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Highly Recommended Book on Italian Campaign 1944-45
on 30 April 2012
This is a very amazingly comprehensive and often very moving book.
In fact, the year with which he is concerned runs from the breakout at Cassino, known as Operation Diadem, on 11-12 May 1944 to the ceasefire of 2 May 1945, leading up to VE Day on 8 May. The plight of Italian civilians and the horrors they endured are set within military and political contexts, each meticulously described. Then there are the partisans, immensely brave but at times vicious, essential to the Allied advance but in the process causing not only horrific reprisals on families and supporters by exasperated Germans but, in their battles with Fascist militias, a bloody civil war.
Holland's research is quite staggering. His aim has been to illuminate the story with personal reminiscences and details of the backgrounds of his main characters, high and low, from army commanders to contadini. Recorded interviews with German soldiers make this book stand out among the many histories of the war in Italy, especially the interview with Hans Golda of the 71 Werfer Regiment, who is evidently rather a jolly person but gives vivid accounts of times in extremis, such as the horror of seeing comrades drowning as they tried to escape across the Po. Woven into the narrative are quotations from Norman Lewis, Martha Gellhorn and the brilliant American reporter Eric Sevareid; and there is a retelling of Iris Origo's escape with a troop of children, which she described in her classic War in the Val d'Orcia. Then there is Carla Capponi, a member of the Resistance in Rome. In his prologue, Holland describes the part she took in the blowing up of a German platoon that resulted in the notorious massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, in which 335 Italians were shot - ten for every German killed, plus five extras. In later life she was agonisingly aware that reprisals, in Holland's words, 'signalled the start of a policy that was to cast a terrible shadow over Italy and which would fan the flames of a bloodbath that would last beyond the end of the war'.
Alexander, Mark Clark, Leese, Anders, Kesselring, von Senger und Ebberlin and the 'smooth-talking charmer' Wolff, overseer of the anti-partisan war, come under Holland's scrutiny.
Historians, British and American, not to mention veterans, will be curious to know what he says about Mark Clark's anti-British paranoia and what he calls the 'Big Switch', when Clark contravened Alexander's order in his determination to get to Rome first instead of blocking the escape route of the Germans retreating from Cassino. Holland recognises Clark's brashness and vanity, which repelled so many, but portrays him overall as a battlefield commander with an ability to 'see the bigger strategic overview'.
Many months later, the Gothic Line having been breached and battles having been fought which Holland describes in chapters aptly headed 'Mountain Passes and Bloody Ridges' and 'Rain, Mud and Misery', relations between Alexander and Clark had perforce improved and there were changes in overall command. Alexander was promoted to Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean and was happy to recommend Clark as Commander in Italy in his place.
By the end of May, partisan bands were vastly growing in numbers, particularly in the Apennines, and they were aided by arms drops from the Allies. Prominent among them was the Stella Rossa, headed by a shadowy figure known as Lupo, who operated in the Monte Sole massif and was much feared by the Germans. One German is quoted as saying that operations against partisans seemed like suicide missions. Lupo's men were also merciless towards known and suspected Fascists. There are some appalling stories of atrocities on both sides. As Holland says, some German commanders felt enabled to act with unrestrained brutality, executing scores of men, women and children at Gubbio and also in Tuscany 'to stop the rot'. All this is described with considerable feeling. North of Lucca, in the Apuan hills, the village of Sant'Anna was regarded by the Germans as a centre of partisan activity. The 35th Panzer Grenadiers moved in, burned down sheds and houses, and killed 560 people of all ages.
More followed. A major operation had been planned by the Germans to eliminate the Stella Rossa (believed to be two thousand strong) and all its supporters in villages and farms on Monte Sole. The date was fixed for 29 September, and this time the 'clearance' would be by the 16th Waffen SS. Holland has some first-hand stories from two survivors, Cornelia Paselli and Francesco Pirini. Cornelia and her family were herded into a small walled cemetery and machine-gunned - she survived by lying under a heap of bodies; altogether 191 died, all women and children. Francesco, aged seventeen, had been trying to connect with partisans, and from nearby woods had seen nine members of his family and others driven into the church where they were shot. Over three days 772 people were killed on Monte Sole and their houses burned. What was it that turned the likes of Hans Golda (who was not involved) into cold-blooded monsters?
Meanwhile in the north there were other massacres, possibly more than 700 of them, by Germans and Fascists - the 'Black Brigades' and the bloodthirsty 'Decima Mas' headed by Prince Valerio Borghese - in revenge for partisans' activities, including sabotage (in which members of the SOE No 1 Special Force played a part).
After the war Fascists were hunted down and killed - Holland says 15,000, though it was possibly more.
Another first-hand account, unconnected with partisans, is that of Pasua Pisa. She lived in a farm high in the Ausoni Mountains, which lie between Anzio and Cassino and had been captured in a spectacular manner by French Moroccan troops, known as Goums. Pasua's husband was a prisoner of war in Canada, and her father and small son were killed by a mortar shell the boy had found. When the Goums arrived she was dragged outside and violently raped. This was the beginning of a 'frenzied spree' not only of rape, but murder and pillage: 'They flung themselves on us like unleashed demons.' Official figures record 3,100 rapes, some of males, but there were people who never came forward out of shame. A French officer explained that Goumiers were recruited 'by way of a pact which granted them the right to sack and pillage'. There were never any prosecutions.
Italy's sorrow also included the loss of and severe damage to famous buildings.
Holland mentions the destruction of Benevento's cathedral and describes how Rimini became 'a shell of a city'.
This book covers the rarely described GOTHIC LINE campaign to cross the Appennines to Bologna and the Po Valley ,
plus the LAST OFFENSIVE of early April 1945 , which finally finished the war after the British and Poles crossing the River Senio in the East , and the American army breaking through the last few mountains , before capturing Bologna in the Centre.
This is a very-well written book
( and is one of the very, very few written about the Last Year of Fighting in Italy ,
May 1944 to April 1945 )
If you want a detailed book , that ONLY covers the bitter fighting for the Gothic Line from August to October 1944
then purchase the out-of-print ' THE GOTHIC LINE ' by Douglas Orgill ( Pan Books 1967 Edition )