Special Report: Seven decades ago, the Allies celebrated a hard-fought victory with the capture of Monte Cassino, but the huge cost in blood and the destruction of Saint Benedict’s famous abbey still make the battle controversial, as war correspondent Don North explains.
By Don North
Historically overshadowed by more famous battles of World War Two – such as Stalingrad and Normandy – the battle of Monte Cassino has left behind a mixed legacy, recalled for the tactical ineptness of senior Allied commanders and the extraordinary courage of the multinational force that struggled for months to dislodge well-entrenched German forces in the Italian mountains and clear the path to Rome.
The bloody campaign fought 70 years ago, in coordination with the Anzio landing to the north, cost some 55,000 Allied casualties and inflicted some 20,000 German dead and wounded, but the months-long battle may be best remembered for the Allied destruction of the historic Cassino Abbey founded by the Roman nobleman Saint Benedict in 529. For centuries, the Abbey dispatched Benedictine monks to establish monasteries throughout the Christian world.
Though the German general had agreed not to station troops in the Abbey, Allied officers suspected that it gave the Germans a valuable observation post and would inevitably come into play to protect German troops. Its obliteration by Allied strategic bombing ended up killing only some 230 Italians who had sought refuge behind its walls as well as a few other victims killed from errant bombs. [Click to see video of the Allied destruction of the Monte Cassino Abbey]
As it turned out, the Abbey’s destruction also freed the Germans to use the ruins as a site for digging in for their desperate fight against wave after wave of Allied troops who finally captured the mountainous redoubt on May 18, 1944. It was not until a quarter century later that the official U.S. account of the battle was changed to acknowledge that “the abbey was actually unoccupied by German troops.”
This month, as I visited the site of this bloody struggle, it is hard to imagine the carnage from 70 years ago. The Abbey of Monte Cassino has been rebuilt along with a fashionable village. Above the little town, the monastery still towers, its prominence a menacing reminder of why the Germans chose these mountains as their chief defensive line in central Italy – and how daunting the challenge faced by the Allied troops.
Touring the rebuilt Abbey and the town, Cyril Hart of the British Grenadier Guards observed, “It wasn’t the Cassino I knew in 1944. Instead of a heap of rubble a new town has been built. When that heartbreak mountain, which caused the lives of so many infantrymen of all nations came into view, my heart stopped beating. That hasn’t changed. It still looms forbiddingly.”
The dwindling number of the battle’s survivors and their families mostly come – not to visit the monastery or the town – but to pay their respects to comrades buried in the cemeteries in the vicinity. At Cassino these days, the dead far outnumber the living.
The Battle’s Prelude
After the conquest of Sicily in 1943, the Allies faced the difficult task of battling up the spine of Italy toward Rome. The Germans gave ground gradually with the goal of blocking the Allies’ advance at what they called their Gustav Line anchored in Cassino. However, German Filed Marshall Albert Kesselring ordered his troops not to include the Abbey in their defensive system. The Germans also evacuated to the Vatican many of the ancient books and other treasures housed at the Abbey.
As 1944 dawned, Allied progress had been painfully slow, becoming an embarrassment to the high command and creating tensions among the Allies. Napoleon had once said, “Italy is a boot. You have to enter it from the top.” The Allies were learning the wisdom of Napoleon’s observation as they pushed up from the toe.
The reason for the slow pace was that the geography south of Rome has high mountains with fast-flowing rivers cutting through. The only possible route to Rome was up the ancient Appian Way, Route 7, or by the Via Casilina, Route 6, built in the 12th Century A.D.
The Appian Way followed the west coast but south of Rome the Germans had flooded the Pontine Marshes, making the route impassible. The only alternative, Route 6, passed through the valley of the Liri River, but towering over the entrance to the valley was the monastery of Monte Cassino, one of Christianity’s most sacred sites.
Generations of Italians had labored to beautify the buildings and the monastery had become a baroque masterpiece as well as a center for the fine arts. Over the gate of the monastery was carved “Pax,” the Latin word for peace.
But the monastery’s greatest treasure was its library which had preserved writings from antiquity and had safeguarded this heritage of early Western civilization during the Dark Ages. By 1943, the Abbey library contained 40,000 manuscripts, including works of Tacitus, Cicero, Horace and Virgil.
The harsh terrain, with the Germans holding the high ground behind well-developed defenses, required Allied soldiers to undertake daring and dangerous attacks across raging rivers and up steep cliffs under fire from German tanks, artillery and infantry.
The campaign involved four separate battles that tested the courage of soldiers fighting under conditions similar to the First World War. As the battles progressed, more and more men from 15 nations were ordered to throw themselves at the virtually impregnable German defenses, making the Battle of Monte Cassino a classic story of high-level incompetence and hubris matched by the bravery, sacrifice and humanity of soldiers of the line.
After retreating up the Italian coast and making his stand at this mountain pass, Field Marshall Kesselring faced an Allied army led by American Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Division, who was distrusted by subordinates and superiors alike.
Tom Ricks’s in his classic The Generals devoted a chapter to Clark’s shortcomings and wrote that he should have been removed from his position in Italy. But British officers were reluctant to move against him without U.S. backing, and Americans were wary of challenging Clark because of his close relationship with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
Gen. Lucian Truscott, one of the best American generals of the war, wrote that Clark’s “concern for personal publicity was his greatest weakness. I thought it may have prevented him from acquiring that feel of battle that marks all top-flight battle leaders.”
British Gen. Harold Alexander, who was Clark’s superior as head of the Eighth Army, was regarded with the highest respect and admiration, not only by his own soldiers but by all the diverse nationalities under his command. Alexander was a professional and avoided anything resembling showmanship.
Like Alexander, Field Marshall Kesselring, commander in chief of the German Tenth and Fourteenth armies, was considered a top professional soldier and hard worker who dispensed with showmanship.
Under Kesselring was General von Sänger und Etterlin, commander of the Fourth Panzer Corps, the formation charged with the defense of the Gustav Line in the Cassino sector. Von Senger was a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Oxford University, an officer whose known anti-Nazi feelings resulted in his command being played down by German authorities and Adolf Hitler.
A Catholic, von Senger was ironically a member of the Benedictine Order which controlled the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. Along with Kesselring, von Senger was instrumental in removing the art treasures from the monastery of Monte Cassino for safekeeping at the Vatican. To make sure, the treasures were not looted by German soldiers, journalists and film cameras documented their removal.
What came to be known as the Battle of Monte Cassino started on Jan. 17, 1944, when troops of the American Fifth Army crossed the Garigliano River and attempted to establish a protective flank for a thrust into the heart of Cassino by an American division three days later.
Besides testing the German defenses, the battle served to divert German reserves that otherwise might have been available to counter the U.S. amphibious landing at Anzio, which was slated to strike north of the Gustav Line on Jan. 22. The Germans successfully held off the American advance toward Cassino, but the assault did pull in three Panzer divisions, thus buying time for the troops of the troubled Anzio landing to dig in before getting encircled by German forces.
As the Battle of Monte Cassino wore on, the greatest difference between the British and American armies was in their attitude toward conserving manpower. For the British, there was a grim determination not to repeat the mistakes of the First World War, but to do everything possible to minimize casualties, even at the risk of success.
The Americans had a less traumatic experience during the First World War and had much greater reserves of manpower. This led to their generals being far quicker to order men forward to the attack, whatever the casualties. U.S. Gen. Clark referred disparagingly to the “usual practice for British commanders to depend largely on air bombardment and artillery,” while the British considered the American commanders callous in their use of their men. To the British, high causalities were evidence of a lack of skill, not aggression.
Although the German divisions had their share of young, inexperienced troops, their cultural background was vastly different to that of the “citizen” soldiers of Britain and the U.S. Although two million Germans died in the First World War, a belief emerged that Germany had not lost the war, as German soil was never the scene of battle and there had been an armistice, not a surrender.
Thus arose the myth that the men at the front had been betrayed by politicians, communists and financiers, which, in turn, fueled the “cult of the soldier,” a German ideal of heroism and commitment to warfare. So, while the citizen armies of British and Americans had to be handled with great care, there was no talk of “rights” in the Wehrmacht. A German soldier caught deserting would be shot. During the war, Germans executed over 15,000 of their own men. Americans executed only one man in the course of World War Two.
The German military ethos was tested during the four offensives that made up the Battle of Monte Cassino, but the Allies matched the Germans in tenacity as one national army after another took up frontline positions and finally wore the Germans down.
As the battle raged on, advantage swung back and forth from one side to another, pitting successive national armies against the defending Germans: the Americans, British, Canadians, French, New Zealanders, Indians and Poles. From firefights in the hills to tank attacks in the valleys, from river crossings to street fighting, the four battles of Cassino encompass a series of operations unique in the history of World War Two.
After the first battle, the opinion of Allied officers became fixed on the great Abbey in their suspicion it was being used as an artillery observation post that prevented the Allies breach of the Gustav Line on the road to Rome. German General Kesselring had agreed not to station his troops in the Abbey although they were dug in around the massive ten-foot thick walls.
As each nation’s troops stepped up to assault the Germans around the Abbey, the demand from their officers for a massive air raid grew. New Zealand Gen. Kippenberger whose troops were about to assault Monte Cassino said, “If not occupied today, it might be tomorrow … It was impossible to ask troops to storm a hill surmounted by an intact building, capable of sheltering several hundred infantry in perfect security from shellfire and ready at the critical moment to emerge and counter attack.”
Gen. Clark was not convinced of the necessity to destroy the Abbey, but left the decision to Gen. Alexander. “I said, you give me a direct order and we’ll do it, and he did,” recalled Clark in his memoirs.
For the first time in history an obliteration bombing of a small infantry objective was to be carried out by heavy bombers, mostly B-17’s and B-25’s. The monastery and the town of Cassino were to be wiped off the map. On March 15, about 500 bombers dropped more than 1,000 tons of bombs in 3½ hours.
The American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn watched the bombing and wrote 30 years later, “I watched it sitting on a stone wall and saw the monastery turning into a muddle of dust and heard the big bangs and was absolutely delighted and cheered like all the other fools.”
Tactically, the destruction of the Abbey may actually have helped the Germans who then developed strong defensive positions within the ruins. However, eventually, the weight of the Allies’ superior numbers and firepower doomed the German defenders.
By May, the Allies had 2,000 tanks to the Germans 450. One German prisoner captured late in the battle was questioned by an American guarding him. “If you’re so tough, how come you’re a prisoner and I’m guarding you?” The German who had been in charge of 88mm guns aimed at approaching American tanks replied, “The Americans kept sending tanks down the road and we Germans kept knocking them out. Eventually we ran out of ammunition and the American’s didn’t run out of tanks.”
Finally on May 18, the German defenders of Monte Cassino raised a white flag in surrender and the Polish Division confronting them on the mountain – although they had taken 50 percent casualties — staggered up to take possession of the rubble that was once the historic monastery.
The following day Peter Stursberg of the CBC climbed the hill and described the carnage: “I have never seen such a grisly sight. There were the dead that had stormed and taken this fortress only yesterday. And there were the dead that had tried to take it months ago. I almost stumbled over a head that had almost mummified. The horrible thing about these battlefields above Cassino was that the men who fought there lived with the dead around them.” Peter Stursberg recently celebrated his 100th birthday in Vancouver, Canada.
Yet, despite the enormous sacrifice, a chance for a more total victory, trapping the retreating German forces between the Anzio army and the victorious Monte Cassino troops, was lost when U.S. Gen. Clark inexplicably overturned Gen. Alexander’s instructions and ordered the troops breaking out of Anzio to shift to a northwesterly route toward Rome, rather than a blocking position to destroy the remainder of Kesselring’s army.
Gen. Truscott, the commander of the Anzio forces, tried but failed to contact Clark about changing the orders, declaring: “There has never been any doubt in my mind that had General Clark held loyally to General Alexander’s instructions, had he not changed the direction of my attack to the northwest on May 26th, the strategic objectives of Anzio would have been accomplished in full. To be first in Rome was a poor compensation for this lost opportunity.”
It is estimated this decision by Clark lengthened the war in Italy and cost thousands of Allied additional casualties.
The Battle of Monte Cassino ultimately ended on June 4 when the Fifth Army entered Rome, a somewhat hollow victory given the German escape – and an achievement that was overshadowed by the D-Day invasion of Normandy just two days later.
The difficulty of war correspondents covering a major conflict like the Battle of Monte Cassino is compounded by the conventions of war reporting. A correspondent has to describe and interpret complex events while they are still in confused progress and reduce them at high speed to a few sentences. The reporter also cannot be in more than one place at a time and is subject to censorship.
Yet, in spite of the difficulties and confusion of the fighting at Monte Cassino and the polyglot nature of Allied forces fighting there, Western war correspondents acquitted themselves well.
Particularly eloquent, given the working conditions are reports from Cassino by C.L Sulzberger of the New York Times. In the recently published New York Times’ chronicling of World War Two, Sulzberger is quoted in a report sent by wireless on Feb. 7 with the U.S. Fifth Army:.
“The grimy, unshaven infantry squads in the small cluster of ruined buildings are still virtually on the outskirts of Cassino. They are maintaining themselves against all counter-attacks, but they are finding it still virtually impossible to break through toward the town’s main square past the enemy tanks and self-propelled guns continually dodging about behind the wrecks of houses and supported by hidden artillery ensconced in concrete cellar bunkers and steel pill-boxes manned with machine guns.”
Ernie Pyle, writing columns for the Scripps service and the most popular American war correspondent in World War Two, devoted much of his work to the war in Italy and the Cassino front. It was where Pyle found his favorites – “the infantry” – in perhaps the most trying and frustrating fighting of the war.
It was on the Cassino front that Pyle wrote his famous column “The Death of Captain Waskow” when American dead were being brought down a mountain draped over mules one night. He eloquently described the reactions of Henry Waskow’s men as each one paid respects to the fallen captain from Beltan, Texas.
However honestly Pyle wrote about the men of the infantry in Italy, there were some subjects he chose to ignore or that he knew would not make it past the censor. He wrote little about the frequent “friendly casualties,” mental breakdown of troops suffering PTSD, racial segregation in the U.S. Army or extensive looting by American soldiers.
The Cassino front proved to be the ideal battle for radio correspondent Peter Stursberg of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to show what journalists in the field could do with portable recording equipment. The BBC and U.S. networks at that time considered it unethical to record and playback sounds of battle, but the CBC was a pioneer in this kind of journalism and Stursberg, who is a friend of mine, was at home with a mike amongst bursting bombs.
In one of his reports preserved in the National Archives of Canada, Stursberg had positioned himself along the Rapido River just below Monte Cassino where he expected some 2,000 Allied artillery guns would begin a new offensive.
He reported: “The night is lit by the flashes of the guns. The white flames bring the hills out in black relief. … It’s an amazing and terrifying sight and yet thrilling. I don’t know how to describe it in words, I think it is easier for you to picture it by listening. … This is the greatest artillery action of the Eighth Army – far greater than the famous barrage at El Alamein. There are guns in front of us – they are the ones making the sharp cracks – and guns behind us.”
Testament to the remarkable job done by many of the correspondents covering the Monte Cassino battle can be seen in how well their reporting has held up even with the passage of 70 years and the many excellent histories chronicling the battle.
But the judgment of military historians regarding the Italian campaign and the Cassino battles in particular has not been sympathetic. J.F.C. Fuller, in his Second World War, called it a “campaign which for lack of strategic sense and tactical imagination is unique in military history.”
Although it is argued that the Italian campaign kept elite German divisions and their brilliant general away from Normandy, it is hard to reconcile the appalling cost of this “diversion.” After the fall of Cassino and Rome, the Italian campaign limped on, rarely on the front pages but always frustrating and bloody.
The Battle of Monte Cassino, so costly in human life and suffering, and deprived of the full victory that would have made it worthwhile, was in the end little more than a victory of the human spirit, an elegy for the foot soldiers of both sides and a memorial to the horror of war.
Seven decades later, the most prominent and popular cemetery is the one for Polish troops, built into the hillside about 300 yards down the mountain from the monastery. Monte Casino has for a long time been a rallying point and symbol for Polish nationalism and freedom from their enemies, both Nazi and Soviet. Their sacrifice in the battle was high with nearly 4,000 killed in action, 50 percent of their force.
When I visited the cemetery, busloads of Poles were arriving and holding prayer services as the May 18 anniversary of the final Polish attack drew near. They were families and relatives of Polish veterans who fought here. None appeared to be survivors of the battle.
The German cemetery about three kilometers away, above the village of Caira, is another reminder of the battle’s high human toll, recalling the sacrifice of German paratroops who defended and counter-attacked with great ferocity. It is the largest of the war cemeteries here, containing over 20,000 graves, each marked with small, white stone crosses on a steep slope.
The dead are buried three to a grave, often under the inscription with no name, “Ein Deutscher Soldat” or a “A German Soldier.” The entrance hall contains a metal sculpture of two grieving parents shattered by grief.
Nearest the town of Cassino is the British Commonwealth cemetery. It is immaculately groomed with lush lawn between the neat rows of grave markers. It contains 4,271 British, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians and Gurkhas.
A friend in London, John Allen, had asked me to place two poppies on his “Uncle Ronnie’s” grave on the 70th anniversary of his death on May 13, 1944, in an attack on the monastery’s ruins. Ronald Allen of the British Black Watch died on the eve of his 21st birthday, forever 20 to his mourning family.
Uniquely for Cassino cemeteries, at the bottom of the grave markers are moving epitaphs chosen by the families. On Ronald Allen’s grave is carved: “His memory is sweet, beyond expression; His absence unspeakable sorrow.” Reflecting on the death of one individual soldier among the thousands of the dead gives some perspective to the massive human tragedy of war.
At the nearby town of Venafro are buried 6,000 French colonial troops, Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian slain in the battle. At Monte Lungo, ten miles from Cassino, are buried almost a thousand Italian troops who died in their first support of the Allies during the Monte Cassino battle. In the seaside town of Ortona, 1,375 Canadian troops who died largely in an eight-day battle with German paratroops at Ortona are buried along with 50 unknown soldiers.
Near Anzio in the town of Nettuno, there are the graves of 7,861 American killed in the Italian battles of Monte Cassino, Sicily, Salerno and Anzio, although many American casualties were returned to the States for burial.
Yet, adding insult to the horrible injuries and death suffered by the soldiers in the Italian campaign was the slight that they had not fought as hard or as valiantly as the Allied forces that stormed the beaches of Normandy just days after the Battle of Monte Cassino ended.
The criticism of the Italian front – attributed to Lady Astor in the British Parliament – gave rise to a sardonic song sung to the tune of Lilly Marlene by some of the British veterans of Monte Cassino:
“We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy,
Always on the vino, always on a spree.
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome amongst the Yanks.
For we’re the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.
We landed at Salerno a holiday with pay.
Jerry brought his bands out to cheer us on our way,
Showed us the sights and gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free.
For we’re the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.
Look around the hillsides, in the mud and rain,
See the scattered crosses, some that have no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath them, slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers, who stay in Italy.”
Don North has been a war reporter since covering Vietnam beginning in 1965. He is the author of Inappropriate Conduct, which deals with war reporting in World War Two.