“Wartime was not normal time,” Holland writes. “Ordinary, peaceful, law-abiding young men were trained to kill other young men — and so they did. Violence and brutality and even indifference to these horrors had become a new kind of normal.” On the internet, armchair generals argue endlessly over battles like Sicily, reducing them to the sanitised, smooth movements of tiny lead soldiers over carefully reconstructed terrain. Holland is not like that. His war is anarchy. His soldiers fight heroically, but also die brutally, torn to shreds or burnt to cinders. They’re racked with dysentery and typhoid or become gibbering wrecks in field hospitals. Holland is obsessed with war, but fortunately does not seem to love it. He recognises its beauty, but also its vileness.
James Holland —among the very best chroniclers of World War II — sets the record straight in his new book, arguing that the conquest of Sicily deserves recognition as the first successful inroad by the Allies on Hitler's Fortress Europe since the dark days of defeat at Dunkirk in 1940. From that point on, the Fuhrer's days were numbered. On the Eastern front, his armies were in retreat from the Russians and now his southern flank was breached. The fall of Sicily can justly be described as the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. Yet it was a massive gamble: a vast armada of ships steaming from North Africa to dump battalion after battalion of troops on the beaches, shielded by a massive naval bombardment out at sea.