Italy's Sorrow

Italy’s Sorrow

I just finished reading Italy’s Sorrow: A year of war 1944-45 by James Holland, as it describes the part of the war my grandfather described to me as he remembered what it was like being on General Alexander’s planning staff for the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent long fight up through Italy. Just as I was finishing reading it on my Kindle and clearing out my grandfather’s house after he died in July, I found a hardback copy of it in his living room on the bookshelves and it was made even more poignant to me as I saw the pages he had flagged.

What is unusual about this book is that it describes the horror of war from all sides – the Allies, the Germans, the Partisans and ordinary Italian civilians, who, as the title suggests, were the biggest losers of this war. This is a part of the second world war that everyone should be interested in, but is often overlooked as you can’t tell a simple victory narrative about it in the way you can with D- Day. The Allied soldiers in Italy were appalling even called the D-Day Dodgers by some back home as their sacrifices were ignored.

It is objective in describing the many atrocities that were committed, from the appalling spree of rape and murder of Italian civilians by French colonial Goumiers in May 1944, to the 772 people killed over three days on Monte Sole by the Germans, most of whom were civilians, making it the single worst massacre in Western Europe in the Second World War. Yet one which I had never heard of. The author movingly describes how these mountain villages have never been lived in since and are now beautiful and haunting places slowly being reclaimed by nature.

He also tackles the contradictions in the behaviour of the Germans in Italy. Committing mass murder and yet being given stick codes of conduct against stealing and pillaging and committing few rapes, as German troops caught raping anyone could expect to be shot, which acted as an effective deterrent.

On both sides commanders put lives of soldiers above those of civilians and civilians suffered due to the Allies as well as the Germans. Many were killed in the apparently indiscriminate strafing of civilians by Allied fighters and fighters bombers. Britain was also guilty of setting an exchange rate which had the effect of punishing the entire civilian population in the south, and there was also a perception problem as Italians starved whilst Allied troops smoked cigarettes and ate chocolate. There were not enough jeeps to get food into Rome, yet somehow enough to take GIs on sightseeing tours.

It is fascinating to read about the role of the partisans, who had a debilitating effect on German morale, and the way they lost out at the end of the war. When war came to an end the political umbrella body that represented the partisans was allowed to maintain law and order only until the Allied Military Government could be established, which then handed over to the established Italian Government. Holland describes how these were harsh terms, but were, in his view, in the best interests of the future of post war Italy and the majority of Italians. Weakened by their concessions to the Allies in the winter of 1944 the parties of the far left were not able to bring about a revolution and in 1946 having rejected the monarchy Italy became a democratic state.

Holland rightly points out that it was no small triumph for the men and commanders of the Allied campaign in Italy that it was the first unconditional surrender by the Germans in the war in Europe, six days before VE Day. It was also the second complete victory for General Alexander over German forces, having defeated them first in North Africa. But Italy was invaded by the Allies on the basis of false assumptions. The Chiefs were never fully behind it but were never able to give it up entirely either.

Italy was a terrible place to fight a war. There were 536,000 German casualties, 313,500 Allied casualties and a total including Italians of over a million. The Italian campaign was never less than hard fought by both sides. My grandfather, who was General Alexander’s G2 Ops in the war in Italy, was still talking about his experiences in June this year aged 97, and his death in July makes it feel very real to me that ‘soon the last of the survivors will have passed on and the war will finally be part of a more distant history’.