Monte Cassino Abbey, Anno Domini 1503.
Gonzalo Fernandez de Còrdoba, el Gran Capitàn, had decided: the Abbey should have been destroyed. The French, against whom he was fighting the battle for the Kingdom of Naples, would not have used the Abbey anymore to attack him, as it had happened some days before. He had defeated them, sure, but in that struggle he had lost precious time and valuable men. In the future, a similar fact should not have happened.
He ordered his engineers to prepare the mines and to place them in the more suitable points. Then he went to bed. His was not a calm sleep. He dreamed. And during the dream, he had a vision: in front of the door of the monastery there was somebody. Silent, an indefinite shape, a shadow, was staring him, was continuing to stare him, with a relentless and admonishing look. Gonzalo understood: Saint Benedict himself had come back to prevent the destruction of his creature.
It was sufficient. The following day, at dawn, the mines were removed and the Spanish Tercios left the Abbey and moved towards the Garigliano river.
Monte Cassino Abbey, October 1943.
Gregorio Diamare, the eighty –year- old abbot of the monastery of Monte Cassino, was informed about the arrival of two German officers. The first was a colonel of the Engineers, the latter a medical officer. They were not bringing good news. At first with caution then, a couple of days after, clearly, the two German officers explained the situation: Monte Cassino was on the front line and it would have been involved in the imminent battle. The Abbey would have run the risk to suffer severe damage, perhaps it would have been destroyed, it was necessary leaving it before it were too late. And saving the artistic works guarded in the Abbey would have been necessary: the incunabula, the manuscripts, the parchments, the antique books. To the idea of separating himself from those treasures, always belonged to the Order, the good abbot felt die. He tried to oppose by presenting every sort of objection, but finally he was forced to yield. Packed and loaded on German lorries, the artistic treasures of Monte Cassino were stocked at first in an ammunition storage in Spoleto and, then, some weeks later, they were carried to Rome, where the delivery of the load to the Holy See was filmed, publicized and trumpeted from the rooftops.
Gregorio Diamare did not leave Monte Cassino.
Nearby Monte Cassino, October 1943.
In combat, who is seeing you from above is the master of your life. An observer with a good binoculars and a radio is a deadly weapon. You begin, at first, to hear the dull sound of the mortars, then the whistle of the arriving bombs: every bomb is looking for you. For the allied soldiers, arrived with great effort close to Rome, those still green mountains, dotted by dark rocks and cut through by gullies which seem skeletons of gigantic creatures, had hundreds of eyes. Hundreds of eyes which were looking at them. And, huge, above, the Cyclops’ eye: the Abbey of Monte Cassino.
About Monte Cassino those soldiers did not know very much. About the history of the monastery, they knew almost nothing. But Monte Cassino was not a common place. They should have known it. A diligent officer, Major General Francis Tuker, commander of the Fourth Indian Division, sent a junior officer of his to Naples to collect information. The officer looked up in some touristic guidebooks , visited the libraries, came back and reported. Using those information, Tuker wrote a memorandum. He wrote that the Cyclops’ eye, the huge and imposing building situated beyond the “ Head of the Whale” ( Monte Trocchio, in allied hands since January 15) had even four meters thick walls: that was sufficient to consider the monastery a fortress, a fortified observation post, a thorn in the Allies’ side, an obstacle which had to be swept away in a hurry, despite the High Command’s order to spare, as much as possible, the places of worship and the artistic treasures of the Peninsula.
In his memorandum, Tuker criticized those who had underestimated the tactical importance of Monte Cassino, but he wrote nothing about the deep cultural and religious meaning of the Abbey, i.e. about what made of Monte Cassino an uncommon place, unique in the world.
Under this point of view, the German commander of the sector, Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, was light years ahead of the Allies. Unable to bear the Nazism, presaging the imminent fall of Germany, he had evacuated Sardinia and Corsica without losing a man and refusing to shoot, as he had been ordered by Berlin, the Italian officers. Lay member of the Brotherhood of Saint Benedict, this general had a deep observance for the Rule and for those places. During the Christmas mass, to which he had assisted on the abbot’s invitation, he had never looked out of the windows for not violating the neutrality of the Abbey. And he had kept his men far from those places: there were no German soldiers in the range of three hundred meters from the monastery.
Beyond those three hundred meters, the story was different. Exploiting the natural conformation of those places, von Senger had built a defensive system able to control and repulse every land attack . Every land attack, not an air attack. When the allied aircraft arrived, at 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday 15 February, into the Abbey there were the abbot , five friars – four alive and one dead – a priest, a deaf-mute servant and hundreds of civilians affected by a mysterious disease, afterwards identified as paratyphoid fever. And no German soldier.
When they went out from the Monastery, a couple of days later, they were about one hundred. Behind them, into the Abbey, there were the corpses of two friars and those ones of many civilians. And there were also two still alive children, but wounded so heavily that carrying them was impossible. They died on their own and lonely ( their parents had gone away soon after the bombardment). And also a poor old woman died alone. Her feet had been amputated by an explosion. She lied on a stretcher. After few meters, the two stretcher bearers abandoned her for going more quickly.
Carrying the cross, in literal and metaphoric sense, Gregorio Diamare reached the German lines; he confirmed the statement which he had issued previously ( “There were no German soldiers into the Abbey”), but he refused to grant other ones. He arrived in Rome , in the convent of Sant’Anselmo, exhausted both physically and morally. In those days of blood and death, the eighty-year-old Gregorio Diamare, worth successor of Saint Benedict, brought in a Christian way in his noble soul all the world evils.
The back door.
There had been no moment of peace. Landed in Calabria ( Eighth Army, Lt. General Bernard Law Montgomery) and at Salerno ( Fifth Army, Lt. General Mark W. Clark), the Allies had sailed up the Peninsula , both along the Adriatic side and Tyrrhenian side. But they had had to fight for advancing. Blood, time, effort had been necessary to climb over an obstacle after another obstacle, to cross a river after another river, a mountain after another mountain. The soldiers and the officers began to know — and to curse — that rough, vertical geography, where the tanks were ineffective and the weather, already in Fall, was terrible. And the Germans? They contended with the Allies for every inch of terrain and then they withdrew.
They withdrew only apparently. They moved some kilometres back and then they occupied a new defensive line. And after that line , another line and after that new line, another line again. It had happened in this way at San Pietro Infine, at Ortona and in many other places theatres of deadly struggles. The climate and the geography, the rain and the natural configuration of the ground, the mud and the rocks were giving much advantage to the defenders, but were penalizing the attackers.
But why such interest for Italy? Why such interest for Rome? For the Americans – in particular for Marshall and Eisenhower – Italy was not a strategic target under a military point of view. Mussolini had fallen, Badoglio had wanted the armistice ( signed on September 3 and made known on September 8); Sicily had been conquered, the second front in France had been planned. Why losing time in Italy?
The “ why” had a precise name: Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister, since a long time, was claiming: Italy is the perfect objective, Italy is “the soft underbelly” of the Axis. We must attack her, we have to defeat the Germans in Italy for reaching Slovenia and Austria. From there we could invade Germany. Sure, we would enter Germany through the back door, but this is not important. Entering Germany is important.
He insisted and succeeded. But his was a half success.
The Americans, in fact, would have supported the allied advance in Italy, but only for engaging enemy forces in a sector far from the sector chosen for the second front: Normandy. So, the matter was, more or less, the following: according to Churchill, Italy was a crucial front; according to Americans, Italy was a completely secondary front.
And the Germans? The Germans, for their part, when saw that huge deployment along the Peninsula, were worried. But not very much. They, too, were thinking – or they seemed were thinking– that Italy were a passage way. For them, the Allies had not Rome , but the Balkans as their target. And, for this reason, they kept immobilized their divisions in Greece and in Yugoslavia waiting for the events.
However, they were not sleeping. Generalfeldmarshall Albert Kesselring, commander, in Italy, of the southern sector( the northern one was under Rommel), was a smart military commander . He built some defensive lines, exploiting the natural conformation of the places and filled them with mines; he gathered cleverly his divisions; created a mobile task force , able to go, in a short time, there where the Allies had landed. And in particular he made fortify Monte Cassino, the door of Rome, the pivot of the Gustav Line. While the battle for Monte Cassino was being fought, General Harold Alexander, in a letter to General Clark, will write, more or less: the enemy is quicker than we. He is quicker in organizing his troops, he is quicker to make thin a defensive front for sending his troops to reinforce a threatened sector, he is quicker in his decisions.
At Monte Cassino, then, geography gave a great advantage to the defenders. The Germans filled the hills with machine-guns nests; built many emplacements able to enfilade the heights, the passes, the paths; enlarged the natural caves; dug artificial caves; created storage of food and ammunitions; put under control the whole zone; strengthened their positions, using concrete, steel and forced manpower; built bombproof shelters for men and weapons.
Three months needed, however, and those three months were paid with blood. Fighting an withdrawing from a defensive line to another defensive line, the Germans curbed the allied advance — which was already slow , because of the poor weather, of rains, of mud and of the natural obstacles, as we have seen — allowing von Senger to finish the defences around Cassino. Now everything was ready. Now the Allies could advance.
They would have met their match.
A river named Rapido.
A hard match, in truth. General Clark became aware of it immediately. When, on January 20, he sent his men, already exhausted because of months of combat, to cross, in the mist, the Rapido river to breakthrough the German defences ( for supporting the imminent Operation Shingle, the landing at Anzio), he obtained no results and had one men on three of one of his better division, the Thirty-sixth, fallen or wounded on the battlefield. For their part, the British, involved from January 15 to cross the Garigliano River, failed.
During the first battle for Monte Cassino, there were many blunders, too many mistakes. The American regiments moved from too far positions and sometimes in bright light, offering, for these reasons, the best target to the enemy mortars; the banks of the river Rapido were not cleared of mines; there was no effective artillery cover. In short, it was a makeshift operation. The hurry, that was the problem. It seemed everybody was in a hurry, in a tearing hurry. Hurry to arrive in Rome( Clark), hurry to reach Ljubljana( Churchill), hurry to close that damned Italian back door for passing through the French front door( the Americans).
That hurry has more than a reason. Till from the beginning, till from the landing at Salerno, the Allies had advanced at a snail’s pace. The costs had been very high. If you had told a soldier that that terrain was the” soft underbelly “of the Axis, he would have cursed you.
Churchill was under pressure, but he had any intention to give up his purpose. Let us do in this way, he said: we land somewhere, open a second front, set free the Capital city and then march towards Slovenia( he did not any mention to Slovenia, but this was his hope). The slaughter on the banks of the Rapido River was born from this idea, it was— may we say it?—a political slaughter. Paid with the blood of real men, however.
Landing somewhere: easier said than done. Many landing craft were necessary, because reaching the shores of Lazio with small boats was impossible. And about this, there was a problem. The landing craft, the very valuable landing craft, were reaching, from the four parts of the Globe, the British coasts in preparation of Overlord. Barely some of them were gathered, sufficient to carry on a couple of divisions through the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and, in addition, without time on their side. We lend to you those landing craft, Prime Minister, the Americans said, but we want them here again in a week. Outcome: landing at Anzio ( the chosen place) was possible only on January 22 . In those days, Clark, after the first defeat, was trying to reorganize , to support the landing at Anzio, a new offensive around the Rapido River.
The cat and the whale.
When landed with part of the Fifth Army at Anzio, the American Major General John P. Lucas met no resistance. The only Germans he met were about two hundred soldiers captured while they were sleeping into their quarters.
Lucas, although he had, for the moment, the emptiness in front of himself, did not advance a yard: he stopped and began to strengthen his positions. Was he suffering, as it had been written, the “Salerno Syndrome”? Did he think, in other terms, the Germans would have counterattacked immediately? Anyway, also going , exploiting the momentum, towards the Colli Albani ( Albani Hills) without the support of the tanks and of the heavy artillery would have been a risky move. Both Alexander and Truscott, after the end of the war, will justify the Lucas’ choice.
During less than a week, more than ten thousand lorries had been landed on the Anzio’s shores. With bitter irony, Churchill commented: we have a lot of lorry drivers ashore; the Germans, however, have more infantry than we have.
Everybody was in a hurry, as we have seen and hurry is a bad advisor. Lucas — perhaps the only who was not in a hurry — fell into disgrace and in a short time he will lose his command. In fact, after the initial surprise, the plan of quick intervention planned by Kesselring came into action. The Germans sent fresh troops to Anzio, blocked Lucas and then made move their divisions towards the Anglo-American bridgehead to give it the coupe de grace. No soldier had been retired from Monte Cassino. The wildcat launched on Anzio, had turned, according to the famous Churchill’s definition, into a stranded whale. It was a nasty situation: no German soldier had left Cassino and the landing at Anzio had been stopped. Could things go worse, Sir Winston?
Three to one.
And however, the worst, in that cold January, should still arrive. Two days after Anzio, Clark retried an assault. Under unfavourable conditions. The Germans, in fact, had flooded a wide area close to Rapido, making blow up a dam of the river. And thus, without any tank support, the Clark’s men should have forded the river, advanced through the mine fields and the barbed wires entanglements , climbed under enemy fire an almost vertical face of the mountain, occupied some strategic heights, turned south and conquered the monastery and the town of Cassino.
It was a bloody fiasco. The number lacked, the means lacked. A military theory ( Liddel Hart) claims this: if you want to win, you must have a three- to- one superiority and , in the point of breakthrough, a six- to – one superiority. According to this theory, there, nearby the Rapido river, the battle was a battle already lost from its beginning. Do you want to cross the river and do you want to dislodge the Germans? You must have a three- to- one superiority. Do not you have this superiority? Do not even try.
And thus, even when some tanks of the Fifth Army came into action ( for a short time, however), crossing on thick rubber wickers the flooded zones, there was nothing to do. Some heights were reached, some units arrived at less than four hundred metres from the monastery, but here they were stopped by the German fire. Holding those positions was a heroic challenge. The resilience and the abnegation of the soldiers were heroic. The soldiers were almost without shelter and always under the enemy fire. Digging trenches was impossible: the spade did not even scratch the very hard rock of that mountain. Using stones, the soldiers built small precarious walls and behind them they sheltered.
The French were luckier. Northeast of the German deployment they opened a breach, passed through and occupied the Colle Belvedere( Belvedere Hill). They turned into a possible threat to which, however, none could (or wanted) give confidence.
The French commander, General Alphonse Juin — a strange character, but good soldier — always in motion, riding a matted small horse, between the lines and the headquarter, was, by time, claiming this: give me the authorisation and I lead my Moroccan regiments in the rear of the Germans. How? Passing through the Aurunci mountains. In that part of the front —have not you seen it?—there is no defence in depth. Why? Because the Germans think those mountains are insurmountable. And perhaps they are insurmountable, but not for my goumiers. Give me the authorisation, outflank them and this story will end once and for all. He claimed this in January, he was listened in May.
Failed the American attack, General Alexander moved two divisions from the Adriatic front to Cassino front. Those two divisions, the New Zealander Second Division under command of LT. General Bernard Freyberg and the Fourth Indian Division under Major General Francis Tuker, were perhaps the best units of the Eighth Army. Although the offensives to cross the Rapido had failed, the Americans held still, here and there, on the heights around Cassino, some bridgeheads. The Indian Division should have relieved the exhausted defenders and, passing through hill 593–believed in American hands– it should have gone towards Monte Cassino and the Abbey. In the same time, the New Zealander Division would have attacked towards the railway station of the town. To get things moving again, of course, but also to give breath to Anzio. The plan had been prepared by Freyberg. But he had no illusions about his plan. He was aware he was risking very much and he has only less than fifty per cent chance of success.
Hill 593 — Monte Calvario ( Mount Calvary, in English) in name and in fact — was not in American hands as they thought and this fact was making terribly difficult the issue; there was no available information even in the other parts of the front ( a whole brigade, for instance, will be stopped half a hour before that it attacked against Monte Belvedere, held by the French). Along those goat tracks, then, the supplies and the moves were to be effected , under the deadly enemy fire, by using mules or by loading the supplies on shoulders. And, high above, the threatening eye of the Cyclops.
The tension and the hurry increased. And the questions, too.
One, in particular: are there German soldiers inside the Monastery or are there not? Yes, no, perhaps, were the answers. On the eve of the planned attack, repeatedly the Abbey of Monte Cassino entered the thoughts of many officers and not only the report of General Tuker, written according to the observations of the junior officer come back from the libraries of Naples.
Someone began to affirm: even if the foe is not occupying the Abbey in this moment, the Cyclops’ eye must be neutralized. Our soldiers do not have to advance observed by hundreds of enemy eyes; the German artillerymen, directed from above, have to be stopped to shoot with impunity our assault troops, our mules, our tanks. Are there no German soldiers into the Abbey? In this moment, perhaps. But if we advance towards the heights, the foe, cornered, will occupy the Abbey and will use it against us. No, the monastery has to be razed to the ground. Could the foe use the ruins like trenches and strongholds to give us a hard time and to strike us? Monte Cassino is not Stalingrad. After the first wave, we will send over the half-destroyed Abbey other waves of aircraft flying low; we will fire with our land artillery; we will fill Monte Cassino with bombs, from above, from below and from the hills. We will raze it to the ground. How much time will the foe and the ruins be able to withstand that fire storm?
This was what the senior commanders were thinking about Monte Cassino. They were not wrong, be clear. Who was at Cassino, in those days, was feeling a huge feeling of disruption provoked by the sensation of being observed from above; who was at Cassino in those days was feeling the threatening presence of the Abbey and was understanding the danger of it, fortress and shelter in the same time. Thus the decision, that decision, was not, in theory, senseless. But it became senseless, in practice, when on February 15, the first bomb fell on the monastery, on the abbot, on his four still alive friars, on the corpse waiting for burial of Friar Eusebio and on the civilian people, both healthy and sick. That bomb began a bombardment without any military sequel, in other terms that bomb began a bombardment in itself and, for this reason, useless.
Doubly useless. It brought no advantage to the infantries, it did not give any support to Anzio. And it was immediately exploited by the German soldiers ( they occupied the ruins of the Abbey) and by the German propaganda. Hitler himself said he was ready to discuss a truce to evacuate the monks and the civilian people from Monte Cassino. And meanwhile the German press wrote: we have saved the books, the manuscripts, the parchments of the Abbey. And what did the Allies do? They incinerate everything. Who are the “barbarians”?
The day before the bombardment, the Allies made dropping on the monastery a rain of handbills for inviting the monks to leave the Abbey. Concerned, the abbot tried to contact the Germans. He succeeded, but the German lieutenant who listened to him, stayed on the vague. I will speak with my superior and then I will communicate our decision. Before leaving the monastery, that young lieutenant remained some minutes praying into the cathedral. But the time for a decision lacked. The following day, at 9.30 a.m. the allied bombers unleashed the hell. Everything collapsed or was swept away: the Bramante’s cloister , the cathedral, the porticos , the loggias. The walls withstood in many points also when the second wave of aircraft — deadlier than the first one — arrived, but a lot of civilians lost their life under the ruins; others went out, by opening, with difficulty, a hole amid the ruins and the rubbles. Water lacked. Only the cell and the tomb of Saint Benedict remained intact. A bomb fell very close to the Saint’s cell and did not explode. A miracle?
Could the bombardment of the Abbey have been avoided? General Clark himself in his memories defined that episode a “ criminal” act. However General Clark himself was who , in those dramatic days, pressed by Freyberg, ordered the bombardment. Were there armed Germans into the Abbey? None. But an officer– a General, not a lieutenant– flying onboard of his plane over the Abbey swore and swore again he had seen a radio aerial and many enemies inside the monastery. And who could have brought into question the words of a General? Of a General whose name was Ira “Bomber” Eaker? And, moreover, supported by his colleague Maitland Wilson, commander of the allied forces in the Mediterranean sector? Thus, the flying fortresses and, after them, the average bombers took off from the Italian and African airports , shattering together with the walls of the ancient abode of Saint Benedict, a lot of human lives and the hearth of the poor abbot Diamare.
Be clear: General Eaker — for a short time, simple observer — was not wrong or had had a sight loss. In the occupied zones the occupants have always some relationships with the local inhabitants: cigarettes and chocolate in change of a chicken or some eggs. It is always gone in this way and, if another conventional war should break out, the things would go in this way again.
So, the high officer flying onboard of his fragile Piper, probably saw some German soldiers who were making a little commerce with some local peasants. But this did not signify that the Abbey were occupied by the Germans. But this was affirmed and, also because of the Tuker’s diagnosis based on the information collected in the guidebooks, the bombs fell on the monastery.
In the meanwhile, while the Saint Benedict’s ancient house was collapsing under the bombs, the Indian and Nepalese soldiers– the famous Gurkhas — were advancing with difficulty towards the monastery. The second battle for Monte Cassino started with the bombardment and, then, it continued on the heights and around the outskirts of the town. It was a bloody battle. On the heights around Monte Cassino, men and mules, hit by the German machine-guns, fell in their hundreds. For assaulting the enemy positions, grenades were necessary. The British had few grenades and , for this reason, they were unable to advance a metre. A carrier pigeon , captured by the Germans, was freed. Tied at one of its claw there was a message: we are not hungry. It is yours!
And, in effect, the defenders — although they were suffering starvation and cold –had every advantage, the attackers had only disadvantage. By night, the Germans strengthened the walls, repaired the damage, added a little bit of concrete to their shelters , straightened the sheet irons, protected the food and ammunition storage. Their positions were strong, day by day they became stronger.
In front of them the attackers, under fire, were shivering because of the cold. “ Come forward” the message entrusted to the carrier pigeon continued “ We are ready to receive you.”
The Indians tried to advance. They moved, according to the orders, from the “Snake’s head ridge”, the most eastern point of the zone chosen for the attack ( this zone looked like a boomerang, the extremities of which were the “Snake’s head ridge” on one side and the monastery on the other side), but with Hill 593 in enemy hands, going ahead was impossible. Impossible for the Royal Sussex Fusiliers, the first who was sent forward; impossible for three Gurkha battalions. The casualties for trying to conquer Hill 593 were very heavy. The targets were too limited and von Senger knew how to move his troops, making come fresh forces in the threatened points. To overwhelm the defenders, some divisions, not some battalions, would have been necessary.
On the eastern side of the front, the Freyberg’s New Zealanders obtained some initial successes. Advancing with difficulty on a mined terrain and under enemy fire, some Maori troops conquered the railway station of Cassino. Behind them, the armoured tanks of the division, with their engines running, were waiting for the order to advance. The access road was scattered with potholes. During the night the Freyberg’s engineers worked madly to fill them in order to allow the tanks to advance. They were able to fill all them. All but one. And that only, damned pothole prevented the tanks from advancing for helping the Maoris. And the Maoris could not withstand when the German counter- attack began, around 3 p.m. in the following day.
And Anzio? From bad to worse. On February 16, Kesselring had launched the expected counter – offensive and the German divisions had penetrated three kilometres into the American bridgehead. Nobody would have bombarded Monte Cassino anymore. Now the warplanes, all the warplanes were to be moved elsewhere. And the Abbey’s ruins, the still smoking ruins , were testifying the culpable uselessness of that operation.
The Ides of March.
The third battle for Monte Cassino began on March 15. Unhappy day since 44 BC, but nobody paid any attention to this coincidence. In the meanwhile at Anzio the situation had become a little bit better. The German offensive had been stopped and General Lucian Truscott , who had replaced Lucas, was organizing his troops in view of a counter-attack. But at Cassino there were a lot of troubles. For many days, the sky over Monte Cassino was covered by clouds , it rained continuously and Operation Dickens – this was the code name of the “big push” — was delayed over and over again.
On March 15, at Casino, finally, the sun was shining. That sun was a cold sun, but it was always sun. And the allied warplanes took off . They were to annihilate the defenders of the town with a definitive bombardment for allowing the British to break out along the road n. 6 and to occupy, on their right, the monastery and, on their left, the railway station.
They were about to succeed. But once again the potholes on the roads and the ruins of the houses blocked the tanks; the weather, suddenly, got worse and the aircraft were immobilized in the airports: the soldiers on the Monte Castello and on the Collina dell’Impiccato( Hangman’s Hill) — reached with difficulty– were still too few; the supplies did not arrive; the only, very narrow, access road to the town was under a deadly cross fire; into the town, close to Hotel Continental and to Hotel delle Rose, the Germans, in particular their paratroopers — the Green Devils — were fighting fiercely.
That situation could not last very long and it did not last very long. The troops were forced to withdraw, but on the heights some small bridgeheads were held. In short, so much blood had obtained some results: here and there, in fact, some rifts had been opened in the German defensive deployment.
In the streets of the town, the third, very violent battle for Cassino was fought house to house, building to building; on the first hairpin bends of the road to the Abbey, it was fought inch to inch. The third battle for Monte Cassino was a battle of others times. When the Allies were forced to decide if continuing or not the action, General Freyberg pronounced only a word: “Passchendaele”, the name of the Belgian village where, during the WWI, a battle as bloody as useless was fought. Alexander nodded in silence and the operation was stopped.
The Gurkhas under pressure on Monte Castello were to be called back. But the Germans could have exploited the situation for counter-attacking them. To avoid this, it was thought to send the orders in word. Three officers, everyone carrying a carrier pigeon, climbed up from three different directions towards the Gurkhas’ position. Two of them succeeded, but only a pigeon was able to fly.
It was able, but it was not willing. When it was freed, it alighted on a rock and here it stayed, during a long time, under the astonished look of the soldiers. Finally it decided and opened its wings, bringing to headquarter the desired message. In short, an operation started with the deployment of five hundred aircraft depended, for its conclusion, by the willing of flying of a pigeon!
The third battle for Cassino was a battle with many faces. A Gurkha hit a German soldier into an armoured tank, but he did not go away: he stopped for dressing his wound. Under cover of the flag of the Red Cross, the medics of both parts could collect the wounded; the Germans allowed – this is the last time, they said—to British soldiers who were in bad conditions to reach their own lines. And they did not deny, later, that other British soldiers reached their own lines.
Many men, (among them also General Howard Kippenberger, one of the best Freyberg’s officers) were mutilated by the deadly German wooden mines, which the magnetic detectors were unable to localize; others were hit by the snipers; others lied unburied for days; a lot of soldiers suffered head and eyes injuries, because of the very sharp rock splinters, thrown in every direction by the explosions; hungry, dust, thirst, starvation , cold, dominated the battlefield. And in particular, the darkness reigned. A yellow darkness, when the smoke-bombs darkened the sunlight, a black darkness when the sun went down.
Churchill wrote to Alexander: I am not there, I do not know the terrain, I do not know the conformation of the places, but could someone tell me why has nobody tried to outflank the Germans? Alexander replies reporting, in an irreproachable way under a military point of view, the many difficulties met during those days and during those months. But he did not write that General Juin, since a long time, was asserting the necessity to outflank the foe.
After three failed attempts, now it was time to hit hard. The most part of the Eighth Army was moved from the Adriatic front — a secondary front — to Cassino. Covertly and marching by night in order to deceive the Germans. In the meanwhile, at Salerno, Canadian troops , with their insignia in plain sight, were training as they were to prepare to land somewhere. Also these troops, after a little bit, were sent northward. The Canadian soldiers marching towards Cassino removed their insignia in order to not be identified, while at Salerno the exercises seemed they were continuing as before. Allied spotting planes flew and flew again over Civitavecchia , as if it were the point of the landing of the Canadians. Kesselring took the bait ( it was one of the few military mistakes which he made), moved immediately a couple of divisions around Civitavecchia, acting wrong because on May 11, the fourth allied offensive against Monte Cassino started.
This time, there was the numerical superiority, the three- to -one required by the manuals. In addition, the allied offensive would have been launched along the whole front ( about thirty kilometres) to avoid the Germans to concentrate their forces on limited targets as it had previously happened. Preceded by a terrific artillery fire, some regiments of the Eighth Army crossed the Rapido river and established some bridgeheads. Here, after a short time, they were reached by the tanks which have passed through the Bailey bridges built by engineers in record time. On the left flank of Cassino, the French headed towards the Aurunci Mountains , conquered some important heights and then twelve thousand Moroccan goumiers, experienced in mountain warfare, climbed the flanks of those mounts and took position behind the Germans. The Poles of General Anders attacked the bloody hills: the Snake Head Ridge, Hill 593, Monte Castello, the Hangman’s Hill( Collina dell’impiccato). It was a hard fight. Paying appalling casualties, the Poles advanced towards the Abbey. But the Germans, by now, with the French in their rear, with the Eighth Army beyond the Rapido river and with the Fifth Army marching towards the road number six, were into a trap. On May 18, the Poles hoisted his flag on the ruins of the monastery.
The allied troops burst on the road to Rome, pursuing the Germans withdrawing towards the Adolf Hitler Line, built in the rear of Cassino and later renamed Senger Line, in order to avoid to involve the name of the German Fuehrer in a possible defeat. Truscott went out from Anzio and advanced at full speed to close the pincer. At this point, Clark changed the plan. Instead of ignoring — for the moment, at least — Rome according to the intentions of Alexander, ordered Truscott to change direction and to go towards the Italian capital city. Result: Rome was conquered, but the Germans went out from the trap and withdrew behind the Gothic Line.
A Roman noblewoman said to General Clark arrived , as a winner, in the capital city: you are the second barbarian who conquers Rome coming from south.
For finding the first one, it is necessary going back for centuries, at the times of the Greco- Gothic war, when, in 536 AC, the Byzantine General Belisarius had conquered Rome passing through Cassino.
The English historian J. Ellis has defined the battle for Monte Cassino “the hollow victory”. And , in effect, the conquest of Rome was an ephemeral success and it did not have the hoped outcomes. The Germans avoided the encirclement and withdrew behind the Gothic Line; the best Alexander’s units – which were necessary in Italy—were transferred to the Southern France for the useless Operation Anvil, for supporting Overlord; Churchill did not have the desired passage through the Slovenia for reaching Wien before the Soviets, and from Wien, Germany. In Italy, despite the fall of Rome, the war continued. On the mountains the Italian partisans knew the terrible 1944-45 winter; whole villages were razed on the ground and their inhabitants were massacred by the Germans; the bombs continued to fall upon the Peninsula and, till to the spring of the following year, blood was poured again. From one and from the other side.
The breakthrough of the Gustav Line at Cassino had dramatic outcomes for the civilian population. Went out from the Aurunci, the Moroccan goumiers, became protagonists, in many cases, of horrifying episodes : they raped the women, not sparing even the little girls and the elder women; they sacked , robbed, forced husbands and fathers to watch the rapes and sometimes, they raped even them.
Many women died because of the continual violence, others committed suicide because of the shame, others disappeared. The local people called them “ le marocchinate” ( the “Moroccan deeds”).
About the marocchinate it was spoken not very much even after the war. A little bit because among the witnesses amnesias and reticence abounded; a little bit because nobody desired to remember those events; a little bit because the women who survived the violence had, for the most part, emigrated or they lived hidden because of the shame. When the director Vittorio De Sica brought on the screen the Alberto Moravia’s novel, La Ciociara, starring Sophia Loren, also the public became aware of the horror of those days.
During the battle for Monte Cassino, the soldiers of both parts suffered harshly starvation and cold. In particular cold. It often rained and snowed. On the heights, behind makeshift shelters ( the so called sangars), “covered” by a small wall high about forty centimetres, Gurkha, English, New Zealander and Indian fusiliers, when they did not attack, were forced to stay tucked up on the earth for hours while the mortars were striking them. More below, where some trenches had been dug, the men lived and fought with the water that arrived on their knees. Staying long time into the water caused the so called “trench foot”, and , after a short time, the soldiers affected by this disease were to be evacuated. The nerves of many soldiers collapsed and these men were retired from the first line. In more than a case, the so called “Monte Cassino Syndrome” did not abandon them even after the conflict: many of them fell in a state of depression or began to drink alcohol, others lived a “ common” life, but their life was never completely free from the nightmares of those days.
The Germans’ positions and shelters were best than those ones of the Allies, but even the Germans had their trouble. Many of them died of exposure; almost all they suffered starvation and, if wounded, the precariousness of their field hospitals. The casualties were very high, both on one side and on the other side; the struggles – in particular those ones of the third battle for Monte Cassino — were harsh and often they were fought bayonet amid a continuous noise and in darkness. The corpses of the fallen could not often be carried away from the places of the fights and the alive soldiers ate, fought, rested amid the huge stench, amid horrifically mutilated bodies and amid flies and hungry mice. “ I had been at Stalingrad”, a German soldier wrote in his diary” But nothing is worse than Monte Cassino”.
Could the battle of Monte Cassino have been avoided? Maybe. But surely the appalling slaughter of Monte Cassino could have been avoided. The assessments of the historians about the Allies’ tactical and strategic choices at Monte Cassino are negative. They accuse the senior officers who directed the battle of improvisation, approximation, tactical blunders, and so on. Those officers wanted at all costs to lead limited attacks, allowing the Germans to concentrate their forces on the threatened points and to repel the assaults; during the first phases of the battle, the French were stopped when they were about to outflank the German defensive system( if they had advanced towards the little village of Atina, as Juin wanted, perhaps they would have succeeded); they razed to the ground the Abbey unnecessarily; they were unable to exploit immediately their superiority in men and means; they hesitated at Anzio . Finally, Alexander found the solution: in May he attacked along the whole front, preventing the Germans to concentrate their troops — as they had done till that time — on the threatened points.
A German POW said: “ We held our position hitting with our panzerfaust the American tanks. When we finished the ammunition, the Americans had not finished their tanks.”
The events at a glance.
December 1943, 15: the Allies attack the German lines east of Cassino. This attack, known as the battle of San Pietro Infine ( after the noun of the village defended by some German armoured units) is paid by the Allies with very high casualties. The film about this battle, shot by John Huston, was cut in many of its parts, because it was considered too much harsh.
December 1943, 28: British and Canadian troops conquer, on the Adriatic coast, the town of Ortona. The battle is very harsh and fought house to house.
January 1944, 17: British and French troops launch the Operation Panther. They cross the Garigliano River, but are unable to reach Monte Cassino.
January, 20: the Americans of the Fifth Army enter in action around the Rapido River, north of Monte Cassino. The attack is a bloody fiasco.
January, 22: Operation Shingle begins: American and British troops land without finding any resistance at Anzio and Nettuno, on the coast of Lazio. Outflanking the German deployment at Monte Cassino and opening the way towards Rome are their objectives. A British soldier finds a six-year-old little girl. She is alone and scared. Angelita– this is her name – remains with the soldiers.
January, 23-24: German aircraft attack the bridgehead at Anzio, sinking the destroyer Janus and the hospital ship Saint David. General Lucas hesitates: he waits for the tanks and the heavy artillery and does not advance immediately. Kesselring exploits Lucas’ hesitation and sends reinforcements towards Anzio. From Berlin, Hitler orders: the Italian front was to be held at all cost.
February, 15: allied aircraft bomb the Abbey of Monte Cassino, reducing it in a mount of rubbles and killing many civilians. The troops attacking the heights are repelled by the Germans entrenched amid the ruins of the Abbey.
February, 16: the Germans launch a heavy offensive against the Anzio’s bridgehead. After an initial success, however, they are stopped.
March, 15: the third battle for Monte Cassino begins. After a very heavy aerial bombardment and a heavy artillery barrage, the Indian and New Zealander troops attack the town of Cassino and the hills nearby, meeting a fierce resistance. The elite German troops fight bravely and the Allies are forced to withdraw.
May, 11: preceded by a heavy artillery fire, the Allies attack for the forth time Monte Cassino. The resistance is fierce.
May, 18: after a week of harsh struggles, the Poles of General Anders hoist their flag on the ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey. Ten thousand allied soldiers are fallen or missing in action since January.
May, 23: the Anglo-Americans go out from Anzio, breaking a circle into which they have been closed for four months.
May, 25: the troops coming from Anzio and those ones coming from Cassino join themselves. Some vanguard units enter Velletri, forty kilometres from Rome.
June, 4: the allies troops reach the centre of Rome. The conquest of the Italian capital city has a big symbolic and psychological meaning, but the conquest of Rome allow the Germans to avoid the encirclement and to reach the Gothic line.
Here a selected bibliograpy.
 In 1947, Generalfeldmarshal Kesselring was taken to trial as war criminal by a British military court with two accusations: the massacre of the Ardeatine Caves and the so called Bandenbefehl , the order against the partisans which did not spare even the civilian population. Judged guilty, he was sentenced to death. The sentence was , hereafter, changed in a life sentence and, in a following time, reduced at 21 years of imprisonment. Gone out from the jail in 1952 because “very serious” health reasons, Kesselring did not repudiate his own past and never disavowed his own actions. He even said that the Italians should have dedicated a monument to him. His words caused in whole Italy a very wide indignation. He died in 1960.