Mussolini's Island: The Invasion of Sicily Through the Eyes of Those Who Witnessed the Campaign

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2005, 12:00am

Mussolini's Island: The Invasion of Sicily Through the Eyes of Those Who Witnessed the Campaign


by John Follain


Hodder & Stoughton, $290


The invasion of Sicily by some half a million men in the summer of 1943 was the largest amphibious operation ever, dwarfing even the D-Day landings. It marked a key turning point in the second world war, the first Allied foothold on the Axis' Fortress Europe, and provided the springboard for the final assault on mainland Italy and, eventually, Germany.


The landings led to the ousting of Benito Mussolini by his own government, and were also the setting for a bizarre contest between two of the great characters of the Allied military leadership, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General George S. Patton.


But like any true story, this one is best understood when also told from the perspective of the little people involved: the Tommy and the GI, the Italian infantryman, the German tank driver, the Sicilian peasant. John Follain, the Rome correspondent for London's Sunday Times, brings events back to life by describing them from all these perspectives simultaneously.


For Patton and Montgomery, each controlling part of the invading army, success was to be measured by whose men would be the first to reach the cities of Palermo and Messina. 'This is a horse race,' Patton wrote to his commanding officer, General Harold Alexander, 'in which the prestige of the US Army is at stake!' Alexander, staying with the equestrian metaphor, in turn described Patton as an officer 'that you have to keep a rein on'.


There was little love lost between Patton and Montgomery, who missed no chance to needle his rival, arriving at meetings in the Flying Fortress he won off the Americans in a bet with Eisenhower's chief of staff over the 8th Army's progress in Libya.


Il Duce's habit of having all his telephone conversations transcribed reveals much about the man. Ousted from power and held prisoner, in effect, he resorted to reading a book on the life of Christ, in which he discovered 'astonishing analogies' with his own life.


For the soldiers at the sharp end of the action, it was a time of confusion, heat, dust and death. Follain draws on in-depth interviews and first-hand accounts from members of each major armed force to reveal what really happened on the ground. Their experiences could hardly be further from the model 'letter home' that Patton drafted for distribution to his troops. It included such gems as: 'We stormed up the hill and shot them in the arse. Mother, war is real fun!'


The Sicilian experience of the invasion is portrayed through the recollections of a young girl who lost a leg when a bomb demolished her house. Before the invasion, American intelligence officers made full use of local antipathy towards Mussolini by contacting local mafia dons through gangsters jailed in the US. They were to provide invaluable assistance.


As much as the invasion of Sicily was a success - what Churchill called the 'soft underbelly' of Europe was exposed, securing the Mediterranean for Allied shipping - it was a great failure, too. More than 20,000 Allied troops were killed, and the Axis was able to evacuate more than 100,000 men with all their equipment and vehicles, to fight another day. A War Office report later described it as a chaotic and deplorable example of 'everything that planning should not be'.


But perhaps the most salient quote of the book is from an American GI who left Sicily an old man, celebrating his 20th birthday: 'I had hoped war would be big and beautiful and clean and justifiable. But it's not. It's just dirty and low-down and deadly.'


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