Book Reviews


Emil Bizon: 21 Oct 09

Robin Neillands- Eighth Army


I stumbled upon this book at a discount table at Chapters and picked it up because of an interest  deriving from the fact that my brother-in-law was a soldier in this force. He was captured, along with his brother and a large piece of the Polish Army by the Red Army in 1939 and transported to a work camp in Siberia. In 1941 after the love pact with Hitler collapsed, Stalin realized he could use any available help and released the Poles but gave them very little assistance. Many of them made their way on foot to Persia and then Palestine to join up with British forces. They were then incorporated into the Eighth Army under Polish General Anders as the Polish Second Corps.

 The author is British. He does a creditable job of balancing the many facets of a major campaign with a focus on the soldiers and commanders of the Eighth. War strategy, the naval and air campaigns, and the well-known frictions between the US and British commanders are given only passing comment. He wants to give credit to the fighting men who earned such a universally acclaimed reputation for courage and skill.

 The book has a number of useful maps of the battlefields and photos of the important Generals and of ordinary soldiers. A particularly poignant one for me is a scene with a half dozen Polish soldiers, carrying a wounded man in a sling, all with dejection written on their faces, passing a line of bodies along the road, their former comrades, after their capture of Monte Cassino.

 Other nations represented included Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the French Foreign Legion, India, Greece, South Africa, Rhodesia and Nepal.

 Its first commander was Archibald Wavell, replaced in June, 1941 by Claude Auchinleck, replaced in August, 1942 by ‘Strafer’ Gott who died before taking command when shot down by German fighters while flying to Cairo. Bernard Montgomery than was moved from the invasion forces in Algeria and stayed until late 1943 when he was needed for  D Day planning.  Finally, Oliver Leese led the Eighth until the end of the war.

 The North African campaign lasted from 1940 till the spring of 1943. The British had great initial success in driving the Italian armies two hundred miles past Tobruk by February, 1942, capturing 20,000 men and vast supplies. Had Churchill allowed Wavell to continue on to Tripoli instead of diverting his forces to the defence of Greece, Germany would have been denied a landing port for their Panzers and the outcome would have been different. The arrival of Erwin Rommel and squadrons of  Me109’s and bombers changed the complexion of the war and brought on a series of defeats and retreats which only ended when Rommel could not continue past El Alamein due to depleted and fatigued forces. Auchinleck decided to establish a strong defence in the narrow 40 mile gap between the Quatarra Depression and the Mediteranean Sea. By the end of June the German advance stalled and Auchinleck dug in and decided against further retreat. This was only fifty miles from Alexandria, the main supply port and about one hundred and fifty miles from Cairo. Montgomery adopted these plans when he took over in early August. Rommel attacked again but by early September he had made no advances and it was becoming apparent that events had turned against him. The pivotal battles were at a ridge called Alam Halfa, south of Alamein. As this happened under Montgomery’s command, his prestige and credibility gained immensely.

 Neillands gives many reasons for the chaos in the earlier British effort. Inferior equipment, foolish tactics, lack of coordination, the tendency of the British generals to spread their forces instead of concentrating them and many others. One example of poor equipment: gasoline was hauled in jerry cans. A large fraction of these burst during transport over the rough roads so fuel was in short supply. A major factor was a security leak via the US embassy in Cairo where the attaché, a Colonel Bonner Fellers, was sending messages to Washington with details of the British activity and plans. These messages were immediately decrypted by the Italians, who had broken the US diplomatic codes. This was not discovered until July, 1942.

 The counter-attack in the fall of 1942 destroyed Rommel’s armies and most of his armour. Although the British losses were also heavy, Rommel would not be able to mount a serious offensive and was now in full retreat. Over the winter of 42-43 the rout was completed. With the combined British-American landings in Algeria in November, the outcome was now only a matter of time. On May 6, 1943 the German general who succeeded Rommel, Jurgen von Armin, surrendered in Tunis with a quarter million German and Italian soldiers.

 The author describes, with a balanced analysis, the decision to follow the African success with an attack on Italy. Earlier, at Casablanca, the invasion of France was put off till 1944 so the allied armies had to be fighting a land war somewhere. US General Marshall preferred to concentrate on northern France while Churchill wanted to go into the Balkans or Greece. Italy’s attraction to him centered on his view that it represented the “soft under-belly of Europe”. Imagery refreshed every morning when he viewed himself in the mirror. It was also hoped to tie up German forces that would otherwise be defending France or used on the eastern front.

 Italy is well suited to a defensive war. The Apennines divide the country lengthwise and only one reasonable road existed on each side. Rivers coming down at short intervals had to be bridged and the high land gave good command of the approaches so that progress was slow and expensive. The Americans bypassed a lot of this with an amphibious landing at Anzio which stalled for a long time. And the Italian winter made any mechanized movement impossible so the following two winters were spent waiting for better weather. One report had rain every day for a month! Churchill did not understand any of this and harassed his generals to attack, regardless of the circumstances on the ground.

 Heillands gives great praise to the Canadian Army and its commanders. He identifies all the units which fought in the Italian campaign. He describes, in some detail, the  1st Canadian Division’s initial action in Sicily and subsequent fights at Cassino town, Ortona, the Adolph Hitler Line at Pontecorvo, Senio and the valley of the Po.

Cassino Monastery was a major obstacle to the advance up the Liri valley through which would flow relief to the besieged US VI Corps at Anzio and which would, eventually, provide a direct route to Rome. The US landings took place in January and were totally contained by the the German General Kesserling till June.

 The monastery hill was first attacked unsuccessfully but with great gallantry by the US 34th Division which passed on the problem to units of the Eighth Army- New Zealand and Indian divisions. Following massive bombing of the monastery in February, the results of which had no useful military value, a three day assault under NZ General Freyburg had to be abandoned. This was the Second  Battle.

 The Third Battle was ordered to start immediately. Instead of attacking from the north it was decided to capture the town and secure an adequate route for supporting the assault.  Continuous rain prevented the planned bombing of the town till March 14. Freyburg’s divisions were again assigned the task but could not withstand the German mortar and artillery fire pouring down from the monastery hill and had to break off on March 19.

 The Fourth Battle was delayed till good weather permitted tank operations. Instead of piecemeal attacks a major assault along a 25 mile front with the US Fifth moving up the coast and British Eighth up the Liri valley was launched on May 11 with the task of taking Monastery Hill assigned to two Polish divisions under General Anders. This achieved success on May 18 when the German defenders surrendered or retreated. The advance northward could now resume.

 General Alexander’s plan was to have the US  VI Corps break out from Anzio and intercept the retreating German  Tenth Army prior to the capture of Rome. US General Mark Clark, on the other hand, wanted the glory deriving from the liberation of Rome so he contradicted Alexander and had the VI head directly to the target, permitting the Tenth to escape  so he could have his photo taken in Rome on the fourth of June. On Monday, June fifth all papers carried his photo but the following day a much more significant event took place and Clark was quickly forgotten. Sic transit Gloria indeed concludes  Neillands.

 The advance of the two armies during the summer was not as rapid as hoped. The Fifth had difficulty getting through the passes in the Northern Apennines and the Germans put up fierce resistance on the Adriatic coast until the usual heavy fall rains brought all mechanized movement to a halt. The strength of both was depleted by troop transfers to OVERLORD and ANVIL, the mal-conceived invasion of southern France so the winter brought activity to a halt; lack of artillery shells, flooding of the eastern coast caused by breached drainage systems, cold weather, sickness, and fatigue due to the long campaign all played a part.

 The offensive was relaunched on April 9. At this time the Germans had about half a million troops but no air support. The Allied strength was nearly two million backed by powerful tactical and strategic air forces. The Po was crossed at several points on the 23rd  and the collapse and surrender of  the German armies took place on May 2.

 Neillands avoids  judgement on the wisdom and effectiveness of the North African and Italian campaigns in relation to the rapid defeat of the Nazis and the minimization of casualties, both civilian and military. He does discuss the fundamental dispute between the Americans and Churchill on the strategy to best achieve this. The US was focused on an invasion of France with the largest possible forces in 1943 if not in 1942 whereas Churchill wanted to stretch and dilute the German forces over a wide area. The Americans suspected a British desire to establish a sphere of influence in the Mediterranean.

 The final outcome strongly supports the US position. One must question the results of the battles fought by the Eighth Army. Was it necessary to fight across the northern edge of the African continent if only the defence of the Suez Canal was important to the ultimate outcome? In Italy, the advantage of modern mechanized forces was neutralized by the terrain and weather and, in any case, what purpose was there in liberating Italy, especially if the ratio of defenders to attackers was one to four?  With a much superior industrial base would a direct attack on the German heartland not be the wisest option?

 This volume is well written and is aided by numerous quotations from the correspondence of the combatants in the Eighth. Unfortunately, he restricted himself to the English speakers; it would be enlightening to have access to the letters of the Indian, Greek, Van Doos, French, Polish, and African soldiers.  

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