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Sicily '43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe


Sicily '43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe

In 2019, I spent two educational and enjoyable weeks in Sicily. Having made several previous trips to Italy, I viewed this journey as the completion of my Italian travels. But my time on the island taught me that while Sicily may be part of Italy, it is a distinct and separate piece of the country. Driving that point home more than anything was our visit to the World War II Museum in Catania, commemorating the 38-day Battle for Sicily led by British and American troops. Our guide informed us that here we would see the celebration of Sicily’s victory over fascism, an observation that I found quite perplexing. Weren’t Italian troops fighting to defend their own homeland?

As I learned at the museum and later on the pages of SICILY ’43, the answers to that and other questions are not the simple ones I thought I knew. British historian James Holland’s book is an informative account of Operation HUSKY, the first battle to defeat Nazi Germany fought on European soil. In exhaustive detail, it tells the story of how the coalition of British and American forces, using modern tactical warfare strategy, conquered the German and Italian Axis alliance that already had begun collapsing even before the invasion was launched.

"The breadth and scope of SICILY ’43 offers readers an important and superbly written study of Operation HUSKY, one of the major campaigns of World War II."

Holland is an acclaimed World War II scholar. Like his American counterpart Rick Atkinson, he has focused on the major campaigns of the European war effort in WWII. The invasion of Sicily was the second phase of this operation. Atkinson and Holland are extraordinary historians who also are superb writers. Their historical accounts are both massive compendiums and entrancing page-turners. Because Holland is British, his perspective on WWII is more focused on his nation. But every member of the Great Alliance had leaders whose lives are now part of history. We all recognize Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery from news footage, biographies and dramatizations. Holland covers these individuals, but he also offers readers insights into some of the little-known figures in the Sicily invasion.

We are introduced to General Harold Alexander, who Holland observes, “In the world of high command, where ego and personal ambition often went hand-in-hand, Alex was notable for having very little of the former and almost none of the latter.” Alex, as he was known, had established battle schools to train non-professional soldiers by drilling them in basic concepts so they might react automatically in times of stress. He also insisted upon training British and American soldiers together because he recognized that eventually they would fight together. Alex was also unique in having commanded men in battle at every single officer rank. Perhaps because of their similar unassuming personalities, he and American General Omar Bradley formed a close relationship from initial combat in North Africa until the war’s conclusion.

As the first joint American-British campaign was underway in North Africa, military planners prepared for the next phases of the European struggle against the Axis. There was agreement that it was important to apply pressure to the German and Italian troops in areas closer to their homelands. While a cross-channel invasion of Europe was clearly the first choice of military and civilian leaders, final preparation for it was still two years from completion. The invasion of Sicily, though a first step, was not a minor effort. As it began on July 10, 1943, it was and remains the largest one-day amphibious invasion ever mounted. A combined American, British and Canadian force of 160,000 troops landed on or were parachuted into Sicily. The attack began under extreme weather conditions. As travel guidebooks warned readers in peaceful times, Sicily in July and August could be very warm. In fact, during the Battle for Sicily, daytime temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees.

The remnants of the Sicilian war effort remain on the island. As the Americans prepared for the invasion, they reached out to many relocated Italians who were members of the then-dormant Mafia. Mussolini, viewing them as competition, had undertaken major efforts to destroy the Mafia’s power on the island. Some organization leaders had left Sicily and immigrated to America. The knowledge that they provided to American military intelligence was critical to Allied success. But it came at a price. The Mafia filled a power void in post-invasion Sicily that continues to this day.

The breadth and scope of SICILY ’43 offers readers an important and superbly written study of Operation HUSKY, one of the major campaigns of World War II.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on November 25, 2020

Sicily '43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe
by James Holland

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802157181
  • ISBN-13: 9780802157188