May 1944 Monte Cassino Falls To Allies - History

May 1944 Monte Cassino Falls To Allies - History


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Soviet troops in Poltsk

The German held what was called the Winter Line across Italy that was stopping the Allies from advancing. ON the Western end of the line stood what was known as the Gustav Line which controlled the Rapido, Liri, and Garigliano Valleys. The Abbey of Monte Cassino dominated the entrance to two of the valleys. The Allies bombed the Abbe with the hope that it would make it unusable to the Germans, the effect however was just the opposite. It took four separate assaults on the line by American, French, Polish and British troops with the first three failing to breakthrough. The final and successful assault began on May 11th with a massive artillery bombardment. The Allies had an overwhelming advantage in men and equipment and the Allies slowly advanced. ahe Abbey itself was captured and the road to Rome was open.



In early 1944 the Germans were holding what was called the Winter Line. the Germans were holding Rapido-Gari, Liri and Garigliano valleys. This was called the Gustav LIne. In the middle of it was the Abbey of Monte Cassino. It dominated the entrances to the Liri and Rapido Valleys. The Germans had said they would not put troops in the castle, however Allied forces were convinced that the German were using the abbey to spot Allied troops. It was decided to the attack the Abbey. On February 14th American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on the Abbey turning much of it into ruins. Now that it was ruins the German decided it would make an excellent defensive position and sent thousands of troops to man it.

The capture of the Abbey soon became the pivotal point in the Gustav Line. It was considered the key to breaking through the line and capturing Rome. The first assault began on January 17th, it was hoped that the assault coming together with the Anzio landing would succeed in convincing the Germans to pull out to lines North of Rome. After three days of fighting it was clear that this was not going to happen and the assault came to an end.

The second attempt took place on February 17th. The key to that assault was suppose to be the use of Gurkahas who had special experience fighting in the mountains. That also failed.

The third attempt to capture the Abbey started on March15th. It was accompanied by massive bombing and artillery barrage. The New Zealand Division took the lead. Despite fierce fight the assault was no more successful than the pervious ones.

The Third and final assault began on May 11th. It too began with a massive bombardment. this time the attack came all along the line. The US Gift and the French Expeditionary forces achieved most of their objectives quickly. the British XIII corp were able to bring tanks up to defend any German attempt at a counterattack. Meanwhile elements of the a Polish army Division fought in the hills above the abbey. They were met with fierce resistance by the Germans. By May 18th however the Poles had achieved the upper hand and were breaking through German lines. The German finally decided their position was untenable and those able began to withdraw to the North.

The cost of capturing Monte Cassino was very high. The allies had 50,000 casualties while the Germans had 20,000.


The Italian front, 1944

The Allies’ northward advance up the Italian peninsula to Rome was still blocked by Kesselring’s Gustav Line, which was hinged on Monte Cassino. To bypass that line, the Allies landed some 50,000 seaborne troops, with 5,000 vehicles, at Anzio, only 33 miles south of Rome, on January 22, 1944. The landing surprised the Germans and met, at first, with very little opposition but, instead of driving on over the Alban Hills to Rome at once, the force at Anzio spent so much time consolidating its position there that Kesselring was able, with his reserves, to develop a powerful counteroffensive against it on February 3. The beachhead was thereby reduced to a very shallow dimension, while the defenses at Monte Cassino held out unimpaired against a new assault by Clark’s 5th Army.

For a final effort against the Gustav Line, Alexander decided to shift most of the 8th Army, now commanded by Major General Sir Oliver Leese, from the Adriatic flank of the peninsula to the west, where it was to strengthen the 5th Army’s pressure around Monte Cassino and on the approaches to the valley of the Liri (headstream of the Garigliano). The combined attack, which was started in the night of May 11–12, 1944, succeeded in breaching the German defenses at a number of points between Cassino and the coast. Thanks to this victory, the Americans could push forward up the coast, while the British entered the valley and outflanked Monte Cassino, which fell to a Polish corps of the 8th Army on May 18. Five days later, the Allies’ force at Anzio struck out against the investing Germans (whose strength had been diminished in order to reinforce the Gustav Line) and by May 26 it had achieved a breakthrough. When the 8th Army’s Canadian Corps penetrated the last German defenses in the Liri Valley, the whole Gustav Line began to collapse.

Concentrating all available strength on his left wing, Alexander pressed up from the south to effect a junction with the troops thrusting northward from Anzio. The Germans in the Alban Hills could not withstand the massive attack. On June 5, 1944, the Allies entered Rome. The propaganda value of their occupying the Eternal City, Mussolini’s former capital, was offset, however, by an unforeseen strategical reality: Kesselring’s forces retreated not in the expected rout but gradually, to the line of the Arno River Florence, 160 miles north of Rome, did not fall to the Allies until August 13 and by that time the Germans had made ready yet another chain of defenses, the Gothic Line, running from the Tyrrhenian coast midway between Pisa and La Spezia, over the Apennines in a reversed S curve, to the Adriatic coast between Pesaro and Rimini.

Alexander might have made more headway against Kesselring’s new front if some of his forces had not been subtracted, in August 1944, for the American-sponsored but eventually unnecessary invasion of southern France (“Operation Anvil,” finally renamed “Dragoon” [see below]). As it was, the 8th Army, switched back from the west to the Adriatic coast, achieved only an indecisive breakthrough toward Rimini. After this September offensive, the autumn rains set in, to make even more difficult Alexander’s indirect movements, against Kesselring’s resolute opposition, toward the mouth of the Po River.


This Day In History: The Battle of Monte Cassino (1944)

On this day, Operation Panther, the Allied offensive that targeted Monte Cassino, in central Italy, is launched in 1944. The Italian campaign had already been underway for several months. The Allies had seized Sicily with relative ease. They encountered fierce resistance when they landed on mainland Italy. The German army under Kesselring had occupied the peninsula. The Italian government had already surrendered but the Germans rescued Mussolini from house-arrest and installed him as head of a puppet-state. The Americans and their British allies found the fighting very hard because of the mountainous terrain in Italy. The Germans used the terrain to establish a series of defensive lines that the defended doggedly.

The Germans had established a strong defensive line at Cassino, a town in central Italy. They established a defensive line based on the Rapido, Garigliano, and Sangro rivers. Cassino was central to the German defenses and if the allies took the town that they could advance onto Rome. The German took over the famous monastery at Monte Cassino and used it as a fortress. The monastery is one of the most famous in Europe and very important in the history of Christianity. The allies made Monte Cassino the focus of their offensive. The American and the British air force bombed the area extensively and they monastery was ruined.

Despite the fact that the allies warned the Catholic Church that they would bomb the monastery several clerics and bishops died after they refused to leave Monte Cassino. The German concealed themselves in the debris of the monastery and were able to drive back the first allied attacks. Although they were outnumbered the Germans fought fiercely and they drove back many attacks.

Among the German defenders at Cassino were a division of German paratroopers and they were among the best soldiers in the Wehrmacht. The allied army was composed of many nationalities, including North Africans, American, British, Indian, New Zealand and Poles, among others. The Allies launched many attacks, aimed at Monte Cassino but they were all driven back with significant losses, throughout the Spring of 1944. An American attack on the Rapido River was decisively driven back by the Germans, with heavy losses.

Polish troops in action on Monte Cassino

In April 1944 the allies decided that they would step up their attacks as the weather would make conditions more favorable for offensive actions. They also sent more divisions to the area. There were four allied assaults on Monte Cassino and the town of Cassino, in May. The fourth managed to seize the German positions on Monte Cassino. The Allied breakthrough meant that they could advance on Rome and liberate it. However, the Germans retreated and the 10 th army was able to retreat to pre-planned defensive lines to the north of Rome.


The first Monastery of Monte Cassino Abbey

Saint Benedict writing the rules and instructions to govern the Abbey. Painting (1926) by Hermann Nigg (1849–1928)

Unbeknownst to many people, the first monastery of Monte Cassino Abbey was built from the remains of the temple of Apollo, the Roman god of light and poetry.

When Benedict of Nursia got to the area in the 6 th century, the first thing he did was to destroy every remnant of Apollo’s temple and altar. The area still had traces of pagan worship hence, Benedict reasoned that he had to destroy the old structures and what he perceived as unholy practices completely in order to replace it with Christian buildings. However, he did reuse some sections of temple of Apollo, according to a written account from Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I).

Benedict went on to dedicate the new building and a Christian chapel to Saint Martin and St. John the Baptist respectively. His goal was to purify the mountains so that a monastic culture could be established in the area as quick as possible.

Did you know: According to Pope Gregory I’s Life of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the devil tormented Benedict on several occasions in hopes of dissuading him from completing the monastery?


May 1944 Monte Cassino Falls To Allies - History

By Joshua Shepherd

By the evening of January 22, 1944, it was increasingly apparent that a drastic shift in strategy was needed to break the bloody debacle that had developed in central Italy. Two days before, the Fifth Army’s 36th Infantry Division had launched a catastrophic assault across the Rapido River. Facing a furious gauntlet of German machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire, the Americans had been badly mauled as they raced across the mud flats that flanked the river. By the time the attack was called off after two days of carnage, the costs were staggering. The division had sustained 2,000 casualties on their side of the river alone, exultant German troops had recovered 430 frozen American corpses.

To Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, the veteran commander of II Corps, the primary cause of the debacle was obvious. While the Americans had attacked across the marshy bottom ground of the Rapido, the Germans retained possession of the rocky heights that surrounded the site, affording them an ideal perch from which to flail oncoming Americans with accurate fire from above. To the West Point-trained Keyes, it was a grave tactical fallacy to attack across the valley unless German positions on the high ground were reduced.

The focus increasingly shifted to a particularly conspicuous mountain that dominated the countryside for miles around: the commanding heights of Monte Cassino, which was crowned with a magnificent Benedictine monastery that possessed a fortress-like appearance. Mud-covered American soldiers cast angry glances toward the mountain and intuitively realized what the top brass had seemed to miss: enemy positions on the high ground had to be seized. Associated Press correspondent Hal Boyle was of much the same opinion. “Sooner or later somebody’s going to have to blow that place all to hell,” said Boyle, giving voice to the Allies’ frustration over the enemy’s possession of the stronghold.

The Allied campaign for Italy, as well as the legendary fight for Monte Cassino, had been borne of sharp disagreements and outright arm twisting at the highest levels. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, long the standard bearer of the fight against fascism, was determined to invade mainland Italy. It was the logical next step, he argued, to attack what he referred to as the soft underbelly of Fortress Europe.

But the American top brass was skeptical of such a move. By their reckoning, a direct invasion of France and a subsequent drive into the heart of Germany was the quickest way of winning the war. Yet it was likewise apparent that any major invasion of France was a logistical impossibility until the spring of 1944.

Such a lengthy period of idleness, Churchill asserted, would certainly nettle the Allies’ suspicious partners in the Soviet Union, whose armies were suffering astonishing casualties on the meat grinder of the Eastern Front. An invasion of mainland Italy would also tie down untold numbers of enemy troops who were desperately needed elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. Furthermore, it was hoped that a robust push into Italy would topple the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. In fact, Mussolini was voted out of power and arrested on July 25, 1943. Not surprisingly, the astute and persuasive Churchill won the argument.

By the first week of September, the Allies launched the invasion of Italy. On September 3, the British Eighth Army, led by General Bernard Montgomery, crossed the narrow Straits of Messina directly to the toe of Italy. Facing light opposition, Montgomery quickly secured his beachhead and began pressing inland. His progress, stymied by stubborn German resistance and rugged terrain, was frustratingly slow.

The direct threat to the Italian homeland, however, had the desired effect on the nation’s Fascist regime. Since Mussolini’s arrest in July, Italy’s war effort had grown increasingly feeble. On September 8, the recalcitrant Italian government publicly announced its surrender to Allied forces. Yet the announcement did little to alter the fight on the ground. Occupying German forces quickly took effective control of the nation. They seized arms, munitions, and vital infrastructure.

A New Zealand sniper participates in the drawn-out struggle for Monte Cassino. The horrors of the Italian Campaign offered little respite for the embattled infantrymen who struggled for every rugged inch of ground at Monte Cassino.

Despite the success of knocking Italy out of the war, the American contingent of the invasion would receive a bitter reception to the country’s mainland. Beginning on September 9, the American Fifth Army under the command of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark undertook an amphibious landing near Salerno.

Clark’s troops found it impossible to effect a breakout of the landing sites and barely held a grip on the coast following a ferocious German counterattack that swept toward Salerno during the middle of September. Determined fighting finally repelled the German attacks, and by the end of the month a renewed offensive mounted by Anglo-American troops resulted in the capture of Naples, the largest city in southern Italy.

The liberation of the rest of Italy would prove far more problematic. Although initially inclined to abandon Italy following the nation’s surrender, German leader Adolf Hitler was convinced of the need to maintain a tight grip on the peninsula in order to keep Allied troops as far from the German homeland as possible. Hitler knew it was of paramount importance to keep the Allies from establishing airfields in Italy with which to bring their overwhelming air power against Germany. Sensing the grand strategic stakes at risk in the war for Italy, German troops would fight a tenacious defensive war there.

Heading up the German war effort in Italy was a gifted and widely experienced career officer, Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring. In the grinding defensive battle for the Italian peninsula, the field marshal would prove a resourceful and clever opponent.

Heavy losses suffered by units such as the U.S. 36th Infantry Division against the Gustav Line in the river valleys compelled Allied senior commanders to focus their efforts instead on seizing the high ground at Monte Cassino.

Although greatly outmatched in manpower and matériel, Kesselring enjoyed a decisive advantage in terrain. Much to the chagrin of the Allies, he made the most of it.

Overall command of ground forces in Italy fell to British General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the 15th Army Group, composed of Clark’s Fifth Army, which pushed up the western flank of the peninsula, and the British Eighth Army, by that time under the command of Lt. Gen. Sir Oliver Leese, which pressed north along Italy’s east coast. Due to the barrier of the Apennines, each army was largely on its own.

Two primary roads led north toward Clark’s ultimate objective at Rome. Near the coast, Route 7 led north to the capital. Farther inland, Route 6 twisted through far more forbidding terrain before reaching the flatlands of the Liri Valley south of Rome. After the painfully slow campaign through the rugged hills of southern Italy, the Liri Valley offered the tantalizing prospect of a swift end to the bloody war of attrition that had unfolded in Italy.

By mid-January 1944, lead elements of Clark’s army mounted the heights of Monte Trocchio but were forced to halt the advance. To the north of Monte Trocchio lay a three-mile-wide swath of open ground that gave German gunners a nearly unobstructed field of fire. The main route to Rome was also blocked by the Rapido River, an aptly named tributary of the Garigliano River whose narrow waters were nonetheless treacherously swift. Situated on the north of the Rapido was the town of Cassino, a wayside city that now found itself at the epicenter of the fight for Europe.

Beyond Cassino, forbidding terrain assured the Allies of a difficult and bloody fight. In fact, the heights beyond the Rapido, dominated by steep ridges, plunging ravines, and jagged peaks, constituted some of the most rugged terrain in central Italy. The ground was entirely impracticable for maneuvering armored columns even for veteran infantry, the rocky inclines, paired with a stout German defense, would require a herculean effort to overcome.

Allied artillery proved incapable of inflicting substantial casualties on the entrenched Germans in the town of Cassino.

Ironically, the hellish no-man’s land at Cassino was dominated by an imposing hill that had served as a bastion of religious tranquility for nearly 1,500 years. Commanding the city to the west were the soaring heights of Monte Cassino, which rose some 1,600 feet above the valley. The mountain was crowned with by the Abbey of Monte Cassino, whose gleaming travertine walls, 10-feet thick, could be seen by troops miles away.

By the winter of 1944, the abbey occupied the most strategically valuable real estate in Italy. Despite its military potential, the seven acres of the magnificent monastery were regarded as off limits for both Allied and Axis forces. Both sides adhered to a tentative policy, which was subject to military necessity, of preserving artistic and cultural sites in Italy.

To block the Allied route to Rome, Kesselring ordered the construction of a seemingly impregnable defensive position. It stretched for 100 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west to the Adriatic Sea in the east. Christened the Gustav Line, the fortified network bristled with thousands of artillery pieces, mortars, machine-gun nests, bunkers, and minefields. The fieldworks, laid out in multiple, mutually supporting lines to maintain a defense-in-depth, was an impressive display of German military engineering.

Perhaps most importantly, Kesselring had at his disposal 20 divisions that included infantry, panzer, panzergrenadier, and airborne units. Although many units had been reinforced with foreign conscripts, Kesselring’s forces possessed a hardened core of German veterans who were fiercely determined to keep the Allies out of the Fatherland.

As the Allied high command made plans to breach the Gustav Line, it hoped that the worst of the terrain could simply be bypassed. Largely due to Churchill’s prodding, the Allies planned a large-scale amphibious landing at Anzio, well behind German lines. Paired with a direct thrust into German positions by the main body of Clark’s troops, it was hoped that the Anzio landings would quickly pry German defenders loose from the Gustav Line.

In preparation for the landings, Alexander and Clark sketched out an operation against enemy positions opposite the Fifth Army. Rather than directly assault Cassino and the formidable heights behind the town, Allied forces would execute a wide pincer move designed to envelop the position. To the north of the town, General Alphonse Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps would push into the mountains before swinging south behind the town and abbey. On the left, the British X Corps would cross the Garigliano River and seize the high ground beyond. South of Cassino, the American 36th Division would attack across the Rapido and assault the German center.

Late on the evening of January 11, 1944, Juin’s troops moved into their assault positions. The spirited Frenchman, an experienced veteran and skilled tactician, led a colorful corps of colonial troops renowned for impetuous ferocity. Drawn primarily from the French possessions of North Africa, the troops of the French Expeditionary Corps were regarded as poorly disciplined but well suited for the rigors of mountain fighting. The Goumier were the scions of a fierce martial tradition in Arabic and Berber culture, and they waged war on their own terms.

American and French colonial troops advance cautiously through a village destroyed by the Luftwaffe. French Goumiers, largely from Morocco and Algeria, were experienced mountain fighters.

In the hope of securing the element of surprise, the artillery remained quiet, leaving the Goumier to attack enemy positions with small arms. Early on January 12, Juin’s Moroccans and Algerians were on the move, rushing headlong into the hills north of Cassino. Accustomed to rough terrain, the hard-fighting tribesmen made good progress as they stormed German positions perched in the rocky hillsides. When the Algerians seized the heights of Monna Casale, the Germans counterattacked. Bloody fighting ensued with the position changing hands four times during a horrific battle that did not end until sunset.

Despite initial success, the attack slowed as it encountered more experienced enemy troops. Generalleutnant Julius Ringel’s 5th Mountain Division, an elite unit trained specifically for the rigors of such combat, fought stubbornly in the hills. After four days of bloodletting, the French assault had come close to success but finally stalled. Juin pleaded for reinforcements, convinced that just one more division would enable him to achieve a breakthrough.

On January 17, British X Corps artillery unleashed a deafening barrage against German positions on the north bank of the Garigliano River. Lt. Gen. Sir Richard McCreery hurled his three divisions across the Garigliano following the artillery fire. Furiously paddling assault boats, the Brits smashed into the Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz 94th Infantry Division, a woefully inexperienced outfit. McCreery’s troops pushed their way into the high ground beyond the river but were badly mauled in the process. Despite heavy casualties, the British drove several miles in two days of fighting.

But the German defenders were not idle. With his lines south of Cassino bent to the breaking point, German XIV Panzer Corps commander General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin was a formidable opponent. As the Allies stepped up their attacks, he scrambled to reinforce exhausted frontline units with fresh ones. By birth a Prussian nobleman, he was a field commander with a decidedly cerebral approach to the art of war. A devoutly religious man who was privately disgusted with Nazi atrocities, Senger was under no illusions about the outcome of the conflict. “The rotten thing is to keep fighting and to know all along that we have lost this war,” he observed. Nevertheless, he fought tenaciously for the German people and homeland.

Senger bolstered his front lines with some of the toughest reserves available. Inserting the 90th Grenadier Division and the 29th Panzergrenadier Division, Senger succeeded in stabilizing his position. British X Corps units were forced to fall back and consolidate their modest gains. On McCreery’s right, though, the British would make one more attempt to smash through the Gustav Line behind the Garigliano.

Hoping to follow up on the promising attack launched by its X Corps comrades, the British 46th Division attempted a crossing of the river on January 19. The crossing, however, quickly degenerated into a debacle. The swift waters of the Garagliano played havoc with the assault boats, which were unable to make headway in the current. British troops were badly shot up by machine-gun fire, which swept the surface of the river and rendered a successful crossing all but impossible. Only a handful of troops succeeded in reaching the north bank.

For the Allies, matters would only get worse. In the river bottoms just south of Cassino, one more push into German positions was planned for the troops of Maj. Gen. Fred Walker’s 36th Infantry Division. Their assigned crossing point was in full view of German observers perched on Monte Cassino, and the river below the city was extraordinarily swift.

For his part, Walker was anything but optimistic over the prospects. Stymied in his attempts to have the attack shifted to more favorable ground upriver, he grew increasingly dejected over the fate that awaited his men. “I don’t see how we, or any other division, can possibly succeed in crossing the Rapido,” he confided to his diary.

Despite such misgivings, the attack went forward on the evening of January 20. The attack targeted the village of Sant’Angelo, with Walker’s 141st Infantry Regiment going in on the right and the 143rd Infantry Regiment on the left. From the outset, the attack went awry. As the hapless American soldiers rushed forward, they were exposed to a withering fire from the crack troops of Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadier Division. Running a gauntlet of machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire, the men of the 36th Infantry Division suffered heavy casualties before they even reached the Rapido.

Once the troops reached the riverbank, the situation did not improve. Facing a hailstorm of German fire, dozens of men were cut down as they struggled to get their boats in the river. Most boats were shredded by enemy fire or simply floundered in the waters of the Rapido. By dawn of the next morning, only two demoralized battalions, cowering in mud on the north bank, had succeeded in getting across the river. Two more days of bloody stalemate induced Clark to authorize a withdrawal.

The repeated drubbings that Allied forces had endured in attempting to cross the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers forced Clark and his senior commanders to refocus their energies toward the heights beyond the town of Cassino, in particular the commanding eminence of Monte Cassino. It was hoped that the timeless military maxim of occupying the high ground would finally pry the Germans loose from the Gustav Line.

Clark again unleashed Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps on January 24. The fierce French colonial troops stormed into German lines north of Cassino, breaking through initial defenses and eventually seizing Monte Belvedere five miles inside the Gustav Line. Stalled by an increasingly determined German defense, Juin issued fruitless requests for reinforcement, without which, he said, his exhausted troops could do no more.

Allied commanders committed four corps to Operation Diadem, which was the fourth and final push to clear elements of the German 10th Army from Monte Cassino and open up the Liri Valley.

While the French were struggling through the mountains to the north, the Americans of the 34th Infantry Division attacked the Gustav Line north of Cassino. They were able to force their way across the Rapido and then seized the ruins of former Italian Army barracks on the German side of the Gustav Line. However, fierce enemy counterattacks drove back the exhausted Americans beyond the east bank. Led by the tenacious Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, the 34th Division launched repeated assaults toward the river, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties.

Such persistence finally paid off. On January 27, Ryder had secured a lodgment on the German side of the river, and two days later pushed inland. Stubbornly fending off enemy counterattacks, Ryder’s men pushed their way through German defenses, capturing the village of Cairo on January 30.

The fight to break the German hold on the Gustav Line was far from over. Ryder, his left on the Rapido and his right in the mountains, turned his division south in a bid to capture the town of Cassino. With armor support deployed in the river bottom, his troops seized the Italian barracks and then forced their way into the outskirts of the town. A stubborn German defense turned brutal house-to-house fighting into a bloody draw, and the Americans were unable to seize the town.

In the hope of seizing Monte Cassino and unhinging the Gustav Line, Clark ordered an all-out attack February 7. While the French advanced on their right and the British X Corps launched an attack on their left, the Americans of the 34th and 36th Divisions assaulted the high ground above Cassino. The fighting turned into an infantryman’s nightmare as exhausted American soldiers groped their way through the jumble of rocky peaks north of Monte Cassino.

The Germans had fortified every high point and rushed in reinforcements from the veteran 90th Grenadier Division, as well as the fearsome paratroopers of Maj. Gen. Richard Heidrich’s 1st Parachute Division. Vicious see-saw fighting resulted in high casualties on both sides. The Americans fought their way onto Snakeshead Ridge, a dominating line of hills that led toward the monastery. Although they briefly threatened Monte Cassino itself, Clark was forced to call off his exhausted divisions and consolidate Allied gains.

The Allies found General der Panzertruppe Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin a formidable opponent.

Fortunately, Clark had fresh reinforcements at hand with which to press forward the attack. Beginning in late January, Alexander transferred three Commonwealth divisions from the British Eighth army: the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division, and the British 78th Division. He placed the three divisions, which formed the II New Zealand Corps, directly under Clark’s control. The units were under the command of Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyburg, who had led the defense of Crete in the face of General Kurt Student’s airborne invasion in the spring of 1941.

After enduring repeated defeats in front of the Gustav Line, Allied troops were highly suspicious that German troops were using the abbey as a ready-made observation post. A number of infantrymen reported that they had seen Germans behind its walls or even in the windows. Convinced that the Germans had fortified the locale and unwilling to see his men shed blood unnecessarily, Freyburg called for the destruction of the monastery before his troops launched another attack.

Ironically, it appears that such suspicions were groundless. Although the mountain itself was occupied by German troops, the abbey grounds were populated with little more than Benedictine monks and terrified civilians. The gentleman warrior at the head of the XIV Panzer Corps, von Senger, was circumspect in his observance of the traditional rules of war as they applied to the abbey. Once invited to dine in the building, von Senger respected the privilege by refusing to even look out the windows in the direction of Allied positions.

Clark, who was highly skeptical of reports that the enemy had entered the abbey, refused to authorize an attack on the monastery. Conflicting intelligence reports did not help matters. On February 14 Maj. Gen. Ira Eaker, commander in chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, and Keyes made reconnaissance flights over Monte Cassino. While Eaker claimed to have seen Germans in the abbey compound, Keyes reported that he saw nothing. Ultimately, political considerations determined the outcome of the priceless monastery on Monte Cassino. Largely to assuage Freyburg, Alexander overruled Clark’s objections and authorized the destruction of the abbey. Clark correctly predicted the outcome. “If the Germans are not in the monastery now, they certainly will be in the rubble after the bombing ends,” he said.

On the morning of February 15, the Allied air fleet launched Operation Avenger, aimed at the complete destruction of the abbey. About 250 bombers flew repeated attacks over the mountain, dropping 600 tons of ordnance that rocked the mountain and shattered the walls of the monastery. Allied artillery also bombarded the mountaintop, lobbing shells into the ruins. Terrified civilians who had not fled the heights were caught in the maelstrom. Many of these noncombatants perished during the bombing and shelling. By the end of the day, much of the monastery had been reduced to a confusing labyrinth of boulders and dust.

A German airborne machine-gun team defends the ruins of the Abbey of Monte Cassino.

True to Clark’s fears, German troops immediately moved into the rubble. Elements of the 1st Parachute Division swiftly took up positions in the abbey grounds, which afforded a commanding position of the valley below and dominated the Allied approaches. Far from blasting a hole in the Gustav Line, the Allies had inadvertently transformed Monte Cassino into a ready-made fortress for some of the toughest troops of the German war machine.

Rather than launch an attack in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Freyburg sat tight for the better part of the day. As darkness fell, an attack was launched, albeit by a single infantry company of the 1st Royal Sussex Regiment, which groped its way through the darkness toward Point 593 on Snakeshead Ridge. Not unexpectedly, the British troops were mauled as they assaulted formidable German positions. The New Zealand Corps kept up the pressure but accomplished little. On February 17, Freyburg sent in elements of the 4th Indian Division, who fared little better. The hard-fighting mountain troops of the 1/2nd Gurkhas battled their way toward the base of Monte Cassino but were finally driven back with heavy casualties.

That same night, the 28th Maori Battalion of the 2nd New Zealand Division attacked directly across the Rapido River with the aim of capturing the vital railway station south of Cassino. The Maoris enjoyed initial success, forcing their way through German defenses and seizing the station. But engineers, working feverishly in a storm of German artillery fire, were unable to bridge the river and bring up armor support. Driven back by a fierce German counterattack the following day, the New Zealanders were forced to the east bank of the Rapido.

The horrors of the Italian Campaign offered little respite for the embattled infantrymen who struggled for every rugged inch of ground at Cassino. Plans for yet another try at the Gustav Line unfolded immediately, to be carried out once again by the II New Zealand Corps. Freyburg pressed for yet another massive bombing run, this time targeting the town of Cassino. On the morning of March 15, Allied bombers flew over the Rapido and unleashed a torrent of explosives into the heart of the town. As many as 900 artillery pieces lent their weight to the attack. In four devastating hours the once pastoral town was reduced to rubble.

Freyburg’s troops stormed into Cassino on the heels of the bombardment, hoping to quickly overrun dazed German defenders. They were sorely disappointed. Tenacious German paratroopers who had survived the bombing had taken up excellent defensive positions in the rubble. The hard-pressed New Zealanders suffered heavy casualties as they battled their way into the town. As the infantry fanned out, they met with a measure of success on the margins of the town. To the west of town, the New Zealanders seized the summit of Castle Hill, a vital height between the town and the monastery. Other troops forced their way through to the railroad station.

Dead British and German troops offer grim evidence of the brutal fighting at Monte Cassino.

The Kiwis failed to dislodge stubborn pockets of German defenders in the town center, and Allied tank crews found it impossible to operate in the demolished remains of the urban center. Hardened troops from the 3rd Parachute Regiment set up strongpoints in the ruins of the Continental Hotel and the Hotel Des Roses. Despite multiple attacks, the Germans defied repeated efforts to dislodge them.

In the hills west of town, the troops of the 4th Indian Division once again attempted to force their way toward the monastery. The Indians took over the fight from Castle Hill but were stopped cold in a futile push west. The men of the 9th Gurkha Rifles, braving a gauntlet of enemy fire, succeeded in seizing Hangman’s Hill, a commanding position just 300 yards from the monastery. Unfortunately, reinforcements were not forthcoming. The hardy Gurkhas fought on, cut off and isolated on the summit of the hill.

Despite the overwhelming weight of Allied forces, Heidrich’s paratroopers were far from beaten. On March 19, they struck back. German troops attacked through Cassino, aiming to dislodge the New Zealanders, but were handily repulsed. On Castle Hill, a life-or-death struggle ensued in the darkness. Elements of the 4th Parachute Regiment overran Allied outposts and then assaulted the castle directly. In a sharp and narrowly won fight, the defenders succeeded in driving off the Germans.

Freyburg had reached his limit by March 23. He recalled his battered troops and regrouped. The repeated Allied attacks on Cassino and heights above the town, largely carried out in piecemeal fashion, had been miserable and costly failures. An exasperated Churchill badgered Alexander for an explanation. “I wish you would explain to me why this passage by Cassino [and] Monastery Hill is the only place which you must keep butting at,” he said. “About five or six divisions have been worn out going into those jaws.”

It was a painful question that increasingly nagged at every Allied soldier in Italy. Determined to finally crack the Gustav Line, Alexander began transferring the bulk of the Eighth Army from the Adriatic to the Cassino sector. In six weeks, Clark was reinforced with a hodge-podge of fresh Allied divisions. Eventually, the front lines between Cassino and the sea were manned by 20 divisions drawn from nearly every Allied nation across the globe.

Alexander’s plan for a massive breakthrough, Operation Diadem, would bring overwhelming force to bear on the increasingly thin German defenses. Clark’s Fifth Army, which had taken considerable casualties in the fighting around Cassino, shifted to the left and would launch its assault along the coastal route of Highway 7. On Clark’s right, the French Expeditionary Corps would push straight into the Arunci Mountains.

To the right of the French, the British Eighth Army took up positions in the Cassino sector. The divisions poised to push into the embattled zone included troops from the far reaches of the Commonwealth: Brits, South Africans, Indians, Gurkhas, and Canadians. On the far right, the Polish II Corps, under the command of Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, prepared to attack toward Monte Cassino.

On the evening of May 11, the Allies unleashed a massive artillery bombardment designed to pulverize the Germans. More than 1,000 artillery pieces opened a devastating barrage that slammed into enemy positions along a 25-mile front. The crescendo was deafening for attacker and defender alike and shook the earth across the Rapido Valley. Allied troops were hopeful that the overwhelming firepower would reduce German positions before the infantry even came to grips with the enemy.

On the left, Clark thrust his men forward along Route 7 but faced a tough fight. On his right, Juin’s troops stormed forward, breaking the initial defenses of the German 71st Division and battering their way deep into the Arunci Mountains. South of Casino, the 8th Indian Division and the 4th British Division crossed the Rapido under heavy enemy fire. Although taking heavy casualties, the two divisions succeeded in gaining the northern bank of the river.

Polish soldiers assault Monastery Hill in May 1944. They had the honor of being the first Allied troops to occupy the abbey in the wake of the German retreat.

On the right, the final battle for the prize of Monte Cassino fell to Anders’ Polish Corps. These men had escaped Poland as it fell to the Germans and Russians in 1939. Anders exhorted his men to triumph over the Germans they deeply despised. “Soldiers! The moment for battle has arrived,” he said. “We have long awaited the moment for revenge and retribution over our hereditary enemy.” Working their way into the rugged hills north of Cassino, the Poles launched assaults along parallel rises that pointed toward the monastery. The 5th Kresowa Division attacked along Phantom Ridge, driving off the German defenders, but were battered by enemy artillery.

Along the much-contested Snakeshead Ridge, the men of the 3rd Carpathian Division ran into stiff resistance as they pushed for Point 593, a nondescript but dominant rise of rubble and boulders that controlled access to Monte Cassino. In a chaotic night fight, the Poles lashed themselves against German defenses but paid a fearful price. Hundreds were cut down by well-sighted German machine-gun fire, and the terrain made evacuation of the wounded difficult. At dawn the Poles suffered a murderous fire from German small arms, mortars, and artillery. The attack on Point 593 stalled in a bloody stalemate. Later that afternoon, a devastated Anders ordered the withdrawal of his battered troops.

After consulting with Anders, it was apparent to Alexander that the Poles would be unable to seize Monte Cassino without further support. While Anders regrouped his battered corps, plans were laid to launch a two-pronged assault to reduce enemy positions on the mountain.

By May 17, The British 4th Division attacked the southern reaches of Cassino, again bringing pressure on diehard pockets of German paratroopers still holding the town. Meanwhile, the British 78th Division, pushing north from the village of Sant’Angelo, seized Route 6 south of Monte Cassino. With the German line of retreat in threat of being cut off entirely, Anders and his Poles launched another attack from the north.

The 5th Kresowa Division attacked down Phantom Ridge, succeeding in driving off German defenders and seizing Point 601, which dominated the ridge. With Phantom Ridge secured, the lead elements of the division pressed on toward Point 593 on Snakeshead Ridge, which was under assault by the 3rd Carpathian Division. The Poles, whose homeland had been overrun and occupied by the Wehrmacht five years earlier, fought with a tenacity borne of patriotic determination and a thirst for outright vengeance. Fighting fiercely with small arms and hand grenades, the Poles rooted out the final German defenders and overran Point 593.

Ironically, the final fight for the great prize of the monastery that crowned Monte Cassino would prove nearly bloodless. With British troops positioned to race up Route 6 far in their rear, and Polish troops poised for a renewed assault, the German paratroopers who had fought and bled for so long to control Monte Cassino received orders to withdraw.

By mid-morning on May 18, cautious Polish troops inched their way toward the summit only to discover the enemy was gone. The honor of claiming Monte Cassino fell to a patrol of the 12th Podolski Lancers, who mounted the shattered walls of the monastery and raised a Polish flag. Alexander, ecstatic with the symbolic victory that had taken so long to secure, fired off a dispatch to Churchill. “Capture of Cassino means a great deal to me and my armies,” he wrote.

Indeed it did. With the walls of the monastery securely in Polish hands and German troops on the run, Allied divisions swarmed north and west. Kesselring attempted to rally his outnumbered divisions at yet another imposing belt of fortifications called the Senger Line, but was unable to stop the momentum of the Allied steamroller. On May 23, American troops began battering their way out of the Anzio beachhead, and the Allied weight in men and matériel finally began to tell. On June 4, exultant Allied troops entered Rome.

Although the costly war in Italy would linger on for another year, the bloody battles for Monte Cassino arguably constituted the most horrific struggle for the peninsula. Total German casualties exceeded 20,000 lives. The Allies paid an even greater price for the citadel it is estimated that they suffered approximately 50,000 casualties in the bitter struggle to break the Gustav Line.

Churchill, who had lobbied vigorously for the invasion of Italy, regarded the entire operation a strategic victory. “The principal task of our armies had been to draw off and contain the greatest possible number of Germans,” he said. “This task had been admirably fulfilled.”

Such sentiments of grand strategic success were cold comfort for the common foot soldiers who had fought and bled in the horrific fight for Monte Cassino. For his part, Clark was tormented by the legacy of the clash, and his stark assessment of the brutal struggle for the limestone hills of central Italy likely came closest to the truth. “The battle for Cassino,” Clark recalled, “was the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one respect the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.”


WWII Frontlines: Monte Cassino / Yesterday 21 Jun 2021

In January 1944 thousands of Allied troops converge on Monte Cassino. Atop the near-vertical hillside is a vast Benedictine abbey that the Allies believe is being used by the Germans. In reality its Commander – a lay member of the religious order – has forbidden its military use. Despite this, over the next four months the Monastery is reduced to rubble and the fight claims over 200,000 casualties.

WWII Frontlines takes viewers deep into the heart of battle, to reveal the critical turning points in some of WWII’s most decisive confrontations, from the killing fields of Normandy to the hazardous mountains of Italy, over the vast Pacific Ocean and into devastated Berlin.

Compelling first-person testimony from all sides, cutting edge-analysis, location demonstrations and vivid storytelling dispel the myths to provide new insights into the thrilling events that shaped the outcome of the war.

Season 1 Episode 2
Runtime: 60 minutes
Time: 20:00
Airdate: 21 Jun 2021
Network: Yesterday


Fourth Battle of Cassino


Monte Cassino area, April 1944.

Cassino was finally taken in Operation DIADEM, the Allied spring 1944 offensive in Italy, beginning on 11 May under the overall command of General Sir Harold Alexander. Using a well coordinated combined force of infantry backed up by bombing and artillery, the Gustav Line was finally breached on 14 May. US Fifth Army to the south and west and the British Eighth Army in the center combined in a dual strike while VI US Corps at Anzio finally broke out along the coast and to the rear of the Gustav Line. Eighth Army succeeded in cutting Highway 6, the main road linking the south of Italy to Rome.

On Monte Cassino itself, two divisions of the II Polish Corps battled the German 1st Parachute Division for the mountain. After days of attacks and counterattacks in hand to hand fighting, on the night of 17 May the German garrison abandoned Monte Cassino as part of a general German retreat from the Gustav Line to new defensive lines to the north. At 10:30 in the morning, 18 May 1944, the Polish flag was raised over the Monte Cassino rubble, ending the battle.

Allied troops continued the drive north, capturing Rome on 4 June 1944, although most German forces escaped the Allied advance and survived to form new defensive positions north of Rome. Immediately after the liberation of Rome, Operation OVERLORD in Normandy made the Italian Campaign a side show to the cross-channel invasion and its aftermath.


The Battle For Monte Cassino – A Monument To the Bravery of Ordinary German Soldiers

On the 15 th February, 1944, 1400 tons of high explosives were dropped by the Allied forces advancing upon Rome, on the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. The aerial bombardment marked the beginning of one of the most i episodes of World War II – the defense of Monte Cassino by a numerically and technologically inferior force against massive enemy firepower and manpower.

As the dust settled on the ruins of what had once been one of the greatest cultural and religious landmarks on the European landscape, Fallschirmjäger (German paratroopers) began to move into the perfect cover conveniently created for them by the air raid. During World War II, the Fallschirmjäger had been prominent in many notable engagements with Allied forces. From the assault on Fort Eben-Emael, to the invasion of Norway and the Battle of Crete, German paratroopers had played a huge role in German victories and had achieved a reputation for bravery and fortitude that had few equals.

These campaigns were won during the early years of the war, when Germany was at the height of its power. In 1944, during the death throes of Axis power in Europe, the Fallschirmjäger achieved their most noteworthy action, at Monte Cassino. While there is nothing admirable about the fascist regime which drove to the fight, it is undeniable that the young men on the ground fought with extreme bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

Taking advantage of the surrounding ruins, the German paratroopers were able to conceal the artillery, machine gun emplacements, and mortars that would take a heavy toll on enemy assaults.

On the 15 th of February, British troops advanced on Monte Cassino and suffered a decisive setback when met by stiff resistance from the Fallschirmjäger, with a company of the 1 st Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment taking over 50% casualties. On the 16 th of February, the Royal Sussex Regiment moved forward to the assault with an entire regiment of men. Once again the British were met with a determined resistance from the Fallschirmjäger and driven back to their own lines.

A German mortar crew, photo presumed taken in the ruins of the Abbey – Photo Credit

The following night, the 1 st and 9 th Gurkha Rifles and the 4 th and 6 th Rajputana Rifles attempted to assault Monte Cassino but withdrew after suffering appalling losses. Also on the 17 th of February, the 28 th Maori Battalion succeeded in advancing as far as the railroad in Cassino Town but were dislodged by a German armored counterattack.

On March 15 th a large scale assault upon the German positions was signaled by the dropping of 750 tons of explosives and a massive artillery barrage that accounted for the loss of 150 German paratroopers. New Zealand and Rajputana soldiers were sent into the assault in the hopes that the paralyzing effect of the enormous bombardment would enable them to seize Monte Cassino while the Germans were still in a state of shock.

To the dismay of the Allied command, the Fallschirmjäger fought back with such determination that the assault had to be called off. A surprise armored assault upon Cassino four days later was also repulsed by an aggressive German counterattack that succeeded in destroying all the tanks the Allies had committed to the assault. By this stage, the Allies had lost over 4600 men killed or wounded.

German troops captured by the New Zealanders at Cassino being held beside a Sherman tank. Photo Credit

Further attacks on Monte Cassino were delayed while the Allies massed troops for what was hoped would be an unstoppable offensive. On the 11 th of May, over 1600 artillery pieces commenced a massive barrage upon the German positions.

Moroccan, Polish, and American troops surged up the slopes of Monte Cassino with the paratroopers holding their positions and forcing them to into a brutal fight for every yard of contested ground. Soon, however, it became clear that the Allied advance threatened to cut off the German lines of supply, and the Fallschirmjäger were ordered to withdraw to the fortified Hitler Line. When the final attack came on the 18 th May, only 30 German soldiers, too wounded to be removed, were found in the ruins.

Monte Cassino had finally fallen to the victorious Allies, but the cost in men and material had been prodigious. The battle for Monte Cassino will be remembered in the annals of history as a testament to the bravery and determination of the ordinary soldiers of the German Fallschirmjäger.


Monte Cassino Abbey

  • Point of Interest
  • Via Montecassino, 1, 03043 Cassino FR, Italie
  • http://www.abbaziamontecassino.org/abbey/index.php/en/
  • +39 0776311529 [email protected]

The abbey of Monte Cassino was founded in the 6th century by St. Benedict. During the Second World War it formed a key part of the German Gustav Line. On 15 February 1944 the abbey was bombed by the Allies who wrongly believed that it was being used as a German observation post.

The abbey of Monte Cassino is one of the two largest monasteries in Italy. The abbey was founded by Saint Benedict in the 6th century. The abbey made up one section of the 161 km long German Gustav Line, intended to block the Allied advance into Italy.

Between 17 January and 18 May 1944, Monte Cassino was the scene of fierce fighting. Lying in a protected historic zone, the abbey itself had been left unoccupied by the Germans. Unfortunately, the Allied commanders believed that the abbey was being used as an artillery observation point by the German forces. In spite of a lack of clear evidence, the monastery was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped their bombs on the abbey, reducing the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble.

The destruction of the abbey was one of the greatest military blunders of the Second World War. 230 Italian civilians that were seeking refuge in the monastery were killed and with the building now destroyed German paratroopers occupied the ruins, which provided them with excellent defensive cover.

Fortunately, the destruction was not complete. At the beginning of the battle German officers had transferred some 1,400 precious manuscripts and other items from the abbey to the Vatican saving them from destruction. After the war the abbey was rebuilt exactly as it was.

Monte Cassino Abbey - Photographer: PicsPoint.nl en

Monte Cassino Abbey - Photographer: PicsPoint.nl

Monte Cassino Abbey - Photographer: PicsPoint.nl

Monte Cassino Abbey - Photographer: PicsPoint.nl

Monte Cassino Abbey - Photographer: PicsPoint.nl

Polish soldiers in the ruins of the abbey.

Polish soldiers in the ruins of the abbey.

Related Experiences

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Cassino

The War Cemetery in Cassino lies 139 km south-east of Rome. It contains the graves of 4,271 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War. The Cassino Memorial stands within the cemetery and commemorates over 4,000 Commonwealth servicemen who took part

Polish Military Cemetery Monte Cassino

The Polish Military Field of Honour at Monte Cassino holds the graves of 1,052 soldiers of the 2nd Polish Army Corps who died in the Battle of Monte Cassino, fought from 17 January until 18 May 1944. The cemetery also holds the grave of the Polish commander General Anders who died in London in 1970.

The Campaign of Monte Cassino

The Allied campaign of Monte Cassino was fought in four phases between January and May 1944. The town of Cassino was a key stronghold on the Gustav Line, the German defence line in Central Italy designed to prevent Allied advance towards Rome. The Allies suffered about 55,000 casualties, the Germans 20,000.

Bernard Blin

In 1942 Bernard Blin joined the French armistice army. He joined an artillery unit in North-Africa which, after the Allied invasion, came under American command. During the war Blin would fight in Italy, Southern France and Germany itself. In 1946 he volunteered for the war in Indo China.

Parco della Memoria Storica, San Pietro Infine

The village of San Pietro Infine in Campania, Italy, was completely destroyed in late 1943 by fighting between the advancing U.S. forces seeking to break the Winter Line and the defending German troops. The Parco della Memoria Storica (History Memorial

Rome and Lazio

The region of Lazio in central Italy was the scene of heavy fighting during WWII: here the battles of Monte Cassino and Anzio were fought before the Allies could capture the capital of Rome. Recall the landings of Anzio and

Umberto di Savoia

During the Italian campaign, Crown Prince Umberto di Savoia often visited the front and on the eve of the Battle of Monte Lungo (7 December 1943) volunteered for a dangerous air reconnaissance mission. The American Commander nominated him for the Bronze Star Medal, which was not awarded for political expediency.

Vincenzo Dapino

Vincenzo Cesare Dapino was the first commander of the First Motorized Group, a unit of the Italian Royal army that took part in the Battle of Cassino. Moved by his loyalty to the King and his desire to free Italy from the German occupation, he had to overcome many difficulties.

Sergio Pivetta

During the campaign in Italy, Sergio Pivetta was a cadet in the Alpine troops of the Royal Italian Army. During the Battle of Cassino in 1944, his battalion displayed bravery in their attempt to conquer the strategic Monte Marrone. After the war, Pivetta received the honorary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.


Halfway between Naples and Rome, on a mountaintop and visible for miles, stands the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, serene and benign, apparently indestructible. Of cream-colored stone, its longest side extending 200 yards, four stories tall, with a thick, battlemented base and rows of cell windows, the abbey resembles a fortress. Not particularly beautiful, it is impressive because of its massive size and commanding location. Crowning Monte Cassino, which rises abruptly 1,700 feet above the plain, the abbey overlooks the town of Cassino and the Rapido River, at its foot to the northwest it superbly dominates the Liri Valley, stretching off toward Rome. It is built around five cloistered courtyards and includes a large church, a seminary, an observatory, a school for 250 boys, a vast library of priceless archives, and various workshops and outbuildings. Since 1866, when Italy dissolved the monasteries, the abbey has been a national monument, the monks remaining as custodians of the structure and its treasures.

The abbey was founded by Saint Benedict himself around 529 A.D. It was ravaged by Lombards in the sixth century, pillaged by Saracens in the ninth, knocked clown by an earthquake in the fourteenth, sacked by French troops in the eighteenth, and reduced to rubble by bombs and shells in the twentieth.

To many, the last act of destruction seemed as senseless and wanton as the others. Yet the men who levelled the sanctified walls believed they had compelling reasons. In order to save soldiers’ lives, they felt they had to sacrifice an edifice representing one of the great traditions of a civilization they sought to preserve.

The setting was World War II, the stage the Italian campaign, and the destruction an apparent departure from a consistent policy scrupulously observed.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff, the highest Anglo-American military command, had made that policy very clear. Religious, historical, and cultural properties, they said, were to be spared from damage, together with “local archives…classical monuments and objects of art.” But only if their preservation was “consistent with military necessity.”

Although no one ventured to define military necessity precisely, the commanders in the fieId had made every effort to respect the injunction in the campaigns of North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. General Dwight D. Eisenhowcr, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean theatre, assured his superiors that “all precautions to safeguard works of art and monuments are being taken. Naval, ground, and air commanders have been so instructed and understand fully [the] importance of preventing unnecessary or avoidable damage.” General Mark Clark, who commanded the Fifth Army in Italy, directed his subordinates “to protect these properties, and intentional attacks will therefore be carefully avoided. … If, however, military necessity should so dictate, there should be no hesitation in taking whatever action the situation warrants.”

In the fall of 1943, although the fighting front was far from Monte Cassino, Italian museum officials reminded the Allied command of the historic and artistic importance of the abbey. Word went out to air units at once: “All possible precautions to be taken to avoid bombing abbey on Monte Cassino.”

“Let me see pictures of this place,” ordered General Alfred Gruenther, Clark’s chief of staff. “Will our ground troops have occasion to demolish it by artillery fire?”

The question was academic until early January, 1944, when Vatican authorities complained that the abbey had been “seriously damaged” by artillery. An immediate investigation revealed what had happened. The town of Cassino had been heavily bombed and shelled for some time and was still under fire because it was occupied by German troops. Since there were “many gun positions and enemy installations in the vicinity of the town,” the investigating officer reported, “it is possible that…an erratic round hit the Abbey. Any damage caused by our artillery fire would be purely unintentional.…”

Despite the clear comprehension reflected in this report, General Clark repeated his instructions. Even though the abbey occupied commanding terrain that “might well serve as an excellent observation post for the enemy,” this artistic, historical, and ecclesiastical shrine was to be immune from attack. Except, of course, that this immunity “will not be allowed to interfere with military necessity.”

That was the basic issue, and this the essential question: From a military point of view, was it necessary to bomb the abbey?

Having entered southern Italy in September, 1943, Anglo-American forces took Naples and headed for Rome, moving into increasingly difficult ground and meeting stiffening resistance. By mid-autumn the Germans had been in retreat for a year — driven back from Egypt, expelled from Libya and Tunisia, forced out of Sicily, pushed out of southern Italy toward Rome. Now they intended to stop. In the steep-sided mountains around Cassino, they would stand and fight. It was not a hastily prepared position, but a series of formidable strong points known as the Gustav line.

Incorporated into their defensive positions was the hill of Monte Cassino. Inside the abbey, at its summit, were seventy resident monks, about two hundred schoolchildren, nuns, and orphans normally housed there, and several hundred people who had fled the battlefield and sought refuge and sanctuary.

Both warring armies recognized the sanctity of the monastery, but neither had control over accidents. When a German pilot inadvertently flew his plane into the cables of a funicular tramway connecting the abbey and the town at the foot of the mountain, he smashed not only his aircraft but also the tramway. Several days later, when Allied planes dropped bombs on the town of Cassino, they unintentionally released several loads over the abbey. Minor damage resulted. But the monks remained steadfast and calm. They were confident that the Allied and German military forces would respect the building and its grounds.

In mid-October, two German officers drove up the steep hill from the town of Cassino, carefully negotiating the seven hairpin turns over a distance of almost six miles, and reached the gate of the abbey. They asked to see the abbot. Ushered into his presence, they explained that the Ministry of National Education in Mussolini’s government had expressed concern over the possible destruction of the abbey’s works of art. It would be desirable, they suggested, to remove these treasures to a safe place in Rome, and they offered their assistance.

The abbot, Bishop Gregorio Diamare, was a small and alert man of seventy-eight years who wore his age and his title with ineffable dignity. He found the idea of carrying out the art treasures rather ridiculous. Both adversaries in the war had publicly proclaimed their intention to conserve cultural and religious properties. What harm could come to this holy place?

The German officers bowed and withdrew.

Two days later they returned. This time they insisted that the abbey was in danger because of the military importance of the hill on which it was located. Although the Germans preferred to fight elsewhere, the officers explained, they had no choice. The hill of Monte Cassino was far too valuable to be excluded from the fortifications being constructed. A battle was sure to take place, and the abbey was certain to incur damage.

The Abbot accepted their offer. On the following day a German military truck arrived, was loaded with art treasures, and made the first of several trips to transport the most venerable relics and objects to Rome. Almost all of the monks also departed for Rome, along with nuns, orphans, schoolchildren, and many of the refugees. The Abbot, five monks, five lay brothers, and about 150 civilians remained. Life on the hill was quiet and somewhat lonely. The sounds of cannon were occasional and distant.

Early in December, the commander of the German Tenth Army in Italy, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, requested help in solving a problem. How could he use the hill of Monte Cassino in his defenses, he asked his superior, without harming the abbey? “Preserving the extraterritoriality of the monastery,” he warned, “is not possible: of necessity it lies directly in the main line of resistance.” To fight on Monte Cassino would endanger the monastery. To give up Monte Cassino without a fight would definitely impair the usefulness of the defensive line. For “along with the renunciation of good observation posts and good positions of concealment on our part, the Anglo-Americans almost certainly would not bother about any sort of agreement at the decisive moment [of battle] but would without scruple place themselves in occupation of this point [the abbey itself] which in certain circumstances might be decisive [for the outcome].”

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the commander in chief of the German forces in Italy, gave Vieiingholf an unequivocal answer. He had assured representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome that German troops would refrain from entering the abbey. “This means,” Vietinghoff specified when he passed the word along to his subordinates, “only that the building alone is to be spared.”

Placing the abbey off limits and drawing a circle with its circumference about aoo yards from the walls, he forbade all troops to cross the line, stationed several military policemen at the abbey entrance to enforce the order, and assured the Abbot that no military installations of any sort would be constructed within the confines of the abbey — that is, within the circle he had traced.

But the slopes of Monte Cassino outside the circle were not off limits. German troops demolished the abbey’s outlying buildings to create fields of fire for their weapons, and set up observation posts and emplacements for crew-served guns. There is evidence that they established at least one position inside the circle, an ammunition supply dump in a cave probably no more than 50 yards from the monastery wall.

In January, 1944, as Allied troops approached, the Germans were ready. They evacuated all the refugees still in the monastery except a handful too sick or infirm to be moved. They said they would continue to respect the abbey, but they asked the Abbot to leave. Despite the bustle of Germans digging on the hill and the more frequent and louder sounds of gunfire, the Abbot refused. He had faith in the promises made by both sides.

Recognizing how difficult it would be to batter down and go through the solid defenses around Cassino, the Allied leaders decided to bypass them. They would send a sizable contingent of troops up the west coast of Italy in ships. These men would come ashore at Anzio, about seventy-five miles ahead of the main Allied forces and only thirty miles below Rome. At Anzio they would pose a direct threat to the capital and menace the rear of the Germans holding the Cassino line. Taken by surprise, the Germans would probably have to divert strength from Cassino to defend Rome. And this, the Allies hoped, would enable Allied troops to move forward through Cassino, rush overland, and join the soldiers at Anzio. There they would gather strength for a final surge into Rome.

The plan involved a grave risk. Until the main Allied body of troops could move from Cassino to Anzio, the units holding the beachhead there would be isolated, exposed, and highly vulnerable. But the prize was too tempting. The prospect of quickly capturing the Eternal City persuaded the Allied leaders to accept the hazard.

The importance of Rome was undeniable. Above all, it had symbolic and psychological value to both contestants and in this connection there was a lime factor. The Allies wanted Rome by a certain date- before the cross-Channel attack into Normandy, which was then scheduled for May, 1944. Taking Rome, they believed, would lower the enemy’s will to resist and facilitate the Normandy invasion. Thus, a sense of urgency was imparted to the Allied activities in Italy.

In January, General Sir Harold Alexander, the British officer who commanded the two Allied armies in Italy, gave the signal to start “the Rome operation.” General Clark, as commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, thereupon opened a massive attack at Cassino. Designed to divert German attention, it culminated on January 20 — two days before the Anzio landing — with an attempt to cross the Rapido River and push up the Liri Valley. The river assault, which took place in the shadow of Monte Cassino, failed for a variety of reasons to crack the strong Cassino defenses. The Anzio landing on January 22 succeeded but, contrary to Allied expectations, the Germans moved quickly to contain the beachhead there. At the same time they managed to retain enough troops at Cassino to keep their defenses intact and solid.

Read about the daring amphibious landing behind German lines in "Agony and Triumph at Anzio," by Flint Whitlock

Now the urgency felt by the Allies underwent a change in emphasis. No longer was Rome the overriding objective. Far more important was an overland advance from Cassino to link up with the American soldiers cruelly exposed on the Anzio plain. And this depended on getting across the Rapido River. Since Monte Cassino dominated the Rapido, giving the Germans excellent observation posts from which to direct artillery and mortar fire, the Allied leaders moved against the mountain. American infantrymen fought a battle marked by extreme exertion and heroism. They got part way up the mountain, but were unable to wrest it from German control. The defenses were simply too strong, the defenders too tenacious. After twenty days of effort, and heavy casualties, the Americans were exhausted and had to admit failure.

Had the ruling that exempted the monastery from direct fire affected the outcome of the struggle? Some who looked with longing eyes to the high ground that would open the way to Anzio found themselves staring at the abbey. Aloof and indifferent, crowning the mountaintop that represented victory, the building seemed to have taken on a sinister appearance.

Now General Alexander brought in two fresh divisions—one of New Zealanders, the other of Indians- for a renewed assault. According to a new plan that envisaged stretching the German defenses, the Indians would attack Monte Cassino while the New Zealanders crossed the Rapido. The double blow, it was felt, would certainly open a path to Anzio.

Mark Clark was responsible for operations at both Anzio and Cassino. Under Clark, and in direct command of the two-division attack at Cassino, was General Sir Bernard Freyberg.

A New Zealander of imposing physical appearance and impressive reputation, Freyberg was a legendary hero of World War I. He had already sustained his image in World War II by a magnificent record in North Africa and in Crete. Not only was he the commander of New Zealand’s military forces in the European theatre he was also the chief political representative of his government. His dual function was an oddity that sometimes embarrassed his colleagues. For though his military rank subordinated him in the command structure, his political status placed him above his military superiors.

When Clark met Freyberg early in February, he was taken with the New Zealander’s commanding presence his heavy-set figure exuded authority and evoked instant respect. Clark was pleased, too, with Freyberg’s energy and aggressiveness. But he also felt a brief twinge of discomfort. Freyberg’s dominion troops, he noted, were “very jealous of their prerogatives. The British have found them difficult to handle. They have always been given special considerations which we would not give to our own troops.”

Several days later, when the two officers conferred on the new attack, Clark learned that Freyberg was concerned about the abbey of Monte Cassino. Freyberg, as Clark reported the conversation, “expressed some apprehension that the monastery buildings were being used by the Germans and stated that in his opinion, if necessary, they should be blown down by artillery or bombardment.”

Clark disagreed. The subject had been thoroughly discussed several weeks earlier, and American commanders felt that firing against the abbey was unwarranted. Civilians from the surrounding countryside were known to be taking shelter there. And the Americans doubted that enemy troops were using the building in any way. The Germans had no need of the abbey—the hill itself offered excellent sites for individual foxholes and for weapons emplacements, while higher hills nearby gave even better observation over the approaching Allied troops. What the Americans suspected was that the Germans would be glad to entice the Allies into bombing or shelling the building for the propaganda benefit to be gained. Moreover, the policy forbidding destruction of historical, religious, and cultural monuments was still in effect.

Yet the commander of the Indian division, General F. S. Tuker, a British officer, felt sure that the monastery was a very real obstacle to progress. He had closely studied the problem of taking Monte Cassino, and he had no illusions that the task would be easy. The strength of the enemy forces, the rugged terrain, and the freezing weather would make success extremely difficult. Symbolizing the advantages held by the Germans, and seeming to mock the Allied efforts, was the Benedictine monastery. Tuker felt that the abbey was exerting a baleful psychological influence on the Allied troops. He decided it would have to be destroyed in order to insure a successful attack with a minimum of losses. He therefore asked Freyberg for an air bombardment of the abbey.

Freyberg found himself in agreement with Tuker. He telephoned Clark. Clark was visiting the Anzio beachhead, and his chief of staff, General Gruenther, took the call. The time was 7 P.M., February 12.

“I desire that I be given air support tomorrow,” Freyberg said, “in order to soften the enemy position in the Cassino area. I want three missions of twelve planes each the planes to be Kitty Bombers carrying thousand-pound bombs.”

The request was hardly excessive — thirty-six planes to drop eighteen tons of high explosive. Unfortunately, most of the planes in the theatre were scheduled to fly missions in support of the Anzio beachhead. Gruenther doubted that he could obtain thirty-six aircraft for the thirteenth, but said he would “go into the matter at once.” After checking with his staff officers, he phoned the New Zealander and told him he could have twelve A-36 fighter-bombers carrying 500-pound bombs for a single mission. Which target would he prefer the aircraft to attack?

“I want the convent attacked,” Freyberg replied.

Did he mean the abbey of Monte Cassino?

“Yes,” Freyberg said. “I want it bombed. The other targets are unimportant, but this one is vital. The division commander who is making the attack feels that it is an essential target, and I thoroughly agree.”

The restrictions on that particular target, Gruenther said, made it impossible for him to approve the request. He would have to take up the matter with General Clark, and he promised to do so.

Unable to reach Clark for the moment, Gruenther telephoned General Alexander’s chief of staff and explained the situation. He asked for Alexander’s opinion as to “the advisability of authorizing the bombing.” The chief of staff said he would talk with the General, and let Gruenther know.

Before the return call came, Gruenther reached General Clark, who said he saw no military necessity to destroy the monastery. Would Gruenther pass along his opinion to Alexander? Clark added that he felt somewhat embarrassed because of Freyberg’s extremely strong views. If Clark refused an air bombardment and the Indian attack failed, he supposed he would be blamed for the failure.

Trying to marshal support for Clark’s position, Gruenther next phoned General Geoffrey Keyes, the corps commander who was responsible for the American effort in the Cassino area. Keyes expressed his belief that there was no military necessity to destroy the monastery. He said further that bombing the monastery would “probably enhance its value as a military obstacle, because the Germans would then feel free to use it as a barricade.”

Several minutes later — it was now 9:30 P.M. — Gruenther heard from Alexander’s chief of staff. General Alexander had decided that the monastery should be bombed if Freyberg considered its reduction a military necessity. Alexander regretted “that the building should be destroyed, but he has faith in General Freyberg’s judgment.”

The announcement seemed final, but Gruenther tried to argue. He said that he had talked with General Clark since his earlier phone call. Clark’s view was clear — he was against a bombing, so much so that if Freyberg were an American, Clark would turn him down. But “in view of General Freyberg’s position in the British Empire forces, the situation was a delicate one, and General Clark hesitated to give him such an order without first referring the matter to General Alexander.” Clark emphasized that a bombardment would endanger the lives of civilian refugees in the building, and that it very probably would enhance the value of the monastery as a defensive fortification.

The response was quite cold. “General Alexander,” his chief of staff said, “has made his position quite clear.…He regrets very much that the monastery should be destroyed, but he sees no other choice.”

Gruenther now phoned Clark again and reported Alexander’s reaction. Somewhat upset, Clark asked Gruenther to tell Freyberg that he, Clark, “was willing to defer to General Freyberg’s judgment.” At the same time, he wanted Gruenther to tell Alexander that Clark would speak personally with him in the morning in order to state fully his conviction that bombing the monastery would be an error. Meanwhile, Gruenther was to go ahead and set up the bombing mission — but to schedule it for no earlier than 10 A.M. By that time, Clark hoped to have spoken with Alexander if Alexander changed his mind, the bombardment could still be cancelled.

Gruenther first passed Clark’s message on to Alexander’s chief of staff then — at 10 P.M. — he telephoned Freyberg once more to say that he was “reluctant to authorize [the abbey’s] bombing unless you are certain that its destruction is necessary.”

Freyberg refused to budge. It was not “sound,” he said, “to give an order to capture Monastery Hill [Monte Cassino] and at the same time deny the commander the right to remove an important obstacle to the success of this mission.” A higher commander who refused to authorize the bombing, he warned, would have to be held responsible if the attack failed.

Gruenther repeated that Clark was ready to authorize the bombing if Freyberg considered it a military necessity.

Yes, Freyberg said in his “considered opinion,” the bombardment was “a military necessity.”

The magic formula having been categorically stated, Gruenther informed him that the air mission was authorized. Would he please arrange to move any Allied troops who might be endangered by the bombing to a safe place?

Around midnight, Freyberg called back. Would Gruenther temporarily defer the bombardment? There was not time to move the Allied troops to safety.

For the moment, the unpleasant prospect of destroying the monastery was averted.

On the morning of February 13, Clark talked on the telephone with Alexander and told him that he was “greatly concerned.” Despite Freyberg’s conviction that the Germans were using the abbey for military purposes, there was no firm proof. But they would certainly have no compunctions about using it after a bombing. Humanitarian, religious, and sentimental reasons, Clark said, also argued against bombing. There was in addition a practical problem—the number of aircraft available to attack the building would be unable to destroy the value of the structure as a defensive work. These considerations, he felt, were more valid than the slim chance of facilitating the capture of the mountain.

All this was so, Alexander admitted. But if Freyberg wanted the monastery bombed, the monastery would have to be bombed.

Yet despite his apparent assurance, Alexander referred the matter to his immediate superior, Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, a British officer who had succeeded Eisenhower in command of the Mediterranean theatre. Wilson approved Alexander’s view — what Freyberg wanted he would have to have.

Facing the massive force of Freyberg’s personality and prestige, all his superiors were uncomfortable. It seemed unlikely that the Germans had violated the sanctity of the abbey. Yet it was true that some of their positions were so close that it was scarcely possible to fire on them without striking the religious structure.

It was true also that many soldiers sincerely believed that the Germans were using the building for military purposes. One regimental commander thought he had seen the flash of field glasses within the monastery. An Italian civilian declared that he had counted eighty Germans manning thirty machine guns inside the building. An American artillery battalion reported that “our observers had noted a great deal of enemy activity in the vicinity of the famous monastery, and it became ever clearer that they were using the abbey as an observation post and also had gun emplacements installed.” A rifleman had been seriously wounded “by a sniper,” he said, “hiding in the monastery.” And frequent reports verified “much small arms fire seen and heard coming from the vicinity of the abbey.”

To settle the question of whether German troops were actually inside the abbey, General Jacob Devers, Wilson’s American deputy, and General Ira Eaker, the American in command of the Mediterranean theatre air forces, flew over the German lines in two small observation planes. Because the Germans rarely fired on light aircraft, which they suspected were sometimes decoys sent up to draw fire and pinpoint the location of their guns, Generals Devers and Eaker were able to pass directly above the abbey. Both believed they saw radio masts inside the monastery walls, and other convincing proof of the presence of enemy soldiers.

This confirmed the military necessity of a bombardment. In a report made later to explain his approval of the act, Field Marshal Wilson said he had what he called “irrefutable evidence” that the abbey was part of the German main line of defense, that observers were directing artillery fire from within the building, that snipers fired from the structure, and that gun emplacements, pillboxes, and ammunition dumps were located within the shadow of the walls. Thus, when General Freyberg insisted that destroying the abbey was a necessary preliminary for taking Monte Cassino, his argument, Wilson said, outweighed “historical and sentimental considerations.”

The ground attack of the New Zealand and Indian divisions having been postponed to February 15, a bombardment was scheduled for the same day. But this bombing was to be far different from Freyberg’s original request. No longer was he talking of a few planes attacking to soften the defenses. He was now saying that the abbey would have to be flattened before the Indians could take the mountain.

What had caused the escalation? There was a growing concern over the security of the Anzio beachhead, where the precarious equilibrium between Allied and German forces seemed about to tip in favor of the Germans — who, as it turned out, actually launched a massive attack on the sixteenth. There was an uneasy feeling that time was slipping by — that the cross-Channel attack was fast approaching while Rome remained as distant and elusive as ever. There was an increasing realization that some extraordinary measure was needed to blast through the Cassino defenses. And there was an idea novel to the doctrine of warfare, and as yet untried: that the power of massed strategic bombers, normally used for long-range missions, might contribute to a tactical victory — which would give the employment of heavy bombers at Monte Cassino the additional dimension of an experiment.

Still, the military debate was not over. The ranking French commander in Italy, General Alphonse Juin, made a special trip to see Clark on the fourteenth to urge that the abbey not be destroyed. Christendom, he said, would be shocked. Clark agreed with that judgment but unfortunately, he said, the decision was irrevocable.

That evening, Allied planes dropped leaflets on Monte Cassino to warn the civilians in the vicinity of the impending bombardment. Apparently none fell within the walls of the abbey. A refugee — at some danger to himself, for there was firing all around — emerged from the building and retrieved one. He took it to the Abbot.

“Italian friends,” the leaflet read. “Until this day we have done everything to avoid bombing the abbey. But the Germans have taken advantage. Now that the battle has come close to your sacred walls we shall, despite our wish, have to direct our arms against the monastery. Abandon it at once. Put yourselves in a safe place. Our warning is urgent.” The message was signed “Fifth Army.”

The Abbot sent his secretary to a nearby German headquarters to make arrangements for the occupants to leave. By the time he arrived, it was late too late, the Germans said, for the inhabitants of the abbey to depart that night. They could guarantee the safety of the civilians only during the hours of darkness. Since daylight of the fifteenth would soon come, they recommended deferring the evacuation until the following night. The Abbot agreed, promising to have everyone ready to leave just before dawn of the sixteenth.

On the morning of February 15, about 250 Allied bombers attacked the monastery. According to one observer, they “soon reduced the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble.” The planes attacked in waves, dropping about 600 tons of high explosive. Soldiers on a neighboring slope watched in awe. Between the waves of bombers, allied artillery fired on the target, adding to the destruction.

The attack seemed to confirm the presence of Germans in the abbey. “Over 150 enemy were seen wildly trying to get away from the Abbey as the first planes dropped their loads,” one observer reported. “Artillery and small arms fire took a heavy toll of these men as they exposed themselves across the open terrain.” Other witnesses thought they saw German troops make repeated attempts to dash from the abbey to safer positions, “conclusive proof,” one said, “that the Germans had used the monastery for military purposes.”

Brigadier General Frank Allen, head of the 1st Armored Division’s Combat Command B, found the sight inspiring. “Our air,” he wrote, “thoroughly demolished the monastery above Cassino. Reports indicate that a great number of Germans were driven out of the building and surrounding area. It was a tremendous spectacle to see all the Flying Fortresses come over and drop their bombs.”

But Major General Fred L. Walker, who commanded the 36th Division, felt quite otherwise. “This was a valuable historical monument,” he wrote, “which should have been preserved. The Germans were not using it and I can see no advantage in destroying it. No tactical advance will result since the Germans can make as much use of the rubble for observation posts and gun positions as of the building itself. Whether the Germans used the building for an observation post or for emplacements makes little difference since the mountain top on which the building stands can serve the same purpose. If I had had the decision to make I would have prevented its destruction. I have directed my artillery not to fire on it to date.”

Yet to many Americans who had unsuccessfully assaulted Monte Cassino without benefit of this kind of air support, and who had suffered a psychological malaise from the hypnotic effect of the building, the immediate reaction was merely one of bitterness. Why had they been denied this assistance?

The assistance, however, proved futile. Though airplanes returned on the afternoon of the fifteenth to hammer again at the ruined abbey, though 150 aircraft struck on the following day, and fifty-nine on the seventeenth, though artillery expended an enormous number of shells directly against the abbey, the Indians failed to take the hill and the New Zealanders failed to force a passage across the Rapido. For the time being, the military situation at Cassino remained unchanged. The beachhead at Anzio was still isolated.

Aside from the destruction of the abbey, the bombardment blasted and burned off much of the vegetation on Monte Cassino. Stripped of its cover, the hill revealed a surprising complex of dugouts and trenches, thus confirming, in the words of one report, its “extensive organization … by the enemy.”

Around noon of February 15, the German corps commander in the Cassino sector, General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, had informed Vietinghoff of the bombardment. Senger was calm and confident. “Field police,” he reported, “have maintained steady watch that no German soldier entered the building. Therefore, the enemy measures lack any legal basis.”

Ten years after the war, Senger firmly repeated that no German troops were inside the abbey before the bombardment. He confirmed Clark’s view: there was no need to use the abbey as an observation post, because other sites on the mountain offered better locations. Anxious to keep from alienating the good will of the Vatican and of Catholics throughout the world, the Germans were scrupulous in respecting the neutrality of the monastery so scrupulous, in fact, Senger said, that when he visited the abbey on Christmas eve of 1943 and dined with the Abbot, he was careful not to abuse the privilege. He refrained from looking out of the windows. Yet he admitted that observation posts and weapons were “as close as 200 yards” from the abbey walls.

A civilian who had been in the abbey during the bombardment and who came into the American lines on the following day confirmed that the Germans had never had weapons inside the abbey and had never used it as an observation post. Numerous emplacements, he added, were no more than two hundred yards from the outside wall, and one position was about fifty yards away.

Ten days after the bombardment, Fifth Army counterintelligence agents verified the fact that no German troops had occupied the abbey before the bombardment. But the information was given no dissemination. The Allied forces never officially announced whether German troops had been in the monastery.

One thing soon became self-evident: the Germans had little hesitation about moving in afterward. They waited exactly two days. Then, when the Abbot departed, German paratroopers installed themselves and their weapons in the ruins. The rubble provided excellent protection against the attacks on the mountain by the Indians.

On the day after the bombardment, German photographers took pictures of the destroyed monastery. That evening an officer flew the films to Berlin for processing. They would receive wide showing and have great propaganda effect. This, the Nazi Ministry of Information would proclaim, was how the Allies were liberating Europe.

Abbot Diamare left the ruined monastery at dawn on February 17. He and most of the other occupants had huddled in the deep crypt of the abbey during the bombardment. Now, accompanied by those who could walk, he wended his way down a mule path until he was picked up by Senger’s automobile, which had been solicitously dispatched to bring him to the German’s headquarters. Brokenhearted, dazed by the shock of the bombs, hardly believing what had happened, the Abbot accepted Senger’s hospitality.

After letting him rest a day, Senger interviewed the Abbot in front of microphones. The production started with a statement read by a lieutenant: The Abbey Monte Cassino is completely destroyed. A senseless act of force of the Anglo-American Air Force has robbed civilized mankind of one of its most valued cultural monuments. Abbot Bishop Gregorio Diamare has been brought out of the ruins of his abbey under the protection of the German Armed Forces. He voluntarily placed himself in their protection and was brought by them through a ring of fire of Allied artillery…and into the Command Post of the Commanding General. The aged Abbot…found here a place of refuge and recovery after the days of horror which he, his monks, and numerous refugees, women, children, old men, crippled, sick and wounded civilians had to undergo because of the order of the Allied Supreme Commander.

We find the General…and the Abbot…in a voluntary discussion into which we now cut in: The General: ”…everything was done on the part of the German Armed Forces, definitely everything, in order to give the opponent no military ground for attacking the monastery.”

The Abbot: “General, I … can only confirm this. You declared the Abbey Monte Cassino a protected zone, you forbade German soldiers to step within the area of the abbey, you ordered that within a specified perimeter around the abbey there be neither weapons, nor observation posts, nor billeting of troops. You have tirelessly taken care that these orders were most strictly observed.…Until the moment of the destruction…there was within the area of the abbey neither a German soldier, nor any German weapon, nor any German military installation.”

The General: “It came to my attention much too late that leaflets which gave notice of the bombing were dropped over the area of the monastery. I first learned this after the bombing. No leaflets were dropped over our German positions.”

The Abbot: “I have the feeling that the leaflets were intentionally dropped so late in order to give us no possibility to notify the German commander, or, on the other hand to bring the some eight hundred guests of the monastery out of the danger zone.…We simply did not believe that the English and Americans would attack the abbey. And when they came with their bombs, we laid out white cloths in order to say to them, do nothing to us, we are certainly without arms, we are no military objective, here is a holy place. It did not help, they have destroyed the monastery and killed hundreds of innocent people.”

The General: “Can I do anything more?”

The Abbot: “No, General, you have done everything—even today the German Armed Forces provides for us and for the refugees in model fashion. But I have something still to do, namely to thank you and the German Armed Forces for all the consideration given to the original abode of the Benedictine Order both before and after the bombardment. I thank you.”

Senger must have thanked the Abbot, although this was not recorded. He sent him under escort to Rome.

The Vatican protested the bombardment in strong terms, and President Roosevelt replied that he had issued instructions to prevent the destruction of historic monuments except in cases of military necessity —not merely military convenience, he emphasized, but military necessity. The bombardment, he said, had been unfortunate but necessary for the prosecution of the war.

In the Allied camp, a profound disappointment took hold. Who had been at fault? The Army troops who had failed to take advantage of the bombing? Or the airmen who had failed to eradicate the enemy defenses? Was heavy bombing useless for giving direct support to troops on the ground?

No one seemed to know. General Eaker, the air forces commander, summed up the feeling: General Clark, he wrote, “did not want a single bomb on Cassino Abbey, but…General Freyberg .. . went over his head or around him and asked … [Alexander] to have it bombed. We bomb it and it causes an uproar from the churchmen. You ask us then why we bombed we make an investigation and discover a difference of view.”

Exactly a month later, on March 15, the Allies launched another bombardment. This one employed twice as many planes as before, and the target was the town of Cassino. Although nearly all of its homes and buildings were destroyed, German paratroopers fought stubbornly amidst the ruins, and Allied ground attacks were only partly successful. Meanwhile, the wreckage of the monastery, high above the battle, remained in German hands.

At Anzio, the isolated Allied troops withstood German pressure by sheer determination, a scant seven miles from the water’s edge. A virtual stalemate then characterized the military situation in Italy until early in May, when the Allies launched an overwhelming attack along the Cassino line. Clark’s Fifth Army, spearheaded by Juin’s French forces, broke the Cassino defenses at the Garigliano River, outflanked Monte Cassino, and forced the Germans to give way. Polish troops then captured what was left of the abbey. Toward the end of May, after moving forward relentlessly, American forces made contact with the troops at Anzio, who then broke out of their confined beachhead. A subsequent drive resulted in the capture of Rome on June 4, two days before the Normandy invasion.

Almost immediately after the battlefront had swept past Monte Cassino, plans were made to rebuild the abbey. And soon after the end of World War II, sufficient funds were raised throughout the world, with a large part coming from the United States, to start the laborious process of restoration.

Today Saint Benedict’s structure again occupies its mountaintop serenely, a landmark visible from afar. Tourists speeding along the new superhighway between Naples and Rome can look across the fields and see it plainly in all its glory. There are no scars. Who can imagine that anything happened to the abbey during the war?


Watch the video: Der 2 Weltkrieg - Die Hölle von Monte Cassino - Teil 1