What makes the battle of monte Cassino uniquely fascinating is how its story radically undermines stereotypes of the second World War in the west as mechanised, fast-moving and suffused with patriotic certainty. It also had a scale and horror unmatched in the experiences of almost all the protagonists. the great battle in Italy, the bloodiest fought by the western allies against the Germans during the entire war, was a miserable, brutal slugfest, where a mule was worth more than ten tanks and fighting was often hand-to-hand.
Men on both sides compared the staticslaughtertothemostinfamous battles of the First World War – the somme, Verdun, Passchendaele. On the German side it was referred to as worse than stalingrad. two hundred thousand casualties were inflicted in what Peter Caddick-Adams calls “129 days of hell”.
The author’s background as an academic lecturer at staff colleges means that he brings wide knowledge and expertise to the subject. Discussing logistics, kit, weapons and ‘doctrine’, he writes with great authority. there is a thorough and up-to-date bibliography.
He is less good at communicating the ‘hell’ of the subtitle, the day-to-day existence of the poor bloody infantry in exposed sangars on the mountain, or down on the sodden, mine-infested plain. although there are a sprinkling of first-hand accounts, in some ways this new book is curiously old-fashioned: there is plenty on the generals and their careers and personalities, and admiring mentions of the VC and MC winners among the troops, but less about the ‘ordinary soldier’ experiencing boredom, the ‘bull’ of the army, confusion and blunders, camaraderie, crippling tiredness, ‘friendly-fire’, privations, terror, and, for many, mental breakdown. He does write that some 17,000 British troops deserted during the Italian campaign, with the eighth army by far the worst offenders (they had the highest desertion rate of any western Allied army).
Caddick-adams writes that Diadem, the plan that finally, in the fourth battle of Cassino, cleared the Germans off the Gustav Line, “is taught at many NATO defence colleges today as the most perfect example of a modern high- tempo, multinational, all-arms military operation”. Certainly its careful planning was in stark contrast to the terrible mistakes of the previous three attacks. But in spite of vast superiority at Cassino in aircraft, armour and men –16 Allied divisions to just four German – the greater purpose of Diadem, to trap the German tenth army by breaking out of anzio and cutting off its retreat, failed. this has usually been laid at the door of the Us commander, General mark Clark, who controversially diverted forces to the publicity-friendly capture of Rome.
Caddick-Adams quotes those who consider this one of the worst blunders made by any allied commander during the war, but then takes issue with this ‘popular view’ in a well-argued passage (bafflingly shunted to the endnotes) suggesting that the force cutting off the Germans’ retreat would itself have been surrounded, thanks to the inept efforts of the eighth army pursuing the Germans. so, “it is by no means certain [Clark] made the wrong decision”.
Readers would be advised to keep one finger in the endnotes, which are detailed, discursive and very interesting. It is here that the author’s passion for his subject is most evident. In fact, the book has the feel of a much longer work perhaps hurriedly cut down and chopped about, which makes at times for an uneven read. most frustratingly, not enough space is found for analysis by this insightful historian as to whether the battle, and the wider campaign,wereworththeappalling cost. This, rather than the destruction of the monastery, is the real controversy of Monte Cassino.