The Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the most important battles of World War Two. Monte Cassino effectively blocked the Allies route north to Rome and had to be taken despite the difficulties of doing so from a military point of view. From a religious/cultural viewpoint, there was also the famous monastery at Monte Cassino that would almost certainly be damaged by any attack or destroyed. By the end of the Battle of Monte Cassino, the monastery had been destroyed but the hill had been captured leaving the route open to Rome.
The Germans had constructed the Gustav Line across Italy in an effort to stop the Allies advancing north to Rome. The Gustav Line straddled Italy effectively east to west and passed about two miles to the east of Monte Cassino from where it travelled south through the Liri Valley, south of Mounts Juga and Maio before it swung south-west to reach the coast at Minturno. South of Monte Cassino, the Gustav Line traced the course of the River Garigliano, which added to the defensive qualities of the line.
The move to assault Monte Cassino started in December 1943. The US 5th Army (under General Clark) advanced to Cassino while the US 8th Army (under General Leese) advanced up the Adriatic side of Italy. The French Expeditionary Corps commanded by General Juin achieved the first success. Within his command were men from Morocco and Algeria. Both were skilled in mountain warfare. The Moroccan 2nd Division quickly overwhelmed German forces at Mount Santa Croce, about 10 miles to the northeast of Monte Cassino. The Algerian 3rd Division attacked German forces at Colle Belvedere and Mount Abate, both about 5 miles to the north of Monte Cassino. The success of these attacks meant that Monte Cassino was surrounded to the north, west and south.
In mid-January, US 5th Army Intelligence had informed Clark:
“German strength was ebbing due to casualties, exhaustion, and possibly lowering of morale. It would appear doubtful if the enemy can hold the organised defensive line through Cassino against a co-ordinated attack. Since this attack is to be launched before Shingle (the attack on Anzio) it is considered likely that this additional threat will cause him to withdraw from his defensive position once he has appreciated the magnitude of that operation.”
However, such optimism did not take into account the geography of Monte Cassino. The very nature of the ground gave the German defenders at Cassino a very good view as to what the Allies were doing. This height advantage was to be very important. The Germans had positioned their mortars with skill and they were to prove a major thorn to the Allies as they advanced. Equally as dangerous were German mine fields that lay in the path of the advancing Allies. The attack began on January 17th with an artillery bombardment.
To ensure that the Gustav Line held, the German commander in the area, General von Vietinghoff, transferred two elite units to Monte Cassino – the 90th Grenadier Division and the XXIX Panzer Grenadier Division while he delayed the move to France of the Hermann Goering Panzer Division. Fortified by these three divisions, von Vietinghoff was convinced Monte Cassino was hold.
The Allies found crossing the River Rapido particularly difficult. The river flowed to the east of Cassino and it had to be crossed if the Germans on Monte Cassino were to be attacked from all sides. However, the banks had been mined. German sniper fire and well-positioned MG-42 machine guns meant that little mine clearing could be done during the day. Nighttime work was fraught with danger but it was at this time that engineers cleared not only mines but placed markers to assist the advance of the infantry. However, during the day, German mortar bombs destroyed many of these markers so that when men got to the Rapido, they were unaware as to their route. The US 36th (Texas) Division experienced major problems when they attempted to cross the river. German patrols had worked out where it was likely that a crossing would take place. Boats were sunk before they reached halfway across the Rapido. “It is remarkable that (they) persevered in the circumstances. It was a hellish night for the Texans.” (Brigadier Anthony Farrar-Hockley) Those who did get across were subjected to equally devastating fire. In later years, research showed that any part of the area where the US 36th Division tried to cross was covered by a minimum of three heavy German machine guns.
The attempt to cross the Rapido failed. However, the Allies were helped as the landings at Anzio were taking place and had sucked away German troops from Cassino. As the bridgehead at Anzio expanded, so more and more German troops were moved from Cassino to there. Whereas the Allies had found an offensive operation initially difficult to the south and southeast of Monte Cassino, the German withdrawals made this easier.
The commander of the US 2nd Corps (General Keyes) was ordered to cross the Rapido to the north of Cassino. The river was more shallow here but the Germans had flooded the area by destroying the dam at Sant’ Elia and the valley in which the Rapido flowed was flooded to a maximum depth of four feet. While this may not have seemed a great depth, the nature of the ground there meant that the soil, if covered with just one foot of water, was not capable of bearing the weight of a jeep.
Successfully crossing this obstacle did not prepare the men for the ascent of Monte Cassino. While only 593 metres high, the approach to the top was very steep. The attack by the US 34th Division started on January 24th 1944. It made “slow and painful progress” (Farrar-Hockley). By the 29th, men from the 34th had reached the lower slopes of Cassino. However, capturing the mountain was to be a singularly difficult task – one that Farrar-Hockley with all his military experience, was to call “the Stalingrad of the Italian front”.