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.

Monastery Atop Monte Cassino
Monastery Atop Monte Cassino

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heavy shelling, fighting its way toward the monastery in snowy conditions before it and the rest of 2nd Corps had to be withdrawn due to casualties.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.