Chapter 9: The Bombing of the Abbey
I: History and Policy
‘BERNARDUS valles, colles Benedictus amabat’. Thus the poet celebrated the founders of great religious orders. ‘St. Benedict loved the hills’; and upon the hill of Montecassino, a site already historic, he established about the year 529 not, indeed, his first monastery but that which was destined to become the mother house and model of his order. Here, and for this abbey, he wrote the Rule that first adapted monasticism, an Eastern institution, to the Western mind. In the decay of Roman municipal life, the gradual spread of communities of black-robed Benedictines helped to save the rural west for Christianity, and in the wild Gothic centuries that followed they offered at their uncorrupted best a haven for religion, learning, industry, and the arts of peace. In the direct transmission of ancient culture to the modern world, the order of St. Benedict holds a unique place, both on its own account and as the exemplar of later monastic orders. At Montecassino many masterpieces of classical literature were transcribed and preserved for a grateful posterity, and its archives alone would warrant the abbey’s renown.
St. Benedict sought peace among the hills, but he chose a place of violence. In the entrails of the modern abbey, the visitor may still see mighty remnants of a cyclopean wall, Etruscan in origin, that ran down the hillside to enclose the town of Cassinum when Rome was no more than a village. Here on the hilltop was the citadel of the town, and it was on the site of a temple of Apollo, which had survived the sacking of Cassinum by the Ostrogoths a few years earlier, that St. Benedict founded his church. The buildings that grew up around were plundered in turn by Lombards in the sixth century, Saracens in the eighth, and the imperial troops of the Hohenstaufen Frederick II in the 13th; and the story is told how, in 1503, the great Spanish captain Gonzalo de Cordoba, having surprised the French garrison, spared the abbey from destruction by gunpowder only because a cautionary St. Benedict appeared to him in a vision.1 With the onset of popular wars, the abbey was
once more pillaged in 1799 by troops of the First French Republic.
Its buildings arose more splendid, if not more beautiful, from these successive devastations. A young English nobleman, making the Grand Tour in 1779, found the abbey ‘very ugly and only remarkable on account of its immensity’.2 As the buildings stood in 1944, they were, except for a nucleus formed by the traditional cell of the founder, largely modern, dating from the sixteenth century and thereafter. The whole range of buildings, with the chapel and refectory, the library and college, the courts, cloisters and cells, presented a massive front to the outside world. It had, in fact, been converted into a fortress in the early nineteenth century. In particular, the girdling walls would impress the military eye, now as in the past. They were loopholed, unscaleable and of vast dimensions, and they rose sheer from the rock to a height nowhere less than 15 feet.
Ironical though it now seems, Montecassino was first regarded in the Second World War as St. Benedict had regarded it – as a refuge. In December 1942 manuscripts of Keats and Shelley were removed from Rome and deposited there for safe keeping by a member of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Committee; and immediately upon the Salerno landing, 187 cases of art objects were taken there from Naples by order of the Italian Ministry. Later in 1943 the German command ordered the latter deposit, as well as the art treasures and precious manuscripts belonging to the abbey, to be transferred to the Vatican. By accident or design, however, this mission was entrusted to a formation which took its name from a notorious connoisseur – the Hermann Goering Division – and it was only after many vicissitudes, and then not in its entirety, that the consignment reached its destination.3 Thanks to an ingenious deception by the Rector of the State Archives at Montecassino, the manuscripts of the two English poets were returned to Rome by, but without the cognisance of, the Hermann Goering troops and found their way back to the custody of the Keats-Shelley Memorial.
About the same time overtures were opened to preserve the building itself no less than its contents. The Vatican addressed an appeal to the combatants to show all possible consideration to it. With the approval of the Foreign Office, the British Minister to the Holy See (Sir D’Arcy Osborne) proposed to inform the Cardinal Secretary of State that ‘if the Germans make use of the Monastery the Allies will be obliged to take whatever counter-measures, aerial
or other, that [sic] their own military interests may require’.4 The German Embassy, however, assured the Vatican that the abbey would not be occupied by regular troops. On receiving this message by telephone, the British Minister asked the Vatican to inquire into the precise meaning of the undertaking, but he passed it on to the Foreign Office, as requested.5 Several weeks later, early in February, Osborne had still received no reply to his suggestion that the German assurance should be clarified, and he reminded the Vatican that the Allies would have to take counter-measures if the Germans used either the abbey ‘or its territory’ for military purposes.6 No Allied engagement made with the Holy See at this time appears, then, to have gone further than, if as far as, the guarded assurance of President Roosevelt in a letter to the Pope on 10 July 1943 (the day of the invasion of Sicily), in which the President stated: ‘Churches and religious institutions will, to the extent that it is within our power, be spared the devastation of war during the struggle ahead’.7
When the battle approached Cassino, Kesselring’s attitude was consistent with the undertaking given by the German Embassy. We have it on the evidence of one of his corps commanders8 that, whatever other mistakes he made, Kesselring did his best to spare sites of religious or historical interest. Not only did he lay it down that the monastery should be respected but he ordered General Senger, in case of retreat, not to defend the small towns of Anagni, Alatri and Veroli because they were episcopal seats,9 and later in the campaign he gave instructions to neutralise Bologna. In asking Kesselring for a ruling about the monastery on 7 December 1943, the German Tenth Army expressed the view that it would be impossible to avoid occupying the abbey grounds, which would be right in the FDLs; and not to do so would be to forgo good observation posts and cover and would be most dangerous ‘because when the time comes for a decisive battle the Anglo-Americans are pretty sure to be unscrupulous and to occupy this commanding point, irrespective of whether we refrain from doing so’. Kesselring was unmoved. He drew attention to the promise to the Roman Catholic Church that German troops would not enter the abbey, but added that this restriction applied to the buildings only. This last qualification may explain not only Osborne’s failure to elicit a clearer
definition of the German guarantee but also the orders from the Fuehrer passed on by Tenth Army to 14 Panzer Corps on 23 December that ‘Montecassino is to be included in the defence line and to be fortified’.
Meanwhile, Allied commanders in the field had been ordered to avoid unnecessary damage to works of religious, historical and artistic importance, and on 4 November 1943 AFHQ initiated a list of ‘protected works’, with Castel Gandolfo (the Pope’s summer residence in the Alban Hills) and Montecassino Abbey as the first two serials. But it was made quite clear that protective measures must defer to military necessity. The Allied mind was perhaps best represented by the directive which General Eisenhower addressed from AFHQ to all commanders on 29 December, shortly before he left the theatre for the United Kingdom. Since they form a touchstone by which to try much that follows, the first two paragraphs of his directive may be quoted in full:
To-day we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilisation which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments as far as war allows.
If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase ‘military necessity’ is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.
A test of the Allied attitude towards this dilemma occurred early in February, when Allied bombs dropped in and near the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo, causing casualties and damage. The estate lay in an important area of communications for the German forces besieging the Anzio bridgehead. Lieutenant-General Ira C. Eaker, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, acting on his interpretation of earlier instructions, gave Major-General J. K. Cannon, commanding the Tactical Air Force, freedom to attack papal property when in his own and General Alexander’s opinion it was absolutely necessary to do so. Eisenhower’s successor as Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, concurred, and both on this occasion and later, when further raids on the papal estate prompted diplomatic complaints, he received the support of the British Foreign Office and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though Castel Gandolfo was papal property, and Montecassino Abbey Benedictine, the treatment of the first constituted a valid precedent for the treatment of the second.
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’.10 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.11 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.
The next day, the 12th, brought an intervention by General Tuker, a most reluctant invalid.12 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.13 He now spoke for the first time of the monastery itself. After rehearsing details of its imposing architecture, he continued:
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. ... 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.
Such a plea for the bombing of the monastery, addressed to Freyberg, was a sermon to the converted. His opinion had already been formed, and it was shared by his senior commanders, including Kippenberger, who thought that their duty to their troops was paramount over all other considerations.14 Nevertheless, Tuker’s
forthright expressions may have toughened still further the resolve of a Corps Commander who was himself no pusillanimous captain.
Whether or not he had then read either or both of Tuker’s memoranda,15 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.16
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.17
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.
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.18 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.19 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.20 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.
One of Freyberg’s leading arguments for the bombing was that it would stun the defenders. It was thus of the utmost importance that the infantry assault should follow with the least possible delay, so that the Germans, if in fact they held the abbey, might be overrun while still dazed and shaken. But Freyberg had one of the trickiest problems of co-ordination that any commander could face:
he had to synchronise an aerial bombardment with two separate infantry attacks and to do it quickly and without any mastery of the decisive conditions. The New Zealanders on the Rapido, despite the flooding and the difficulties of the engineers, could have mounted an attack whenever the word was given, and in fact they expected it almost nightly; but of the three parts of the operation theirs was the only one that offered any margin of flexibility, unless, of course, the whole operation was to be postponed so long as to lose much of its strategic purpose. The date of the bombing depended partly on the weather and partly on events at Anzio, which governed the availability of aircraft. The date of the Indian division’s attack on the monastery depended on its progress in the gruelling tasks of deployment, bringing up supplies, and clearing a satisfactory starting line. There was little that a commander’s fiat could do to control these conditions.
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,
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.21
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.22 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.
The monastery was left a smoking ruin, the jagged remnants of its walls rising from the crown of the hill like a rotten tooth. Within the precincts were half a dozen monks and a thousand refugees, or perhaps more, from Cassino and its neighbourhood. Fifth Army’s warning had reached everyone through leaflets which fell outside the walls and were blown into the monastery; but one had doubted their authenticity, another had dismissed them as an idle threat, a third had put his faith in the protection of the buildings, and those who feared the worst had been terrified to step outside
into the open. When the bombs began to fall, some of the occupants displayed a white flag to the attacking aircraft. Both during and after the bombardment people ran out of the building and down the hillside. Between 100 and 300 refugees are said to have perished in the ruins,23 and the wounded must have numbered many more.
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.24 Even the diarist of 14 Panzer Corps noted that ‘the bombing of Montecassino was used to the utmost for propaganda purposes’.
III: Evidence and Argument
The echoes of these strident voices may be heard even now. The bombing is still sometimes seen as a wanton act of terror and vandalism. If only for that reason, it has been necessary to swell our narrative at this point to proportions that exaggerate the size of the event as it then appeared to the New Zealand command. It is fair for the journalist, who writes for the day, to strip an episode of its qualifying husk and to display it in the intensity of uncircumstanced isolation. The task of the historian is to reassemble around it the circumstances in which it was embedded. It is still necessary, therefore, to insist on the truth that the bombing of the monastery falls into the essential context of an operation by ground forces, that it was designed to assist a certain body of infantry to capture a certain objective, and that it was upon this aim that the eyes of the military commanders were fixed.
Granted that the monastery was a military objective, the decision of the men on the spot to demand its bombing is fairly open to criticism on military grounds alone. But was it a military objective? Or are we confronted with a plea of military necessity when, in Eisenhower’s words, ‘it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience’? If it were possible to prove that the Germans had occupied the monastery for military purposes before 15 February, the answer would be clear; but this has not been proved, though a whole cloud of witnesses has since borne testimony.
Evidence for the view that the enemy respected the neutrality of the monastery falls into three classes of unequal value – that of the actual inmates, the later statements of German commanders, and captured German documents. Included in the first class are the findings of an exhaustive inquiry made by the Vatican into events in the abbey, which General Clark summarises in his book Calculated Risk. These findings agree so closely with the evidence of the abbot, Bishop Diamare,25 and one of his monks, Father O. Graziosi, and that of civilian refugees who were questioned by British or American intelligence officers after their escape from the bombed abbey, that all these versions may be consolidated into a single account. According to this story, the Germans established a neutral zone round the abbey and rigidly enforced it. For a time at least, a few German soldiers and later three military policemen picketed the monastery grounds against intruders, at the wish of the abbot; and before the bombing there seem to have been sentries on the gate to prevent the civilians from drawing fire by movement on the hillside under Allied observation. At no time before 15 February did the Germans introduce military material within the walls, and no German entered the abbey for military purposes. Once or twice German medical officers or orderlies went in to treat sick or wounded – the occupants had no medical supplies except a little ointment – and on one occasion two officers and an interpreter were seen conversing with the monks. The Germans did, however, according to Clark’s account, establish military installations near the building – dumps for mortar ammunition a few yards from the enclosures of the kitchen garden, observation posts and a mortar battery about 220 yards south of the monastery. Most refugees were vague as to the siting of enemy defences on the slopes of the mountain, but four women reported two light tanks on the road about 300 metres from the building and a mortar behind a funicular station at the foot of the hill.
Of the German witnesses, Senger has given the most detailed
evidence.26 The formation he commanded, 14 Panzer Corps, had already established good relations with the monks when it was stationed at Cassino in the summer of 1943, before the landings in Sicily, and he strongly approved of Kesselring’s decision to neutralise the monastery as soon as it came within the battle area. He visited the abbey on Christmas Day, 1943, to attend mass in the crypt, and afterwards satisfied himself that Kesselring’s order was being enforced. Senger’s testimony is supported on the main point by Kesselring himself,27 his Chief of Staff, Westphal,28 and by the commander of the Tenth Army, von Vietinghoff.29
Captured German documents revealing the enemy reaction to the bombing point in the same direction. These documents are of higher evidential value than the ex post facto statements of the German generals, though it is to be remembered that if local commanders were under instructions not to occupy the abbey they had strong motives for representing that the abbey had not been occupied. Certainly they lost no time in putting on record their version of events. Little more than an hour after the first bomb fell on the monastery, the Chief of Staff of Army Group C engaged the Chief of Staff of Tenth Army in a telephone conversation:
Army Group: Anything new down your way?
Tenth Army: Only the Montecassino Abbey business. ... That was pretty foolish, no doubt about that.
Army Group: Has it not done us any harm from a military point of view?
Tenth Army: No, because we were not occupying it. The enemy was just imagining things. ...
An hour and a half later 14 Panzer Corps passed on to Tenth Army a report by 90 Panzer Grenadier Division:
The commander of the fighting troops in Cassino [Colonel Schulz, 1 Parachute Regiment commander] reports that there were no weapons in the abbey. The divisional order to bring seriously wounded men into the abbey in case of extreme emergency had never been taken advantage of. Military police had kept continuous guard to prevent any German soldier from entering the abbey. The enemy bombardment was therefore totally unjustified. Ambassador von Weizsäcker [the German representative at the Vatican] knows the views of the responsible divisional commander [General Baade] on the subject. These have been strictly enforced.
One other German document might be mentioned. It is the cross on the earliest of four soldiers’ graves in one of the abbey cloisters. The date it bears is 16 March 1944.
Evidence apart, reason might also have suggested the probability that the monastery was unoccupied by troops. Intact, it was not a very suitable fire position for infantry weapons. Nor did the Germans need it as an observation post. On the slopes of Monte Cairo they could sit as high as they pleased. If on the slopes of Montecassino itself they lost something in height, they gained something in proximity, and a great deal more in security, for, as General Freyberg himself commented, ‘nobody wants to sit on an obvious target’, and posts half-way down the hill were more easily concealed than those on the top.
The positive evidence for the German occupation of the monastery is less impressive. General Eaker has testified that when flying at less than 200 feet above it he saw a radio aerial on the building and enemy soldiers moving in and out.30 But the efforts of AFHQ to produce proof after the bombing show a steady retreat from confidence. On 4 March the Combined Chiefs of Staff, as a result of Foreign Office inquiries originating with Osborne at the Vatican, asked Wilson for material ‘describing as precisely as possible the military use which the Germans have in fact been making of the Abbey and which led to your decision to attack it’.31 The reply, of 9 March, enumerated eleven items of information.
Of these items, which consist mainly of reports by 2 Corps, five point only to the existence of German defences in the vicinity of the abbey – a tank had been dug in to cover the approaches, small-arms and machine-gun fire were coming from emplacements close to the building, pillboxes had been seen nearby and so on. Three items are inadmissible because they describe events after the bombing. One item was a statement by an Italian civilian, who claimed to have been in the abbey frequently in the month before 7 February, that there were thirty machine guns and about eighty soldiers in the building. Another item was the report of a captured staff sergeant of III Battalion 132 Infantry Regiment that its headquarters, the observation post of a parachute battalion, and a battalion aid station were all together in the abbey; but although the 4 Indian Division intelligence summary from which this item was culled gives the abbey as the site of these posts, the accompanying map reference indicates not the abbey but the Albaneta Farm feature. What remains of these eleven items is the report of a battalion commander of 133 United States Infantry Regiment that a telescope had been observed in the middle row of windows on the east face of the abbey
and that enemy troops were moving around the base of the building on the north side.
Wilson’s message suggested that the Allied statement should be confined to ‘the fact that the military authorities on the spot have irrefutable evidence that the Cassino abbey was part of the main German defensive line’. In a message to the British Chiefs of Staff about a week later, AFHQ re-emphasised its view that detailed reasons for the bombing should not be passed to the Vatican, ‘as it is impossible to obtain definite proof on all points’.
Such is the main evidence. Its tendency is unmistakable. Indeed, it is questionable whether the German case could have stronger corroboration than it receives from the Allied effort to overthrow it. But since a single soldier sitting at a window of the monastery, with or without a pair of binoculars and a field telephone, would constitute a military installation, caution forbids an unambiguous conclusion. It is enough to say that it is no longer possible to affirm with any confidence that the Germans had occupied the monastery for military reasons before 15 February.
For the purpose in hand, the inquiry may be thought rather interesting than relevant, for little of the evidence presented above was available at the time to the commanders who made the request to bomb the abbey. What did they in fact know or suspect? The enemy undertaking not to fortify the monastery, even if known at this level, could hardly have inspired conviction among men experienced in the Nazi way with promises. Opinion at the headquarters of the New Zealand Corps and the New Zealand Division was divided, but in some minds there was good a priori ground for deep suspicion. In Kippenberger’s judgment, for example, the abbey was so perfectly situated for observation that no army could have refrained from using it.32 Moreover, though its narrow windows and level profiles gave no opportunities for grazing fire and made it an unsatisfactory fighting position, it offered ideal protection.
‘I always thought of the Monastery as a suitable shelter for troops who would emerge for counter-attack at a suitable time,’ he wrote later.33 ‘.... But it would have been hard to hurt the people inside, even if no more dangerous than a turtle under its shell, and they could always have popped out by egresses we couldn’t see, at times convenient to themselves. I should think about a battalion could have been concealed for use in this manner and in addition some fire positions could have been fixed up in the windows and under the walls’
The apprehension that the monastery was being used for observation or for shelter could be neither substantiated nor disposed of by the information at hand.
At the conference on 12 February, when 2 Corps handed over to the New Zealand Corps, the commander of 34 Division did not think that the Germans were in occupation: all the fire against the Americans had come from the slopes of Montecassino below the abbey. The intelligence officer of 2 Corps repeated reports suggesting that the monastery had been used as an observation post and that the Germans had strongpoints close to the walls. Of the 800 enemy infantry believed to be in the town and its environs, he estimated that about 350 would be found on or near the top of the mountain. Though a comparative newcomer to the front, 4 Indian Division was definite that the building was manned at night, with machine guns and a headquarters there. Civilians questioned before the bombing disagreed – some said that the Germans were in occupation, others that they were not.
Out of this conflict of evidence, it would be hard to deny that doubt must emerge and that such doubt was reasonable. High commanders in the corps indeed habitually spoke of the monastery garrison. Given the existence of reasonable doubt or justifiable suspicion, responsibility for the lives of their men left commanders no choice. There was only one safe assumption – they had to act as though the abbey was in hostile hands.
It is possible to go further. Even if the Germans were certainly known to have observed the neutrality of the monastery, they made it impossible for the Allied troops to do likewise. The hill crowned by the monastery happened to be the commanding feature of the battlefield. The Germans had every right to defend it, and they would have neglected to do so only at the almost certain risk of opening to the Allies the road to Rome. But once the enemy had decided to include Montecassino in his defensive system the building on its summit inevitably became a legitimate target;34 for though the mountain might have been defended, it could not have been captured, without attention to its summit. No one now doubts – and the Allies well knew at the time – that military activity was going on in the immediate vicinity of the abbey. Was this activity to claim immunity? If not, the bombing of targets on that steep declivity would have been equivalent in practical effect to bombing the monastery itself. It is the nature of war not to be a game played to the whistle between white lines.
Further, even if the enemy had hitherto been punctilious in preserving the abbey as a neutral zone, the past was no sure index
to the future. There could be no assurance, as Tuker noted, that hard-pressed defenders would not fly to its protection in the last resort; and in fact we have evidence that the division defending Montecassino planned, in extremity, to revise its attitude towards the abbey by using it for the reception of wounded.
Perhaps the most weighty consideration of all, however, was the duty of the commanders to their own troops. What the generals believed was one thing. What the troops believed was another, and, right or wrong, their belief was a substantial fact in the situation. They believed, widely if not universally, that ‘Jerry’ was sitting in the ‘wee white hoose’. They were ordinary men who could not easily be brought to see that human lives, their own or others’, should be sacrificed to save a certain disposition of bricks and mortar, however illustrious the building they composed. The building, moreover, they hated. Day and night they had lived under its baleful eye; it was a constant intruding presence; it looked into everything, it nagged at their nerves and became a phobia and an obsession. In the fullness of this knowledge, no infantry commander could have sent his men to storm the mountain with the fear in their hearts that the enemy was waiting for them unharmed at the top. This fact alone made an attack on Montecassino unthinkable without an attack on the great edifice that dominated its slopes.
The bombing of the monastery was no crime. Was it a blunder?
It may first be asked whether an assault on Monastery Hill was necessary. Tuker’s alternative proposal of a turning movement on either side of the hill to threaten the garrison with isolation was a shrewd anticipation of the way in which it actually fell in the following May. But to Freyberg in February the proposal was hardly relevant. His freedom was narrowly bounded, now as later, by earlier political, strategic and even tactical decisions. There was the political decision not to relax pressure on the enemy throughout the winter. This entailed a strategic decision as to the means of breaching the German Winter Line – a left hook by 10 Corps, a right hook by the French Expeditionary Corps and a punch down the centre by 2 Corps. This last thrust, directed at the heart of the enemy defences at the mouth of the Liri valley and at Cassino, was the one in which Clark chose to persist. Both the politics and the strategy might have been questioned, but their tactical consequences had to be accepted, and it was these that Freyberg inherited. A perspective view shows that the New Zealand Corps took up a battle already half fought, or more than half fought, by American troops who had shown admirable tenacity and won palpable success. The pith of
one German criticism of the bombing of the abbey indeed is that it did not occur until the fighting in the first battle of Cassino was already subsiding.35
Freyberg cannot be blamed for not doing in February what Alexander did in May. The great May offensive was launched on a front of several miles by two armies, with no clear idea where the break would come but only a determination to exploit success. Freyberg, on the other hand, in command of a single corps in the depth of winter, had to make the best use of his resources to force a passage through a selected point in the enemy defences rather than wait for a success to turn up and then reinforce it. He could not bring the Allied superiority in men and machines to bear in a process of attrition. In deciding to attack Monastery Hill, the lynchpin of the defensive system, he was maintaining the momentum of an American drive which had brought our troops within a few hundred yards of the monastery walls: the next step, the seizure of Montecassino, was all but predestined. He was in fact exploiting a turning movement, but it was the town and not the abbey of Cassino that he hoped to turn. The plan finally adopted was that one which survived the critical scrutiny of several plans. And when after its failure Freyberg had to rethink the problem, he could still see no means of avoiding the need to capture Monastery Hill; what he did vary was the direction from which it was attacked. In the circumstances of early February, his plan offered the best hope of success. But if Montecassino was wisely attacked, was it wisely bombed?
Tactically, the bombing was conceived as serving two purposes – to destroy the defensive value of the monastery and to demoralise the defenders. Whether it enhanced the usefulness of the building as a strongpoint remains in dispute. If it was previously unoccupied by the Germans, and if they had no intention of occupying it, clearly its value to them was increased, for now they undoubtedly took post in the ruins, with their machine guns among the rubble ‘and their field kitchens in the cell of St. Benedict’.36 But even if they had been in the building before the attack, it is still arguable that the bombardment made it a better fortress. An Allied officer who inspected the monastery immediately after its capture in May found much of it ‘only a heap of pulverised rubble and dust’. The west end, however, remained standing to the top floor, and other parts escaped total destruction – some of the cloisters, the south wall of the basilica apse, the west end of the refectory. More important, though fissures occurred, the immense outer wall was so solid than no complete breach was made, and the parts left standing provided excellent cover for the defenders.
General Senger is no unbiased witness, but his explicit opinion deserves notice:
It [the monastery] had, indeed, become a far finer defence position than it would have been before its destruction, because as anyone who has had experience of street fighting – as at Stalingrad or at Cassino – is aware, rubble heaped upon basements and cellars forms defences greatly superior to houses. Houses must be demolished in order to be converted from mousetraps into bastions of defence. So it happened that at a later stage, when the Allied infantry had driven a deep wedge between Montecassino and the town, they were compelled to withdraw because they were enfiladed by the many batteries concealed in the ruins of the destroyed Monastery.37
The senior officers in the New Zealand Corps were perfectly aware, when they asked for the bombing, that buildings are usually improved as forts by demolition. Their expectation was that the abbey would be reduced to dust, offering few firm footings and places of concealment, roofless and open to the fire of guns, mortars, and raids by strafing aircraft or fighter-bombers dropping lighter and more accurate missiles. In the event of heavy bombing it would be a death-trap.
These hopes were not quite realised because pulverisation was incomplete. Much of the abbey, it is true, lost all military value, but enough masonry still stood to afford some cover and weapon emplacements were improvised. Renewed bombing might have made slaughter among the defenders and rendered the ruins untenable, but as it happened bombing was not renewed on any significant scale, and the Germans showed their satisfaction with the new position by manning it at once and defending it to the end. And though now only a gaunt shell in a grey desert, the monastery retained its power to overshadow the minds of men and lie heavy on their spirits.
To Freyberg the more important tactical purpose was the ‘softening up’ of the defenders – but this was not achieved. The paratroops holding the hill may have been unnerved (one was seen sobbing like a child), but they were given time to recover and came out as full of fight as ever. The lack of co-ordination between the air and ground attacks certainly impaired the latter and gave the former a false air of gratuitous barbarism, as though it was a gesture of petulance at previous failures. Yet on the afternoon of the 14th it was in a peculiarly acute form that Freyberg had to face that ‘option of difficulties’ which has been identified with war itself. Convinced that air attack was indispensable, he had to accept what he wanted before he wanted it or risk not getting it at all. The point of contact between the downward pressure of strategic necessity and the upward pressure of tactical necessity was located between him and Dimoline.
While from a slightly loftier vantage-point Freyberg’s eye took in most vividly the broader implications of the action at Cassino, Dimoline could not forget the plight of his infantrymen on the bare hills above the town.
Freyberg’s choice found some justification in the event, for after the 15th the Strategic Air Force was no longer at his disposal. When the German counter-offensive broke out in earnest at Anzio on the 16th, it dashed any hope that the psychological wound inflicted by the previous day’s bombing might be kept open by air attacks on a comparable scale. Three times during the afternoon of the 16th waves of fighter-bombers raised the dust on Montecassino but, though Clark did his utmost to help, the heavy and medium bombers, which alone could do the work of siege artillery, could not be spared from Anzio. After the 17th, when the fighter-bombers paid a last visit, bad weather saved the ruins from further air attack.
Though the bombing was carried out in an atmosphere of strategic urgency, its success in affording relief to the Allied forces at Anzio was at best partial. The bombing cannot be dissociated in its strategic effect from the operation of which it was a part, but there is no evidence that the operation itself caused the Germans to divert ground forces from the bridgehead to the Cassino front. On the contrary, 14 Panzer Corps had to meet the attack out of its own resources.38 It is possible that the further strengthening of the bridgehead was prevented. Of the two enemy divisions moved from the south of Rome to help stem Clark’s January offensive, one, 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, was later withdrawn for the counter-attack on the Anzio bridgehead. The other, 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, was no doubt destined also to be withdrawn, but it had to be detained on the southern front and committed on the Cassino sector. This decision, however, was a response to the threat by the Americans working through the hills north of the town before the New Zealand Corps assumed command. At best, the New Zealand attack confirmed the decision.
In the war of propaganda the Germans made a clear gain. By radio broadcasts, through the press and by posters,39 they circulated their story of. Allied vandalism. It has even been suggested that they provoked the bombing in order to reap this advantage. From the Vatican Osborne reported, on what seemed to him good authority, that enemy agents were spreading information that certain churches, ecclesiastical property, and cultural monuments were being occupied by the Germans, in the hope that the Allies would bomb them. He wondered whether the trick had been played in this case. ‘This would
have served the double purpose of supplying the Germans with admirable propaganda material and of enabling the Germans to use the ruins of the Abbey ... for military purposes’.40 Our knowledge of the genesis of the bombing allows us to discount this suggestion. But the notion recurs in a different context. In the tale they told to their American interviewer, four Italian women refugees had the following to say:
The afternoon of 14 February some civilians found leaflets near the wall of the Abbey, which were believed to have been dropped by plane. The leaflets warned the civilians to leave the Abbey because it was going to be bombed. When the Abbot read the leaflets he immediately sent word to the Germans asking for advice. Two Germans, who we think were officers, came to the Abbey, staying only for a short time with the Abbot. Seeing that we were all getting restless and afraid and wanted to leave the place, the Abbot sent the monks to us and they told us to keep calm, as the Germans had promised to send a message to the American headquarters in order to avoid the bombing of the Abbey.
The morning of 15 February, at 0600 hours, we were told by the monks to get ready to leave. A few minutes later two German officers and an interpreter came and informed the Abbot that under no circumstances was any civilian to leave, under pain of being shot. We were also warned not to light any fires. Two German sentries were posted at the gate. At about 0900 hours four-engined planes started to drop bombs on the Abbey. ...
If this account is true41 – and two independent reports by refugees agree that the Germans barred the gates – the most obvious inference is that the enemy deliberately sacrificed civilian lives to make propaganda. But the obvious is not necessarily the true. According to one refugee, it had been the habitual practice of the Germans to keep the gates locked – a natural precaution to prevent civilians bringing fire upon themselves and the German defences round the abbey. Further, Baade is known to have thought that the bombing threat was bluff.42 He doubtless believed that the refugees were safer within the walls by day than if they tried to escape without a local armistice, which there was no time to arrange; and he may have wanted to delay the evacuation until dark, in the expectation that the threatened attack, if it occurred at all, would not occur that day. The charge made at the time that ‘the Germans seized their chance of a real scoop’43 is not substantiated.
At a different level, the bombing of Montecassino has been seen as the price paid for the preservation of Rome, in that it reminded
the Germans of the Allies’ implacable will to wage war. General Freyberg was of opinion that two events in the war had a considerable effect on the Germans’ mentality: one was the sinking of the French battleships at Oran and the other was the bombing of Montecassino. The latter, in his view, induced them to heed the appeals to have Rome treated as an open city.44
Whether or not in this devious way Rome was saved, no doctrine of vicarious suffering can disguise the fact that for those who actually suffered in the bombing of the abbey it was a calamity and that the world lost something that can never be replaced. A British history declares that ‘It is too early to pass final judgment on this melancholy event. ... Future generations alone will be able to decide whether the bombing of Monte Cassino was a necessity’.45 Yet surely it is mistaken to suppose that so long as this episode is discussed by men who care deeply about such issues finality will be attainable. The passing of time opens new perspectives and changes historical judgments but it does not lead to finality. The evidence is in, and the historian of this generation must make up his mind, undeterred by the possibility that his verdict, like those of his successors, will be superseded.
It has been argued above that in the circumstances in which it found itself when it fell heir to the battle of Cassino, the command of the New Zealand Corps had no realistic alternative but to demand the bombardment of the monastery and that the only effectual form of bombardment was by heavy aircraft. Tactically, the bombing was a necessity – and a necessity notwithstanding that it was an almost unmitigated failure. But had earlier decisions been different, the necessity might never have arisen. It is true that Cassino abbey stood guard over the most direct route to Rome. It is true, too, that the Via Casilina (Route 6), upon which the advance of a great army ultimately depended, passed beneath it. But there was nothing inevitable in the strategy that chose for repeated attack the strongest point in a defensive line of remarkable strength. Another strategy might have saved the abbey of Montecassino and some of the lives which its destruction failed to save.
The military operation of which the bombing was only an incident went on. According to plan, the Indians attempted on the evening of 15 February to capture Point 593, the outer bailey, as it were, of the castle that had the monastery for its keep. But no more than one company of 1 Royal Sussex was committed, and it was handicapped by ignorance of the ground, since daylight reconnaissance was impossible with the enemy at such close quarters. Thus, when only about 70 yards from the starting line, the advance was stopped short by a steep gully not marked on the map. Across this natural moat the defenders poured a stream of fire, and after several attempts to bypass the ravine the company had to retire with about twenty casualties.
When he heard of the failure next morning Freyberg urged on Dimoline a change of tactics. He advised making the main bid for the monastery that night with a strong force that would attempt a dash on the left over the short, direct route from Point 445. He questioned whether the capture of Point 593 on the right was the sine qua non that Lovett, the brigadier on the spot, claimed it to be. Dimoline carried his point for another attempt on Point 593 that night but was clearly given to understand that in any circumstances the attack on the monastery could not be deferred beyond the next night. Having tactfully sounded opinion at Army Headquarters, Freyberg sensed a growing restiveness, which he was determined to allay.
The strength of the whole Sussex battalion went into the second attempt on Point 593 and a way had been found round the ravine that balked the first, but the going was such that only one company could be thrown into the assault at a time. Though overlooked by the parachutists established among the ruins on the summit, the leading company stormed the heights and penetrated the defences but twice ran short of hand grenades before the second company appeared. Three times the position was carried, but each time the defenders rallied and regained their ground. When the attack was called off, the casualties numbered 12 officers and 130 men.
With the double failure at Point 593, the Corps Commander would tolerate no further delay in directly assaulting the abbey. The plan favoured by Dimoline and Lovett of first rolling up one by one the German defences on Point 575, Albaneta Farm, and Point 593 was now abandoned. The Indians were to attack on the night of 17–18 February with as great a force and on as broad a front as time, terrain and supply would permit.