“The Dark World Is Not Far From Us”: A WWII Atrocity

Atkinson, The Day of BattleIf there are better histories of World War II being written than the books in Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, I haven’t read them. A former reporter and editor for the Washington Post, Atkinson conceived the massive project of writing the history of how the British and Americans fought their way back to Europe. Having read the Pulitzer-winning first book in the cycle, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (2002) during a trip in late April, I picked up its sequel, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (2007) for this week’s visit to my parents in Virginia. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (2013) will no doubt follow before the summer is out.

They’re incredibly rich narratives, grounded in remarkable research and full of insight into every dimension of war. (If anyone rebuts the notion that historical empathy is impossible, it’s Atkinson — and that goes for his portraits of grand strategists and grizzled sergeants alike.)

At the same time, because they’re so dense, it’s inevitable that the reader’s attention lags. Just over a hundred pages in, I started to lose interest in the minutiae of the Allies’ progress from the beaches of southern Sicily toward Messina. My eyes would skip from the first line of a paragraph to the last, leaving tactical details unread.

But here’s where Atkinson’s craft as a writer leavens his commitment to so thorough a retelling of the story…

He notes a recurring problem for the Allies: their Italian opponents surrendered in droves. Indeed, “on Sicily, more enemy soldiers were captured in a week than were bagged by the U.S. Army in all of World War I.” There were many reasons for this “floodtide” of surrenders (disaffection with Mussolini’s regime not least among them), but Atkinson reclaimed my attention with this section-ending exchange:

…An OSS [Office of Strategic Services] officer who interrogated a captured Italian machine-gun crew reported that Axis officers had spread atrocity tales in a vain effort to halt the defections.

“When are you going to start?” one prisoner had asked.

“Start what?”

The prisoner cringed. “Cutting off our balls.”

Told that they would not be harmed, the men sobbed in relief.

“A queer race these Italians,” a lieutenant wrote his mother. “You’d think we were their deliverers instead of their captors.”

Yet the dark world was not far removed. And now it intruded. (p. 116)

It’s a masterful transition for what’s to come: reminding us that soldiers took real or perceived risks in surrendering to the same men who were trying to kill them; leaving us with the impression that, of course, Americans (“their deliverers”) would never be so barbarous; then hearkening back to a line from the beginning of that section. Atkinson had quoted novelist John Steinbeck, who accompanied the invasion force as a reporter and remarked on the superstitious nature of soldiers who fingered St. Christopher medals, amulets, and other tokens as defenses again harm. In the end, Steinbeck decided that the soldiers weren’t being unreasonable, since “the dark world is not far from us” (p. 113).

How did this “dark world” intrude?

Italians surrendering on Sicily in 1943
Italian soldiers surrendering to the British on Sicily in 1943 – Bundesarchiv

Here Atkinson tells a story that I had never heard. A story that presents American soldiers as neither the “deliverers” nor “captors” of Italians, but as their murderers. A story that contradicts Winston Churchill’s assertion — made at a press conference in Washington after the meetings that planned the invasions of Sicily and Italy — that “We shall not stain our name by an inhuman act.”

Not quite two months after Churchill’s statement, on Wednesday, July 14, 1943, Oklahoma National Guardsmen in the 180th Infantry executed dozens of Axis prisoners near Biscari, Sicily. Outside a cluster of olive trees by the Ficuzza River, Sgt. Horace West turned a submachine gun on a group of 46 men (all but three Italian), killing thirty-seven. Then that afternoon, Capt. John Travers Compton organized a firing squad (“several men volunteered”) that executed all 36 of his Italian prisoners (five in civilian clothes).

Partly thanks to the intervention of a Baptist chaplain and two war correspondents, news of the Biscari massacres soon reached American commanders. Gen. Omar Bradley confronted Gen. George Patton, who suggested obliquely that his superior engineer a cover-up. Patton’s diary entry on the subject ended with a shrug: “Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.”

In the event, something was done: an internal investigation concluded that the prisoners had made no provocation: “They had been slaughtered.”

Gen. Patton on Sicily, 1943
Gen. George Patton during the Sicily campaign – U.S. National Archives

Patton finally agreed to hold courts-martial, but the truth didn’t come out. Compton was acquitted and returned to duty; he died that November while fighting in Italy. While West was convicted and sentenced to life in a New York prison, Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower reviewed the case and decided to keep West in North Africa, away from the press. (Partly, Eisenhower seems to have feared that if news got out, it would inspire Axis reprisals against Allied troops.) In late November 1944, West was granted clemency and allowed back into the ranks.

(An important element of the story to add here: before West and Compton’s division left North Africa for Sicily, Patton had given an incredibly — even by his standards — incendiary address to its officers. Compton cited it at his court-martial, and his attorney successfully argued that what Patton said amounted to “an order to annihilate these snipers.”)

The whole affair was hushed up, with the records of the courts-martial classified top secret and locked away in the safe of the Secretary of the Army. As best I can discern, it came to light in a 1989 article in The Historian by James J. Weingartner, then received new attention a little over ten years ago thanks to the work of an Italian historian, court, and newspaper. Atkinson does cite Weingartner, but also conducted his own research in the U.S. National Archives, obtaining records of West’s trial through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In any case, what happened at Biscari is far from unique in the history of this war. But in a recent interview in The Telegraph, British historian Antony Beevor contends that Allied executions of Axis prisoners remain virtually “unmentionable,” especially among Americans. His recent research into the bitter fighting on the German border in late 1944 and early 1945 convinced him that American commanders actually encouraged atrocities (e.g., the execution of five dozen Germans at Chenogne) that led the Wehrmacht to start calling GIs “Roosevelt’s Butchers.” (The German army and SS were guilty of similar slaughters, of course, like the infamous incident at Malmedy.)

Rick AtkinsonIn that interview, Beevor claimed not to have read “any American historian on the subject of the shooting of prisoners,” but Atkinson doesn’t shy away from the events of July 14, 1943. And while I don’t think he’d disagree with Beevor’s maxim that “There’s no use in being judgmental,” Atkinson does reflect on the moral history of the war.

Indeed, one of the chief themes of the trilogy may be the moral hazards facing an army of citizen-soldiers, a fighting force pervaded by what veteran-scholar Sam Hynes called “civilianness, the sense of the soldiering self as a kind of impostor” (quoted on p. 35. Sgt. West, for example, had been a cook before entering the military.) They understood, as one officer wrote to his wife en route to Sicily, that “We little people must solve these catastrophes by mutual slaughter, and force the world back to reason” (quoted on p. 37). But the effects were far worse: “It was not easy,” wrote an officer in West and Compton’s division, “to determine what forces turned normal men into thoughtless killers. But a world war is something different from our druthers” (quoted on pp. 120-21).

As I’ve written before, some of its participants find that “for all its terrible costs [war is] something like a secular school of sanctification that, more effectively than peace, forms those who wage it into the people they’re meant to be.” Atkinson gives examples of such “sanctification,” but he also knows that war produces other kinds of transformation. Here’s how he concludes his retelling of the massacres at Biscari:

For war was not just a military campaign but a parable. There were lessons of camaraderie and duty and inscrutable fate. There were lessons of honor and courage, of compassion and sacrifice. And then there was the saddest lesson, to be learned again and again in the coming weeks as they fought across Sicily, and in the coming months as they fought their way back toward a world at peace: that war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained. (p. 121)

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