- Historic Sites
The Bombing of Monte Cassino
The Allied drive toward Rome had stalled. Was the destruction of a historic monastery justified in an effort to break the German line and get the campaign moving again?
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
Halfway between Naples and Rome, on a moiintaintop and visible for miles, stands the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, serene and benign, apparently indestructible. Of cream-colored stone, its longest side extending 200 yards, four stories tall, with a thick, battlemented base and rows of cell windows, the abbey resembles a fortress. Not particularly beautiful, it is impressive because of its massive size and commanding location. Crowning Monte Cassino, which rises abruptly 1,700 feet above the plain, the abbey overlooks the town of Cassino and the Rapido River, at its foot; to the northwest it superbly dominates the Liri Valley, stretching off toward Rome. It is built around five cloistered courtyards and includes a large church, a seminary, an observatory, a school for 250 boys, a vast library of priceless archives, and various workshops and outbuildings. Since 1866, when Italy dissolved the monasteries, the abbey has been a national monument, the monks remaining as custodians of the structure and its treasures.
The abbey was founded by Saint Benedict himself around 529 A.D. It was ravaged by Lombards in the sixth century, pillaged by Saracens in the ninth, knocked clown by an earthquake in the fourteenth, sacked by French troops in the eighteenth, and reduced to rubble by bombs and shells in the twentieth.
To many, the last act of destruction seemed as senseless and wanton as the others. Yet the men who levelled the sanctified walls believed they had compelling reasons. In order to save soldiers’ lives, they felt they had to sacrifice an edifice representing one of the great traditions of a civilixation they sought to preserve.
The setting was World War II, the stage the Italian campaign, and the destruction an apparent departure from a consistent policy scrupulously observed.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff, the highest AngloAmerican military command, had made that policy very clear. Religious, historical, and cultural properties, they said, were to be spared from damage, together with “local archives…classical monuments and objects of art.” But only if their preservation was “consistent with military necessity.”
Although no one ventured to define military necessity precisely, the commanders in the ReId had made every effort to respect the injunction in the campaigns of North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. General Dwight D. Eisenhowcr, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean theatre, assured his superiors that “all precautions to safeguard works of art and monuments are being taken. Naval, ground, and air commanders have been so instructed and understand fully [the] importance of preventing unnecessary or avoidable damage.” General Mark Clark, who commanded the Fifth Army in Italy, directed his subordinates “to protect these properties, and intentional attacks will therefore be carefully avoided. … If, however, military necessity should so dictate, there should be no hesitation in taking whatever action the situation warrants.”
In the fall of 1943, although the fighting front was far from Monte Cassino, Italian museum officials reminded the Allied command of the historic and artistic importance of the abbey. Word went out to air units at once: “All possible precautions to be taken to avoid bombing abbey on Monte Cassino.”
“Let me see pictures of this place,” ordered General Alfred Gruenther, dark’s chief of staff. “Will our ground troops have occasion to demolish it by artillery fire?”
The question was academic until early January, 1944, when Vatican authorities complained that the abbey had been “seriously damaged” by artillery. An immediate investigation revealed what had happened. The town of Cassino had been heavily bombed and shelled for some time and was still under Rre because it was occupied by German troops. Since there were “many gun positions and enemy installations in the vicinity of the town,” the investigating officer reported, “it is possible that…an erratic round hit the Abbey. Any damage caused by our artillery fire would be purely unintentional.…”
Despite the clear comprehension reflected in this report, General Clark repeated his instructions. Even though the abbey occupied commanding terrain that “might well serve as an excellent observation post for the enemy,” this artistic, historical, and ecclesiastical shrine was to be immune from attack. Except, of course, that this immunity “will not be allowed to interfere with military necessity.”
That was the basic issue, and this the essential question: From a military point of view, was it necessary to bomb the abbey?
Having entered southern Italy in September, 1943, Anglo-American forces took Naples and headed for Rome, moving into increasingly difficult ground and meeting stiffening resistance. By mid-autumn the Germans had been in retreat for a year—driven back from Egypt, expelled from Libya and Tunisia, forced out of Sicily, pushed out of southern Italy toward Rome. Now they intended to stop. In the steep-sided mountains around Cassino, they would stand and fight. It was not a hastily prepared position, but a series of formidable strong points known as the Gustav line.
Incorporated into their defensive positions was the hill of Monte Cassino. Inside the abbey, at its summit, were seventy resident monks, about two hundred schoolchildrcn, nuns, and orphans normally housed there, and several hundred people who had fled the battlefield and sought refuge and sanctuary.