Monte Cassino certainly does deserve the epitaph ‘ Stalingrad of the West’, something that Parker advances very well here. By 1944 the focus of the war in Europe might have shifted to the invasion of Normandy, but the campaign in Italy still tied down some of the Germans toughest units, and more than a few able commanders, especially Kesselring.
This is primarily a Soldiers book. Parker describes the strategic background adequately, but does not allow the Generals to overshadow the Privates. Hence we are afforded a rich seam of oral history interviews from eyewitnesses and participants, that are very valuable indeed for those of us trying to gain something of the ‘smell’ of the battlefield from a distance of almost 70 years. The impression I am left with is that the Italian Campaign had much in common with the Western Front of the Great War – the terrain gave the Generals little option but for full-frontal assaults. The ground was very difficult for vehicles, making a maneouvre war very tricky to bring about.
So many different nationalities fought over the monastery – Brits, Americans, Indians (including Gurkhas), New Zealanders (including Maoris), and Poles – that Monte Cassino was perhaps the most ‘allied’ battle of the Second World War. That it took four bloody attempts to finally capture the mountain shows not only what difficult terrain the allies were fighting over, but also how tenaciously the Germans fought. And the terrain did lie in favour of the defender. Steep mountains, perilous tracks, deep ravines and wide open valleys were perfect for setting up defensive lines, which the Germans did right through the Italian Campaign, forcing the allies to break themselves in order to smash through.
The controversy of the bombing of the monastery is also dealt with ably. Whether it was militarily justifiable to destroy the priceless monument will be debated by historians for hundreds of years to come. Yet wisely Parker does not allow his narrative to become bogged down in the controversy. Of course, whether it was right or wrong depends on your point of view, and is encumbered with the baggage of objectivity.
Militarily, several things appear to jump out to me. Commanders should not be rushed into attacking an objective without making prior preparations. Montgomery would never have allowed himself to have been rushed in such a way. Full-frontal assaults of mountains and fortified defences will always result in heavy casualties. And notice how the Germans only pulled out once pincer movements to the north and the south, through more open ground, made the monastery untenable. The sad thing is, that Cassino in itself was a worthless objective, but it became such a symbolic target in a grimly self-perpetuating manner thanks to the losses that it incurred.
I have been researching a number of Portsmouth men who fell at Monte Cassino, and this has added to my understanding of the battle immesurably. One Portsmouth man in particular, Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, played a brave part in the breakout in the Liri valley that led to the final fall of the monastery in May 1944. Rick Atkinson‘s ‘The Day of Battle‘ might give a broader view of Siciliy, Salerno, and then the advance on Rome, but Matthew Parker has made a fine effort of capturing the essence and importance of Monte Cassino.