Monte Cassino, Italy · April 17, 1944

On this date in 1944, 52,000 sol­diers of the un­tested Polish II Corps under Maj. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders quietly moved into posi­tion under the cover of dark­ness and smoke­screen. The Polish II Corps, part of Gen Oliver Leese’s British Eighth Army, relieved the ex­hausted New Zea­land II Corps, which since March had attempted to cap­ture the ruins of the his­toric Bene­dic­tine mon­as­tery atop Monte Cas­sino, part of the Gustav Line, the Ger­man main defen­sive line south of Rome. It was the strong Ger­man defenses along the Gus­tav Line and at Cas­sino that held up the Amer­i­can and Brit­ish armies moving up the Ital­ian boot, pre­venting the liber­a­tion of the Italian capital. Assaults on the Bene­dic­tine mon­as­tery had occurred every month since January, reducing the his­toric trea­sure to rubble while giving the enemy suf­fi­cient cover from which to rain down artil­lery on any ap­proaching assault force. The month before, on March 15, the New Zea­landers under Lt. Gen. Ber­nard Frey­berg had tried for a third time to smash through the Gus­tav Line at Cas­sino. This time they were assisted by 435 U.S. bombers pum­meling the tiny town at the foot of the monas­tery. Less than half the 2,000 bombs landed on target, and stray bombs caused 142 Allied casual­ties. Allied gun­ners battered the town defenders, vete­rans of the elite Ger­man 1st Para­chute Divi­sion, as well as the abbey with 200,000 more shells, reducing the town to rubble. Between bomb-cratered streets and toppled houses, Allied tanks were sty­mied in lending support to the New Zea­landers, who ex­hausted them­selves picking their way through what remained of the town. After eight days the Germans still held much of the town, and Frey­berg called off the attack. The moun­tain strong­hold too was still held by the enemy, 14 deter­mined divi­sions strong. On May 12, the Poles aban­doned the safety of their fox­holes, moved up the tor­tured hill­sides, and re­ceived a bap­tism of fire. On the 17th, they suc­ceeded in out­flanking the enemy, which had begun to with­draw due to Allied break­throughs else­where along the Gus­tav Line, allowing the Poles to cap­ture out­posts the enemy had held for the past five months. The next day, May 18, in a race between Polish and British soldiers to the summit, a Polish regi­ment first raised its regi­mental pen­nant above the ruins of the monas­tery, followed a short time later by the British raising their flag. For their bravery, men of the Polish II Corps were honored to per­ma­nently wear the Eighth Army shield on their right shoulder even if, in the future, they were no longer part of the Eighth.

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

Town of Cassino, ItalyInterior of ruined Monte Cassino abbey

Left: Ruins of the town of Cas­sino after four months of ago­nizing battles. 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 Rome. The four battles to take the town and abbey cost the lives of more than 14,000 men from a dozen Allied nations, while inflicting 350,000 casual­ties on all sides.

Right: Interior of the ruined abbey. On Febru­ary 15, 1944, in a con­tro­versy that still reso­nates, 83 U.S. 11th Air Force bombers un­loaded 1,400 tons of bombs on the abbey, com­pletely des­troying it. The Allies claimed the Ger­mans were using the ab­bey as an artil­lery ob­ser­va­tion post and had artil­lery posi­tions in­side it, a claim that monks at the ab­bey stren­u­ously denied. The Ger­mans had, how­ever, manned some posi­tions set into the steep slopes 50 yards below the abbey’s walls.

Monte Cassino abbey in ruinsRestored Monte Cassino abbey

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 artillery, Monte Cassino abbeyBritish-held German POWs, Monte Cassino, Italy

Left: Men of the German 1st Para­chute Divi­sion take up posi­tions in­side the de­stroyed ab­bey. The men used the rubble 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 Controversial Battle of Monte Cassino: Contemporary Film, Re-enactments, and Interviews of Participants