Two books on Sicily 1943

My 1943 project focuses on British troops in the Mediterranean that year. I started it as a teenager in the late 1970s, but suspended it, like so much else, when I left home in 1979. I have so far focused my research on two campaigns: Tunisia in January to May (and especially the First Army) and Salerno in September. Between these two comes the battle for Sicily in July to August, which I have neglected. I bought these two books to start to fill the gap.

The first is James Holland’s Sicily ’43. Mr Holland seems to be one of the most popular British historians of WW2 at the moment, but this is the first of his books that I have read. I am impressed. This is how history should be written for general consumption. Wargamers will find that it lacks detail, but it should offer inspiration for further research – or may put them off trying to recreate the combats on the tabletop altogether – more of that later.

The 38 day battle for Sicily (starting from the date of the invasion itself rather than the pre-campaign, as the cover of the other book does) has been somewhat neglected by historians – along with the rest of the subjects of my 1943 project. In between the battles of the Western Desert 1940 to 1942, and Normandy and north west Europe 1944 to 1945, and the Russian Front 1941 to 1945, Tunisia, Sicily ad Italy don’t get much of a look-in. Inasmuch as historians have dealt with it, they have tended to be very critical of the Allied command. They have suggested they were too cautious, and should not have let so many Germans and their equipment get out at the end. Mr Holland seeks to set the record straight.

In this he is mainly convincing. Only on one issue do I think he needed to say more – could the Allies have succeeded with a smaller invasion launched earlier? The Axis defence was in disarray at the start of the attack, and things would have been even worse if the attack had been conducted earlier. The key is the Etna area in the north east. This was very easy to defend, and the Germans managed to do so successfully with reinforcements sent in shortly after the invasion started – and most of all with airborne troops. The Allies would have had to get there very quickly to head this off, across terrain that made movement difficult. It probably was too risky, at a time when the Allies did not want defeats – but it would have been worth exploring this a bit more by looking at the resources available to both sides. Incidentally one of the interesting aspects of Sicily was the use of airborne forces. Theses were an innovation for both Allied powers, who learnt the hard way the difficulties of inserting them directly into enemy territory. There were disasters, especially for the British glider troops, and the shooting down of many American transports by friendly fire by the navy. The Germans showed that they had learned the lesson by using airborne forces for a rapid insertion behind their own lines, mostly landing the troops in airfields. It turned a rout into a hard-fought battle which bought time and cost the Allies many casualties.

Mr Holland’s style is to range from the top command to the front line, not neglecting the experience of civilians caught in the middle. He looks at all participants sympathetically – this is the best way to draw out telling insights. Too many histories just look at one participant (based on the sources most readily accessible to the author); this can be good for drama, but not so much for understanding what was happening and why. Another mistake is historians being too eager to criticise the decisions of participants. My rule of thumb when doing historical analysis (which I developed as a history student) is that unless you understand how you yourself could have taken a decision, especially a bad one, you have not understood why it was taken. That requires a sympathetic approach. It also makes more enjoyable reading – though that may just be down to my personal taste. Mr Holland scores well on both counts. It is fluently written too, another plus in an era when history writing is often badly edited. I found some clich├ęs, such as the frequent use of “to say the least”, a bit annoying, but that’s small stuff.

The second book, which is shorter, and which I read first, is not so well-written: Eagles over Husky by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black. It concentrates on the air campaign, and plays to my increasing interest in the use of air power in support of military campaigns. It too seeks to set the record straight – as a number of authors criticised the Allied air effort in the campaign. The air forces were accused of fighting a private war and not supporting the armies well enough, and then letting the Germans get away at Messina. Mr Fitzgerald-Black has little difficulty in putting the counter-arguments. For my taste he overdoes it; Mr Holland comes to the same conclusions, but with much less argument. Mr Hamilton-Black feels it is necessary to take apart the criticism line by line, showing how it is not based on facts. This is a bit tiring for readers like me, as it just seems to give air time to nonsense.

That’s my only real criticism of this work though. It draws heavily from sources on all sides to give a convincing picture. Like Mr Holland he combines a strong strategic narrative with many vignettes of the action. He makes an interesting case that the Allies forced the Germans to make a similar commitment of resources to this theatre as the eastern front (while Kursk was going on) and the north (where the Allied strategic bombing had got going), but suffered vastly more losses than in either other theatre. The campaign was an important step in the breaking of the Luftwaffe across the whole continent. Perhaps that argument can be challenged – but I’m not the person to do it!

So what is in the Sicilian campaign for wargamers? There is quite a bit of interest at a strategic level – but his can only really be tackled in a board game (which I think has been done). A Rommel-style grand-tactical game may be feasible, most easily for the Axis counterattack against the Americans at Gela, where you even get to use a unit of Tigers. (Incidentally Tigers proved hard to use in the difficult terrain and primitive roads – they mostly broke down through being over-worked). The early battles are pretty unsatisfactory from a gaming point of view though, one or two episodes excepted. The defence was very disorganised; the Italians have little stomach for a fight, and the Germans lacked decent leadership; the main challenge for the Allies (and it was considerable) was logistics. Later the fighting got much tougher; a Rommel game would encounter the sorts of problems with mountain warfare that I described for Longstop Hill in Tunisia.

Tactical gaming is more promising, but a bit limited in a different way. There are a lot of important clashes at company and even platoon level, as it was hard to deploy larger formations in the terrain. The problem for the Allies was crossing open (but rough) terrain which exposed their troops to concealed weapons and indirect fire, while canalising them onto mined roads. Their trump card was plentiful artillery and air power. I don’t think this makes for a great tabletop game. There is much less of the Normandy-style fighting in close terrain. Still you can create a game with orchards, olive groves, farms and villages. It should really involve hills and rocks too. A battle for a hilltop village could be visually very attractive, if much harder to recreate than a bit of bocage country. You get to use German paratroops too.

As for air power the key is finding a game where the player chooses between air superiority, interdiction and close support – out of scope for a tactical game, but a possibility in an expanded Rommel-style game perhaps. Air superiority was settled very quickly though.

I have not settled on rules for my 1943 project. I have just bought a second-hand copy of Chain of Command, and this looks very promising. There are other good systems for one-to-one games (Battlegroup and I ain’t been shot Mum) which I’m a bit less convinced about. Rommel also looks quite exciting – but hard to use out of the box in this theatre. I would like something in between – Rapid Fire! and Fistful of TOWs nominally fill that space, but I’m not that happy with either. The long journey continues.

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