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The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in World War Ii Italy

by Mark Zuelkhe

Writer Mark Zuelkhe’s The Gothic Line is the third in his series of magnificent histories of the major battles fought by Canadians in Italy during the Second World War. The books, including this latest, are effectively company-level histories and are nonpareil amongst Canadian histories of the Italian campaign.

The Gothic Line was a series of fortified strongpoints built by the German army about 125 miles north of Rome. By the summer of 1944, the Allied armies with bloody toil had driven the tenacious German army to this point – an east-west front along the northern edge of the Apennine Mountains. An assault was planned that would punch a hole in the Gothic Line near the Adriatic coast, allowing the Allies the long-sought rapid breakout into the Po River valley. The focus of the attack was the British 8th Army, including the 1st Canadian Corps consisting of two divisions plus support units.

The Canadian Corps’ battle, which lasted 28 days, saw brilliant advances and inexcusable errors, but mostly enormous determination. The Corps was ultimately successful, although at a cost of over 4,500 casualties – the highest casualty rate of any Canadian battle in Italy. Despite local successes, the overall advance of 8th Army was slower and more costly than anticipated. The breakout came too late and was mired in the autumn rains.

Zeulkhe uses extensive interviews with veterans of the campaign as a primary source for his histories. The extent of this reliance is unorthodox in formal military history and will no doubt elicit a chorus of groans from the academic set who will decry the veterans’ lack of objectivity and sound memory. Zeulkhe realizes this and, perhaps protesting too much, defends his methodology in the preface. Nevertheless, the use of personal narrative in The Gothic Line has produced an astonishing level of detail in the battle pieces.

This level of detail demands that all but the most generalist reader follow the accompanying maps very closely. It is frustrating that the otherwise exceptional maps are not of sufficiently large scale to match the level of detail offered in the text. Further, the frequent absence of contour lines or shading hinders the reader’s ability to visualize the extreme topography of the fought-over terrain – terrain that a skilled enemy used to such great cost to Canadians.