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Mussolini's Defeat at Hill 731 March 1941


Staff member
In the military, you are taught to put the bottomline upfront. In that spirit….

Bottomline, John Carr’s book, Mussolini’s Defeat at Hill 731, is a mess. There is much of value in his book, but the book itself is poorly organized and written.


My concern started with my first look inside. There are only three maps in the book, and all three are pretty useless in trying to follow the battle that unfolded in March 1941. This is critical omission, as the book covers battle lasting a mere 13 days and covers a very small area. The book dips down to the platoon level and talks about their movements and actions day by day. None of maps provide the reader the locations of the these units, not on the terrain or in relationship to each other. I am pretty familiar with this battle, yet had to resort to the Greek official history to begin to understand the moments and actions described in the book. Places are named that are not on the maps. There is no attempt to depicted the changes in unit locations on a daily basis, either using a series of maps or in the text. This type of detail is a must when focusing at such a discrete event as the Battle for Hill 731.

I always look at the bibliography and discovered my second disappointment. No bibliography, no foot or end notes. None. From page 214:

I have chosen not to use footnotes or chapter notes in this book, preferring a general description of any source material at the end. The reason is that the overwhelming bulk of this material is in Greek and Italian, hence not available in English, and it would make little sense to put the customary superscripts in the text, as very few readers would be in a position to refer to the original sources. Therefore I say, in effect, trust me, as I have done everything possible to ensure accuracy in translation.

Seriously, this is major error. Not only are there readers that can manage those languages, it prevents scholars from using the material present in the volume in other works. It prevents readers from verifying what and when the many quotes were said. It also prevents researchers from going to those sources to possibly mine additional information. And that second sentence is screaming for additional punctation.

The book is badly organized. Carr’s description of the offensive begins on page 6. On page 9 Carr then detours back to the start of Mussolini’s career and the Italian planning/execution of the war up to 9 March. He returns to the offensive on page 34. On page 37 Carr again detours back to address the Greeks in a similar manner as the Italians. It isn’t until page 59 that he returns to the battle. Within these national sections, he intermixes both Greek and Italian experiences (see below).

A skilled writer could have made this approach work, but it fails under Carr’s pen. A major problem is the lack of transitional sentences and paragraphs to move the reader to a new perspective/discussion. An example in on page 41. Carr is discussing Pvt. Zachariou (Greek) experiences on 27 December. The next paragraph he jumps to Pvt. Pecoraro’s (Italian) experiences on 13 January without any comments/transition of how these two accounts are related or that Carr is now addressing a different event/idea. In fact, having forgotten Pecoraro's name, I had to reread the passage a few times until I was sure that Carr was now talking about the Italian Army and not the Greek. The book is full of these changes, forcing the reader to leap without any warning or understanding of why these events are being presented in this order. It is rather chaotic.

No theme(s) are worked to scope the book. Major threads are not identified to set the context for the material that follows. In all, there is a lack of any analysis. It is a mass of good information that is shapeless and never molded into a coherent form.

The narrative smooths out starting with page 59 but there are still problems. Carr refers to units more by their commander's names than by their unit identification. When leaders are killed or replaced, the reader must remember these changes to keep the unit relationships in perspective. When he does use the unit identification, the reader lacks any understanding the armies' structure. When Carr states that the 8th Regiment did X, the reader doesn't know whether it is the Greek 8th Regiment or the Italian 8th Regiment. A convention such as the Greek units in regular script and the Italian in italics would have made a significant difference in understanding (refer to my Zachariou/Pecoraro example above). Units are referred to by regiments, battalion, or occasionally company, but the reader lacks any discussion of how the various units relate to each other in physical location or hierarchy. Discussion of selected pieces of equipment are given, but not woven into the narrative to support how they might have affected the outcome.

The lack of maps discussed above cripples the book. I had trouble following the action, and I was familiar with this battle and had both the Greek and Italian official histories to work with. Unfortunately this is not the book to give the read a good understanding of the flow of events during this fight. How does the reader understand this sentence from page 59:

In the immediate rear, the Third Battalion of the 19th Regiment of the 6th Division, held in reserve on the right, ....

Is the battalion directly behind the regiment or to the right rear of the regiment? Why would it be to the right? How is the regiment arrayed on the ground?

My impression once I have finished the book is that it was a rushed effort using material previously gleamed from his earlier research. The lack of notes implies that Carr had a stack of card with niffy quotes, but never captured their sources. Some material just wasn’t necessarily for the narrative. Much of the material was never placed in context to give the reader the reason why it was important to the story. Too much of the value of the material was left to the reader to suss out.

I can’t recommend this book to the general reader. Unfortunately, it is one of the few books in English on the Greco-Italian War, so it will be read. For the specialist, the individual accounts are worthwhile, adding a fullness to the existing accounts. Sadly the lack of cites will limit how much of this material can be used as the inability to validate the context is crippling.

There is a lot here but it needs work. I hope that Carr will take the time to rework this book as the material is quite good; only the execution is lacking. This could have been a work as valuable as Cervi’s The Hollow Legions which made the experience of the Italian soldier during this campaign accessible to the general reader, set inside a good discussion of the Greek Campaign .

But that would be a different book than this.

Pista! Jeff
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I began reading John Carr’s book on Hill 731 on the 7th January and it has taken almost a month to read it! Some of the reasons for this are contained in Jeff’s review. The content of the book was very disjointed and I found that I could not read it with an easy flow. The battle took place over a 13 day period but was described by the author in a back and forth style which made it difficult to read, keep up with and follow.

With so many different Greek and Italian units involved, it would have massively benefited the book to have had ongoing decent maps throughout. The three inadequate maps provided were all located at the beginning. I found myself initially going back to them to get a better understanding of the events but gave up due to their poor quality. It would have improved the book to have maps throughout.

The detail of the reported individual actions were very good with first hand accounts but it was very difficult to differentiate between the different Greek and Italian units and there locations and.

To be fair to the author, he does state that most of the material that he used was taken from the Greek side as there is little published on the Italian side. Whilst to some this will give an unbalanced approach, it is not to the detriment of the Italian Forces involved. When one considers the amount of literature which wrongly mentions Italian cowardice during WW2, one can read this book with a sense of pride, although it does highlight the commands failures which led to the needless loss of thousands of Italian lives.

What I particular liked about the book was the aftermath which describes how some of the Italian fallen were repatriated while most of the Greek fallen were left. It led me to look online into Private Pecoraro who is mentioned in Jeff’s review whose remains were exhumed and repatriated in 2003.

There is little publish solely on the Greek/Italian war. Whilst the book is disappointing in style, I found that I did learn a lot about the war but has left me with desire to buying Hollow Legions by Mario Cervi. A quick look on the internet and the prices for the few available copies mean I won’t be reading it yet!!

Regards to all,



Staff member
Cervi is very good, but also lacks maps. I just picked up Battistelli's book The Balkans 1940-41 volume I. Once I read it, I will post a review.
Pista! Jeff