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  • Robert M. Edsel

70th Anniversary of the Bombing of Monte Cassino

On February 15, 1944, after weeks of demoralizing battle, 229 waves of Allied bombers dropped 493.5 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the historic Abbey of Monte Cassino, completely devastating the building. The decision to bomb was made based on the belief that German troops occupied the Abbey. This was the first major test of Eisenhower’s directive of December 29, 1943 which stated that commanders must “respect those monuments so far as war allows.” But Eisenhower’s order also stated that “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 building must go,” and ultimately, this argument won out. As it turned out, Germans were not occupying the Abbey, and the battle raged on for three more months.

On May 18, Allied Forces finally captured the Abbey of Monte Cassino and its remaining defenders, sixteen severely wounded German troops and two orderlies left behind by their fellow soldiers. When the cost of “victory” was calculated, the numbers did resemble the ghastly battles of World War I: fifty-five thousand Allied casualties, and some twenty thousand dead and wounded Germans.

Monuments officer Norman Newton reached the heavily mined and booby-trapped abbey, still under fire from German mortars, just hours after the remaining Germans had been driven out. While the west end of the abbey had suffered some damage, the sides facing the town of Cassino had been “mostly leveled to ground floor. . . . Statue of St. Benedict is headless but otherwise intact.” The basilica was almost gone, but he noted: “Reconstruction of entire Abbey is possible although much is now only heap of pulverized rubble and dust.”

While Monuments officers read Newton’s report with dismay, most had agreed with the decision to bomb the abbey. Deputy Director John Bryan Ward-Perkins, who originally fought to save the building, felt dif- ferently upon arriving at the battlefield, observing that “the situation of the Allied troops in the ruins of Cassino was a brutal one. . . . For morale alone I believe the Abbey had to go.” [excerpt from Saving Italy]

The debate about whether bombing the Abbey was the right decision still rages on, often discussed by WWII historians. What do you think?

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