Cassino: Ypres of the Second Great War

By L. Marsland Gander.
The War Illustrated, Volume 10, No. 246, Page 483-484, November 22, 1946.

By L. Marsland Gander, who as War Correspondent of The Daily Telegraph saw the capture of Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino in May 1944.

The jagged, piled masonry of Cassino today poses one of the great mysteries of the war. Did the Germans occupy the massive Benedictine monastery which the Allies smashed with tons of bombs in the biggest, most concentrated air attack of the Italian campaign, in February 1944? It may seem shocking that such a question can be asked. Yet immediately after the attack the late Abbot Diamare, head of the fraternity, gave a broadcast denouncing the bombing and declaring that the Germans did not use the building. This statement, discounted at the time as German propaganda, has recently been confirmed by Don Martino, who was the Abbot's private secretary and who added that the Germans moved in after the place had been reduced to rubble. He describes it as "one of the mistakes of war".

I entered the ruins of the Monastery on May 18, 1944, the day on which it was captured by the Poles, and can affirm from personal observation that there were plentiful signs of German occupation boxes of ammunition, grenades, Spandaus, empty tin cans, dirty blankets, and three wounded German N.C.O.s. But this is, apparently, agreed by the Abbot's secretary and throws no light on whether the 6th century Monastery had been used as a strongpoint before our air bombardments. There can be no doubt that the Allied high commanders were convinced that it had been used, at least as an artillery observation post, before they authorized the bombardment of February 15.

Dominating Direct Road to Rome

Consider the situation. Cassino was cited in Italian military text-books as the ideal defensive position. It was the central bastion of the German's winter defence line the Gustav Line. Highway Six, the direct road to Rome, is dominated for miles by 1,700-foot Monte Cassino (otherwise Monastery Hill) and the Monastery, rebuilt in the 19th century, with walls like a fortress, perched on the top. How strong the building was may be judged by the fact that even after thousands of bombs had been rained on it a substantial part of it still remained. I estimated that the shattered outer walls, which we reached finally by climbing a steep slope of dust and rubble on hands and knees, were eight or ten feet thick. Piled up behind Monastery Hill were the still more forbidding slopes of 5,000-foot Monte Cairo.

It is interesting to recall that Cassino's military possibilities had been painfully impressed upon Hannibal in 217 B.C. After winning the battle of Lake Trasimene he had marched into Southern Italy hoping to rally the Samnites to his support, only to find himself approximately in the same position as the British in 1944, with the Romans (instead of Germans) holding all the heights round him. Crucifying the guide who had misled him, he then diverted the Romans by tying lighted faggots to foxes' tails, this making good his escape while the Romans investigated this phenomenon.

The monastery, almost as solid as the rock on which it was built, seemed to grow out of the hill-side and to fit into its geographical features, just like the numerous grey stone buildings in Cassino itself. Whether the Germans entered it or not, they could always, to some extent, shelter behind it. Frankly, I do not know whether they did in fact occupy it before the bombardment; but there was always a strong likelihood that, sooner or later, they would. It is certain that they were using sangars in the vicinity of the Monastery buildings. Sangars, which are shelters built of stone and timber on rocky hillsides where it is impossible to hack out trenches, were commonly used by both sides among the Italian mountains. It may be that the German sangars on Monastery Hill gave them adequate cover without taking over the Monastery itself. But the Germans had used monasteries before, so why not this one?

Cassino stands out in the annals of a war of swift movement as almost the only example of prolonged, swaying battle round a fixed point. It was the Ypres of this war, though the fighting, with long intervals between offensives, lasted only five months compared with the years of bitter and bloody struggle round Ypres in the First Great War. Three previous attempts had been made to lever the Germans out of Cassino and open the road to Rome before, in May, the Allies gave up the disastrous policy of using men in "penny packets" and assembled an overwhelming force of men, tanks and guns. Briefly summarized the previous attempts were as follows.

First, that of General Ryder's American 34th Division in January. They forded the Rapido River, penetrated into the town from the north, and pushed boldly up Monastery Hill. Then we discovered how strongly the Germans had fortified themselves among the ruins. On Feb. 4, after a foggy, wintry week of desperate fighting, the attack died down.

Second, that of the 4th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, after an air bombardment. On February 14, Allied aircraft flew over the Abbey dropping leaflets warning the civilian occupants to leave the building. Three hundred aircraft next day bombed, or attempted to bomb, the Abbey, but it was considered that only one bomb of ten scored a direct hit. My colleague, Christopher Buckley, states that the greatest tragedy of the whole operation was that the infantry were not ready to go into action. They did not do so until two days later, after a five hours' bombardment which seems to have had little effect on the Germans' deep stone and concrete positions among the rubble. A few Gurkhas actually rushed the Abbey ruins but could not hold them. Their corpses were lying on the hillside, as grim evidence of their gallantry, three months later when I climbed those barren slopes of death. The New Zealanders, attacking across the waterlogged plain while the Indians stormed vainly up the mountains, fared little better. They gained some ground, bridged the chief tributary of the Rapido and captured Cassino station, only to lose it in a counter-attack next day.

Third, the attempt following a bigger and better air bombardment on March 15, this time by 500 aircraft, the entire bomber force of the Mediterranean air command, which dropped 1,400 tons of bombs. They were to have fallen on a single square mile of the town, reducing it and the hidden defenders to dust. In practice many of the bombs fell wide. One destroyed the caravan of General Leese, the 8th Army Commander, three miles away; fortunately, he was not in it. One formation discharged all its high explosive on the Corps headquarters town of Venafro. Another intensive artillery bombardment followed. Then for eight cruel days the New Zealanders fought among the rubble with the fanatical German parachutists, the majority of whom had remained, undaunted and unharmed, in their cellars and pillboxes throughout all the bombing and shelling. Piles of shattered masonry in the streets of Cassino, caused by our own efforts, proved an insuperable obstacle to our own tanks. We were, once again, checked. General Freyberg, in his dispatch giving an account of the operations of the New Zealand Corps at Cassino, wrote: "Our plan was to reduce the second phase to a minimum by the violence of the initial air blow, but blitz bombing proved a double-edged weapon and produced obstacles which made the speedy deployment of our armour impossible."

That was the situation in April 1944, when I arrived on the Cassino front. We held approximately three-quarters of the town, including the spur of Castle Hill. The Germans had the western fringe of the town, including the formidable strongpoints of the Colosseum, the Baron's Palace, the Continental Hotel and the ancient amphitheatre. All our positions were overlooked by theirs, and during daylight the whole area had to be smothered with a smoke-screen for the safety of our troops.

"Wrench Our the Aching Tooth"

Field-Marshal Alexander was, meanwhile, at Caserta headquarters, working out the details of the master plan which was (in his own words) to "wrench out the aching tooth". This time there was to be no mistake. The 8th Army had been secretly and swiftly transferred from the Adriatic sector so that on the vital Cassino sector the attackers could have the three-to-one superiority they needed. Finally, fourteen Allied divisions were massed against five German divisions. This, by the way, was a purely local superiority.

The plan was to squeeze out Cassino by an enveloping movement by two Corps, the Polish Corps on the right and the British XIII Corps on the left. Late on the night of May 12 eleven hundred guns of the 8th Army began to pound the German positions with a fiendish volume of metal and explosive greater than any previously used in war. After 40 minutes of this violent bombardment the 8th Indian Division and the 4th British began their perilous crossing of the Rapido, while the Poles, as the other arm of the "pincer", began to fight uphill towards the distant Monastery. The Indians flung the first Bailey bridge across the river, and the Gurkhas in a ferocious kukri charge cleared the key village of San Angelo on the other bank. The Poles, working painfully against the mountain grain, began to make slow but steady progress. Victory had been shaped in the first 24 hours.

On May 18, British tanks had intersected Highway Six beyond Cassino, thus cutting the Germans' main escape route; Guards mopping up in Cassino town could see through their field-glasses that the Polish flag was flying over the Monastery. The Germans, practically surrounded, had evacuated their monastic castle-fortress. It was an unforgettable day exciting, momentous, tragic. For months we had been in the habit of jeeping down Highway Six to a point where the road swings left round a rugged hill and then runs dead straight for three miles into Cassino. It was death to proceed beyond that point in daylight, for the enemy had it under observation and fire. All traffic turned right to the smashed mountain village of Cervaro.

Looking down from the Cervaro heights on that deserted stretch of road one felt very near to the Pearly Gates. Suddenly on that day of victory the traffic no longer turned right but went straight on into Cassino, now that the Monastery was neutralized. Alas, two of my war correspondent colleagues, eagerly following the stream, were accidentally killed by our own mines Roderick Macdonald, of The News Chronicle, and Cyril Bewley, of Kemsley Newspapers. I automatically turned right and, reaching Polish Corps headquarters, began a crazy trip up to the Monastery. Fifteen or twenty correspondents mostly American had arrived with the same intention. We started off in six or eight jeeps, with Polish conducting officers, raising clouds of dust that must have been visible for miles.

Where Every Tree Was Blasted

Eventually we found ourselves climbing the barren hillside in single file, odd mortar bombs lobbing down here and there. Our guides disappeared. Each man blindly followed the man in front, not quite sure where he was going. Those behind me bawled to me not to go so fast; I shouted to those in front, but without any effect.

Everywhere were the corpses of Indians, Americans, Poles the dreadful track of war. At one point we were mixed up with the mortar bomb barrage of a counter attack. Sometimes we were following white tapes indicating mine-free paths, sometimes we were blundering along regardless. It was a miracle that none of us was killed.

Running, creeping, cowering, falling flat on our faces from time to time, we finally made it, half-dead with fatigue. We staggered through a wood where every tree was blasted, that had once been a noble monastery. The surprise was that so much of it remained. In places the crumbling walls were 30 or 40 feet high. Two chapels were practically intact. Much of the cloisters still remained. The crypt had survived, and anyone sheltering in it would have been unhurt.

The stench of burning timbers and rotting bodies is in my nostrils today. In my mind there is the ironic picture of a dove, carved out of stone, over one of the archways, with the Order's motto, "Pax", underneath it. The epitaph of Cassino itself was written by Allied Military Government: "No civil affairs officer will be appointed because there is nothing left to administer".

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