- 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
Halfway between Naples and Rome, on a moiintaintop and visible for miles, stands the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, serene and benign, apparently indestructible. Of cream-colored stone, its longest side extending 200 yards, four stories tall, with a thick, battlemented base and rows of cell windows, the abbey resembles a fortress. Not particularly beautiful, it is impressive because of its massive size and commanding location. Crowning Monte Cassino, which rises abruptly 1,700 feet above the plain, the abbey overlooks the town of Cassino and the Rapido River, at its foot; to the northwest it superbly dominates the Liri Valley, stretching off toward Rome. It is built around five cloistered courtyards and includes a large church, a seminary, an observatory, a school for 250 boys, a vast library of priceless archives, and various workshops and outbuildings. Since 1866, when Italy dissolved the monasteries, the abbey has been a national monument, the monks remaining as custodians of the structure and its treasures.
The abbey was founded by Saint Benedict himself around 529 A.D. It was ravaged by Lombards in the sixth century, pillaged by Saracens in the ninth, knocked clown by an earthquake in the fourteenth, sacked by French troops in the eighteenth, and reduced to rubble by bombs and shells in the twentieth.
To many, the last act of destruction seemed as senseless and wanton as the others. Yet the men who levelled the sanctified walls believed they had compelling reasons. In order to save soldiers’ lives, they felt they had to sacrifice an edifice representing one of the great traditions of a civilixation they sought to preserve.
The setting was World War II, the stage the Italian campaign, and the destruction an apparent departure from a consistent policy scrupulously observed.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff, the highest AngloAmerican military command, had made that policy very clear. Religious, historical, and cultural properties, they said, were to be spared from damage, together with “local archives…classical monuments and objects of art.” But only if their preservation was “consistent with military necessity.”
Although no one ventured to define military necessity precisely, the commanders in the ReId had made every effort to respect the injunction in the campaigns of North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. General Dwight D. Eisenhowcr, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean theatre, assured his superiors that “all precautions to safeguard works of art and monuments are being taken. Naval, ground, and air commanders have been so instructed and understand fully [the] importance of preventing unnecessary or avoidable damage.” General Mark Clark, who commanded the Fifth Army in Italy, directed his subordinates “to protect these properties, and intentional attacks will therefore be carefully avoided. … If, however, military necessity should so dictate, there should be no hesitation in taking whatever action the situation warrants.”
In the fall of 1943, although the fighting front was far from Monte Cassino, Italian museum officials reminded the Allied command of the historic and artistic importance of the abbey. Word went out to air units at once: “All possible precautions to be taken to avoid bombing abbey on Monte Cassino.”
“Let me see pictures of this place,” ordered General Alfred Gruenther, dark’s chief of staff. “Will our ground troops have occasion to demolish it by artillery fire?”
The question was academic until early January, 1944, when Vatican authorities complained that the abbey had been “seriously damaged” by artillery. An immediate investigation revealed what had happened. The town of Cassino had been heavily bombed and shelled for some time and was still under Rre because it was occupied by German troops. Since there were “many gun positions and enemy installations in the vicinity of the town,” the investigating officer reported, “it is possible that…an erratic round hit the Abbey. Any damage caused by our artillery fire would be purely unintentional.…”
Despite the clear comprehension reflected in this report, General Clark repeated his instructions. Even though the abbey occupied commanding terrain that “might well serve as an excellent observation post for the enemy,” this artistic, historical, and ecclesiastical shrine was to be immune from attack. Except, of course, that this immunity “will not be allowed to interfere with military necessity.”
That was the basic issue, and this the essential question: From a military point of view, was it necessary to bomb the abbey?
Having entered southern Italy in September, 1943, Anglo-American forces took Naples and headed for Rome, moving into increasingly difficult ground and meeting stiffening resistance. By mid-autumn the Germans had been in retreat for a year—driven back from Egypt, expelled from Libya and Tunisia, forced out of Sicily, pushed out of southern Italy toward Rome. Now they intended to stop. In the steep-sided mountains around Cassino, they would stand and fight. It was not a hastily prepared position, but a series of formidable strong points known as the Gustav line.
Incorporated into their defensive positions was the hill of Monte Cassino. Inside the abbey, at its summit, were seventy resident monks, about two hundred schoolchildrcn, nuns, and orphans normally housed there, and several hundred people who had fled the battlefield and sought refuge and sanctuary.
Both warring armies recognized the sanctity of the monastery, but neither had control over accidents. When a German pilot inadvertently flew his plane into the cables of a funicular tramway connecting the abbey and the town at the foot of the mountain, he smashed not only his aircraft but also the tramway. Several days later, when Allied planes dropped bombs on the town of Cassino, they unintentionally released several loads over the abbey. Minor damage resulted. But the monks remained steadfast and calm. They were confident that the Allied and German military forces would respect the building and its grounds.
In mid-October, two German officers drove up the steep hill from the town of Cassino, carefully negotiating the seven hairpin turns over a distance of almost six miles, and reached the gate of the abbey. They asked to see the abbot. Ushered into his presence, they explained that the Ministry of National Education in Mussolini’s government had expressed concern over the possible destruction of the abbey’s works of art. It would be desirable, they suggested, to remove these treasures to a safe place in Rome, and they offered their assistance.
The abbot, Bishop Gregorio Diamare, was a small and alert man of seventy-eight years who wore his age and his title with ineffable dignity. He found the idea of carrying out the art treasures rather ridiculous. Botli adversaries in the war had publicly proclaimed their intention to conserve cultural and religious properties. What harm could come to this holy place?
The German officers bowed and withdrew.
Two days later they returned. This time they insisted that the abbey was in danger because of the military importance of the hill on which it was located. Although the Germans preferred to fight elsewhere, the officers explained, they had no choice. The hill of Monte Cassino was far too valuable to be excluded from the fortifications being constructed. A battle was sure to take place, and the abbey was certain to incur damage.
The Abbot accepted their offer. On the following day a German military truck arrived, was loaded with art treasures, and made the first of several trips to transport the most venerable relics and objects to Rome. Almost all of the monks also departed for Rome, along with nuns, orphans, schoolchildren, and many of the refugees. The Abbot, five monks, five lay brothers, and about 150 civilians remained. Life on the hill was quiet and somewhat lonely. The sounds of cannon were occasional and distant.
Early in December, the commander of the German Tenth Army in italy, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, requested help in solving a problem. How could he use the hill of Monte Cassino in his defenses, he asked his superior, without harming the abbey? “Preserving the extraterritoriality of the monastery,” he warned, “is not possible: of necessity it lies directly in the main line of resistance.” To fight on Monte Cassino would endanger the monastery. To give up Monte Cassino without a fight would definitely impair the usefulness of the defensive line. For “along with the renunciation of good observation posts and good positions of concealment on our part, the Anglo-Americans almost certainly would not bother about any sort of agreement at the decisive moment [of battle] but would without scruple place themselves in occupation of this point [the abbey itself] which in certain circumstances might be decisive [for the outcome].”
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the commander in chief of the German forces in Italy, gave Vieiingholf an unequivocal answer. Hc had assured representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome that German troops would refrain from entering the abbey. “This means,” Vietinghoff specified when he passed the word along to his subordinates, “only that the building alone is to be spared.”
Placing the abbey off limits and drawing a circle with its circumference about aoo yards from the walls, he forbade all troops to cross the line, stationed several military policemen at the abbey entrance to enforce the order, and assured the Abbot that no military installations of any sort would be constructed within the confines of the abbey—that is, within the circle he had traced.
But the slopes of Monte Cassino outside the circle were not off limits. German troops demolished the abbey’s outlying buildings to create fields of fire for their weapons, and set up observation posts and emplacements for crew-served guns. There is evidence that they established at least one position inside the circle, an ammunition supply dump in a cave probably no more than 50 yards from the monastery wall.
In January, 1944, as Allied troops approached, the Germans were ready. They evacuated all the refugees still in the monastery except a handful too sick or infirm to be moved. They said they would continue to respect the abbey, but they asked the Abbot to leave. Despite the bustle of Germans digging on the hill and the more frequent and louder sounds of gunlire, the Abbot refused. Hc had faith in the promises made by both sides.
Recognizing how difficult it would be to batter down and go through the solid defenses around Cassino, the Allied leaders decided to bypass them. They would send a sizable contingent of troops up the west coast of Italy in ships. These men would come ashore at Anxio, about seventy-five miles ahead of the main Allied forces and only thirty miles below Rome. At Anzio they would pose a direct threat to the capital and menace the rear of the Germans holding the Cassino line. Taken by surprise, the Germans would probably have to divert strength from Cassino to defend Rome. And this, the Allies hoped, would enable Allied troops to move forward through Cassino, rush overland, and join the soldiers at Anzio. There they would gather strength for a final surge into Rome.
The plan involved a grave risk. Until the main Allied body of troops could move from Cassino to Anxio, the units holding the beachhead there would be isolated, exposed, and highly vulnerable. Hut the pi ixe was too tempting. The prospect of quickly capturing the Eternal City persuaded the Allied leaders to accept the hazard.
The importance of Rome was undeniable. Above all, it had symbolic and psychological value to both contestants; and in this connection there was a lime factor. The Allies wanted Rome by a certain date- before the cross-Channel attack into Normandy, which was then scheduled for May, 1944. Taking Rome, they believed, would lower the enemy’s will to resist and facilitate the Normandy invasion. Thus, a sense of urgency was imparted to the Allied activities in Italy.
In January, General Sir Harold Alexander, the British officer who commanded the two Allied armies in Italy, gave the signal to start “the Rome operation.” General Clark, as commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, thereupon opened a massive attack at Cassino. Designed to divert German attention, it culminated on January 20—two days before the Anzio landing—with an attempt to cross the Rapido River and push up the Liri Valley. The river assault, which took place in the shadow of Monte Cassino, failed for a variety of reasons to crack the strong Cassino defenses. The Anzio landing on January 22 succeeded; but, contrary to Allied expectations, the Germans moved quickly to contain the beachhead there. At the same time they managed to retain enough troops at Cassino to keep their defenses intact and solid.
Now the urgency tel t by the Allies underwent a change in emphasis. No longer was Rome the overriding objective. Far more important was an overland advance from Cassino to link up with the American soldiers cruelly exposed on the Anzio plain. And this depended on getting across the Rapido River. Since Monte Cassino dominated the Rapido, giving the Germans excellent observation posts from which to direct artillery and mortar fire, the Allied leaders moved against the mountain. American infantrymen fought a battle marked by extreme exertion and heroism. They got part way up the mountain, but were unable to wrest it from German control. The defenses were simply too strong, the defenders too tenacious. After twenty days of effort, and heavy casualties, the Americans were exhausted and had to admit failure.
Had the ruling that exempted the monastery from direct fire affected the outcome of the struggle? Some who looked with longing eyes to the high ground that would open the way to Anzio found themselves staring at the abbey. Aloof and indifferent, crowning the mountaintop that represented victory, the building seemed to have taken on a sinister appearance.
Now General Alexander brought in two fresh divisions—one of New Zealanders, the other of Indians- for a renewed assault. According to a new plan that envisaged stretching the German defenses, the Indians would attack Monte Cassino while the New Zealanders crossed the Rapido. The double blow, it was felt, would certainly open a path to Anzio.
Mark Clark was responsible for operations at both Anzio and Cassino. Under Clark, and in direct command of the two-division attack at Cassino, was General Sir Bernard Freyberg.
A New Zealander of imposing physical appearance and impressive reputation, Freyberg was a legendary hero of World War I. He had already sustained his image in World War II by a magnificent record in North Africa and in Crete. Not only was he the commander of New Zealand’s military forces in the European theatre; he was also the chief political representative of his government. His dual function was an oddity that sometimes embarrassed his colleagues. For though his military rank subordinated him in the command structure, his political status placed him above his military superiors.
When Clark met Freyberg early in February, he was taken with the New Zealander’s commanding presence; his heavy-set figure exuded authority and evoked instant respect. Clark was pleased, too, with Freybcrg’s energy and aggressiveness. But he also felt a brief twinge of discomfort. Freyberg’s dominion troops, he noted, were “very jealous of their prerogatives. The British have found them difficult to handle. They have always been given special considerations which we would not give to our own troops.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Almost immediately after the battlefront had swept past Monte Cassino, plans were made to rebuild the abbey. And soon after the end of World War II, sufficient funds were raised throughout the world, with a large part coming from the United States, to start the laborious process of restoration.
Today Saint Benedict’s structure again occupies its mountaintop serenely, a landmark visible from afar. Tourists speeding along the new superhighway between Naples and Rome can look across the fields and see it plainly in all its glory. There are no scars. Who can imagine that anything happened to the abbey during the war?