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Ambrose: WWII and Getting Down to Business: The Italian Campaign

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 20, 2022 3:01 am

Ambrose: WWII and Getting Down to Business: The Italian Campaign

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 20, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, even before the U.S./British victory in the North African campaign in May 1943, there was disagreement among the Allies on the best strategy to defeat the Axis. Eventually the U.S. and British political leadership reached a compromise in which both would commit most of their forces to an invasion of France in early 1944, but also launch a relatively small-scale Italian campaign. Here’s Stephen Ambrose with the story.

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Helping people live healthier lives. And we continue with our American Stories. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading biographers and historians, and one of my favorites. At the core of Ambrose's phenomenal success is his simple but straightforward belief that history is biography. History is about people.

He would tell anybody who cared to listen. Ambrose passed in 2002, but his epic storytelling accounts can now be heard here at Our American Stories, thanks to those who run his estate. Even before the U.S.-British victory in the North African campaign in May of 1943, there was disagreement among the Allies on the best strategy to defeat the Axis powers. Eventually, the U.S. and British political leadership reached a compromise in which both would commit most of their forces to an invasion of France in early 1944, but also launch a relatively small-scale Italian campaign.

Here's Stephen Ambrose with the story. The next operation was Sicily in July of 1943. This was a logical extension of the original commitment to North Africa, but it needs to be pointed out that this was an awful long way away from the heart of Germany's power. And this was the big operation for the United States Army and the British Army and Air Forces in the European theater in 1943 was the taking of Sicily, which was hardly going to be a decisive action. But it did provide a stepping stone to get to Italy and then on into Italy and a campaign that was to follow in the fall that was being planned already, a campaign for the invasion of Italy.

But equipment was now becoming available. One was the British horse of glider, which was a product of the British wood making industry. In 1940, when Britain had her back against the wall and they wanted everybody to be doing something for the war effort, people said, what about our cabinet makers?

What can we put them to work on that will contribute to the war effort? And they came up with a design for this glider, the horse of glider, and it's all made out of plywood. And they put the carpenters and the master craftsmen, the cabinet makers in Britain to work on building these gliders and they built thousands of them. It's a wonderful little piece of equipment. It's obvious simplicity. It's very light.

It can carry 18 men or it can carry a jeep. It's very cheap to make. The cheapest plywood imaginable goes into these things.

It cracks up on contact with almost anything. It can be towed behind a C-47. That's the military version of the DC-3, the DC-3 being the greatest airplane ever built, period. Anyway, they could tow these horse of gliders. In fact, a C-47 could tow two of them on separate lines.

And you come down silently so that you are able to put 18 men carrying automatic weapons onto one spot at one time without the enemy knowing they're coming until they're actually there on top of them. It's a flimsy little thing. When Darryl Zanuck made the longest day in the late 1950s, he got the blueprints for one of these. There weren't any of them left anywhere in the world. They'd all broken up. Most of them broke up on their first landing.

They were one-shot deals only. Zanuck got the blueprints for one of these and built it. And then the Air Ministry in the United Kingdom said that craft is inherently un-airworthy.

You will not have a permit to fly it over to France. So Zanuck had to take it apart, move it piece by piece over to France and put it back together again. Every man that rode on a horse of glider in the Second World War, and there were tens of thousands of them, would agree with the Air Ministry's decision that these things are not airworthy. But they did a job in Sicily where they were used for the first time and they would be used much more extensively in the Normandy invasion in 1944. These are two LCVPs, Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel. They were built in New Orleans, Louisiana by the Andrew Higgins in five different locations in his boatyards. The design evolved out of boats that Higgins had been building for the exploration of Louisiana's swamps in the late 1930s. Higgins had entered a competition that the Marines had held for landing craft. The Marines in the late 30s recognizing that there's going to be a war in the Pacific and we're going to be landing on an awful lot of islands and we don't have anything to do it in.

Which is to say, when World War II began, the United States not only didn't have any landing craft, didn't even have any plans for one, didn't have a design for one. Higgins converted his oil exploration Eureka boat into what became the LCVP, or as it was known to the GIs, the Higgins boat. The Higgins boat was 32 feet long. It was made of cheap plywood except for a steel front ramp. It could carry a platoon of men, 32 fighting men, drop the ramp, and you would have 32 men pouring out of this landing craft ready to fire, ready to go to work.

Carried 50 cal machine guns in the back. It had a protected rudder. There was an extension that put the rudder up into this V-shape in the stern of the boat so that the rudder was completely protected. A flat bottom boat so that it could go right on into the shore and then drop the ramp. Everybody rushes out and then you wait for the tide to come and lift it and take it off again. Again, simplicity of design.

Necessity is the mother of invention. These were used for the first time in large numbers in the invasion of Sicily, which began on the 8th of July of 1943. This campaign was a success in the end for the Americans and the British, but boy it was a long time coming and it left a lot of bad feelings.

The Germans had only two divisions in Sicily. We were attacking with three American and five British divisions. The Americans coming in on the south shore of Sicily under General Patton, the British coming in on the eastern shore of Sicily just short of the city of Messina.

The strategic aim was for the British to drive right on up into Messina and close off the escape route over to the toe of Italy for the Germans in Sicily while Patton provided flank protection. The initial attack on 8 July didn't go very well. A lot of these gliders were cut loose too far out to sea by pilots who were inexperienced in this sort of thing and the gliders came down in the water. The 82nd Airborne, this was the first big airdrop of the war for these new American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd Airborne Division flew over the invasion fleet and trigger-happy sailors on their anti-aircraft guns shot them down. It took very bad losses, as much as 30%, with the 82nd Airborne to our own fire.

Once ashore though, things started going better. For one thing, most of the garrison on Sicily was Italian. There were two German divisions and five Italian divisions. The Italians, to say the least of it, didn't have their heart in this thing. Mussolini had dragged them into a war that clearly was in Hitler's interest only.

The Italians were very badly officered, very shoddily equipped, and had no morale at all. Rommel was once in a situation where one of his generals said something to the effect of, God, it's terrible having to have Italians as allies. Churchill had said, it was only fair that the Germans got the Italians for allies in the Second World War. We were stuck with them in the First World War. And you all know all kinds of jokes about the Italians as warriors.

The shortest book in the world is Italian War Heroes, and etc. Rommel's comment on this sort of thing was, but isn't it well that there are some people left in Europe that don't like to fight? The real truth is that Italians fight just as much as anybody else, but not in the Italian Army, led by Mussolini, because it was just such a rotten outfit. And plus, there wasn't a platoon, there probably wasn't a squad in the American Army that didn't have a native-speaking Italian in it. So when the Americans started coming ashore in Sicily, it was family reunion time. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose tell stories the way only Stephen Ambrose can.

And when we come back, more of Stephen Ambrose's story of the Italian campaign in World War Two here on Our American Stories. Did you know that NURTEC ODT Remigipant 75 mg can help migraine sufferers still attend such an exciting event like Wango Tango? It's true! I had one that night, and I took my NURTEC ODT, and I was present and had an amazing time. Here's a little glimpse of our conversation with some of our closest friends. This episode was brought to you by NURTEC ODT Remigipant 75 mg. Life with migraine attacks can mean missing out on big moments with friends and family.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we continue with our American stories. We last heard Stephen Ambrose discuss how the Italian Army was not very invested in Mussolini's war. He also shared how most American squads landing in Italy had at least one native-speaking Italian in its ranks.

Let's return to Stephen Ambrose. So when the Americans started coming ashore in Sicily, it was family reunion time. Everybody, as far as I've ever been able to make out, is related to everybody else in Sicily. And the Italian Army in Sicily, they were gone in the first half hour. They took off their uniforms, threw away their weapons, and embraced the American Italians coming ashore. The Germans fought. They had a paratroop division and they had the Hermann Göring division on Sicily.

Crack troops. And they fought and Monty stalled, as always. His attack toward Messina was on again, off again.

It didn't get started. And he promised, the next day, I'll get going. And the next day, there was another excuse not to get going.

And so Monty sat. While Patton decided to take off on his own and to go for the headlines instead of the German Army. So Patton drove in the exactly wrong direction. Instead of driving toward Messina, Patton went up to Palermo. There weren't any German troops up here, just surrendering Italians. Germans were all defending Messina in their escape route. Patton took Palermo and got the headlines. This was the first big city in Europe to be liberated.

But he hadn't contributed to the winning of the war. He then began a series of attacks straight east. It was summer. It was hot. Things weren't going well. The Germans were experts.

This is a mountainous country. The Germans were the world's experts in laying mines and digging anti-tank ditches and setting up their artillery just around the corner where the road jams could be created by blowing the boogie wheels off the tank. And the Germans were just better than anybody else at this. And the progress was excruciatingly slow.

And it was hot as hell. And Patton was starting to get criticism, not so much in the press, but from his fellow generals about this dash to Palermo. So he was in a foul mood when one day toward the end of July, he walked into a field hospital. Patton was, old blood and guts was his nickname. He is the young American male who's testosterone runs a little bit stronger than it ought to. Just regard George Patton as practically a god. Mr. Tough of World War II. In fact, Patton was a man who couldn't stand the sight of blood.

Very squeamish. But he would force himself to go into the field hospitals. And you certainly have to admire him for that.

And he would go and talk to the men in their beds. It's hard to do, you know. You're talking to a kid who's just lost his arm. You're talking to a farmer who's just lost his leg above the knee. You're talking to young men who know that they're never going to see again. And a lot's worse than that.

It's awful hard to do. But Patton would make himself do it when he went through a ward of amputees. And he came out and there was a young man sitting on a stool, kind of shaking and kind of crying. And Patton went up to me and said, son, what's the matter with you? And the private said, it's my nerves, sir. It's my nerves.

I can't take that shelling anymore. Why, you yellow little son of a bitch, Patton said. And he whammed him right across the face and sent the kid's helmet rolling down the aisle in the ward. And then came back and hit him again on the other side and kicked at him.

And turned to the doctor and said, you get this yellow-livered little son of a bitch out of here. I don't want him contaminating these brave men. Well, it was a big mistake on Patton's part. Generals ought not to go around hitting privates.

For one thing, the private's not allowed to hit back. But it was even a bigger mistake than that because it turned out that this young man had a very bad case of malaria. He was running at a temperature of 105. The doctors were appalled at Patton's outburst. They sent a report to Eisenhower. He jerked Patton up pretty strong. Sent him a letter of reprimand. Told Patton, you've got to go back to that hospital and apologize to those doctors and those nurses. Which was kind of humiliating for Patton, but he did it. But in the end, I covered it up.

He said, this report, my letter of reprimand to you is not going into your official file. Well, that was a mistake on Ike's part. Because when a general slaps a private, expecting a general as famous as Patton already was, the word's going to get out. And it did. Three reporters found out what had happened. And they came to Ike in Algiers. This is a nice example of the difference between the relationship between the press and the government and the military in World War II and later wars. They came to Ike with this story.

It was going to win any one of them. Demery Bess of the Saturday Evening Post was one of them, one of the reporters. It was going to win any one of them a Pulitzer Prize. And they said, General, we've got this story.

Talk to people that were there. And we want to release it. And Ike said, boys, please don't. Don't let it out. He said to them, if you ever let this out, he said, they'll be howling for Georgie's scalp. And that'll be the end of Georgie's service in this war, and I simply can't let that happen. Patton is indispensable to the war effort. He's one of the guarantors of our victory. Well, the reporters, what could they do with that?

I mean, Patton's going to guarantee victory for us, and it's all on their shoulders. And they said, all right, we'll shut up. We won't tell the story. Nevertheless, it did get out some three months later.

Drew Pearson, a gossip columnist in the States, got a hold of it. And Pearson made a big thing out of this story, and Patton had to be put on the shelf for the next six months, and was almost called back to join Fredendall in disgrace back in the States as a result of this slapping incident. By the end of August, Sicily had finally been cleared of German troops.

It had taken a long time. It had taken a four-to-one manpower advantage to do it, eight divisions versus two divisions, and an overwhelming air superiority. But the Germans had finally been not captured, but driven off of Sicily.

The Germans made good their escape over the Straits of Messina back into Italy. Montgomery followed them and began a pursuit up the toe of Italy, while the Americans prepared for the next invasion in Italy to take place in the port of Salerno just south of Naples. So while Montgomery is coming up the Italian toe, the Americans are preparing to invade at Salerno and then proceed on to the drive to Rome. Let's talk a little bit about the critique of the strategy of the year 1943 in concentrating so much of the resources on the Mediterranean.

And that critique is very simply put. The problem with the campaign in the Mediterranean is that it didn't lead anywhere. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose tell the story of the Italian campaign in World War II, the Allied campaign. And you had the story of Montgomery and Patton. Montgomery more hesitant, Patton more aggressive.

And we get the full picture of that slapping incident. If you've ever seen Patton, the movie, they get it right. And George G. Scott, my goodness, he gets it right. And by the way, that screenplay, Patton, was written by a very young Francis Ford Coppola.

He won an Oscar for that and had never served in the Army. A remarkable achievement by Francis Ford Coppola. When we come back, more of this remarkable story.

Stephen Ambrose telling the story of the Italian campaign in World War II here on Our American Stories. Hey, you guys, this is Tori and Jenny with the 902.1 OMG podcast. We have such a special episode brought to you by NerdTech ODT. We recorded it at I Heart Radio's 10th Poll event, Wango Tango. Did you know that NerdTech ODT Remedipant 75 mg can help migraine sufferers still attend such an exciting event like Wango Tango? It's true. I had one that night and I took my NerdTech ODT and I was present and had an amazing time. Here's a little glimpse of our conversation with some of our closest friends. This episode was brought to you by NerdTech ODT Remedipant 75 mg. Life with migraine attacks can mean missing out on big moments with friends and family.

But thankfully, NerdTech ODT Remedipant 75 mg is the only medication that is proven to treat a migraine attack and prevent episodic migraines in adults. So lively events like Wango Tango don't have to be missed. Soon millions will make Medicare coverage decisions for next year. And UnitedHealthcare can help you feel confident about your choices. For those eligible, Medicare Annual Enrollment runs from October 15th through December 7th. If you're working past age 65, you might be able to delay Medicare enrollment depending on your employer coverage.

It can seem confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Visit UHCmedicarehealthplans.com to learn more. UnitedHealthcare. Helping people live healthier lives. What up?

It's Dramos. You may know me from the recap on LATV. Now I've got my own podcast, Life as a Gringo, coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday. We'll be talking real and unapologetic about all things life, Latin culture, and everything in between from someone who's never quite fit in. Listen to Life as a Gringo on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Brought to you by State Farm.

Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we continue with our American stories and with Stephen Ambrose, who you are hearing thanks to the estate of Stephen Ambrose. And if you are interested in sharing his great stories with your family, search for Stephen Ambrose's great books and read them to your family. They're the kind of books you can read aloud to your kids.

They have that quality. Let's return to the story and to Stephen Ambrose. No matter how successful you are in Italy, when you get done, you got the Alps between you and the objective. Italy was not critical to Germany's ability to make war. The Germans were not relying on the Italians for foodstuffs or for raw materials or for finished products or for their army. They were willing enough to put an investment into Italy to hold up the Allied advance, but there was no way that Germany was going to lose the war in Italy. And there was no way the Allies were going to get out of Italy into the parts of Germany that had to be overrun before Germany could be forced to accept those unconditional surrender terms.

The attack at Salerno came on the eighth day of September of 1943. It had been preceded by a major diplomatic and political event. For a long time, the Allies had wanted to bomb Rome because it's the great railway center of Italy. And the Germans were beginning to rush troops into Italy for the defense of Rome and for wherever the Allies were going to come after the Sicilian landings. Always Eisenhower refused to give permission to any bombing in Rome because of fear that a stray bomb might hit the Vatican.

But the marshaling yards are a long way away from the Vatican, and I finally agreed in July that if they would make a circle of radius 12 miles around the Vatican and agree that no planes would fly over that area, they could go ahead and bomb. And they hit the marshaling yards in other parts of Rome, and the immediate reaction on the part of the Italians was for their factions of Grand Council to have an unauthorized meeting and depose Mussolini. Mussolini out of power. He eventually was able to escape and get to the Germans into the northern part of Italy. His successor as head of government, remember Italy was a monarchy, King Victor Emmanuel was the sovereign.

Mussolini's successor as the head of the Italian government was a general, Marshall Badaglio, an old man from the First World War. And Eisenhower immediately saw an opportunity to cut a deal. Despite Roosevelt's implied promise to Stalin with the unconditional surrender formula that we're not going to have any more deal with fascists, Ike was immediately willing and ready and eventually did cut a deal with Badaglio who was to Italy rather like what Darlan had been to France. That is, he was a leading collaborator, he was a fascist, but he was in power. And Ike knew the Italian army didn't want to fight, Ike knew the Italian government was desperate to surrender, Ike knew that he sent secret emissaries out and they met in Spain with Badaglio's emissaries and it was immediately obvious that Italy didn't just want out of this war, Italy wanted to double-cross the Germans and come into the war as a co-belligerent on the allied side.

Ike was happy enough to do that, in fact eager. And he did make a deal with Badaglio that said that the Italians would take control of the airport at Rome and when the invasion came, the 82nd Airborne would land at Rome's airport and take control of the city as the Fifth Army under Mark Clark went into Salerno. At the very last minute, in fact while 82nd Airborne planes were already in the air and beginning to circle to form up for the flight to Rome's airfield, Badaglio lost his nerve until Eisenhower had ordered the Italian army to lay down its arms, the Germans were pouring divisions into Rome, Badaglio was fleeing Rome along with Victor Emmanuel and the whole deal fell through.

Perhaps luckily on the political front, Stalin would have been most upset to see another Darlin deal going down. On the other hand, it wasn't until nine months later that we got in, and a lot of lives later that we got into Rome, when maybe we could have gotten Rome on the first day. It would have changed the whole course of the war on the Italian peninsula had that happened. But it didn't, and the attack on Salerno took place. It was awfully close. It was the closest that the allies came in the European theater, and indeed this would include the landings of the Pacific theater, to an unsuccessful amphibious attack. The German tanks got in between the two American divisions coming ashore. At one point there was a duel between American destroyers in the bay at Salerno and German tanks on the shore.

Clark came very close to ordering his troops to withdraw. They just did hold on because Eisenhower was able to actually persuade the combined chiefs of staff to quickly rush some B-24s from London down to Sicily, where they were gassed up and loaded up with bombs and went in on low-level missions to hit those German tanks, and just barely we managed to hold on at Salerno. And that became almost the story of the Italian campaign to follow.

It was a case of just barely all the time. A link-up was made between Monty's forces coming up from the toe and Mark Clark's forces at Salerno. A line was extended across the Italian peninsula. The troops did begin to move north, but very slowly. The Germans used the terrain in their usual exemplary fashion, imposing very high losses on the Allies for very small gains at a very small cost to the Germans. It was frustrating and expensive and was to continue that way right on through to the end in Italy, right on through into May of 1945. Now, meanwhile, coming to the end now of 1943, this second front business couldn't be put off anymore. There was going to have to be a second front in 1944. For one reason, if there wasn't one, it was going to be the Red Army that was going to liberate all of Europe.

And this was a very important consideration, especially in Eisenhower's mind. There was a temptation to say, let the Red Army do it. Let them take the casualties. Let them fight the war. We'll fight the air war and the sea war. Let them fight the ground war.

On the surface, it made a lot of sense. The problem is that it would have meant that at the end of the war, the Allies would have Italy and Sicily, while the Red Army would overrun Central Europe and then Germany and then France right up to the English Channel. So this would all be a part of what became the Soviet satellite system.

If we stayed out of the ground war. There is a sense in which the invasion of Normandy in 1944 was directed not only against the Germans, it was also directed against a Red Army occupation of Western Europe. The Allies, all three of them, the big three as they were called, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, met at Tehran and Iran in December of 1943 to plan operations for 1944. The first thing Stalin wanted to know was, is there going to be a second front? Yes, said Roosevelt.

We're absolutely agreed on it. We are building forces in Britain now. There is going to be a second front in 1944 in Northern France. Great, said Stalin. Who's going to command it? Well, that hadn't been decided yet, Roosevelt responded. Well, said Stalin, I don't believe you. If you haven't appointed a commander for this, you're not serious about it.

You're just stringing me along again. Roosevelt left Tehran and went back to Cairo, Egypt, where the conference with Churchill continued. And there he made his most important military decision of the war, the selection of the commander for Operation Overlord. The man that Roosevelt wanted to put in command was George Marshall. He felt that Marshall deserved the opportunity to lead the army that he, Marshall, had created, to put into action the strategy that he, Marshall, had developed. On the other hand, Roosevelt was torn. He wanted to give Marshall this opportunity, but he didn't want to lose Marshall's services in Washington. As he was to put it later, I just couldn't sleep at night with George Marshall out of Washington. He asked Marshall, what do you prefer? And Marshall quite rightly said, it's not my decision to make. You're the commander in chief. You've got to make that decision.

I'll serve wherever you think I can serve you best. So Roosevelt wasn't able to weed him out of making the decision. He had to make it himself, and he finally decided that he just couldn't afford to lose Marshall's services as the chief of staff, and so he selected Eisenhower. In a way, then, Eisenhower's selection into this most coveted command in the history of warfare came about by default. But I had a lot of positive attributes going for him, of which the most important was his ability to get British and American officers to work together as a team. And a terrific job, as always, by Greg Hengler on the storytelling and what a piece of American history we're listening to and by nobody better at telling the story of World War II.

All of it, the strategies, the tactics, the point of view from the generals to the grunts. And by the way, if you get a chance, go to New Orleans, visit the National World War II Museum. It may be the greatest museum in this country. I've been there a dozen times. You will not regret it. You can also visit the National World War II Museum online. Go to their website. There's so much great material to teach your families about this war and bring it into the schools.

And remember us here on Our American Stories. That's unconventional thinking from T-Mobile for Business. Soon millions will make Medicare coverage decisions for next year. And UnitedHealthcare can help you feel confident about your choices. For those eligible, Medicare annual enrollment runs from October 15th through December 7th.

If you're working past age 65, you might be able to delay Medicare enrollment depending on your employer coverage. It can seem confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Visit UHCmedicarehealthplans.com to learn more. UnitedHealthcare, helping people live healthier lives. What up?

It's Dramos. You may know me from the recap on LATV. Now I've got my own podcast, Life as a Gringo, coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday. We'll be talking real and unapologetic about all things life, Latin culture, and everything in between from someone who's never quite fit in. Listen to Life as a Gringo on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Brought to you by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-22 23:48:50 / 2023-01-23 00:02:15 / 13

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