May 18, 1944 – of mountains, monks and men

The Battle of Monte Cassino, with casualties estimated at 183,000 soldiers and airmen, was the second deadliest clash for the Allies in the European Theater.  Only the Battle of the Bulge resulted in more losses.   Our tour, The Italian Campaign, includes two days covering the terrain of this epic battle, including the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery where 7,861 of our military dead are buried and 3,095 names are listed on the Walls of the Missing.

The Appenine mountains provided a natural east-west barrier between the southern “boot” of Italy and securely occupied northern region, including Rome, Italy’s crown jewel.   Fifteen divisions of German soldiers formed a series of defensive “lines” along the mountain peaks of the Appenines.   The alpine village of Cassino, ninety miles south east of Rome, became the bulls eye of the Allied assault…..defeating the Germans at Cassino would give the Allies a breakthrough to Rome, and access to airfields closer to Germany, easier for bombing raids targeting her factories and refineries.

German defensive lines in the Appenines, IT

On the highest peak above Cassino, the monastery, the Abbey of Monte Cassino, stood as a symbol of faith and was considered a national treasure, built in 526 A. D. by  St. Benedict.  In December of 1942, German troops transferred over 100 truckloads of Monastic art and manuscripts to the Vatican for safe-keeping.   British art historians regarded the “transfer” as looting; nevertheless, the collection was safe from the fires of war yet to come.

From January to May, 1944, from perches in the jagged peaks of the Appenines, the Germans pummeled the Allied infantry divisions, which first approached from the south and west, trudging across frozen river valleys – the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano – flooded months earlier by gushing waters from damns destroyed by German explosives.

In February, the Allies took to the air…. bombing mercilessly … sending villagers to seek cover in caves and cathedrals… the Monks in the Abbey of Monte Cassino sheltered over a thousand townspeople, given to thoughts that the Allied air forces would spare the 1400 year old abbey.

However, British and American reconnaissance  flyovers of the Abbey reported on German “radio-masts, uniforms drying in the courtyard and gun emplacements around the walls.”

The Abbey was reduced to rubble by the end of February; the bombing of the Abbey remains one of the most controversial tragedies of WWII.

The Allied surge and siege continued, with Nazi resistance intensifying.  Although their forces were outnumbered,  the German commanders, with sweeping views of the valleys below, could easily spot every move of Allied troops.

Allied tanks and vehicles were no match for the sandstone crevices and rocky terrain of the Appenines; Infantry and cavalry units were shredded by German mines, planted among centuries’ old olive trees.

A day’s advance was measured in meters while casualty rates outpaced the previous bloodbaths of fighting in Tunisia and the Pacific.

During March and April, with the engagement of divisions from ten countries committed to victory, the Allies amassed superior numbers and overwhelming firepower, pounding the positions held by the Germans along the mountain ridges and in the ruins of the Abbey.

In early May, the German defenses began to give way to the battle hardened French Expeditionary Corps and the US Fifth Army.

Finally, on May 17, Polish II Corps, fueled by revenge and hatred, burning since the 1939 German invasion of Poland, clashed with the last remaining Jerries, fighting through the night, at times in hand to hand combat.  By midday, on May 18, a patrol of Polish cavalry summitted the  peak, and drove a Polish flag into the rubble of the Abbey of Monte Cassino.

The road to Rome was open.

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, restored in the 1950s, is a shrine for relatives of the estimated 183,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the battles around it.

Join our October 2014 tour…. The Italian Campaign … register by July 15!!