- 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
But Major General Fred L. Walker, who commanded the 36th Division, felt quite otherwise. “This was a valuable historical monument,” he wrote, “which should have been preserved. The Germans were not using it and I can see no advantage in destroying it. No tactical advance will result since the Germans can make as much use of the rubble for observation posts and gun positions as of the building itself. Whether the Germans used the building for an observation post or for emplacements makes little difference since the mountain top on which the building stands can serve the same purpose. If I had had the decision to make I would have prevented its destruction. I have directed my artillery not to fire on it to date.”
Yet to many Americans who had unsuccessfully assaulted Monte Cassino without benefit of this kind of air support, and who had suffered a psychological malaise from the hypnotic effect of the building, the immediate reaction was merely one of bitterness. Why had they been denied this assistance?
The assistance, however, proved futile. Though airplanes returned on the afternoon of the fifteenth to hammer again at the ruined abbey, though 150 aircraft struck on the following day, and fifty-nine on the seventeenth, though artillery expended an enormous number of shells directly against the abbey, the Indians failed to take the hill and the New Zealanders failed to force a passage across the Rapido. For the time being, the military situation at Cassino remained unchanged. The beachhead at Anzio was still isolated.
Aside from the destruction of the abbey, the bombardment blasted and burned off much of the vegetation on Monte Cassino. Stripped of its cover, the hill revealed a surprising complex of dugouts and trenches, thus confirming, in the words of one report, its “extensive organization … by the enemy.”
Around noon of February 15, the German corps commander in the Cassino sector, General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, had informed Vietinghoff of the bombardment. Senger was calm and confident. “Field police,” he reported, “have maintained steady watch that no German soldier entered the building. Therefore, the enemy measures lack any legal basis.”
Ten years after the war, Senger firmly repeated that no German troops were inside the abbey before the bombardment. He confirmed Clark’s view: there was no need to use the abbey as an observation post, because other sites on the mountain offered better locations. Anxious to keep from alienating the good will of the Vatican and of Catholics throughout the world, the Germans were scrupulous in respecting the neutrality of the monastery; so scrupulous, in fact, Senger said, that when he visited the abbey on Christmas eve of 1943 and dined with the Abbot, he was careful not to abuse the privilege. He refrained from looking out of the windows. Yet he admitted that observation posts and weapons were “as close as 200 yards” from the abbey walls.
A civilian who had been in the abbey during the bombardment and who came into the American lines on the following day confirmed that the Germans had never had weapons inside the abbey and had never used it as an observation post. Numerous emplacements, he added, were no more than two hundred yards from the outside wall, and one position was about fifty yards away.
Ten days after the bombardment, Fifth Army counterintelligence agents verified the fact that no German troops had occupied the abbey before the bombardment. But the information was given no dissemination. The Allied forces never officially announced whether German troops had been in the monastery.
One thing soon became self-evident: the Germans had little hesitation about moving in afterward. They waited exactly two days. Then, when the Abbot departed, German paratroopers installed themselves and their weapons in the ruins. The rubble provided excellent protection against the attacks on the mountain by the Indians.
On the day after the bombardment, German photographers took pictures of the destroyed monastery. That evening an officer flew the films to Berlin for processing. They would receive wide showing and have great propaganda effect. This, the Nazi Ministry of Information would proclaim, was how the Allies were liberating Europe.
Abbot Diamare left the ruined monastery at dawn on February 17. He and most of the other occupants had huddled in the deep crypt of the abbey during the bombardment. Now, accompanied by those who could walk, he wended his way down a mule path until he was picked up by Senger’s automobile, which had been solicitously dispatched to bring him to the German’s headquarters. Brokenhearted, dazed by the shock of the bombs, hardly believing what had happened, the Abbot accepted Senger’s hospitality.