Churchill and the Destruction of Monte Cassino Abbey, 1944

Churchill and the Destruction of Monte Cassino Abbey, 1944

Cassino Abbey

An Ital­ian jour­nal­ist writes for Churchill ref­er­ences to the attacks on Monte Cassi­no dur­ing the Italy cam­paign in spring 1944, ask­ing about “his silence, lat­er con­tra­dic­to­ry” on the bomb­ing of the town’s ancient monastery. If the impli­ca­tion is that Churchill was uncar­ing over the destruc­tion of ancient shrines and grand build­ings, that would con­tra­dict his revul­sion over the bomb­ing of Dres­den. If it is that this par­tic­u­lar destruc­tion didn’t appear in his state­ments at the time, that is true. War is hell, and to expect him to eulo­gize every dev­as­tat­ing loss is to expect a lot. He did more eulo­giz­ing than his allies.

Churchill issued many let­ters and speech­es on the Anzio and Cassi­no cam­paigns, and pro­vid­ed a very frank account in Clos­ing the Ring. (Less “soft under­bel­ly,” Mark Clark said, than “tough gut.”) He broad­cast about the cam­paign on March 26th, though he was far from well, and it showed. Lat­er he paid a three-week vis­it to Mediter­ranean the­aters of war, return­ing exhaust­ed and with pneu­mo­nia. We tend to for­get the strain that war put upon those who had to direct it. “Peo­ple seem to think that Winston’s broad­cast last night was that of a worn and petu­lant old man,” Harold Nicol­son wrote in his diary on March 27th. He added: “I am sick­ened by the absence of grat­i­tude towards him.”

Campaign in Italy

Monte Cassino
Monte Cassi­no after its destruc­tion in the Ital­ian Cam­paign, 1944. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

We hear a great deal about Churchill’s sup­port for the “futile and waste­ful” Ital­ian cam­paign. Yet Mar­tin Gilbert notes that Hitler admit­ted it had tied up 35 Ger­man divi­sions in 1944. That, Churchill telegraphed to Stal­in, was 35 few­er divi­sions than might have opposed Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the upcom­ing inva­sion of France in June. On May 18th the town and monastery of Monte Cassi­no final­ly fell to Alexan­der‘s army. Pol­ish troops took the monastery itself. The Poles were “elat­ed,” Gen­er­al Wil­son telegraphed to Churchill. “I am very glad the bat­tle is going so well,” Churchill replied.

The cap­ture of Cassi­no was “a tro­phy,” Churchill telegraphed to Stal­in. He not­ed that the Poles and French had “fought brave­ly. Some 30 Ger­man divi­sions remained in Italy, “away from Overlord.”

More than met the eye

Churchill could have used a bet­ter word than “tro­phy,” though from his stand­point there were few tro­phies to brag about. Of course he des­per­ate­ly want­ed to reas­sure Stal­in. Only lat­er did it come out that most of the abbey’s trea­sures, and per­son­nel, were removed by the Ger­mans before the destruc­tion, and that both sides had pledged not to molest it. From Calvo­cores­si, Wint and Pritchard, Total War: The Sto­ry of World War II (sec­ond edi­tion 1985):

The Ger­mans super­vised the removal to Rome of the abbey’s trea­sures and most of its monks in Octo­ber 1943 when the U.S. Fifth Army, by cross­ing the Volturno and then the San­gro rivers, threat­ened the Gus­tav Line. Monte Cassi­no, although an obsta­cle to allied progress, was not of prime mil­i­tary impor­tance. It was sur­round­ed by high­er peaks. Com­bat­ants sup­pos­ed­ly assured the Pope that the abbey would be nei­ther for­ti­fied nor attacked from the air….

Fog of war

So the abbey should have survived—but war is hell, and its uncer­tain­ties worse. The authors continue:

…The Ger­mans denied that the abbey was being used for mil­i­tary pur­pos­es but their ene­mies were not pre­pared to believe any­thing they said and Gen­er­al Ira C. Eak­er, who was one of a num­ber of senior com­man­ders to make a per­son­al air recon­nais­sance, report­ed that he had seen Ger­man troops in the abbey. The allied com­mand declared that the abbey would no longer be spared and although Amer­i­can, British and French gen­er­als opposed its bom­bard­ment it was attacked on 15 Feb­ru­ary by 142 Fly­ing Fortress­es and destroyed. This oper­a­tion was, how­ev­er, fruitless.

The bat­tle resumed a month lat­er. Air and artillery bom­bard­ment ulti­mate­ly reduced the town of Monte Cassi­no to a sham­bles. Not until May was the assault over. The cost was high­er for the Allies than the ene­my. Monte Cassi­no pro­duced 55,000 Allied casu­al­ties, com­pared to an esti­mat­ed 20,000 for the Germans.

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