There are images of Sicily 1943, the great book that historian James Holland dedicates to the long-forgotten campaign of the Allies to conquer the precious island during World War II, that are imprinted in memory with the terrible glow of a cannon shot. The young German pilot who runs burning like a torch and howling as he departs from his crashed Messerschmitt 109 fighter (“the stench of burnt meat that came from his head and torso was unbearable, his hair was melted and his face was a mass of blackened blisters ”); the Italian girl dead naked on the bed that tenant Livio Messina found with a chest wound in a house hit by a bomb (“she looked pretty, but her skin was already pale and waxy”); the American Rangers who when taking a position discover pieces of Italian soldiers scattered between the branches of the trees; Colonel Gavin’s small group of airborne troops (who would later be in Overlord and Market Garden, and in Vietnam) entrenched listening in awe to the roar and screeching of the tracks of the six Tiger tanks that together with a battalion of Panzer grenadiers advance towards their position in a pure print Saving Private Ryan (“if you meet him in combat, a Tiger is awe-inspiring”). There are also great beach scenes.
“Fighting in Sicily in the scorching summer of 1943 was brutal, a horror, one is astonished at what the men of both sides had to suffer,” says Holland in an interview in Barcelona with EL PAÍS about his book (Ático de los Books, translation by Joan Soler Chic), which describes the campaign (Operation Husky) that saw the Allies set foot for the first time in Axis Europe, Festung Europa, Fortress Europe, and foreshadowed the much more well-known Normandy landing. a year later. “A pre-war Baedeker guide warned travelers that under no circumstances should they visit Sicily in July and August because of the tremendous heat and the risk of disease, so if you add the danger of fighting… your brain boiled under the metal hull at 48º, the terrain is very mountainous, you have nowhere to hide, you tremble with malaria, you are machine-gunned and bombarded. Being an infantryman in Sicily was terrible, you were destined to beat yourself up sooner or later; the only thing you could do was wish it wasn’t fatal. “
Holland (Salisbury, UK, age 51) knows what he’s talking about. The scenes of the battle have been kicked, from the remains of cannon batteries in Capo Murro di Porco, to the bridges for which so much was fought or the bunkers on the beaches, on various trips (one with his 12-year-old daughter) , something that he considers essential for a military historian. And he has interviewed veterans of the campaign and civilians who suffered it. “It is very important to have a vision on the ground, which allows you a 360º panoramic view. The historian’s challenge is to make history as understandable and visible as possible, to evoke landscapes, smells, sounds, colors as much as possible. You have to visit the places, step on the battlefields. We have to go there ”.
James Holland, who has just returned from the scenes of the battle of the Ebro, where he has been impressed by what he has seen, is one of the young historians in the wake of veterans Max Hastings or Antony Beevor who are reviewing World War II . He does it – he has already dedicated several books to the war, such as The German Boom and The Allied Counterattack – with an excellent narrative pulse, a drama and a human interest that make him a worthy successor to the great masters, with whom he marks some distances. “I am friends with Beevor and Hastings and I respect both of them very much, but I do not revisit the war because yes, the approach I offer is different; His works focus on what happens in the high command and on the battlefield, in strategy and tactics, but there is still room to increase our knowledge at the operational level, the resources, the how and why, the production of weapons. , the factories. When we insert that into the narrative of the Second World War, we observe, for example, the precarious foundations of the Nazi state and how, regardless of their military tactics that we have been thinking about for fifty years, it was impossible for them to defeat the Allies ”. Unlike the always smart and well-dressed Beevor and Hastings, James Holland, handsome and boyish, wears an American military jacket and carries a khaki army bag that looks like something out of Inglourious Basterds. He also wears a cap with the insignia of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, the tank unit to which he has consecrated his latest book Brothers in arms and to which an exhibition is dedicated, on the occasion of its publication, at the National Army Museum in London, in Chelsea.
The historian points out that the conquest of Sicily, accomplished in 38 terrible days (in each of which an average of 237 Axis soldiers and at least 146 allies died), was a turning point in the war in the west and the first amphibious operation of great importance (not to mention Torch, the landing in North Africa) in a new type of war with a greater emphasis on technology and with a way of combining air, naval and land power as had not been seen before. Holland describes terrible fighting, acts of courage, great troop movements, and enormous suffering. The campaign, he emphasizes, further distanced the Germans from the Italians and “was another nail in Mussolini’s atáud”, contributed to the fall of the fascist regime and the abandonment of Italy from the Axis side (on September 1). So why is it less known to the general public than other episodes of World War II? Holland has a clear answer: “Because there has never been a great film about the Sicilian campaign like there has been about the Normandy landings, the Battle of Arnhem, the Ardennes, or Montecasino. I do not want to sound cynical, but the most famous battle scenes are those that appear in films or series ”. The Sicilian campaign appears tangentially in great war films such as Red One Shock Division (“the greatest glory of war is to survive”) or Patton. Sicily, in which the American general, absorbed in Thucydides, enjoyed a lot (unlike his men), was nemesis for him because of the episode that made him so unpopular of slapping a soldier with war neurosis. Holland also remembers that Patton, who could be harangued (“war is blood and guts”, he said and his soldiers: “yes, man, your guts and our blood”), exhorted his men not to take prisoners, what that could influence some massacre on the island.
James Holland narrates in his book many episodes of Italian soldiers fighting, including some that take away the hiccups, such as that of the tenente-colonnello Dante Ugo Leonardi when he saw one of his men, Rino Tarini, almost beheaded with his head practically separated from the trunk , get up a moment before falling round. What do you think of the debate about the value and effectiveness of these troops? “The problem with the Italians in World War II is that Musolini did not rearm himself like Hitler; the issue is not the courage of the Italian soldiers, which I have never doubted, but their lack of real ability to fight effectively against better prepared and provisioned modern armies. Neither in terms of weapons, nor in organization nor in officers and leadership could they compete, and that became very evident in Sicily. Courage and bravado can achieve some tactical victory, but to win a battle or war you need resources. It was like playing a third division team against one from the Premier League and also the heart of the nation was not in contention. The population in 43 was not interested in the fight, and who can blame them. I am very empathic with the terrible sufferings of Italians, soldiers and civilians ”.
In his book, Holland points out the Germans’ contempt for their allies. “Yes, it is pathetic and tragic. That affected a lot in Sicily. There was a complete breakdown of trust, seen in Gela’s counterattack, for example: there was no coordination between the two contingents, the Herman Goering and Livorno divisions were each on their own, Germans and Italians operated independently. The Germans decided early in the invasion that they wanted nothing to do with the Italians. ” The Germans never loaned Tigers to the Italians. “No, that was inconceivable to them, and the Luftwaffe took over the airfields of the Regia Aeronautica. There was never a shoulder-to-shoulder fight like that of the Allies. That of Hitler and Mussolini was an alliance of convenience, Hitler only wanted the Italians to cover his southern flank ”.
Of how that campaign in Sicily itself is judged today, Holland says it is seen as a mixture of invasion and liberation. “Many cities were terribly bombed by the Allies, but at the same time it was perceived that they were being rid of the Germans. There is a very interesting museum in Catania that emphasizes the suffering of civilians, who historically led a miserable life. In any case, there is no resentment on the island towards the Allies ”. Regarding the role of the Mafia in the campaign, Holland notes that paradoxically the invasion and the chaos and corruption that followed caused its rebirth. “Mussolini, who did not allow state control to be challenged, had practically eradicated it; as soon as the island was taken over, the Mafia, with characters like Vito Genovese, filled the power vacuum. And there they continue ”.
Among the conclusions of the campaign, Holland includes the presence of great characters such as Patton himself, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lord Mounbatten, the black pilots of the United States, the heroic soldier Audie Murphy, Paddy Maine, of the SAS; the reporter Ernie Pyle, the later poet Hanns Cibulka or the German general Ernst-Günther Baade, who wore a kilt, Holland thinks that the controversial episode of the evacuation of the German troops has been overrated and was not a Nazi Dunkirk. “The German soldiers who managed to cross the strait and leave Sicily, some 40,000, were not as big a problem as some historians have tried to assure; they were not decisive then in any way ”.
At the command post of fighter ace Steinhoff
It is surprising from Sicily 1943 that James Holand opens his narrative of the campaign with the perspective of a German aviator, the fighter ace Johannes Steinhoff, “Macky for friends” and very handsome until he was disfigured when his Me-262 reactor exploded in 1945 Holland, who uses the testimony of the pilot (expressed above all in his book The Strait of Messina, Spanish edition in Galland Books, 2013) throughout his work, starts from the fighter operations base of Trapani, on Mount Erice, where a Steinhoff exhausted and fed up with fighting materially inferior due to the decline of the Luftwaffe gazes out at the landscape under a fiery blue sky. The historian melancholyly visited the remains of the enclosure, under the top of the mountain where the temple of Venus ericina and the old Norman castle are located. “Your book is very interesting. It is revealing to see how his desperate perspective is the same as that of the RAF pilots only a year earlier during the siege of Malta, to which I dedicated my first book. In that time the tables had completely turned. It seems relevant to me not to see things from our national perspective and although we are repulsed by the Nazis we can feel empathy and pity towards combatants like Steinhoff, who faced Goering, and some of his colleagues ”. As General Alexander summed up when he casually overheard some officers privately railing about the war and its conduct: “The Germans are losing the war, if you think that being on our side is a bad thing, be glad you’re not on theirs.”