The Battle of Monte Cassino was a costly series of four battles, which first began on the 17th of January of 1944. In order to break through the Winter Line and seize Rome, the Allied Forces tried to reach a little town in the Cassino mountain, from which they could have a very good view and a strong defensive position against Germans and Italians .
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In the words of US Fifth Army commanded Lieutenant-General Mark W Clark: "It was one of our [Allies] strategic aims to draw as many German forces as possible away from the Russian front and the French coastal area and to contain them on the Italian peninsula, while liberating as much of Italy as it might be possible with means at our disposal."
In January 1944 it was hoped that the German defences of the Gustav Line could be rushed by mounting a coordinated attack by the US Fifth Army and an amphibious operation by VI US Corps at Anzio on the coast south of Rome. Operation SHINGLE, as the Anzio landing was called, was aimed at cutting the German lines of communication south of Rome.
At the same time the II US Corps with British and French support was expected to break through the Gustav Line. It did not work and the Allied forces within the Anzio beachhead found themselves isolated and under constant counterattack. This added pressure on the forces attacking the Gustav Line to come to their aid. As one British military historian concluded: "In the event the roles of Anzio and Cassino were reversed. On the Allied side Cassino became the rescuer of Anzio instead of Anzio helping to create conditions for a breakthrough at Cassino".
Instead of a quick breakthrough, the battle for Cassino developed into a long war of attrition.
"an attack of lions led by donkeys"
The first attack was a disaster. The terrain, dominated by mountain ranges, was ideal for defence. The Germans had a higher ground advantage. They could rain shells and rounds from their fortified positions in the mountains onto advancing Allied forces. A historian Richard Holmes also blamed the incompetence and a very poor coordination of Brittish and American commanders in charge of the operation. He even went further calling the first battle "an attack of lions led by donkeys".
As the US Fifth Army mounted the attack on Anzio with its VI US Corps, the II US Corps, X British Corps and the French Expeditionary Force, under General Alphonse Juin, attacked the Gustav Line. Monte Cassino was to be bypassed by the French and British, who would attack on either flank followed by a decisive thrust by the Americans up the Liri Valley along Route 6.
In atrocious weather the French crossed the Rapido and advanced through the mountains north of Cassino. It was bitter, bloody fighting with the Moroccan and Algerian soldiers (French Expeditionary Corps) fighting hand to hand against the Germans of 5th Mountain Division. It came close to breaking the German line but failed because there were simply not enough men left to continue the attack, and no further reserves were available. Frostbite and trench foot caused by the wet and cold added to the casualties among the North African soldiers who fought in the ice and snow with one blanket each and no winter equipment.
Both sides fought to the point of exhaustion
It was no easier for II US Corps in its attempt to force a way up the Liri Valley. The Germans had turned the river flats into killing grounds strung with barbed wire and laced with minefields. Over these, machine guns raked the attackers from cleverly concealed pillboxes and bunkers dug into the cellars of the stone houses. The 36th US (Texas) Division was cut to pieces as it attempted to cross the flooded Rapido or ‘Bloody River’ as they called it on 20–22 January. An American infantry officer reported on the fate of his rifle company after the failed attack: "I had 184 men… 48 hours later I had 17. If that’s not mass murder, I don’t know what is".
The 36th US Division lost some 2000 casualties and by the end of the battle it was effectively down to one-third of its fighting strength. The 34th US Division now attacked across the Rapido and tried to capture Cassino from the north. After grim fighting they pushed to within 1000 yards of the monastery but were stopped by the network of German machine-gun posts. It was the same in the fighting for the town itself where every building had been turned into a strongpoint.
The Americans fought their way forward with heavy losses over steep broken ground where any movement or attempt to get supplies and ammunition forward was seen and fired on by the German defenders. Both sides fought to the point of exhaustion. The German defence was carried out by 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had fought against Montgomery’s Eighth Army in North Africa. It was reinforced by the paratroopers of Major-General Heidrich’s 1st Parachute Division, reputedly the ‘best Division in the German Army.’
The first battle of Monte Cassino failed to achieve the desired objectives
The II US Corps fought themselves to a standstill. Success had been tantalisingly close, but the winter and the steep, mountainous country tipped the balance in favour of the German defenders. The realities of the American efforts were evident to the soldiers of the New Zealand Division as they came in to relieve the Americans.
The first battle of Monte Cassino failed to achieve the desired objectives. It only brought heavy casualties and left the Allied troops with broken spirits: so much bravery and so many sacrifices with no tangible results.
A distinguished war correspondent Doon Campbell confessed: “Never in my experience of war in six different theatres have I seen anything as spectacular, as mind boggling, as dramatic, as that impregnable position of Monte Cassino.”
It became quite obvious to the Allied command that the road to Rome was going through the Monte Cassino monastery, a sixth century cradle of European monasticism founded by Saint Benedict. The monastery was situated on a mountain top, high above the valley and presented a perfect observation position: just one German soldier there could orchestrate and coordinate artillery fire of remarkable accuracy.
the Allies decided to bomb the monastery
Although the Holy See and the German command had reached the agreement that there would be no German soldiers in the monastery, the Allies still decided to bomb it to make sure that the Germans were deprived of their advantageous position.
Thankfully, the Battle of Monte Cassino saw valour and courage on both sides. An officer from Vienna Julius Schlegel of Hermann Göring Panzer Division at his own accord and good will, against his superiors direct orders, proposed to remove religious artefacts to the Vatican City.
At first the abbot was reluctant; he was well aware of the previous accounts of German looting. He wished not to endanger safety of centuries old and painstakingly preserved monastery treasures. Yet Lieutenant Colonel Schlegel proved himself to be an honest and trustworthy man. He insisted that the monastery collection would not be safe in worsening conditions around Monte Cassino. Thanks to his judgement and good senses the artefacts were brought out of harm’s way. Had they stayed in the monastery they would have been levelled to the ground and lost forever after the Allied aerial bombardment
Only the total destruction of the monastery and three more battles allowed the Allies to capture Rome in May 1944. Yet the bravery and courage of men who fought at Monte Cassino would never be forgotten and their legacy still lives.
Source here, by Dr Christopher Pugsley, Department of War Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst