Wehrmacht health and medical services during the Italian campaign, 1943–44
By Alex Flucker
My research is a case study of the medical services of the German Tenth Army during the first year of the Italian campaign, September 1943 to September 1944. Allied forces invaded mainland Italy in early September 1943, after the fall of Mussolini and their military success in Sicily. Rather than abandoning southern Italy, which had been half-expected by the Allies, the German response to the invasion has been described as “remarkably swift, efficient and massive”, as the Tenth Army – re-established especially for the Italian campaign – was sent south to repel the Allies. From then until its capitulation in 1945, the German Army managed to hold the Allies at bay, preventing them from advancing rapidly up the Italian peninsula with skilful defensive fighting.
My research investigates the ways in which its medical service both contributed to and hindered the Tenth Army’s performance. In civilian life, doctors are primarily concerned with the welfare of individuals; however, during wars the needs of individuals are secondary to military requirements, which are chiefly concerned with tactical and strategic considerations. In addition, military doctors in the Wehrmacht were also subject to National Socialist ideology in which the needs or desires of individuals were subservient to the needs of the collective. My thesis focuses on how Tenth Army doctors delivered appropriate healthcare to soldiers, and the extent to which these doctors were constrained by military objectives and National Socialist ideology.
In the thesis, these issues are explored through a series of thematic chapters that investigate the responses of the medical service to a number of challenges faced by the Tenth Army during the Italian campaign. These challenges include malaria, sexually transmitted disease, mental illness, gastro-intestinal problems and winter ailments, with a focus on frostbite and other cold injuries, as well as the challenges involved in the delivery of healthcare to soldiers caught up in mountain combat.
The research is founded on several historiographical traditions, although more particularly on the history of military medicine and the history of Third Reich. Early histories of the medical services (and of the rest of the Army) perpetuated the myth of a ‘clean’ Wehrmacht. A similar myth prevailed among the medical profession as a whole, where it was alleged that medicine had been a victim of Nazism. However, these myths have been gradually demolished owing to an increasing awareness of both the medical profession’s and the Wehrmacht’s close relationship with National Socialism, and a more critical analysis has begun to appear. Several recent works, which have been openly critical of the Wehrmacht medical service’s treatment of the soldiers under its care, have acted as direct catalysts for my research. These works include claims that the main interest of military doctors was to get their patients back to the front line as soon as possible, and claims that Wehrmacht doctors acted more as Nazi officers than as therapeutic healers.
A range of archival sources have been consulted and analysed for this study. These include all Tenth Army doctors’ daily notes and medical reports for the period, as well as memos and correspondence with colleagues in affiliated units. Also consulted were primary sources from the Military Medical Academy and the Army Health Inspection, both in Berlin, which provided insight into the attitudes and theories of higher-level medical staff that informed the theoretical context in which Tenth Army doctors worked.
Alex Flucker is a postgraduate student at Glasgow Caledonian University.