Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: Sicily, Or, The Beginning of the End

When northern Italians face south towards Sicily, Africa gets in their eye.

Palermo, looking north:

Seventy years ago today, Commando Supremo sat down to digest the situation reports from the day before, and learned that the war was over. Action orders for the Italian air force this day are to evacuate airfields in Sicily and Calabria. The air war over Sicily is over. Why?

Combat aircraft sorties by Axis power*

11 July: 198 Italian sorties, 283 German
12 July: 171 Italian sorties, 202 German
13 197 Italian, 164 German
14 88 Italian, 156 German
15 76 Italian, 85 German

The air war over Sicily is already over. Wikipedia helpfully adds that the Italians have lost 150 aircraft over 5 days. Which, looking at loss rates in, say, the Battle of Britain, might lead one to suggest that the Italians need to suck it up.

Only here's some perspective on this, shamelessly copied from the tireless work of Richard Overy:**

Number of Aircraft


Italy's military aircraft production, over the whole war, was less than Japan's in the single year of 1943. Yes, Italy had a population of 43 million to Japan's 73, and 2.7% of world manufacturing share to Japan's 3.5.  And the United Kingdom had 48 million people and 9.2% of world manufacturing, at least by the statistical synthesis used by Overy, which I do not mean to unreservedly endorse here. "Produce" is not the same thing as "manufacture." A forged chromium steel angle is not a cast Bessemer steel bar. 

So this is my point here: We're looking south from Napoli at Palermo.

Sicily was one weird campaign. Douglas Porch sums up his discussion of Sicily by quoting Carlos D'Este to the effect that the campaign saw 80,000 Germans drag out a battle for a small island for 38 days against 400,000 Allies, or something like that, and then get away across the Straits of Messina, which, being water, ought to have been interdicted by Allied forces. Somehow. (Look: we're the idea men. We've had the idea: interdict the Straits. Now all the technical guys have to do is execute.) 

Sicily. Worst battle ever! I probably shouldn't be picking on Este, here. The special pleading is so obvious that it's the argument behind the argument that matters. We have the Italians not counting again; numbers at the peak of the Allied buildup being compared with peak Axis strength many days earlier. We have the huge begged question of what the objective standard might be capturing a  10,000 square mile island. Although if 38 days is too long, Guadalcanal was an even worse Allied defeat than Sicily. 

At one level, the argument behind the argument is the old one: "Nazi supermen are our superiors" crowd." Why people would want to argue this I do not know, but it was at least viable before archival dives put good numbers on total casualties, which do not flatter the Axis at all. (25,000 Allies; 20,000 German, 135,000 Italian.)

At another level, you should get that by "weird," I mean "tendentious." This is, after all, an argument with multiple chronological ascription. We are talking about 1943, but to understand the debate over Sicily, we also need to float over the Fall of 1951: Eisenhower moving towards the Republican candidacy, Churchill towards government; John Harding towards the CIGS***. If the Wikipedia article heads off with the "strategic" discussion of the invasion of Sicily, it is because that is where the argument was --in 1951/2. In 1943, the Allied armies were not doing anything, and the British (or, worse, Churchill, the worst war leader of WWII except for all the others) argued that invading Sicily would be quick and relatively painless, and lead to the opening of the Mediterranean to freight traffic, saving 250 ship equivalents, and the capitulation of Italy. That this would happen was obvious to all. How could the vital Italian coasting trade survive the presence of Allied air and light forces in Palermo?

In 1951/2, though, we can have a discussion about the basically dead arguments against the invasion of Sicily. The American Chiefs of Staff oppose the invasion of Sicily on the grounds of "diversion of effort," which it was, as long as ROUNDUP was on the table. But ROUNDUP was dead from the moment that TORCH was agreed upon. The "diversion" would just lead to  divisions that weren't going to be doing anything until the summer of 1944, instead doing something in the summer of 1943. That it might lead to an invasion of Italy is the old slippery slope argument, which only has strength because an invasion of Italy would lead to Western Allied forces fighting the Axis in 1943.  Washington turned to the idea that Sicily was part of a duplicitous plan to draw America into supporting British longterm strategic goals in the Mediterranean, which is silly in the context of 1943, when achieving strategically important goals such as opening the Mediterranean was good strategy, but a strong argument in 1951/2, when the issue was Churchill's determination to "maintain" the British Empire. 

Indeed, the one Allied offensive that was cancelled (partly) because of Sicily was an amphibious operation against the Japanese on the Arakan coast of Burma with the goal of opening the Burma Road. Anyone intending to be snide in London in 1943 could ask about "longterm American strategic interests in China." In 1951/2, at least in the runup to the Republican Convention, it was about "Who lost China."

Brigadier Molony makes the point that in some ways communication between the various Allied headquarters was too good. The means of communication were a vacuum that sucked debate out of all quarters. This is good, blunt military talk, but not all that helpful. Debate helps people stake out political positions for later. No-one was going to be helped if Eisenhower could be positioned as a mere obstacle to the progress of a Great Captain, or however his eventual rivals for the nomination chose to spin his relationship with Montgomery. Fortunately, Monty made an epic mistake on 13 July, and probably conducted his private life in such a way that he would never have been qualified to be a Great Captain, anyway. (We'll leave aside the whole "he was right, but he was really mean in the way that he said it, so aren't the real heroes here the ones who were totally wrong about strategy and tactics, but who were all hurt and everything when Monty said tactless things?" Also, obligatory.) The official historian, perhaps sick and tired of reading minutes, suggests frustration, but the initial debate over Sicilian strategy was not  pointless. It was just pointless in 1943.  

Which is not to say that all of the debate was irrelevant.  Three months before the invasion, Wilfrid Lindsell rang the bell. It took about 70 days to get a division loaded and on its way: are we going? And all the talk shops folded and said, "yes, we're going." The war was on. Which was where the debate actually begins to turn on something real. Because here is the Tedder/Cunningham/Alexander plan for the invasion of Sicily, as signed off on by Eisenhower's SHAEF staff:

Talk about violating the principle of concentration of force! Also, enough about Monty's sexuality, because someone really likes drawing arrows.  Understandably, Montgomery took one look at this and declared that it was not going to fly, and that he had referred the Sicily case file to his Eighth Army staff, which would come up with a better plan, thank you very much, which might have been the very moment that Mngtulu rose from the starless depths. 

Now, I could say something about the Tedder/Montgomery relationship here. In fact, I will. I suspect that Tedder was deliberately undermining Montgomery as part of Archie Sinclair's plan to replace Churchill at Downing Street. Someone should look at that seriously, some day. It doesn't matter, though. Tedder's plan was goofy in the sense that it dispersed Allied efforts all around the island of Sicily in an attempt to take the 13 Axis landing fields on the island and so secure air supremacy by bizarrely hypertophied coup de main. the goofy part is the assumption that the Axis would not react to indications of an Allied operation against Sicily by building more airfields. As, in fact, they did, building an additional 17 fields through the spring and summer. 

The reason that it does not matter is that we are allowing hindsight to influence our understanding of the Sicilan campaign. Commando Supremo did not enter the campaign for Sicily with a clever plan to humiliate the Allies with a clever evacuation, taking a swipe at too-big-for-his-britches Montgomery and overwhelmed-by-excessive-expectations-Patton in the process. It entered the campaign planning to defeat the Allied invasion and hold Sicily. For it was obvious to all (again, look at the map!) that Italy's war effort would not survive the loss of the island.

So, looking at things from a grand strategists' position, the matter did not rest on the supposed isolation of a quasi-African island. Indeed, the Allied troops gave incidental testimony to this in their experience of fighting their way through cotton fields and citrus and almond groves. Sicily was a fully integrated part of the Italian economy, part of Mackinder's Heartland in every sense except in having a particularly wide river on the road between Naples and Messina.  Allied strategists noticed that there were six rail ferry crossings of the Straits of Messina each day, plus a steamboat service, enough to move enough to move 40,000 men or 7500 men and 750 vehicles by rail, 12,000 men by steamboat, and 1000 tons by air, while the Allies looked to a capacity of  4-5000 tons/day at Messenia, 2500 at Palermo, 1800 at Catania and 1000 at Syracuse, plus 600 for miscellaneous ports. Considering that an armoured division requires over 655 tons/day to attack, 328 to pursue; 535 to defend; and 129 in reserve, with air needs roughly doubling this and excluding construction stores for rehabilitating ports and railways. The issue going into the campaign was the expected rate of reinforcement, and that rate was much higher for the Axis than for the Allies. From what I understand of the terms of the WWI debate between Easterners and Westerners, the issue here is not one of overwhelming hapless Italians, but of finding a rabbit up the Allied sleeve.$ 

The rabbit, as Tedder saw, was air power. The Allies committed 3,462 a/c to the operation, of which 2,510 were serviceable on D-Day. The Axis had about 1750, of which 960 were German. The Allies were handicapped by lack of airfields, but the Axis had had problems exercising air power over Malta, even when they had air superiority, by Sicily's limited communications. (Because the transport capacity of the Sicilian ports was based on the island's ability to export agricultural commodities in peacetime on ships that didn't happen to belong to Italian owners.)  Take the airfields, disrupt the Axis maintenance effort, and their air effort would quickly grind to a halt. 

As it did. The point where Tedder was mistaken was in assuming that the Axis air forces would have the staying power to fight the narrowly-based Allied air umbrella, and this was lacking. Molony offers a robust explanation: the Axis pursuit failed. And it failed because the German Air Force was dispersed over too many theatres of effort. Too much dispersion of effort, in other words.

Which leads me to the question that ought to hang over the whole discussion. What the fuck was going on at Giudonia? For two decades now, the Mussolini had been proclaiming the identity of Fascism and air power. No one is asking Italy to match American and British airpower straight up, but thee circumstances are as good as they are ever going to get. That's the Italian main stretching from southeast to northwest, facing and cuddling the Sicilian football to the Italian leg. One airfield, factory, city after another forming a triangle with Palermo at its apex. On the other side, the Allied pursuit is crammed into a single, small island. 

This is a systemic failure, one that is a bit much for a single blog post to excavate in its full. But I do want to spend some time exploring the way that an underemployed Sicilian might explore it: in terms of deep intrigue about the suspicious lack of well-paid aircraft factory jobs making fighter planes for the Regia Aeronautica. 

Yes, I know, hur-hur Italian biplanes. But:

I am not even going to talk about 1943's Falcons of Fascism, the Macchi Mc 205, the Reggiane R. 2005 and Fiat G. 55. Aircraft developments begun in 1939 ought to be just straggling onto the field in 1943. The plane above, the Reggiane 2001, originated in a 1938 design, the Re. 2000, a very modern aircraft built around the Piaggio P. XI, a licensed version of Gnome-Rhone's prolific 14 cylinder 2 row radial engine giving 1000hp in the Piaggio incarnation. The Italians, underwhelmed by the long term potential of radial-engined fighters, negotiated a license to produce the Daimler-Benz 601 in 1939, and the Re2001 was the re-engined result. (the Re2005 being a further re-engining with the DB605, a redesigned 601 with slightly thinner cylinder walls to give 35.7 vice 33.93 litre capacity.) 

The Re2001 does not get high marks in comparisons with other aircraft, but it is not at all clear that it was much overmatched by the Spitfire V, much less the Hurricane II or P-40. Where it really suffered, apart from lack of bomber-killing firepower, was that it was more expensive than its similarly-engined rival, the Macchi MC202.

I single out this bit in the light of the collapse of Italian aircraft production in the course of the first years of the war. Italy was fighting a world war and counting its pennies as it did so. Ultimately, it had the technology to compete, but not the financial will to do so. 

At this point, I want to step back and highlight another aspect of this story, which is the consistent decision to license the aeroengines of other powers. This is, of course, cheap. Fiat was putting an indigenous engine into the CR42 in 1939, but there were to be no successors. Foreign licenses were the solution of choice. 

So here, at the end of the day and of a blog post that has already eaten up my day, I'm going to put up a set of things that happened: first, the systemic development of underdevelopment of Italian Sicily as a quasi-colonial possession intended to generate foreign exchange by exporting value-added agricultural goods; second, the attempt to develop an Italian air arm on the cheap, eschewing the state-funded development of indigenous high power internal combustion engines in favour of often-re-exported licensed designs; third, ignominious defeat in a great power war. The question, and I am just going to pose it as a question in the egregiously dishonest mode favoured by rhetorical question posers everywhere. Are these three things really unrelated? 

*From J. Molony, et al., Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume V, Sicily and Italy (London: HMSO, 1974): 97.

**Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939--1943 (London: PAPERMAC, 1990): 150. NB. I'm told that this imprint imprint of the MacMillan 1987 paperback edition has different pagination from the original, and in a world of more thorough bibliographic factchecking would count as another edition. Whatever, anonymous reviewer. 
***The point here being that Harding was an Eighth Army man, deeply involved in the controversy I am about to discuss. Slim, the man who replaced Montgomery as CIGS in 1948, was the subject of an unpleasant altercation between Montgomery and Atlee. Up to the appointment of Montgomery's stepson as CIGS in 1971, three Eighth Army men, one Burman, and one man who held home appointments before Normandy were CIGS after Harding. Not incidentally, the doyen of British military historians, B. H. Liddell Hart, was totally in the tank with the Montgomery faction. This is somewhat obscured by the fact that his overt devotion was to Montgomery's brother-in-law, Percy Hobart, rather than to the controversial man himself, but it remains the case. History is contingent. It could have been told otherwise. And would have deeply impacted Hart had it been so. How well would we remember the "apostle of mobility" if we recalled his role in scuppering the career of the man who went from commanding the Tank Corps in WWI to being odds-on favourite to be the next (wartime) CIGS in 1938?
$Howard, Grand Strategy, Vol. 4 (London: HMSO, [n.d.]), enough to move 40,000 men or 7500 men and 750 vehicles. A steamboat service could move another 12,000, and 1000 tons could be shipped in by air (363); Molony, 15; tonnage/division/day from a secondary source that lifted it from Ruppenthal. Yes, I'm being lazy. A final digressive note: I am usually a fan of the professionalism of the official United Kingdom History of the Second World War series, but this is a pretty serious bibliographic fail, and should probably not be cited as "Howard," since Butler's series authorship is given exclusively at some libraries. UBC, I'm looking at you.


  1. I'm guessing we're going to hear about Isotta-Fraschini MTB engines in the next gripping instalment...

  2. You know, the museum where I volunteer has a C202 Folgore, and I've never met a single visitor who can identify it.

    Yes, the Italians were left behind by engine technology leading to underpowered aircraft, but their bigger problem was the lack of avgas: they had enough for some operations but not nearly enough for training. Even if they had built more aircraft because they had spent more money industrializing in the 1930's they couldn't have operated them because there is no way in hell the Germans were going to give up enough of their precious Ploesti-juice.

    1. I'm still indicting Italy. The Sirte Basin was a pretty obvious place to look for oil, and it was found within three years of the beginning of exploration.

      A much more serious strategic problem was the country's lack of coal. Too bad Italy wasn't situated right next to a country with massive coal exports and massive financial and political debts to Italy...

    2. Given that they didn't actually find the oil for a decade and a half after the war ended, how obvious could it have been? Bahrain found oil in 1932, Kuwait found oil in 1938, Ghawar was discovered in 1948, and it took another decade after that for oil to be found in Libya. That suggests to me that it wasn't quite as obvious as you are trying to portray it here: it was totally missed by the entire second generation of middle eastern exploration (the first being APOC in Iran) and took the best part of a decade after independence to be found.

    3. Yeah, but the Americans only got concessions to start looking in 1956, after the postwar political situation calmed down.

      I'm throwing up a counterfactual here. There's a reason that so much oil wasn't found in the 1930s. People weren't looking. But the Italians, whining non-stop about how they needed a Mediterranean sphere of interest and a colonial empire because poor them, should have been looking. This is an old, old indictment of the Italian state that goes just as surely to the lack of aircraft plants (depots?) in Sicily as it does to the lack of oil exploration in Libya.

    4. I believe that the Libyan deposits were very deep and may not have been economically/technologically exploitable during the 1930s.


    5. Tried Googling this the other day, but Wikipedia to the rescue!

      "The first reported petroleum occurrence in the Sirte Basin was observed in a coastal water well drilled by Italian colonists during the Italian-occupation. The Italian government embarked on geologic investigations of the area and produced a geologic map in 1934. Shows of natural gas were observed in the late 1930s, but World War II interrupted exploration efforts. Competitive bidding for concessions was subsequently permitted by two mineral laws passed in 1953 and 1955, and exploration by Esso, Mobil, Texas Gulf, and others commenced with seismic, magnetic, and gravity data being collected. From 1956 to 1961 giant oil fields were discovered. Libya started exporting oil in 1961 and by 1966 it was the 7th largest oil-producing nation in the world..."

      I gather that the Sirte Basin is a trap formation in which nonporous materials lie over the oil-containing shales and whatnot, which lie at about 2000 meters. This is less than the 6000' of the Oklahoma City field, also a trap formation, and initially discovered in the same way --by drilling for water.

      There are more complex technical reasons why some of the fields within the Sirte geological province were hard to bring into production. Some, on the other hand, appear to have been easier drills.

      Now, I'm not going to make a federal case out of this. The Sirte Basin's geology seemed likely for oil. Oil was found. Exploration followed. It did not pay off in the relatively short time that ensued between the beginning of the campaign and the outbreak of WWII. I bet you could tell exactly the same story about any number of oil fields around the world.

      The point is that they were not in the colonial territory of a country that made the need for more colonial territory its priority to the point of ...well, there's this whole Ethiopia thing.

  3. This is a really good post, but I have a couple of questions.

    You point out that Sicily was fully integrated into the Italian (and by extension, Nazi) economy as an agricultural export province, and that the evacuation shouldn't have been a surprise because of the transport facilities this provided - notably the 6 train ferry rotations a day.

    You also say that the Axis air forces struggled with "poor communications" in Sicily, and argue that this is because Sicily's transport infrastructure was quasicolonial and reliant on foreign (i.e. British) keels. This looks like a contradiction - the Hermann Göring Division didn't sail from Messina in no British ship, but it certainly sailed.

    Perhaps there's a distinction in kind rather than quantity here, and there was plenty of logistical lift available but it would be better to draw on local resources if they existed, which they didn't? That makes sense. But then it wouldn't matter whose flag lemons sailed under in peacetime.

    Also, I'm not sure which sense of the word "pursuit" you're using? As in USAAFspeak for fighter? Or as in tactical or operational pursuit, in which case I can't quite see how the Axis was doing any?

    (Personal note: let's thank the poor quality of the shaft bearings on a Liberty ship for failing in the approaches to Gibraltar and therefore sparing my grandfather the opportunity to land in Sicily with a lorry, a mix of Army, RN, and RAF personnel, and a set of collapsible radio antennas in order to assure the beachmaster's communications forward to the Army, backward to the RN, and upward to the RAF. Hard to say if that would have been more conspicuous visually or in the radio spectrum.)

    1. Indeed, I need to be clear here. Sicily had enough ports to support an entire Allied army. That was because it was well developed as an agricultural export province. As opposed to, say, a mixed economy featuring machine shops and factories.

      It also had a relatively large infrastructure supporting a train ferry across the Straits of Messina that integrated it into the larger Italian economy and made it, in strategic terms, an extension of the Italian rail net.

      It was therefore very fortunate for the Allies that the Italian rail net lay naked and exposed to Allied air interdiction through its entire length. It was the progressive degradation of that rail net's lift capacity that rendered the defence of Sicily impossible. Of course, it was also the lack of industrial infrastructure that doomed Axis air operations in the south.

      Strategic air war is total industrial war. It leans on the deep resources of the military industrial state. To the extent that the Italian state neglected its own deep industrial development in the south, it set in motion its own defeat.

      In other retrospective comment, I'm trying out "pursuit" (chasse) as a way of flavouring the concept of the defensive air effort of the single-engined fighter arm with a properly multicultural flair.

      Liberty ships? I should write something about that....

  4. PS, are you doing an Operation GOMORRAH post? If not, I've got one sketched out...

    1. Shame on me, no. City busting and firebombing raises the whole "sometimes the abyss stares back" thing.

      In so far as we can talk about the death of so many wonderful Hambourgeois (I'm thinking about a German 100 instructor now. Oh, youth....) as located within the intersection of economic and technical progress, we need to talk about engines, airframes and EW.

      And it seems to me that I'm up to date on all three. That's probably because somewhere down the line I moved on to an overstated contrarian position about how this whole thing about chaff is so much rubbish. I shall articulate that and walk it back when I find a way to do so. The next time I want to look into the CBO is when I can fit LORAN into it. Probably the Transport Plan?(I'll be folding Schweinfurt into my next postblogging series.)

      So what did you have in mind for the death and transfiguration of Hamburg, Alex?

    2. I was going to start with the origins of humanity at the water margin and the Toller Ort container terminal, and roll forward to the city of a thousand trades, Joseph Chamberlain, and the liberal era, 1914-1945 as a civil war between (a certain kind of) Britain and (a certain kind of) Germany, the battle in terms of fire-control and control of fires once started, a bit of Adam Tooze, and then argue that the deep industrial society where everything is miscellaneous turns out to be amazingly resilient, hence Harris gets to be the WW1 chateau general he thought he was rebelling against.

      Tooze is really snakey about this; he uses Hamburg to argue that strategic bombing works and Harris was right, but bases his conclusion on steel, which doesn't make sense, because that's necessary for his argument that Bomber should have kept going for the Ruhr...but if you base your conclusions on the Ruhr battle why are you talking about Hamburg, except that you need the extra horror to boost your argument?

    3. I almost feel like someone's taking a piss....

      Hmm. Lots of steel used in construction, after all.

    4. Not much of it (any?) produced in Hamburg, though.

  5. No, but consumed in rehousing people.

    1. HH boss Karl Kaufmann got started deporting Jews, on his own hook, on the pretext of rehousing air raid victims as early as 1941. Did they do that, rather than just doubling up, commuting, and of course getting rid of the wrong kind of people?

      I've never heard of any wartime newbuilding of housing.

  6. Depending on your experience and perspective, the most famous German (late) wartime construction projects will probably be either the Flak towers or the Atlantic Wall, but Google, of course, brought me, of course, to Germany and the Second World War, IX, 2. Here the Bundesarchiv historians are talking about the administration of the Holocaust, but the argument is that the SS Construction Brigades were an important step along the way to the final constellation of concentration, work, extermination camps with their various satellites. It looks like the architectural history side of it is Paul Jaskot's wheelhouse. whereas the thumbnail for Miles Hodges' Morgenthau Plan website at least suggests that somewhere in there are verified figures for German wartime housing starts: so, 114,000 units in 1944. Not much of a number, but perhaps more impressive when taking into account repairs.

    Turning to Tooze, one could begin with the severely distorted German prewar housing supply, in which German consumer aspirations apparently ran well ahead of the economy's capacity, and attempts to subsidise three to four-room family apartments resulted in subsidised rents higher than the average blue collar income. At one point, the Weimar Republic was subsidising shanty towns. (I can imagine the enthusiasm of the German Kleinburgher for that. Peak prewar housing starts were 320,000 in 1937. 1942 might have been the nadir, at 40,000. (Tooze, 354.)

    In general, construction labour and materials were needed for factories, repair of bombed buildings, new housing, and fortifications. The more Germans dehoused, the less available for other purposes, something experienced by all the belligerent powers save the United States, although only because bomb damage wasn't part of its calculation.

    1. At one point, the Weimar Republic was subsidising shanty towns. (I can imagine the enthusiasm of the German Kleinburgher for that)

      It's substantial; just call it a Kleingartenverein and you can't hold 'em back! Self-build and big prefab housing is actually quite common in Germany, much more so than the UK.

  7. Fair enough, but I suspect that seventy years of rebuilding have had their effect on a culture that once had a very different take on "ground rabbits."