James Holland on the Battle for Sicily

Posted on 8th September 2020 by Mark Skinner

Bringing the same penetrating insight and storytelling prowess that he demonstrated with Normandy '44, his majestic account of the D-Day landings, Sicily '43 is James Holland's riveting anaylsis of the pivotal battle for Sicily. In this exclusive piece, he discusses just why the campaign was so crucial.   

The thirty-eight day Battle for Sicily is an extraordinary - and complete - story and one that involves breathtaking action at sea, in the air, and on land.  Its conquest involved the largest airborne operations ever witnessed up that point, daring raids by special forces, the harnessing of the Mafia, attacks across mosquito infested plains, assaults up almost sheer faces of rock and scrub, and featured an astonishing array of highly colourful characters, from commanders such as Generals Montgomery and Patton to the German Valentin Hube - nicknamed ‘der Mann’ - to a host of lesser ranked officers and soldiers, such as Lord Tweedsmuir, the son of John Buchan, Philip Mountbatten, later to become the Duke of Edinburgh, England cricketer Hedley Verity, and the most decorated American soldier of the war, Audie Murphy; the legendary Luftwaffe pilot ‘Mackay’ Steinhoff and the kilt and claymore-wearing Ernst-Günther Baade are two fascinating men who fought on the German side, while hovering in the background was Don Calo Vizzini, the head of the Mafia, and Italian-American gangsters Vito Genovese and Lucky Luciano.  It was a period in which Fascism was overthrown in Italy, Mussolini was toppled and in which the pattern for the rest of the war in the West was set.  In Sicily, vital lessons were both learned and ignored, but the legacy of this campaign, now largely forgotten, can be seen clearly in any study of the events of D-Day and the battle for Normandy.

Of course, back in the high summer of 1943, the events in Sicily were front-page news around the world and saw the coming together of the British and American coalition into a rapidly honed new style of warfare in which air, land and sea power played equal and mutually supporting roles – and at a time when the Axis alliance between Germany and Italy was dramatically collapsing amidst mutual distrust and increasing perfidy.  

Since then, however, subsequent events, from the capture of Rome to the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, have rather overshadowed the Battle for Sicily.  Surprisingly little has been written about it and there has not been a major narrative history for more than thirty years.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over Sicily and not least with groups from the British Army – experiences that not only opened my eyes to just what an extraordinary campaign it was but also to what an incredible place it remains to this day.  Beautiful, majestic and ancient, with classical ruins and medieval castles dotting the landscape, Sicily was also a brutally tough place in which to fight a war.

And that was especially true in July and August 1943.  A Baedeker guide from the 1930s warned that no tourist should consider visiting during those two months, when temperatures were blistering and conditions at their worst – and yet this was precisely when the Sicilian campaign took place.  Certainly, it was a brutal campaign in many ways.  The violence was extreme, the heat unbearable, the stench of rotting corpses intense and all-pervasive, and the problems of malaria, dysentery and other diseases a constant plague that affected all trying to fight their way across this island of limited infrastructure, rocky hills, mountains and an all-dominating volcano.  I hope that readers of my book will find themselves wiping the sweat from their brows as they are transformed to the dusty roads of the Sicilian interior in July and August of 1943.

I also hope that readers find the narrative as interesting to read as I found it to research.  The Allies really were beginning to prove that their highly mechanized, technologically complex and industrial mode of warfare was an Axis-beater, yet while naval and air power were supreme and superior to anything the Germans and Italians could offer in reply, there was still much to learn.  On Sicily, the Allies were still grappling with how to conduct airborne operations and had yet to work out the conundrum that their best, highly trained and most motivated troops were being delivered to the battle zone by the least trained aircrew.  Allied airborne operations on Sicily were a fiasco; even those few that did reach their objectives fought incredibly well.  

Sicily was also the end of the road for the Italians.  Crushed, impoverished and with morale plummeting catastrophically, they had largely lost the will to fight, although this was not appreciated by the Allies before the invasion was launched.  The Germans, however, swiftly unshackled from their ally, recovered, reinforced themselves and regained their balance to fight with the advantage of terrain in an increasingly dogged and determined defence of the north-east corner of the island.  Here, astonishing battles were fought, with barely believable heroism on both sides.  

Fascinating though the campaign was to study in such detail, it is always the human drama of the war that continues to fascinate.  I was able to gather together a wide-ranging cast of participants: British, American, Canadian, German and Italian – from soldiers to civilians, sailors to airmen, and from the infantrymen on the ground to the commanders and war leaders, who I hope have illustrated the human experience of war in a captivating way.  I certainly found their stories fascinating – as I did the entire Battle for Sicily.  It’s an episode of the war that really does deserve to be better known and understood.


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Mick 1916

I have a number of James Holland books and it's always a good read so I'll pick this up when I see it, I'm also an avid reader of his Jack Tanner series of book so hopefully another one will be in the pipeline View more

Mick 1916
21st September 2020
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