“Rough Road to Rome” by Sir David Cole is an all combat narrative from an officer in the British 5th Infantry Division. Cole’s book is entirely about his time fighting the Second World War in Italy from 1943-44. As it is, this 230 page book was completely astounding. It is direct and succinct, even to the point of omitting details about the author’s early life, enlistment or training. For a reader looking for what it was like to fight up the Italian peninsula, it would be hard to find an account that represented the entire campaign with as much clarity and direct involvement in front line combat.
Cole himself was the battalion Signals Officer for the 2nd Inniskillings, a unit made up largely of Protestants with roots in Northern Ireland. This includes Cole, whose mother’s family hailed from County Atrim and had lost men in the Somme offensive of WWI. As Signals officer, Cole was in a unique position. While it was not in his requirements to participate in the fighting as an infantryman would, his duties did require him to oversee the sometimes unreliable communications between Battalion HQ and the four rifle companies. In this role, he was at the hub of all major combat operations the battalion underwent from Sicily in July of 1943 to the Anzio breakout in June of 44.
The strongest aspect of the book was surely the length of time the author endured fighting the Germans in sometimes unfavorable circumstances. The first year of the Italian campaign was largely a diversionary action, meant to draw German troops away from the impending invasion of France. In most people’s minds, the war in Italy was not as decisive as the second front, but surely had D Day in France been slated for 1943, the war might have taken a turn for the worse for the Allies. The experience gained not only in amphibious assaults and beachhead operations, but also in Allied cooperation made the Normandy campaign function much more smoothly. But because of the American focus on France rather than the Mediterranean, the troops in Italy sometimes had to work shorthanded and in conditions worse than those witnessed in France. The Cassino and Anzio operations that Cole took part in attested to the stalemate that developed in Italy shortly after Salerno. In spite of this, Cole’s battalion fought for nearly a year straight with hardly any time off the line. Save a few weeks here and there, Cole’s war in Italy was in some ways longer than the fighting in NW Europe, albeit on a smaller scale.
The book begins in a very cinematic fashion, not all that dissimilar from “Saving Private Ryan”, as Cole starts his narrative in the troop transport off the shores of Sicily on July 9, 1943. There is little prefacing and the action starts right away. His men land on the beaches south of Syracuse and engage an Italian Division in a short but hard fight near Floridia. In other accounts of Sicily Italian troops do not prove as difficult, but Cole’s writing does evidence scattered resistance at first. As the Americans move across Western Sicily, Monty’s British Divisions fight a slower and more methodical battle up the road to Catania. In the Catania plains the 13th Brigade (of which Cole’s battalion belong) move to secure a bridge across the Simeto River. This fight is very tough, as one company goes through five commanders in the course of the one night onslaught of the Hermann Goering Panzer Division. Battles along the slopes of the dormant Mt. Etna Volcano comprise the final portion of the campaign, and are short but very fierce. Cole’s 5th Division is out front for the invasion of Italy on September 3rd and they engage in a bit of leapfrogging up the coast. After a push in the central mountains of the 6.000 foot Matese Range, Cole’s men move to the coastal sector south of Cassino. This is the hardest fight of the whole book, which occurs during the January of 1944. The stalemate at Anzio and the subsequent breakout conclude the book, which strangely omits what Cole did after the liberation of Rome. Never the less, an epic account.