- 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
Both warring armies recognized the sanctity of the monastery, but neither had control over accidents. When a German pilot inadvertently flew his plane into the cables of a funicular tramway connecting the abbey and the town at the foot of the mountain, he smashed not only his aircraft but also the tramway. Several days later, when Allied planes dropped bombs on the town of Cassino, they unintentionally released several loads over the abbey. Minor damage resulted. But the monks remained steadfast and calm. They were confident that the Allied and German military forces would respect the building and its grounds.
In mid-October, two German officers drove up the steep hill from the town of Cassino, carefully negotiating the seven hairpin turns over a distance of almost six miles, and reached the gate of the abbey. They asked to see the abbot. Ushered into his presence, they explained that the Ministry of National Education in Mussolini’s government had expressed concern over the possible destruction of the abbey’s works of art. It would be desirable, they suggested, to remove these treasures to a safe place in Rome, and they offered their assistance.
The abbot, Bishop Gregorio Diamare, was a small and alert man of seventy-eight years who wore his age and his title with ineffable dignity. He found the idea of carrying out the art treasures rather ridiculous. Botli adversaries in the war had publicly proclaimed their intention to conserve cultural and religious properties. What harm could come to this holy place?
The German officers bowed and withdrew.
Two days later they returned. This time they insisted that the abbey was in danger because of the military importance of the hill on which it was located. Although the Germans preferred to fight elsewhere, the officers explained, they had no choice. The hill of Monte Cassino was far too valuable to be excluded from the fortifications being constructed. A battle was sure to take place, and the abbey was certain to incur damage.
The Abbot accepted their offer. On the following day a German military truck arrived, was loaded with art treasures, and made the first of several trips to transport the most venerable relics and objects to Rome. Almost all of the monks also departed for Rome, along with nuns, orphans, schoolchildren, and many of the refugees. The Abbot, five monks, five lay brothers, and about 150 civilians remained. Life on the hill was quiet and somewhat lonely. The sounds of cannon were occasional and distant.
Early in December, the commander of the German Tenth Army in italy, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, requested help in solving a problem. How could he use the hill of Monte Cassino in his defenses, he asked his superior, without harming the abbey? “Preserving the extraterritoriality of the monastery,” he warned, “is not possible: of necessity it lies directly in the main line of resistance.” To fight on Monte Cassino would endanger the monastery. To give up Monte Cassino without a fight would definitely impair the usefulness of the defensive line. For “along with the renunciation of good observation posts and good positions of concealment on our part, the Anglo-Americans almost certainly would not bother about any sort of agreement at the decisive moment [of battle] but would without scruple place themselves in occupation of this point [the abbey itself] which in certain circumstances might be decisive [for the outcome].”
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the commander in chief of the German forces in Italy, gave Vieiingholf an unequivocal answer. Hc had assured representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome that German troops would refrain from entering the abbey. “This means,” Vietinghoff specified when he passed the word along to his subordinates, “only that the building alone is to be spared.”
Placing the abbey off limits and drawing a circle with its circumference about aoo yards from the walls, he forbade all troops to cross the line, stationed several military policemen at the abbey entrance to enforce the order, and assured the Abbot that no military installations of any sort would be constructed within the confines of the abbey—that is, within the circle he had traced.
But the slopes of Monte Cassino outside the circle were not off limits. German troops demolished the abbey’s outlying buildings to create fields of fire for their weapons, and set up observation posts and emplacements for crew-served guns. There is evidence that they established at least one position inside the circle, an ammunition supply dump in a cave probably no more than 50 yards from the monastery wall.
In January, 1944, as Allied troops approached, the Germans were ready. They evacuated all the refugees still in the monastery except a handful too sick or infirm to be moved. They said they would continue to respect the abbey, but they asked the Abbot to leave. Despite the bustle of Germans digging on the hill and the more frequent and louder sounds of gunlire, the Abbot refused. Hc had faith in the promises made by both sides.