‘Here is this beautiful country suffering the worst horrors of war, with the larger part still in the cruel and vengeful grip of the Nazis, and with the hideous prospect of the red-hot rake of the battle line being drawn from sea to sea right up the length of the peninsula.’ So Churchill addressed the Commons on 24 May 1944. Although not quoted by James Holland, this does set the theme of his amazingly comprehensive and often very moving book. In fact, the year with which he is concerned runs from the breakout at Cassino, known as Operation Diadem, on 11–12 May 1944 to the ceasefire of 2 May 1945, leading up to VE Day on 8 May. The plight of Italian civilians and the horrors they endured are set within military and political contexts, each meticulously described. Then there are the partisans, immensely brave but at times vicious, essential to the Allied advance but in the process causing not only horrific reprisals on families and supporters by exasperated Germans but, in their battles with Fascist militias, a bloody civil war.
Holland’s research is quite staggering. His aim has been to illuminate the story with personal reminiscences and details of the backgrounds of his main characters, high and low, from army commanders to contadini. Recorded interviews with German soldiers make this book stand out among the many histories of the war