In the dark, early days of the Second World War, the Allies found themselves with their backs against the wall. With their armies, tactics, doctrine, and equipment in tatters, the Allies turned to special operations forces to carry the fight to the Axis enemy until their conventional forces could be built up once again. Specially selected and trained, these forces struck fear into the hearts of the enemy. One such unit, the First Special Service Force (FSSF) or Devil’s Brigade, was created for a hazardous mission in Norway. This unique formation was composed of both Americans and Canadians who served side by side without distinction of nationality.
A killer elite, the FSSF consistently demonstrated courage and determination and earned itself an unrivaled combat record at Monte la Difensa and Anzio in Italy and in the invasion of southern France.
A Death in San Pietro chronicles the quietly heroic and beloved Captain Waskow and his company as they make their way into battle. Waskow’s 36th (“Texas”) Division would ultimately succeed in driving the Germans off the mountains; but not before eighty percent of Waskow’s company is lost in action.
For Americans back home, two of the war’s most lasting artistic expression brought horrified focus to the battlefield, already dubbed “Purple Heart Valley” by the men of the 36th. Pulitzer Prize-winner Ernie Pyle’s dispatch about Waskow’s death and filmmaker John Huston’s award-winning documentary of the battle rivets—and shocks—the nation, bringing, as if for the first time, the awful carnage of world war into living rooms across America.
The story of Anzio must be read against the background of the preceding phase of the Italian campaign. The winter months of 1943-44 found the Allied forces in Italy slowly battering their way through the rugged mountain barriers blocking the roads to Rome. After the Allied landings in southern Italy, German forces had fought a delaying action while preparing defensive lines to their rear. The main defensive barrier guarding the approaches to Rome was the Gustav Line, extending across the Italian peninsula from Minturno to Ortona. Enemy engineers had reinforced the natural mountain defenses with an elaborate network of pillboxes, bunkers, and mine fields. The Germans had also reorganized their forces to resist the Allied advance. On 21 Nov. 1943, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring took over the command of the entire Italian theater; Army Group C, under his command, was divided into two armies, the Tenth facing the southern front and also holding the Rome area, and the Fourteenth guarding central and northern Italy. In a year otherwise filled with defeat, Hitler was determined to gain the prestige of holding the Allies south of Rome.
In the early morning hours of 22 Jan. 1944, VI Corps of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army landed on the Italian coast below Rome and established a beachhead far behind the enemy lines. In the four months between this landing and Fifth Army’s May offensive, the short stretch of coast known as the Anzio beachhead was the scene of one of the most courageous and bloody dramas of the war. The Germans threw attack after attack against the beachhead in an effort to drive the landing force into the sea. Fifth Army troops, put fully on the defensive for the first time, rose to the test. Hemmed in by numerically superior enemy forces, they held their beachhead, fought off every enemy attack, and then built up a powerful striking force which spearheaded Fifth Army’s triumphant entry into Rome in June.
“Truscott was one of the really tough generals,” soldier-cartoonist Bill Mauldin of the 45th Infantry Division once wrote. “He could have eaten a ham like Patton for breakfast any morning and picked his teeth with the man’s pearl-handled pistols.” Not one merely to act the part of commander, Mauldin remembered, “Truscott spent half his time at the front—the real front—with nobody in attendance but a nervous Jeep driver and a worried aide.”
In this biography of Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., author Harvey Ferguson tells the story of how Truscott—despite his hardscrabble beginnings, patchy education, and questionable luck—not only made the rank of army lieutenant general, earning a reputation as one of World War II’s most effective officers along the way, but was also given an honorary promotion to four-star general seven years after his retirement.
For all his accomplishments and celebrated heroic action, Truscott was not one for self-aggrandizement, which may explain in part why historians have neglected him until now. The Last Cavalryman, drawing on personal papers only recently made available, gives the first full picture of this singular man’s extraordinary life and career. Ferguson describes Truscott’s near-accidental entry into the U.S. Cavalry (propelled by Pancho Villa’s 1916 raids) and his somewhat halting rise through the ranks—aided by fellow cavalryman George S. Patton, Jr., who steered him into the nascent armored force at the right time. The author takes us through Truscott’s service in the Second World War, from creating the U.S. Army Rangers to engineering the breakout from Anzio and leading the “masterpiece” invasion of southern France. Ferguson finishes his narrative by detailing the general’s postwar work with the CIA, where he acted as President Dwight Eisenhower’s eyes and ears within the agency.
A compelling story in itself, this biography of Lucian K. Truscott, Jr.—a cavalryman to the last—fills out an important chapter in American military history.
But the reality of one of the most desperate campaigns of World War II was bad management, external meddling, poorly relayed orders, and uncertain leadership. The Anzio beachhead became a death trap, with Allied troops forced to fight for their lives for four dreadful months. The eventual victory in May 1944 was muted, bitter, and overshadowed by the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6. Mixing flawless research, drama, and combat with a brilliant narrative voice, Fatal Decision is one of the best histories ever written of a World War II military campaign.