James Holland’s excellent new book is the third volume of what has become known as his “Mediterranean trilogy” following on from Fortress Malta, which dealt with the island’s wartime siege, and Together We Stand, an examination of how the British and American alliance was forged during the North African campaign.
The action of Italy’s Sorrow begins after the Allied landings in Sicily, Salerno and Anzio and the subsequent Italian surrender, kicking off with the break-out from the Cassino front in May 1944 and ending a year later with the final battles fought amid mud and rain in the shadow of the Alps.
The book lives up to its title. As the Allies pushed the Germans back the civilian population was caught in the middle, their lives made even more difficult by the partisan activities which saw both the Germans and the Italian fascists inflict ruthless reprisals. There were more than 700 civilian massacres. Not that such atrocities were the preserve of Germans. Holland cites evidence suggesting there was more raping of civilians by Allied forces than those of the Axis. The French colonial forces alone committed more than 3 000 rapes in the Frosinone area south of Rome.
The Monte Sole area, a focus of partisan activity and scene of some of the worst reprisals against civilians, was heavily fought over in the break through the Apennines en route for Bologna. The Royal Natal Carbineers, Pietermaritzburg’s regiment (they boasted the “Royal” prefix from 1935 to 1962), featured prominently. Major Peter Francis (later Lieutenant-Colonel) is mentioned here as are Lance-Corporal Dick Frost and Lieutenant Kendall Brooke. Interviews recorded with the latter two provide a couple of the many human stories — from German soldiers, Italian civilians and partisans — that thread the narrative. Their voices bring this compelling book to life.