Storming Monte La Difensa: The First Special Service Force at the Winter line, Italy 1943, Bret Werner

Storming Monte La Difensa: The First Special Service Force at the Winter line, Italy 1943, Bret Werner

Raid 48

This entry in the Raid series actually covers the involvement of a Special Forces unit in a largely conventional battle, one of the many attempts to break through the Winter Line, the strongest of the German defensive positions in Italy. However the unit was used to carry out an unconventional attack, justifying its place in this series. Monte la Diffensa was part of a block of high ground that was blocking the Allied advance towards Rome. The only potential weakness in the German defensive position was a cliff behind the tallest part of the mountain, believed by the Germans to be un-climbable by a combat unit. The initial attack does read rather like the plot of a classic war film - an elite special forces unit climbs up an impregnable cliff to attack a surprised enemy from above. After that initial success reality rather sets in, with supply problems, a holding battle, the fear of a counterattack, difficulties in getting supplies and reinforcements up the mountain and the cleaning-up phase.

This attack is interesting on two fronts. First, it contains an account of a mountain battle in Italy other than Monte Cassino (it also provides an example of the Germans using a mountain top monastery as a defensive position). Second, it looks at the history of the First Special Service Force, an almost unique international special forces unit, with US and Canadian troops and officers.

We start with a history of the unit itself, which was originally formed with ski warfare in mind (possibly to attack the heavy water industry in Norway). The unit was retained after its original purpose disappeared, and sent to the Italian front. The attack on Monte La Difensa was its combat debut, and as a result everyone involved was fully trained. Later on the unit received less well trained reinforcements, although retained its successful record. This was also the only time the unit was used in a proper Special Forces role. Later it was used to hold parts of the front line (in particular at Anzio), acting as high quality line infantry.

The centre-piece 3D map does a good job of showing the overall layout of the mountains and the course of events, but the shading for the slopes could be clearer - the wartime aerial photo on page 30 is rather clearer and gives us a good idea of the steepness of the mountains.

There is a good narrative of the attack, supported by (but not overwhelmed by) eyewitness accounts. The author does a good job of placing this attack in the wider context of the attack on the entire mountain system. He also doesn't shy away from the more controversial issues, in particular the sacking of one of the regimental commanders soon after the battle. He also doesn’t overplay the importance of the attack - the Germans were forced out of part of the Winter Line, but the line itself held, and harder battles were to follow.

Overall this is a good book that covers two interesting but less familiar topics.

Initial Strategy
The Plan
The Raid

Author: Bret Werner
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 80
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2015

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