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Heroes in the Mountains

Norman Wright looks at the Italian Campaign 80 years ago and the desperate battle for Monte Cassino and says it should be remembered alongside the anniversary of D-Day this summer

It was one of the fiercest campaigns of the Second World War as German and Allied armies fought battles of blunt force and determination among the crags and valleys of the Apennine Mountains in central Italy.

Eighty years ago, the efforts to attack the Nazi Axis from the south through it’s so called “soft underbelly” was costly in casualties, was often heroic, slow in progress and demonstrated how difficult it was for British and American senior generals to overcome their egos and co-operate in battle.

In fact, as well as the bickering between the US and British military the in fighting within and between their own services was arguably worse.

Two famous voices had their say: Sir Winston Churchill described Italy to Russian leader Stalin as “the soft underbelly of the crocodile”. It was quickly shown to be, in the words of Sir Laurence Olivier, narrator of the definitive TV history of WW2 The World At War, “a tough old gut.”

Memorial_for_the_Italian_star_associationOvershadowed by preparations for and then the actual invasion of Normandy on D-Day, the Italian campaign has never received the same sort of recognition and will almost certainly not do again this summer when D-Day’s 80th anniversary will be at the fore.

The sacrifice and very hard-won successes more often than not also played second fiddle to the controversy and argument on how the battles were managed and indeed whether Italy should have been fought over in the first place. Was the cost too high?

The human costs were certainly high. On the Allied side between 60,000 and 70,000 lost their lives with some 330,000 casualties. German casualties were higher with up to 50,000 killed. Fascist Italy suffered 40,000 killed or missing and 200,000 casualties during the battle for Sicily. Around 35,000 partisans and 35,000 Italian troops fighting with the Allies after the Italian surrender following the fall of Sicily and invasion of the Italian mainland. The highest price was paid by Italian civilians with an estimated 150,000 killed.

It is true to say that all wars are fought better and more successfully on the pages of the history books than in reality and the generals who argued during the actual conflict continued to bicker and disagree in their memoirs.

But for Churchill’s conviction the Italian campaign may never have happened. When the United States entered the war after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 their military strategists wanted to concentrate everything on an invasion across the Channel, across France and the Low Countries into the industrial heartland of Germany and on to Berlin.

Stalin wanted a second front opening to divert some of the Nazi pressure from the battle for Russia. Making that front in North Africa suited Churchill better as a way of partially appeasing Stalin but principally protecting British interests around the Mediterranean and access to India and the eastern fringes of the Empire already under threat from Japan.

So, the US invasion of Morocco and Algeria, Operation Torch, was agreed and duly took place in November 1942. Led by General Dwight Eisenhower. With the British Eighth Army fresh from victory in Egypt at El Alamein moving through Libya the two allies met to clear Tunisia in a classic pincer movement.

When Tunis fell to the British on May 7, 1943 and the US II Corps took Bizerte, the last remaining North African port in Axis hands, surrender of all Axis forces followed on May 13 leaving Sicily and Italy just 100 miles across the water from the victorious armies.

Invasion of Sicily followed on July 9 and 10 in a two-pronged landing by General Bernard Montgomery’s Eight Army and General George Patton’s US Seventh Army. After decisive but often vicious fighting Sicily was won by mid-August with the Allies looking across the narrow Messina Straits to mainland Italy and the evacuated German forces who escaped just in time.

Memorial_of_the_Eighth_Army_Veterans_AssociationOn September 3 the Eighth Army landed on the “toe” of Italy and on September 9 further toward the “heel” at Taranto. Also, on that date the American Fifth Army landed at Salerno south of Naples. “Monty” was still heading the Eighth Army but by this time Patton had been stood down in favour of General Mark Clark by Eisenhower following incidents in a field hospital during the fighting in Sicily. Two GIs without wounds or injuries were accused of cowardice by Patton and slapped by him.

It was typical of Patton’s drive and aggression to fight and win but also his inability to recognise that not all of his troops and officers had the same mental strength as himself.

Montgomery had less opposition while at Salerno the Germans fought strongly and came close to pushing Clark’s invaders back into the sea. When the Fifth broke out of the beachhead and pushed towards and took Naples the Germans retreated to the Gustav defence line just south of Rome which was dominated by Monte Cassino topped by the monastery which commanded views on the approach routes of the Allies. By this time Eisenhower and Montgomery were back in England planning and preparing for the Normandy landings.

Between January and May,1944 the Allies made four assaults on the Gustav line and the capture of Monte Cassino as well as anther amphibious landing at Anzio between Naples and Rome behind the Gustav defences. Leadership at Anzio was accused of lack of aggression. Rome might have been ripe for the taking but they dug in and waited for the German counter attack which came in spades. After a change of General the Americans broke out.

Meanwhile Monte Cassino was taken on May 18. The Polish division led by General Anders spearheaded the successful assault and raised the Polish flag alongside the Union flag on the ruined monastery.

It was a triumph after a long and remarkable journey. The division was formed from members of the Polish Army that resisted the German invasion that started the whole conflict in 1939. They were captured by Russia after the German-Russian alliance and most were detained in POW camps many were murdered on Stalin’s orders. This changed on Churchill’s insistence when Germany invaded Russia who then became our allies.

Anders formed the division from the remnants of the camps, ostensibly to fight with the Russians on the Eastern Front. Stalin didn’t trust the Poles and the feeling was justifiably mutual. They were sent to join the British by circuitous route to the middle east to savour landing a massive blow on their hated German enemy.

Mark Clark at Anzio was ordered to cut off the Germans retreating from the broken Gustav Line. He ignored this and headed hell for leather to liberate Rome which he did on June 4, two days before D-Day. Glory was his, the Germans escaped to set up more defensive lines in Northern Italy and maintain more bitter and costly fighting right through to surrender in May 1945. The soft underbelly was never fully breached it remained a tough old gut.

Historians and analysts have pored over the events of the first half of 1944 in Italy. Would Patton have made a difference at Salerno? His aggression may have done so but only hindsight can judge. If he had not slapped the soldier in Sicily he may well have been withdrawn for D-Day by the time of the Anzio landings. If he had been in charge he almost certainly would have headed straight for Rome and that could have been either a triumph or a disaster, the arguments will continue.

Arguments will also continue about the bombing of the Monastery at the summit of Monte Cassino and the village of Cassino in the valley below.

The monastery was established in 529 it is believed as the first house of the Benedictines and formed by Benedict himself. The building at the start of the battle dated from the 14th century.

The town of Cassino was completely destroyed in one of WW2's most concentrated air bombings. The Monte Cassino Abbey was bombed in the same operation on February 15, 1944.

The picture above shows the town of Cassino was completely destroyed in one of WW2's most concentrated air bombings. The Monte Cassino Abbey was bombed in the same operation on February 15, 1944. Credit Shutterstock

The German commander Field Marshal Kesselring had informed the Allies and the Vatican that he had forbidden his troops to use the monastery as an observation post. Allied air reconnaissance crew were adamant that observers were spotted in the monastery so on February 15 and 16,1944 a massive bombing operation ruined the building and destroyed the village below.

It was a counterproductive move by all accounts. No troops were killed in the building, apparently, just 230 Italian civilians taking refuge there. The rubble provided ideal and better defensive positions for the Germans who then moved in.

Memorial_for_the_soldiers_who_fought_in_Monte_CassinoIn the double dealing and subterfuge of war it is difficult to ascertain the truth of the matter. In December, 1943 two German officers arranged for precious ancient documents and artefacts from the monastery to be removed to the Vatican. This act saved irreplaceable items for posterity but was it because they knew the monastery would be used militarily and would therefore be targeted? Was. It an act of great humanity or a cynical move to keep priceless spoil safe until they could plunder it after the fighting? It’s just another argument for the historians.

What is certain is that in June this year the D-Day 80th commemorations will get most of the headlines. Most of those who survived the rocky assaults on Monte Cassino are no longer here to remember their brave campaign, but many of the veterans’ associations of the units that fought there will pay their tributes.

The monastery was restored like so much of ravaged Europe in the post war years. There are important and impressive war cemeteries in the area for those who want to pay their respects surrounded by stunning mountain scenery and coasts.

Closer to home at the wonderful National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire there are several memorials including to the Italian Campaign overall and the armies and the units and regiments that fought what has sometimes been called the forgotten campaign.

Memorial_for_the_Royal_Leicester_RegimentOne of the oldest infantry regiments dating from 1668 The Royal Leicester Regiment were awarded their Royal status by a grateful King George VI in 1946 for service in many theatres of war including Italy. In recent times the regiment has been subsumed into the Royal Anglians. The tiger, emblem of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, continues to prowl the National Memorial Aboretum. 


It won’t be forgotten in this its 80th anniversary year nor in 2025 when VE day will be commemorated for the 80th time, at least by those who know the story.

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