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At War on the Gothic Line: Fighting in Italy 1944–45 Paperback – 24 Aug. 2017
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Christian Jenning’s fresh account of the Campaign in Italy therefore came as a welcome surprise. It is well written, cogent and brings largely forgotten events into an immediate focus. He is most comfortable writing reportage but also offers persuasive analysis of the bigger picture, as the war in Europe was drawing to a close. The individual protagonists we meet provide interest and counterpoint, welcome companions for the journey through such a heavily layered conflict. Unusually, and correctly, our attention is also repeatedly drawn to the sufferings of the civilian population and the vicious reprisals they faced. There is an unsettling resonance with modern day conflict, which may reflect Jenning’s own experience as a journalist, and which powerfully reinforces his account.
The book is well researched, drawing from primary materials and with fairly unobtrusive touching up by way of anecdote. At times, the material presented appears self-selecting and it is slightly SF centric but Jennings does not hold himself out as a definitive academic historian. He gives the kaleidoscope sharp twists, allowing selected events to tumble through our view. We are left to exercise our own judgment about them and there is more than enough here for that sensibly to be achieved.
Many returning British veterans were deeply affected by their privations in Italy. They also fervently wanted us to remember the bravery and sacrifice of the Italian population – just look up (or better, donate towards) the Monte San Martino Trust. There would be nothing more squalid than for what happened all those years ago to be forgotten. This book is an excellent contribution to the preservation of their experience and deserves to be widely read.
Christian Jennings’ At War on the Gothic Front first tried to integrate the operational role of the Italian partisans with that of the Allied military: something which the past historiography of both Allied historians and Italian historians of the partisan war had placed each other as far away as possible from each others’ orbits, since beyond fighting the common foreign Nazi foe each had precise different military-political agendas, and because the British generals could not trust cooperating with irregular independent-minded combatants and particularly Communists.
Unlike Stafford’s exclusively SOE authoritative volume Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943-1945, by focusing on a military pen-picture, such as Major Oliver Churchill, DSO, and Arrigo Paladini, as Ogden documented in his own case-studies A Spur Called Courage, and then synthesizing operations on the ground, executed closely with either British SOE or US OSS special forces behind the lines, the author showed the responsibilities of each force, with merits shared equally between the clean shaven aristocratic professionals and bearded peasants irregulars alike. This was excellently presented and documented in the attack on Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, in December 1944, with Arrigo Boldrini commanding the 28th Garibaldi Brigade, totally working within the main plan against the German 114th Division.
Secondly, Jennings has tried to illustrate that the two opposing foes had men from as many different states. If the Allies comprised men from all the British Empire and the Dominions (except Australia), the US (the author especially wished to underline the great contribution of his very unappreciated heroes including the Nisei Japanese-born Americans like Sgt Daniel K Inouye of the 442nd RCT in 34th Infantry Division, and the black American “Buffalo” soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division), Poland, Greece, Italy (both regular units post armistice reformed, and partisans), and Brazil – who resisted for several months against the rains and the snow in the Serchio valley, in Tuscany, while the German forces contained Poles, Cossacks, and Turkoman troops taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, as well as Italian Fascist units.
If he stresses conflicts existing between the top US and British Generals – prima donna tiffs, continuing since the invasion of Sicily, with General Sir Oliver Leese becoming the main anti-hero, explained as a class horsey product of the traditional British public school divide, he says little of the hostilities existing between Germans, Nazis or not, and their Italian Fascist allies. Except for the Führer’s continual loyalty and high regard for Mussolini, few Germans had trust or sympathy for their double-crossing Italian people. In reality, though they might be wearing different uniforms even Fascists cringed over the over-zealous recorded murder and barbarism carried out at Sant’Anna di Stazzema -the second largest civilian massacre after Ordour sur Glane, and Marzabotto in August and September 1944, much less the knowledge that should the Germans be forced to withdraw it was certain they would destroy as much of the infrastructure as a personal reprisal against the people and its state - something which Mussolini found totally vile, and incomprehensible to accept.
The author accepted what other historians from Allied countries in the past chose to play down once the war from mid 1944 seemed destined for an Allied victory: for many Italians the campaign was moving on to preludes of the new post-war world, with the individual political groupings and their military wings among the young resistors eager to break ranks, with first post-war clashes aoccurring covertly on the battle field. Jennings does hint that in Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the North east region bordering Yugoslavia, liberation was much more pronounced, and meant a fight for Italy or a Tito dominated Social Republic of Yugoslavia, but he then reverted to the known liberal-left protected shell of incomplete explanations. It was, in fact, more than an ideological left against the right struggle; the left was controlled by the much more active and organized local Communists leading the local resistance as advance shock troops of Tito’s own People’s National Army The Price of Patriotism.
By 1945 the Italian Communist party (PCI), headed by Togliatti, advocating a Pro-Italy policy, was even in open conflict with the cadres and organization in Friuli. One British gunner in early May 1945 reported on crossing the river Isonzo on the road to Trieste of feeling to have wandered into a foreign land, with buildings painted with red stars and notices announcing in Serbo-Croat that this was Slav territory Larkhill's Wartime Locators: Royal Artillery Survey in the Second World War. A few weeks previously, in February, an incident occurred at the village of Porzus, near Udine, when the local Communist led Garibaldi partisans informed the Fascists and German authorities of the presence of their Catholic rivals, the Osoppo, and as their foes were unable to attack these partisans immediately, they marched and wiped them out themselves Porzus. With one lie after another they spread the rumour, as would be heard repeatedly throughout the 40 day May-June Yugoslav occupation of Trieste, that as pro-Italians, the Osoppo, were reactionaries, “Nazi-Fascists”, and deserved instant progressive “People’s Socialist” (Tito) justice. The result in Trieste was men, women, and children being rounded up, marched into the Istrian interior and thrown into deep caverns or “foibe”, simply for being Italian, and belonging to the professional classes.
Jennings was perfectly right when he described Tito’s movement as “nationalist”, but by simply focusing on the term “socialist”, and refraining the inclusion of the Comintern’s progressive idea of People’s democracy coming from the East, the explanation remains ambiguous, grey and partial, and proved very embarrassing to contemporary social democrats in the west. Forty-five years later when Yugoslavia was breaking up this behaviour was described as “ethnic cleansing”. It was the same mass class war murder the Poles had first experienced in wartime in May1940 Katyn at the hands of the Soviet forces, blamed on the Nazis Katyn [DVD] , and which came to be repeated time after time throughout Eastern Europe in the Soviet’s new satellite states.
The Garibaldi at Porzus were laying down a blank canvas, intending to fill it with their ideological cultural hegemony: the formation of the Seventh Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia as far as the river Tagliamento, half way to Venice, in the west. But as soon as the political ideologues and the military political commissars in Tito’s 9th Korpus or Corps arrived, they made it clear that as this territory would henceforth be Yugoslavia, and led by real Slavs, as Italians (despite being local card-holding Communists) they were little better than Fascists, and they should either move on, keep stum or go as class traitors the way of the Fascists. When the lands were drawn a month later and fell into Italian territory these foot soldiers preferred silence and uphold the myth of international Communist fraternity rather than the bullying methods of the East even amongst younger fellow party comrades until the last days of their lives.
Ten years ago, a journalist of the left Giampaolo Pansa Il sangue dei vinti, had more to say, stressing the issue was a national and not simply a border regional phenomena. He made public what was known among the PCI leadership until 1948 that after the fall of Fascism a certain element of fiercely extremist and angry class war warriors entered the party, and wished at the end of the war not only demanded pay back time justice against the Fascists, but to carry out a social revolution to prevent as in 1921 the liberal / catholic, monarchical establishment to re-establish Fascistic authoritarian rule with or without a new Fascist regime. They claimed the social camaraderie of the Resistance was the basis of a future modern post-war democracy in Italy, and for several weeks after the end of hostilities in May 1945, some formed themselves into groups in Tuscany, Emilia, and in Venetia, and attacked landowners, and small and medium-sized businessmen claiming the right to “liberate the country from the expropriators”. These firebrands in turn, helped by direct financial and advisory means from the US, legitimised the state organs of law and order to repression; with the PCI being compelled to refrain other sympathetic party supporters from following the hot heads, and advising some to cool off, go underground, or depart quickly for a few years to the real Socialist countries, leaving the leadership more in the know to prepare for a different modern society in Italy.
Not living in Italy, and not aware of Italian customs, Jennings was amazed by the enthusiasm shown towards the armed forces, with people joining in the celebrations during Liberation Day on April 25th, clad in any form of stylish uniform. It is possible that Shakespeare was referring to Italy when he uttered the famous comment that “all the world is a stage” ; for in Italy dress is important, but appearances and ceremonies can deceive and need not signify popularity. Mussolini too hinted the sheep-like tendency of Italians desiring to be accepted by the flock. Until the end of Communism in 1989 the PCI taught Italians to beware of all armed forces, and of NATO; and despite gains by the right during the Berlusconi days that feeling of mistrust of armies is still prevalent among many Italian families.
Finally, I wondered why Christian Jennings tried to present the Italian campaign as the “Forgotten War” (not to be confused with General Bill Slim’s “Forgotten Army” in Burma), which seemed a marketing / historical ploy to describe something unique or overlooked, until I realised that despite Ospreys being a British publishing house, and the author being British, the work is written in American English: “gottens”, talking “with”, people going to the “bathroom” in “cafés” rather than watering holes where the “bathroom” at that time was simply a hole in the ground, and British war medals and decorations are explained with US equivalents, and so it aim at US readers. Since the US took part and then departed for Southern France in Operation Anvil, in the Summer of 1944, their participation may get overlooked. He does mention, however, that some units, including the Nisei troops, returned in early 1945, perhaps giving the impression to the less informed, that as was believed until Vietnam, that battles could only be won if the US was involved.
Quite apart from the discomforting language, the editing is like a minefield of howlers, not only with words, but information. Some of the text contains pointless information which should be cut. One very clear map (p.29) is used without explanation, and mistakenly gives the idea that the invasion of mainland Italy occurred with Operation Boardman at the time of Operation Husky, and the invasion of Sicily in July 1943; whereas in reality it was a deception plan for the attack on Salerno in September, while the attack on Calabria, and Taranto were launched a few days earlier with Operation Baytown, and Slapstick, respectively.
Still, it is an informed and informative account for an English reading public of a campaign which up to now has stopped at the battle of Cassino, and the liberation of the first enemy capital, Rome, by General Mark Clark, who by purposely refusing to carry out his orders to outflank the retiring German forces under FM Kesselring, so ending the Italian campaign sooner, obliged the Allies to fight on and add to the number of casualties for a further nine months. It thus perhaps prevented them from moving against the Germans and their Ustashi allies in Croatia, leaving Yugoslavia for many years in the Communist orbit. Clark’s war crime now entirely becomes the author’s benefit.
For a more serious explanation of the Italian campaign after 1943 I would suggest interested readers view Italy's Sorrow by James Holland.