This excellent account of one of the bloodiest and most violent battles in human history presents the general reader, if not the military historian or the specialist in World War II, with a genuine dilemma: If you have read Matthew Parker’s “Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II,” published nine years ago, do you really want to go back over the same brutal terrain with Peter Caddick-Adams in “Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell”? The answer seems, to me at least, anything except clear.
Both writers are British, and both write about the four-month battle in the mountains of central Italy with authority, though strictly on military matters the edge should go to Caddick-Adams, who lectures in military and security studies at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, is a major in the British Territorial Army and has served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan; Parker by contrast is a freelance popular historian, albeit a very good one. Both rely on many of the same sources, including journalism by Margaret Bourke-White, Martha Gellhorn and Alan Whicker as well as letters and diaries by those in the field, notable among them Terence Milligan, who after the war achieved great popularity in England as the comedian Spike Milligan. Parker gives perhaps stronger emphasis to the human side of the conflict, while Caddick-Adams is on ground he knows well so far as maneuvers and strategy are concerned, and in a long passage in his preface, as elsewhere in his narrative, he conveys an almost painful sense of place. That passage begins:
“If ever battlespace was dominated by geology and combat directed by climate and terrain, then Monte Cassino provided an extreme example. Here battle slid back to a medieval pace; hand-to-hand fighting was common; mules and horses were used in place of modern engines of war, as combatants on both sides quickly discovered that the ground around Cassino was unforgiving. An ankle-twisting loose scree, caused by the fracturing of limestone outcrops over the millennia, covered all gradients. The hard and brittle hills shattered like glass when hit by any projectile — shells, mortar rounds, hand grenades and even bullets sent splinters of rock in all directions, and causing a horrifically high number of head, face and eye injuries.”
The battle for the ancient monastery atop Monte Cassino began in January 1944 and ended with the German surrender in May, during which “some 200,000 casualties were inflicted on Germans, Italians, French, Americans, British, Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, Canadians and South Africans during 129 days of hell.” Whether it had to be fought at all was debated before and during its course and continues to be to this day. It was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who as a young man had demonstrated at Gallipoli that his grasp of military strategy was far shakier than his confidence in that grasp: “The real reason why [the Allied command] felt obliged to continue battering away at Cassino was political pressure emanating from Churchill himself, whose baby the whole Italian campaign was.” Churchill famously insisted that Italy was the “soft underbelly” of Hitler’s Europe and demanded a full undertaking to break it apart and open the way to Rome, even as Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall had “their eyes fixed firmly on Normandy,” where Allied forces landed on D-Day, three weeks after spent, shellshocked troops finally ended the battle for Monte Cassino.
For most of its course that battle was waged on the ground, with troops fighting not merely each other but also the pitiless terrain and the terrible weather; between October and December of 1943, “very heavy rain fell in central Italy for fifty days out of seventy-three, turning all low ground into oceans of freezing mud, swamping airfields and roads.” Then, in late winter, the Allies decided after fierce debate to destroy the historic abbey atop Monte Cassino with its library, “one of the most important in the world . . . including many works of Rome’s earliest historians and philosophers.” The Allies did not know that most of the monastery’s treasures had already been removed by the Germans, but that would not have mattered to troops on the ground, to many of whom “the sacred buildings had become sinister and malevolent.” The first bomber attack, on the Ides of March, was aimed at the town of Cassino, below the abbey. A German lieutenant who survived the war described it:
“Direct hits — here, here and here; a hand sticking out of the debris told me what had happened. When I got back, the men read in my eyes what I had seen. The same, unspoken thought was in all our minds — when would it be our turn? The crash of bursting bombs increased in intensity. We clung to each other, instinctively keeping our mouths open. It went on and on. Time no longer existed, everything was unreal. . . . Rubble and dust came pouring down into our hole. Breathing became a desperate and urgent business. . . . Crouching in silence, we waited for the pitiless hail to end.”
That powerful passage usefully reminds us that although the man who sent them into battle was a psychopath and a murderer, the German soldiers were as human as the men against whom they fought, and indeed constituted a superb fighting force. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, chief of Great Britain’s Imperial Staff, said of them: “they are fighting magnificently. Marvelous it is, perfectly marvelous. . . . The morale of their troops is still admirable and only a slight change can be seen in the quality of the prisoners captured.” Throughout Monte Cassino, as in other battles, the Wehrmacht’s highest leaders were notable for “the incredible speed with which they consistently reacted to operational-level crises by the swift employment of massive reserves.” Under the “dangerous and efficient” leadership of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Germans were formidable, if in the end not invincible.
Caddick-Adams is at pains to emphasize that Monte Cassino was not a battle of Germans against Americans and British, but of Germans against the broadest “range of nationalities and cultures” of any campaign in Europe. Gurkhas from India and Kiwis from New Zealand fought bravely and well, as did Poles. It was to a unit of Poles that fell the honor of declaring victory, by raising the Polish national colors over the fallen abbey on May 17: “At 10:15 a.m. Master Bugler Emil Czech stood on the ruined walls and played the ‘Krakow Heynal’ trumpet call. General Wladyslaw Anders knew, as the famous notes echoed around the hills, that this would be a much-witnessed, much-recorded symbol that Poland had struck back.”
The road to Rome was wedged open, if not wholly cleared, and the Allies rushed to claim the old city. Leading the charge was Mark Clark, the most publicity-hungry general this side of Douglas MacArthur. The British journalist Alan Whicker wrote of Clark: “His vanity was remarkable — he could have given lessons to any Hollywood prima donna. Even during the desperate days of the war when we were hard-pressed to hold our ground he kept a publicity machine of some fifty men around him and insisted his permanent cameraman only took pictures from the left — his best side, he believed.” He did get to make his triumphal entrance into Rome — “Nothing else in his life would ever match that moment” — but 24 hours later Allied troops hit the beaches in Normandy, and he was forgotten.
As to the choice between Caddick-Adams and Parker, it isn’t easy. If you’ve already read Parker and are not a specialist, that’s sufficient. If you haven’t but want to learn about this immensely important but relatively unknown campaign, I’d call it a tossup. Both books are very good indeed.
Ten Armies in Hell
By Peter Caddick-Adams
Oxford Univ. 396 pp. $29.95