of genius … but [he] was never on an even plane.” Even the official British history of the Mediterranean war would acknowledge his “arrogance, bumptiousness, ungenerosity… [and] schoolboy humour.” American disdain for Montgomery tended toward dismissive condemnation: “a son of a bitch,” declared Beetle Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff. His British colleagues, whose scorn at times ran even deeper, at least tried to parse his solipsism. “Small, alert, tense,” said Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, “rather like an intelligent terrier who might bite at any moment.” Montgomery so irritated Andrew Cunningham—“he seems to think that all he has to do is say what is to be done and everyone will dance to the tune he is piping”—that the admiral would not allow the general’s name to be uttered in his presence. “One must remember,” another British commander said of Montgomery, “that he is not quite a gentleman.”

That he had been raised in wild, remote Tasmania explained much to many. Son of a meek Anglican bishop and a harridan mother who conveyed her love with a cane, Montgomery emerged from childhood as “the bad boy of the family,” who at Sandhurst severely burned a fellow cadet by setting fire to his shirttail. “I do not want to portray him as a lovable character,” his older brother said, “because he isn’t.” Mentioned in dispatches six times on the Western Front, he carried from World War I the habits of meticulous preparation, reliance on firepower, and a conception of his soldiers “not as warriors itching to get into action, which they were not, but as a workforce doing an unpleasant but necessary job,” in the words of the historian Michael Howard. He also accumulated various tics and prejudices: a habit of repeating himself; the stilted use of cricket metaphors; an antipathy to cats; a tendency to exaggerate his battlefield progress; “an obsession for always being right”; and the habit of telling his assembled officers, “There will now be an interval of two minutes for coughing. After that there will be no coughing.” No battle captain kept more regular hours. He was awakened with a cup of tea by a manservant at 6:30 A.M. and bedtime in his trailer—captured from an Italian field marshal in Tunisia—came promptly at 9:30 P.M.

In Africa he had seen both glory, at El Alamein, and glory’s ephemerality, in the tedious slog through Tunisia. Montgomery much preferred the former. Now the empire’s most celebrated soldier, he received sacks of fan mail, including at least nine marriage proposals, lucky charms ranging from coins to white heather, and execrable odes to his pluck. Professing to disdain such adulation, he had a talent for “backing into the limelight,” as one observer remarked. On leave in London after Tunis fell, still wearing his beret and desert kit, he checked into Claridge’s under the thin pseudonym of “Colonel Lennox,” then took repeated bows from his box seat at a musical comedy as ecstatic theatergoers clapped and clapped and clapped. “His love of publicity is a disease, like alcoholism or taking drugs,” said General Ismay, Churchill’s chief of staff, “and it sends him equally mad.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, education, Italy, Mediterranean, military, publishing, U.S., war

Malaria in Sicily, 1943

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 145-146:

In 1740, the writer Horace Walpole noted “a horrid thing called mal’aria” that afflicted Italy every summer. Before the war, the Rockefeller Foundation had published a sixteen-volume study on where the disease, which killed three million people each year, was most prevalent; Italy, infested with the mosquito Anopheles maculipennis—soon shortened to “Ann” in GI slang—had the highest malaria rates in the Mediterranean. Quinine had been used for centuries to suppress malaria’s feverish symptoms, but U.S. supplies came almost exclusively from cinchona trees in the East Indies, now controlled by the Japanese. American scientists seeking a substitute examined fourteen thousand compounds, including dozens tested on jailhouse volunteers; the best replacement proved to be a substance originally synthesized by the German dye industry and given the trade name Atabrine.

Soldiers detested the stuff, which they dubbed “yellow gall.” It tasted bitter, upset the stomach, turned the skin yellow, and was rumored to cause impotence and even sterility. Many soldiers stopped taking it, prophylactic discipline grew lax, and proper dosage levels were misunderstood. Moreover, some malaria control experts failed to reach Sicily until weeks after the invasion. Soldiers also grew careless about covering exposed skin in the evening. Protective netting was in short supply, and insect repellent proved ineffective: troops agreed “the mosquitoes in Sicily enjoyed it very much.”

More than a thousand soldiers afflicted with malaria in North Africa on the eve of HUSKY had been left behind when the fleets sailed. On July 23, doctors detected the first case contracted in Sicily. By early August thousands of feverish, lethargic soldiers had been struck down. Ten thousand cases would sweep through Seventh Army, and nearly twelve thousand more in Eighth Army. (The swampy Catania Plain was particularly noxious.) All told, the 15th Army Group sustained more malaria casualties than battle wounds in Sicily. A medical historian concluded that “the disease record of the Seventh Army on Sicily was one of the worst compiled by any American field army during World War II.” With soldiers also suffering from dengue, sandfly, and Malta fevers, distinguishing one malady from another became so difficult that many patients were diagnosed simply with “fever of unknown origin,” soon known to soldiers as “fuo.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, malaria, Mediterranean, military, U.S., war

Il Duce’s Status in 1943

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 137-139:

His ashy pallor and sunken cheeks made Benito A. A. Mussolini look older than his fifty-nine years and hardly the “head devil” that Roosevelt now called him. He still shaved his head, but more to hide his gray than in a display of Fascist virility. Because of his vain refusal to wear eyeglasses, Mussolini’s speeches were prepared on a special typewriter with an enormous font. Duodenal ulcers—some claimed they were “of syphilitic origin”—had plagued him for nearly two decades, and his diet now consisted mostly of stewed fruit and three liters of milk a day. A German officer in Rome reported, “Often in conversation his face was wrenched with pain and he would grab his stomach.” Once he had demonstrated vigor to photographers by scything wheat or by rubbing snow on his bare chest. Now, wary of assassins, he lolled about the Palazzo Venezia, in a back room with tinted windows and the signs of the zodiac painted on the ceiling. Sometimes he lolled with his mistress, Clara Petacci, the buxom, green-eyed daughter of the pope’s physician, whose wardrobe was filled with negligees and goose-feather boas personally selected by Mussolini.

He had risen far since his modest boyhood as a blacksmith’s son in the lower Po Valley, and he would fall even farther before his strutting hour on the stage ended. As a young vagabond he had been an avowed socialist, stalking the streets with brass knuckles in his pocket and reciting long passages from Dante. His politics devolved to ultranationalism and the Fasci di Combattimento, which he founded in Milan in 1919 and which was the precursor to the Fascist party he rode to power in 1922. By the late 1920s, he had extirpated Italian parliamentary government to become an absolute tyrant—il Duce, the Leader—cleverly accommodating both the Vatican and the popular monarchy of King Victor Emmanuel III. With an autodidact’s quick mind and bombastic oratory, he raised national confidence, stabilized the lira, built a modern military, and boosted farm production by reclaiming vast tracts of swampland. The trains, famously, ran on time. His invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 helped destroy the League of Nations; he empowered Hitler by showing how easily Western democracies could be cowed and by condoning Germany’s Anschluss with Austria. The Führer’s gratitude led to the Pact of Steel in May 1939. “Believe, Obey, Fight,” the Fascist motto advised, and hundreds of thousands of Italian women surrendered their wedding rings to be melted down for Mussolini’s war effort. In Italian cinemas, moviegoers rose as one when the Duce strode across the screen in newsreels; he also required Italians to stand during radio broadcasts of armed forces communiqués, often delivered at one P.M. to ensure a captive audience in restaurants.

Lately the country was getting to its feet mostly for bad news. Italy’s colonial adventures in Eritrea, Somaliland, Abyssinia, and North Africa had been ruinous. Without informing Berlin, Mussolini also had invaded Greece, only to require German help to stave off catastrophe. Rome declared war on supine France in 1940, but thirty-two Italian divisions failed to overwhelm three French divisions on the Alpine front. The Italian air force had been gutted in Libya; two-thirds of the Italian army fighting in Russia had been destroyed; 40 percent of Italian soldiers on Crete reportedly lacked boots; and three-quarters of the merchant fleet had been sunk in the lost-cause effort to resupply North Africa. Raw materials, from cotton to rubber, were now dispensed by the Germans, who even provided the fuel that allowed Italian warships to leave port. About 1.2 million Italian soldiers served on various foreign fronts, along with 800,000 in Italy; but few had the stomach to defend the homeland, much less fight a world war. A German high command assessment on June 30 concluded, “The kernel of the Italian army has been destroyed in Greece, Russia, and Africa…. The combat value of Italian units is slight.”

Since December 1942, Mussolini had vainly urged Hitler to draw back from the Eastern Front, or even to forge a separate peace with Moscow. With combat casualties approaching 300,000, Italy found itself in the “ridiculous position of being unable either to make war or to make peace.”

In July 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III replaced Mussolini as prime minister with colonial war-hero General Pietro Badoglio, 1st Duke of Addis Ababa and former viceroy of Italian East Africa.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Italy, Mediterranean, military, nationalism, USSR, war

U.S. Army Supply in Africa, 1943

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 7950ff:

“The battle,” Rommel famously observed, “is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” The shooting had begun months before in northwest Africa, but now the quartermasters truly came into their own. The prodigies of American industrial muscle and organizational acumen began to tell. In Oran, engineers built an assembly plant near the port and taught local workers in English, French, and Spanish how to put together a jeep from a box of parts in nine minutes. That plant turned out more than 20,000 vehicles. Another new factory nearby assembled 1,200 railcars, which were among 4,500 cars and 250 locomotives ultimately added to North African rolling stock.

In late January, Eisenhower had pleaded with Washington for more trucks. Less than three weeks later, a special convoy of twenty ships sailed from Norfolk, New York, and Baltimore with 5,000 two-and-a-half-ton trucks, 2,000 cargo trailers, 400 dump trucks, 80 fighter planes, and, for ballast, 12,000 tons of coal, 16,000 tons of flour, 9,000 tons of sugar, 1,000 tons of soap, and 4,000 submachine guns, all of which arrived in Africa on March 6. “It was,” an Army account noted with justifiable pride, “a brilliant performance.”

In World War I, more than half of all supplies for American forces were obtained abroad, including nearly all artillery and airplanes. In this war, almost everything would be shipped from the United States, including immense tonnages sent to the Russians, British, French, and other allies. The demands of modern combat were unprecedented. Although a latter-day infantry division was half the size of its Great War predecessor, it typically used more than twice as much ammunition—111 tons on an average fighting day. In Africa, total supply requirements amounted to thirteen tons per soldier each month.

Can do. From late February to late March, 130 ships sailed from the United States for Africa with 84,000 soldiers, 24,000 vehicles, and a million tons of cargo. Although the U.S. II Corps lost more armor at Kasserine than the Germans had massed at the beginning of the battle, those losses were replaced immediately. Other matériel appeared just as fast, including 500 miles of extra communications wire shipped to the front from Algiers less than a day after it was requested. When Patton requested—no, demanded—new shoes for his entire corps, 80,000 pairs arrived almost overnight. So much ammunition arrived in Tunisia that it was stacked in pyramids and thatched with branches to simulate an Arab village.

The Americans’ “genius lay in creating resources rather than in using them economically,” a British study observed astutely.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Britain, France, Germany, industry, military, U.S., USSR, war