- 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
Several days later, when the two officers conferred on the new attack, Clark learned that Freyberg was concerned about the abbey of Monte Cassino. Freyberg, as Clark reported the conversation, “expressed some apprehension that the monastery buildings were being used by the Germans and stated that in his opinion, if necessary, they should be blown down by artillery or bombardment.”
Clark disagreed. The subject had been thoroughly discussed several weeks earlier, and American commanders felt that firing against the abbey was unwarranted. Civilians from the surrounding countryside were known to be taking shelter there. And the Americans doubted that enemy troops were using the building in any way. The Germans had no need of the abbey—the hill itself offered excellent sites for individual foxholes and for weapons emplacements, while higher hills nearby gave even better observation over the approaching Allied troops. What the Americans suspected was that the Germans would be glad to entice the Allies into bombing or shelling the building for the propaganda benefit to be gained. Moreover, the policy forbidding destruction of historical, religious, and cultural monuments was still in effect.
Yet the commander of the Indian division, General F. S. Tuker, a British officer, felt sure that the monastery was a very real obstacle to progress. He had closely studied the problem of taking Monte Cassino, and he had no illusions that the task would be easy. The strength of the enemy forces, the rugged terrain, and the freezing weather would make success extremely difficult. Symbolizing the advantages held by the Germans, and seeming to mock the Allied efforts, was the Benedictine monastery. Tuker felt that the abbey was exerting a baleful psychological influence on the Allied troops. He decided it would have to be destroyed in order to insure a successful attack with a minimum of losses. He therefore asked Freyberg for an air bombardment of the abbey.
Freyberg found himself in agreement with Tuker. He telephoned Clark. Clark was visiting the Anzio beachhead, and his chief of staff, General Gruenther, took the call. The time was 7 P.M., February 12.
“I desire that I be given air support tomorrow,” Freyberg said, “in order to soften the enemy position in the Cassino area. I want three missions of twelve planes each; the planes to be Kitty Bombers carrying thousand-pound bombs.”
The request was hardly excessive—thirty-six planes to drop eighteen tons of high explosive. Unfortunately, most of the planes in the theatre were scheduled to fly missions in support of the Anzio beachhead. Gruenther doubted that he could obtain thirty-six aircraft for the thirteenth, but said he would “go into the matter at once.” After checking with his staff officers, he phoned the New Zealander and told him he could have twelve A-g6 fighter-bombers carrying 5oo-pound bombs for a single mission. Which target would he prefer the aircraft to attack?
“I want the convent attacked,” Freyberg replied.
Did he mean the abbey of Monte Cassino?
“Yes,” Freyberg said. “I want it bombed. The other targets are unimportant, but this one is vital. The division commander who is making the attack feels that it is an essential target, and I thoroughly agree.”
The restrictions on that particular target, Gruenther said, made it impossible for him to approve the request. He would have to take up the matter with General Clark, and he promised to do so.
Unable to reach Clark for the moment, Gruenther telephoned General Alexander’s chief of staff and explained the situation. He asked for Alexander’s opinion as to “the advisability of authorizing the bombing.” The chief of staff said he would talk with the General, and let Gruenther know.
Before the return call came, Gruenther reached General Clark, who said he saw no military necessity to destroy the monastery. Would Gruenther pass along his opinion to Alexander? Clark added that he felt somewhat embarrassed because of Freyberg’s extremely strong views. If Clark refused an air bombardment and the Indian attack failed, he supposed he would be blamed for the failure.
Trying to marshal support for Clark’s position, Gruenther next phoned General Geoffrey Keyes, the corps commander who was responsible for the American effort in the Cassino area. Keyes expressed his belief that there was no military necessity to destroy the monastery. He said further that bombing the monastery would “probably enhance its value as a military obstacle, because the Germans would then feel free to use it as a barricade.”
Several minutes later—it was now 9:30 P.M. —Gruenther heard from Alexander’s chief of staff. General Alexander had decided that the monastery should be bombed if Freyberg considered its reduction a military necessity. Alexander regretted “that the building should be destroyed, but he has faith in General Freyberg’s judgment.”