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Razing Monte Cassino

The ruined abbey of Monte Cassino (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The ruined abbey of Monte Cassino (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Germany's good fortune from early in the war was turning by the summer of 1943. Italian forces and Rommel's Afrika Korps where ousted from Africa, and the Allies launched a successful invasion to liberate the island of Sicily in July. Once Sicily was in Allied hands, a second amphibious invasion put troops on mainland Italy, causing the country's leadership to remove Mussolini from power and surrender. German troops, however, quickly took control of much of the country and dug in to prevent the Allies from advancing up the Italian Peninsula and into the heart of Europe.
 
The Winter Line was the collective name for several parallel defensive lines running from sea to sea across the country. Each line was heavily fortified and designed to make the best use of Italy's rugged terrain full of mountains and rivers. Taking each individual line would take a heavy toll on the Allies, and the German defenders could repeatedly retreat to another, similarly fortified line.
 
The main line of these defenses was the Gustav Line, and one of the line's key locations was the mountain of Monte Cassino, overlooking the town of Cassino. Cassino lay on one of the ancient Roman roads which led to the empire's capital, so securing and controlling the area was a high priority for German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the overall commander of German forces in Italy.

Kesselring (center) inspecting his troops in Italy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Kesselring (center) inspecting his troops in Italy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

An abbey stood atop the mountain. Founded personally by Benedict of Nursia in or around 539 AD, it was the very first house of the Benedictine Order. The abbey had seen its share of conflict over the centuries, and was sacked, damaged and destroyed several times; the edifice that stood atop the mountain during World War II was built primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Late 15th century woodcut of what the abbey looked like at the time (Photo: Public domain)
Late 15th century woodcut of what the abbey looked like at the time (Photo: Public domain)

The Germans needed the hill to secure the strategic route to Rome, but were reluctant to risk damage to the holy site, as they knew it would have invoked the wrath of the Vatican and the world's Catholics, potentially fueling resistance activities against German troops. Additionally, the military utility of the abbey was rather limited. It offered a great view of the surrounding area, so soldiers inside could easily spot enemy troop movements and direct artillery fire; but similarly effective lookouts could also be established on other nearby hilltops with little effort. Thanks to its narrow windows and thick wall, the abbey was also a secure shelter against artillery strikes, but a very poor fighting position: the narrow windows would have given defending soldiers poor fields of fire.

German paratroopers dug in at Monte Cassino (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German paratroopers dug in at Monte Cassino (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The abbey's monks and the Germans reached a compromise. Monks, lay brothers and civilian refugees could stay inside the monastery and would be left alone, with German military police standing at the gates to prevent other soldiers from wandering inside. In exchange, the Germans could knock down the abbey's outlying buildings and build defenses into the hillside as long as they were at least 200 yards (180 m) away from the monastery proper (though one particular ammunition dump might have been built inside that perimeter). Additionally, the Germans helped the monks pack up the abbey's invaluable library, catalogue and trove of artworks (including paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Tizian, Raphael and Bruegel), and shipped them to safety in the Vatican and elsewhere in Northern Italy – though several cases ended up as a gift to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, who was notorious for collecting looted art.

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German soldiers unloading some of the abbey's treasures in Rome (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German soldiers unloading some of the abbey's treasures in Rome (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

"All roads lead to Rome" the ancient saying goes, but the winter of 1943-44 taught the advancing Allies that not all of those roads are actually easy to travel. Of the routes leading from Southern Italy to Rome, one was blocked by winter blizzards, one led through marshlands and was flooded by the Germans, one was consider not viable, and one was going past Monte Cassino. The Allies decided they had to force passage through here, for better or worse.
 
Knowing that Monte Cassino was heavily defended, a plan was hatched to remove some of the defenders before the attack. An Allied amphibious force would land at Anzio, behind the Gustav Line, and would threaten Rome. This would force the Germans to redeploy their forces to contain the landing, moving troops away from Monte Cassino, leaving it an easy target.

Troops coming ashore near Anzio, while a struck landing craft is burning in the background (Photo: U.S. Army)
Troops coming ashore near Anzio, while a struck landing craft is burning in the background (Photo: U.S. Army)

Time, however, was working against the Allies. The landing at Anzio needed landing craft, and those would also be needed for Operation Overlord in Normandy in a few months' time. The Combined Chiefs of Staff decided that the landing craft would be available in Italy until early February, putting a time limit on the operation. This was bad news for the U.S. Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark, since they had only arrived at the Gustav Line on January 15, after six weeks of heavy fighting to advance just 7 miles (11 km) through the earlier Bernhardt Line. They had already suffered 16,000 casualties getting to Monte Cassino, but the time limit imposed on the amphibious landing denied them the chance to get new recruits or a proper rest.

General Clark aboard a PT boat near Anzio on January 22, 1944 (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
General Clark aboard a PT boat near Anzio on January 22, 1944 (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
 

The landings at Anzio, named Operation Shingle, started on January 22, and quickly got bogged down at the beachhead due to a lack of aggression on the part of General John P. Lucas, as well as due to the Germans' ability to mount a rapid reply without compromising the defenses of Monte Cassino. Capturing the mountain now became doubly important: not only would it free up the road to Rome, it would also relieve the American troops at Anzio.

Hospital tents on the Anzio beachhead (Photo: ibiblio.org)
Hospital tents on the Anzio beachhead (Photo: ibiblio.org)

The first assaults against the mountain began on January 17, a few days before Operation Shingle. Elements of the 5th Army, the British X Corps and Free French forces from Africa managed to cross the Rapido and Garigliano rivers (which ran between Allied troops and the mountain) in several places, but were beaten back everywhere. One division's attempt to bypass Cassino completely by going up into the mountains to its north failed when they were refused reinforcements. One hill not more than 400 yards (370 meters) from the abbey was captured for a while, and a reconnaissance unit even reached the walls of the abbey before they were forced to retreat; but the German defenses held over two weeks of heavy fighting. Unknown to the Allies, the Germans came very close to breaking; General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, the commander of German forces around Cassino, requested (and was refused) permission to abandon the town and the mountain and retreat.

Royal Engineers crossing the Garigliano river during the first battle (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Royal Engineers crossing the Garigliano river during the first battle (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

American troops were worn out after the unsuccessful attempt and could not carry on fighting. They were removed from the front lines and replaced by New Zealand and Indian troops under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealand officer and World War I veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme.

General Freyberg at Monte Cassino in early January, 1944 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
General Freyberg at Monte Cassino in early January, 1944 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

By this point, the very existence of the mountaintop abbey and the German troops around it became something of a morale blow against the Allies. Day after day, soldiers saw the impenetrable structure looming above the countryside, always out of reach. Stories started to circulate of German snipers taking potshots from within the abbey, and of German troops massing inside. More and more Allied officers started to believe that the only way forward was to destroy the abbey entirely.
Naturally, destroying a religious site was not going to sit well with everybody. In fact, General Eisenhower had just issued his Protection of Cultural Property Order a few months earlier, in December 1943. In the order, he declared: "If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men's lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase 'military necessity' is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference."

U.S. soldier among the ruins of the abbey after the war (Photo: The National WWII Museum New Orleans)
U.S. soldier among the ruins of the abbey after the war (Photo: The National WWII Museum New Orleans)

This was a strong argument against destroying the abbey, but the phrase "military necessity" did not have a hard definition. Was the failure of the first attack on Monte Cassino and the prospect of future heavy casualties a "military necessity"? Who would get to decide?
 
General Freyberg certainly believed that the abbey had to be leveled, and many other commanders agreed with him. Major General Francis Tuker of the 4th Indian Division found an 1879 book about the construction of the abbey in a Naples bookshop, and concluded from its contents that field engineers had no way of breaching the thick walls. He declared that he would not attack unless "the [German] garrison was reduced to helpless lunacy by sheer unending pounding for days and nights by air and artillery." Major General Howard Kippenberger of the 2nd New Zealand Division argued that the abbey should be destroyed regardless of whether there were German artillery spotters inside, since it could be occupied any time, and turning it into a ruin would reduce its defensive value. On February 12, General Freyberg requested a bombing raid against Monte Cassino for the following day.

Many Goumiers, Moroccan soldiers in French service, fought at Monte Cassino (Photo: Public domain)
Many Goumiers, Moroccan soldiers in French service, fought at Monte Cassino (Photo: Public domain)

The bombing could only happen, however, if General Clark of the 5th Army signed off on it. Clark was against the idea. He correctly deduced that the Germans did not really need the building for defense, and he also believed that the destruction of a Christian holy site by the Allies would be used by the Germans for propaganda.
 
As it happened, Freyberg phoned Clark at 7 p.m. on February 12, at a time when Clark was visiting the Anzio beachhead and was unavailable. Freyberg could only talk to Clark's chief of staff, General Alfred Gruenther. The phone lines between various Allied headquarters buzzed for several hours while Clark tried to garner support for his opposition to the bombing from other commanders. Eventually, Freyberg's will won out. While he was subordinate to several of his opponents militarily, he was also New Zealand's chief political representative, which placed him above his military superiors. A few hours after he had his way, however, he called again: it was too late in the day to move his troops out of harm's way before the planned air strike, so could the Americans please delay the bombing run a bit?

British signaler on Monastery Hill during the second battle for Monte Cassino (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
British signaler on Monastery Hill during the second battle for Monte Cassino (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

During the delay, U.S. Generals Jacob Devers and Ira Eaker, both supporters of the air strike, flew a scout plane above the abbey and reported seeing radio masts, machine guns and German uniforms drying on a clothesline; all indicating that the Germans were, in fact, inside. Interestingly, another American general, Lieutenant General Geoffrey Keyes, also made several flybys above the monastery and saw no signs of German presence. Nevertheless, Devers' and Eaker's report settled the debate and put the bombing run on track. Still reluctant, Clark directly contacted British Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Armies in Italy, asking for a direct order to proceed – which Alexander granted.

Generals Ira Eaker (left) and Jacob Devers (second from right), the two men whose observation flight helped decide the matter, with two other generals (Photo: U.S. Army)
Generals Ira Eaker (left) and Jacob Devers (second from right), the two men whose observation flight helped decide the matter, with two other generals (Photo: U.S. Army)

The obvious problem with the air strike, as we know today, was that there were no Germans in the abbey. A less obvious problem was that once the go-ahead was given, the Army Air Forces considered the mission as their own and could not be bothered to coordinate with ground forces near the mountain. The exact timing of the mission was decided based on weather reports and aircraft availability, and once the exact time was set for the morning of February 15…nobody told the troops on the ground.
 
On the evening of the 14th, a warning was given to the inhabitants of the town of Monte Cassino. Leaflets warning about the imminent attack were loaded into artillery shells which burst in the air, dispersing the leaflets. One such leaflet was brought to the abbot, who in turn sent his secretary to the local German commander, asking for his help in evacuating the monastery. It was already late in the evening, though, and the Germans decided to evacuate the civilians the next morning.

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Contemporary British newsreel about the bombing of the abbey, including footage of the distribution of leaflets (Video: YouTube)

That evacuation never happened, as 142 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 47 B-25 Mitchells and 40 B-26 Marauders appeared in the morning and dropped 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the abbey, reducing it to rubble. As far as we know, no German soldiers were killed on Monte Cassino, though a few might have died from inaccurate bombing elsewhere. 16 of the bombs actually hit a Fifth Army compound 17 miles (27 km) from the mountain, exploding yards away from a trailer where General Clark was doing paperwork at the time. Most of the victims were civilians hiding in the monastery and awaiting evacuation by the Germans; at least 115 of the 230 refugees were killed. The monks and the surviving civilians fled the next day at first light. One monk later returned to the ruins; he was spotted wandering among rubble by German paratroopers, some of whom thought he was a ghost.

A B-17 above the abbey on the day of the bombing (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A B-17 above the abbey on the day of the bombing (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

As mentioned before, the ground troops were not informed of the time of the air strike, and the New Zealand troops to be used in the main follow-up attack were still two days away from being ready. This main assault only took place on the 17th, but was repulsed along with a few earlier attempts. The German paratroopers defending the mountain respected the neutrality of the abbey while there was an abbey; now that the building was destroyed, they moved into the ruins and used them as an excellent defensive location.

A German paratrooper directing a mortar team in the ruins of the abbey after the bombing (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A German paratrooper directing a mortar team in the ruins of the abbey after the bombing (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

A third battle for the mountain and the now-ruined abbey was launched on March 15, beginning with a heavy bomb barrage to suppress the defenders. The Germans, however, recovered rapidly. Even more critically, an unexpected torrent of rain bogged down the attack: bomb craters were filled up with water, rubble was turned into a slippery morass, and radio sets were rendered inoperative by the downpour. Commonwealth troops continued to push forward, contesting hilltops, the town of Cassino and the local train station; but the New Zealand and Indian Division were exhausted by March 23 and had to be pulled off the line. The German paratroopers were badly mauled, but still in place.

German paratroopers in the abbey's ruin in March (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)
German paratroopers in the abbey's ruin in March (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

The fourth and final battle for Monte Cassino started on May 11. It was preceded by a careful shuffling around of Allied units to put everyone in the right spot. This was done with the greatest secrecy, only moving troops after nightfall and leaving behind dummy vehicles to mislead the Germans about the strength and disposition of Allied forces. The attacking force included American, British, French, Canadian and Polish units, the latter famously aided by Wojtek, a friendly bear who helped by carrying ammunition boxes (Read our earlier article – Wojtek the soldier bear).

Commonwealth troops fighting door to door in Cassino (Photo: Fonthill Media)
Commonwealth troops fighting door to door in Cassino (Photo: Fonthill Media)

The battle was fierce, but it finally came to an end on May 17. Polish forces, fighting with little cover, a threatened supply line and sometimes is hand-to-hand combat, finally forced the Germans to abandon the mountain of Monte Cassino. Once the battle was over and the Germans gone, Polish soldiers on the mountain were so exhausted that it took them some time to find men with enough strength to climb the final hundred yards to the summit.

A Polish bugler announcing victory at the ruins (Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)
A Polish bugler announcing victory at the ruins (Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)

The mountain, the town and the remains of the abbey came at a terrible cost. The Allies suffered 55,000 casualties, while the Germans had around 20,000 killed or wounded. Like the abbey, the town of Cassino below the mountain was also completely destroyed, mainly by bombardment during the last battle. The loss of life, the suffering and the destruction of a historically precious religious site can never be undone; yet it is perhaps some consolation that the abbey atop Monte Cassino was rebuilt after the war, and can be visited today. Join us on our 11-day Italian Campaign Tour to visit the magnificent abbey and to discover the site of the historic battle.

The rebuilt abbey in the present day (Photo: Author's own)
The rebuilt abbey in the present day (Photo: Author's own)
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