Foreign correspondent and former French Foreign legionnaire Christian Jennings considers the fighting in Italy during World War II. He provides a sound overview of the whole campaign before concentrating on the last 12 months of the war, as the Allies attempted to breach the formidable Gothic Line in the north of the country. The earlier battles at Salerno, Anzio and Monte Casino have been well covered by previous authors but this vital breakthrough battle has been largely ignored in popular works of narrative history.
Jennings skillfully weaves together the larger story from several interlocking personal narratives, whether that of reluctant Italian resistance fighter Arrigo Paladino and his torture by the Gestapo; the exploits of the impossibly brave Japanese-American Daniel Inouye (an eventual Medal of Honor winner); or the anti-partisan sweeps led by the one-armed Waffen-SS veteran Sturmbannführer Walter Reder.
What becomes clear in this account is the extraordinary array of nationalities involved: as well as the Italians – fascists aiding the Germans yet opposed by partisans – you have, on the Allied side, the United States, Britain and its Commonwealth (Canadians, New Zealanders, Indians, South Africans), the Polish Corps and a small Brazilian contingent. And within the national armies were diverse ethnic grouping that included Japanese Nisei and African-Americans within the US Army, and, on the German side, forcibly conscripted Poles, as well as Cossacks other non-Slavic minorities from the Soviet Union.
But whatever the composition of the armies involved, the Italian campaign was one long hard slog from start to finish. The Germans – under the inspired command of Field Marshal Kesselring – fought a brilliant defensive battle but, in the end, they were overwhelmed by the material superiority of the Allies. The bad weather of the winter of 1944-45 prevented the Allies from effectively deploying their superior resources – especially in terms of air power – but in the spring of 1945 the Gothic line was breached. The Allies then swarmed into the plains of northern Italy, leaving the German commanders little option but to sue for peace. In this highly readable account of the 1944-45 fighting the author provides a wealth of personal detail that will last long in the memory.
Thomas Dunne Books, 384 pages, £19.99 (h/b)