Book review: The Battles For Monte Cassino Then And Now

By Alan Culhane

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The Battles For Monte Cassino Then And Now by Jeffrey Plowman and Perry Rowe
After the Battle $155; distributed by the Military Archive, Royal Oak, Auckland 1345

Book cover of The Battles for Monte Cassino Then and Now. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Battles for Monte Cassino Then and Now. Photo / Supplied

This substantial book could be subtitled "War and Peace", with its juxtaposition of historic black and white war photos and modern-day colour peace photos taken across the battlefields of what are collectively known today as "Cassino".

The authors crisscrossed the locations of the Cassino fighting not only to orient themselves for the then and now images but also to check the veracity of the wartime unit diaries and other contemporary military records that published histories have all relied on.

The authors' familiarity with the topography of the battlefield gives the book a sense of reporting closeup views of the fighting.

It provides an interesting primary area of reference for the detailed narrative that runs through from front to back. It is hardly suitable for light reading.

There is a strong New Zealand connection at several levels through the book.

The co-authors are Kiwis, Dr Jeff Plowman, Christchurch scientist, and Perry Rowe, a secondary teacher formerly from Dunedin but now living in Britain. Both had family connections to men who fought in and around Monte Cassino.

The scale of involvement of the 2nd New Zealand Division in this pivotal battle is relatively well known but not in the degree that this book lays out in such fine detail.

The role that New Zealanders played - from General Freyberg as commander at the top, down to the Sherman tank crew who were shot up struggling to move along streets in Cassino blocked with rubble left over after the US Army Air Force had dropped their loads of high explosive - is covered in agonising detail.

It was a bloody battle. New Zealand's casualties at Cassino from February 1 to April 10, 1944, totalled 1695; 343 killed, 1211 wounded and 42 prisoners of war, a very high tally for this small and distant country.

Fighting to force a clear access for the Allied armies north along the ancient Appian Way through the mountainous gateway dominated at Cassino by the medieval abbey of Monte Cassino lasted from the first days of January 1944 until the final breakout, north of Cassino, in late May 1944.

The fate of the battles swung from one side to the other but always, even until the last days, the Germans were able to hang on, and win the day.

Allied troops fighting to open the way north to Rome included Americans, New Zealanders, Indian, British, French and Poles (whose soldiers finally entered the ruins of the abbey on May 18, 1944).

The losses on all sides were horrendous, in fighting that took place in the middle of a bitterly cold winter and over terrain that looked every bit as devastated as scenes from the Western Front in World War I.

One of the interesting additional end parts of the book includes a breakdown of all Italian civilian casualties. What is not widely known is that almost 8000 Italian civilians living in the area around Cassino lost their lives.

Other subjects covered in the epilogue are Allied and German casualties, the modern war cemeteries and monuments, the rebuilding of Cassino, and the role of "ULTRA" (the code name for the breaking of the German high command code known as Enigma by British proto-computers) in influencing Allied strategy and tactics.

If you should ever wish to find an answer to the question, "what really happened at Monte Cassino in 1944?" this would be the book for you.

There are enough maps and tables of information, plus a vast index, to follow closely the day-to-day action but it would not be an easy task.

There are answers here, but nothing but a close study would give up a credible understanding. The quality of production is exceptionally high and the publishers seem to have gone the extra distance to make a book worth keeping, and re-reading by future generations.

Alan Culhane is a Manukau Institute of Technology School of English lecturer with a longstanding interest in the Italian campaign.

- NZ Herald

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