- 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
After letting him rest a day, Senger interviewed the Abbot in front of microphones. The production started with a statement read by a lieutenant: The Abbey Monte Cassino is completely destroyed. A senseless act of force of the Anglo-American Air Force has robbed civilized mankind of one of its most valued cultural monuments. Abbot Bishop Gregorio Diamare has been brought out of the ruins of his abbey under the protection of the German Armed Forces. He voluntarily placed himself in their protection and was brought by them through a ring of fire of Allied artillery…and into the Command Post of the Commanding General. The aged Abbot…found here a place of refuge and recovery after the days of horror which he, his monks, and numerous refugees, women, children, old men, crippled, sick and wounded civilians had to undergo because of the order of the Allied Supreme Commander.
We find the General…and the Abbot…in a voluntary discussion into which we now cut in: The General: ”…everything was done on the part of the German Armed Forces, definitely everything, in order to give the opponent no military ground for attacking the monastery.”
The Abbot: “General, I … can only confirm this. You declared the Abbey Monte Cassino a protected zone, you forbade German soldiers to step within the area of the abbey, you ordered that within a specified perimeter around the abbey there be neither weapons, nor observation posts, nor billeting of troops. You have tirelessly taken care that these orders were most strictly observed.…Until the moment of the destruction…there was within the area of the abbey neither a German soldier, nor any German weapon, nor any German military installation.”
The General: “It came to my attention much too late that leaflets which gave notice of the bombing were dropped over the area of the monastery. I first learned this after the bombing. No leaflets were dropped over our German positions.”
The Abbot: “I have the feeling that the leaflets were intionally dropped so late in order to give us no possibility to notify the German commander, or, on the other hand to bring the some eight hundred guests of the monastery out of the danger zone.…We simply did not believe that the English and Americans would attack the abbey. And when they came with their bombs, we laid out white cloths in order to say to them, do nothing to us, we are certainly without arms, we are no military objective, here is a holy place. It did not help, they have destroyed the monastery and killed hundreds of innocent people.”
The General: “Can I do anything more?”
The Abbot: “No, General, you have done everything—even today the German Armed Forces provides for us and for the refugees in model fashion. But I have something still to do, namely to thank you and the German Armed Forces for all the consideration given to the original abode of the Benedictine Order both before and after the bombardment. I thank you.”
Senger must have thanked the Abbot, although this was not recorded. He sent him under escort to Rome.
The Vatican protested the bombardment in strong terms, and President Roosevelt replied that he had issued instructions to prevent the destruction of historic monuments except in cases of military necessity —not merely military convenience, he emphasized, but military necessity. The bombardment, he said, had been unfortunate but necessary for the prosecution of the war.
In the Allied camp, a profound disappointment took hold. Who had been at fault? The Army troops who had failed to take advantage of the bombing? Or the airmen who had failed to eradicate the enemy defenses? Was heavy bombing useless for giving direct support to troops on the ground?
No one seemed to know. General Eaker, the air forces commander, summed up the feeling: General Clark, he wrote, “did not want a single bomb on Cassino Abbey, but…General Freyberg .. . went over his head or around him and asked … [Alexander] to have it bombed. We bomb it and it causes an uproar from the churchmen. You ask us then why we bombed; we make an investigation and discover a difference of view.”
Exactly a month later, on March 15, the Allies launched another bombardment. This one employed twice as many planes as before, and the target was the town of Cassino. Although nearly all of its homes and buildings were destroyed, German paratroopers fought stubbornly amidst the ruins, and Allied ground attacks were only partly successful. Meanwhile, the wreckage of the monastery, high above the battle, remained in German hands.
At Anzio, the isolated Allied troops withstood German pressure by sheer determination, a scant seven miles from the water’s edge. A virtual stalemate then characterized the military situation in Italy until early in May, when the Allies launched an overwhelming attack along the Cassino line. Clark’s Fifth Army, spearheaded by Juin’s French forces, broke the Cassino defenses at the Garigliano River, outflanked Monte Cassino, and forced the Germans to give way. Polish troops then captured what was left of the abbey. Toward the end of May, after moving forward relentlessly, American forces made contact with the troops at Anzio, who then broke out of their confined beachhead. A subsequent drive resulted in the capture of Rome on June 4, two days before the Normandy invasion.