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Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell

By Peter Caddick-Adams. 432 pp. Oxford, 2013. $29.95.

 The battle of Monte Cassino, from January to May 1944—“129 days of hell”— was arguably the Allies’ toughest combat of World War II. Like other savage encounters with the Wehrmacht in Italy, it is now mostly overlooked, though the sacrifice and suffering were enormous, leaving 350,000 men dead or wounded in a Verdun of the barren Italian peaks. Monte Cassino was the key strongpoint of the Gustav Line, barring an Allied advance up the Liri Valley on Rome; it had to fall or the Allies would be stalled in Italy. Knowing this, German commander Albert Kesselring ordered the town to be so well fortified that the Allies would “break their teeth on it.” They would do that and more.

Those assailing the stronghold, below a wondrous Benedictine Abbey 1,400 years old, included Americans, Canadians, British, woefully equipped Indians, South Africans, Moroccans, Senegalese, Brazilians, even royalist Italians. They fought during Italy’s coldest known winter, in conditions and on terrain that blunted Allied advantages in air power and armor. Scrabbling for every yard, regiment upon regiment was decimated. “Just as the destruction reminded many British and German officers of the Somme, Verdun or Passchendale,” Caddick-Adams notes, “the casualties were similar in number.”

Unforgivably, the Allies wrecked the Abbey, wrongly thought to hold foes. On February 15, 1944, American bombers dumped 1,400 tons of bombs on that sacred place, killing many civilians inside but no Germans, in what may have been the greatest aesthetic war crime of the Italian campaign, if not the war in Europe. Germans used the rubble to hide from aerial and artillery attacks. “No tree escaped damage, no piece of ground remained green,” a German general wrote.

The ruins became a warren of machine gun nests and snipers; Allied casualties rose higher. On quiet nights, men could hear “rats tearing at corpses.” Among four major assaults, the last sent 20 divisions along a 20-mile front. On May 18, the Poles finally tramped through poppy fields to flush the diehards in a Pyrrhic victory. The earlier “failure to achieve a decisive result at Cassino,” Caddick-Adams claims, “condemned those in Italy to a further year of war.”

Caddick-Adams’s new narrative places the attrition in the broader context of the controversial Italian campaign. Not as detailed as accounts by other British historians—John Ellis’ definitive 1984 history and Matthew Parker’s superb 2004 work—Caddick-Adams’s retelling of this heart-rending debacle still is a compelling addition to the canon. Churchill famously termed Italy Europe’s “soft underbelly.” The country proved instead a “tough old gut” in Fifth Army commander Mark W. Clark’s words. At Monte Cassino, as Caddick-Adams so ably demonstrates, it was at its very toughest.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.