The US Fifth Army left Naples in early October 1943 and moved steadily north. Its commander, General Mark Clark, was confident that Rome would be liberated before the end of the month.
Allied planners in Italy, however, had misread the intentions of Kesselring. They believed that the Germans would put up just token resistance in central Italy, before pulling back to defend its north. Instead, the commander of the German forces fought doggedly, understanding that the mountainous topography of the Italian peninsula favoured the defender. During one battle, the American war correspondent John Gunther observed that “both sides are tired, and whereas we are exposed in the plain, the Germans are high up, with good cover.” This diagnosis could be reliably applied to almost any Italian confrontation between the Allied and Axis forces over the next year and a half. Kesselring’s strategy was to dig in along a series of defensive lines, observing the enemy from altitude and using direct artillery, mortar and machine gun fire to slow the vulnerable attacking troops. In this way, he sought to delay the enemy advance for as long as possible. If his army was forced to retreat, they would simply fall back on the next line of defence. Retreating German troops destroyed bridges and laid mines and booby traps across the roads and paths to hinder the advancing Allies.
The defences along the Volturno river were breached on 12 October. The next defensive line, the Barbara Line, was crossed with relative ease on 2 November, and a month later the US Fifth Army reached the formidable Winter Line that stretched across Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic coast. The Winter Line was a series of three lines, including the Bernhardt Line bulging to the south and the Hitler Line, which arced to the north. The most important part of the Winter Line, however, was the Gustav Line, which stretched for 161km from the River Garigliano in the west to the Sangro in the east. It centred on the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino.
To approach the Winter Line, fierce battles were fought in December 1943 for possession of San Pietro Infine and Monte Lungo. Crossing the Rapido river proved impossible, and the Allied advance was stalled beneath the formidable abbey of Monte Cassino, standing a lofty 520m above sea level. An initial attempt by the Allies to take possession of the monastery (launched on 17 January and 11 February 1944) was driven back with heavy losses. It was hoped that an amphibious landing at Anzio would unblock the stalemate at Monte Cassino, but this too was unsuccessful. Allied problems were only compounded by the harsh Italian winter.
As early February brought no relief, Allied commanders settled on a radical solution. On 15 February, the abbey was all but obliterated by bombs dropped from US airforce B-17 flying fortresses, killing a large number of civilians sheltering within its walls. The Allies later claimed – and perhaps they really believed – that the Germans were using the abbey as an observation post, but this has been strenuously denied. Another theory is that the Allies were working on faulty intelligence due to the mistranslation of an intercepted radio message. What is certain, however, is that the bombing was counterproductive: the ruins of the abbey provided perfect cover for the German defenders of Monte Cassino when the second frontal assault was launched against them on 16–18 February. A third battle for Monte Cassino was conducted on 15–23 March, again without success for the Allies.
The fourth and final battle for Monte Cassino began on 11 May, codenamed Operation Diadem, reinforced by troops from the British Eighth Army brought in from the Adriatic coast. Finally, the Germans retreated from the Gustav Line on 25 May 1944, and the abbey ruins were overrun by victorious Allied (Polish) troops.
After five months of stalemate, the road to Rome lay open, but the costs were high. It is estimated that the Allies (fielding Australian, Canadian, Free French, Moroccan, Italian, Indian, New Zealand, Polish, South African, British and American troops) suffered around 55,000 casualties; Germany and its ally, the Italian Social Republic, about 20,000.
The abbey of Monte Cassino was founded by Saint Benedict around the year 529, from where its monks spread the word as far away as Britain and Scandinavia. At the start of 1944 the monastery was one of the great medieval buildings of Italy, exquisitely decorated and filled with religious treasures.
Between 17 January and 18 May 1944, Monte Cassino was the scene of unrelenting combat. Lying in a protected historic zone, the abbey itself had been left unoccupied by the Germans, although several Allied commanders believed the abbey was being used as an artillery observation point by the German forces. Despite a lack of clear evidence, the monastery was marked for destruction and on 15 February American bombers reduced the abbey and the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble. German officers had already transferred some 1400 precious manuscripts, paintings and other items from the abbey to the Vatican, saving them from the blast.
The destruction of the abbey was one of the greatest military blunders of World War II. Around 230 Italian civilians who had sought refuge in the monastery were tragically killed, while the destruction did nothing to alleviate the Allies’ problems. German paratroopers duly occupied the ruins, which provided them with excellent defensive cover.
After the war, the abbey was rebuilt exactly as it was. Today, it’s occupied by a monastic community that welcomes both pilgrims and visitors, as well as housing a small museum and video projection explaining the bombing.
Only fully completed in 1963, the Polish Military Cemetery at Monte Cassino was officially inaugurated on 1 September 1945, exactly six years after the German invasion of Poland. It takes the shape of an amphitheatre, with an altar and a large cross in the middle of the lawn. At the entrance, a gatepost bears the inscription “For our freedom and yours, we soldiers of Poland gave our soul to god, our life to the soil of Italy and our hearts to Poland.’’
The cemetery holds the graves of 1052 soldiers of the Polish II Corps who died in the battle of Monte Cassino. After the war, the Corps’ Commander General Władysław Anders, like many of his soldiers, lived in exile from communist Poland. When he died in London in 1970, he was buried in Monte Cassino according to his will. The Corps was predominantly a Polish unit, but also included Belarusians and Ukrainians. The men had various religious affiliations: most were Catholics, others were Jews and some Eastern Orthodox Christians. The men’s religious diversity is reflected on the headstones.
On 18 May 1944, a platoon of the 1st Squadron of the 12th Regiment of the Podolski Lancers were the first troops to enter the ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey. The German defenders were driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The Corps suffered heavy casualties during the Italian campaign: 2301 killed, 8543 wounded and 535 missing.
A small museum in Venafro, created by members of the Winter Line association, brings the Winter Line to life with displays of uniforms, weapons, ammunition and photography. The living conditions of both soldiers and civilians are vividly illustrated.
The Battle of Monte Lungo, also called the Battle of San Pietro Infine, took place between 8–16 December 1943. It was the first engagement of the reconstituted Royal Italian Army following Italy’s change of sides in the war.
A new Italian brigade, the First Motorized Group, was attached to the US Fifth Army. Highly spirited but poorly armed, the unit bore the heavy responsibility of redeeming the military honour of the Italian Army. Its troops were ordered to conquer Monte Lungo during the Allied offensive in San Pietro Valley, a mountain occupied by the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division and blocking the Allies’ path. On 8 December 1943, the Italian brigade advanced, together with units of the US II Corps, under cover of the morning mist. As soon as the mist lifted, however, the advancing soldiers were exposed, and the Germans had a clear field of fire. The Italians suffered heavy casualties and the attack was repulsed. A repeat attack on 16 December was better prepared, supported by heavy artillery bombardments, and the peak was conquered by the US and Italian forces.
The current military shrine contains the graves of 974 Italian soldiers killed in battle. Opposite the cemetery, a fine museum exhibits objects related to the role played by the Italian troops in the liberation of their country.
In late 1943, the village of San Pietro Infine was completely destroyed by fighting between the advancing US forces – who sought to break the Winter Line – and the defending German troops. The Historical Memory Park, a designated national monument, contains the ruins of the village as they stood at the end of the war. It’s an atmospheric place, a ghost town which provided the backdrop for several scenes in Mario Monicelli’s 1959 film The Great War. A new village was built 3km from the original site.
Top image: Monte Cassino Abbey © nixki/Shutterstock