A Journey to World War II Battlefields Part 10: The Tragedy of the Abbey of Monte Cassino
Editor’s Note: This article is the ninth installment from Carlo D’Este’s A Journey to World War II Battlefields. Please click on the following links to read Carlo’s other articles from this series: Tunisia, Kasserine Pass, Malta, Sicily, Biazza Ridge, Messina, Salerno, San Pietro Infine and Cassino.
There was no more savage series of battles during World War II than the more than four month long siege of the town of Cassino and its Benedictine Abbey perched in near regal splendor atop Castle Hill.
The German commander in the Mediterranean, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, had chosen well to establish his primary defenses in Italy in and around Cassino. National Route 6, the road to Rome, runs through the Liri Valley before turning north toward Italy’s capital city. The roadblock posed by key German defensive positions both in the town of Cassino and atop its heights meant that the Allies would have to crack the formidable Gustav Line if they were to successfully capture Rome.
When, in early 1944, the German defensive positions in the Liri Valley proved too tough a nut to crack, the Allies planned and launched an end-run at Anzio on January 22 with the object of forcing Kesselring to draw forces away from Cassino to Anzio in order not only to protect Rome from capture but also to weaken his defenses along the Gustav Line. Kesselring did exactly as the Allies had hoped: At once, he sent several German divisions from the Cassino front to reinforce Anzio. For this Kesselring was roundly criticized and second-guessed by his own officers. However, within a matter of days his judgment was proved correct when his defenses at Cassino not only held but the rapid and massive reinforcement of Anzio (both from Cassino and elsewhere) turned bothfronts into deadly stalemates. Kesselring was like a chess master, adroitly balancing the needs of both fronts by shifting units from place to place as the situation dictated.
Anzio became a desperate struggle for survival while at Cassino all Allied attempts to capture both the town and abbey met with failure. There was also an epic failure at the Rapido River, where an attempt to breech the Gustav Line and secure Route 6 turned into one of the war’s worst and most controversial defeats. (The Rapido will be the subject of a future article.)
With the failure to advance beyond the Rapido the Germans remained in full control of the heights overlooking the Liri Valley. For the Allies to advance north and capture Rome, the focus of their operations became the capture of the town of Cassino and the abbey. A series of attacks in early February by the U.S. 34th Division threatened both the town and the heights of Monastery Hill but ultimately failed in what came to be called the First Battle of Cassino.
One of the keys to breaking the German grip on the Cassino heights was Point 593, which controlled Snakeshead Ridge, one of the anchors northeast of the abbey. Point 593 changed hands several times but ultimately ended up back under German control after a series of bitter battles with the 34th Division that suffered losses of nearly 80-percent in the infantry battalions. A British historian later wrote of the 34th Division that their exploits “must rank with the finest feats of arms carried out by any soldiers during the war.” A private first class and a lieutenant received Medals of Honor for their heroism at Cassino.
The German commander of the 14th Panzer Corps responsible for the defense of Cassino and the abbey was Lt. Gen. Frido von Senger und Etterlin, a former Rhodes scholar and devoted Catholic and lay Benedictine. Senger was one of the many German officers who were gravely conflicted by the war. He was a highly competent commander whose skills had been honed by battle but who despised Hitler and the Nazis, believed the war was lost but nevertheless felt it was his duty to continue fighting.
After the 34th Division was unable to capture the abbey a follow up attack by the 4th Indian Division likewise failed and the U.S. Fifth Army commander, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark came under increasing pressure from the New Zealand corps commander, Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, to bomb the abbey. The New Zealanders had made little progress against German strongpoints guarding the approaches to the abbey, and in the mistaken belief that the Germans were using it to direct artillery fire on his men. Freyberg insisted the abbey be eliminated by Allied bombers.
That the monastery had never actually been occupied by German troops was of little consequence. Senger had established and then violated a self-imposed 330-yard neutral zone around the monastery, and as long as it formed a key element in the German defense of Cassino, its eventual destruction was inevitable.
Although adamantly opposed to Freyberg’s request, Clark felt obligated to approve any recommendation that would potentially save lives. In so doing he unleashed a monumental controversy that to this day is still an object of contentious debate.
Once set in motion the decision to bomb the abbey became irreversible and on the morning of February 15 two hundred B-17 bombers of Maj. Gen. Nathan Twining’s Fifteenth Air Force began the task of turning the abbey into rubble. Wave after wave dropped their deadly loads.
Despite its massive size, the Allied bombing of the abbey was highly inaccurate and caused little harm to its thick, stone foundation. In fact, although it was a clear, bright day, most of the bombers missed the abbey altogether and it was not until the final bombing run that afternoon that any significant damage occurred.
The bombs may have been inconsequential but Allied artillery pounded the hapless abbey into rubble. That night troops of the German 1st Parachute Division occupied the ruins and rapidly strengthened the abbey’s defenses.
Clark personally deplored having to order the bombing. On this day he and Senger shared a common reaction: disgust. A distraught Senger could only keep repeating: “The idiots! They’ve done it after all.” Nevertheless, he cannot escape a share of the responsibility for making no effort to prevent German troops from occupying positions right up to the edge of the monastery.
Nevertheless, after the war Clark came to Senger’s defense. “I said then that there was no evidence that the Germans were using the abbey for military purposes. I say now that there is irrefutable evidence that no German soldier, except emissaries, was ever inside the monastery for purposes other than to take care of the sick or as sightseers.”
What made the bombing even more tragic was that the 4th Indian Division was unprepared to take advantage of the bombing until nearly three days later, by which time the Germans had strengthened their defenses and the Allies had lost the initiative.
The bombing of the abbey became a visible reminder of good intentions gone awry, and the ensuing controversy sullied the reputations of both Clark and Freyberg. Even though American funds contributed to the eventual rebuilding of the abbey, to this day the monks do not display English-language signs.
The Third Battle of Cassino in mid-March likewise failed to capture the abbey and it was not until early May that it at last fell to the Poles.
Suggested further reading:
Carlo D’Este, Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome, HarperColliins, 1991. (Also, Harper Perennial edition, 2008).
John Ellis, Cassino: The Hollow Victory, McGraw-Hill, 1984.
David Hapgood and David Richardson, Monte Cassino, Congdon & Weed, 1984.