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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Destruction of Monte Cassino Abbey

Historic monastery flattened in Allied bombing raid



An American B17 bomber shortly after releasing its payload over Monte Cassino
An American B17 bomber shortly after
releasing its payload over Monte Cassino
The Abbey of Monte Cassino, established in 529 and the oldest Benedictine monastery in the world, was destroyed by Allied bombers on this day in 1944 in what is now acknowledged as one of the biggest strategic errors of the Second World War on the Allied side.

The Abbey was attacked despite an agreement signed by both sides with the Vatican that the historic building would be respected as occupying neutral territory.

But Allied commanders, who had seen their infantrymen suffer heavy casualties in trying to advance along the Liri valley, the route of the main highway between Naples and Rome, were convinced that the Germans were using the Abbey, which commands sweeping views of the valley, at least as a point from which to direct operations.

This perception was reinforced by a radio intercept, subsequently alleged to have been wrongly translated, which suggested a German battalion had been stationed in the Abbey, ignoring a 300-metre area around it that was supposed to be out of bounds to soldiers on both sides.

What remained of the abbey after four hours of sustained bombing by American planes had stopped
What remained of the abbey after four hours of sustained
bombing by American planes had stopped
Knowing that attacking a historic and religiously sensitive target would divide public opinion, particularly among their Catholic populations, military sources in Britain and the United States leaked details of their suspicions to the newspapers, who obligingly printed stories that seemed to justify the plan. On Valentine's Day, 1944, leaflets were fired towards the Abbey and the nearby town of Cassino to warn residents and monks of what was coming.

The raid began at 9.24am the following day as the Abbey was bathed in wintry morning sunshine.  It continued for more than four hours in what was the biggest sustained attack on a single building of the entire war and, many have contended, the greatest aesthetic disaster of the conflict.

Fortunately, many of the art treasures contained in the Abbey had already been removed to safety in Rome by two far-sighted German officers, including paintings by Titian, El Greco and Goya, along with tens of thousands of books and manuscripts. They had been transferred to the Vatican in more than 100 truckloads the year before, although some did end up in Germany.

Parts of the abbey were almost completely destroyed,  although many art treasures had been removed
Parts of the abbey were almost completely destroyed,
although many art treasures had been removed
But nothing could be done to save the frescoed walls of the building itself.  In all, 229 American bombers, arriving in wave after wave, dropped 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiaries, reducing the entire top of the 488 metre (1,600 feet) mountain to a mass of smouldering rubble.

The 79-year-old Abbot, Gregorio Diamare, escaped, along with the other monks, some of whom hid in the underground vaults. But 230 refugees given shelter inside the Abbey were killed.  There were no German casualties.  The German positions above and below the Abbey, outside the neutral zone, were seemingly untouched.  The information passed on from the radio intercept was wrong.  No German troops were inside the building, nor had been, although it was more than two decades before the mistake was fully acknowledged.

To make matters worse, the bombardment created for the Germans a superb defensive position among the ruins.

There had been a plan for Allied troops to storm the site in the aftermath of the bombing but communications between the Air Force commanders and the Army on the ground were poor and it is thought the raid was launched to take advantage of good weather with no consideration of the readiness of the follow-up plan.

As it was, essential supplies and equipment had not reached the valley and some of the soldiers who were ready to attack were forced to withdraw after stray bombs hit their positions.

As a result, the Germans were able to take control of the ruined site and create the strategic stronghold the Allies had thought they were destroying.

The Abbey of Monte Cassino after it had been rebuilt  in the 1950s following the original plans
The Abbey of Monte Cassino after it had been rebuilt
in the 1950s following the original plans
Pope Pius XII made no public comment about the destruction of the Abbey but his Cardinal Secretary of State, Luigi Maglione, denounced it as "a colossal blunder, a piece of a gross stupidity."

The Allies did eventually capture Monte Cassino but it took them until May 18, when soldiers from the Polish II Corps planted a Polish flag among the ruins, the only remaining Germans being those who lay wounded.  However, the cost was high, Allied casualties numbering 55,000 from a total of four assaults, compared with 20,000 on the German side.

Travel tip:

After the Second World War, the Abbey of Monte Cassino was painstakingly rebuilt based on the original plans, paid for in part by the Vatican and in part by what could be raised in an international appeal.  Today, it is again a working monastery and continues to be a pilgrimage site, housing as it does the surviving relics of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. It also serves as a shrine to the 183,000 thousand killed in the area around it.

Hotels near Monte Cassino by Hotels.com

The Commonwealth Cemetery in Cassino with the abbey on top of the mountain in the background
The Commonwealth Cemetery in Cassino with the abbey
on top of the mountain in the background
Travel tip:

There are two major war cemeteries close to Monte Cassino. At the Cassino War Cemetery, some 4,271 Common- wealth servicemen killed are buried or commem- orated.  The graves of more than 1,000 Poles and 200 Belarusians can be found within a separate Polish Cemetery, including that of General Wladyslaw Anders, who commanded the Polish force that finally captured Monte Cassino.

More reading:


How Italy entered the Second World War

Mussolini's last stand

Alcide de Gasperi begins to rebuild Italy

Also on this day:


1564: The birth of Galileo Galilei


Books:


Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, by Peter Caddick-Adams

(Picture credits: rebuilt Abbey by Radomil; Cassino Cemetery by Amiens984; via Wikimedia Commons)

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