Caroline Moorehead

Putting the jackboot in

Caroline Moorhead reviews the latest book from James Holland

He who holds Rome, Churchill told Roosevelt and Stalin in November 1943, ‘holds the title deeds to Italy’. Two months earlier, immediately after the armistice and the surrender of the Italian forces, the main Allied invasion force had landed at Salerno, just south of Naples, and were now fighting their way north. It was, as James Holland writes, a long and bloody campaign and it would cause immense suffering, to the Allies, to the Germans, and to the hundreds of thousands of Italians caught between the two armies.

Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-45, opens soon after a partisan attack on a group of German soldiers in Rome resulted in the reprisal massacre of 335 Italians, most of them civilians, in the Ardeatine caves. The Poles were about to carry out their final assault on Monte Cassino. And once Cassino was at last in Allied hands, after seven terrible months of warfare, the various units and divisions, a vast polyglot force of 17 nations, pushed on towards the north, fighting for every kilometer of the way, struggling with over-extended supply lines, negotiating their way through minefields sown by the retreating Germans. In their wake lay a country of starving and destitute people, their homes and livelihoods destroyed, reduced to digging caves in the mountains, to scavenging, stealing and eating dandelions and boiled leaves. By 1944, such was the poverty that there were prostitutes on almost every street.

The Italian campaign, interminable, messy, confused, poses great problems for the military historian. There is too much going on, too many different commanders with their disagreements, too many fighting groups, whether soldiers or the partisans who, after the fall of Rome, rallied in ever greater numbers to the Allied cause.

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