Defending Monte Cassino

Defending Monte Cassino



The defence of Monte Cassino was made much easier for the German defenders as a result of the destruction caused by the aerial and artillery bombardments. On March 15th 1944, the Allies started a bombing campaign that was to destroy most buildings in both the town of Cassino and the monastery itself. Such an environment gave those defending Cassino – experienced and battle-hardened paratroopers – a huge number of places to hide not only themselves but also artillery and mortars. Therefore the advancing Allied infantry had great difficulty in pinpointing exactly where any firing was coming from and responded by heavily shelling a suspected area. This turned the ground even more and gave further hiding places for the Germans. At the start of the second attack on Monte Cassino, the Allies gathered together 748 artillery guns and over 600,000 rounds of ammunition. It is said that the artillery onslaught that immediately followed the aerial bombardment on March 15th was the heaviest ever recorded into one concentrated area. The Allies assumed that such a devastating attack would destroy the morale of those defending Cassino, but the opposite was true.

 

The rubble created by the attack produced the perfect environment in which the German paratroopers could operate. The Allies had to literally take Cassino town house by house, street by street. Rudolf Böhmler commanded paratroopers at Monte Cassino and survived. In his autobiography he described what it was like fighting the Allied attack. Böhmler stated that he could not understand why the Allies insisted on making a frontal assault on Monte Cassino at the start of their campaign. He was also clear that the defence of Monte Cassino was greatly helped by the Allied bombardment that gave his men so many places to hide both themselves and equipment. The Allies inability to pinpoint where German fire was coming from made their task of ascending Monte Cassino very much harder.

 

Böhmler also stated that the Germans had no positions within 400 metres of the monastery at the top of Monte Cassino. The destruction of this monastery was controversial. But Böhmler stated that once the Allies had bombed the monastery the Germans felt that they had a right to occupy the ruins and use it as cover. The accuracy of Böhmler’s account is difficult to gauge, as he may not have been aware of where all the German placements were. Allied reconnaissance flights over the monastery claimed to have seen German soldiers and equipment in the monastery prior to the bombardment. One of these flights contained General Sir Maitland Wilson and General Jacob Divers who both confirmed previous reconnaissance sightings. The fact that two high ranking officers participated in one of the reconnaissance flights prior to the bombing starting does indicate that the Allies did not take lightly the decision to attack the monastery itself. However, in 1964 an enquiry in America stated that no German troops were in the monastery – only German military police. In 1969, the US official military records stated that there were no German troops in the monastery.

 

However, the actual environment created on the ground by the bombardment meant that the Allies had great difficulty in using their armour to support the infantry. Böhmler wrote about huge craters littering the landscape that made any form of vehicular crossing very difficult and dangerous. An infantry unit that tried to move up Monte Cassino was also subject to mortar bombardments and finding the mortar placements was very difficult – hence the high number of casualties.

 

Böhmler was also highly critical of Allied tactics at the start of the campaign. He made it clear that if the Allies had encircled Cassino and attacked all around the flanks from the start and had a co-ordinated move up the mountain, then the outcome would not have been what Monte Cassino is famed for. If the Allies had fought differently “the bloody battles fought to secure Monte Cassino and the gateway to Rome, costing both sides so dear, would never have appeared in the annals of the war.”






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