German Supplies in a Chapel, Abbey of Monte Cassino
Here we see one piece of artwork that survived the Allied bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Saint Constantinus was the second abbot, and Saint Simplicius the third.
Battle of Monte Cassino
The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Axis forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The intention was a breakthrough to Rome.
At the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido-Gari, Liri and Garigliano valleys and some of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Together, these features formed the Gustav Line. Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. Lying in a protected historic zone, it had been left unoccupied by the Germans, although they manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey's walls.
Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was being used by the Germans as an observation post, at the very least. Fears escalated along with casualties and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage.  The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers then occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins.
Between 17 January and 18 May, Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops. On 16 May, soldiers from the Polish II Corps launched one of the final assaults on the German defensive position as part of a twenty-division assault along a twenty-mile front. On 18 May, a Polish flag followed by the British Union Jack were raised over the ruins.  Following this Allied victory, the German Senger Line collapsed on 25 May. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost.  The capture of Monte Cassino resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being far fewer, estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded. 
German Supplies in a Chapel, Abbey of Monte Cassino - History
Montecassino (sometimes written Monte Cassino) is a rocky hill about 130 kilometres (81 mi) southeast of Rome, Italy, 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) to the west of the town of Cassino and 520 m (1,706.04 ft) altitude. Site of the Roman town of Casinum, it is best known for its historic abbey. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529.
The hilltop sanctuary was the site of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, where the building was destroyed by Allied bombing and rebuilt after the war. The site has been visited many times by Popes and other senior clergy, including Pope Benedict XIV in May 2009.
Since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council the monastery is one of the few remaining territorial abbeys within the Catholic Church. On 23 October 2014, Pope Francis applied the norms of the motu proprio Ecclesia Catholica (Paul VI, 1976) to the Abbey. This act removed from its jurisdiction all 53 parishes and reduced its territory to the Abbey itself – while retaining its status as a Territorial Abbey. The former territory of the Abbey, except the land on which the Abbey Church and monastery sit, was transferred to the local diocese of Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo.
The history of Monte Cassino is linked to the nearby town of Cassino which was first settled in the fifth century B.C. by the Volsci people who held much of central and southern Italy. It was the Volsci who first built a citadel on the summit of Monte Cassino. The Volsci in the area were defeated by the Romans in 312 B.C. The Romans renamed the settlement Casinum and build a temple to Apollo at the citadel. Modern excavations have found no remains of the temple, but ruins of an amphitheatre, a theatre, and a mausoleum indicate the lasting presence the Romans had there.
Generations after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity the town became the seat of a bishopric in the fifth century A.D. Lacking strong defences the area was subject to barbarian attack and became abandoned and neglected with only a few struggling inhabitants holding out.
According to Gregory the Great’s biography of Benedict, Life of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the monastery was constructed on an older pagan site, a temple of Apollo that crowned the hill. The biography records that the area was still largely pagan at the time and Benedict’s first act was to smash the sculpture of Apollo and destroy the altar. He then reused the temple, dedicating it to Saint Martin, and built another chapel on the site of the altar dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Archaeologist Neil Christie notes that it was common in such hagiographies for the protagonist to encounter areas of strong paganism. Once established at Monte Cassino, Benedict never left. He wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for Western monasticism, received a visit from Totila, king of the Ostrogoths (perhaps in 543, the only remotely secure historical date for Benedict), and died there.
Monte Cassino became a model for future developments. Unfortunately its prominent site has always made it an object of strategic importance. It was sacked or destroyed a number of times. “The first to demolish it were Lombards on foot in 580 the last were Allied bombers in 1944.” In 581, during the abbacy of Bonitus, the Lombards sacked the abbey, and the surviving monks fled to Rome, where they remained for more than a century. During this time the body of St Benedict was transferred to Fleury, the modern Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans, France.
A flourishing period of Monte Cassino followed its re-establishment in 718 by Abbot Petronax, when among the monks were Carloman, son of Charles Martel Ratchis, predecessor of the great Lombard Duke and King Aistulf and Paul the Deacon, the historian of the Lombards.
In 744, a donation of Gisulf II of Benevento created the Terra Sancti Benedicti, the secular lands of the abbacy, which were subject to the abbot and nobody else save the Pope. Thus, the monastery became the capital of a state comprising a compact and strategic region between the Lombard principality of Benevento and the Byzantine city-states of the coast (Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi).
In 884 Saracens sacked and then burned it down, and Abbot Bertharius was killed during the attack. Among the great historians who worked at the monastery, in this period there is Erchempert, whose Historia Langobardorum Beneventanorum is a fundamental chronicle of the ninth-century Mezzogiorno.
Rebuilding, library, and later medieval history
Monte Cassino was rebuilt and reached the apex of its fame in the 11th century under the abbot Desiderius (abbot 1058–1087), who later became Pope Victor III. The number of monks rose to over two hundred, and the library, the manuscripts produced in the scriptorium and the school of manuscript illuminators became famous throughout the West. The uniqueBeneventan script flourished there during Desiderius’ abbacy.
The buildings of the monastery were reconstructed on a scale of great magnificence, artists being brought from Amalfi, Lombardy, and even Constantinople to supervise the various works. The abbey church, rebuilt and decorated with the utmost splendor, was consecrated in 1071 by Pope Alexander II. A detailed account of the abbey at this date exists in theChronica monasterii Cassinensis by Leo of Ostia and Amatus of Montecassino gives us our best source on the early Normans in the south.
Inside the Crypta in Montecassino right underneath the Holy Altar this mosaic located on top of the writing “PAX” (“Peace”) is represented the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with Star of David in the Middle. The Crypta is one of the fewest parts of the Monastery that didn’t collape after the II World War bombing during the war.
Abbot Desiderius sent envoys to Constantinople some time after 1066 to hire expert Byzantine mosaicists for the decoration of the rebuilt abbey church. According to chronicler Leo of Ostia the Greek artists decorated the apse, the arch and the vestibule of the basilica. Their work was admired by contemporaries but was totally destroyed in later centuries except two fragments depicting greyhounds (now in the Monte Cassino Museum). “The abbot in his wisdom decided that great number of young monks in the monastery should be thoroughly initiated in these arts” – says the chronicler about the role of the Greeks in the revival of mosaic art in medieval Italy.
An earthquake damaged the Abbey in 1349, and although the site was rebuilt it marked the beginning of a long period of decline. In 1321, Pope John XXII made the church of Monte Cassino a cathedral, and the carefully preserved independence of the monastery from episcopal interference was at an end. That unfortunate situation was reversed by Pope Urban V, a Benedictine, in 1367. In 1505 the monastery was joined with that of St. Justina of Padua.
The site was sacked by Napoleon’s troops in 1799. From the dissolution of the Italian monasteries in 1866, Monte Cassino became a national monument.
During the Battle of Montecassino in the Italian Campaign of World War II (January–May 1944) the Abbey made up one section of the 161-kilometre (100-mile) “Gustav Line”, a German defensive line designed to hold the Allied troops from advancing any further into Italy. The Gustav Line stretched from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast and the monastery was erroneously thought to be one of the key strongholds, with Monte Cassino itself overlooking Highway 6 and blocking the path to Rome. On 15 February 1944 the abbey was almost completely destroyed in a series of heavy American-led air raids. The Commander-in-Chief Allied Armies in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander of the British army ordered the bombing. The bombing was conducted because many reports from the British commanders of the Indian troops on the ground suggested that Germans were occupying the monastery, and it was considered a key observational post by all those who were fighting in the field. However, during the bombing no Germans were present in the abbey. Subsequent investigations have since confirmed that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge there. Only after the bombing were the ruins of the monastery occupied by German Fallschirmjäger(paratroopers) of the 1st Parachute Division, because the ruins provided excellent defensive cover, aiding them in their defence.
The Abbey was rebuilt after the war Pope Paul VI reconsecrated it in 1964. During reconstruction, its library was housed at the Pontifical Abbey of St Jerome-in-the-City. Until his resignation was accepted by Pope Francis on 12 June 2013, the Territorial Abbot of Monte Cassino was Pietro Vittorelli. The Vatican daily bulletin of 23 October 2014 announced that with the appointment of his successor Donato Ogliari, the territory of the abbey outside the immediate monastery grounds had been transferred to the Diocese of Sora-Aquino-Pontecorvo, now renamed Diocese of Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo.
In December 1943, some 1,400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, chiefly patristic and historical, in addition to a vast number of documents relating to the history of the abbey and the collections of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, had been sent to the abbey archives for safekeeping. Fortunately, German officers Lt. Col. Julius Schlegel (a Roman Catholic) and Capt. Maximilian Becker (a Protestant), both from the Panzer-Division Hermann Göring, had them transferred to the Vatican at the beginning of the battle.
Another account however, from Kurowski (“The History of the Fallschirmpanzerkorps Hermann Göring: Soldiers of the Reichsmarschall”) notes that 120 trucks were loaded with monastic assets and art which had been stored there for safekeeping. Robert Edsel (“Rescuing DaVinci”) is more to the point about German looting. The trucks were loaded and left in October 1943, and only “strenuous” protests resulted in their delivery to the Vatican, minus the 15 cases which contained the property of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Edsel goes on to note that these cases had been delivered to Göring in December 1943, for “his birthday.”
In prechristian time, the Monte Cassino was a place of a heathen sanctuary between Rome and Naples. Although two hundred years later since the first Roman emperor Konstantin converted to the Christianity, a heathen deity still stood on the mountain when Benedict chose this place for a new beginning. As documented the Benedictine life on the Monte Cassino started in 529. It this year, the platonic academy in Athens - the University of the Antiquity - closed its gates. &ldquoWhen the holy man moved away, he indeed changed the residence, but not the enemy &rdquo, said pope Gregor in a headline before he started to narrate what the god's man experienced on his way to his last life station. Since the beginning it is a fight against the evil. And the more Benedict fought, he became a man of prayer, a god's man and a blessed man. He relied on god's help, when other ones trusted in their own strengths. He blessed humans, when others complained. First, the abbot of Monte Cassino tore down the old places of worship, erected two oratorios, which he dedicated one to John the Baptist and one to St. Martin Bishop of Tours. With this he had not come to the end completely. Therefore he began to preach to the people in the surroundings about Christ. What has already started in Subiaco, Benedict continued in Monte Cassino. Exemplary for the proselytization in a fertile connection between word and action he stands for his sons and daughters over centuries. Such action of the holy Benedict induced the opponent to renewed attacks, &ldquowhich the enemy started with its own motivation, but otherwise gave Benedict the opportunity to victories&rdquo.
Difficulties appeared during the construction of the Abbey. The attempt to move a boulder away, hindered the construction. Benedict found a solution, through which the huge stone could be removed out of the way. The monks with the pride of builders in their hearts, established walls, which broke down numerously and buried one young brother. Benedict turned praying to God to heal the under the debris buried boy and to get the chance to send him back to the working brothers. Deceived from the evil enemy, the brothers saw a conflagration where only some sparks sprayed. Then Benedict opened the eyes of his sons and freed them from that fearful nervousness, which made forgotten that it was god, who built the house.
After finishing the outer construction with God's help despite many resistances and while Benedict engaged to strengthen his growing community, the evil transferred its attacks on the monks and donated bewilderment whereas it seemed to be possible. The eye of the monk father recognized where danger could threaten and rebuked the ones of his community, where the vice took its start.
As much as Benedict first cared for his brothers, he also knew about his responsibility for the people, who lived in the surroundings of the Abbey. Among them he cared for the communities of women and induced, &ldquothat brothers went to them regularly for comfort and edification&rdquo. Similarly, Benedict helped many people in spiritually or material need. In time of starves and harvest bathes, he knew how to help by clever economy. He understood to divide grains and oil, so that nobody had to starve, but also nobody lived in abundance. Again and again he preached to those, who didn't know Christ. He comforted those, who lamented the death of a dear human being. And he healed if human medical art denied and only the strength of the prayer could help. In that fear, that is the start of the wisdom, he even did not shrink away from the huge king Totila: without inhibitions he accused his atrocities and predicted his ultimate.
Altogether in the part of his Benedictine vita about the years in Monte Cassino St. Gregory VII draws the picture of an abbot as an author would imagine him. He is the loyal providing shepherd of his entrusted herds, the wise teacher, who showed &ldquoeverything good and holy more by actions than by words&rdquo. He was the benign father, who practiced &ldquomercy before right&rdquo and evinced all sons &ldquoequal love&rdquo.
The loving worry of the shepherd, teacher and father let Benedict write his rule, the life order, which lasted for centuries and which did not become obsolete until today. The rich experience of a man with always open eyes and a hearing heart therefore becomes an integral picture.
In his youth in Nursia and Rome, in the years of searching in Enfide, in Vicovaro, in the years of abbot service in Subiaco and finally in Monte Cassino Benedict had the opportunity to experience different ways of life and to test them. In the evening of his life from the richness of the things he had experienced, he lifted the treasures, which appeared to him sufficiently valuable to be relayed. He connected them with the things he himself had learned in the daily togetherness and in the constant pondering about the word of the bible to the rule that St. Gregory VII characterized as &rdquounique in wise restraint, shining in its representation &rdquo.
Although first written Training center. During Desiderius´ abbacy the library of the Abbey were filled with handwritings decorated with miniatures, with mosaics, enamel paintings and goldworks of Oriental style. concretely for Monte Cassino, the rule has got an universality which gives an eloquent testimony from great open heart of its author.
In the year 529 at the position of a former Roman fortification (Municipium of Casium) Benedict of Nursia established the first Abbey which was given his name Benedictine order which spread the Christianity in Europe. The relicts of Benedict of Nursia are buried in the crypt, which is protected by huge walls.
After destruction of the Abbey through the Lombard in 577, Petronax of Brescia got the order by pope Gregor II to rebuild the Abbey in 717.
After that numerous important personalities visited the Abbey, among them the Saxon monks Willibald and Sturmius. Charlemagne was in Monte Cassino in 787 and equipped the Abbey with extensive privileges.
In 883 the Abbey was plundered by the Saracen and was set on fire. However already in the 10th century and 11th century it turned again into political and spiritual prosperity.
Training center. During Desiderius´ abbacy the library of the Abbey were filled with handwritings decorated with miniatures, with mosaics, enamel paintings and goldworks of Oriental style.
In 1349 for the third time the Abbey became almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. During the following rebuilding, different supplements and beautifications in the style of the renaissance and the baroque were made. They gave to the Abbey a magnificent look, which it retained up to 15 February 1944.
At that time, in the final phase of the World War II, Montecassino was a place of refuge for hundreds of civilians and over months it was in the area of the front line (battle of Monte Cassino). Despite repeated contrary insurances on the side of the armed forces, the Allied Forces thought that German soldiers would be in the Abbey on the hill due to the fact of extremely militarily opportune location. The massive, three hour bomb attack directly towards the Abbey caused many deaths of the refugees. With exception of the crypt, on this day the Abbey was destroyed down to the foundation walls.
Only after the bombardment the armed forces moved into the ruins and occupied them for months. Later also the Vatican confirmed that at no time before the bombardment, German soldiers or war equipment was there. Plans and art treasures of the Abbey had been evacuated in time into the Vatican before the attack of the German lieutenant colonel Julius Schlegel occurred.
After the war, the abbey was reconstructed with the help of the Italian state within ten years according to the original building plans - true to the guiding principle of the abbot Ildefonso Rea: &ldquoWhere it stood and like it was&rdquo.
One enters the cloister in the &ldquocrossroads at entrance&rdquo. At this position stood am Apoll consecrated temple, which Benedict changed into a chapel for the common prayer of the monks and consecrated to the St. Martin Bishop of Tours. In 1953 during construction works one found remains of the original foundations of this chapel.
It was in this Oratory that St. Benedict died in the position described by St. Gregory the Great, his biographer: &ldquoStanding, supported by some monks after having received the Holy Comunion&rdquo. This episode is recorded by a group of bronze figures amid the crossroads which was a gift from the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Why Did the Allies Bomb the Abbey at Monte Cassino During World War II?
For the thousands of Allied soldiers who had fought and suffered for so long in the shadow of the abbey of Monte Cassino, Tuesday morning, February 15, 1944, was a time of joy and celebration. The men hated and feared the abbey, standing four stories tall atop the 1,700-foot mountain above them. The troops knew that it was finally going to be destroyed, and they were more than eager to see it happen.
“Like a lion it crouched,” wrote American Lieutenant Harold Bond, describing the abbey 20 years later, “dominating all approaches, watching every move made by the armies below.” Everyone was convinced that German soldiers occupied the abbey as an observation post to track the Allies’ movements in the valley below and thus direct artillery fire on them. Clare Cunningham, a 21-year-old lieutenant from Michigan, said, “It seemed like we were under observation all the time. They were just looking down on us all day long. They knew every move we were making.”
Thirty years after the war, the passion, fury, and hatred of the abbey remained with British Lieutenant Bruce Foster when asked what he thought about the destruction in 1944. “Can you imagine,” he said in reply, “what it’s like to see a person’s head explode in a great flash of grey brains and red hair? Can you imagine what it is like when that head belonged to your sister’s fiancé? I knew why it happened I was positive it was because some bloody … Jerry was up there in that bloody … monastery directing the fire that killed Dickie, and I know that still.”
No place below the abbey was considered safe from enemy fire. Sergeant Evans of the British Army wrote that the abbey “was malignant. It was evil somehow. I don’t know how a monastery can be evil, but it was looking at you. It was all-devouring…. It had a terrible hold on us soldiers…. It just had to be bombed.” According to another soldier, Fred Majdalany, “That brooding monastery ate into our souls.”
On the morning of the bombing, hundreds of rear-echelon troops and dozens of war reporters showed up to watch. War correspondent John Lardner wrote in Newsweek magazine that it was “the most widely advertised single bombing in history.”
“A holiday atmosphere prevailed among the soldiers,” historians David Hapgood and David Richardson wrote. “For almost all the men of the [American] Fifth Army, this Tuesday was a rare day off from the war. Soldiers … scrambled for positions from which they could watch what was to come. Some stood on stone walls, others climbed trees for a better view. Observers—soldiers, generals, reporters—were scattered over the slopes of Monte Trocchio, the hill that faced Monte Cassino, three miles across the valley. A group of doctors and nurses had driven up in jeeps from the hospital in Naples. They settled themselves on Monte Trocchio with a picnic of K-rations, prepared to enjoy the show.”
The first bombers appeared in the clear blue sky at 9:28 that morning. For approximately four hours, until 1:33 that afternoon, wave after wave of bombers, some 256 in all, dropped 453 tons of bombs on the abbey. Artillery pounded the target as well. The New York Timesdescribed it as the “worst aerial and artillery onslaught ever directed against a single building.”
John Blythe, a New Zealand officer, wrote that as the planes came in “the smoke began to rise, the vapor trails grew and merged, and the sun was blotted out and the whole sky turned gray.” With every new explosion and burst of artillery fire and flame erupting from the abbey, the cheering among the observers grew louder.
Martha Gellhorn, an American war reporter, wrote that she “watched the planes come in and drop their loads and saw the monastery turned into a muddle of dust and heard the big bangs and was absolutely delighted and cheered like all the other fools.”
When it was over, the rubble was spread over the seven-acre site with only a few jagged pieces of wall still standing. But it quickly became the site of condemnation and controversy over the necessity of destroying it. Ultimately, though the Allies did not believe it at the time, the Germans had the propaganda advantage: no German soldiers had ever been stationed in the abbey.
The Germans had forbidden their troops to enter it in order to protect it from Allied destruction. Also, they had not needed to use that vantage point to observe Allied troop movements. The Germans had built ample observation and defensive positions up and down the hillsides to within 200 yards of the monastery’s foundation. They could see everything they needed to see and direct artillery fire wherever needed without ever having to enter the abbey.
The 80-year-old abbot, Don Gregorio Diamare, and 12 monks had hidden in the crypt during the attack. When they dug out of the rubble, a German officer confronted the abbot and demanded that he sign a formal statement to the effect that there had been no German troops in the abbey. He did so.
Then, on orders from German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, the SS took Diamare to a radio station in the German embassy in Rome where he broadcast to the world what had happened to his beloved monastery, weeping openly as he spoke. Iris Origo, an American woman living in Rome, heard the broadcast, which she described as “terribly moving.” Goebbels ordered a film to be made in the narration he spoke of the Allies’ “senseless lust of destruction,” while Germany was struggling to defend and save European civilization.
The German propaganda campaign made much of the fact that three months before the bombing they had, with the abbot’s permission, evacuated some 70,000 books and priceless paintings from the abbey for safe storage in Rome.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander on the Italian front, expressed outrage that “United States soldiery, devoid of all culture, have … senselessly destroyed one of Italy’s most treasured edifices and have murdered Italian civilian refugees—men, women, and children.” It was unfortunate but true that as many as 250 Italian civilians who had taken refuge in the abbey were killed in the raid.
In an effort to counter the German propaganda, Americans also made newsreels, describing the military necessity of destroying the monastery because German soldiers were occupying it and attacking Allied soldiers. “It was necessary,” the Pathé newsreel announced, because the structure “had been turned into a fortress by the German Army.”
Officials in Washington and in London were concerned about the condemnations expressed in newspaper headlines around the world. Two weeks later, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck of the British Foreign Office wrote a memo suggesting that “we had better keep quiet” about the fact that there was no clear evidence that the Germans had been using the abbey for defensive purposes, even though four days before the bombing, The [London] Timeshad indeed written that “the Germans are using the monastery as a fortress.”
The U.S. State Department, on the other hand, took the public position that there was “indisputable evidence” that the Germans occupied the monastery. President Franklin Roosevelt held a press conference at which he said the abbey had been bombed because “it was being used by the Germans to shell us. It was a German strongpoint. They had artillery and everything up there in the abbey.”
The Allied soldiers trying to take Monte Cassino had been correct in thinking they were under constant observation, although it had not been from the abbey. But there was no way the battle-weary men, freezing in their ice-filled foxholes for months while under enemy fire, could have known that the tallest structure around was not housing German soldiers.
The bitterness toward the abbey grew with each failed attempt to take the hill. By the end of January, assaults against Monte Cassino had already cost the lives of 11,000 troops. But despite such losses no one in the Allied high command had requested that the monastery be bombed, not until the arrival of fresh troops and their new commander. More troops were needed because by early February the two leading American divisions, the 34th and 36th, had lost some 80 percent of their effective strength.
Major General Lyman Lemnitzer believed that the American units then on the front line were “disheartened, almost mutinous.” They had lost 40,000 men killed and wounded in the Italian campaign by early 1944, with another 50,000 out sick with everything from trench foot and dysentery to combat fatigue. Another 20,000 men had deserted. A psychiatrist visiting the front wrote, “Practically all men in rifle battalions who were not otherwise disabled ultimately became psychiatric casualties.” They had been in combat too long without relief. British frontline units experienced similar levels of desertion and shell shock.
To replace American losses, a multinational outfit was transferred to Mark Clark’s Fifth Army from the British Eighth Army. Called the New Zealand Corps, it included the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division, and the 78th British Division. They had had extensive combat experience in Italy and North Africa.
The Abbey of Monte Cassino, located on top of a very large hill in the town of Cassino in the province of Frosinone, was founded by St. Benedict in 528 AD and is home to his sacred relics, along with those of his sister, St. Scholastica. It is considered to be the birthplace of monasticism in Western Europe.
The abbey has been destroyed and rebuilt many times due to barbarian invasions and natural disasters, and was the site of a very important battle during WWII between Allied forces and German soldiers due to its strategic location. After being destroyed by the Allies during WWII, it was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI. Today it is a monastery and museum, and includes a large cemetery of Polish soldiers killed during WWII while trying to liberate Italy.
Monte Cassino Cemetary for Polish soldiers who died defending the abbey during WWII
Monks living in the monastery live by two basic principles: pray and work. All members of the monastery community have an important job to do. Their duties include receiving visitors, organizing events, maintaining the libraries and archives, binding books, growing herbs for their on-site pharmacy, and tending to its vineyard.
Was the destruction of the Abbey during WWII due to an error in translation?
According to an account by Colonel David Hunt found in the book With Alex at War, the autobiography of Sir Rupert Clarke, the bombardment of the Abbey by the Allies was due to a misinterpretation of an intercepted radio message by a British junior officer. The officer mistook the word “abbot” for a similar word in German meaning “bombardment”. By the time Colonel Hunt realized this error, it was too late and the American forces bombed the mountain top, something that both sides had promised the pope they would never do, killing hundreds of refugees that were taking shelter there. Miraculously, the abbot and monks were saved.
Monte Cassino after being destroyed during WWII
Monte Cassino Abbey Today
The monks that live in the abbey live each day according to St. Benedict’s Rule, regulations and guidelines written by him in the 6th century, which describes every aspect of monastic life and encourages love, prayer, work, respect, chastity, moderation, and community. The monks are known as cenobites, living in a religious community, rather than in isolation, under a leader, the abbot.
The cathedral that stands here today is actually the 4th church to be built on this site. What little was left of the cathedral before it was destroyed during WWII can be found incorporated in the structure and in its museums.
Monte Cassino Abbey In Ruins
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Monte Cassino Shelled
Your Easy-access (EZA) account allows those in your organisation to download content for the following uses:
- Rough cuts
- Preliminary edits
It overrides the standard online composite licence for still images and video on the Getty Images website. The EZA account is not a licence. In order to finalise your project with the material you downloaded from your EZA account, you need to secure a licence. Without a licence, no further use can be made, such as:
- focus group presentations
- external presentations
- final materials distributed inside your organisation
- any materials distributed outside your organisation
- any materials distributed to the public (such as advertising, marketing)
Because collections are continually updated, Getty Images cannot guarantee that any particular item will be available until time of licensing. Please carefully review any restrictions accompanying the Licensed Material on the Getty Images website and contact your Getty Images representative if you have a question about them. Your EZA account will remain in place for a year. Your Getty Images representative will discuss a renewal with you.
By clicking the Download button, you accept the responsibility for using unreleased content (including obtaining any clearances required for your use) and agree to abide by any restrictions.
A Journey to World War II Battlefields Part 10: The Tragedy of the Abbey of Monte Cassino
Editor&rsquos Note: This article is the ninth installment from Carlo D&rsquoEste&rsquos A Journey to World War II Battlefields. Please click on the following links to read Carlo&rsquos other articles from this series: Tunisia, Kasserine Pass, Malta, Sicily, Biazza Ridge, Messina, Salerno, San Pietro Infine and Cassino.
There was no more savage series of battles during World War II than the more than four month long siege of the town of Cassino and its Benedictine Abbey perched in near regal splendor atop Castle Hill.
The German commander in the Mediterranean, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, had chosen well to establish his primary defenses in Italy in and around Cassino. National Route 6, the road to Rome, runs through the Liri Valley before turning north toward Italy&rsquos capital city. The roadblock posed by key German defensive positions both in the town of Cassino and atop its heights meant that the Allies would have to crack the formidable Gustav Line if they were to successfully capture Rome.
When, in early 1944, the German defensive positions in the Liri Valley proved too tough a nut to crack, the Allies planned and launched an end-run at Anzio on January 22 with the object of forcing Kesselring to draw forces away from Cassino to Anzio in order not only to protect Rome from capture but also to weaken his defenses along the Gustav Line. Kesselring did exactly as the Allies had hoped: At once, he sent several German divisions from the Cassino front to reinforce Anzio. For this Kesselring was roundly criticized and second-guessed by his own officers. However, within a matter of days his judgment was proved correct when his defenses at Cassino not only held but the rapid and massive reinforcement of Anzio (both from Cassino and elsewhere) turned bothfronts into deadly stalemates. Kesselring was like a chess master, adroitly balancing the needs of both fronts by shifting units from place to place as the situation dictated.
Anzio became a desperate struggle for survival while at Cassino all Allied attempts to capture both the town and abbey met with failure. There was also an epic failure at the Rapido River, where an attempt to breech the Gustav Line and secure Route 6 turned into one of the war&rsquos worst and most controversial defeats. (The Rapido will be the subject of a future article.)
With the failure to advance beyond the Rapido the Germans remained in full control of the heights overlooking the Liri Valley. For the Allies to advance north and capture Rome, the focus of their operations became the capture of the town of Cassino and the abbey. A series of attacks in early February by the U.S. 34th Division threatened both the town and the heights of Monastery Hill but ultimately failed in what came to be called the First Battle of Cassino.
One of the keys to breaking the German grip on the Cassino heights was Point 593, which controlled Snakeshead Ridge, one of the anchors northeast of the abbey. Point 593 changed hands several times but ultimately ended up back under German control after a series of bitter battles with the 34th Division that suffered losses of nearly 80-percent in the infantry battalions. A British historian later wrote of the 34th Division that their exploits &ldquomust rank with the finest feats of arms carried out by any soldiers during the war.&rdquo A private first class and a lieutenant received Medals of Honor for their heroism at Cassino.
The German commander of the 14th Panzer Corps responsible for the defense of Cassino and the abbey was Lt. Gen. Frido von Senger und Etterlin, a former Rhodes scholar and devoted Catholic and lay Benedictine. Senger was one of the many German officers who were gravely conflicted by the war. He was a highly competent commander whose skills had been honed by battle but who despised Hitler and the Nazis, believed the war was lost but nevertheless felt it was his duty to continue fighting.
After the 34th Division was unable to capture the abbey a follow up attack by the 4th Indian Division likewise failed and the U.S. Fifth Army commander, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark came under increasing pressure from the New Zealand corps commander, Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, to bomb the abbey. The New Zealanders had made little progress against German strongpoints guarding the approaches to the abbey, and in the mistaken belief that the Germans were using it to direct artillery fire on his men. Freyberg insisted the abbey be eliminated by Allied bombers.
That the monastery had never actually been occupied by German troops was of little consequence. Senger had established and then violated a self-imposed 330-yard neutral zone around the monastery, and as long as it formed a key element in the German defense of Cassino, its eventual destruction was inevitable.
Although adamantly opposed to Freyberg&rsquos request, Clark felt obligated to approve any recommendation that would potentially save lives. In so doing he unleashed a monumental controversy that to this day is still an object of contentious debate.
Once set in motion the decision to bomb the abbey became irreversible and on the morning of February 15 two hundred B-17 bombers of Maj. Gen. Nathan Twining&rsquos Fifteenth Air Force began the task of turning the abbey into rubble. Wave after wave dropped their deadly loads.
Despite its massive size, the Allied bombing of the abbey was highly inaccurate and caused little harm to its thick, stone foundation. In fact, although it was a clear, bright day, most of the bombers missed the abbey altogether and it was not until the final bombing run that afternoon that any significant damage occurred.
The bombs may have been inconsequential but Allied artillery pounded the hapless abbey into rubble. That night troops of the German 1st Parachute Division occupied the ruins and rapidly strengthened the abbey&rsquos defenses.
Clark personally deplored having to order the bombing. On this day he and Senger shared a common reaction: disgust. A distraught Senger could only keep repeating: &ldquoThe idiots! They&rsquove done it after all.&rdquo Nevertheless, he cannot escape a share of the responsibility for making no effort to prevent German troops from occupying positions right up to the edge of the monastery.
Nevertheless, after the war Clark came to Senger&rsquos defense. &ldquoI said then that there was no evidence that the Germans were using the abbey for military purposes. I say now that there is irrefutable evidence that no German soldier, except emissaries, was ever inside the monastery for purposes other than to take care of the sick or as sightseers.&rdquo
What made the bombing even more tragic was that the 4th Indian Division was unprepared to take advantage of the bombing until nearly three days later, by which time the Germans had strengthened their defenses and the Allies had lost the initiative.
The bombing of the abbey became a visible reminder of good intentions gone awry, and the ensuing controversy sullied the reputations of both Clark and Freyberg. Even though American funds contributed to the eventual rebuilding of the abbey, to this day the monks do not display English-language signs.
The Third Battle of Cassino in mid-March likewise failed to capture the abbey and it was not until early May that it at last fell to the Poles.
Suggested further reading:
Carlo D&rsquoEste, Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome, HarperColliins, 1991. (Also, Harper Perennial edition, 2008).
John Ellis, Cassino: The Hollow Victory, McGraw-Hill, 1984.
David Hapgood and David Richardson, Monte Cassino, Congdon & Weed, 1984.
The Bombing of Monte Cassino
The meaning of the Cassino Monastery Incident was 80 miles north in Rome. Must the Allies bomb St. Peter’s into rubble and then fight their way, chapel by chapel, through the Vatican?
In the valley below Mt. Cassino an American artillery-battery commander spoke: “I don’t give a damn about the monastery. I have Catholic gunners in this battery and they’ve asked me for permission to fire on it, but I haven’t been able to give it to them. They don’t like it.”
The Germans were using the famed 1,400-year-old Benedictine abbey as an artillery-observation post. This seemed well established, as hundreds of young Americans died on the slope below. Collier’s War Correspondent Frank Gervasi reported: “I saw 800 [Americans] go out and 24 come back, because the Germans could see every move and turn their fire on them.” And the Germans, after noting heavy, bloody U.S. losses, laconically reported in a communiqué that Indian Gurkha troops had replaced “the worn-out Americans.”
The slaughter grew too great. After weeks of soul searching and delay, the Allies decided to bomb and to shell the abbey. They followed a Dec. 29, 1943 order of General Dwight Eisenhower: “We are fighting in a country … rich in monuments which illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows. If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more, and the buildings must go.”
On a sunlit morning last week the buildings went.
“That’s Beautiful.” In the Liri Valley, thousands of U.S. soldiers, whose buddies had died on the slope, watched. Then, at 9:28 a.m., from beyond the snow-capped peaks, came the first wave of lordly Fortresses. From the mountain peak came great orange bursts of flame, billowing smoke. The muffled crunch of explosions grew like a roll of thunder.
Three minutes later came more Fortresses the third wave at 9:45. Watching the precision bombing, a U.S. general cried: “That’s beautiful.” He seemed to want to direct the planes: “That’s the way. Keep them over to the left. Oh, oh, that one’s a little bit close. That’s better. Oh, that’s beautiful.”
The bombers came on, 226 of them, Fortresses, Liberators, Mitchells and Marauders, roaming the cloudless sky undisturbed, dropping their bombs with exquisite exactness. Between the waves of bombers the artillery Long’ Toms and 240-mm. howitzers pumped shells up the hill. The mountain seemed to jump and quiver, like a great bear twitching in sleep. Observers counted 200 men, some allegedly in uniform, scurrying out of the devastated monastery. As the next-to-last wave of 20 Marauders dropped a cluster smack on the abbey, an American soldier yelled: “Touchdown.”
Thus the great Benedictine abbey, built 400 years ago on ground where Benedictine abbeys had stood for 1,400 years, was demolished. Only one wall section remained standing, and the next day Marauders swooped over to pick these ribs.
The Americans got no forwarder. If there had been no Germans there before, there were now. The Nazis moved swiftly into the ruins, to defend them in the best Stalingrad fashion. Soon out of the rubble pricked scores of gun barrels.
Down from the abbey trickled pitiful refugees, Italians caught in no man’s land. They had been panicked by an Allied artillery warning of shells that exploded in a shower of leaflets warning of the coming bombing. The Germans had refused to let them leave the abbey. But the refugees, who said German machine guns were at every door, did not say that Germans had been in the abbey.
“Succisa Virescit.” Said the German radio: “Outrage.” For two days Nazi communiques flatly stated that there had been no German soldiers within the abbey or in its immediate vicinity. Said Field Marshal Albert Kesselring: “I have only the deepest contempt for the cynical mendacity and sanctimonious pictures with which the Anglo-Saxon Commands now attempt to make me responsible for their acts.”
Radio Berlin next reported that Harold Tittmann, the U.S. Chargé D’affaires at the Vatican, had informed Cardinal Maglione, Papal Secretary of State, that the U.S. would rebuild the monastery. The Cardinal was supposed to have replied: “Even if you rebuild it in gold and diamonds, it still isn’t the monastery.”
But everywhere in Allied countries, leaders of all faiths accepted the destruction of the monastery in good faith that its destruction had been necessary. Said Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore: “Every Catholic throughout the world will understand.” Wrote the Rt. Rev. Stephen Schappler, Abbott of Conception Abbey at Conception, Mo.: “True to the device on her coat of arms, Succisa Virescit (when cut down, it grows again), the Abbey of Abbeys will have a rebirth. For that right our own boys are giving their all. Benedictines the world over are grateful to them.”
President Roosevelt expressed his regret at the act. But, he said, it had to be done.
Monument by Monument. But dust had not freshly settled over the Cassino abbey before the Allies faced another monument. Allied GHQ in Algiers announced that Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer palace, approximately twelve miles north of the Anzio beachhead, “contained a heavy saturation of Nazis.” Five days later, Rome announced that Castel Gandolfo had again been bombed.