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CMAK Preparation Reading- Battle for Monte Cassino

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In preparation for the arrival of CMAK, you may want to read this book that received a positive review in the September 18, 2003 issue of The Economist. The book is entitled: Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War Two by Matthew Parker. I think I will be taking a break from the OstFront to check out this read. The review can be found at:

Economist Book Review

I have also inserted the text from the book review below:

"The worst battle

Sep 18th 2003

From The Economist print edition

Most of the great battles of the second world war have been well chronicled in millions of battle-hardened words, allowing a reader to experience their fury from the safety of an armchair: Stalingrad, Berlin, Normandy, the battle of Britain. Now here is Monte Cassino, perhaps the most interesting campaign of all. It lasted six months, a quarter of a million soldiers died or were wounded and probably it should never have been fought.

In 1943, the fourth year of the war, the Americans wanted to get on with the invasion of Europe, across the Channel from Britain to Normandy, through France and into Germany. But Britain believed the allies were not yet ready to take on the Germans, a wise assessment as it turned out: when the invasion did take place in 1944 after great preparation, it was no walkover.

But the question that bothered the generals was what to do with large numbers of idle soldiers until D-day. Winston Churchill proposed an assault on Italy. Ever the phrasemaker, he said Italy was the soft underbelly of Europe. So at first it seemed. Sicily soon fell, the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, was deposed and an easy landing was made by the allies on the Italian mainland. The allies set off northwards to Rome. But, as Matthew Parker notes, Rome had not been taken from the south since AD536, when Belisarius, a Byzantine general, managed it. Even Hannibal preferred to cross the Alps with his elephants rather than face the geography south of Rome. “Italy is a boot,” Napoleon said. “You have to enter it from the top.”

Still, with most of the Italian army surrendering, the allies thought they could look forward to an easy ride to the eternal city. But the Germans fought on under their formidable commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. He made his stand along a line stretching across Italy from coast to coast, most of it mountainous and bisected by fast-flowing rivers. At the centre of one of Europe's strongest natural defensive positions was Monte Cassino, the site of an ancient Benedictine monastery.

The Germans said they were not occupying the monastery, but the allies did not believe them: anyway, it had become a malign presence, “the all-seeing eye”, as one soldier described it. By the start of 1944, when attacks on the Germans had failed with massive allied casualties, it was decided to bomb the monastery, despite pleas from the Vatican for it to be spared. In Britain there were some who agreed, saying it would be like bombing Westminster Abbey. The allied commander, General Sir Howard Alexander, said that “bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, cannot be allowed to weigh against human lives.”

On February 15th 1944 bombers turned the monastery into rubble, providing the Germans with new defences when the allies staged an assault exactly a month later. The Germans held on until May. In June the allies finally entered Rome, which would soon have fallen anyway: the invasion of Normandy, the decisive battle for Europe, started a few days later.

Monte Cassino was the closest the war came to the attrition warfare of the first world war that, as Mr Parker observes, the generals hoped to avoid, relying more on technology than the bayonet. In that sense, Monte Cassino was the worst battle. The terrain and the weather conspired to make technology useless. In his moving and well-researched book Mr Parker takes note of many earlier accounts of the fighting at Monte Cassino and has in addition interviewed many veterans who still vividly, and bitterly, remember the battle of long ago.

He is clearly on the side of the foot-soldier trying to obey demanding superiors. As in the trenches of Flanders, there was sometimes an unwarlike camaraderie between German and allied soldiers. During a truce agreed by the Germans so that the Americans could collect their dead and wounded, an American corporal recalled, “This German came to our side, and I gave him a cigarette. I talked to him for just a few minutes. He talked pretty good English. He said he had a brother in Brooklyn named Heinz.” The atmosphere was friendly, he said, and the Germans were anxious to help. Then the truce was over, and the two sides resumed killing each other."

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