Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II

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9780385509855: Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II

A gripping chronicle of the greatest and most terrible confrontation between Allied forces and the Nazi army, based on groundbreaking archival research and the compelling first-person accounts of four hundred survivors on both sides of the conflict.

Before D-Day there was Monte Cassino, the desperate six-month struggle in the mountains of central Italy that left more than 350,000 men dead or wounded. Hitler had declared that the Allied drive toward Rome must be stopped at all costs, and in the winter of 1943–44 the German commander Kesselring chose the fortress-like monastery of Monte Cassino as the centerpiece of the Gustav Line, one of the most impressive feats of defensive engineering ever conceived. With months to prepare his position, Kesselring took advantage of the treacherous terrain to establish a virtually impregnable position. As the Allied forces?which included Americans, British, Canadians, Indians, South Africans, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Senegalese, Brazilians, and royalist Italians?pushed their way forward, the coldest, rainiest winter in Italian history rendered air and armor power useless, and turned the landscape into a hellish killing ground.

The Battle of Monte Cassino is a story of the horrors of war seen from the perspective of the soldiers on the battlefield. Through interviews with hundreds of survivors, as well as wartime letters and diaries, Matthew Parker vividly captures the savagery of conflicts fought with grenades, bayonets, and bare hands. His extensive research in the military archives of the participating nations brings to light how incessant disagreements and backbiting at the Allied command level contributed to the carnage and confusion. The destruction of the fourteenth-century monastery itself becomes a powerful symbol of the toll war takes on history and culture. Monte Cassino was one of the most sacred sites in Christendom and the home to valuable religious artifacts, artworks, and manuscripts. In massive Allied bombings, the building and many of its irreplaceable treasures were reduced to rubble.

The first book in twenty years about Monte Cassino, this monumental work of history conveys the human face of war with authoritative power and unforgettable emotional resonance.

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About the Author:

MATTHEW PARKER is the author of The Battle of Britain. He is a writer and editor specializing in modern history, and lives in London, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
The Casablanca Conference and the Invasion of Sicily
On 14 January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met in the newly liberated city of Casablanca in Morocco. In the East, the ring had closed around Stalingrad, and the Western Allied leaders now debated their next steps. With Churchill in the lavish surroundings of the Villa Mirador on the outskirts of the city was Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, later to be overall Allied commander at Cassino, whose "easy, smiling grace," Churchill wrote, "won all hearts." Harold Macmillan, then the British resident minister in North Africa, wrote of Churchill, "I have never seen him in finer form. He ate and drank enormously all the time, settled huge problems . . ." Officially, all were in agreement: With the campaign in Tunisia taking longer than expected, the cross-Channel invasion would be delayed until 1944. Once German resistance in North Africa had been ended, an invasion of Sicily would follow. If successful, this would give the Allies control of the Mediterranean, reopen the Gibraltar-Suez shipping lane and, they hoped, knock Italy out of the war.

Behind the outward shows of unity, however, lurked serious disagreements about strategy. In fact, the Casablanca Conference saw the stormiest negotiations ever to occur between the Western Allies. The Americans, observing the military dictum that an attacker should go the shortest route to his objective with the greatest strength he can muster, were deeply suspicious of further delays to the invasion of France. The staunchest holder of this line was Gen. George Marshall, the US Army chief of staff and Roosevelt's right-hand man as far as running the war was concerned. In his view the Mediterranean was a sideshow and an unnecessary drain on manpower and resources that could be better employed by returning immediately to England and then heading via the shortest route to Berlin. Churchill though, like all the British, haunted by the ghosts of the Western Front a generation earlier, was determined to delay the battle in northern France until success was far more assured. He didn't think that moment had come, and also had other motives for pushing forward in the Mediterranean. Traditionally a British concern because of the route to India, Churchill was also intent on "setting the Balkans alight"--exploiting the resistance to Nazi occupation that had already tied down vital German divisions and aiming to cut supplies of oil and other products essential to Germany's war machine. He was even far-sighted enough to wish to get Western Allied soldiers into Central Europe and especially Greece before the Red Army arrived.

Exasperated by British reluctance to proceed full-steam-ahead with plans for the cross-Channel invasion, the Americans were suspicious that Churchill's Mediterranean ambitions were motivated by imperial interests. There had been tension between Britain and America between the wars, including fierce exchanges over Britain's economic policy of Imperial Preference, which damaged US trade, and the American leadership could be absolutely sure of its people's deeply held anticolonialism. For Churchill, though, the empire was not up for discussion.

But at Casablanca the British, much to their surprise, got their way, and after ten days of heated negotiation a compromise was reached that prepared the invasion of Sicily. This, as will be seen, led almost inadvertently to the major struggle in Italy, and the Americans retained the impression that they had been duped, or "led down the garden path" as far as Southern Europe was concerned.

The ramifications of the Casablanca Conference were to affect the whole of the Italian campaign. To a great extent, at the highest level the Americans were unwilling participants in Churchill's "Mediterranean adventure." This made the southern theater a low priority for supplies and manpower, and also fed the distrust and dislike between the two principal allies, which was to reach its grim conclusion at Monte Cassino.
The road that leads to the climactic battles south of Rome in early 1944 starts with the decision taken nearly two years earlier in July 1942 to commit sizable American and British resources to North Africa. It had been agreed that there were not enough specialized landing craft for a cross-Channel invasion that year. There were also insufficient US forces already trained and shipped to Europe. Instead of letting what forces there were stagnate, it was thought best to use them to clear North Africa and thus do at least something on land to help the hard-pressed Soviets. President Roosevelt was determined that there should be American troops fighting the Germans somewhere as soon as possible. So in November 1942, against the wishes of the US military leaders, the president gave the go-ahead for Operation Torch; landings by American and British troops along the northwest coast of Africa. General Sir Bernard Montgomery's 8th Army, following its victory at El Alamein the previous month, attacked from the east.

The deep misgivings of the British about the unreadiness of the Allied forces for an attack on the well-defended northern French coast proved justified when in December 1942 the 8th Army was checked by the outnumbered Afrika Korps. In early February 1943, Rommel, briefly back in charge of the German forces in Africa, counterattacked American units near the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Initially the attack was held, but soon rumors began to sweep through the American ranks, and some units started retreating without having been given the order to do so. Exhausted and demoralized, and weak from days of fighting in the mountains without water, it was for many of the American soldiers their first taste of being dive-bombed and mortared. The result was a panic-stricken retreat that saw the Germans push back their attackers for over fifty miles. For the British, it was upsetting confirmation of their suspicions about the fighting ability of their ally. General Alexander, then second-in-command in the theater, wrote to Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff and effectively Britain's most senior soldier, calling the GIs "soft, green and quite untrained . . . is it surprising they lack the will to fight? . . . If this handful of divisions here are their best, the value of the rest may be imagined." The breakthrough at Kasserine was not exploited, but German reinforcements continued to arrive in Tunisia.

This move was evidence of a new German confidence in the early spring of 1943. To the dismay of the Red Army, the Wehrmacht had made a startling recovery after the disaster of Stalingrad the previous winter. In March 1943 the Soviets were driven back in places by a hundred miles when the Germans counterattacked around Kharkov in the Ukraine. In addition to this success, new weapons were coming through, including Tiger heavy tanks and Panther heavy-medium tanks. A massive manpower mobilization using slave labor had freed thousands of Germans for military service, and the Wehrmacht was now close to its size of two years earlier in spite of the enormous losses on the Eastern Front. Germany's increasingly unwilling allies--Italy, Finland, Hungary, and Romania--had been kept in the war, and another great offensive was planned for May around Kursk. Submarine production was up and it was hoped that offensives against the West at sea and the East on land would see Germany through until the unlikely alliance between the United States/Britain and the Soviet Union fell apart.

Furthermore, even relations between the United States and Britain were strained. After the Casablanca Conference and the setback in the Kasserine Pass, the Americans persisted in their suspicions that they had been hoodwinked into an expensive sideshow, and the British remained fearful that their ally would pull the plug on the Mediterranean theater, or, even worse, go back on the Germany First policy and transfer the bulk of their forces to fight Japan. Events on the ground had also led to distrust on one side matched by resentment on the other. President Roosevelt himself complained that the British had relegated American units to supporting roles, unwilling to trust them with anything else. In fact, the performance of the American II Corps in Africa improved markedly as the soldiers and commanders gained experience and received training from British troops. As Gen. Omar Bradley, II Corps' commander, commented after the war, Tunisia was an important testing ground. "In Africa," he wrote, "we learned to crawl, to walk--then run." By 3 March, the ground lost in Rommel's February counterattack had been recaptured, and at the end of the month General Patton's American divisions met up with Montgomery's 8th Army, which had at last broken through the German defensive lines in southern Tunisia. Alexander then reorganized the Allied armies and ordered a general offensive to start on 4 May. By then German supply lines to their army in Tunisia were under constant attack, and it was decided in Berlin to abandon the Afrika Korps, now commanded by Gen. Jurgen von Arnim. Three days later Bizerte and Tunis were captured, and on 12 May a message was intercepted by the Allies from von Arnim: "We have fired our last cartridge. We are closing down for ever." By the next day, all Axis forces in North Africa had surrendered. In all, some 130,000 German and 120,000 Italian prisoners were taken. Notes made by an Allied cameraman recording the capitulation maintain that the lines of prisoners stretched for twenty-two kilometers. By any standards, it was a spectacular victory for the Allies.

The front line was now the Sicilian Channel, and, as agreed at Casablanca, preparations started for an assault on the island. There was considerable nervousness about what was to be the Allies' first major amphibious landing on an enemy-held coast, and Britain's first return to Europe since its ignominious expulsion from Greece and Crete in 1941. Unlike the North African landings, when the invader...

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