The Battle of Monte Cassino is also known as the Battle for Rome within the Italian Campaign. Since the Allies invaded the Italian peninsula in 1943, the objective was to go north, capture Rome and drive the Germans out of Italy. It was originally estimated that Rome would fall by October 1943. But it didn’t.
There were several gruesome and bloody battles that remain the worst of WWII, notably Anzio and Monte Cassino. Anzio proved to be a stalemate, with bloody battles raging from January to May of 1944, while Monte Cassino was just as challenging.
In the fall of 1943, the US Fifth Army successfully moved up the Italian ‘boot’ after the fall of Naples, and in the east, the British Eighth Army was advancing up the Adriatic coast. The German Army was retreating north and established a defensive line called the Gustav Line. This line was a natural defensive position provided by the Apennine Mountains which form Italy’s mountainous spine. These mountains have peaks averaging 4,000 feet making this terrain some of the wildest and most remote in the country. The Germans had been in this defensive position since the winter of 1943/1944, holding the line and regaining their strength since retreating from Northern Africa, Sicily and Southern Italy.
Centered on this Gustav Line was the town of Cassino, with its 6th Century Benedictine Monastery on the hill. The area’s natural terrain catered to many deep underground bunkers and tunnels, with machine gun emplacements, anti-tank ditches and minefields, perfect for German defensive positions. Prior to the first attack on Cassino, the allies were convinced that the Germans had troops and strategic defenses set up in the monastery, but had no proof. Being on the hill, the monastery was in an excellent position with its surrounding hills and valleys for German cover and artillery.
The first unsuccessful battle for Monte Cassino was in January 1944, involving British X Corps, the US II Corps, the Moroccan-French troops, as well as the 2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Indian Division from the British Eighth Army.
The second battle was called Operation Avenger, which in some ways was a continuation of the first battle, but now complicated by logistical problems involving the 4th Indian Infantry Division. There were issues getting supplies to them on the ridges and valleys north of Cassino. They had to use mules crossing 7 miles of goat tracks in full view of the monastery, subject to artillery fire. So far Operation Avenger did not breach the Gustav Line. High command was convinced at this point that the monastery must be bombed whether the Germans were in there or not.
After the bombing in February 1944, the Germans eventually occupied the rubble of the structure and set up defensive positions. The British Sussex Regiment was ordered to attack. The fighting proved to be brutal, often hand to hand combat. The regiment lost over half of their men. The Rajputana Rifles and the Gurkha Rifles joined the campaign. These regiments were from the 4th Indian Division. It was hoped that they would succeed because of their expertise in mountainous terrain, but progress was slow and their casualties heavy. The attack failed.
The third battle started in mid March after three weeks of weather delays in order to execute preliminary bombings. This supported a ground assault by the British 78th Infantry Division under the command of New Zealand Corps. New Zealanders and Gurkhas were able to take a hill and a point, but at the same time the Germans were able to reinforce their troops in the town while adding snipers to certain positions. Toward the end of March the Allies planned to take both the town and the monastery, but the Germans counterattacked with the German 1st Parachute Division and what ground had been gained was lost. Both sides fought to exhaustion and had heavy casualties. The Allied line was reorganized and divisions replaced.
The fourth and final battle was called Operation Diadem. This operation called for the U.S. II Corps to attack up the coast toward Rome, the French Corps to their right, the British XIII Corps would be in the center right and on their right the Polish II Corps, the 3rd and 5th Divisions commanded by Lt. General Wladyslaw Anders. My dad was in the light artillery regiment of the 5th Division. Those two divisions were largely formed from the survivors of the Siberian deportations and arrests from 1939 to 1941, courtesy of the Soviet Union.
Large troop movements took two months to put in place since they could only be done small units at a time, while creating diversions to maintain secrecy and surprise. The Polish Army had relieved the 78th Division in the mountains behind Cassino, and would attempt to accomplish what the 4th Indian Division could not, isolate the monastery and push around behind it and into one of the valleys to link with the British XIII Corps and pinch out the Cassino position.
Two days before, the British 78th Division and the XIII Corps were able to isolate Cassino from the valley, then on May 17, 1944, Polish II Corps launched a second attack. The fighting was fierce with constant artillery and mortar fire. As their supply lines were threatened, the Germans withdrew from Cassino and retreated to form another defensive line, the Hitler Line, further north.
This pinching maneuver by the Polish and the British Corps was key to the overall success of the battle.
A patrol of the 12th Podolian Polish Cavalry Regiment made it to the summit of the mountain and raised a Polish flag over the ruins. Did my dad ever talk about the battle? No, and I don’t think many soldiers did.
The Polish Army lost over 1,000 soldiers. The total Allied casualty count at Monte Cassino from all four battles was 55,000.
At the foot of the Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino, there is an inscription in Polish which translates as:
Passerby, tell Poland that we fell faithfully in her service, for our freedom and yours, we Polish soldiers gave our souls to God, our bodies to the soil of Italy, and our hearts to Poland.