Peter Caddick-Adams. Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xvi + 396 pp. Illustrations. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-997464-1.
Reviewed by Tal Tovy (Bar Ilan University)
Published on H-War (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Monte Casino is a 516-meter-high rocky hill located some 130 km south of Rome. It was here that Benedictus of Nursia chose to erect his monastery in 529 CE, thereby establishing the Benedictine order. In this monastery Benedict composed the Regula Benedicti (54 0CE), a series of precepts that became the basis for Western monasticism. But monastic tranquility was disturbed by a series of bloody battles, a part of the campaign for Italy during World War II. 1,415 years after its construction, the monastery was destroyed by heavy fire from American bombers in an attempt to breach German defenses. Heavenly serenity turned into hell on earth for the thousands of warriors who took part in the battles for Monte Casino.
After landing in Salerno in southwestern Italy on September 9, 1943, the Allies headed north in two arrowheads against German forces. The Fifth United States Army, led by General Mark Clark, made its way along the western seashore, while the British Eighth Army advanced to the east, along the Adriatic shores, under the command of General Bernard Montgomery. The advance north was slow, often referred to in WWI terms. The Germans took advantage of the harsh territory, constructing defense lines across Italy.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander of the German forces in Italy, immediately ordered the construction of several defense lines to the south of Rome. Kesselring cleverly used the natural blockades formed by the rapidly flowing rivers to the south of Rome, forming a series of defense lines known as the Winter Line. Kesselring planned to build further defense posts to the south, blocking the Allied advances and providing his troops ample time to construct the defense lines.
The German defense system was based on a series of lines. At the front were the Volturno and Barbara lines, made to hold off Allied advances and earn the Germans enough time to fortify the main defense line, the Winter Line, and two additional lines west of the Apennines: the Bernhardt and Adolf Hitler lines. The main line of defense was Gustav Line, located slightly north of where the Garigliano River merged with the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, via the Apennines to the Adriatic shores near the Sangro river in the east. The center of the line, which crossed the road to the north of Rome (Highway 6), was erected around the mountains behind the town of Casino and included the Monte Casino monastery overlooking the entrance to the Liri valley (where a main road to Rome passed), as well as Monte Cairo, which provided the Germans terrific outlook against possible attack from the Liri valley.
Some fifteen German divisions manned the line, keeping the Allies occupied in battle for over five months (November 1943-May 1944), including the famous Monte Casino and Anzio battles. The Winter Line became the main obstacle for Allied northern advances after the South Italy landing, completely blocking the Fifth Army’s advancement in the west. Although the Gustav Line was breached by the Eighth Army, snow storms and limited visibility brought it to a halt as well by the end of December.
Since the Eighth Army was held back, it became clear that the push towards Rome would come from the west, at the hands of the Fifth Army. Field conditions were slightly better than those in the east, and vehicle and artillery movement was feasible thanks to the two roads leading to Rome: Highway 7 from Naples through the coast, between the sea and the Aurunci Mountains; and highway 6 from Naples through the Liri valley, dominated by the Monte Cassino hill, on top of which stood the Benedictine monastery, originally a fortress defending Rome. At the foot of the hill lay the town of Cassino, through which ran the Rapido River. Monte Cassino was the most strategic point in the Gustav Line, the Winter Line’s main line of defense, and created a bottleneck for the Allied forces who had to first go through it in order to capture Rome. On February 11, after three days of unsuccessfully storming Monte Cassino, the American forces retreated. Some blame Clark’s lack of experience for that failure, while others propose that his command of the Anzio front left him unavailable to treat Monte Cassino with equal priority.
On February 15, B-17 “Flying Fortresses” bombed Monte Cassino as a preventive measure, fearing it would become an observation post for the German artillery. Despite the heavy bombing and the monastery’s complete demolition, no German casualties were reported, although many Italian civilians who fled to the safety of the monastery walls were killed. In retrospect, bombing the monastery did more bad than good. The Germans had an agreement in place with the monks, a promise not to use the monastery for military purposes. Its demolition canceled that agreement, and the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division soldiers utilized its ruins as frontline observation posts. On the eve of the day following the bombing, a company from the Fourth Indian Infantry Division attacked strategic point 593. The attack failed, with half of the attackers lost in battle. Despite this failure, Allied attacks continued, but shortage of tanks and anti-tank weaponry forced the infantry to retreat in the face of the German tank offensive of February 18.
After the first two battles, the Allied command had decided not to advance along the Rapido towards Monte Cassino during the winter. Suggestions to reach the town by climbing the mountains were also dismissed, as previous attempts failed miserably. The tactic eventually chosen was to advance northward via the Rapido channel infantry in two heads: the first towards Monte Cassino, the second towards Monastery Hill. By the end of February, the 78th British Infantry arrived at the scene and was chosen to forge ahead towards Monte Cassino under New Zealander command. The attack began on March 17. Following heavy artillery fire, the New Zealand soldiers crawled their way along the channel. By the end of the day the Allies made camp a mere two hundred meters from Monastery Hill, with the force of a battalion, while the battles in Monte Cassino raged on. The initial success of the attack was overshadowed by the German reinforcement capabilities, due to their control of the nearby town. The 1st Fallschirmjäger Division held strong, their counterattack preventing Allied attacks from pressing on. On March 20 the 78th Division began asserting more dominance in the battle, but the British still failed in blocking German reinforcement. British success amounted to little more than several occupied territories throughout town. Three days later the attack was called off, and the Allied forces turned their attention to stabilizing the front after both sides suffered great losses.
Allied attention then turned towards western Italy. The Liri valley seemed to be the ideal route to Rome. The plan was to land in Anzio, north of Gustav Line, in an effort to force the Germans to retreat. However, the swift bridge-top breach was never realized. The forces that landed in Anzio were held back at the bridge, barely deterring German attacks. Only after four attacks (or three, according to some accounts) taking place between January and May of 1944 did the Allies finally breach Gustav Line thanks to a joint attack by the Fifth and Eighth armies, aided by French, Polish, and Canadian forces. The line was breached at a thirty-two-kilometer front between Monte Cassino and the sea to the west.
The battles were accompanied by horrendous acts toward the Italian population who opposed German occupation and the Salo regime with partisan activities. At the same time, the Anzio forces managed to break through from atop the bridge, but failed to surround the 10th German Army retreating from Gustav Line, in part due to the Fifth Army commander General Mark Clark, who favored a hasty occupation of Rome instead, and the city was captured by Allied forces on June 4, 1944. News of the successful recapture was lost in the general excitement over the successful Normandy landing.
This chain of events is meticulously described in Caddick-Adams’s fascinating book, presenting one of the harshest battles for the western Allies on the European front during WWII. The book is based on a variety of firsthand sources, including German documents, as well as diaries and journals written by participating soldiers. Despite the main focus on the battles surrounding Monte Cassino, the book begins with a general analysis of the battles leading up to the Allied standstill in the face of the Winter Line. Thus the author provides the foundation to understanding the battles and events leading up to breaching the German lines of defense in central Italy in general, and specifically the battles around Monte Cassino. The final two chapters describe the military processes following the breach, the occupation of Rome, and the advance north. Thus the author combines micro and macro analysis, providing the reader an inclusive, encompassing discussion describing all the stages of the harsh Italian campaign. Caddick-Adams provides a comprehensive military analysis, and together with the decision-making process carried by the commanding forces on both ends, the reader gains a full perspective of the complexity of the Italian campaign. Presenting a combination of military analysis with the authentic experiences of the soldiers--the burden of war, the harsh climate, the wretched landscape--makes the book complete. This work is an important addition to the Italian campaign literature, a campaign sometimes deemed insignificant when compared to the other battles in Europe, the eastern front and the Pacific theater. Surely, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in Italy would have thought differently.
Here is a well-written book which meticulously details the Italian campaign. Despite the book being a military history study, Caddick-Adams does not neglect the human factor, enabling the reader to appreciate this oft-overlooked aspect. The book joins a rapidly growing group of studies which incorporate military analysis and the human experience. In the historiographical sense, it is not merely a study of the Italian theater, but also a study of the different aspects of the soldier who carried the physical and emotional weight of the battle on his shoulder.
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Tal Tovy. Review of Caddick-Adams, Peter, Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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