Cassino, Italy · February 15, 1944

On this date in 1944 Gen. Harold Alexander, commander-in-chief of all Allied forces in the Medi­ter­ranean The­ater, ordered the aerial bombing of the his­toric Bene­dic­tine abbey towering over the town of Cas­sino on the banks of the Rapido (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 (red line on map below). Some­times called the First Battle of Cas­sino, these attacks pro­duced only limited gains. The bombing of the iconic fortress-like ab­bey, which Alexan­der wrongly thought was being used by the Ger­mans as an obser­va­tion post, was part of a broader effort by sol­diers from ten Allied nations and ter­ri­tories to break through the Ger­man lines and open one of only two roads con­necting south­ern Italy, in Allied hands, and 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 heavy and me­dium bombers, dropping 1,150 tons of high explo­sives and in­cen­di­ary bombs on the abbey, was followed up by attacks on the ground. By then the Ger­mans had time to con­vert the ruins and the thick-walled found­a­tions of the monas­tery into an im­preg­nable strong­hold from which they could direct artil­lery fire against any­one sent against them. 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 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 along the Adolf Hitler Line (green line on map).

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The Historic Hilltop Abbey of Monte Cassino, Founded in 529 AD by St. Benedict of Nursia

German Defense Lines South of Rome, 1943-44

Above: German-prepared defensive lines stretched across the Ital­ian penin­sula south of Rome, 1943–1944. The primary line was the Gustav Line (red line on map), often called the Winter Line, centered on the town of Cassino. High above Cassino was the medi­eval Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, which domi­nated the en­trance to the Liri River Valley, one of two main routes to Rome, 30 miles away. Adolf Hitler had ordered the Gustav Line defended “in a spirit of holy hatred not only against the enemy, but against all officers and units who fail in this decisive hour.”

Ruined town of Cassino, ItalyPolish bugler Master Corporal Emil Czech at Monte Cassino, Italy

Left: Ruins of the town of Cassino after the hellish 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 1700 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, 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.

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 529 AD and over time it become a repos­i­tory of valu­able art works and a world-renowned library. The con­tro­versial and tragic 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.

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.

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