James Holland is an acclaimed British author and World War II historian who has written several books chronicling specific periods of the bloody war, such as a 2003 book titled Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War 1944-45.
Holland’s latest book takes on the dramatic first five months of the Italian Campaign to liberate Italy from Nazi rule. So compelling is his narration that reviewers hail Holland for setting a new standard in the chronicling of war.
After the Allied Forces were victorious in Sicily, and before the spring 1944 invasion of France, Allied troops crossed into southern Italy. It was September 1943. That July, the Allies had landed in Italy to begin their Italian campaign. The Allied forces fully expected to drive the German troops north and free Rome from the Nazis by Christmas. Although Italy soon surrendered, the Germans dug in, dashing the Allies’ hopes for a quick victory. Instead, the troops faced a long and grueling battle at Monte Cassino, situated south of Rome and north of Naples.
Several factors worked against the Allies. The road to Rome was strewn with mountain valleys and the Germans had fortified defensive lines in anticipation of the Allied assault. One of the most impenetrable was the so-called Gustav Line, which ran through the hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in 529 AD. The monastery was the site of one of the war’s most hard-fought battles for the Allied forces. In the end, after fighting through a frigid winter and relentless rain, after much blood lost, after the total destruction of the ancient abbey and the killing of 230 Italians seeking refuge in the monastery, the Gustav Line was broken and the German troops began to retreat.
Holland’s narration of the horrific Battle of Monte Cassino is notable for its meticulous attention to detail. Through exhaustive research, letters, documents, diaries and interviews, he creates a powerful, sometimes raw but unflinchingly real account of one of the war’s darkest periods.
As one reviewer puts it: “James Holland has always recounted the Second World War at ground level, but this version brings the story vividly to life, like never before.”
Published in Voce Italiana December 2023