The Second Battle of Monte Cassino: The Destruction of the Abbey

In 529 CE, during the darkest days of the so called “Dark Ages”, Benedict of Nursia established a small monastery on the site of an old temple to the god Apollo outside of the Roman village of Cassium. He wanted to take his small religious community in a new direction, and created a monastic rule for his followers based on order, balance, and moderation. The Benedictine Rule for Catholic monks spread throughout Europe. Their manuscripts and dedication to education went far in preserving the light of Western civilization during the numerous and successive barbarian invasions of Europe.

1415 years later, the Abbey at Monte Cassino took on a sinister visage to the Allies, in particular the remnant of the remnant of the US II Corps. Since the capture of San Pietro in December 1943, there was nowhere on the battlefield that you couldn’t look up and see the Abbey. During the meat grinder at San Pietro, the massacres crossing the Rapido River, the carnage swept slopes of Monte Cairo and Castle Hill, the brutal house to house fighting in Cassino, and a hundred other bloody engagements where the Allies were slaughtered, there was only one constant: the Abbey. Like a cackling mad god surveying his vicious handiwork, it loomed over the bloody hills and valleys of the Gustav Line. The American soldier wanted the Abbey obliterated.

Lt Gen Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the recently arrived New Zealand Corps, agreed. His Kiwis, Brits and Indians were next in line to feed the Beast in the shadow of the monastery. The II Corps staff was convinced the Germans had occupied the stout walls of the Abbey, or were at least using it for observation. And that is exactly what they briefed the New Zealand Corps’ staff during the relief in place. On 12 February 1944, Freyberg formally requested the Abbey be smashed by heavy bombers with “blockbusting” bombs. Gen Mark Clark disagreed based on the recommendation the II Corps commander, MG Keyes, who said, “They’ve been looking so long (at the Abbey), they’re seeing things.” No concrete evidence has ever been uncovered that the Abbey was ever occupied by the Germans before the 14th of February.

Field Marshall Kesselring specifically ordered that the Abbey was not to be so in any form, and made sure Hitler, the Allies and the Vatican knew that. Lieut Gen Viettinghoff, the German Tenth Army commander, ruthlessly enforced the edict and knew that the military crest of Monte Cassino was just as advantageous anyway. But British Field Marshall Harold Alexander, the CinC of the Allies in the Mediterranean, overruled Clark. Alexander wanted to give the bomber enthusiasts a chance to show what they could do in support of ground operations in Italy.

On the 13th, the Allies dropped leaflets on the Abbey telling the monks to leave. The Abbot knew there were no Germans in the monastery and thought the Allies were doing this to protect them from the ground fighting and stray rounds, so there was no sense of haste. Additionally there were over a thousand Italian refugees in the monastery, and they would take days to organize for movement north through the German lines.

Two days later on 15 February 1944, 300 Allied bombers and 100 fighter bombers destroyed the Abbey. The German Minister of Propaganda Jozef Goebbels immediately exploited the act and broadcast the news around the world. Most of the monks and civilians were killed. Vietinghoff immediately ordered the remains of the Abbey occupied. The elite German paratroopers of the 1st Fallshchirmjaeger Division turned the ruins into an impregnable fortress, exactly what the Allies accused them of doing in the first place. For the Allies, the future battles around Monte Cassino just became exponentially more difficult.

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