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 heavily entrenched 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 some 70–80 miles to the north­west. Assaults on the beautiful 1300‑year-old 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

Battle of Monte Cassino: Remains of the town of Cassino, ItalyBattle of Monte Cassino: Interior of ruined Monte Cassino abbey

Left: Ruins of the town of Cassino after the hellish four-month battle and stale­mate. 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, southern gate­ways to Rome, the first of the Axis Euro­pean capitals that would fall to the Allies (June 4, 1944). The four battles to take Cassino and its abbey cost the lives of more than 14,000 men from a dozen Allied nations, while inflicting 350,000 casual­ties on all sides. The Monte Cassino stale­mate severely set back the Allied timetable for ridding Italy of Germans.

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, leaving behind masses of shattered stone and smoking ruins. 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.

Battle of Monte Cassino: 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.

Battle of Monte Cassino: German paratroopers ready their artillery, Monte Cassino abbeyBattle of Monte Cassino: British-held German POWs, Monte Cassino, Italy

Left: Men of the German 1st Para­chute Divi­sion take up posi­tions inside the crumbled walls of the abbey. The men used the rubble to their advan­tage to rain down artil­lery, mor­tar, and machine gun fire on those wanting to claw their way up the flinty slopes to the summit.

Right: New Zealanders with captured German para­troopers. Only about 100 Ger­mans sur­rendered to the Allies. 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, Interviews, and Reenactments