Battle of Monte Cassino during WWII with focus on the Allied decision to bomb the ancient monastery at Monte Cassino
An Analysis of the Allied Decision to Bomb the Ancient Monastery at Monte Cassino
On this day… In 1944 the battle of Monte Cassino ended as Allied troops finally captured the old fortified abbey (Europe’s oldest monastic house), after more than three months of bombardment by shell-fire and air attack. — Cyril Leslie Beeching, 1997
The brief epigraph above does not do justice to this historic World War II battle, since the stakes were high and the decision to attack the “oldest monastic house” in Europe could not be made lightly. In fact, the destruction of the monastery at Monte Cassino, more than any other episode from the Italian campaign of 1943-1945, remains a source of heated debate. This paper provides an overview and background of the events that took place at Monte Cassino in May 1994, a discussion of the allied decision to bomb the monastery, followed by an analysis of the impact of the attack and a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. According to David Colvin and Richard Hodges, the monastery at Monte Cassino was founded by St. Benedict in 529. “Here he wrote his Rule, destined to become a practical blueprint for Western monasticism. In 577 the monastery suffered the first of its four destructions when it was sacked by Lombards.” The monastery’s strategic location was sufficiently desirable that in 717, it was restored, and during the 9th century, it played a major part in the Carolingian Renaissance. The monastery, though, received yet another blow when it was sacked by the Saracens in 883, who were attracted by the wealth there. The monastery’s “golden age” was under Abbot Desiderius during the eleventh century; Desiderius collected numerous religious works for the library and scriptorium there, and amassed large amounts of the surrounding territory as well.
Two hundred years later, in 1349, Monte Cassino was destroyed by an earthquake, but its troubles were still not over. The monastery suffered once again when Napoleon’s armies marched through, but managed to outlive the new Italian state’s policy to suppress the monasteries in 1866. Clearly, though, “Its most fearful hours arrived on February 15th, 1944, when it became a household name throughout the world.”
Allied Decision to Bomb the Monastery. According to Colvin and Hodges, the Allied campaign in Italy was designed, in the words of Winston Churchill, as an assault on the “soft underbelly” of the Axis. After the Allies landed in Sicily and Salerno, Monte Cassino was selected by Field Marshal Kesselring, the commander of the German forces in Italy, as the strategic point in an elaborate defensive system known as the Gustav Line. This line ran across the waistline of the peninsular from the Adriatic to the Gulf of Gaeta on the Tyrrhenian Sea. In an effort to bypass the Gustav line, the Allies landed approximately 50,000 seaborne troops, with 5,000 vehicles, at Anzio, just 33 miles south of Rome, on January 22, 1944. The Allies managed to take advantage of their surprise and drove on toward Rome, but resistance at Anzio allowed the Germans to consolidate their defenses and the Allies bogged down, with the defenses at Monte Cassino remained intact following at attack by General Clark’s 5th Army.
The German commanders did not choose Monte Cassino by accident, and even promised the Vatican that troops would not be stationed there. The monastery also occupied prime real estate that held an eagle’s eye view of the surrounding territory and appeared to be unapproachable by all but the most determined invaders. Furthermore, it was the Allied consensus that the Germans believed the monastery’s historic and religious attributes would serve to allay any potential attack on their position. Finally, German planning for the imminent Allied assault through Italy was part of the reason for this selection.
In spite of their belief that the Allies would not attack such a holy and historic site, on February 15, 1944, at 5:45 A.M., the 96th Bombardment Group based at Foggia received the following communique in an underground cave:
The target is a huge ancient monastery which the Germans have chosen as a key defense and have loaded with heavy guns… Those crew members who have served through the African campaign will remember how we did not bomb mosques because of the religious and humanitarian training all of us have received.”
The communique also made it clear to its recipients, even in the middle of the battlefield itself, that the decision to bomb the monastery was a last resort, and was only made because the German position there had cost so many Allied lives already. In addition, the decision to bomb the monastery was based on intelligence that showed that most of the monks and priests had already abandoned the site and virtually all that was left were enemy combatants. “In the past few days,” the communique stated, “this monastery has accounted for the lives of upwards of 2,000 American boys who felt the same as we do about church property and who paid for it because the Germans do not understand anything human when total war is concerned. This Monastery MUST be destroyed and everyone in it as there is no one in it but Germans!” The “Monastery” that was the subject of this fateful communique was, of course, Monte Cassino, the birthplace of the Benedictine Order.
The commander of the U.S. 5th Army, General Mark Clark, recorded with some degree of disdain in his autobiography that “a whole book could be devoted to the vast job the German Todt Organization had done in converting the mountains behind the enemy’s river defense-line into a bastion of reinforced steel and concrete…” A no-man’s land 300 yards wide had been declared around the abbey; however, the Allies were not deceived by Kesselring’s disclaimer that “the abbey was not included in the combat area. In fact, guards were posted to block the approach.” In spite of their isolated position, the German forces in the monastery were clearly aware of the dangerous position they occupied, based in large part to the position the monastery occupied as a result of the Gustav Line.
On October 14, 1943, Don Martino Matronola wrote in his diary concerning the arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Schlegel who, on behalf of the Supreme German Military Command, provided the abbot with the opportunity to save all the monastery’s treasures because soon it would be ‘sulla linea del fuoco’ (in the line of fire); at this time, he also encouraged the monks to leave. The monks and priests met as a group to discuss the matter and within two days, they agreed to the removal of the archives and library, a process that lasted until November 3, 1943. The majority of the monks and priests accompanying the transports with the Cassinese treasures destined for safekeeping in the Vatican; only five monks and six priests remained with the abbot to care for the monastery.
As noted above, the Germans had assured the Vatican of the monastery’s safety, just as the British and American governments had; nevertheless, artillery shells fired by both sides struck the monastery. General Eisenhower wrote on December 29, 1943, that “if we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go.” The monastery was initially attacked by ground units of the 2nd New Zealand and the 4th Indian Divisions, drafted from the Adriatic front to replace the exhausted 34th and 36th Divisions. For these soldiers, the attack was known as the second battle of Cassino. Following another failed effort by Allied land forces to overcome the German defenses at Monte Cassino, the decision was made to bomb it. The German defensive positions and the abbey were blasted by artillery and aerial bombardments and the abbey was very largely destroyed in attacks on February 5, 8, and 11, culminating in the aerial assault of February 15, 1943. The final ground battle of Monte Cassino was described by one Polish historian as follows:
When allied armies from various lands failed to take the stronghold which the Germans had established next to the Monastery of Monte Cassino thus blocking the way to Rome, the Polish corps under the command of General W-adyslaw Anders started another attack on 11 May and after eight days of desperate fighting, suffering the heaviest losses, finally broke the German resistance, and in a well-deserved triumph planted the Polish flag on the ruins of the monastery.
The bombardment on the morning of February 15 consisted of 257 tons of 500-lb bombs and 59 tons of 100-lb incendiaries; the afternoon formation dropped 283 bombs (each weighing 1000 lbs). “All observers agree that it was a remarkable feat of precision bombing.”
Analysis and Conclusion
When the world’s historic treasures are destroyed for whatever reason, the loss is incalculable. However, some good may…