The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a costly series of four battles during World War II, fought by the Allies with the intention of breaking through the Winter Line and seizing Rome.
In the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Gustav Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys and certain surrounding peaks and ridges, but not the historic abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in AD 524 by St. Benedict, although they manned defensive positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey walls. On February 15 the monastery, high on a peak overlooking the town of Cassino, was destroyed by American B-17, B-25, and B-26 bombers. The bombing was based on the fear that the abbey was being used as a lookout post for the Axis defenders (this position evolved over time to admit that Axis military was not garrisoned there). Two days after the bombing, German paratroopers poured into the ruins to defend it. From January 17 to May 18, the Gustav defenses were assaulted four times by Allied troops. These operations resulted in casualties of over 54,000 Allied and 20,000 German soldiers.
5th Army made slow progress in the face of difficult terrain, wet weather and skillful German defenses. The Germans were fighting from a series of prepared positions in a manner designed to inflict maximum damage, then pulling back and so buying time for the construction of the Winter Line defensive positions south of Rome. The original estimates that Rome would fall by October 1943 proved much too optimistic.
Although in the east the Winter Line had been breached on the British 8th Army's Adriatic front and Ortona was captured, the advance had ground to a halt with the onset of winter blizzards at the end of December, making close air support and movement in the jagged terrain impossible. The route to Rome from the east using Route 5 was thus excluded as a viable option leaving the routes from Naples to Rome, highways 6 and 7, as the only possibilities; highway 7 (the old Roman Appian Way) followed along the west coast but south of Rome ran into the Pontine Marshes which the Germans had flooded. Highway 6 ran through the Liri valley. Dominating the south entrance to this valley was the hill mass behind the town of Cassino. Excellent observation from the peaks of several hills allowed the German defenders to detect Allied movement, prevent any advance northward, and direct artillery fire on Allied units. Running across the Allied line of advance was the fast flowing Rapido River which rose in the central Apennine mountains, flowed through Cassino and across the entrance to the Liri valley (where the Liri joined the Rapido) after which its name changed to the River Garigliano (often referred to as the "Gari" by the Allies) and it continued to the sea. With its heavily fortified mountain defenses, difficult river crossings (not only was the river fast flowing, but the Germans had temporarily diverted the Rapido at the head of the valley so as to flood the valley bottom and make conditions underfoot most difficult for any attackers), Cassino formed a linchpin of the Gustav Line, the most formidable line of the defensive positions making up the Winter Line.
Because of the historical significance of the Benedictine monastery, in December 1943, the German commander-in-chief in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, ordered German units not to include the monastery itself in German defensive positions, and informed the Allies accordingly. Controversy exists regarding the extent to which this order was followed.
Some Allied reconnaissance aircraft reported seeing German troops inside the monastery. The monastery had excellent observation of the surrounding hills and valleys, and thus was a natural site for German artillery observers. What is clear is that once the monastery was destroyed the Germans occupied it and made use of the rubble to build defensive positions. Ultimately, however, the military arguments leading to the monastery's destruction rested on its potential threat (real or imagined) rather than its actual state of occupation.
The Fifth Army had only reached the Gustav line on January 15, having taken six weeks of heavy fighting to advance the last seven miles (11 km) through the Bernhardt Line positions during which time they had sustained 16,000 casualties. They hardly had time to prepare the new assault, let alone take the rest and reorganization they really needed after three months of attritional fighting north from Naples. However, because the Allied Chiefs of Staff would only make landing craft available until early February, the Anzio landing had to take place in late January with the coordinated attack on the Gustav line some three days earlier.
The next attack was launched on January 24. The U.S. II Corps, with 34th Infantry Division under Maj. Gen. Charles W. Ryder spearheading the attack and French colonial troops on its right flank, launched an assault across the flooded Rapido valley north of Cassino and into the mountains behind with the intention of then wheeling to the left and attacking Monte Cassino from high ground. Whilst the task of crossing the river would be easier in that the Rapido upstream of Cassino was fordable, the flooding made movement on the approaches each side very difficult. In particular, armor could only move on paths laid with steel matting, and it took eight days of bloody fighting across the waterlogged ground for 34th Division to push back General Franck's 44th Infantry Division to establish a foothold in the mountains.
By early February, American infantry had captured a strategic point near the hamlet of San Onofrio, less than a mile from the abbey, and by February 7 a battalion had reached Point 445, a round top hill immediately below the monastery and no more than away. An American squad managed a reconnaissance right up against the cliff-like abbey walls, with the monks observing German and American patrols exchanging fire. However, attempts to take Monte Cassino were broken by overwhelming machine gun fire from the slopes below the monastery. Despite their fierce fighting, the 34th Division never managed to take the final redoubts on Hill 593 (known to the Germans as Calvary Mount), held by the 3rd battalion of the German 2nd Parachute Regiment, the dominating point of the ridge to the monastery.
At the height of the battle in the first days of February General von Senger und Etterlin had moved 90th Division from the Garigliano front to north of Cassino and had been so alarmed at the rate of attrition, he had "...mustered all the weight of my authority to request that the Battle of Cassino should be broken off and that we should occupy a quite new line. ... a position, in fact, north of the Anzio bridgehead". Kesselring refused the request. At the crucial moment von Senger was able to throw in the 71st Infantry Division whilst leaving 15th Panzer Grenadiers (whom they had been due to relieve) in place.
During the battle there had been occasions when, with more astute use of reserves, promising positions might have been turned into decisive moves. Some historians suggest this failure to capitalize on initial success could be put down to General Clark's lack of experience. However, it is more likely that he just had too much to do, being responsible for both the Cassino and Anzio offensives. This view is supported by General Truscott's inability, as related below, to get hold of him for discussions at a vital juncture of the Anzio breakout at the time of the fourth Cassino battle. Whilst General Alexander chose (for perfectly logical co-ordination arguments) to have Cassino and Anzio under a single army commander and splitting the Gustav line front between U.S. 5th and British 8th Armies, Kesselring chose to create a separate 14th Army under Gen. Eberhard von Mackensen to fight at Anzio whilst leaving the Gustav line in the sole hands of Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff's 10th Army.
The withdrawn American units were replaced by the New Zealand Corps (2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Indian Division) from the British 8th Army on the Adriatic front. The New Zealand Corps was commanded by Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyberg.
Freyberg's plan was a continuation of the first battle: an attack from the north along the mountain ridges and an attack from the southeast along the railway line and to capture the railway station across the Rapido less than a mile south of Cassino town. Success would pinch out Cassino town and open up the Liri valley. However, Freyberg had informed his superiors that he believed, given the circumstances, there was no better than a 50% chance of success for the offensive.
The British press and C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times frequently and convincingly and in (often manufactured) detail wrote of German observation posts and artillery positions inside the abbey. The commander in chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces Lieutenant-General Ira C. Eaker accompanied by Lieutenant-General Jacob L. Devers (deputy to General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean Theater) personally observed during a fly-over “a radio mast [...] German uniforms hanging on a clothesline in the abbey courtyard; [and] machine gun emplacements from the abbey walls.” Major-General Geoffrey Keyes of U.S. II Corps also flew over the monastery several times; he then reported to Fifth Army G-2 that he had seen no evidence the Germans were in the abbey. When informed of others who had claimed to have seen Germans in the abbey, he stated: “They’ve been looking so long they’re seeing things.
The view in New Zealand Corps HQ, as articulated in the writings of Major-General Kippenberger, was that the monastery was probably being used as the German's main vantage point for artillery spotting, since it was so perfectly situated for the purpose that no army could refrain from using it. There is no clear evidence to this effect, but he went on to write that from a military point of view the current state of occupancy of the monastery was immaterial:
Major-General Francis Tuker, whose 4th Indian Division would have the task of attacking Monastery Hill, had made his own appreciation of the situation. In the absence of detailed intelligence at U.S. 5th Army HQ, he had found a book dated 1879 in a Naples bookshop giving details of the construction of the abbey. In his memorandum to Freyberg he concluded that regardless of whether the monastery was currently occupied by the Germans, it should be demolished to prevent its effective occupation. He also pointed out that with 150 foot (45 m) high walls made of masonry at least 10 feet (3 m) thick, there was no practical means for field engineers to deal with the place, and that bombing with "blockbuster" bombs would be the only solution since 1,000 pound bombs would be "next to useless".
On February 11, 1944, the acting commander of 4th Indian Division, Brigadier Harry Dimoline, requested the bombing of the abbey of Monte Cassino. Tuker reiterated again his case for bombing the monastery from his hospital bed in Caserta, where he was suffering a severe attack of a recurrent tropical fever. Freyberg transmitted his request on February 12. Freyberg's request for an air attack, however, was greatly expanded by air force planners, and probably supported by Ira Eaker and Jacob L. Devers. They sought to use the opportunity to showcase the abilities of U.S. Army air power to support ground operations. Lieutenant-General Mark W. Clark of Fifth Army and his chief of staff Major-General Alfred Gruenther remained unconvinced of the “military necessity”. When handing over the U.S. II Corps position to the New Zealand Corps, Brigadier Butler, deputy commander of U.S. 34th Division, had said "I don't know, but I don't believe the enemy is in the convent. All the fire has been from the slopes of the hill below the wall". Clark pinned down the Commander-in-Chief Allied Armies in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander: “You give me a direct order and we’ll do it.” He did.
The bombing mission in the morning of February 15, 1944 involved 142 B-17 Flying Fortresses together with 47 B-25 Mitchell and 40 B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In all they dropped 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the abbey, reducing the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble. Between bomb runs, the II Corps artillery pounded the mountain. Many Allied soldiers and war correspondents cheered as they observed the spectacle. Eaker and Devers watched; Juin was heard to remark “... no, they’ll never get anywhere this way.” Clark and Gruenther refused to be on the scene and stayed at their headquarters. That same afternoon and the next day, in an aggressive follow-up, further artillery barrages and additional tonnage onto the ruins by 59 fighter bombers convulsed the rubble of the great abbey.
The air raid however, had not been coordinated between the air and ground commands, with the timing driven by the Air Force projecting it as a separate operation, considering the weather and to be fitted in with other requirements on other fronts and theaters and without reference to the ground forces (indeed, the Indian troops on the Snake's Head were taken by surprise when the bombing actually started). The raid took place two days before the New Zealand Corps was ready to launch their main assault. Many of the troops had only taken over their positions from U.S. II Corps on February 13, and besides the difficulties in the mountains, preparations in the valley had also been held up by difficulties in supplying the newly installed troops with sufficient material for a full-scale assault because of incessantly foul weather, flooding, and waterlogged ground.
What is certain from every investigation that followed since the event, is the fact that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were Italian civilians seeking refuge in the abbey. There is no evidence that the bombs dropped on the Monte Cassino monastery that day killed German troops. However, given the imprecision of bombing in those days (it was estimated that only 10% of the bombs from the heavy bombers, bombing from high altitude, hit the monastery) bombs did fall elsewhere and killed German and Allied troops alike. Indeed, sixteen bombs hit the Fifth Army compound at Presenzano 17 miles (27 km) from Monte Cassino and exploded only yards away from the trailer where Gen. Clark was doing paperwork at his desk.
On the day after the bombing at first light, most of the civilians still alive fled the ruins. Only about 40 people remained: the six monks who survived in the deep vaults of the abbey, their 79 year old abbot, Gregorio Diamare, three tenant farmer families, orphaned or abandoned children, the badly wounded and the dying. After artillery barrages, renewed bombing and attacks on the ridge by 4th Indian Division, the monks decided to leave their ruined home with the others who could move at 07:30 on February 17. The old abbot was leading the group down the mule path towards the Liri Valley, reciting the rosary. After they arrived at a German first-aid station, some of the badly wounded who had been carried by the monks were taken away in a military ambulance. After meeting with German officers, including the commander of XIV Panzer Corps, Lieutenant-General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, the monks were driven to the monastery of Sant'Anselmo. One monk, Carlomanno Pellagalli, returned to the abbey; when he was later seen wandering the ruins, the German paratroopers thought he was a ghost. After April 3, he was not seen anymore.
Paratroopers of German 1st Parachute Division then occupied the ruins of the abbey and turned it into a fortress, which became a serious problem for the attacking allied forces.
On the night following the bombing, a company of the 1st battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (one of the British elements in 4th Indian Division) attacked the key point 593 from their position away on Snakeshead Ridge. The assault failed, with the company sustaining 50% casualties.
The following night the Sussex Regiment was ordered to attack in battalion strength. There was a calamitous start. Artillery could not be used in direct support targeting point 593 because of the proximity and risk of shelling friendly troops. It was planned therefore to shell point 575 which had been providing supporting fire to the defenders of point 593. The topography of the land meant that shells fired at 575 had to pass very low over Snakeshead ridge, and in the event some fell among the gathering assault companies. After reorganising, the attack went in at midnight. The fighting was brutal and often hand to hand, but the determined defence held and the Sussex battalion was beaten off, once again sustaining over 50% casualties. Over the two nights, the Sussex Regiment lost 12 out of 15 officers and 162 out of 313 men who took part in the attack.
On the night of February 17 the main assault took place. The 4/6 Rajputana Rifles would take on the assault of point 593 with the depleted Sussex Regiment held in reserve to pass through them to attack point 444 once 593 had been taken. In the meantime, the 1/2 Gurkha Rifles and 1/9 Gurkha Rifles were to sweep across the slopes and ravines in a direct assault on the monastery. This latter was across appalling terrain, but it was hoped that the Gurkhas, from the Himalayas and so expert in mountain terrain, would succeed. This proved a faint hope. Once again the fighting was brutal, but no progress was made and casualties heavy. The Rajputanas lost 196 officers and men, the 1/9 Gurkhas 149 and the 1/2 Gurkhas 96. It became clear that the attack had failed, and on February 18 Brigadier Dimoline and Freyberg called off the attacks on Monastery Hill.
In the other half of the main assault the two companies from 28th (Maori) Battalion from the New Zealand Division forced a crossing of the Rapido and attempted to gain the railroad station in Cassino town; they succeeded but crucially were unable to throw a bridge across the final gap in the railway causeway before daylight so were without armoured support. With the help of a constant smoke-screen laid down by Allied artillery to hide their positions from the German artillery on Monastery Hill they were able to hold their position for much of the day. However their isolation and lack of armoured support and anti-tank guns when the armoured counter-attack came in the afternoon of February 18 made their position hopeless. They were ordered to pull back to the river when it became clear to headquarters that both the attempts to break through (in the mountains and along the causeway) would not succeed. It had been very close. The Germans had been very alarmed by the capture of the station and, from a conversation on record between Kesselring and 10th Army commander von Vietinghoff, had not expected their counterattack to succeed.
None of the Allied commanders were very happy with the plan, but it was hoped that an unprecedented preliminary bombing by heavy bombers would prove the trump. Three clear days of good weather were required and for twenty one successive days the assault was postponed as the troops waited in the freezing wet positions for a favourable weather forecast. Matters were not helped by the loss of Major-General Kippenberger, commanding 2 New Zealand Division, wounded by an anti-personnel mine and losing both his feet. He was replaced by Brigadier Graham Parkinson. The good news was that the German counter-attack at Anzio had failed and been called off.
By the end of March 17 things looked better. The Gurkhas held Hangman's Hill (point 435), from the monastery, in battalion strength (although their lines of supply were compromised by the German positions at point 236 and in the northern part of the town), and whilst the town was still fiercely defended, New Zealand units and armour had got through the bottleneck and captured the station. However, the Germans were still able to reinforce their troops in the town and were proving adept at slipping snipers back into parts of the town that had been supposedly been cleared.
March 19 was planned for the decisive blow in the town and on the monastery, including a surprise attack by tanks of 20th Armoured Brigade working their way along the track from Cairo to Albaneta Farm (which had been prepared by engineer units under the cover of darkness) and from there towards the Abbey. However, a surprise and fiercely pressed counterattack from the monastery on Castle Hill by the impressive German 1st Parachute Division completely disrupted any possibility of an assault on the monastery from the Castle and Hangman's Hill whilst the tanks, lacking infantry support, were all knocked out by mid-afternoon. In the town the attackers made little progress, and overall the initiative was passing to the Germans whose positions close to Castle Hill, which was the gateway to the position on Monastery Hill, crippled any prospects of early success.
On 20 March Freyberg committed elements of 78th Infantry Division to the battle; firstly to provide a greater troop presence in the town so that cleared areas would not be reinfiltrated by the Germans, and secondly to reinforce Castle Hill to allow troops to be released to close off the two routes between Castle Hill and Points 175 and 165 being used by the Germans to reinforce the defenders in the town. The Allied commanders felt they were on the brink of success as grim fighting continued through 21 March. However, the defenders were resolute and the attack on Point 445 to block the German reinforcement route had narrowly failed whilst in the town Allied gains were measured only house by house.
On 23 March Alexander met with his commanders. A range of opinions were expressed as to the possibility of victory but it was evident that the New Zealand and Indian Divisions were exhausted, nearing the end of their tether. Freyberg was convinced that the battle could not be kept going and he called off the attack. The German 1st Parachute Division, some weeks later described by General Alexander, the Italian theater commander, in a conversation with General Kippenberger as "...the best Division in the German Army...", had taken a mauling, but it had won.
The German defenders too had paid a heavy price. The German XIV Corps War Diary for 23 March noted that the battalions in the front line had strengths varying between 40 and 120 men.
The large troop movements required for this took two months to execute. They had to be carried out in small units to maintain secrecy and surprise. U.S. 36th Division was sent on amphibious assault training, and road signposts and dummy radio signal traffic were created to give the impression that a seaborne landing was being planned for north of Rome. This was planned to keep German reserves held back from the Gustav line. Movements of troops in forward areas were confined to the hours of darkness and armoured units moving from the Adriatic front left behind dummy tanks and vehicles so the vacated areas appeared unchanged to enemy aerial reconnaissance. The deception was successful. As late as the second day of the final Cassino battle, Kesselring estimated the Allies had six divisions facing his four on the Cassino front. In fact there were thirteen.
The first assault (May 11–May 12) on Cassino opened at 23:00 with a massive artillery bombardment of 1,000 guns on the 8th Army front and 600 guns on the 5th Army front, manned by British, Americans, Poles, New Zealanders, South Africans, and French. Within an hour and a half the attack was in motion in all four sectors. By daylight U.S. II Corps had made little progress, but their 5th Army colleagues, the French Corps, had achieved their objectives and were fanning out in the Aurunci Mountains towards the 8th Army to their right, rolling up the German positions between the two armies. On the 8th Army front, XIII Corps had made two strongly opposed crossings of the Rapido (by British 4th Infantry Division and 8th Indian Division). Crucially, the engineers of Dudley Russell's 8th Indian Division had by the morning succeeded in bridging the river enabling the armour of 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade to cross and provide the vital element (so missed by the Americans in the first battle and New Zealanders in the second battle) to beat off the inevitable counterattacks from German tanks that would come. In the mountains above Cassino for three days Polish infantry attacks made little progress and brought heavy losses to both sides; Col. Heilmann of 4th Parachute Regiment calling the destroyed town a "miniature Verdun." To this day the Polish effort is a source of great pride for the Polish Nation.
By the afternoon of May 12, the Rapido bridgeheads were increasing despite furious counterattacks whilst the attrition on the coast and in the mountains continued. By May 13 the pressure was starting to tell. The German right wing began to give way to the 5th Army. The French Corps had captured Monte Maio and were now in a position to give material flank assistance to the 8th Army against whom Kesselring had thrown every available reserve in order to buy time to switch to his second prepared defensive position, the Hitler Line, some eight miles (13 km) to the rear. On May 14 Moroccan Goumiers, travelling through the mountains parallel to the Liri valley, ground which was undefended because it was not thought possible to traverse such terrain, outflanked the German defense materially assisting XIII Corps in the valley. In 1943 the Goumiers were colonial troops formed into four Groups of Moroccan Tabors (GTM), each consisting of three loosely organised Tabors (roughly equivalent to a battalion) specialised in mountain warfare. Juin's French Expeditionary Corps consisted of the Command of Moroccan Goumiers (CGM) (with the 1st, 3rd and 4th GTM) of General Augustin Guillaume totalling some 7,800 fighting men, broadly the same infantry strength as a division, and 4 more conventional divisions: the 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division (2 DIM), the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division (3 DIA), the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division (4 DMM) and the 1st Free French Division (1 DM).
On May 15 British 78 Division came into the XIII Corps line from reserve passing through the bridgehead divisions to execute the turning move to isolate Cassino from the Liri valley. On May 17 the Polish Division renewed their assault in the mountains. By the early hours of May 18, 78 Division and the Polish Corps had linked up in the Liri valley 2 miles (3 km) west of Cassino town.
In the early morning of May 18 a reconnaissance group of Polish 12th Podolian Uhlans Regiment found the monastery abandoned and raised an improvised regimental pennant over its ruins. The last German paratroops (said to be approximately 200 in number), with supply lines threatened by the advance up the Liri valley, had withdrawn the night before to take up new defensive positions on the Hitler Line. The only remnants of the defenders were a group of emaciated German wounded who had been too sick to move.
At the time, Truscott was shocked, writing later He went on to write An opportunity was indeed missed and seven divisions of the Tenth Army were able to make their way to the next line of defence, the Trasimene Line where they were able to link up with the Fourteenth army and then make a fighting withdrawal to the formidable Gothic Line north of Florence.
Rome fell on June 4, 1944, just two days before the Normandy invasion.
While the original manuscripts and rare artifacts were safely removed from the site, there were several sick and bed-ridden monks and nuns who remained in the monastery. Several of the healthier nuns refused to leave the bedsides of the sick unless they too could be removed. After very limited, unsuccessful attempts by German officers to have the healthier nuns evacuate, German forces retreated down the north side of the mountain late on May 11, leaving the ill nuns in the complex. Several Catholic German soldiers protested this order, but it was ironically a 36-year old Lutheran Obergefreiter of the German 305th Infantry Division, 305th Artillery Regiment who defied the order to abandon the nuns. Eugen Schmid of Stuttgart, a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad who was one of the few surviving members of the 305th to return to action, told his superior officers that he could not in good conscience let the ill nuns succumb to bombing. German officers refused to give Schmid any motorized equipment or personnel assistance, telling him that he would undertake the operation solo and at his own risk. At around 0100 on May 12, Schmid borrowed a rickety, wooden cart and horse from a nearby farmer and defiantly organized a squad of mostly privates to accompany him to the monastery. Once at the top, Schmid pleaded with the nuns to come, telling them that he brought a cart to evacuate the ill monks and nuns, along with each of the attending nuns. Schmid and his team carried the ill nuns and monks to the cart. They slowly started down the mountain, reaching the north side of Monte Cassino by around 0700 on May 12. Schmid was given no decorations by German authorities for his daring rescue, but received a centuries-old, gold medal bearing the likeness of St. Benedict from the Mother Superior of Monte Cassino, who placed the medal around his neck and said a short prayer with him and his volunteers. She wished for them health and safety, and that they each return home with God's will and with the praise and thanks of each of the nuns and brothers of Monte Cassino.
The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery on the western outskirts of Cassino is the final resting place of the British, New Zealand, Canadian, Indian, Gurkha and South African casualties. The French and Italians are on Route 6 in the Liri Valley; the Americans are at Anzio. The German cemetery is approximately 2 miles (3 km) north of Cassino in the Rapido Valley.