- 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
Recognizing how difficult it would be to batter down and go through the solid defenses around Cassino, the Allied leaders decided to bypass them. They would send a sizable contingent of troops up the west coast of Italy in ships. These men would come ashore at Anxio, about seventy-five miles ahead of the main Allied forces and only thirty miles below Rome. At Anzio they would pose a direct threat to the capital and menace the rear of the Germans holding the Cassino line. Taken by surprise, the Germans would probably have to divert strength from Cassino to defend Rome. And this, the Allies hoped, would enable Allied troops to move forward through Cassino, rush overland, and join the soldiers at Anzio. There they would gather strength for a final surge into Rome.
The plan involved a grave risk. Until the main Allied body of troops could move from Cassino to Anxio, the units holding the beachhead there would be isolated, exposed, and highly vulnerable. Hut the pi ixe was too tempting. The prospect of quickly capturing the Eternal City persuaded the Allied leaders to accept the hazard.
The importance of Rome was undeniable. Above all, it had symbolic and psychological value to both contestants; and in this connection there was a lime factor. The Allies wanted Rome by a certain date- before the cross-Channel attack into Normandy, which was then scheduled for May, 1944. Taking Rome, they believed, would lower the enemy’s will to resist and facilitate the Normandy invasion. Thus, a sense of urgency was imparted to the Allied activities in Italy.
In January, General Sir Harold Alexander, the British officer who commanded the two Allied armies in Italy, gave the signal to start “the Rome operation.” General Clark, as commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, thereupon opened a massive attack at Cassino. Designed to divert German attention, it culminated on January 20—two days before the Anzio landing—with an attempt to cross the Rapido River and push up the Liri Valley. The river assault, which took place in the shadow of Monte Cassino, failed for a variety of reasons to crack the strong Cassino defenses. The Anzio landing on January 22 succeeded; but, contrary to Allied expectations, the Germans moved quickly to contain the beachhead there. At the same time they managed to retain enough troops at Cassino to keep their defenses intact and solid.
Now the urgency tel t by the Allies underwent a change in emphasis. No longer was Rome the overriding objective. Far more important was an overland advance from Cassino to link up with the American soldiers cruelly exposed on the Anzio plain. And this depended on getting across the Rapido River. Since Monte Cassino dominated the Rapido, giving the Germans excellent observation posts from which to direct artillery and mortar fire, the Allied leaders moved against the mountain. American infantrymen fought a battle marked by extreme exertion and heroism. They got part way up the mountain, but were unable to wrest it from German control. The defenses were simply too strong, the defenders too tenacious. After twenty days of effort, and heavy casualties, the Americans were exhausted and had to admit failure.
Had the ruling that exempted the monastery from direct fire affected the outcome of the struggle? Some who looked with longing eyes to the high ground that would open the way to Anzio found themselves staring at the abbey. Aloof and indifferent, crowning the mountaintop that represented victory, the building seemed to have taken on a sinister appearance.
Now General Alexander brought in two fresh divisions—one of New Zealanders, the other of Indians- for a renewed assault. According to a new plan that envisaged stretching the German defenses, the Indians would attack Monte Cassino while the New Zealanders crossed the Rapido. The double blow, it was felt, would certainly open a path to Anzio.
Mark Clark was responsible for operations at both Anzio and Cassino. Under Clark, and in direct command of the two-division attack at Cassino, was General Sir Bernard Freyberg.
A New Zealander of imposing physical appearance and impressive reputation, Freyberg was a legendary hero of World War I. He had already sustained his image in World War II by a magnificent record in North Africa and in Crete. Not only was he the commander of New Zealand’s military forces in the European theatre; he was also the chief political representative of his government. His dual function was an oddity that sometimes embarrassed his colleagues. For though his military rank subordinated him in the command structure, his political status placed him above his military superiors.
When Clark met Freyberg early in February, he was taken with the New Zealander’s commanding presence; his heavy-set figure exuded authority and evoked instant respect. Clark was pleased, too, with Freybcrg’s energy and aggressiveness. But he also felt a brief twinge of discomfort. Freyberg’s dominion troops, he noted, were “very jealous of their prerogatives. The British have found them difficult to handle. They have always been given special considerations which we would not give to our own troops.”