For more than 1,400 years, the Abbey of Monte Cassino had stood more than 1,500 feet above Cassino town in central Italy. Majestically situated with a commanding view of the entire valley, it had for centuries been a place of solitude, study, and prayers. Established in the 6th century, the Abbey had seen a slow decline since the Middle Ages, but was still a magnificent structure. And so, it’s with some sense of irony that this place of intense peace became the focus of one of the most controversial decisions of World War II.
As the Allied armies had been pushing north through Italy in early 1944, they had run into stiff resistance at the Gustav Line. Running from south of Rome across the country, one of the strongpoints was centered in the hills around the monastery. But the Abbey was of enormous historical significance, and leadership on both sides of the war wanted to be nowhere near the blame incurred for causing its destruction.
The entire country was full antiquities, to the point that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring declared the Italian defense a “war in a museum“. Already, numerous sites of immense historical value had been destroyed in places like Naples, and no one was willing to repeat it…except New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg (who we remember from Crete), who was convinced that the monastery-turned-national-monument was being used by the Germans as part of their defense of the area.
Unsure of the truth, two Allied generals took to the air and flew over the Abbey on February 14th, and the report came back that it appeared that there were Germans in the courtyard along with radio masts. Of course, there weren’t Germans in the courtyard, nor anywhere around the monastery (though they were in the vicinity), and Major General Keyes, who also flew over the monastery, said so.
But the decision to bomb won out and so, on February 15, 1944, more than 200 medium and heavy bombers lifted off, flew over the Abbey, and plastered it with more than 1,100 tons of bombs. The only fatalities were the Italian civilians that had taken refuge there (certain it would not be attacked) and the monks that refused to leave.
Monte Cassino had been reduced to rubble, and because it had been attacked by the Allies, the Germans were perfectly justified to infiltrate the ruins and set up camp. And that’s just what they did. What’s more, the Allies didn’t begin their assault on (what was left of) the monastery for a couple days, so the Germans were fully prepared, and a battle that had been a bloody struggle to this point would get no better.
Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle