Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

I: History and Policy

page 201

I: History and Policy


BERNARDUS valles, colles Benedictus amabat’. Thus the poet celebrated the founders of great religious orders. ‘St. Benedict loved the hills’; and upon the hill of Montecassino, a site already historic, he established about the year 529 not, indeed, his first monastery but that which was destined to become the mother house and model of his order. Here, and for this abbey, he wrote the Rule that first adapted monasticism, an Eastern institution, to the Western mind. In the decay of Roman municipal life, the gradual spread of communities of black-robed Benedictines helped to save the rural west for Christianity, and in the wild Gothic centuries that followed they offered at their uncorrupted best a haven for religion, learning, industry, and the arts of peace. In the direct transmission of ancient culture to the modern world, the order of St. Benedict holds a unique place, both on its own account and as the exemplar of later monastic orders. At Montecassino many masterpieces of classical literature were transcribed and preserved for a grateful posterity, and its archives alone would warrant the abbey's renown.

St. Benedict sought peace among the hills, but he chose a place of violence. In the entrails of the modern abbey, the visitor may still see mighty remnants of a cyclopean wall, Etruscan in origin, that ran down the hillside to enclose the town of Cassinum when Rome was no more than a village. Here on the hilltop was the citadel of the town, and it was on the site of a temple of Apollo, which had survived the sacking of Cassinum by the Ostrogoths a few years earlier, that St. Benedict founded his church. The buildings that grew up around were plundered in turn by Lombards in the sixth century, Saracens in the eighth, and the imperial troops of the Hohenstaufen Frederick II in the 13th; and the story is told how, in 1503, the great Spanish captain Gonzalo de Cordoba, having surprised the French garrison, spared the abbey from destruction by gunpowder only because a cautionary St. Benedict appeared to him in a vision.1 With the onset of popular wars, the abbey was

1 Gerald de Gaury: The Grand Captain, pp. 94–5.

page 202 once more pillaged in 1799 by troops of the First French Republic.

Its buildings arose more splendid, if not more beautiful, from these successive devastations. A young English nobleman, making the Grand Tour in 1779, found the abbey ‘very ugly and only remarkable on account of its immensity’.1 As the buildings stood in 1944, they were, except for a nucleus formed by the traditional cell of the founder, largely modern, dating from the sixteenth century and thereafter. The whole range of buildings, with the chapel and refectory, the library and college, the courts, cloisters and cells, presented a massive front to the outside world. It had, in fact, been converted into a fortress in the early nineteenth century. In particular, the girdling walls would impress the military eye, now as in the past. They were loopholed, unscaleable and of vast dimensions, and they rose sheer from the rock to a height nowhere less than 15 feet.


Ironical though it now seems, Montecassino was first regarded in the Second World War as St. Benedict had regarded it – as a refuge. In December 1942 manuscripts of Keats and Shelley were removed from Rome and deposited there for safe keeping by a member of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Committee; and immediately upon the Salerno landing, 187 cases of art objects were taken there from Naples by order of the Italian Ministry. Later in 1943 the German command ordered the latter deposit, as well as the art treasures and precious manuscripts belonging to the abbey, to be transferred to the Vatican. By accident or design, however, this mission was entrusted to a formation which took its name from a notorious connoisseur – the Hermann Goering Division – and it was only after many vicissitudes, and then not in its entirety, that the consignment reached its destination.2 Thanks to an ingenious deception by the Rector of the State Archives at Montecassino, the manuscripts of the two English poets were returned to Rome by, but without the cognisance of, the Hermann Goering troops and found their way back to the custody of the Keats-Shelley Memorial.

About the same time overtures were opened to preserve the building itself no less than its contents. The Vatican addressed an appeal to the combatants to show all possible consideration to it. With the approval of the Foreign Office, the British Minister to the Holy See (Sir D'Arcy Osborne) proposed to inform the Cardinal Secretary of State that ‘if the Germans make use of the Monastery the Allies will be obliged to take whatever counter-measures, aerial

1 Ed. Lord Herbert: Henry, Elizabeth and George, p. 256.

2 The contents of some of the cases, which disappeared on the journey between Montecassino and Rome, were later recovered from a salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria.

page 203 or other, that [sic] their own military interests may require’.1 The German Embassy, however, assured the Vatican that the abbey would not be occupied by regular troops. On receiving this message by telephone, the British Minister asked the Vatican to inquire into the precise meaning of the undertaking, but he passed it on to the Foreign Office, as requested.2 Several weeks later, early in February, Osborne had still received no reply to his suggestion that the German assurance should be clarified, and he reminded the Vatican that the Allies would have to take counter-measures if the Germans used either the abbey ‘or its territory’ for military purposes.3 No Allied engagement made with the Holy See at this time appears, then, to have gone further than, if as far as, the guarded assurance of President Roosevelt in a letter to the Pope on 10 July 1943 (the day of the invasion of Sicily), in which the President stated: ‘Churches and religious institutions will, to the extent that it is within our power, be spared the devastation of war during the struggle ahead’.4
When the battle approached Cassino, Kesselring's attitude was consistent with the undertaking given by the German Embassy. We have it on the evidence of one of his corps commanders5 that, whatever other mistakes he made, Kesselring did his best to spare sites of religious or historical interest. Not only did he lay it down that the monastery should be respected but he ordered General Senger, in case of retreat, not to defend the small towns of Anagni, Alatri and Veroli because they were episcopal seats,6 and later in the campaign he gave instructions to neutralise Bologna. In asking Kesselring for a ruling about the monastery on 7 December 1943, the German Tenth Army expressed the view that it would be impossible to avoid occupying the abbey grounds, which would be right in the FDLs; and not to do so would be to forgo good observation posts and cover and would be most dangerous ‘because when the time comes for a decisive battle the Anglo-Americans are pretty sure to be unscrupulous and to occupy this commanding point, irrespective of whether we refrain from doing so’. Kesselring was unmoved. He drew attention to the promise to the Roman Catholic Church that German troops would not enter the abbey, but added that this restriction applied to the buildings only. This last qualification may explain not only Osborne's failure to elicit a clearer

1 AFHQ (Military Government Section) to 15 Army Group, 5 November 1943. It is presumed that Osborne's message was sent to the Vatican, though I have no direct evidence that it was.

2 Osborne to Foreign Office, 7 November 1943.

3 Osborne to Foreign Office, 11 February 1944. The emphasis is Osborne's.

4 Quoted in message from Combined Chiefs of Staff to General Wilson, 22 January 1944.

5 General Senger in a letter to the author, 11 November 1954; and also in his war diary, p. 80.

6 This instruction becomes more significant perhaps when it is remembered that archbishops and bishops in Italy number about 270.

page 204 definition of the German guarantee but also the orders from the Fuehrer passed on by Tenth Army to 14 Panzer Corps on 23 December that ‘Montecassino is to be included in the defence line and to be fortified’.

Meanwhile, Allied commanders in the field had been ordered to avoid unnecessary damage to works of religious, historical and artistic importance, and on 4 November 1943 AFHQ initiated a list of ‘protected works’, with Castel Gandolfo (the Pope's summer residence in the Alban Hills) and Montecassino Abbey as the first two serials. But it was made quite clear that protective measures must defer to military necessity. The Allied mind was perhaps best represented by the directive which General Eisenhower addressed from AFHQ to all commanders on 29 December, shortly before he left the theatre for the United Kingdom. Since they form a touchstone by which to try much that follows, the first two paragraphs of his directive may be quoted in full:

To-day we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilisation which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments as far as war allows.

If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men's lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase ‘military necessity’ is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.

A test of the Allied attitude towards this dilemma occurred early in February, when Allied bombs dropped in and near the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo, causing casualties and damage. The estate lay in an important area of communications for the German forces besieging the Anzio bridgehead. Lieutenant-General Ira C. Eaker, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, acting on his interpretation of earlier instructions, gave Major-General J. K. Cannon, commanding the Tactical Air Force, freedom to attack papal property when in his own and General Alexander's opinion it was absolutely necessary to do so. Eisenhower's successor as Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, concurred, and both on this occasion and later, when further raids on the papal estate prompted diplomatic complaints, he received the support of the British Foreign Office and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though Castel Gandolfo was papal property, and Montecassino Abbey Benedictine, the treatment of the first constituted a valid precedent for the treatment of the second.