Through Blood and Sweat, a Book Review

Zuehlke, Mark (2015) Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. Douglas & McIntyre. 288 Pages. ISBN 1771620099

In the summer of 2013 I found myself on a battlefield tour of Sicily. I was there with a group of touring scholars organized by The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. Seventy years earlier the island was the site of a relatively overlooked Second World War battle. We visited the battlegrounds of American, British, and Canadian engagements against German and Italian defenders. I was in the midst of research for my master’s thesis, having visited archives in the United Kingdom on my way to the island.

BloodandSweat_frontA second group of Canadians was visiting the island. This group was Operation Husky 2013: The 70th Anniversary Citizens Memorial Campaign. A small but devoted contingent of Canadians led by businessman Steve Gregory marched the approximate route taken by 1st Canadian Infantry Division in 1943, stopping at towns along the way for remembrance ceremonies involving local officials and Sicilians. Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian, recounts the journey in his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds.

As someone who was in Sicily at the time but was not at many of the marcher’s ceremonies, I was keenly interested in Zuehlke’s recounting of these moments. Veteran Sherry Atkinson emerges as the book’s – and indeed the memorial campaign’s – highlight in these ceremonies. In Modica, a small Sicilian town that Lieutenant Atkinson helped liberate in 1943, he recalls how he and his fellow soldiers were so moved by the sight of starving children that they gave away all of their rations. Sherry’s war was mercifully short. A couple of weeks later he was wounded outside of Nicosia by shrapnel from an artillery shell. In 2013 he tells the locals, “My blood has been shed upon your earth, and I consider myself one of you.” Sherry’s message throughout the memorial campaign is that remembrance is not about glorifying war, but about hoping that war never happens again.

Another great moment shared by Zuehlke is the effort to capture a piece of history in the present. His group recreated a photo of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada moving up to hear General Montgomery speak in 1943. This is the photo on the bottom half of the book’s cover. My tour group recreated our own historical image. We visited Troina, the site of the heaviest fighting American troops encountered on the island. The town is full of historical posters featuring images of the town and its occupants in 1943. These inspired us to capture our own photograph. We chose one of Robert Capa’s famous images of American troops resting near the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the battle’s aftermath.

IMG_20160131_102438Markers honouring the fallen along the marchers’ route were another part of the memorial campaign. The exercise was primarily meant to honour the Canadian Army’s losses across the island. I sponsored a marker and, having researched the airman’s fate, sent the campaign an email noting that he and his crew were killed when their Wellington bomber was shot down and crashed in the mountains north of Messina. I was disappointed when my advice for where to place his marker went unheeded, but acknowledged the difficulties of fitting the air campaign into the route. The marchers’ path can be generally said to mark where soldiers fell, but the reality is not so simple for airmen. Canadian airmen lost their lives across the central Mediterranean in support of Operation HUSKY. Their names are on memorials all over the Mediterranean – from the Agira Canadian War Cemetery to the Malta Memorial for airmen who have no known grave. I’d be interested to know Zuehlke’s reflections on this point as he seems to have initially been skeptical of the marker concept.

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Missing from the book is a reflection on what Sicily meant in respect to the larger war. Zuehlke makes this connection in his previous work, Operation Husky, but not here. This is a shame, because it needs to be remembered too. It is not enough to say that lives were lost in the fight for the peace, liberty, and freedom of Canadians and Sicilians alike. True enough, but how was that fight being waged, and where did Sicily fit inside that strategy?

The book is an excellent remembrance reflection. It is not often that an historian takes the time to reflect on the battle he or she studies in the manner Zuehlke has. Through Blood and Sweat will make an engaging primary source for future war and memory researchers for many years to come.

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How the War Was Won, a Book Review

O’Brien, P.P. (2015) How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. Series: Cambridge Military Histories. Cambridge University Press. 640 Pages. ISBN 9781107014756

The Second World War is known for its decisive battles. The Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of Normandy are among the most popular. But what if there was no such thing as a decisive battle in the greatest conflict in human history? This is what Dr. Phillips Payson O’Brien of the University of Glasgow argues in How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, a monograph in the making for at least a decade and a half.

whytheallieswonO’Brien seeks to contest the now standard argument that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the German onslaught. The Red Army broke the back of German power while the Western Allies played a relatively modest role according to this view. This is one of the main themes in Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won, a well-reputed study of the war from the mid-1990s. Western access to Russian archives emerged as the Cold War ended. Overy and other scholars took the opportunity to learn more about the war from Russia’s perspective. What emerged was significant criticism of western scholarship for downplaying the USSR’s role in the victory over Nazi Germany.

O’Brien’s analysis turns this thinking on its head. Those who laud the Soviet contribution do so within a paradigm that understands the contribution to victory through manpower. O’Brien cannot deny that the USSR engaged a larger percentage of the Wehrmacht than the Western Allies. His argument is that the Second World War was primarily a mechanized war. The production and destruction of equipment is what decided the war in spite of the human cost of 70 million dead (civilians included).

The production of air and sea weaponry far outstripped that of land weaponry. As such, O’Brien argues that the air-sea war was more significant than the fight on the ground. For instance, the German army received only between 30-35% of production when it was lucky. A plurality of production effort was generally aimed at air weaponry. For instance, in May 1943 40% of German production efforts were spent on aircraft. American, British, and Japanese production efforts were similar, with the UK spending approximately one half of its production efforts on aircraft from 1940 onwards. Naval production for each of these four nations also typically outstripped that of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) associated with the great land battles.

Air and sea power allowed for more efficient destruction of Axis equipment. This destruction could be achieved in three phases. “Pre-production” destruction prevented the Germans and Japanese from producing weaponry in the first place by damaging factories and destroying or preventing the arrival of raw materials. “Production” destruction meant destroying equipment as it was being assembled in the factories. “Deployment” destruction refers to equipment lost as it was in transit from assembly plants to the front lines. The Western Allies – mainly Great Britain and the United States – were primarily responsible for these equipment losses. The Russians did not maintain a very large navy, nor did they invest in many large, four-engined bombers to strike at the German economy.

howthewarwaswonThe great land battles were not decisive. The incredible attrition sustained by the German and Japanese war machines on a daily basis was decisive. O’Brien’s argument is that this super-battlefield of air and sea weaponry mattered most. Few battles were actually decisive in terms of equipment destroyed. German AFV losses at the Battle of Kursk, commonly lauded as the greatest tank battle of the war, were a meagre 0.2 percent of German armaments production in 1943; German AFV losses at the great British victory at El Alamein were a paltry 0.1 percent of 1942 armaments production. O’Brien does note an exception to this: the Battle of Midway. At that near-decisive naval engagement the Imperial Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers, vessels that could not be replaced for a number of years. Consequently, it is little surprise that an image of Japanese carriers under attack at Midway graces the cover of the book.

O’Brien does leave some unanswered questions. He does not discuss the role – real or imagined – of initiative in the conflict. Battles are often considered decisive, not only for the casualties or equipment losses they incurred, but for their role in shifting perceptions of how the war was going. His assessments of certain Eighth Air Force raids over Germany in 1943 may also be open to some criticism. He totes the efficiency of the air-sea war, but the losses sustained on these raids were anything but efficient. More salient to my research is his mixed treatment of the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. O’Brien acknowledges the significant attrition imposed on Axis air forces there, but laments that this was not a more integral part of Allied strategy. He opposes the Allied decision to focus on the Mediterranean in 1943 instead of mounting the invasion of France.

How the War Was Won is an excellent read for those interested in how the interaction between production, logistics, and combat decided the war against Germany and Japan. This is its greatest contribution to the Second World War’s expansive historiography.