Monte Cassino

The story of Monte Cassino, its destruction and resurrection, the courage and endurance of the men who fought and died there, has become one of the greatest stories of the twentieth century. Today, the Abbey, which stands rebuilt in perfect replica of the original, has become a symbol of peace – a triumph over war and evil and a testament to the faith of those who restored it.  

 

When Saint Benedict chose Cassino, 138km southeast of Rome, as the birthplace for his doctrine and monastery in 529AD, the mountain overlooking the town below must have appeared a perfect idyll; nestled high above the valley on a steep, sharp fortress of rock. To the inhabitants of the small town below, it must have seemed a part of heaven itself, perched just beneath the clouds – a gleaming white beacon of goodness, fortified by nature and surrounded by prayer and tranquility.


Its perfect and isolated location became, however, its ultimate downfall; the walls that once seemed indestructible and sanctified by God himself were vulnerable to another type of power – that of war.

 

A view of Monte Cassino from the Polish Cemetery

 

The Germans were using the natural fortress of Monastery Hill as one of the strongholds in The Gustav Line. It overlooked with distinct vantage, the only north-south road from Naples to Rome and the Italian war college had pronounced the slopes of Monastery Hill to be ‘impregnable’. It had been decided due to its historical and religious significance, that the Abbey, standing at the very summit of the hill, would not be occupied by troops – despite its obvious vantage points and fortified walls.  In fact one those who believed strongly that it should be unoccupied to protect it from attack was the German Commander-in-Chief Kesselring. Troops were stationed 300 metres from the outer walls. 

 

The American II Corps had originally been assigned the task of penetrating the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino, but having suffered 80% losses in the Infantry, the morale and condition of the remaining soldiers was severely depleted. The rocky terrain and exposure on the mountain meant that the transport of supplies, even food, was difficult, and communication between the troops on the ground and the commanding officers back at base was poor. Reports circulated at the time that the Abbey was indeed being occupied, a belief especially common in the ranks of the Allied forces struggling below; faced with freezing weather conditions and suffering from low morale and illness, the soldiers bravely attempting to launch any assault upwards to capture the hill were picked off by German gunfire at a rate of four Allied soldiers to one German.  It was clear that the slopes of Monte Cassino were, as one veteran described it, a ‘cemetery for the living.’

 

 

Eventually, the American II Corps was relieved of its unenviable task and replaced with the New Zealand Corps, under the hand of Lieutenant-General Freyberg, himself a veteran hero of the First World War. Freyberg had known the horrors of Gallipoli and believed firmly that New Zealand men would not be senselessly sent into a similar situation again. His first request to the British General Alexander was for the bombing of the Abbey. Despite the conditions that the Americans had endured at Cassino, General Clark was reluctant to bomb the Abbey, believing it would prove more advantageous to the Germans in ruins. The Germans, regardless of their attempts to safeguard the Abbey itself, had made it an unwitting target by their presence so close to its walls. Speculation was rife in the press and amongst the troops on the ground that the Germans were indeed positioned high in the fortified walls.

 

The combination of speculation, low morale and obvious failure to achieve any success in frontal assault of Monastery Hill led to the request by the commanding Generals on the ground for the bombing of the Abbey.  It was a desperate attempt to restore some balance in a battle that was proving impossible to win.. Eisenhower gave this message in 1943 to his commanders: “If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, our own men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go.” Churchill observed: “the enemy fortifications were hardly separate from the building itself”. Ultimately, General Alexander ordered the bombing of Monte Cassino because Freyberg had requested it and thus declared it a ‘military necessity’.

 

 

The ruins of the Abbey in 1944.

 

It was hoped that a combined ground assault immediately following the bombing would overwhelm the German defences. On the 15th February 1944, 1150 tons of bombs were dropped on the Abbey, destroying it completely.


It was, of course, a desperate blunder, a mistake that actually fortified the German position on the hill by allowing troops to occupy the ruins, and killed hundreds of wounded and refugees who had been taking shelter in the Abbey. The 4th Indian Division, immobile due to heavy machine gun fire from above were on the front line at the time of the bombing – unaware of the timing of the air raid and unable to launch a frontal assault, or even withdraw to a safe distance, they suffered heavy casualties from the bombing itself. The lack of a coordinated ground assault, which could not be achieved in time, gave the Germans opportunity to strengthen their defences. In fact, the troops stationed at Monte Cassino were among the best in the German Army; after the bombing, the 1st Parachute Division occupied the ruins and proved an even more formidable force for the Allied soldiers to contend with in their desperate attempts to climb the hill.

 

The following morning, the 78-year-old Abbot led a procession of surviving refugees, monks and wounded down the hill from the ruined Abbey, reciting the rosary. The Germans had been true to their word and had never occupied the Abbey before its destruction, sworn testimony from the Abbot himself at the time and from civilians within the Abbey proved this. Monks who survived the bombing also reported in later years that no German troops had been present in the Abbey.

 

It is remarkable, however, that within the ruins was discovered intact the statue of St Benedict (seen in the picture above). It is still standing today in its original position. Yet another incredible fact is that one of the shells dropped became lodged between the steps of the High Altar in the Basilica – but did not explode, preserving a bronze urn containing the remains of St Benedict and his sister, St Scholastica which lay there.
The Abbey was not just of religious and architectural significance – it was also an important cultural centre housing many works of art, frescos and historical documents. Many valuable and beautiful frescos and mosaics in the Abbey were destroyed, but much of the artwork, treasures and manuscripts, which had been so carefully preserved there, had been removed by Kesselring in 1943 and transported to the Vatican for safekeeping. 

 

The final battle for Monte Cassino ended in May 1944, the Allies had launched a coordinated attack on several key positions, breaking the Gustav Line and ultimately squeezing Monte Cassino with a pincer-like movement between approaching Allied forces. This combined attack (ironically a strategy suggested by the French years before) led to the voluntary withdrawal of the German troops at Cassino. The battle had claimed 55,000 lives and been one of the harshest and tragic of the Second World War. The Polish 2nd Corps were the first to occupy the abandoned ruins; somewhat surprised to find it empty apart from a few dozen wounded, they erected the Polish flag. The Polish troops had suffered heavy losses in the final battle for Monte Cassino and the Polish war cemetery is built one of the hills just below the Abbey, clearly visible from above in honour of their contribution and bravery.

 

 

The Commonwealth War Cemetery lies on the outskirts of Cassino, carefully maintained and with a view of the imposing Monastery Hill nearby. Walking through the hundreds of graves here is an emotional but deeply peaceful experience, just like the Abbey itself.  Roses flourish here between the gravestones and many graves have personal messages left by their relatives, detailing their story and bravery. Perhaps the most poignant sight of all is the gravestone that bears no name, but simply: “A soldier of the 1939-1945 War, Known unto God ”.

 

 

Walking through the Abbey is intensely spiritual, surrounded by the white doves that are kept here as a symbol of the peace which is so treasured here. The pristine whiteness of the stone and the huge glassless windows overlooking the valleys below seem close to an imagined heavenly portal. After the monks had cleared the ruins in the months following the bombing, the Italian Government funded the complete restoration of the Abbey, which was completed in 1964. The Benedictine monks still remain here and follow their daily routine of work and prayer.

 

 

 

 

In the garden stands another statue of St Benedict, donated by the West German Government, recreating his last moment when he raised his arms upwards towards God and died.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is something at Monte Cassino that has proved impossible to destroy – over centuries, and whether nature or man has tried – the peace and tranquility which is seems embedded in the rock here refuses to leave, it may seem like a phoenix – falling and rising again, but in reality, what is essential here has remained. The perfect rebuilding and restoration of the Abbey to its former splendour and beauty has meant that not all things destroyed in war are lost forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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