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New Zealand soldier, ruins of Cassino town, 1944

New Zealand soldier, ruins of Cassino town, 1944


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New Zealand soldier, ruins of Cassino town, 1944

Here we see a soldier from the 2nd New Zealand Division in the ruins of Cassino town, probably during or between the Second and Third Battles of Cassino, when the division fought in the town.


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

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 dramatic 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.

After the Allied Bombing. – Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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.

German Paratrooper in the ruins of Cassino – Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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.

A German mortar crew, photo presumed taken in the ruins of the Abbey – Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 2.0

German troops captured by the New Zealanders at Cassino being held beside a Sherman tank. – Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 2.0


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The Campaign of Monte Cassino

The difficult road to Rome

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.

By the end of December 1943 the advance of the Allied forces in Italy was hampered by strong German defences on the Gustav or Winter Line. The area around the town of Cassino with its heavily fortified mountain defences and difficult river crossings was the key position on the Gustav Line.

Four times the Allies tried to break through the Monte Cassino stronghold. The first battle took place between 17 January and 11 February 1944 with heavy losses and no success for the Allies. To relieve pressure on Anzio Beachhead where the allied were pinned down by heavy German resistance, a second battle was launched between 16 and 18 February.

On 15 February the famous historic abbey of Monte Cassino was destroyed by American bombers. Allied command was convinced that the ancient abbey was a German observation post. Ironically German troops occupied the ruins only after the air raid. The third battle was conducted between 15 and 23 March, again without success. The fourth battle began on 11 May. Finally the Germans retreated from the Gustav Line on 25 May 1944.

After five months of stalemate on the Gustave Line the road to Rome lay open. The costs were high. It is estimated that the Allies (Australia, Canada, Free France employing also Moroccans, Kingdom of Italy, India, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the U.S.) suffered about 55,000 casualties, Germany and the Italian Social Republic about 20,000.

A B-17 Flying Fortress flying over Monte Cassino, 15 February 1944.

General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, Commander of XIV Panzerkorps opens the car’s door to Abbot Gregorio Diamare.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, commander of the British 8th Army, 30 April 1944.

General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, Commander of the 10th Army.

A Catholic Priest celebrating Mass being served by an Allied soldier in the background the ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey.

A Catholic Priest celebrating Mass being served by an Allied soldier in the background the ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey.

Related Experiences

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.

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

Monte Cassino Abbey

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.

Beachhead at Anzio

On 22 January 1944 the Allied forces landed at Anzio. The invasion was intended to outflank German defence forces on the Gustav Defence Line and strike directly for Rome. The operation failed and the invasion force was pinned down around Anzio until the end of May.

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.

Adriana Vitali

Adriana Vitali, a 9 year old girl, witnessed the shelling of Littoria (nowadays Latina), by American and British planes and ships moored in Anzio and Nettuno during the battle of Anzio beachhead in 1944. Her family, and the entire population of Littoria, was ordered by the Germans to evacuate the combat area.

Landing at Salerno

The Allied landing at Salerno on 9 September 1943 coincided with the proclamation of the armistice of the Kingdom of Italy and marked the beginning of the liberation campaign of the Italian mainland. It failed to enforce a quick advance to Rome and gave way to the bloody operations centred around Monte Cassino.

Battle of Monte Lungo

On 13 October 1943 the Kingdom of Italy declared war on Germany and was recognized as a cobelligerent by the Allies. The Battle of Monte Lungo, that took place between 8 and 16 December 1943, was the first engagement of the Royal Army fighting alongside the Allied forces in Italy.

Campo della Memoria in Nettuno

The Allied landing at Salerno on 9 September 1943 coincided with the proclamation of the armistice of the Kingdom of Italy and marked the beginning of the liberation campaign of the Italian mainland. It failed to enforce a quick advance to Rome and gave way to the bloody operations centred around Monte Cassino.

Italian War Cemetery, Mignano Monte Lungo

The military shrine at Mignano Monte Lungo is located at the site of the first battle between the Italian Royal Army and the German army. The cemetery houses the graves of 974 Italian soldiers that fell during the Italian Campaign after Italy joined the Allies in September 1943.

Bell of Peace

Inaugurated in 2008 along the Gari river, called ‘Rapido River’ by the Allies, in a locality of Cassino named Sant’Angelo in Theodice, the Bell of Peace honours those who lost their lives during the four battles of Monte Cassino.

German War Cemetery Cassino

Situated close to Cassino in the Caira village, the German war cemetery occupies an entire hill, hosting more than 20,000 soldiers who died in Southern Italy, excluding Sicily.


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Peter McIntyre, Wounded at Cassino, March 1944

The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a series of four assaults over a period of four months by the Allies against the Winter Line in Italy, held by Axis forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The fight for Cassino was one of the most brutal and costly campaigns involving New Zealand forces in World War II.

The New Zealand soldiers’ biggest involvement came, in the third battle, a major assault which started on 15 March. The town of Cassino was almost totally destroyed by a massive bombing raid, following which the 2nd New Zealand Division forces advanced under cover of an artillery barrage. It would be another two months before the German Wermarcht (unified armed forces of Germany i.e. army, navy and airforce) was dislodged from Monte Cassino.

In early April the New Zealanders withdrew from Cassino, having suffered almost 350 deaths and many more wounded. In May 1944 the town finally fell to Allied forces - there had been a heavy cost all round. Rome was taken on 4 June, two days before the Allied invasion of Northern France and D-Day 6 June 1944.

Monte Cassino held the historic abbey of St Benedict founded in AD 529 which stood on the hilltop above the nearby town of Cassino. The abbey was destroyed down to the foundation walls, only the crypt survived during the bombardment by Allied forces, the town was also left in ruins. Both the town and the abbey were rebuilt after the war on their original sites. Many of the treasures from the abbey had been removed by the Germans, consequently the archives, library and some paintings were saved.

The image is from Archives NZ war art collection and depicts a scene from the Battle of Monte Cassino painted by Peter McIntyre an official World War II artist.


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.

By the end of December 1943 the advance of the Allied forces in Italy was hampered by strong German defences on the Gustav or Winter Line. The area around the town of Cassino with its heavily fortified mountain defences and difficult river crossings was the key position on the Gustav Line.

Four times the Allies tried to break through the Monte Cassino stronghold. The first battle took place between 17 January and 11 February 1944 with heavy losses and no success for the Allies. To relieve pressure on Anzio Beachhead where the allied were pinned down by heavy German resistance, a second battle was launched between 16 and 18 February.

On 15 February the famous historic abbey of Monte Cassino was destroyed by American bombers. Allied command was convinced that the ancient abbey was a German observation post. Ironically German troops occupied the ruins only after the air raid. The third battle was conducted between 15 and 23 March, again without success. The fourth battle began on 11 May. Finally the Germans retreated from the Gustav Line on 25 May 1944.


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.


New Zealand soldier, ruins of Cassino town, 1944 - History

By Duane Schultz

For the thousands of Allied soldiers who had fought and suffered for so long in the shadow of the abbey of Monte Cassino, Tuesday morning, February 15, 1944, was a time of joy and celebration. The men hated and feared the abbey, standing four stories tall atop the 1,700-foot mountain above them. The troops knew that it was finally going to be destroyed, and they were more than eager to see it happen.

“Like a lion it crouched,” wrote American Lieutenant Harold Bond, describing the abbey 20 years later, “dominating all approaches, watching every move made by the armies below.” Everyone was convinced that German soldiers occupied the abbey as an observation post to track the Allies’ movements in the valley below and thus direct artillery fire on them. Clare Cunningham, a 21-year-old lieutenant from Michigan, said, “It seemed like we were under observation all the time. They were just looking down on us all day long. They knew every move we were making.”

Thirty years after the war, the passion, fury, and hatred of the abbey remained with British Lieutenant Bruce Foster when asked what he thought about the destruction in 1944. “Can you imagine,” he said in reply, “what it’s like to see a person’s head explode in a great flash of grey brains and red hair? Can you imagine what it is like when that head belonged to your sister’s fiancé? I knew why it happened I was positive it was because some bloody … Jerry was up there in that bloody … monastery directing the fire that killed Dickie, and I know that still.”

No place below the abbey was considered safe from enemy fire. Sergeant Evans of the British Army wrote that the abbey “was malignant. It was evil somehow. I don’t know how a monastery can be evil, but it was looking at you. It was all-devouring…. It had a terrible hold on us soldiers…. It just had to be bombed.” According to another soldier, Fred Majdalany, “That brooding monastery ate into our souls.”

On the morning of the bombing, hundreds of rear-echelon troops and dozens of war reporters showed up to watch. War correspondent John Lardner wrote in Newsweek magazine that it was “the most widely advertised single bombing in history.”

“A holiday atmosphere prevailed among the soldiers,” historians David Hapgood and David Richardson wrote. “For almost all the men of the [American] Fifth Army, this Tuesday was a rare day off from the war. Soldiers … scrambled for positions from which they could watch what was to come. Some stood on stone walls, others climbed trees for a better view. Observers—soldiers, generals, reporters—were scattered over the slopes of Monte Trocchio, the hill that faced Monte Cassino, three miles across the valley. A group of doctors and nurses had driven up in jeeps from the hospital in Naples. They settled themselves on Monte Trocchio with a picnic of K-rations, prepared to enjoy the show.”

Clouds of smoke and debris billow skyward from the abbey of Monte Cassino as Allied bombers destroy the ancient structure thought to be in use by Germans as an observation post.

The first bombers appeared in the clear blue sky at 9:28 that morning. For approximately four hours, until 1:33 that afternoon, wave after wave of bombers, some 256 in all, dropped 453 tons of bombs on the abbey. Artillery pounded the target as well. The New York Timesdescribed it as the “worst aerial and artillery onslaught ever directed against a single building.”

John Blythe, a New Zealand officer, wrote that as the planes came in “the smoke began to rise, the vapor trails grew and merged, and the sun was blotted out and the whole sky turned gray.” With every new explosion and burst of artillery fire and flame erupting from the abbey, the cheering among the observers grew louder.

Martha Gellhorn, an American war reporter, wrote that she “watched the planes come in and drop their loads and saw the monastery turned into a muddle of dust and heard the big bangs and was absolutely delighted and cheered like all the other fools.”

When it was over, the rubble was spread over the seven-acre site with only a few jagged pieces of wall still standing. But it quickly became the site of condemnation and controversy over the necessity of destroying it. Ultimately, though the Allies did not believe it at the time, the Germans had the propaganda advantage: no German soldiers had ever been stationed in the abbey.

The Germans had forbidden their troops to enter it in order to protect it from Allied destruction. Also, they had not needed to use that vantage point to observe Allied troop movements. The Germans had built ample observation and defensive positions up and down the hillsides to within 200 yards of the monastery’s foundation. They could see everything they needed to see and direct artillery fire wherever needed without ever having to enter the abbey.

The 80-year-old abbot, Don Gregorio Diamare, and 12 monks had hidden in the crypt during the attack. When they dug out of the rubble, a German officer confronted the abbot and demanded that he sign a formal statement to the effect that there had been no German troops in the abbey. He did so.

Then, on orders from German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, the SS took Diamare to a radio station in the German embassy in Rome where he broadcast to the world what had happened to his beloved monastery, weeping openly as he spoke. Iris Origo, an American woman living in Rome, heard the broadcast, which she described as “terribly moving.” Goebbels ordered a film to be made in the narration he spoke of the Allies’ “senseless lust of destruction,” while Germany was struggling to defend and save European civilization.

German paratroopers man a machine-gun position in the ruins of the abbey of Monte Cassino. Several Allied attempts to capture the ruined abbey failed.

The German propaganda campaign made much of the fact that three months before the bombing they had, with the abbot’s permission, evacuated some 70,000 books and priceless paintings from the abbey for safe storage in Rome.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander on the Italian front, expressed outrage that “United States soldiery, devoid of all culture, have … senselessly destroyed one of Italy’s most treasured edifices and have murdered Italian civilian refugees—men, women, and children.” It was unfortunate but true that as many as 250 Italian civilians who had taken refuge in the abbey were killed in the raid.

In an effort to counter the German propaganda, Americans also made newsreels, describing the military necessity of destroying the monastery because German soldiers were occupying it and attacking Allied soldiers. “It was necessary,” the Pathé newsreel announced, because the structure “had been turned into a fortress by the German Army.”

Officials in Washington and in London were concerned about the condemnations expressed in newspaper headlines around the world. Two weeks later, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck of the British Foreign Office wrote a memo suggesting that “we had better keep quiet” about the fact that there was no clear evidence that the Germans had been using the abbey for defensive purposes, even though four days before the bombing, The [London] Timeshad indeed written that “the Germans are using the monastery as a fortress.”

The U.S. State Department, on the other hand, took the public position that there was “indisputable evidence” that the Germans occupied the monastery. President Franklin Roosevelt held a press conference at which he said the abbey had been bombed because “it was being used by the Germans to shell us. It was a German strongpoint. They had artillery and everything up there in the abbey.”

German paratroopers move through the rubble of the abbey of Monte Cassino to take up defensive positions after the bombing.

The Allied soldiers trying to take Monte Cassino had been correct in thinking they were under constant observation, although it had not been from the abbey. But there was no way the battle-weary men, freezing in their ice-filled foxholes for months while under enemy fire, could have known that the tallest structure around was not housing German soldiers.

The bitterness toward the abbey grew with each failed attempt to take the hill. By the end of January, assaults against Monte Cassino had already cost the lives of 11,000 troops. But despite such losses no one in the Allied high command had requested that the monastery be bombed, not until the arrival of fresh troops and their new commander. More troops were needed because by early February the two leading American divisions, the 34th and 36th, had lost some 80 percent of their effective strength.

Major General Lyman Lemnitzer believed that the American units then on the front line were “disheartened, almost mutinous.” They had lost 40,000 men killed and wounded in the Italian campaign by early 1944, with another 50,000 out sick with everything from trench foot and dysentery to combat fatigue. Another 20,000 men had deserted. A psychiatrist visiting the front wrote, “Practically all men in rifle battalions who were not otherwise disabled ultimately became psychiatric casualties.” They had been in combat too long without relief. British frontline units experienced similar levels of desertion and shell shock.

To replace American losses, a multinational outfit was transferred to Mark Clark’s Fifth Army from the British Eighth Army. Called the New Zealand Corps, it included the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division, and the 78th British Division. They had had extensive combat experience in Italy and North Africa.

Their commander was 56-year-old Lt. Gen. Sir Bernard Freyberg although born in England, he moved with his parents at age two to New Zealand. A giant of a man, his nickname was inevitably “Tiny.” Freyberg had been a dentist before becoming a soldier. Wounded nine times in World War I, he had been awarded the Victoria Cross, among other decorations, for bravery in combat.

Clark was resentful that his own units, which had sacrificed so much and lost so many men trying to take Monte Cassino, would not be allowed the honor (and the great publicity for Clark personally) of taking the hill. Clark considered Freyberg “a prima donna [who] had to be handled with kid gloves.” Other commanders, including British and New Zealand officers, thought Freyberg was stubborn, obtuse, and difficult to deal with. Maj. Gen. Francis Tuker, commanding the Indian Division, described Freyberg as having “no brains and no imagination.”

Once Freyberg inspected the battle site, he insisted that the abbey would have to be destroyed before his troops could take the hill. “I want it bombed,” he said, claiming it was a military necessity if his attack on Monte Cassino were to succeed. Many others agreed, including two American generals, Ira Eaker of the Army Air Forces and Jacob Devers of the Army. After a low reconnaissance flight over the abbey on February 14, they reported seeing radio antennas as well as what looked like German uniforms hanging on a clothesline in the courtyard. That same day, the Army Air Forces released an intelligence analysis stating, “The monastery must be destroyed and everyone in it, as there is no one in it but Germans.”

Mark Clark opposed the idea at the time and wrote in his memoirs that, had Freyberg’s outfit been American, he [Clark] would have refused permission to bomb. He referred the request to his superior, British General Sir Harold Alexander, pointing out, “Previous efforts to bomb a building or a town to prevent its use by the Germans … always failed…. Bombardment alone never has and never will drive a determined enemy from his position.”

Clark also noted, “It would be shameful to destroy the abbey and its treasure,” adding that “If the Germans are not in the monastery now [and he was still not convinced they were], they certainly will be in the rubble after the bombing ends.”

Freyberg continued to press Clark and Alexander to agree to proceed with the bombing, reminding them that if they refused his request to destroy the abbey, they would be blamed if his attack on Monte Cassino failed.

Pressure on Alexander also came from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “What are you doing sitting down there doing nothing?” Finally, Alexander capitulated and gave his permission to proceed with the bombing.

The ruins of the abbey of Monte Cassino stand as stark evidence of the ravages of war in these two images. A second Allied aerial bombardment occurred in March 1944, a month after the first sorties that virtually leveled the monastery. Allied artillery also took its turn to pound the structure during the arduous advance up the Italian boot.

Clark had to obey, but as insurance he demanded written orders from Alexander commanding him to bomb the abbey so that it would not be seen as his decision. Later, he condemned Alexander for making that decision, which Clark argued should have been his as Fifth Army commander. He added, “It is too bad unnecessarily to destroy one of the art treasures of the world.”

The bombing was considered successful little was left of the abbey. But the followup ground attack was a costly failure. Clark was correct when he asserted that it had been “a tragic mistake. It only made our job more difficult.” Churchill wrote simply, “The result was not good.” German troops swarmed over the ruins and quickly established defensive positions. Freyberg was late launching his ground attack, which historian Rick Atkinson described as “tactical incompetence in failing to couple the bombardment with a prompt attack.” The attack did not begin until that night and was carried out by only one company, which lost half its men before they had even traversed 50 yards.

Atkinson quoted the official British conclusion that obliterating the abbey “brought no military advantage of any kind.” The official U.S. Army evaluation of the affair concluded that the bombing had “gained nothing beyond destruction, indignation, sorrow and regret.” It had all been for nothing.

It took three more months of fierce fighting before Monte Cassino was finally captured at a staggering cost of 55,000 Allied troops killed and wounded along with 20,000 German casualties. The battle to take the hill was fought by Americans, British, French, Poles, Australians, Canadians, Indians, Nepalese, Sikhs, Maltese, and New Zealanders.

Clark had grown increasingly frustrated, criticizing Freyberg in his diary as indecisive, “not aggressive,” and “ponderous and slow.” By the end of March, the New Zealand Corps was taken off the line, having suffered more than 6,000 casualties in 11 days. Finally, on May 18, a contingent of Polish soldiers reached the ruins of the abbey and ran up a Polish flag to show their final victory.

The reconstruction of the abbey began in 1950, and in 1964 the new structure was re-consecrated by Pope Paul VI. But reminders of the fighting linger in personal memories and massive, well maintained cemeteries. The British cemetery contains more than 4,000 graves, with the British, New Zealand, and Canadian dead in the front and the Indian and Ghurka dead in the rear. The Polish cemetery holds the graves of more than 1,000 men, out of the 4,000 who died there. There are 20,000 graves in the German cemetery with three bodies buried in each grave. An American cemetery, where the dead from Monte Cassino and other battles of the Italian campaign are interred, lies 90 miles north of Monte Cassino and houses some 8,000 graves.

Memories of the Italian campaign and the destruction of the abbey stayed with many of the veterans for a lifetime. Some returned years later to visit the battle sites and graves. In 1994, Cyril Harte, a British soldier, returned to Monte Cassino and described how he felt when “that heartbreak mountain, which had cost the lives of so many infantrymen of all nations, came into view. Just for a moment, my heart stopped beating. That hasn’t changed. It still loomed forbiddingly and I chilled at the thought of the enemy who looked down on us.”

At that moment Harte believed that German soldiers were still in the abbey watching his every move, just as he had been so certain they were 50 years before.


Improbable salvage operation

The whole salvage operation was an improbable feat in diplomacy, secular and ecclesiastical collaboration and logistics in the midst of war. But there are lingering questions about the Germans’ intervention — how both they and Allied forces sought to represent it in historical records.

Was it a genuine humanitarian effort to safeguard Monte Cassino’s heritage ordered by German High Command?

Was it a personal initiative spearheaded by Schlegel, “against the order of his German army superiors,” as the New York Times reported in 1958?

Or was it part of a larger propaganda campaign intended to disparage the Allies’ military actions against the defenceless Benedictine house?

Whatever the answer, the Italian Director General of the Fine Arts, writing on Dec. 31, 1943, thanked German military and political authorities for their collaborative efforts in safeguarding the “national artistic patrimony.”

The monks singled out Schlegel for his deeds, thanking him for saving them and their abbey’s possessions.

The national German newspaper, Die Welt, published a commemorative story in 1998 about Schlegel’s efforts, which it claimed Italy “has not forgotten.”

View of the rebuilt Monte Cassino Abbey. (Wikimedia Commons)

Preserving the abbey’s heritage was considered a moral and necessary good. Re-consecrating it in 1964, after almost two decades of reconstruction, Pope Paul VI marvelled at its capacity for regeneration. He celebrated peace “after whirlwinds of war had blown out the holy and benevolent flame.…”

Today, global pilgrims and tourists visit the restored abbey every day to experience its spiritual, historical and artistic treasures.


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