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The Battle of Monte Cassino – A High Price for Victory

In early 1944 Nazi Germany and her allies were stretched over three different fronts. In the East the siege of Leningrad had been raised and the Germans were being pushed back in the Ukraine. In France the German defenders awaited the inevitable cross-channel invasion to be launched from Great Britain. In Italy the Germans were fighting hard to prevent the Allied capture of Rome. The tide had well and truly turned on the Axis, but the most destructive and costly battles in the war were still to be fought.

The Situation

The Allied armies had invaded southern Italy in September 1943. Italy had surrendered and switched sides. The Germans had no intention of giving up Italy easily and succeeded in tying down superior forces, using the terrain to best advantage.

By the beginning of 1944 the Germans were holding the Gustav Line south of Rome. This was a formidable defensive line that used rivers , mountains and ridges that made breeching it difficult.

The American landing at Anzio further north on 22nd January 1944 was an attempt outflank the Gustav Line and seize Rome. The landing however had got bogged down and was stuck on the beachhead.

Aerial View of the Monte Cassino Battlefield. Cassino town is at the base of the mountain. The Rapido River runs through it across the foot of the mountains.

The only viable route for the Allied armies facing the Gustav Line was route 6 up the Liri Valley. This wide valley was exposed to accurate German artillery fire directed from observation posts on the mountains that overlooked the valley.

The town of Cassino with the Rapido River running through it was a difficult obstacle to any further advance and the Monte Cassino Monastery on the mountain above the town had views in all directions including the Liri Valley.

What followed was a series of four battles that resulted in the capture of Cassino town and the Monastery but casualties were heavy and the Monte Cassino Abbey that dated back to 529 AD was destroyed.

The Battle

The First battle of Monte Cassino.

The first battle saw American forces attack across the flooded Rapido River north of Cassino in an attempt to outflank Cassino and get into the mountains behind Monte Cassino. After initial setbacks and heavy casualties American and French forces succeeded in advancing across the river and into the mountains. They attacked Cassino town and the Monastery hill but were unsuccessful. They were withdrawn from the line on 11th February 1944 and were replaced by the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division.

The Monastery being pounded by aerial bombardment. Cassino town is at the base of the mountain.
The Second Battle of Monte Cassino.

The second battle saw the New Zealanders and Indians attacking up the mountains above Cassino town from the north and also directly at Cassino town from the south east. Prior to the assault the American Army Airforce bombed the Abbey. There had been debate if the Germans were occupying the Abbey and using it to observe Allied movements and direct artillery fire. Despite no direct evidence the Germans were occupying the Abbey, it was decided to bomb it. The destruction of the Abbey by air was not coordinated with the infantry assault. The air force had treated their bombing raid as a separate mission, and the chance to seize the Abbey with a rapid infantry attack was lost. The assault saw fierce fighting and heavy casualties over three days but failed to capture either of their objectives.

The Third battle commenced on the 15th March with another massive bombardment from the air and artillery. The Indians and New Zealanders who had been joined by the British 78th Division attacked the Monastery and the town. They got close to the monastery but a surprise German counterattack caused confusion. A foothold was gained in the town but on the 23rd March it was conceded by the Allied commanders that their troops were exhausted and the assault should cease.

Situation Map – May 1944 – The Western Italian front and the plans to breach the Gustav Line
German defenders in the ruins of Monte Cassino.

With improving weather, the fourth and final battle commenced on the 11th May 1944. It was a four pronged attack with the Americans advancing along the coast towards Rome and the French on their right would advance into the Liri valley. Further north Polish and British forces attacked the Monastery in a pincer movement.

The American attack made slow progress, but the French achieved their objectives and were pushing the defenders back in the Aurunci Mountains and the valley floor.

Polish soldiers bringing ammunition to forward positions on the slopes of Monte Cassino.

The British forces succeeded in cutting of Cassino town from the Liri Valley. Polish forces attacking the Monastery and fought for several days, with heavy casualties on both sides. Eventually the German High Command made the decision to withdraw from the Monastery heights and retreat to their next line of defence – the Senger Line. On the 18th May the Poles raised their flag over the ruins of the Monastery and sounded the bugle calls of victory.

The Aftermath

The ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey following the battle.

Around 55,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in the four battles for Monte Cassino. The German casualties were estimated to be around 20,000. Over 2,000 civilians lost their lives in the bombing raids on Cassino town and the battles.

Rome fell on 4th June 1944, two days later the Allied armies landed in Normandy.

The Allies made mistakes in the coordination of their attacks that cost thousands of lives. Eventually it was concluded that the Germans were not occupying the Monastery prior to the bombing. It was also proven that the bombed monastery provided much more assistance to the defenders that the intact buildings.

The tenacity of both sides in the battles for Monte Cassino in difficult terrain and close quarters fighting evoked similarities from observers to the fighting in Verdun on the Western Front in the First World War.

A high price was paid for a victory that could probably have been achieved by other means other than carpet bombing and frontal assaults. However, in war decisions need to be made with the facts available at the time and the strategy decided upon. Judging the past, with the perfection of hindsight and no pressure of accountability is an easy place to operate from.

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