Book Review: The Battles of Monte Cassino: The Campaign and Its Controversies

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by Glyn Harper & John Tonkin-Covell

Sydney: Allen and Unwin / Chicago: Independent Publishers Group, Trafalgar Square, 2013. Pp. xxii, 290. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $24.95 paper. ISBN: 1741148790

What Happened at Cassino, and Why?

New Zealand scholars Harper and Tonkin-Covell have written not a history of the long campaign to capture the famous Benedictine monastery in central Italy but rather an analysis of the skills and motivations of the commanders and the processes by which they came to make the decisions that were made.  And although they cover all four battles for Cassino, their focus is on the destruction of the monastery in February 1944, which would prove to have been counter-productive. 

T he authors open with a chapters that provides an overview of  th e four attempts to capture Cassino and one on the Anzio operation, which taken together giv e a good idea of the situation in Italy in winter-spring 1943-1944. 

They then plunge into the controversy over the bombing of the monastery with a chapter titled “War Crime or Military Necessity?”, in which they argue that it was neither, given the nature of war and of the men in command. 

What follows is rather complicated.  The authors give us a chapter on Mark Clark , one on the air commanders, one on Harold Alexander and the other ground commanders in the operation, and then another on the air commanders and another on Mark Clark, followed by one on the German commanders.  This somewhat odd approach allows the authors to follow the evolution of Clark and the air commanders during the campaign.  Some of these men, such as the American Truscott, Anders of the Polish Corps, and the Frenchman Juin, come off looking quite well, while most of the others get mixed reviews, such as Mark Clark, Harold Alexander, and Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, and a few, including Bernard Freyberg, suffer more serious criticism. Sometimes surprising and occasionally harsh, the assessments seem fair. 

The final chapter concludes that the destruction was prompted by pressures from below, by the troops at the front and their immediate superiors, with the higher up s acting reluctantly and arguably unprofessionally

An excellent look at one of several controversies surrounding the battles for Cassino.

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Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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