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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 08-May-14 12:12:48

Remembering Italy's forgotten campaign

Ahead of Prince Harry's visit to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle of Monte Cassino on the 18 May, author Richard Hall tells us about the sacrifices that Italian men and women made during the country's WWII campaign - sacrifices that largely went under-reported and overlooked. His move to the rolling hills of Umbria several years ago inspired his research into the campaign - and also inspired him to write a novel on the subject.

RJJ Hall

Remembering Italy's forgotten campaign

Posted on: Thu 08-May-14 12:12:48


Lead photo

A war memorial in Rome.

18 May 1944: is this a date we should remember? Ten years ago I thought not; I had heard of Monte Cassino but I didn't know what happened there or even where it was.

Yet the date marks the end of one of the hardest-fought actions of WWII. Four battles were fought at Cassino between January and May 1944 in dreadful winter conditions - soaking wet and freezing cold - in the mountains of central Italy, between Naples and Rome.

We hear a lot now about WWI. And we hear about certain battles of WWII - Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, El Alamein and the Normandy landings. But we don't hear about the Italian campaign. Yet from July 1943 to May 1945 hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen (from six continents) fought their way up the peninsula, across well-defended rivers and rugged mountains.

So why don't we remember how our fathers and uncles footslogged from Sicily to Trieste - a thousand miles to the north - suffering heavy casualties as they went? Well, this forgetting isn't new.

"We are the D-Day Dodgers in Sunny Italy." Thus went the soldiers' bitter song (to the tune of Lili Marlene). Even then their fortitude was overlooked. Italy was just a side show: the landings in France were the real thing. And before May 1944 many of the war correspondents had left - to cover the Normandy landings.

Let us hope - for the sake of all the veterans - that this will be the moment when Britain finally remembers the Italian campaign and how much we owe to those who served in it.

So the final breakthrough at Cassino and the liberation of Rome on 4th remained under-reported: overshadowed by D-Day. But the Italian campaign didn't stop at Rome. The Allied armies battled across the Apennines and then the Po river, liberating Milan, Turin, Venice and finally Trieste. Whilst always controversial, the campaign was important: it opened a second front, taking pressure off Russia; it pinned down 25 German divisions that could otherwise have been in Normandy; and it provided a springboard for the landings in southern France.

I have loved Italy since I stayed in Naples in 1952. Later I lived and worked in Milan for two years and visited many parts of the country. But I found little reference to the war. Only when I read about the history did I understand that much of Italy – including the ancient hilltop towns and quiet olive groves that I love – had recently been a battlefield in which many of our parents’ generation risked or gave their lives. Now I cannot visit Italy without feeling a debt of gratitude to those men and women who served in its liberation.

The 70th anniversary may be the last occasion when many campaign veterans will return to Cassino. It is therefore marvellous news that Prince Harry will attend the commemorations there on 18 May 2014.

So let us hope – for the sake of all the veterans - that this will be the moment when Britain finally remembers the Italian campaign and how much we owe to those who served in it.

Richard's book Theatres of War is out now and available from Amazon.

By RJJ Hall

Twitter: @rjj_hall

Aka Thu 08-May-14 13:13:04

I saw a snippet about this campaign on TV recently and was saddened to think this campaign had been largely overshadowed by other battles. Whatever we might feel about war, people gave their lives and their sacrifice ought not to be forgotten.

Brabant Thu 08-May-14 15:18:36

My beloved and wonderful father was a D Day Dodger - too old (born 1908) but not too old for the 8th Army and the fight up the Italian peninsular. I value the D Day memories, I lived in Normandy but hey the 8th Army fought and won too.

Hurrah that someone recognises all they achieved. Good old Monty.

PHM12 Thu 08-May-14 15:20:15

My father was wounded here. He never told us any details of the fighting According to him he was shelling peas when he was hit by shrapnel. This remained in his upper arm and leg for the rest of his life.
He was in the Eighth Army at El Alamein and he didn't talk about that either
I think this was very common in returning ex soldiers .

Galen Thu 08-May-14 15:34:51

My father was there as a doctor, he camped in a tomb! (One of those mausoleums the Italians have)

Galen Thu 08-May-14 15:37:12

He was one of the first into Venice, he said the Germans were retreating as they arrived. He was in charge of the hospital on lido de Venezia

Nelliemoser Thu 08-May-14 15:48:16

My father in Law was in the Royal Corp of signals in North Africa and Sicily and the fought his way up through Italy I remember him getting very upset and angry when talking about the battles over Monte Cassino.

Bram Fri 09-May-14 09:47:56

My late Uncle George 'celebrated' his 20th birthday on a wet and cold mountain side in Italy in 1944. He had no good feelings about the whole campaign and was very bitter. He said our men would have starved without the US giving them food from their mobile kitchens.

Galen Fri 09-May-14 10:34:44

My father heard about my birth under similar circumstances in December in 1944.
I didn't meet him unti 18/12 later and to me daddy was a photo on the mantelpiece.

Divawithattitude Fri 09-May-14 10:58:02

My uncle was in the rifle Brigade and killed at Monte Cassino, he is buried just outside Flonence.

mcem Fri 09-May-14 11:39:38

My father spent his 21st birthday on the beach at Dunkirk and later found himself, a REME engineer, in the 8th army at Alamein and subsequently working his way north through Italy. Wonder if he met your father, Galen? I have an album of pic's he took at the time.
Uncle Terry, Mum's cousin was at Monte Cassino. He told the tale that he felt his rifle being blown out of his hand but on looking down saw not only the gun but his hand and forearm. He came home safely, married his fiancee and lived a long happy and useful life. They didn't have children but doted on the nieces and nephews.

Purpledaffodil Fri 09-May-14 21:57:23

My lovely Dad who died two years ago was there with the Welsh Guards. A few years ago he went there with my middle son on a wonderful scheme called Heroes Return. They visited the monastery and Dad was delighted to see it rebuilt as it was in ruins the last time he saw it. It was an incredible bonding experience for them both. He never spoke much about the war to my brother and me, but they say it is sometimes easier to talk to grandchildren about it. Such bravery and so modest!

ayse Sat 10-May-14 05:26:35

My father was with the Lanarkshire yeomanry - after the war they produced a book about their campaigns - he travelled (and fought) his way up through Sicily and Italy as a gun spotter, on a motor bike in advance of the front line.

He rarely talked about his experiences but it damaged him for life. He told me a couple of stories - he had a premonition about the ''hole' he and two others were sheltering in. He left and a couple of minutes later the others were blown to bits.

My father too was very bitter about his experiences.

Following the war he did illustration for the regimental book and I have those original drawings still along with several copper plates, engraved for printing.

On Remembrance Sunday I always give a thought to those who died but also those who survived the terrible experiences that changed them forever.

Mamie Sat 10-May-14 07:37:52

I think my two favourite books about Italy in WW2 are Norman Lewis' Naples 44 and Eric Newby's Love and War in the Apennines. Both great writers. Also Farley Mowat's And No Birds Sang and Raleigh Treveyan's The Fortress: A Diary of Anzio and After.

Mamie Sat 10-May-14 07:39:04

Sorry that should be Raleigh Trevelyan.

janeainsworth Sat 10-May-14 08:02:53

I remember singing The D-Day Dodgers at Folk Club in the 60's, then not hearing it until 2 years ago at my godfather's 90th birthday party - a friend of his with a guitar sang some songs after the speeches!
My godfather was in Reconnaissance in Italy in WW2. He rarely mentions it and it's not discussed.

nonnasusie Thu 15-May-14 14:10:59

Just catching up after a week in Cornwall and I saw this blog! My DH and I live in Cassino (his birth town) within walking distance of the German cemetery and a 10/15 minute drive of the British Allied one. Montecassino is about 20 minutes away and we go quite often especially when we have visitors. We have been to all 3 cemeteries (the Polish one is near the monastery). It is heartbreaking reading the graves ,most of them were so young.