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.

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 1,700 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 Footage, Reenactments, and Interviews of Participants