Strong on history, sense of place and artistic wonder… ideal even for the veteran visitor to Italy.
Search out the excellent Cadogan Guide to Central Italy.
After the invasion of Sicily, people all over Italy felt the sudden menace of the troops and the bombs that would undoubtedly be coming their way. But Mars, whose actions are notoriously unpredictable, decreed this time that central Italy would suffer the worst. The Allied landings at Salerno, followed by the uprising of the people of Naples, occasioned a quick German withdrawal to the hastily built fortifications of the Gustav Line, which stretched from the River Sangro in the Abruzzo to southern Lazio. There it was anchored on the heights of Montecassino, a mountain that was crowned by the most famous monastery in Christendom.
When the Allies reached Montecassino, they could not count on simply getting around it. The landings at the Anzio beachhead were in a precarious state, and the Allies had to hit the Gustav Line hard to take pressure off the beleaguered troops further north. On 15 February 1944 the Americans sent B-17 Flying Fortresses to drop 287 tons of bombs on the monastery. There were no Germans it. The Nazis, surprisingly, were often more scrupulous than the Allies about endangering Italian art centres, and the Italians still blame the tragedy of Montecassino on the American commander, General Mark Clark.
Clark deserves better, facing a crucial objective in this most bloody and confounding front of the war. Lacking a clear message from the Germans, he naturally expected that the monastery was fortified. On 18 March the Allies dropped 2,500 tons more of explosive, and by this time they were close enough to have 900 cannon blasting at the site– still with no foes inside. After the monastery was reduced to a shambles, an elite brigade of German paratroopers took up positions inside the ruins, and they were able to hold up the Allies for another month and a half. For a rest between attacks, they would go down to the crypt of Montecassino’s church, the only part of the complex not destroyed, still covered with the gorgeous gold mosaics made by German monks only thirty years before.
The polyglot Allied forces, including New Zealanders, Poles, Indians, Moroccans, Canadians, Algerians and Free French, as well as British and American divisions, made unsuccessful attacks between January and May. On both sides, the fighting was some of the fiercest in the war; few prisoners were taken. One Gurkha battalion got bogged down on the slopes after a doomed attack in February and refused to retreat; the command had to cut off their supplies to get them back down. Much of the worst fighting took place on the plain down below, in the town of Cassino. The Allied bombers and artillery did such a good job of reducing it to rubble that the New Zealanders’ tanks couldn’t get down the streets, delaying the capture of the city centre for weeks.
It was the desperate men of the Polish 2nd Corps under General Anders, some of them escaped veterans of the Resistance, who were charged with taking the monastery; over two weeks, they launched one impossible attack after another on the Germans’ impregnable position, losing over a thousand men. They might have lost a thousand more before they got in, but the Moroccan units, experts in mountain fighting, had achieved considerable success in flanking Montecassino from the south, and just as the Poles were ready to break through, the Germans started to withdraw.
The Nazis, along the Mussolini’s newly founded Italians Socialist Republic in the north, had used the defense of Montecassino as a major propaganda symbol. On 18 May, it was photos of the red and white flag of Poland over the ruins of the monastery that grabbed the world’s front pages. The war moved on to the liberation of Rome, but when the spring of 1944 blossoms scarcely a single tree on the slopes of Montecassino was left standing. Just below the monastery, on the spot where much of the bloodiest fighting took place, there is a monument; the Polish inscription on it reads:
Passer-by, tell Poland that we died faithfully in her service; for our freedom and yours, we Polish soldiers who gave our souls to God, our bodies to the soil of Italy and our hearts to Poland.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls