17 minutes ago
Monte Cassino as seen from a British observation point in February 1944. The monastery is seen under heavy artillery bombardment, and I believe the snow-capped mountain looming in the background is Monte Cairo. The precursor to the Second Battle of Monte Cassino would go down as one of the more controversial decisions of World War II, and one that still remains so to this day. As the Allies formulated their second attempt at cracking the Gustav Line, many commanders believed the monastery atop Monte Cassino was the reason a breakthrough had failed the first time. The biggest concern was whether or not the complex was being occupied by the Germans and being used as an observation post for artillery. Several high-ranking Allied commanders had flown over the abbey numerous times and reported seeing significant German activity below, while others, such as Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, also flew over but saw nothing. With conflicting reports and no definitive answer, other Allied commanders believed the monastery needed to be destroyed regardless of whether it was occupied or not in order to prevent any occupation in the future. But the controversy over this belief revolved around the monastery’s historical significance. First constructed in 529 although destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over many centuries, the abbey had been a national monument since 1866. In the lead-up to the first battle, the Italians and even the Germans openly pleaded to the Allies that they not destroy it. Respecting the significance of the complex, the Germans withdrew their troops from the buildings and excluded it from any battle plans, officially declaring it an “open” site. Ever skeptical of their enemy, the Allies didn’t believe the Germans, or at the very least didn’t believe they’d keep their word. Talks went back and forth between Allied commanders over what to do, and the decision was eventually made by Fifth Army commander General Mark Clark to bomb the monastery. Ironically, Clark was initially against destroying it. More to come in another post.