The host of this remarkable series is Richard Holmes. In this episode he guides us through the misbegotten battle for Monte Cassino in Central Italy. Atop this rocky mountain, 1.700 feet high, lies a monastery founded by St. Benedict in 529. The German defenders had built a defensive line across the boot of Italy, from side to side, and the line passed through the monastery. The Germans hadn't occupied the monastery and had left a neutral zone of 300 yards around it. Still, the building was a huge fortress that seemed alive to the Allied troops below, staring down at them as they flung themselves hopelessly against the Gustav Line.
Eventually, it was bombed to ruins. A great cheer went up from the Allied troops. The Germans promptly occupied the ruins and used it as an observation post to direct artillery fire on the British, American, French, Indian, New Zealand, and Polish troops in the valleys.
It was one big mistake out of many that were made by the Allied commanders. At particular fault was the American commander of the Fifth Army in Italy, a vainglorious leader who always saw to it that the press referred to "Mark Clark's Fifth Army." Nothing wrong with vanity unless it leads to disaster and the waste of thousands of lives, as Clark's did.
The first Allied flag to be raised over the remains of the building was the flag of Poland, but although the Poles had taken it, the Germans had already withdrawn and moved to their next defensive line. The battle for Italy went on until the end of the war, accomplishing nothing much.
Holmes is surprisingly forthright in his comments, and the episode is brought up to date by aerial and ground views that permit us to see exactly what a monstrous presence Monte Cassino was. It's much more dramatic than what a map or a contemporary newsreel could show us. There are a few scenes of reenactments and several participants -- British, Polish, and German -- who give their personal perspectives. The German interviewee has a hilarious mixture of accents -- German and Yorkshire. At the opening and closing, an untrained voice sings a ditty about the dead to the tune of Lily Marlene. It's unpretentious and moving.
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