by David Hapgood
& David Richardson
Congdon & Weed, Inc., NY, 1984.
The Abbey of Monte Cassino was founded by Saint Benedict and was the center of all religious activities and culture of the Benedictine Order. The monastery itself was a work of art and it held many precious documents and art, as well as 200 crates of art recently brought up from Naples for storage. On February 15 of 1944, waves of Allied bombers obiliterated Monte Cassino. This is the story of the last days of the monastery and the Allied decision to bomb the monastery.by Steve Cole, January 2000
Monte Cassino was a complex of buildings that were turned into a fortress in 18th century. It was a four-story, white stone structure that was at least 10 feet thick at the base. The only gate had stones that were 9 to 10 meters long. At one end was the basilica with its robin's egg-blue cupola. The bronze doors bore reliefs depicting its three previous destructions. The chapels, crypts, studies and halls were filled with mosaics, frescoes and paintings some done by famous Italian Renaissance artists and some by German Benedictine monks of Bueron.
As the 5th Army progressed into the Liri Valley, they came face to face with the 1500-foot mountains raising up from the flat plains. The prominent point was the low peak dominated by Monte Cassino. Any foot soldier entering this area felt as if he was being watched by the whole German army from the windows of the hugh fortress building.
The main participants of this drama.
Major Max Becker, a medical doctor in Herman Goering Division, came up with an idea to move the art out of Monte Cassino. He was motivated by the love of art. Colonel Julius Schlegel, a transportation officer with HGD, took credit for organizing the movement of the monks, documents, and art to safety. His motive was to loot the art collection for the perfect gift for Field Marshall Goering's upcoming birthday. So, Major Becker devised a plan to publicize the removal of the art works so that any looted art work would be known to the world.
Abbot Diamare tried to ensure the Germans recognized a 300-meter neutral zone around the monastery. He remained in the monastery with 10 devoted monks and was later joined by 800 refugees, whom he could not feed. His assistant kept a diary, which sheads light on the broken promises of the Germans.
General Mark Clark placed a ban on shelling of the monastery. When pressured to bomb it, Clark felt he was out numbered by his British allies and he forced the issue on his commander, General Alexander(also British). Clark then busied himself with Anzio and took no part in the bombing plans.
German General Senger was a practising catholic and tried to protect the Italians and their culture whenever he could. He tried to enforce the 300-meter neutral zone but was over ruled by his commander, Kesserling. However, the Germans claimed that they never used the building for military purposes.
Then in January of 1944, on the scene came a new player: General Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Division. Freyberg refused to attack the series of ridges because he said it was sure doomed to failure without a heavy bombardment of Monte Cassino. Neither Clark nor General Alexander wanted to offend General Freyberg, who could easily take his 5,000 troops out of the Italian campaign and move to the Pacific theater. So, orders were given to lift the ban but there was still some resistance even from General Eaker, the top commander of the Allied Air Force. The Germans had taken up defensive positions within close proximity to the monastery walls, but there was no evidence that they using it as a observation post or military defenses. Eaker even took one last flight over the monastery to see if he could spot any sign of German military force inside it.
One piece of evidence the Allies had was an intercepted message: "Ist Abt noch im Kloester?" which was answered with "Ja". This was translated as "Is battalion HQ still in the monastery?" The term "Abt" was a common German military abbreviation for "battalion headquarters". But "Abt" also meant "abbot". The meaning was clearer when taken into context. The next message was: "Sind Moenche darinnen?" ("Are the monks in there?"), which was answered with "Ja". Another report on the interrogation of a prisoner confused the location of another ridge that was location of a German battalion with the one where the monastery was located.
With no one taking the credit, the opinion changed to lifting the restrictions and orders were given to bring more bombers in on the plan. Everyone on the Allied side, including Catholic soldiers wanted to see the obstacle removed. "I have Catholic gunners in this battery and they've asked me for permission to fire on it".
At 10:30 the first flight of the total of 144 B-17 heavy bombers and 86 medium bombers approached their target. The entire front had settled back to watch the show as if it was a football game. The B-17 bombers dropped twelve 500-pound demolition bombs. Later in the afternoon, the B-26 medium bombers dropped four 1,000-pound bombs each. The only group that was totally unaware of what was about to take place were members of the 4th Indian Division, that were within 300 yards of the monastery. As they looked up at the bombers, their phone rang telling them to take cover. The first day a total of 239 bombers dropped 453 tons of bombs on that one target.
Since the bombing had been moved up a day, the New Zealand Corps was not ready to follow up the bombardment with an immediate attack. Over the next two days, the Indian Division failed to capture Hill 593, above Monte Cassino. The civilians dispersed from the monastery ruins. After awaiting for transportation promised by the Germans, the monks and 40 civilians proceeded out of the ruins. Their procession was scattered by artillery, forcing one monk to return and was never seen again. Eventually, all the monks were taken to safety of General Senger's headquarters. Abbot Diamare signed a statement that no soldiers had occupied the monastery. The Abbey of Monte Cassino no longer existed; it became Hill 516.
General Freyberg was embarrassed about his claim to take Cassino within a day of the bombardment. So he ordered an attack on Feb 18th, which only added 530 casualties to the totals from previous two attemps.
The Allied Air Forces forwarded a message that stated; "It is difficult to see how any of the occupants of the building could have survived the weighty attack". However, most of the 2000 civilian occupants did survive the February 15th bombardment. Some estimate 200 civilians were killed; other placed it higher. No monks were killed by the bombing and certainly no German soldiers were killed.
On February 20th, German paratroopers occupied the ruins of Cassino and held it until May 18. They pulled out only after the Polish troops went around their position. The Allies finally succeeded in proving what had been known by Hannibal: the only way proceed against Rome from the south was to bypass the Liri Valley and the surrounding mountains.
"The idiots! They've done it after all. All our efforts were in vain".
German General Senger to his staff on hearing the first bombs explode.
"It was very well explained. . . the reason it was shelled was because it was being used by the Germans to shell us. It was a German strong point--had artillery and everything up there in the abbey."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, press conference, Feb 15, 4:04pm [10:06PM in Italy]
"It appears that no German troops, exept a small military police detachment, were actually inside the abbey"
Office of the Chief Military History responding to a 1961 congressional inquiry.