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The battle of Monte Cassino

The 17th century Benedictine Monte Cassino Monastery was left in ruins but was subsequently rebuilt after WW2

The destruction of the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino came as a surprise to the frontline soldiers who had spent weeks fighting in its imposing shadow. To everyone else – generals, war correspondents, a party of doctors and nurses who had driven up from Naples to watch the show – it was, as Newsweek reporter John Lardner put it, ‘The most widely advertised bombing in history.’

As wave after wave of Flying Fortresses, Mitchells and Marauders unleashed their deadly payloads on a building that had stood silent watch over the Liri and Rapido valleys for many centuries, many of those watching the bombardment were struck dumb by this awesome display of Allied military might. As the smoke cleared, one of the most important religious buildings in the Western World had been reduced to a heap of smouldering rubble. How on earth had it come to this?

The Battle of Monte Cassino has been described as the hardest-fought battle of World War II. Taking place between the 17th of January and the 18th of May 1944, Monte Cassino was a series of four Allied assaults against the so-called ‘Winter Line’, a series of German and Italian Social Republic fortifications and installations that aimed to protect the route to Rome from Allied invasion.

The monastery was one of Italy’s holiest and most important religious sites, housing the remains of St. Benedict

One of the highest concentrations of German troops and artillery was situated in the hills surrounding the town of Cassino on the so-called ‘Gustav Line’. Looming above the town itself was the imposing 14th Century monastery of Monte Cassino. The monastery was one of Italy’s holiest and most important religious sites, housing the remains of St. Benedict - the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

The monastery was contained within a military exclusion zone which both sides initially respected. The Germans did nothing more than guard the abbey’s imposing front gates. Some fortifications had been set up further down the mountain’s slopes, but the main bulk of the German defences were kept well away from the exclusion zone.

The Allied attempt to smash through the Winter Line quickly became a hellish war of attrition. Embedded in strongly-fortified positions, the Germans easily held off waves of Allied assaults that quickly exhausted seasoned troops from the British Empire, the Free French and the United States. By the 11th of February, successive Allied attacks had been beaten back, resulting in thousands of casualties.

As time went by, Allied soldiers on the Gustav Line began to view the abbey looming over them with suspicion. The building occupied men’s thoughts like no other. Many grew suspicious that the Germans were occupying the ancient building, using it as an observation post through which they could direct artillery bombardments on Allied positions. As each day of the battle went by and the casualty figures climbed ever upwards, the abbey of Monte Cassino loomed larger in soldiers’ minds. It became a malevolent entity in and of itself.

‘You couldn’t scratch without being seen,’ one soldier recalled of the ‘bloody monastery gazing down at you’. ‘And it was a psychological thing. It grew the longer you were there.’

The troops’ uneasiness about the monastery soon spread to the top brass. The building might not be occupied now, but who was to say the Germans wouldn’t occupy it at some stage in the future? Talk soon turned to obliterating this irritating obstacle. ‘If you let me use the whole of our bomber force against Cassino,’ said General John Channon, commander of the 15th Army Group Air Force, to Sir Harold Alexander, commander-in-chief of the 15th Army Group, ‘we will whip it out like a dead tooth.’

The decision was finally taken to destroy the monastery, which was now widely viewed as a legitimate target after spotter planes had wrongly identified what they thought was a radio mast on the abbey’s roof and German uniforms hanging from a washing line in the courtyard. The bombardment would take place on the 13th of February, though this was changed to the 15th when severe snowstorms in the Cassino area made flight impossible.

Its once beautiful central courtyard had been turned into a bomb crater

On the morning of the 14th, the artillery fired shells filled with leaflets over the skies above the monastery, warning of the coming bombardment. The leaflets were dismissed as propaganda by a visiting German officer when the abbot showed him one. As a result, no serious thought was given to evacuating the abbey’s community of monks, nor the couple of hundred refugees who had sought sanctuary within its walls until it was too late. Some would find shelter in the catacombs and caves beneath the monastery as the bombs rained down on them. Others would not be so lucky.

The following day, waves of American bombers filled the skies. First, 142 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 13th Strategic Air Force stationed at nearby Foggia pounded the monastery’s ancient walls, cloisters and courtyards with 253 tons of incendiaries and high explosives. Next swooped in 47 B-25 Mitchells and 40 B-26 Marauders of the Mediterranean Air Force, dropping a further 100 tons of explosives. As each wave finished its deadly run, the men and guns of the US II Corps artillery division bombarded the monastery and surrounding hilltop with shells, causing further damage to the crumbling building, leaving the top of the mountain a pitted and scarred mess of craters and smoking ruins.

After the onslaught, cheers rang up among the soldiery as the smoke revealed a site of total devastation. The monastery was unrecognisable. Its once beautiful central courtyard had been turned into a bomb crater; its ancient basilica with its collection of priceless frescoes, irreplaceable choir and magnificent organ was now a heap of smouldering rubble; its peaceful cloisters and beautiful sacristy containing exquisite carvings and stunning murals had both been pummeled into dust.

Worst of all, many of those who had sought refuge in the monastery had been killed during the bombardment. A total of 230 Italian civilians had lost their lives.

While the soldiers fighting on the Gustav Line may have cheered the abbey’s destruction, many others were horrified. One described the destruction of Monte Cassino as being akin to the Italian Air Force bombing Westminster Abbey. Harold Tittman, the senior diplomat to the Vatican in Rome, couldn’t hide his fury, calling the bombing a ‘colossal blunder’ and ‘a piece of gross stupidity’.

For those who had grown up in the shadow of the monastery, the destruction of this beloved local landmark was beyond belief. Tony Pittaccio, a young man who lived nearby, summed up the thoughts of many locals:

‘As for Monte Cassino, whereas the military may have felt spying enemy eyes looking down on them, we felt that benevolent eyes were looking down on us. The monastery was to us the assurance that goodness would triumph over evil and the promise that it would never be destroyed meant that life would continue. We said our daily prayer with our eyes turned towards the monastery. It was a source of great comfort. When it was bombed, we just could not believe what we were seeing. A part of all of us, and especially me and my family because of what it had meant to us, died with it. Nothing was sacred any more and the world had truly become a darkened place.’

The British and Indian assault that followed the monastery’s destruction was an abject failure, with the Allies suffering a fifty percent casualty rate. Worst of all, the very thing the bombardment of Monte Cassino was meant to prevent – the occupation of the abbey by German troops – was exactly what happened next. The Allies had inadvertently created a considerable obstacle for themselves by reducing the monastery to rubble, and German paratroopers quickly moved into the ruins and set up defensive positions that would cost many Allied lives before they were finally driven out of the ruins. It later emerged that the Germans had formally agreed with the church not to occupy the ancient structure. It was an agreement they felt they no longer had to abide by following the bombing, and they were quick to take advantage of the fortress the Allies had helpfully provided for them.

The Battle of Monte Cassino would grind on for another three months. The Allies would eventually emerge triumphantly, but at a cost of 55,000 casualties compared to the Germans’ 20,000. The road to Rome was finally open. The city would fall on the 5th of June 1944.

After the war, it was quickly decided that the monastery would be reconstructed in its entirety. Work began in the 1950s, with the rubble being carefully sifted and catalogued so that as much of the original fabric of the building could be incorporated into the reconstruction. It would finally be reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964. Today, high on its hill in the beautiful surroundings of the Latin Valley, it is easy to forget that, just seventy-five years ago, the great abbey of Monte Cassino was a hulking ruin. The abbey’s senseless destruction was a blow against civilization that reverberated around the world. Its smouldering ruins a testimony to the folly of war.