An Italian journalist writes for Churchill references to the bombing of Monte Cassino during the Italian campaign in Spring 1944, asking about “his silence, later contradictory” on the destruction of that ancient monastery.
I was a little confused by his mention of “silence,” since Churchill issued many letters and speeches at the time, and provided a very full account in Volume 5 of his war memoirs, Closing the Ring (Italian edition by Mondadori). Churchill himself made a broadcast about the campaign on March 26th, though he was far from well. In May he paid a three-week visit to Mediterranean theaters of war, returning exhausted and with pneumonia. That may have had something to do with his silence at the time.
“People seem to think that Winston’s broadcast last night was that of a worn and petulant old man,” Harold Nicolson noted in his diary on March 27, and he added: “I am sickened by the absence of gratitude towards him.”
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 by Spring 1944—which, as Churchill telegraphed to Stalin, was 35 fewer divisions than might have opposed the invasion of France in June of that year.
I recommended to my correspondent Total War: The Story of World War II by Calvocoressi, Wint and Pritchard (second edition 1985, many reprints. I hadn’t thought much about Monte Cassino before my Italian friend raised it, and this book taught me something I didn’t know: that most of the abbey’s treasures, and its personnel, had been removed before its destruction, and that its destruction ensued when the Germans garrisoned it:
The Germans supervised the removal to Rome of the abbey’s treasures and most of its monks in October 1943 when the US 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 since it was surrounded by higher peaks and the combatants were understood to have assured the Pope that the abbey would be neither fortified by the one side nor attacked from the air by the other….
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 town and hill were not taken and the battle was resumed a month later with a heavy air and artillery bombardment which reduced the town of Monte Cassino to a shambles.