4 Comments

Monte Cassino, The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II__Book Review

Monte Cassino, The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II by Matthew Parker
First Anchor Edition, May 2005
414 pages with maps and pictures

My son loaded me up with books from my wish list for Christmas 2011 and I finally got around to reading the last one around Christmas time 2012. The last one was Monte Cassino, The Hardest Battle of World War II by Matthew Parker.

In some ways it was the best for last.

The book begins with an outline of the Italian Campaign strategy that led to the epic Battle(s) of Monte Cassino.

The Germans did not actually occupy the monastery at Monte Cassino and offered to evacuate the priceless art within. The Allies did not believe it was not occupied and bombed in with heavy bombers. The Germans then occupied the rubble and turned it into a fort.

The Germans did not actually occupy the monastery at Monte Cassino and offered to evacuate the priceless art within. The Allies did not believe it was not occupied and bombed in with heavy bombers. The Germans then occupied the rubble and turned it into a fort.

The Italian Campaign in general was Churchill’s idea. The reasoning was that Italy was the “soft” underbelly of Nazi-occupied Europe and that an invasion of Italy would take Italy out of the war and thus drain German Divisions from elsewhere to defend Italy . The British further thought that once they fought their way into Northern Italy they could “swing to the right” so-to-speak and liberate Greece before the Communists did. Churchill also had aspirations to get to Vienna before the Russians.

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us now. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

The British Bulldog

The Americans thought otherwise believing that victory would come by taking the shortest distance to Berlin and to them that meant what would become the Normandy (France) Invasion. The debate between the two great allies was not pleasant and the resulting Italian Campaign was not helped by the fact that the American led Fifth Army was led by General Mark Clark who did not like the British and was as jealous of them as he was personally egotistical.

Personally, I think from a big picture point of view the Churchill plan had merit. I think President Roosevelt and much of the American top brass had a rather naive view of Stalin and Russians while Churchill had them pegged in regards to their postwar intentions. Churchill was proved correct when the Iron Curtain fell across Europe by 1948. It was not to be lifted until 40 years later. Letting the Russians get to Berlin first is another indication of American short-sightedness and naïve willingness to trust Stalin, a dictator who was as bad as Hitler but has suffered far less bad press.

This does not automatically mean the Italian Campaign was a good idea since the Allies clearly underestimated the terrain difficulties and the resolve of their German enemies to defend the inhospitable terrain. The Germans had the advantage of having some of their best Generals in Italy. These included Field Marshal Albert Kesserling, Major General von Senger und Etterlin and Major General von Vietinghoff, generals who used the terrain to maximum advantage to offset the huge advantage the allies had in men and material.

Field Marshall Albert Kesserling on the left. He was actually an Air Force General. Nicknamed "Smiling Albert" by the Allies. He waged a masterful defensive war in Italy.

Field Marshall Albert Kesserling on the left. He was actually an Air Force General. Nicknamed “Smiling Albert” by the Allies. He waged a masterful defensive war in Italy.

The Allied Army in Italy was multi-national. It consisted of Americans, British, South Africans, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Poles and Free French, the majority of the French coming from France’s North African colonies. The poly-got nature of the multi-national force brought problems of its own especially since Clark was dedicated to the idea that Americans should be the first to enter Rome (so Clark got the glory). This vain glorious approach to warfare is not helpful in building a coalition of allies.

Montgomery ot the 8th British Army (at first) and Clark of the 5th American Army. Both were famous for the enormous egos.

Montgomery ot the 8th British Army (at first) and Clark of the 5th American Army. Both were famous for their enormous egos.

Some of the better Generals on the allied side did not come from the US or British but from the FEC (French Expeditionary Force) led by General Juin and Polish Corps led by General Anders.

The Polish Corps story was as interesting as it is tragic.

Perhaps few people today know that Stalin and Hitler were allies at one time. When Germany invaded Poland from the west the Russians invaded it from the east (after the Germans did most of the fighting).

The Russians transported thousands of Polish soldiers (and the officers they did not kill in the Katyn Forest Massacre) to labor camps. Many died but enough survived long enough to experience a kind of liberation when the Germans invaded Russia in June, 1941.

A movie still from Katyn. The KGB shot over 20,000 Polish Army Officers in the  back of the head. The western allies knew they did it too but Stalin was our "ally."

A movie still from Katyn. The KGB shot over 20,000 Polish Army Officers in the back of the head. The western allies knew they did it too but Stalin was our “ally.”

The Russians allowed the surviving Poles to travel through Iran to be enlisted in a free Polish Army sponsored by the British. Little did these brave Poles know that the western allies would let Stalin keep Poland despite Stalin’s claims he would allow “free” elections. An indication of just how many Poles hated the Russian Communists just as much as the German Nazis is the fact that very few chose to return to a Russian occupied Poland after the war. Most chose instead to immigrate to Britain, the US and Commonwealth countries. A sad story indeed. Parker does well in providing details like this for all the divisions involved in the Monte Cassino debacle.

There were actually four battles of Monte Cassino. To give the reader some idea of the multinational force the author has provided an Order of Battle for each of the four battles of Monte Cassino. I’ll summarize here to illustrate the multinational effort to take Monte Cassino the lynch pin of the Italian Campaign:

1st Battle
US 5th Army
British 5th Infantry Division
British 46th Infantry Division
British 56th Infantry Division
US 34th Infantry Division
US 36th Infantry Division
US 1st Armored Division
French 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division
French 3rd Algerian Infantry Division

Versus

German 10th Army
44th Infantry Division
29th Panzer Grenadier Division
3rd Panzer Grenadier Division
15th Panzer Grenadier Division
71st Infantry Division
94th Infantry Division
5th Mountain Infantry Division

2nd and 3rd Battle
US 5th Army
2nd New Zealand Division (part infantry, part armored)
4th Indian Division
78th British Infantry Division

Versus German 10th Army as above

Caption read Canadian, but could be British or other Commonwealth.

Caption read Canadian, but could be British or other Commonwealth.

4th Battle
British 8th Army
4th British Infantry Division
6th British Armored Division
8th Indian Division
1st Canadian Infantry Division
5th Canadian Armored Division
3rd Polish Carpathian Infantry Division
5th Polish Kresowa Infantry Division
2nd Polish Armored Regiment
6th South African Armored Division (reserve)

US 5th Army
85th Infantry Division
88th Infantry Division
French 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division
French 3rd Algerian Infantry Division
French 1st Division de Marche
French 4th Moroccan Mountain Infantry Division

Free French Moroccan and Algerian troops made up most of the French forces in Italy. They had a reputation for raping Italian women as well as being fierce mountain fighters.

Free French Moroccan and Algerian troops made up most of the French forces in Italy. They had a reputation for raping Italian women as well as being fierce mountain fighters.

Versus

German 10th Army

XIV Panzer Corps
29th Panzer Grenadier Division
3rd Panzer Grenadier Division
71st Infantry Division
94th Infantry Division
305th Infantry Division
334th Infantry Division
26th Panzer Grenadier Division

LI Mountain Corps
44th Infantry Division
5th Mountain Infantry Division
15th Panzer Grenadier Division
114th Jager Infantry Division
1st Parachute Infantry Division

1st Fallschirmjager Division held Monte Cassino suffering terrible losses in the process.

1st Fallschirmjager Division held Monte Cassino suffering terrible losses in the process.

In as much the order of battle gives some idea of just how many divisions were involved in the Monte Cassino battles it is not the main strength of the book.

The book is largely based on the reminisces of the ordinary soldiers.

Frankly, the book is a book of horrors. Any romantic or heroic notions of war are dashed to pieces in reading this book. It took the allies three months to finally take the Monte Cassino monastery, a monastery set in some of the roughest terrain in Europe.

Both sides could not adequately evacuate their dead and so both sides frequently fought around the bodies of their decomposing dead friends. The soldier’s reminiscences nearly always mention that factor. The huge causality rate suffered by both sides seems to have more in common with the trench warfare of the first war rather than any notions of mobile warfare of the 2nd.

I found it to be an extremely sad book, yet a necessary book that documents that extraordinary sacrifices of soldiers who just wanted to end the war and go home.

I found that the book was not so much about great battles, but about the great people who have to fight them and by that I do not mean the Generals, though some did not throw their men’s lives away thoughtlessly. I do mean the rank and file soldiers often led by company grade officers who knew full well what that superiors did not seem to know and that is trying to prevail in a task that proved impossible time and time again.

I give Parker 5 stars for what I’d call a definitive study on the Monte Cassino battles.

For further reading of the Katyn Forest Massacre

Wiki overview of the Italian Campaign

Advertisements

4 comments on “Monte Cassino, The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II__Book Review

  1. My Mum’s 2nd Cousin was killed at Monte Cassino in 1944. He served with the 2/6th The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey). He was 30. Sadly his dad was killed in 1917 in France. Great post Bruce

    • Sorry to hear that Nick. Tremendous casualties for that piece of real estate. 169th Bde. 56th Infantry Division right?

      My wife’s uncle was killed on the Siegfried Line. He was a combat engineer.

  2. My father fought in that battle. He did not talk of the details very much except to say it taught him how to focus. He did tell me his job was to do night patrol to the Abbey walls to listen for German activity. Scary. My wife and I recently took a trip to Italy and visited the site, museum in Cassino and memorial at Anzio. Everyone was gracious when they discovered my father spent his 22nd birthday in a shallow hole holding a BAR. I took some soil from the Abbey courtyard and will place it on his gravel the Memorial Day. A fitting tribute to an “ordinary guy” who did an extraordinary thing. He died at age 87.

    • Thanks for stopping by Stephen and sharing your father’s story. You are right, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. A fitting tribute as you say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: