Cassino, Italy February 15, 1944

On this date in 1944 British 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, which “dis­heartened” the tens of thou­sands of sick and battle-weary soldiers who had fought, suffered, and lost 11,000 of their own the previous month in the shadow of the fortress-like abbey.

The bombing of the iconic ab­bey, which Alexander and his men wrongly thought was being used by the Ger­mans as an obser­va­tion post from which to direct artil­lery fire below, 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, Italy’s capital. 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.” Indeed, as news of the pending air raid on the abbey circu­lated, it occa­sioned a “holi­day atmo­sphere” as sol­diers, Army brass, and news reporters scrambled for posi­tions from which to watch what was to come. A group of doctors and nurses from a mili­tary hos­pi­tal in Naples brought a picnic of K-rations and settled them­selves on nearby Monte Trocchio to enjoy the show, which ran four hours and included artil­lery shelling, all of which pro­duced flames and columns of smoke that blotted out the sun.

Surprisingly, a day and a half passed before the ini­tial air strike by 229 heavy and medium bombers, dropping 1,150 tons of high explo­sives and in­cen­di­ary bombs on the ancient abbey, was followed up by a renewed (and failed) ground attack by a single com­pany. By then the Germans had plenty of time to scramble from their obser­va­tion and defen­sive posi­tions 200 yards from the hill­top and con­vert the ruins and the thick-walled found­a­tions of the seven-acre monas­tery into an even more im­preg­nable strong­hold from which they could direct deadly 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, civilians a tenth of that), 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).

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

German Defense Lines South of Rome, 1943-44

Above: This map depicts the extensive series of forti­fied defen­sive lines from the Tyr­rhe­nian Sea in the south­west to the Adri­a­tic Sea in the north­east that stretched across the Ital­ian penin­sula south of Rome, 1943–1944. The lines marked the frontier between German-occupied Italy to the north and Allied-occupied Italy to the south. 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 north to Rome, roughly 90 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.”

Battle of Monte Cassino: Ruined town of Cassino, ItalyBattle of Monte Cassino: Polish 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 four-stories-tall 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. Although the Allies’ drive to Rome was exces­sively bloody and all-consuming, the Ita­lian capital, paradoxically, was an open city of no strategic value.

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.

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

Left: Abbey of Monte Cassino in ruins, February 1944, following Oper­a­tion Avenger, the initial aerial bombardment of the hill­top mon­as­tery. (A second bombing occurred in March.) 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. The con­tro­versial and tragic des­truc­tion of the abbey, fortun­ately empty of its mov­able art and library collections, and the death of as many as 250 Ital­ian civilian refugees who had sought sanc­tu­ary within its walls were an imme­di­ate pro­pa­ganda coup for the Nazis. Minister of Public Enlighten­ment and Pro­pa­ganda Joseph Goebbels played up the Allies’ “sense­less lust of destruc­tion” and deaths for all their worth. Within time the U.S. Army reached the same con­clu­sion: the bombing had “gained nothing beyond destruction, indignation, sorrow and regret.”

Right: The restored Abbey of Monte Cassino balances atop Monas­tery Hill, a rocky out­crop some 90 miles south­east of Rome. Recon­struc­tion of the abbey began in 1950, and in 1964 the new struc­ture was recon­se­crated by Pope Paul VI. Monte Cas­sino is still one of the most famous monasteries in Christendom.

The Allies’ Gethsemane: The Hellish Battle for Monte Cassino, Italy, January–May 1944