Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
III: Evidence and Argument
III: Evidence and Argument
The echoes of these strident voices may be heard even now. The bombing is still sometimes seen as a wanton act of terror and vandalism. If only for that reason, it has been necessary to swell our narrative at this point to proportions that exaggerate the size of the event as it then appeared to the New Zealand command. It is fair for the journalist, who writes for the day, to strip an episode of its qualifying husk and to display it in the intensity of uncircumstanced isolation. The task of the historian is to reassemble around it the circumstances in which it was embedded. It is still necessary, therefore, to insist on the truth that the bombing of the monastery falls into the essential context of an operation by ground forces, that it was designed to assist a certain body of infantry to capture a certain objective, and that it was upon this aim that the eyes of the military commanders were fixed.page 212
Granted that the monastery was a military objective, the decision of the men on the spot to demand its bombing is fairly open to criticism on military grounds alone. But was it a military objective? Or are we confronted with a plea of military necessity when, in Eisenhower's words, ‘it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience’? If it were possible to prove that the Germans had occupied the monastery for military purposes before 15 February, the answer would be clear; but this has not been proved, though a whole cloud of witnesses has since borne testimony.
Evidence for the view that the enemy respected the neutrality of the monastery falls into three classes of unequal value – that of the actual inmates, the later statements of German commanders, and captured German documents. Included in the first class are the findings of an exhaustive inquiry made by the Vatican into events in the abbey, which General Clark summarises in his book Calculated Risk. These findings agree so closely with the evidence of the abbot, Bishop Diamare,1 and one of his monks, Father O. Graziosi, and that of civilian refugees who were questioned by British or American intelligence officers after their escape from the bombed abbey, that all these versions may be consolidated into a single account. According to this story, the Germans established a neutral zone round the abbey and rigidly enforced it. For a time at least, a few German soldiers and later three military policemen picketed the monastery grounds against intruders, at the wish of the abbot; and before the bombing there seem to have been sentries on the gate to prevent the civilians from drawing fire by movement on the hillside under Allied observation. At no time before 15 February did the Germans introduce military material within the walls, and no German entered the abbey for military purposes. Once or twice German medical officers or orderlies went in to treat sick or wounded – the occupants had no medical supplies except a little ointment – and on one occasion two officers and an interpreter were seen conversing with the monks. The Germans did, however, according to Clark's account, establish military installations near the building – dumps for mortar ammunition a few yards from the enclosures of the kitchen garden, observation posts and a mortar battery about 220 yards south of the monastery. Most refugees were vague as to the siting of enemy defences on the slopes of the mountain, but four women reported two light tanks on the road about 300 metres from the building and a mortar behind a funicular station at the foot of the hill.
1 Apart from his own direct evidence, Bishop Diamare set his imprimatur to a book by Tommaso Leccisotti, Montecassino, which substantially confirms the account given in this paragraph.
Captured German documents revealing the enemy reaction to the bombing point in the same direction. These documents are of higher evidential value than the ex post facto statements of the German generals, though it is to be remembered that if local commanders were under instructions not to occupy the abbey they had strong motives for representing that the abbey had not been occupied. Certainly they lost no time in putting on record their version of events. Little more than an hour after the first bomb fell on the monastery, the Chief of Staff of Army Group C engaged the Chief of Staff of Tenth Army in a telephone conversation:
Army Group: Anything new down your way?
Tenth Army: Only the Montecassino Abbey business …. That was pretty foolish, no doubt about that.
Army Group: Has it not done us any harm from a military point of view?
Tenth Army: No, because we were not occupying it. The enemy was just imagining things ….
An hour and a half later 14 Panzer Corps passed on to Tenth Army a report by 90 Panzer Grenadier Division:
The commander of the fighting troops in Cassino [Colonel Schulz, 1 Parachute Regiment commander] reports that there were no weapons in the abbey. The divisional order to bring seriously wounded men into the abbey in case of extreme emergency had never been taken advantage of. Military police had kept continuous guard to prevent any German soldier from entering the abbey. The enemy bombardment was therefore totally unjustified. Ambassador von Weizsacker [the German representative at the Vatican] knows the views of the responsible divisional commander [General Baade] on the subject. These have been strictly enforced.
One other German document might be mentioned. It is the cross on the earliest of four soldiers' graves in one of the abbey cloisters. The date it bears is 16 March 1944.
1 The article, diary, and letter already cited.
2 Memoirs, p. 195.
3 The German Army in the West, p. 155.
4 A post-war study written for the United States Historical Division (December 1947), pp. 53–4.
Evidence apart, reason might also have suggested the probability that the monastery was unoccupied by troops. Intact, it was not a very suitable fire position for infantry weapons. Nor did the Germans need it as an observation post. On the slopes of Monte Cairo they could sit as high as they pleased. If on the slopes of Montecassino itself they lost something in height, they gained something in proximity, and a great deal more in security, for, as General Freyberg himself commented, ‘nobody wants to sit on an obvious target’, and posts half-way down the hill were more easily concealed than those on the top.
The positive evidence for the German occupation of the monastery is less impressive. General Eaker has testified that when flying at less than 200 feet above it he saw a radio aerial on the building and enemy soldiers moving in and out.1 But the efforts of AFHQ to produce proof after the bombing show a steady retreat from confidence. On 4 March the Combined Chiefs of Staff, as a result of Foreign Office inquiries originating with Osborne at the Vatican, asked Wilson for material ‘describing as precisely as possible the military use which the Germans have in fact been making of the Abbey and which led to your decision to attack it’.2 The reply, of 9 March, enumerated eleven items of information.
1 The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. III, pp. 362–3. But Richards and Saunders (p. 359) class Eaker among those who shared Clark's doubts.
2 As stated above, there is no evidence that, as this quotation suggests, the decision to bomb was Wilson's.
Wilson's message suggested that the Allied statement should be confined to ‘the fact that the military authorities on the spot have irrefutable evidence that the Cassino abbey was part of the main German defensive line’. In a message to the British Chiefs of Staff about a week later, AFHQ re-emphasised its view that detailed reasons for the bombing should not be passed to the Vatican, ‘as it is impossible to obtain definite proof on all points’.
Such is the main evidence. Its tendency is unmistakable. Indeed, it is questionable whether the German case could have stronger corroboration than it receives from the Allied effort to overthrow it. But since a single soldier sitting at a window of the monastery, with or without a pair of binoculars and a field telephone, would constitute a military installation, caution forbids an unambiguous conclusion. It is enough to say that it is no longer possible to affirm with any confidence that the Germans had occupied the monastery for military reasons before 15 February.
For the purpose in hand, the inquiry may be thought rather interesting than relevant, for little of the evidence presented above was available at the time to the commanders who made the request to bomb the abbey. What did they in fact know or suspect? The enemy undertaking not to fortify the monastery, even if known at this level, could hardly have inspired conviction among men experienced in the Nazi way with promises. Opinion at the headquarters of the New Zealand Corps and the New Zealand Division was divided, but in some minds there was good a priori ground for deep suspicion. In Kippenberger's judgment, for example, the abbey was so perfectly situated for observation that no army could have refrained from using it.1 Moreover, though its narrow windows and level profiles gave no opportunities for grazing fire and made it an unsatisfactory fighting position, it offered ideal protection.
‘I always thought of the Monastery as a suitable shelter for troops who would emerge for counter-attack at a suitable time,’ he wrote later.2 ‘…. But it would have been hard to hurt the people inside, even if no more dangerous than a turtle under its shell, and they could always have popped out by egresses we couldn't see, at times convenient to themselves. I should think about a battalion could have been concealed for use in this manner and in addition some fire positions could have been fixed up in the windows and under the walls’
1 Infantry Brigadier, p. 355.
2 In a letter to the author, 9 August 1954.
The apprehension that the monastery was being used for observation or for shelter could be neither substantiated nor disposed of by the information at hand.
At the conference on 12 February, when 2 Corps handed over to the New Zealand Corps, the commander of 34 Division did not think that the Germans were in occupation: all the fire against the Americans had come from the slopes of Montecassino below the abbey. The intelligence officer of 2 Corps repeated reports suggesting that the monastery had been used as an observation post and that the Germans had strongpoints close to the walls. Of the 800 enemy infantry believed to be in the town and its environs, he estimated that about 350 would be found on or near the top of the mountain. Though a comparative newcomer to the front, 4 Indian Division was definite that the building was manned at night, with machine guns and a headquarters there. Civilians questioned before the bombing disagreed – some said that the Germans were in occupation, others that they were not.
Out of this conflict of evidence, it would be hard to deny that doubt must emerge and that such doubt was reasonable. High commanders in the corps indeed habitually spoke of the monastery garrison. Given the existence of reasonable doubt or justifiable suspicion, responsibility for the lives of their men left commanders no choice. There was only one safe assumption – they had to act as though the abbey was in hostile hands.
It is possible to go further. Even if the Germans were certainly known to have observed the neutrality of the monastery, they made it impossible for the Allied troops to do likewise. The hill crowned by the monastery happened to be the commanding feature of the battlefield. The Germans had every right to defend it, and they would have neglected to do so only at the almost certain risk of opening to the Allies the road to Rome. But once the enemy had decided to include Montecassino in his defensive system the building on its summit inevitably became a legitimate target;1 for though the mountain might have been defended, it could not have been captured, without attention to its summit. No one now doubts – and the Allies well knew at the time – that military activity was going on in the immediate vicinity of the abbey. Was this activity to claim immunity? If not, the bombing of targets on that steep declivity would have been equivalent in practical effect to bombing the monastery itself. It is the nature of war not to be a game played to the whistle between white lines.
1 Cf. ‘If it was sacrilegious for the parliamentary general to assault Lichfield Cathedral, so it was for the Royalist army first to have made it a fort’.—Hugh Martin: Puritanism and Richard Baxter, p. 89.
Perhaps the most weighty consideration of all, however, was the duty of the commanders to their own troops. What the generals believed was one thing. What the troops believed was another, and, right or wrong, their belief was a substantial fact in the situation. They believed, widely if not universally, that ‘Jerry’ was sitting in the ‘wee white hoose’. They were ordinary men who could not easily be brought to see that human lives, their own or others', should be sacrificed to save a certain disposition of bricks and mortar, however illustrious the building they composed. The building, moreover, they hated. Day and night they had lived under its baleful eye; it was a constant intruding presence; it looked into everything, it nagged at their nerves and became a phobia and an obsession. In the fullness of this knowledge, no infantry commander could have sent his men to storm the mountain with the fear in their hearts that the enemy was waiting for them unharmed at the top. This fact alone made an attack on Montecassino unthinkable without an attack on the great edifice that dominated its slopes.
The bombing of the monastery was no crime. Was it a blunder?
It may first be asked whether an assault on Monastery Hill was necessary. Tuker's alternative proposal of a turning movement on either side of the hill to threaten the garrison with isolation was a shrewd anticipation of the way in which it actually fell in the following May. But to Freyberg in February the proposal was hardly relevant. His freedom was narrowly bounded, now as later, by earlier political, strategic and even tactical decisions. There was the political decision not to relax pressure on the enemy throughout the winter. This entailed a strategic decision as to the means of breaching the German Winter Line – a left hook by 10 Corps, a right hook by the French Expeditionary Corps and a punch down the centre by 2 Corps. This last thrust, directed at the heart of the enemy defences at the mouth of the Liri valley and at Cassino, was the one in which Clark chose to persist. Both the politics and the strategy might have been questioned, but their tactical consequences had to be accepted, and it was these that Freyberg inherited. A perspective view shows that the New Zealand Corps took up a battle already half fought, or more than half fought, by American troops who had shown admirable tenacity and won palpable success. The pith of page 218 one German criticism of the bombing of the abbey indeed is that it did not occur until the fighting in the first battle of Cassino was already subsiding.1
Freyberg cannot be blamed for not doing in February what Alexander did in May. The great May offensive was launched on a front of several miles by two armies, with no clear idea where the break would come but only a determination to exploit success. Freyberg, on the other hand, in command of a single corps in the depth of winter, had to make the best use of his resources to force a passage through a selected point in the enemy defences rather than wait for a success to turn up and then reinforce it. He could not bring the Allied superiority in men and machines to bear in a process of attrition. In deciding to attack Monastery Hill, the lynchpin of the defensive system, he was maintaining the momentum of an American drive which had brought our troops within a few hundred yards of the monastery walls: the next step, the seizure of Montecassino, was all but predestined. He was in fact exploiting a turning movement, but it was the town and not the abbey of Cassino that he hoped to turn. The plan finally adopted was that one which survived the critical scrutiny of several plans. And when after its failure Freyberg had to rethink the problem, he could still see no means of avoiding the need to capture Monastery Hill; what he did vary was the direction from which it was attacked. In the circumstances of early February, his plan offered the best hope of success. But if Montecassino was wisely attacked, was it wisely bombed?
Tactically, the bombing was conceived as serving two purposes – to destroy the defensive value of the monastery and to demoralise the defenders. Whether it enhanced the usefulness of the building as a strongpoint remains in dispute. If it was previously unoccupied by the Germans, and if they had no intention of occupying it, clearly its value to them was increased, for now they undoubtedly took post in the ruins, with their machine guns among the rubble ‘and their field kitchens in the cell of St. Benedict’.2 But even if they had been in the building before the attack, it is still arguable that the bombardment made it a better fortress. An Allied officer who inspected the monastery immediately after its capture in May found much of it ‘only a heap of pulverised rubble and dust’. The west end, however, remained standing to the top floor, and other parts escaped total destruction – some of the cloisters, the south wall of the basilica apse, the west end of the refectory. More important, though fissures occurred, the immense outer wall was so solid than no complete breach was made, and the parts left standing provided excellent cover for the defenders.
1 Senger, war diary, pp. 77, 81.
2 Richards and Saunders, p. 360.
General Senger is no unbiassed witness, but his explicit opinion deserves notice:
It [the monastery] had, indeed, become a far finer defence position than it would have been before its destruction, because as anyone who has had experience of street fighting – as at Stalingrad or at Cassino – is aware, rubble heaped upon basements and cellars forms defences greatly superior to houses. Houses must be demolished in order to be converted from mousetraps into bastions of defence. So it happened that at a later stage, when the Allied infantry had driven a deep wedge between Montecassino and the town, they were compelled to withdraw because they were enfiladed by the many batteries concealed in the ruins of the destroyed Monastery.1
The senior officers in the New Zealand Corps were perfectly aware, when they asked for the bombing, that buildings are usually improved as forts by demolition. Their expectation was that the abbey would be reduced to dust, offering few firm footings and places of concealment, roofless and open to the fire of guns, mortars, and raids by strafing aircraft or fighter-bombers dropping lighter and more accurate missiles. In the event of heavy bombing it would be a death-trap.
These hopes were not quite realised because pulverisation was incomplete. Much of the abbey, it is true, lost all military value, but enough masonry still stood to afford some cover and weapon emplacements were improvised. Renewed bombing might have made slaughter among the defenders and rendered the ruins untenable, but as it happened bombing was not renewed on any significant scale, and the Germans showed their satisfaction with the new position by manning it at once and defending it to the end. And though now only a gaunt shell in a grey desert, the monastery retained its power to overshadow the minds of men and lie heavy on their spirits.
1 Article already quoted.
Freyberg's choice found some justification in the event, for after the 15th the Strategic Air Force was no longer at his disposal. When the German counter-offensive broke out in earnest at Anzio on the 16th, it dashed any hope that the psychological wound inflicted by the previous day's bombing might be kept open by air attacks on a comparable scale. Three times during the afternoon of the 16th waves of fighter-bombers raised the dust on Montecassino but, though Clark did his utmost to help, the heavy and medium bombers, which alone could do the work of siege artillery, could not be spared from Anzio. After the 17th, when the fighter-bombers paid a last visit, bad weather saved the ruins from further air attack.
Though the bombing was carried out in an atmosphere of strategic urgency, its success in affording relief to the Allied forces at Anzio was at best partial. The bombing cannot be dissociated in its strategic effect from the operation of which it was a part, but there is no evidence that the operation itself caused the Germans to divert ground forces from the bridgehead to the Cassino front. On the contrary, 14 Panzer Corps had to meet the attack out of its own resources.1 It is possible that the further strengthening of the bridgehead was prevented. Of the two enemy divisions moved from the south of Rome to help stem Clark's January offensive, one, 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, was later withdrawn for the counter-attack on the Anzio bridgehead. The other, 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, was no doubt destined also to be withdrawn, but it had to be detained on the southern front and committed on the Cassino sector. This decision, however, was a response to the threat by the Americans working through the hills north of the town before the New Zealand Corps assumed command. At best, the New Zealand attack confirmed the decision.
1 General Senger, letter to author, already cited.
2 ‘Streets of Rome and Vienna plastered with posters of destruction of Abbey of Monte Cassino’.—Osborne to Foreign Office, 23 February 1944.
The afternoon of 14 February some civilians found leaflets near the wall of the Abbey, which were believed to have been dropped by plane. The leaflets warned the civilians to leave the Abbey because it was going to be bombed. When the Abbot read the leaflets he immediately sent word to the Germans asking for advice. Two Germans, who we think were officers, came to the Abbey, staying only for a short time with the Abbot. Seeing that we were all getting restless and afraid and wanted to leave the place, the Abbot sent the monks to us and they told us to keep calm, as the Germans had promised to send a message to the American headquarters in order to avoid the bombing of the Abbey.
The morning of 15 February, at 0600 hours, we were told by the monks to get ready to leave. A few minutes later two German officers and an interpreter came and informed the Abbot that under no circumstances was any civilian to leave, under pain of being shot. We were also warned not to light any fires. Two German sentries were posted at the gate. At about 0900 hours four-engined planes started to drop bombs on the Abbey ….
If this account is true2 – and two independent reports by refugees agree that the Germans barred the gates – the most obvious inference is that the enemy deliberately sacrificed civilian lives to make propaganda. But the obvious is not necessarily the true. According to one refugee, it had been the habitual practice of the Germans to keep the gates locked – a natural precaution to prevent civilians bringing fire upon themselves and the German defences round the abbey. Further, Baade is known to have thought that the bombing threat was bluff.3 He doubtless believed that the refugees were safer within the walls by day than if they tried to escape without a local armistice, which there was no time to arrange; and he may have wanted to delay the evacuation until dark, in the expectation that the threatened attack, if it occurred at all, would not occur that day. The charge made at the time that ‘the Germans seized their chance of a real scoop’4 is not substantiated.
1 I have combined two messages from Osborne to Foreign Office, one of 21 February and the other of 23 February 1944. The quotation is from the first.
2 The fact that these women reported (what they must have known was unwelcome to the Allies) that the Germans had not occupied the abbey is a prima facie ground for trusting their story, but it is certainly erroneous in some details, e.g., the content of the leaflets and the time of the bombing.
3 Richards and Saunders, p. 359.
4 Weekly Review of European Events, No. 17, ACMF.
Whether or not in this devious way Rome was saved, no doctrine of vicarious suffering can disguise the fact that for those who actually suffered in the bombing of the abbey it was a calamity and that the world lost something that can never be replaced. A British history declares that ‘It is too early to pass final judgment on this melancholy event …. Future generations alone will be able to decide whether the bombing of Monte Cassino was a necessity’.2 Yet surely it is mistaken to suppose that so long as this episode is discussed by men who care deeply about such issues finality will be attainable. The passing of time opens new perspectives and changes historical judgments but it does not lead to finality. The evidence is in, and the historian of this generation must make up his mind, undeterred by the possibility that his verdict, like those of his successors, will be superseded.
It has been argued above that in the circumstances in which it found itself when it fell heir to the battle of Cassino, the command of the New Zealand Corps had no realistic alternative but to demand the bombardment of the monastery and that the only effectual form of bombardment was by heavy aircraft. Tactically, the bombing was a necessity – and a necessity notwithstanding that it was an almost unmitigated failure. But had earlier decisions been different, the necessity might never have arisen. It is true that Cassino abbey stood guard over the most direct route to Rome. It is true, too, that the Via Casilina (Route 6), upon which the advance of a great army ultimately depended, passed beneath it. But there was nothing inevitable in the strategy that chose for repeated attack the strongest point in a defensive line of remarkable strength. Another strategy might have saved the abbey of Montecassino and some of the lives which its destruction failed to save.
1 This view is debatable on at least two grounds. First, the move to have Rome declared an open city long preceded the bombing of the abbey. Before the invasion of Sicily the Pope and the Fascist Government had raised the question, and on 19 August 1943 the Royal Italian Government in a broadcast declared Rome an open city. Efforts to get the combatants to respect this declaration were intensified as the Allied advance neared the city, and the bombing of the abbey no doubt was one of the events that stimulated them. It was on 17 March 1944 that Marshal Badoglio addressed an appeal to the Allies, in which he announced that the Germans had unequivocally accepted the declaration. Second, as we have seen, there is good evidence that Kesselring's policy was to spare cultural monuments, wherever possible.
2 Richards and Saunders, p. 360.
The military operation of which the bombing was only an incident went on. According to plan, the Indians attempted on the evening of 15 February to capture Point 593, the outer bailey, as it were, of the castle that had the monastery for its keep. But no more than one company of 1 Royal Sussex was committed, and it was handicapped by ignorance of the ground, since daylight reconnaissance was impossible with the enemy at such close quarters. Thus, when only about 70 yards from the starting line, the advance was stopped short by a steep gully not marked on the map. Across this natural moat the defenders poured a stream of fire, and after several attempts to bypass the ravine the company had to retire with about twenty casualties.
When he heard of the failure next morning Freyberg urged on Dimoline a change of tactics. He advised making the main bid for the monastery that night with a strong force that would attempt a dash on the left over the short, direct route from Point 445. He questioned whether the capture of Point 593 on the right was the sine qua non that Lovett, the brigadier on the spot, claimed it to be. Dimoline carried his point for another attempt on Point 593 that night but was clearly given to understand that in any circumstances the attack on the monastery could not be deferred beyond the next night. Having tactfully sounded opinion at Army Headquarters, Freyberg sensed a growing restiveness, which he was determined to allay.
The strength of the whole Sussex battalion went into the second attempt on Point 593 and a way had been found round the ravine that balked the first, but the going was such that only one company could be thrown into the assault at a time. Though overlooked by the parachutists established among the ruins on the summit, the leading company stormed the heights and penetrated the defences but twice ran short of hand grenades before the second company appeared. Three times the position was carried, but each time the defenders rallied and regained their ground. When the attack was called off, the casualties numbered 12 officers and 130 men.
With the double failure at Point 593, the Corps Commander would tolerate no further delay in directly assaulting the abbey. The plan favoured by Dimoline and Lovett of first rolling up one by one the German defences on Point 575, Albaneta Farm, and Point 593 was now abandoned. The Indians were to attack on the night of 17–18 February with as great a force and on as broad a front as time, terrain and supply would permit.