- 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
The announcement seemed final, but Gruenther tried to argue. He said that he had talked with General Clark since his earlier phone call. Clark’s view was clear—he was against a bombing, so much so that if Freyberg were an American, Clark would turn him down. But “in view of General Freyberg’s position in the British Empire forces, the situation was a delicate one, and General Clark hesitated to give him such an order without first referring the matter to General Alexander.” Clark emphasized that a bombardment would endanger the lives of civilian refugees in the building, and that it very probably would enhance the value of the monastery as a defensive fortification.
The response was quite cold. “General Alexander,” his chief of staff said, “has made his position quite clear.…He regrets very much that the monastery should be destroyed, but he sees no other choice.”
Gruenther now phoned Clark again and reported Alexander’s reaction. Somewhat upset, Clark asked Gruenther to tell Freyberg that he, Clark, “was willing to defer to General Freyberg’s judgment.” At the same time, he wanted Gruenther to tell Alexander that Clark would speak personally with him in the morning in order to state fully his conviction that bombing the monastery would be an error. Meanwhile, Gruenther was to go ahead and set up the bombing mission —but to schedule it for no earlier than 10 A.M. By that time, Clark hoped to have spoken with Alexander; if Alexander changed his mind, the bombardment could still be cancelled.
Gruenther first passed Clark’s message on to Alexander’s chief of staff; then—at 10 P.M.—he telephoned Freyberg once more to say that he was “reluctant to authorize [the abbey’s] bombing unless you are certain that its destruction is necessary.”
Freyberg refused to budge. It was not “sound,” he said, “to give an order to capture Monastery Hill [Monte Cassino] and at the same time deny the commander the right to remove an important obstacle to the success of this mission.” A higher commander who refused to authorize the bombing, he warned, would have to be held responsible if the attack failed.
Gruenther repeated that Clark was ready to authorize the bombing if Freyberg considered it a military necessity.
Yes, Freyberg said; in his “considered opinion,” the bombardment was “a military necessity.”
The magic formula having been categorically stated, Gruenther informed him that the air mission was authorized. Would he please arrange to move any Allied troops who might be endangered by the bombing to a safe place?
Around midnight, Freyberg called back. Would Gruenther temporarily defer the bombardment? There was not time to move the Allied troops to safety.
For the moment, the unpleasant prospect of destroying the monastery was averted.
On the morning of February 13, Clark talked on the telephone with Alexander and told him that he was “greatly concerned.” Despite Freyberg’s conviction that the Germans were using the abbey for military purposes, there was no firm proof. But they would certainly have no compunctions about using it after a bombing. Humanitarian, religious, and sentimental reasons, Clark said, also argued against bombing. There was in addition a practical problem—the number of aircraft available to attack the building would be unable to destroy the value of the structure as a defensive work. These considerations, he felt, were more valid than the slim chance of facilitating the capture of the mountain.
All this was so, Alexander admitted. But if Freyberg wanted the monastery bombed, the monastery would have to be bombed.
Yet despite his apparent assurance, Alexander referred the matter to his immediate superior, Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, a British officer who had succeeded Eisenhower in command of the Mediterranean theatre. Wilson approved Alexander’s view—what Freyberg wanted he would have to have.
Facing the massive force of Freyberg’s personality and prestige, all his superiors were uncomfortable. It seemed unlikely that the Germans had violated the sanctity of the abbey. Yet it was true that some of their positions were so close that it was scarcely possible to fire on them without striking the religious structure.
It was true also that many soldiers sincerely believed that the Germans were using the building for military purposes. One regimental commander thought he had seen the flash of field glasses within the monastery. An Italian civilian declared that he had counted eighty Germans manning thirty machine guns inside the building. An American artillery battalion reported that “our observers had noted a great deal of enemy activity in the vicinity of the famous monastery, and it became ever clearer that they were using the abbey as an observation post and also had gun emplacements installed.” A rifleman had been seriously wounded “by a sniper,” he said, “hiding in the monastery.” And frequent reports verified “much small arms fire seen and heard coming from the vicinity of the abbey.”