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MONTE CASSINO by Matthew Parker

MONTE CASSINO

The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II

By Matthew Parker

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-385-50985-5
Publisher: Doubleday

A careful reconstruction of the Allied campaign, throughout the winter of 1943–44, to break the Nazi hold on southern Italy.

Veterans of Okinawa and Stalingrad may not endorse the subtitle, but the campaign to take the hilltop fortress of Monte Cassino was supremely bloody; as the British comedian Spike Milligan wrote to his parents from the battlefront, “I’m writing this in a hole in the ground, it’s convenient, because if you get killed, they just fill the hole in.” British editor and writer Parker (The Battle of Britain, not reviewed) writes that the mile-high summit of Cassino commanded the only readily negotiable route to Rome, and invaders would have to pass within range of the German guns that crowned the Cassino Massif. Ideal ground for those who possessed it—as Parker notes, it was “considered one of the finest defensive positions in Europe”—Cassino also boasted a vast sixth-century monastery whose walls were 20 feet thick at the base. The Allies enjoyed tremendous material superiority; one German paratroop officer remembers seeing “an unbroken stream of Allied tanks and vehicles . . . flowing westward” across the Liri River valley and wondering how anyone could stand up to such odds. But for all the cannons and planes the Allies commanded, uprooting thousands of crack German troops from Cassino had to be accomplished one by one, hand to hand—since, as Parker notes, the Allied air assaults that destroyed the monastery “had merely created ruins in which the defender had the advantage.” The Allied ground attack was accomplished by a truly international force, with equal-opportunity slaughter; among Parker’s finest moments is his account of ill-fated Indian and Maori units chewed up by German machine-gun and mortar fire. The battle, Parker concludes, was disorganized, politicized, and needlessly bloody; had Gen. Mark Clark blocked the earlier German evacuation of Sicily, he suggests, there would have been no crack paratroops to defend Cassino at the start.

An accomplished study of a battle that figures in all the standard WWII textbooks but is rarely given much more than a mention.