The harshness that became the four battles of Cassino occurring in Italy from January through May 1944 represented the difficulty facing the Allies trying to take what had been described as the “soft underbelly of Europe.”
They had witnessed the successes at the fall of the island of Sicily and Salerno beachhead on the mainland, but ran into trouble as they began to encounter German defensive lines that slowed their advances into bloody slogs. In the early stages, capturing Rome was the goal, and the Allied armies coordinated their efforts to push through the remaining defensive lines and open a way to the city.
Problem was, the terrain before them gave as much trouble as the Germans, and limited their options to traversing such a large mechanized force through a narrow strait of land called the Liri valley. Twenty miles long and ten miles wide, the valley was edged by steep mountains of the Apennines to the north and Aurunci mountains to the south. Between these on the valley floor wound a road known as Highway 6, passing by a town named Cassino and leading on to Rome.
Overlooking the town, situated atop 1,700 foot Monte Cassino, was a multi-story Catholic monastery founded in A.D 529 by Saint Benedict of Nursia. The location provided a picturesque and unobstructed view across the valley.
Within months this site was destined to transform from the teachings of peace into a living hell on earth.
What became known as the first battle of Cassino began on January 17th 1944, when the British 10th Corps attacked along the coast to pressure the Germans. Then, on the 20th, the U.S. 5th Army using its 2nd Corps, aided by a number of smaller Allied units, conducted its main assault by amphibious crossings of rivers and began fighting on the valley and in the mountains against what was known as the Gustav line. Several days of heavy combat ensued but units of the U.S 34th Infantry Division slogged through the mountains near Cassino, supported by a French expeditionary Corps.
The next three days found the 34th, under heavy shelling, fighting its way toward the monastery in snowy conditions before it and the rest of 2nd Corps had to be withdrawn due to casualties. With that, the first battle of Cassino concluded on February 11th.
What followed next remains a controversy.
Allied planners long suspected the monastery being used as a perfect vantage point for artillery observers to call down accurate and murderous fire upon their forces. General Sir Harold Alexander, overall Allied commander of the theater, decided that the structure should be bombed. Afterwards, it was hoped, units could move about quicker and take the town and site itself with much less difficulty.
On February 15th, with war correspondents cameras rolling in the distance, a rain of bombs fell from the bellies of U.S heavy and medium bombers over Monte Cassino.
The resulting carnage tore the walls, several feet thick, into a strewn jumble of jutted wreckage and cratered the slopes like a moonscape. When the destruction ended, all that remained was merely a stunted outline of what once stood.
Mounds of ruin. Perfect defensive positions.
Shortly thereafter, two regiments and a machine gun battalion of paratroopers belonging to the Luftwaffe’s 1st Fallschirmjaeger (Parachute-Hunter) division under General-Lieutenant Richard Heidrich began taking up positions in the rubble and adjacent mountains. These battle-hardened men had been fighting since the start, and their Esprit de corps would prove crucial since, until that time, even the Germans had obeyed the monks request not to use their structure. Now with it in ruins, the Allies unknowingly gave them a gift for the which first would only accept blood in return. And, forevermore, their resilience would earn them the title “The Green Devils Of Cassino” by their opponents.
On February 17th, action recommenced as a corps from New Zealand moved forward over the mountains north of Cassino and up the railway from its southeast. An Indian division attached fought close quarter battles in the hills against the paratroopers and like before, the going was slow, as artillery fire rained down on exposed units, and terrain turned into a morass of muck and ice.
A Maori unit managed to capture Cassino’s railway station before it too had to withdraw when German armor moved against them on February 18th.
The second battle ended as both sides dug in and continued harassing each other into March, that typical Italian town and the location of that once proud monastery growing ever more important by the day.
With the snows gone, on March 15, a rolling artillery barrage commenced and in the morning hours, the New Zealand corps made another push towards the town. Some successes occurred when they took some high ground and finally, the train station, though, again after bitter fighting and losses against a dug in enemy.
Now fighting spread into the town, The New Zealanders fought house to house over several days, pushing the German’s back as the rubble piled up. On March 19, they were joined by British infantry and resisted counterattacks to push them back.
Every attempt to push up Monte Cassino and its surrounding mountains by the Indian division was repulsed with heavy losses, by the Fallschirmjaeger. And their reputation grew quickly among the minds and mouths of the Allies.
The third battle concluded on March 23
Alexander then devised a different plan, after he brought in the British 8th Army and launched a massive attack across the entire region and gave isolating and taking the abbey to the ones whose people were the first victims of Nazi aggression… the Polish 2nd Corps.
The final battle opened on May 11, with over a thousand guns shelling Monte Cassino and the surrounding mountains. The Poles captured a mountain called Calvary, above the monastery, only to be driven off by the Fallschirmjaeger, sometimes in hand to hand combat. They tried to scale Monte Cassino as well, but were thrown back. Someone later said, “Just 800 Germans had succeeded in driving off attacks by 2 divisions.”
The next day, similar disaster occurred when they charged Cassino again, and saw whole battalions obliterated by the outnumbered defenders.
A short time later, with support of nearly 300 artillery pieces, the Poles watched the mountain come alive in heaving dirt and clouds of fire adding craters on top of craters from previous battles around the abbey. Inside the ruins, white clouds of rock and stone rose highest in the air. The Fallschirmjaeger, their strength reduced by weeks of combat, huddled in jagged holes as stone and tile fell on them carried by the noise of successive impacts. Their distinctive green and brown camouflage smocks were torn and encrusted with the white dust of the ruins that covered their faces as well.
When it was over, a pall of thick cloying mist hung over the mountain as the Poles began moving from crater to crater up the mountain and surrounding slopes.
Amid the countless crevices in the ever growing ruins, gun barrels began to poke, once again. Along the ridges nearby, more pars roused from the bombardment and pushed away the few bits of bark and leaves to clear fields of fire.
The mist began to dissipate and they saw the dark, hunched figures moving, exposed at first then vanishing into a crater and repeating the act a few seconds later.
A call was made over a radio, an order shouted from somewhere, and like every time before, the Germans blasted away with everything they had.
Hidden small arms cut down soldiers as artillery slammed into them a minute later. Stricken men fired back at every tiny puff of smoke or tracer stream they saw before taking hits that rolled and slid their lifeless forms hundreds of feet backwards as more of their brethren leaped over them to try again…And again.
The Poles suffered enormous casualties each trek upwards, before waiting for another covering of artillery fire to attempt one more try.
They made little headway. Always the call to retreat came as commanders realized whole units being shattered around them by curtains of lead that followed every soldier’s movement. Every artillery barrage against the defenders only seemed to make them that much more difficult to dislodge.
This went on for three days.
On the 16th, the Poles hit surrounding mountains and encountered weaker resistance, though still drawing much blood as they fought to take the positions.
Then the strangest thing happened.
After midnight on the 17th, flares revealed to bewildered artillery observers in the town, small groups of Germans fleeing the monastery. Fire was called down on them with little effect as they disappeared into the darkness.
Unknown to the Allies, the Battle of Monte Cassino, with all its unspeakable carnage, was ending with a whimper instead of a bang.
On the morning of the 18th, Survivors of the first two assaults on the monastery linked up with the rest of the Polish Corps and 78th British division, and trudged up the mountain.
Not a shot was fired.
They entered the ruins and found thirty wounded Germans left behind. Then, they raised the white and red colors of Poland.
It never fell as long as the 1st Fallschirmjaeger had held it though.
Later on, it was learned that military necessity had dictated their withdrawal to avoid being outflanked with other German units.
General Alexander had marveled at these paratroopers during the battles in March, saying it was “The best division in the German Army” and later that, “No other troops in the world but German paratroops could have stood up to such an ordeal and then gone on fighting with such ferocity”
The Fallschirmjaeger left Monte Cassino unaware of such blunt praise. For them, many more battles awaited, and many more mountains to die on.
Regardless, in the end, the road to Rome lay open.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)