Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

25 February, 2016

Porch, you magnificent bastard - I read your book! (The Path to Victory by Douglas Porch)

World War II was a big deal in my house when I was a boy. My father was a voracious reader and he had a small library devoted to the subject. People like Chester Nimitz and George Patton were talked about as if they were great uncles. He had a particularly keen interest in the Pacific Theater and was always interested in meeting veterans of that part of the war. When he did, most did not want to talk about their experiences in places like Iwo Jima or Okinawa. But on he pushed.

It is no surprise that his interest rubbed off on his sons. While in elementary school I wrote a paper on the attack on Pearl Harbor. While I've always had more than a passing interest in the history of World War II it was really my brother who shared my father's passion on the subject. When our father died I was happy to let him keep all of dad's books on it. My brother became one of those WWII history nerds who could tell you exactly how many casualties there were at a given battle and recite a list of every model fighter plane Messerschmitt built and the precise date they were introduced into combat.

When my brother died last year I felt that the family legacy of interest in and knowledge of World War II only had me to carry it on. And so I decided to do some reading on the topic. However, I didn't just want to sit down and read something like Samuel E. Morison's multi-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, a favorite of my father's. No. If I was not able to deny the ghosts of my father and brother then I at least would have to tack a course of my own devising. (To be expected, I suppose, since I had already tackled The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.)

Douglas Porch's The Path to Victory was not my first foray into the subject of WWII after my brother's death but it's the first I've written owing to circumstance. The subtitle of the book is "The Mediterranean Theater in World War II". While the Mediterranean was certainly spoken of in our house, it did not have the cachet of the campaign to take the Solomon Islands or the Battle of the Bulge, for example. And in American culture today it is over-shadowed by the Ambrosian-approved D-Day landings. A perfectly suitable subject for me.

A military historian, Douglas Porch, the back cover tells us, "is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School". The book's text is just shy of 700 pages with another 100 or so of notes, index, and whatnot. This is not a slim introductory volume. Indeed, the book is not aimed at your average lay reader but at students of military history although I would say that interested people – like me – along with the Internet can get through it with good comprehension.

The book's thesis is that the Mediterranean was the pivotal theater in the war though not the decisive one. Events in this theater prefaced, influenced, aided, and abetted the more conclusive ones in theaters to the north. Not being a military historian, I am unqualified to judge the success or failure of Porch's argument. Instead I want to highlight some elements of Porch's story that caught my attention. Some directly relate to Porch's thesis while others do not.

One thing I found interesting was that Porch has a wide view of what constitutes the Mediterranean Theater. He included Eritrea/Ethiopia as well as the greater Middle East. While Italy controlled East Africa, FDR could not send aid through the Red Sea as he was not allowed to put American ships into combat zones. Once Britain had cleared the Horn of Africa of Italian forces, U.S. ships were free to sail the Red Sea and onwards towards Suez.

One significance of the Middle East was, unsurprisingly, oil. Gasoline was rarely in short supply for Allied troops in North Africa while it was so very often for the Germans and Italians whose oil came from across the Mediterranean in Romania. I was unaware that Britain invaded Iraq in April 1941. In addition to preventing German intervention in the region, it would "showcase its [Britain's] value as an ally for the United States." Indeed, Churchill and the British army did a lot of the equivalent of a peacock displaying his tail feathers to get the attention of the United States and lure it into the war. Rommel running roughshod around North Africa was an embarrassment to the British, not only from a purely operational point of view, but also a strategic one. It made Britain look bad and perhaps not like a worthy ally for Americans watching from across the Atlantic.

North Africa is generally thought of as the first act of the Mediterranean Theater. While I knew about the dramatic and perhaps romanticized duel between Rommel and Montgomery in supra-Saharan Africa, it was interesting to get the details of their encounters. It was also interesting just how awful Montgomery's predecessors were. They used the same losing strategy over and over again – charging head on into the ranks of Rommel's panzer tanks which demolished the British foes. Montgomery's victory over Rommel at El Alamein was due in no small part to letting artillery and air support get first crack at the panzers which then drove forth into an arena populated with British tanks and anti-tank guns dug into the desert and lying in wait for their prey.

North Africa is also where American soldiers made their debut in the West and it was not exactly pretty. Operation Torch was the Allied invasion of Algeria and Morocco. While thankful for being joined in the war, battle-hardened British soldiers were less than impressed with the green G.I.s. Porch says that "Infantry attacks often became murderous undertakings". He also notes "poor infantry-armor cooperation", American tanks that "charge[d] off unsupported on their own, and commanders "reluctant to seize battlefield opportunities."

Although I probably shouldn't have been, I was surprised at all of the animosity amongst the ranks of upper command. Not only between Americans and British, but amongst the Americans and amongst the British. Take the British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson. Montgomery described him as being "neither skilled nor gifted" while Patton thought that he "seems earnest but dumb".

With the efforts of Stephen Ambrose, Tom Brokaw, Steven Spielberg, and the media generally to portray America's "Greatest Generation" as having won the war with the D-Day invasion, it was thrillingly refreshing to read a much less romanticized account of some Americans and American efforts in WWII. As Commander-in-Chief of Allied Expeditionary Forces Dwight Eisenhower is described by Porch as having a "natural reluctance to make hard decisions." Then there's U.S. Army Major General Lloyd Fredendall who shuffled papers bravely out of range and chose to "disparage 'Jews, Negroes, and the British' from his concrete-encased bunker well to the rear."

And these comments are just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes I found myself amazed that we and the British managed to fight a common enemy.

Operation Husky was the name of the Allied invasion of Sicily and is usually thought of as being Act 2. While the Allies took the island, the thing I recall most vividly is that they let the Germans successfully retreat to Italy. Porch puts the Allied inability to prevent this down to "poor organization, lack of imagination, and inactivity."

This is probably as good a point as any to declare that I didn't know that Mussolini was such an incompetent boob. The guy would not listen to his generals and ignored the reality on the battlefields. I felt sorry for the Italian troops most of whom were ill-equipped and undertrained with Il Duce telling them to fight or be killed for cowardice.

One upshot of Mussolini's numbskullery, which forms part of Porch's thesis, is that it obligated Hitler to send troops and supplies to do what the Italians were incapable of doing. Hitler worried about Italy and the Balkans – his southern flank – and he dedicated many divisions along with tanks and air power to the Mediterranean Theater and away from Russia. For quite some time the only battles being fought between the Allies and the Germans were in the Mediterranean. They helped instill confidence in Stalin that the Allies were attempting to help the Soviets. The Allies feared that Stalin would make peace with Hitler depriving them of a very big and powerful ally which kept many German soldiers occupied in Eastern Europe.

With the Germans expelled from Sicily, shipping became much safer in the Mediterranean which meant that many more American supplies reached the Soviet Union. And as the Axis were increasing pushed back, Hitler diverted air power from Norway south to take on the encroaching Allies. This meant Arctic convoys had a much easier time getting supplies to Murmansk.

The generally perceived final act of the Mediterranean Theater is the invasion of Italy. Again, Porch proved quite enlightening. Monte Cassino, Anzio - I'd heard of these places but here I got all the gory details. Yet again I must admit to ignorance – I didn't know what a long, hard slog Italy was for the Allies. Field Marshall Albert Kesselring and (who had been allowed by Allied bungling to escape Sicily) his German troops put up heinous resistance. The worst fighting of the whole theater seemed to have been in Italy.

Aside from the particularly hellish campaign that was the invasion of Italy, three things stick out for me. First is the contribution of Moroccans in defeating the Germans. The Germans took advantage of the mountains and create defensive lines with bunkers high up making the valleys into kill boxes. It was the Moroccans who proved adept at scaling the heights and taking out German installations. As Porch says, "German POWs were so intimidated by the bunker-busting techniques of the Moslems that they declared the experience worse than Stalingrad."

On a tangential note, Porch mentions more groups of valorous non-white combatants – the Fourth and Seventh Indian Divisions (OK, not wholly non-white) - which "were considered among the best troops fielded by any army in the war."

The other thing that sticks in my mind about the invasion of Italy is the behavior of Lieutenant General Mark Clark. In May of 1944 the Allies launched Operation Diadem which saw opposed by the German Tenth Army. Clark put his quest for personal glory above Diadem's strategy by focusing on taking Rome – which would be a publicity coup – instead of defeating the Germans. Porch says, "...he both allowed the escape of the Tenth Army and did nothing to advance the capture of Rome, while at the same time taking heavy casualties."

Lastly, Porch notes that VD ran rampant amongst Allied soldiers in Italy. May Italian women (and girls) were eager to please for food or money and by the summer of 1944 there were 19 VD hospitals in Italy to help cure the Greatest Generation.

I think that Porch would agree that North Africa, Sicily, and Italy are the three main elements of the Mediterranean Theater but that there was much more to the theater than these three campaigns. In addition to what I've already mentioned, there was Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France in August 1944. And the general rehabilitation of France as a fighting ally.

To reiterate Porch's point, the Mediterranean Theater was the handmaiden to decisive campaigns of the war. It forced Hitler to commit troops, tanks, and planes which had to be taken from other areas, most notably the eastern front. Significant amounts of American supplies were able to reach the Soviet Union only by virtue of the Allied success in the Mediterranean. And it was this theater in which American commanders and soldiers cut their teeth and learned their trade. Porch argues they needed the training and practice of the Mediterranean to be ready for the invasion of France on D-Day.

As I mentioned at the beginning, The Path to Victory is not really aimed at those starting out on the subject. It's more for students of military history. One example illustrating this is that Porch compares a situation to that of the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I. If World War I is not your strong point, then you'll be running to the Internet to assess Porch's comparison. Porch also has a penchant for French phrases which may send the reader to a dictionary. Beyond these things, Porch writes clearly and presents his material in a linear fashion.

The book looks at the big picture. By this I mean that it was written in a fairly traditional style whereby the generals are personalized with brief biographies given while the grunts, the G.I.s are generally generic people who are parts of larger units moved around by the generals. Occasionally, however, Porch does get down to the grunt level to illustrate a point. I say this not to disparage Porch because the text of the book is almost 700 pages and his goal was to present a broad view of an aspect of the war generally given short shrift. Porch has no problem presenting commanders in a less than flattering light while, as I noted above, lavishing praise on non-white soldiers, people often left out of lay histories of the conflict.

I have barely scratched the surface of what Porch brings to the table here. The book ranges from really fun passages about larger than life characters such as George Patton to fairly dense, theoretical sections dealing with strategy. It's not just this battle happened on this date and this many men died. We get glimpses into Hitler's view from the north as well as the struggle between Churchill's desire to preserve the Empire and FDR's ambition for the United States. Porch has a lot of balls in the air here and he juggles them well. You get just enough of peripheral issues and events to see how they fit in the Mediterranean Theater without ever going off into left field.

I do, however, have a complaint to register. My copy of the book was the American first edition paperback and the maps were of such poor quality as to be useless. By this I mean the print quality. It was like they started with maps that were originally 1"x1" and then blew them up for the book. Most of the words on the maps are tiny, pixelated, and illegible. This didn't render the book useless but a lot of the battles and the events Porch described blur together because, unless you find similar maps from another source, you're never quite sure which division went where and what road who is on and what the overall look of a campaign was.

My admonitions and criticisms aside, I highly recommend The Path to Victory. I only wish that I could talk it over with my brother and father.

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|| Palmer, 9:10 PM


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