Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: The Sequence of Events
II: The Sequence of Events
The monastery of Montecassino was not mentioned in the New Zealand Corps operation instruction of 9 February, but officers of 4 Indian Division had no sooner heard of their division's part in the coming operations than they began to discuss means of capturing and entering the building. The CRE, to whom the matter was referred on 9 February as a possible engineer task, hazarded the opinion that the only method was ‘that adopted at the Kashmir Gate, Delhi, in the Mutiny’.1 A subaltern sent to Fifth Army Headquarters for information about the building returned empty-handed but with ‘ideas regarding books, etc., in Naples’. Expeditions to Naples the next day and on the 11th produced a small library of books on the abbey – four copies of a handsome illustrated publication of the Italian Fine Arts Society, an automobile guide of 1920, and a little work dated 1879 which gave disturbing data about the massive construction of the main gate and the thickness of the walls – said to be 9 metres 40 centimetres – at that point.2 It was already apparent that more modern appliances than those in use during the Mutiny would be required.
Until the second week in February the Fifth Army had scrupulously tried to avoid firing into the abbey, though undoubtedly some stray shells pitched in and around it. But from the night of 9–10 February the slope of Monastery Hill was heavily shelled by day and night without noticeable detriment to the enemy's posts there, but with considerable damage to the top floor of the abbey. Certainly not later than the 11th, and perhaps earlier, the possibility of bombing the abbey from the air began to be discussed. The Indian division's operation instruction, signed late that evening, recorded a request for the intense bombing of all buildings and suspected enemy posts on and near the objectives, including the monastery; and when he spoke on the telephone to Brigadier Dimoline about the same time, General Freyberg made no demur, but on the contrary expressed his willingness to recommend the bombing. He realised that it would be a controversial action, but thought it would be right if it meant saving lives. Shortly afterwards on the same night, his BGS (Brigadier Queree) put out feelers to Fifth Army about bombing the monastery.
1 The siege of Delhi ended on 14 September 1857, when Colonel Campbell led his column through a breach in the Kashmir Gate, which had been blown in by two lieutenants of engineers, Duncan Home and Philip Salkeld, at the head of a few men with powder bags. Half of their party were killed or wounded in this exploit.
2 Researches yielded many other details, from among which the Indian engineers' war diary selects the following: ‘The college built in the 18th century is a three-story building. Beneath it is [sic] situated the spacious cellars, whose contents may well be surmised’.
The next day, the 12th, brought an intervention by General Tuker, a most reluctant invalid.1 After some discussion at 4 Indian Division's main headquarters with Dimoline and his brigadiers, he addressed a communication to New Zealand Corps in which he argued forcefully that if further failures at Cassino were to be avoided, one of two policies should be adopted – either Monastery Hill should be ‘softened’ by a thorough air bombardment, or the hill should be turned and isolated. ‘To go direct for Monastery Hill now without “softening” it properly,’ he wrote in summing up, ‘is only to hit one's head straight against the hardest part of the whole enemy position and to risk the failure of the whole operation’. Later the same day, presumably after a study of the literature acquired in Naples, Tuker returned to the attack with a second letter to Corps Headquarters.2 He now spoke for the first time of the monastery itself. After rehearsing details of its imposing architecture, he continued:
Monte Cassino is therefore a modern fortress and must be dealt with by modern means. No practicable means available within the capacity of field engineers can possibly cope with this place.
It can only be directly dealt with by applying ‘blockbuster’ bombs from the air, hoping thereby to render the garrison incapable of resistance. The 1000 lb. bomb would be next to useless to effect this.
Whether the Monastery is now occupied by a German Garrison or not, it is certain that it will be held as a keep by the last remnants of the Garrison of the position. It is therefore also essential that the building should be so demolished as to prevent its effective occupation at that time.
I would ask that you would give me definite information at once as to how this fortress will be dealt with as the means are not within the capacity of this Division.
…. When a formation is called upon to reduce such a place, it should be apparent that the place is reducible by the means at the disposal of that Div or that the means are ready for it, without having to go to the bookstalls of Naples to find out what should have been fully considered many weeks ago.
1 According to Stevens (p. 279), Tuker remained in his caravan, although ill, during the planning stages of the battle of Cassino and later revisited his division from hospital. Stevens seems to imply that it was only Tuker's indisposition and absence that caused the abandonment of his plan for breaking into the Liri valley west of the monastery by making a detour through the mountains to the north from a firm base on Monte Castellone. But the shape of the ensuing battle was no doubt already determined in Freyberg's mind by his bequest from the Americans. They were too near their goal not to make an effort by fresh troops well worth while.
2 The letter is actually signed by General Tuker's GSO I, but the authorship is hardly in doubt.
Whether or not he had then read either or both of Tuker's memoranda,1 Freyberg on the same day submitted his formal request to Fifth Army. General Clark was visiting Anzio at the time, but his views were well known to his Chief of Staff, General Gruenther, who was also able to consult him by radio telephone. Gruenther represented Clark's views to both Freyberg and Lieutenant-General A. F. Harding, Alexander's Chief of Staff. In the hurried discussions that followed Freyberg's request, the Army Commander's reluctance to bomb the monastery was stated and restated. He had been persuaded by earlier conversations with the commanders of 2 Corps and 34 Division that the bombing was unnecessary, and he thought that the rubble of the bombed building might even enhance its defensive value. But he did not at this stage give Freyberg a firm answer in either sense.
At 3.30 that afternoon Alexander and Harding visited Freyberg's headquarters. The same afternoon Harding informed Gruenther of Alexander's decision: the monastery should be bombed if Freyberg considered it a military necessity. If there was any reasonable probability that it was being used for military purposes, its destruction, however regrettable, was warranted.2
Accordingly, upon Clark's instructions, Gruenther that evening telephoned Freyberg with the decision that, if in Freyberg's considered opinion the abbey was a military objective, the Army Commander would concur and authorise the bombing. At the same time he reiterated Clark's opinion that the destruction of the building would not necessarily lessen its value as an obstacle. Freyberg thought that the bombing and shelling would damage rather than demolish it. ‘The thing is they will soften the people who are there’. Gruenther then advanced Clark's second main objection – the possibility that civilians were taking refuge in the abbey – and added: ‘But if your judgment is that you think it should be done it shall be done’. At one point in the discussions, Freyberg suggested that a fighter-bomber should be employed to drop a single token bomb on the monastery to warn the defenders of what lay in store for them and to induce them to clear the refugees out. Clark ridiculed the suggestion, insisting that if bombing was to be carried out nothing would do but to bring in Flying Fortresses with delayed-action 1000-pound bombs.3
Later on the evening of the 12th, after returning from the bridgehead, Clark recapitulated his arguments in a last personal intercession with Alexander, but to no avail.
2 Clark, p. 317.
At this stage, with the decision to bomb firmly taken, we may consider for a moment the question of responsibility for it. One comment at least may command general assent. However it may be in the abstraction of pure logic, humanly speaking the task of decision is complicated, and responsibility more elusively diffused, in coalition warfare where officers of different nationalities occupy successive tiers of command. To the natural deference sometimes paid to the opinion of men closer to the battlefield is added the deference due to the wishes of allies in arms. Asked to arrange the bombing by a British officer commanding an Indian division, the New Zealand Corps Commander carried the request, with his backing, to the American Army Commander, who referred it for final decision to a British Commander-in-Chief working under a broad directive drawn by an American Supreme Allied Commander.1 In the course of his conversation with Alexander on the night of the 12th, Clark remarked that had the request come from an American commander he would have refused it.2 This attitude was natural, but it did involve him in an equivocal position: he neither killed the request there and then by a firm refusal, nor did he take it to Alexander as his own. Instead, he invited Alexander to settle a difference of opinion between him and his subordinate officer; and when the decision went against him, it was perhaps unavoidable that he should have thought himself the victim of a British encirclement. Despite his absence at Anzio at the critical time, it is difficult to show that he was.
Responsibility cannot be passed down the chain of command. It belongs to the senior officer who sanctioned the decision. That officer was Alexander, for there is no evidence that he consulted his immediate superior, General Wilson, and Churchill has explicitly stated that Alexander accepted responsibility.3 So much at the mere military level. Beyond that the trail leads on to the makers of grand strategy, and we shall not follow it farther. But it is important to remember that the trail does not end at Alexander.
1 The directive was, of course, General Eisenhower's of 29 December 1943.
2 Clark, p. 318.
3 Vol. V, p. 442.
On 13 February Freyberg visited Army, where the details of a plan ‘to smash the monastery at one blow’ were discussed. The timing of the attack was left indeterminate, for the deployment of the Indians was going slowly and the New Zealanders welcomed more time for the repair of the causeway. On the afternoon of the 14th, leaflets drafted by the Psychological Warfare Branch of Fifth Army Headquarters were fired into the abbey warning the Italians to leave at once, as ‘the time has come when regretfully we must train our guns on the Monastery itself’. The Indians had not yet completed their relief of the Americans, the possession of Point 593 had still to be assured before the monastery could be assaulted, and two battalions of 5 Indian Brigade, which were needed to support 7 Brigade in the attack, were still miles away on the far side of the Rapido valley.
A planning note produced by the Indian divisional headquarters on the 14th envisaged the bombing of the monastery as late as possible on the afternoon of the 16th and the withdrawal of forward troops to a distance of at least 1000 yards from the monastery on the night of 15–16 February. In a telephone conversation with Freyberg late that afternoon, Dimoline appears to have learned nothing to cause him to alter this programme. It was with a shock that he heard from Freyberg in the evening that the bombing was to be carried out next morning.
What had happened in the meantime was that Freyberg had visited Army. There he learned that the weather forecast for the day read: ‘Fair at first, risk of rain tomorrow’, and perhaps also that there were menacing motions by the enemy at Anzio. It had been decided, therefore, to strike if possible before the rain fell and the enemy counter-attacked the bridgehead.
Dimoline was dismayed. He had been planning to capture Point 593 on the night of 15–16 February, wait a day to consolidate, page 210 and put in the main attack on the night of 17–18 February. Freyberg, who had battled hard to secure the air mission, attempted to shake Dimoline from this timetable. He pointed out to the Indians' commander that ‘the bombing had been put on at their request, that if we cancelled the programme now we would never get the air again and that this delay from day to day was making us look ridiculous’. Dimoline stood his ground: he would not order his division to attack until a firm base had been established. The General asked him to decide within half an hour whether he could withdraw his troops to the thousand-yard safety limit and also to try to advance the infantry assault on the monastery by twenty-four hours. Neither course proved possible. Seventh Brigade, through some failure of liaison, received only a few seconds' notice of the bombing. Brigadier Lovett was told over the telephone but his expostulation was drowned by the roar of bombs falling on Monastery Hill.1
The morning of the 15th was fine but cold and windy. Shortly before 9.30 watchers at vantage points heard the drone of approaching aircraft and soon the crown of Montecassino, heaving under the detonations of 2000-pound bombs, was enveloped in billows of smoke and in the dust of powdered masonry. First, until 10.15, 143 Flying Fortresses from 18,000 feet, and then from 11 a.m. to 1.30, 112 medium bombers from 10,000 feet, dropped 576 tons of high explosive on or near the abbey.2 A dozen bombs or so in the first wave went astray, causing twenty-four casualties among 7 Brigade's forward troops, who had one company only 300 yards from the target; but nearly all were well aimed and the precision of the mediums earned admiring comment. Before each wave of bombers arrived, every known hostile anti-aircraft position was engaged by the artillery and heavy and medium guns fired into the abbey during lulls in the bombing.
Montecassino and the town
Cassino, November 1943
The first stick of bombs falls on Cassino, 15 March 1944
Aerial view of the bombing of Cassino
Air photograph issued for operation dickens. The road to the monastery winds up towards the top of the picture
Cassino after bombardment. The photograph was taken from a height of 22,000 feet
Looking across twelve-month-old bomb craters to the wreckage of Cassino
Wrecked tank in the ruins of Cassino
Cave used by 1 Parachute Division as ammunition dump and living quarters, Cassino
Looking out of the crypt, Cassino
Baron's Palace and the Colosseum from the railway area, Cassino
21 Battalion mortar team has whitebait fritters for lunch, Monte Trocchio
Tank gunline, Monte Trocchio
Montecassino – the south side of the rebuilt abbey
Montecassino – the south-west side of the rebuilt abbey
1 Stevens, p. 285.
2 ‘This attack was the first occasion upon which bomber groups from Great Britain struck at an Italian target and continued on to North Africa to rearm for a similar strike on the way home.’—Ibid., p. 286.
The next day, led by a monk bearing aloft a crucifix, a procession of monks and refugees wound down into the Liri valley. Hence the 82-year-old abbot, Bishop Gregorio Diamare, who had been rescued a few hours before from entombment under fallen stonework, was taken by car to General Senger's headquarters north of Frosinone. In a radio interview ordered by the German High Command, the weary old man declared that at the time of the bombing ‘there was not a single German soldier, German weapon or German military installation in the abbey grounds’. He had already signed a statement of similar import at the request of a German lieutenant, and he was later importuned in turn by agents of Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda and von Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry.2 Even the diarist of 14 Panzer Corps noted that ‘the bombing of Montecassino was used to the utmost for propaganda purposes’.
1 These figures are given by Clark (p. 323), but the truth, which will never be accurately known, may be nearer the higher than the lower figure. The official German figure seems to have been 300. In July 1944 the Bishop of Cara di Tirreni estimated that some 200 dead were still beneath the ruins. Denis Richards and Hilary St. G. Saunders (Royal Air Force 1939–1945, Vol. II, p. 360) say ‘between 300 and 400 women and children’; but there were certainly men among the refugees, and it cannot be supposed that the bombs spared all of them.