This Memorial Day remembrance of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy (Feb-May 1944) first appeared at The Optimistic Conservative for Memorial Day 2009.
Seventy years ago on 25 May 1944, soldiers of the US II Corps and VI Corps linked up east of the Allied beachhead at Anzio, to complete the rout of the German forces that had been fighting to hold Western portion of the “Gustav” line across central Italy, and thereby end the Anzio campaign that had raged for more than four months.
The invasion of Normandy had also been in planning for months, but had yet to occur. It would follow victory at Anzio by less than two weeks. Allied air forces, after taking enormous losses the previous year (more than 2,300 planes, with their aircrews, from the RAF, and nearly 1,000 American planes), were buoyed by the build-up of reinforcements from American airplane factories and training bases. In early 1944, as Allied troops fought to meet up in central Italy and push the Germans out of the “boot,” their air forces were pounding Germany, and German forces across Europe.
Spring 1944: A world at war
But Germany fought back with more than tenacity: she fought back ferociously, and had the Western Allies’ forces bogged down at the Gustav line in Italy, and Soviet forces slowed to a halt in the Battle of Narva, in the Soviets’ Estonian Campaign across Northern Europe.
The Red Army, too, had been buoyed by a major strategic and political success when it finally raised the siege of Leningrad in January 1944, a few days before the Western Allies landed on the beach at Anzio. Leningrad had been under siege for 872 days when Marshall Zhukov’s forces finally liberated it, and casualties there, numbering more than 1.1 million, were topped only by those suffered in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. In the spring of 1944, Soviet forces had also entered the Crimea and forced German formations there to retreat.
The Luftwaffe continued its bombing campaign against Britain through the spring of 1944, although the V-1 “flying bombs” would not begin hitting the isles until a week after the Normandy invasion. Britain and America, of course, were fighting in two major theaters in May of 1944. American forces were securing Wake Island in the fight across New Guinea, as they fought slowly and painfully through the Pacific islands occupied by Japan, suffering tremendous sea service losses with each advance. British, Indian, Chinese, and U.S. troops and air forces were achieving costly successes against hard-fighting Japanese forces in Burma, and conducting air attacks on Japanese positions on the islands of Indonesia.
The Imperial Japanese Navy’s sway over the Pacific had been broken at Midway in April 1942, and the grueling campaign for Guadalcanal was 18 months behind America and the Pacific Allies at the time of Anzio. But the campaigns to retake the Philippines, push the Japanese out of occupied China, and invade Japan’s home islands themselves lay ahead of them.
No one in May 1944 knew what the outcome of the world war would be. In this most global of wars, the submarine forces of both sides were still, as the spring wore on, sinking hundreds of tons of shipping, including merchant freighters and hospital ships, in the great oceans. By May 1944, Japan was known to have massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Indonesians, Burmese, and Filipinos; the actual death toll would later rise into the millions, with reports of biological and chemical warfare, mass executions, and cannibalism.
At the time of the Battle of Anzio, deportation was beginning of the Jews of occupied Hungary, to Auschwitz, in Poland, where 100,000 were gassed to death between 14 April and 24 May, and more than 381,000 – half the Jews in Hungary – had been slaughtered by the end of June. In all, more than 2 million of the 6 million Jews slain in the Holocaust were killed at Auschwitz alone, most in the four crematories that, at their peak of operation – between June 1943 and October 1944 – could dispatch 4,756 people per day.
It is a measure of the sheer size and scope of this war that so much was going on in so many parts of the globe, during the course of one battle – even a major four-month battle to break the German defense of Italy. The mind has trouble comprehending so many moving parts – so many peoples under the lash, so many borders breached, so many ships sunk, so many bullets and bombs flying every hour of every day, so many civilians killed, so much evil erupting in the brief span of years by which we calculate World War II.
But each year on the American Memorial Day, my mind goes to one of the “sub-battles” of the Anzio campaign: the battle for the mountaintop monastery of Monte Cassino. It is 70 years since Anzio ended, almost bureaucratically, in a link-up of forces from the beachhead with those that had pushed north across the Pontine marshes from Terracina. So it is also 70 years since the German-occupied monastery fell to Allied forces on 18 May.
I don’t know that younger generations of Americans learn much about either Anzio or Monte Cassino today. Seventy years ago today the monastery was a bombed-out shell, relic of the extended battle for a tactically-important mountain redoubt overlooking the Italian coast. Monte Cassino, which sits at the southern approach to the Liri River valley, has been the site of a monastery since the 500s, but has been a tactically-significant vantage point for even longer, and the subject of a number of battles over the centuries. Under the fraternal ministrations of the Wehrmacht, the mountain was outfitted with machine-gun emplacements to enhance its defensibility, and that of the Liri Valley.
(Whether the monastery itself was occupied by German artillery spotters prior to the first Allied air attack on it, in February 1944, remains a point of dispute, although additional information gained after the war suggests that it was not. Some of the reports that it was being used by the Germans have been specifically discredited. But there is no question that the mountain itself figured in German tactical preparations, and that Allied troops took machine-gun fire from it. It was inevitable that the effort to take Monte Cassino, the mountain, and secure the Liri Valley for an Allied advance, would ultimately involve the strongly-built abbey commanding the summit.)
The abbey was bombed on 15 February 1944, after multiple reports from Allied aircrews indicated the Germans were using it for artillery spotting and direction. The monks, and a few dozen local citizens who had taken refuge in the monastery from the fighting across the countryside, left it after the bombing, making their way down the mountain on foot. The Germans overran and occupied it shortly afterward, and held it through an Allied assault over the following days, another one in mid-March, and most of the week-long final assault in May.
The final Allied assault to retake Monte Cassino
In the final assault, which began on 11 May, a veritable United Nations of Allied troops assailed the mountain, its surrounding area, and the German-held abbey. U.S. and British troops (which included Indian, Canadian, and New Zealand forces) were the most numerous, but the French, with their Algerian and Moroccan fighters, were instrumental in outflanking the Germans from their rear. The Polish regiment, whose infantry took very heavy losses, became the first troops to enter the monastery and claim it for the Allies, on 18 May. The fall of Monte Cassino, along with emerging tactical losses to the east, left the Germans unable to hold the Gustav Line, and they executed a retreat whose rapidity – along with some indecision by the Allied commander – allowed them to escape encirclement by the Allies, and eventually regroup to defend their final line in Italy to the north. Rome fell to the Allied advance on 4 June, two days before the Normandy invasion.
The monastery at Monte Cassino today
The monastery at Monte Cassino was rebuilt after the war, and today is a bright and splendid presence in the Italian countryside. Its sanctuary was reconstructed faithfully in the Baroque style of the one destroyed in the bombing, and much of the abbey above-ground looks again as if it has been there for centuries. Below ground, storage chambers and ancient living quarters survive from as far back as the 11th century. The monastery, peaceful and serene, is yet involved in the life of the local communities.
On a slope a little way down from the abbey, one encounters the Polish cemetery, which bears silent witness to the Polish dead who fought bravely, under heavy artillery fire, to take the mountain for the Allies. In the Commonwealth cemetery at the foot of the mountain lie more than 4,200 soldiers of the British Empire who gave their lives in the Anzio and Monte Cassino campaign.
One may drive the back roads from Naples to Monte Cassino now, and still see the German artillery “nests” that were constructed in the war years. Like relics of the American Civil War, they have been left in place for visitors to marvel over on guided tours. There was widespread destruction of the Italian countryside as the Allies fought across it to take it from the Germans, in no area more so, perhaps, than the terrain between Naples and the Liri Valley. Today this area is a mesh of Italian towns, hillside farms, dairies; freeways, railways, port cities, airports, commerce. The protective shelters for German machine-guns, with their eye-and-barrel slots, are still there; but the machine-guns are gone, as are the troop trucks and tanks in the roadways, the swastika flying over commandeered headquarters, and the secret police of the Fascist era.
A word from an old monk, survivor of the battle of 1944
If you go in a small group of U.S. Navy personnel, as I did, to get a special tour of the abbey at Monte Cassino, you might have been greeted, in recent decades, by an old monk who was in it during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. He was 17 years old when the abbey was bombed, overrun by the Germans, and then taken by the Allies in the final assault on the mountain. He had been sent there by his parents for safety, earlier in the war, and had not yet taken orders. His assigned responsibility at the time was to help look after the chickens, pigs, and sheep brought to the abbey by the local families – the women and children and old people – who had taken refuge in it from the fighting.
On a chilly December day he took our little group through the damp, cold underground complex, portions of which date back almost a thousand years. As he walked us through the stone passageways aboveground and into the beautifully rebuilt sanctuary, he explained the history of the abbey to us in his fluent but heavily-accented English, from its founding by St. Benedict in the A.D. 520s to its varied fortunes under Saracen invasion, the Papal politics of the Renaissance, the unification of Italy in the 19th century, and its modern incarnation as a place of service and worship.
As we stood in the main courtyard, looking through a breezeway out at the valley rolling down from us, rustling with clumps of dark green pines, and at the pale Mediterranean walls of Cassino glittering in the winter sun, he spoke without rancor of the fighting that nearly destroyed the monastery in 1944. The inhabitants had been driven from it in the days after the February bombing, when the Germans came in to occupy it, and he had lived hand-to-mouth with others who took refuge in local farmhouses, or slept in the open, for weeks afterward. Out of the original monks, he said, there were fewer than 10 who survived and came back, after the abbey was taken by the Allies, to reoccupy it and put it back to God’s work again.
But, he told us earnestly, his eyes bright and smiling through a network of wrinkles, “I forgive them all. All of them, the Germans, the Fascisti, the Allies. All of them who used bombs and guns. God has been with us in all these things, and He gave us that with which to build again. To start again. This,” he said, with a gesture toward the valley, “the Allies did for us. They gave us back our mountain without machine guns on it.
“And,” he told us, “I thank them for that. I thank the Allies who came to fight and do this for us. I thank the Americans, and the British. I thank the French. I thank the Poles. But especially,” he said, “I thank the Americans. Because they came from the other side of the world, and without them, the others would not have come.”
Anzio and Monte Cassino are not as well remembered by Americans as Normandy, or Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal. We took the greatest number of Allied casualties in the fight to break the Gustav Line, but for understandable reasons, we often think of the campaign there as particularly multinational in character. Our war dead from Anzio, Monte Cassino, and Sicily – more than 10,000 in all – lie in a cemetery at Nettuno, near Anzio, where one is more likely to see battlefield tourists from Britain or France than from the USA.
But it is Monte Cassino I remember each year on Memorial Day – and the old monk whose simple words help make sense of a dreadful war, in a dreadful time in which dreadful things were done. This Memorial Day, as we commemorate all our brave war dead who have given their lives for our nation and our ideal of liberty, I remember the American soldiers who died at Monte Cassino in 1944, to give the Italians back their mountain without machine guns. They came from the farms and towns, the ranches and backwoods and raw, brash cities on the other side of the world. And without them, the others would not have come.