- 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
To settle the question of whether German troops were actually inside the abbey, General Jacob Devers, Wilson’s American deputy, and General Ira Eaker, the American in command of the Mediterranean theatre air forces, flew over the German lines in two small observation planes. Because the Germans rarely fired on light aircraft, which they suspected were sometimes decoys sent up to draw fire and pinpoint the location of their guns, Generals Devers and Eaker were able to pass directly above the abbey. Both believed they saw radio masts inside the monastery walls, and other convincing proof of the presence of enemy soldiers.
This confirmed the military necessity of a bombardment. In a report made later to explain his approval of the act, Field Marshal Wilson said he had what he called “irrefutable evidence” that the abbey was part of the German main line of defense, that observers were directing artillery fire from within the building, that snipers fired from the structure, and that gun emplacements, pillboxes, and ammunition dumps were located within the shadow of the walls. Thus, when General Freyberg insisted that destroying the abbey was a necessary preliminary for taking Monte Cassino, his argument, Wilson said, outweighed “historical and sentimental considerations.”
The ground attack of the New Zealand and Indian divisions having been postponed to February 15, a bombardment was scheduled for the same day. But this bombing was to be far different from Freyberg’s original request. No longer was he talking of a few planes attacking to soften the defenses. He was now saying that the abbey would have to be flattened before the Indians could take the mountain.
What had caused the escalation? There was a growing concern over the security of the Anzio beachhead, where the precarious equilibrium between Allied and German forces seemed about to tip in favor of the Germans—who, as it turned out, actually launched a massive attack on the sixteenth. There was an uneasy feeling that time was slipping by—that the cross-Channel attack was fast approaching while Rome remained as distant and elusive as ever. There was an increasing realization that some extraordinary measure was needed to blast through the Cassino defenses. And there was an idea novel to the doctrine of warfare, and as yet untried: that the power of massed strategic bombers, normally used for long-range missions, might contribute to a tactical victory—which would give the employment of heavy bombers at Monte Cassino the additional dimension of an experiment.
Still, the military debate was not over. The ranking French commander in Italy, General Alphonse Juin, made a special trip to see Clark on the fourteenth to urge that the abbey not be destroyed. Christendom, he said, would be shocked. Clark agreed with that judgment; but unfortunately, he said, the decision was irrevocable.
That evening, Allied planes dropped leaflets on Monte Cassino to warn the civilians in the vicinity of the impending bombardment. Apparently none fell within the walls of the abbey. A refugee—at some danger to himself, for there was firing all aroundemerged from the building and retrieved one. He took it to the Abbot.
“Italian friends,” the leaflet read. “Until this day we have done everything to avoid bombing the abbey. But the Germans have taken advantage. Now that the battle has come close to your sacred walls we shall, despite our wish, have to direct our arms against the monastery. Abandon it at once. Put yourselves in a safe place. Our warning is urgent.” The message was signed “Fifth Army.”
The Abbot sent his secretary to a nearby German headquarters to make arrangements for the occupants to leave. By the time he arrived, it was late; too late, the Germans said, for the inhabitants of the abbey to depart that night. They could guarantee the safety of the civilians only during the hours of darkness. Since daylight of the fifteenth would soon come, they recommended deferring the evacuation until the following night. The Abbot agreed, promising to have everyone ready to leave just before dawn of the sixteenth.
On the morning of February 15, about 250 Allied bombers attacked the monastery. According to one observer, they “soon reduced the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble.” The planes attacked in waves, dropping about 600 tons of high explosive. Soldiers on a neighboring slope watched in awe. Between the waves of bombers, allied artillery fired on the target, adding to the destruction.
The attack seemed to confirm the presence of Germans in the abbey. “Over 150 enemy were seen wildly trying to get away from the Abbey as the first planes dropped their loads,” one observer reported. “Artillery and small arms fire took a heavy toll of these men as they exposed themselves across the open terrain.” Other witnesses thought they saw German troops make repeated attempts to dash from the abbey to safer positions, “conclusive proof,” one said, “that the Germans had used the monastery for military purposes.”
Brigadier General Frank Allen, head of the ist Armored Division’s Combat Command B, found the sight inspiring. “Our air,” he wrote, “thoroughly demolished the monastery above Cassino. Reports indicate that a great number of Germans were driven out of the building and surrounding area. It was a tremendous spectacle to see all the Flying Fortresses come over and drop their bombs.”