Cassino, Italy May 18, 1944

On February 15, 1944, British Gen. Harold Alexander, commander-in-chief of all Allied armies in Italy, ordered the aerial bombing of the ancient Bene­dic­tine abbey towering over the pastoral town of Cas­sino on the banks of the Rapido (or Gari) River in Italy. Earlier in Janu­ary, British, Amer­i­can, and French troops had made a series of attacks on the main German defenses in main­land Italy, the Gustav Line—this around the town of Cas­sino. Some­times called the First Battle of Cas­sino, these attacks produced only limited gains.

The February 15 bombing of the iconic mountain­top abbey of Monte Cas­sino (Oper­a­tion Avenger), which Alex­an­der wrongly thought was being used by the Germans as an obser­va­tion post to direct artil­lery fire on his troops below, was part of a broader effort by sol­diers from more than a dozen Allied nations to break through German lines and open one of only two roads con­necting Allied-held South­ern Italy with German-held Rome. The Germans had built suffi­cient obser­vation and defen­sive posi­tions up and down the moun­tain side to within 200 yards of the abbey. An enemy ob­ser­va­tion post at the sum­mit conferred no addi­tional advan­tage, but sadly the Allies didn’t know that. Monte Cas­sino’s destruc­tion, Alex­an­der confessed later, was “neces­sary more for the effect it would have on the morale of the attackers than for purely material reasons.”

Surprisingly, a full day passed before the ini­tial air strike by 229 U.S. heavy and medium bombers, drop­ping 1,150 tons of high explo­sives and incen­diary bombs on the his­toric abbey, was followed by a timid ground attack (a single British infan­try com­pany) up the moun­tain’s flinty slopes. By then the Germans had had the time to convert the ruins and the thick-walled founda­tions of the monas­tery into an impreg­nable, seven-acre fort­ress from which they could direct artil­lery rounds against anyone sent against them.

The Allies’ controversial destruction of the abbey, fortun­ately empty of its mov­able art and world-renowned library, and the death of more than one hundred Italian refugees who had sought sanc­tu­ary within its walls were a huge propa­ganda coup for the Nazis, and Minister of Public Enlighten­ment and Pro­pa­ganda Joseph Goebbels played up the destruction and deaths for all their worth.

More air and especially costly ground assaults would take place over the next four months. The seemingly inter­mi­na­ble Cassino meat­grinder caused British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill to bark at Gen. Alexan­der: “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. About five or six divi­sions have been worn out going into those jaws.” Finally, on this date, May 18, 1944, the Allies, after suffering approx­i­mately 55,000 casu­al­ties (the Germans incurred at least 20,000 casu­al­ties), were able to raise their flag—an impro­vised Polish regi­mental flag—over the rubble of the abbey as well as over 30 wounded soldiers left by their com­rades as the Germans aban­doned the western half of the Gustav Line for new defensive positions further north up the Italian boot.

Battle of Monte Cassino, January 17 to May 18, 1944

Battle of Monte Cassino: Town of Cassino, Italy, 1944, after four-month battle for hilltop abbeyBattle of Monte Cassino: Polish bugler Master Corporal Emil Czech at Monte Cassino, Italy, May 1944

Left: Ruins of the town of Cassino after the four-month battle, longest land battle fought in Western Europe in World War II. In. In the back­ground are the grim ruins of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. The land­mark abbey lay just over one mile to the west of the town at an ele­va­tion of 1,700 ft and had a com­manding view of the Liri and Rapido valleys, Allied gate­ways to German-held Rome. The four battles to take the town and abbey cost the lives of more than 14,000 men from a dozen nations. Total Allied casual­ties spanning the period of the four Cas­sino battles and the Anzio cam­paign with the sub­se­quent capture of Rome by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army on June 5, 1944, were over 105,000. Clark, who served under Alexan­der, recalled: “The battle for Cassino was the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one respect the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.”

Right: A Polish bugler plays the medieval five-note Polish mili­tary signal, the Hejnał Mariacki (also called the Kraków Anthem), at the foot of Monte Cas­sino Abbey, announcing the Allied vic­tory on May 18, 1944. Ele­ments of the Polish II Corps were the first among the Allied units to reach Monte Cassino’s sum­mit. It was also the first time since Septem­ber 1939, when their country was subju­gated by Nazi Ger­many and the Soviet Union, that Polish armed forces out­side Poland itself battled the hated Germans face to face. The Polish II Corps lost 50 men a day—about 20 per­cent of its strength—by the end of the Cassino cam­paign but gave no quarter, par­tic­u­larly after the Germans had cruci­fied two cap­tured Polish officer cadets with barbed wire and nails. Field Marshall Bernard Law Mont­gomery praised the Polish sol­diers for their panache and skill, saying, “Only the finest troops could have taken the well-prepared and long-defended fortress.” And Free French leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle told the press, “The Polish Corps lavished its bravery in the service of its honor.” During 1944–1945 in Italy the Polish II Corps con­sis­tently fought with distinc­tion and incurred 11,379 casu­al­ties: 2,301 killed in action, 8,543 wounded, and 535 missing.

Battle of Monte Cassino: Monte Cassino, Italy, in ruinsRestored Monte Cassino, Italy

Left: Monte Cassino in ruins, February 1944. St. Bene­dict of Nursia estab­lished his first mon­as­tery, the source of the Bene­dic­tine Order, here around AD 529 and over time it become a repos­i­tory of valu­able art works and a world-renowned library.

Right: The restored Abbey of Monte Cas­sino sits on rocky hill about 80 miles south­east of Rome. It is still one of the most famous monas­teries in Christendom.

Battle of Monte Cassino: German paratroopers ready their grenade launcher, Monte Cassino, Italy, 1944Battle of Monte Cassino: German POWs, Monte Cassino, Italy, 1944

Left: Men of the German Tenth Army, 1st Fallschirm­jaeger (Parachute) Divi­sion used the grounds in and around the ruined abbey to their advan­tage to rain down artil­lery, mor­tar, and machine gun fire on those wanting to work their way to the summit.

Right: Captured German paratroopers. About 100 sur­rendered to the British. Others sought to break out as the Allies closed in on the make­shift German for­tress. Joseph Goebbels’ Pro­pa­ganda Minis­try glori­fied the dedi­ca­tion of the for­tress defenders without men­tioning that the abbey had fallen to the Allies.

Timeline: The Hellish Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy, January–May 1944