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 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 abbey of Monte Cas­sino, which Alex­an­der wrongly thought was being used by the Ger­mans as an obser­va­tion post, was part of a broader effort by sol­diers from more than a dozen Allied nations to break through the Ger­man lines and open one of only two roads con­necting Allied-held South­ern Italy with German-held Rome. Monte Cas­sino’s de­struc­tion, Alex­an­der admitted 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 up by ground attacks. By then the Germans had had the time to con­vert the ruins and the thick-walled found­a­tions of the monas­tery into an impreg­nable 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 ground assaults would take place before 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 on this date, May 18, 1944, 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

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

Left: Ruins of the town of Cassino after the four-month battle. In the back­ground are the ruins of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. The 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 on June 5, 1944, were over 105,000.

Right: A Polish bugler plays the traditional five-note Polish an­them, 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. The Polish II Corps lost 50 men a day—about 20 percent of its strength—by the end of the Cassino campaign. Field Marshall Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery praised the Polish soldiers, 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 Corp con­sis­tently fought with distinc­tion and incurred 11,379 casual­ties: 2,301 killed in action, 8,543 wounded, and 535 missing.

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.

German paratroopers ready their grenade launcher, Monte Cassino, ItalyGerman POWs, Monte Cassino, Italy, 1944

Left: Men of the German 1st 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.

The Hellish Battle for Monte Cassino, Italy, January–May 1944