The Abbey was built in AD 524 with 15 feet high ceilings and walls ten feet thick. It was built as the center of Benedictine power on top of a mountain range and overlooking a road known today as Highway 6. Who knows how many names this road held before the twentieth century? Monte Cassino sat on a long defensive perimeter that extended all the way across central Italy east to west from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea. The Nazis and the loyal Italian Facists reinforced this perimeter that was known as the Gustav Line. The line conveniently lay over some of the most inhospitable territory to anyone transporting anything north or south through the mountains. By now Italy had surrendered under pressure from both invaders and partisans, and frankly the general populace were most disabused of their own nutcase Il Duce. He brought war and destruction to their country and then hid in the mountains in the north in a Nazi redoubt with his girlfriend when bullets started flying. The invasion forces were split between the US 5th Army under General Mark Clark and the British 8th Army under Harold Alexander. Hitler doubled down on defending the Italian countryside against an Allied invasion and reinforced the rocky impenetrable ridges that adumbrated this ancient border that held back armies since long before Germany or the United States ever existed. The Germans were especially worried about the fall of Italy since this represented Germany’s biggest and most powerful ally next to Japan. Geographically Italy is a nice buffer zone between Germany’s southern border and invading armies coming up through the Mediterranean. The Allies appearance in Sicily so scared the Germans that Hitler had to take divisions out of Russia and ship them into Italy to fight. So the Nazis strategy was simple: make the attempt to replevin Monte Cassino so expensive that it buys the Reich time to slow down the advancing troops on its southern border. Its hoary history put it right in the center of centuries of intrigue and political power. Unfortunately this would come to a lugubrious finish. On February 15th, 1944 the US Army Air Force sent 142 B-17s in formation over the Abbey and destroyed this architectural masterpiece, even though it was inundated with some of the most beautiful priceless art and articles rich in history.
When the bombing ended, Allied commanders made an amateurish error. They failed to take the road by the Monastery. Instead, they allowed the German paratroopers to use the rubble to create an even more deadly defensive position. Overnight, bombing Monte Cassino turned it into a sniper’s playground the way bombing Stalingrad did for the Russians. Not only did they do this to Monte Cassino, they did this
to the town of Cassino, I might add, another absolutely gorgeous town with Gothic Italian architecture and old libraries and records that are now just the detritus of war; They carpet bombed Cassino for four hours and followed it with 125,000 artillery shells. When the shooting was over and the Allies rushed in at the end of their bombing runs they discovered how quickly the Germans could reconstitute stout defenses. The Germans held the Rapido and Garliani Rivers. The Germans effectively held all the high ground with deadly fields of fire literally miles in every direction. From the very outset of the Italian Campaign, the Allies knew that even though we controlled the air, and even though it was going badly for the Reich, the entire battle up through southern Italy was fought at a distinct disadvantage. They had the high ground, period. The conditions the Allies fought in were miserable and like the combat in the Pacific theater, it represented the worst that life has to offer in warfare. Men died from small arms fire, pinned down and or cut down by the Germans rapid cycling MG-42 machine gun masterfully hidden among the caves and rock outcroppings of the mountain in Central Italy. Men fell from the heights and died. Men died from exposure to the weather in bitter cold Italian Winter, cold torrential rains that turns steep mountain passes into slip and slides. In the third battle, some New Zealanders were caught in downpours and slid off the mountain. They died from mortar fire and artillery fire and they died in the results of hand-to-hand combat with Italian and German troops still dedicate to the ideals of destruction. Allied casualties from the battle of Monte Cassino added up to about 55,000. The Germans suffered 22,000 casualties. Casualties from the Italian campaign from the assault on the Gustav Line to the recapture of Rome were over 100,000.
The battles were divided into four major attempts to assault the heights and take control of Highway 6 that sat below Monte
Cassino. They were very bloody for not just the Americans, they were bloody for the Allied troops fighting along side us: the British, the First Indian Regiment, New Zealanders, Canadians troops, Polish troops, Free French, Maoris, and Free Italian soldiers as well. The campaign took five months to complete, and 21 Allied divisions to defeat the intransigent Wehrmacht forces and their crack paratroopers of the mountain. It took the dedication of thousands of men from all over the British Empire and it took the special mountain climbing skills of troops from Morocco and from India to help breech the stubborn Nazi defenses. There was an account on a cable TV show of Germans and British troops facing each other that had declared a truce just so they could reclaim their wounded and dying. Both sides agreed and even shared stretchers. (I am looking into that.)