The Savage Storm: The battle for Italy 1943 


James Holland has established a firm reputation as one of the leading British historians of the Second World War. He has published a series of books that have transformed our understanding of the conflict, most recently Brothers in Arms: one legendary tank regiment’s bloody war from D-Day to VE-Day, which tracked the Sherwood Rangers from Operation Overlord to the end of the war. Holland also co-hosts the We Have Ways of Making You Talk podcast with comedian Al Murray, which has successfully increased the knowledge, understanding, and interest of the general public in World War II.

Holland’s latest book, The Savage Storm: the battle for Italy 1943, seeks to explore the campaign to seize Italy from the build-up of the landings at Salerno in September through to the end of the Battle of Ortona in December 1943. Holland’s narrow chronological frame allows him to explore the dynamics of combat in more detail than previous treatments, which have tended to focus on major battles (such as Monte Cassino) rather than the granular actions that made up the larger campaign.

Indeed, the invasion of Italy has arguably been considerably overlooked by modern historians, in favour of the campaigns in Normandy and the Eastern Front. An unfortunate consequence of this is that the Italian campaign is poorly understood among the general public, despite the noble sacrifices of so many soldiers and civilians in opening this front against Nazi Germany. As Holland points out, when troops desperately fought and died for bare metres of mud in the Italian countryside, they did not have the luxury of knowing whether they fought in a location that would be commemorated for decades to come, or in places that would be condemned to anonymity and rapidly forgotten.

Through the writing of his books on different campaigns of the Second World War, Holland has honed a distinctive methodology, which he employs in The Savage Storm to great effect. As our chronological distance from 1943 grows, the number of veterans and eye-witnesses able to provide personal accounts is sadly depleted. Furthermore, the accuracy of such recollections decades later can prove problematic. Holland instead has constructed his narrative predominantly through utilising contemporary sources, such as letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts from embedded reporters.

This approach directly situates the reader in the moment, understanding the unfolding campaign from the perspectives of individual combatants and eye-witnesses, with no foreshadowing or assumption of future events. It provides an accurate depiction of the uncertainty, fear, and randomness of war, where the survival of individuals (regardless of their prominence in the narrative) cannot be guaranteed. Holland’s narrative is driven from the perspectives of a range of individuals, both civilian and combatant, which provides the reader with a deep insight into the human dimension of warfare. In particular, it evokes the feelings of loss and indeed grief as individuals are wounded or killed.

Competing priorities

Following the capture of Sicily, the invasion of Italy was viewed as an opportunity to challenge German forces in advance of the D-Day landings, and secure the rapid surrender of Italy, thus further reducing the ability of the Wehrmacht to oppose the Normandy landings the following year. Based on recent Allied successes, it was assumed that the invasion would be straightforward, with rapid advances allowing Rome to be secured by Christmas 1943. Politically, the Italian campaign was nestled within a series of competing priorities favoured by different elements of the Allied high command as to how the war should be prosecuted. These competing priorities included the need to amass troops, equipment, and materials for the looming Normandy campaign, and the American requirement to continue to provision operations against Japan in the Pacific. The potential for the Italian campaign to stall and draw in increasing volumes of men and equipment was dangerously overlooked.

Moreover, the political position of the Italian government proved difficult to predict. While Mussolini had fallen from power (though he would be reinstated as a puppet ruler in northern Italy by Hitler), fascism remained a potent force and senior policymakers clustered around the Italian king were less than transparent with Allied commanders around the extent to which plans were in place to enable Italian forces to turn and fight the Germans when the armistice with the Allies was signed. In contrast, the Nazi high command remained deeply suspicious of their Italian counterparts and had clear plans in place to seize Italian bases and disarm the troops in the event that Italy surrendered. The unity of German command was split by Albert Kesselring, who favoured maintaining a solid defensive position in southern Italy, and Erwin Rommel, who preferred holding a defensive line in the north, and their competition for Hitler’s favour.

The key Allied commander for the Italian campaign was General Mark Clark, commander of the US Fifth Army. Clark was wounded on the Western Front during the First World War and led an unremarkable career in the army over the subsequent decades. However, his career began to accelerate in the 1930s owing, in part, to his friendship with Dwight Eisenhower. He played a key planning role in Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa, including undertaking a covert mission to meet with Vichy French commanders in Algeria. Clark’s desire to hold an operational leadership position was rewarded with the command of the Fifth Army.

Clark’s reputation has been subject to considerable academic debate. Yet it is clear from Holland’s study that he was a talented and inspiring leader, who was capable of maintaining a calm approach to command, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Holland describes a sudden German thrust at the confluence of the Calore and Sele Rivers which potentially threatened to overwhelm Clark’s HQ. Recognising the rapidly emerging threat, Clark hastily constructed a defensive line by personally arming drivers, support troops – and even a regimental band – to take up defensive positions. The German advance was ultimately foiled by local geography, with steep riverbanks and terraces that limited the visibility of American artillery positions.

Nevertheless, Clark’s ability to master difficult circumstances, harnessing limited resources and remaining adaptable in the face of shifting and complex parameters is clear throughout the campaign. His communications to Eisenhower also demonstrate his willingness to learn from failure and apply new solutions at pace. These personal characteristics proved invaluable as German resistance stiffened, winter weather started to close in, and the progress of the Allied advance began to slow. It is all the more remarkable that Clark continued to perform despite the incredible pressure from Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Chiefs of Staff to conclude the campaign quickly.

Allied troops land at Salerno in September 1943. The invasion of Italy was viewed as an opportunity to challenge German forces in advance of the D-Day landings. Image: Naval History and Heritage Command

Horrific cost

The cost of the Italian campaign in 1943 was horrific. As Holland notes, infantry units suffered proportionally higher casualty rates than on the Western Front in the First World War. Casualty rates were particularly high for non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and junior officers, as they tried to rally their troops and continue to drive forward in the face of enemy fire. A number of advances were halted as a result of all junior officers and NCOs being killed, with no combat authority sustained to continue the assault. By the end of 1943, the Fifth Army lost almost 30,000 men dead, wounded, or missing. The Germans lost more than 13,000 men in December alone. The reality of the Italian campaign was markedly different to the optimistic plans of the Allied high command at the commencement of the invasion, and a source of tension for key commanders and political leaders.

As Holland powerfully argues, the experience of combat in Italy was markedly different from North Africa. While warfare in the latter was predominantly situated within the context of vast desert landscapes, in Italy the impact of war on civilian populations and infrastructure was highly visible. This is particularly evidenced in the harrowing eye-witness accounts of Norman Lewis, serving as a British military intelligence officer, on the virtual destruction of civil infrastructure in Naples and its impact on the local population. Economic collapse led to local women being forced into prostitution to feed their families and children from local orphanages sent on to the streets to beg for food.

The psychological pressure of the vicious fighting in Italy on combatants and civilians is also clear. In September 1943, 300 veterans of combat in North Africa and Sicily, hastily rushed in as urgent reinforcements, refused to join their new battalions and remained in a field at Salerno for three days. Despite command intervention, 192 refused to fight and were charged with mutiny. This event demonstrates the challenges that the pace of the fighting created for even experienced combatants, as the true reality of warfare in Italy became apparent.

The Savage Storm is a remarkable achievement by a historian at the height of his powers. Holland has successfully illustrated both the significance and the savagery of the Italian campaign for a new audience through a powerful and compelling narrative. This book will surely become an authoritative reference for all readers with an interest in understanding the European theatre in the Second World War.

James Holland
Bantam Press, hbk (£25)
ISBN 978-1787636682