MONTE CASSINO by David & David Richardson Hapgood
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MONTE CASSINO

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The February 1944 Allied bombing of the abbey of Monte Cassino (yes, it's the fortieth anniversary) was controversial when the decision was made, and more controversial in the years afterward--when it was learned that the Germans, as they claimed, had not occupied the monastery. The key fact that they were in the monastery precincts, though known (cf. Raleigh Trevelyan's Rome '44, 1982), has not been widely publicized; other extenuating or at least mitigating factors, on the Allied side, emerge here. So, if the book isn't quite ""the great untold story"" it's billed to be, it also has more substance and resonance--dramatic reconstruction and all--than Hapgood's previous collaboration, The Murder of Napoleon (1982). Some of the drama is indeed dragged in--the initial and recurrent focus on German removal (theft? rescue?) of art from Monte Cassino. (The authors seem bent on upholding a German doctor's disputed claim to being the art's savior.) Crude contrasts are drawn, at the start, between careerist generals and weeping monks. Futile actions are strung out, inconclusive encounters are built up. But the tiny bits of evidence do coalesce--when the Germans, having promised to evacuate a 300-meter zone around the abbey, renege; when commanding general Mark Clark, hard-pressed at Anzio, decides that Monte Cassino must be stormed (not, as history and French general Juin would have it, outflanked). Then, as the Americans disastrously move up, we see the monastery caught in a crossfire. New Zealand's general Freyburg, whose Indian troops are relieving the Americans, insists on a bombardment. Clark, opposed, is overruled by his superior, Alexander: Freyburg is a Commonwealth eminence; if his troops attack and fail, he can ruin both of them. (In making these deductions, the authors are at their canniest; in weighing in the role of Freyburg's maverick subordinate Tuker--against the assault, for the bombardment--they're at their most subtle.) So the bombardment went forward--to the cheers of Allied troops and assembled onlookers--and the outcome is history: the Indians weren't ready to move up; the Germans moved in; Monte Cassino, repeatedly attacked, was never captured; the Germans scored a propaganda coup. Like many another human event, the bombing thus appears both avoidable and, beyond a point, inescapable. For a pop history, that's a pretty weighty lesson; Hapgood and Richardson will have readers--and admirers.

Pub Date: March 30th, 1984
Publisher: Congdon & Weed--dist. by St. Martin's