Thursday, February 12, 2004

A Soldier's account of the destruction of Monte Cassino Abbey
The monastery was not responsible for all the calamitous things happening to the Allied infantry and machines of war moving about in the valley or on the slopes around it. But the men over whom it held so much sway, firmly believed that the Abbey indeed was being used by the enemy. Nothing could convince them otherwise. It was the ideal artillery observation post and the Germans would be stupid not to use it as such, so they thought. Setback after setback finally influenced General Bernard Freyberg, Commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division into believing that the only way to throw the valley wide open was to destroy the Abbey from the air, to obliterate the enemy observation points there. He was sure that every move his men made, the Germans observed from their vantage points in the Abbey, and so after much wrangling in the caravans of the mighty it was finally agreed that the only way out of the impasse was to bomb Cassino and the Abbey.

On the cold, but clear windy morning of February 15, 1944, 143 B-17 Flying Fortresses came over at 18,000 feet, followed a quarter of an hour later by waves of Mitchell and Marauder medium bombers. In the short span of no more than twenty minutes 576 tons of bombs rained down on the huge building and on the surrounding slopes and also on the town of Cassino itself. For all of its massive construction of stone the Abbey was blasted and churned into a smoking hell of rubble and dust. It was learned not long after, that there'd been only a dozen monks and close to 1000 civilians inside its walls. The Italian peasants and Cassino inhabitants still remaining, had sought refuge from the fighting going on around their homes. Not a single German soldier, it was found, had been inside the Abbey. When the last bomb had fallen and the last numbing blast's echo had faded away into the hills and valleys, over 300 people lay dead beneath the huge mounds of rubble. The wounded exceeded three times that of the dead.

It has been proven since, that the few Germans who had entered the Monastery in the weeks before the bombing, had gone in to arrange for the transfer to Rome for safekeeping all art works, books, and religious documents. It was only after the Monastery had been reduced to rubble that the Germans took over the ruins and utilized it in their defence system. And as those of us who've read the books about the battles fought here know, the enemy utilized it to the utmost. In retrospect, they'd gained through a great Allied high-level blunder what proved to be an outstandingly strong fortress position. Once the building was destroyed the Germans had no qualms about using the ruins for defensive purposes. In the months that followed, the Allies were bled white trying to dislodge the enemy from the ruins and the surrounding heights, with little to show for their efforts. Only in the fourth and final battle which began one hour before midnight on May 11th did success finally come. Even then, the Monte Cassino Abbey, or the ruin thereof was not wrested from the paratroopers until seven days later when the Poles firmly planted the Polish Eagle flag in the rubble.

von Kuehnelt-Leddihn is much more skeptical of the allies' account of the abbey's destruction than this soldier. See below.

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