Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell
The five-month Monte Cassino campaign in central Italy is one of the best-known European land battles of World War Two, alongside D-Day and Stalingrad. It has a particular resonance now, because Cassino, with its multitude of participating armies - most notably the American 5th Army under the controversial General Mark Clark - was perhaps the campaign of the Second World War that most closely anticipates the coalition operations of today, with its ever-shifting cast of players stuck in inhospitable, mountainous terrain, pursuing an objective set by unknowing politicians in distant capitals, where victory is difficult to define.
Monte Cassino was characterised by the destruction of its world famous Abbey: in retrospect, considered an unjustifiable act of cultural vandalism by the allies.The audit trail of decision-making to destroy an icon as well known then as the Eiffel Tower or Lincoln Memorial, is a chilling reminder that similar decisions are still being made in Iraq and Afghanistan and indeed Libya. To this day, reversing normal prejudice, German troops are welcome in the abbey, having rescued its treasures from allied destruction in February 1944.
Cassino was an unusual campaign for World War II in that its outcome was not reliant on sweeping movements or the use of tanks or aircraft - but by old-fashioned boots in the mud, whether capturing the town of Cassino after months of grinding urban warfare (a Stalingrad in miniature) or scrambling up the steep mountain to seize the heights and the religious complex on top of Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino Abbey was painstakingly rebuilt after the war (its baroque chapel remains incomplete) and is now a World Heritage site. An hour south of Rome, it is visited each year by up to one million tourists and pilgrims from around the world.
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