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World War Two: The Battle of Monte Cassino

By Professor Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes asks whether the epic Battle of Cassino would have taken place, if Allied leadership had understood the real problems involved in fighting in such appalling terrain.

Italy surrenders

I have never had much time for the cliché, 'lions led by donkeys', so often applied to British soldiers of World War One. It was not coined at the time, but probably originates in a German comment on French generals in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

In any event it is an unhelpful piece of shorthand. It lumps together generals of a wide range of competence who, along with their allies and opponents, most of whom did no better, strove to cope with a terrible war at a time of far-reaching change.

Yet having jettisoned the expression as far as one war is concerned, I am tempted to use it for one aspect of another. Every time I visit the World War Two battlefields near Rome, I am struck by a sense of gloom which even the inspiring landscape fails to lift, and by a conviction that, here at least, some Allied generals failed the men they led.

'I have never had much time for the cliché, "lions led by donkeys" ...'

The road to what was little short of hell was certainly paved with good intentions. Axis surrender in North Africa in May 1943 was followed by the Allied invasion of Sicily. Although the campaign was marred by friction between British and American commander which contributed to the escape of many of the island's defenders.

It did, however, did strike a fatal blow at Italian self-confidence, which had been wobbling for some time. Mussolini was deposed and the new government made secret peace overtures.

There was so much pressure to take advantage of the changed situation, that the Allies landed in southern Italy in September without a clear strategic aim. They even considered landing at airfields around Rome with Italian connivance. However, they wisely discarded this plan as too risky.

The Germans reacted so swiftly when Italy surrendered that the Allies were actually able to gain little advantage. Italian troops were disarmed and treated harshly if they fought against the Germans. Yet the Allies had secured Italian beachheads but the one at Salerno was only achieved with much difficulty in the face of fierce counter-attacks.

In Italy, the Allies now found themselves committed to a campaign which had possessed great political attractions but now offered manifest military disadvantages.

There was, for a start, no prospect of Italy ever becoming more than a subsidiary theatre. Plans for the invasion of France were well under way. Amphibious resources would shortly be diverted for the Normandy invasion. These would have been a considerable advantage in Italy, for they would have given the Allies the potential to hook round German defensive lines.

Secondly, assertions that Italy was the 'soft underbelly' of Europe came easiest to those whose maps lacked contours. Italy's mountainous backbone sends rib-like ridges down to the coast to both east and west. Rivers flow between the ridges. An attacker advancing from the south is confronted by a heartbreaking sequence.

Behind every ridge lurks another river, and behind that river lurks another ridge. Climate conspires with terrain to make Italy an unpleasant place to fight. Summers are blazing hot, whilst winters are freezing cold.

Volatile allies

The Germans decided to hold Italy as far south as possible, giving ground only gradually, and applied their considerable ingenuity to an already intractable landscape.

They destroyed bridges and cratered roads. They blew defensive positions out of the living rock, and turned stone-built villages into strongholds. They also strewed great tracts of the landscape with mines. The German theatre commander, the tough Luftwaffe Field Marshal Kesselring, was a master practitioner of this sort of war. He was nicknamed 'Smiling Albert' but you only crossed him once.

So, while the application of brute force might take the Allies steadily northwards, it was unlikely that their advance would ever be quick or easy. The best that they could hope for would be to tie down German troops who might be usefully engaged elsewhere.

Keeping such an inherently attritional campaign on track would require careful thought in order to ensure that Allied strength was pitted against German weakness and that the fighting did not degenerate into a slogging-match reminiscent of parts of World War One.

'The Germans ... applied their considerable ingenuity to an already intractable landscape.'

The attackers' plight was complicated by the fact that this was indeed an Allied campaign. In overall command in Italy was General Sir Harold Alexander, a courteous British Guards officer with a distinguished fighting record, but a man who instinctively sought compromise and consensus, and was not temperamentally suited to gripping awkward subordinates.

He commanded two armies. There was the British 8th Army, initially under Montgomery and, when he was removed to prepare for the invasion of Normandy, in the more stolid hands of General Sir Oliver Leese. And there was the US 5th Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Mark Clark, who was (not always wrongly) impatient of the British and their methods, and acutely conscious of his personal role as the standard-bearer of American arms in Europe.

To this already volatile mix were added Canadian troops, who were to distinguish themselves in the bloody battle for Ortona on the Adriatic coast; a French Expeditionary Corps, whose superb fighting quality is too often overlooked by Anglo-American historians; New Zealand and Indian divisions, both fighting bravely so far from home, and a Polish corps for which the struggle against the Germans was a matter of national honour.

The Allies enjoyed abundant air superiority. Indeed, one of the more valid motives for the invasion of Italy was the seizure of airfields in the south, from which strategic bombers could operate against Germany. Although they were often to find its effects blunted by excellent German countermeasures, and by the combined effects of terrain and climate.

Monte Cassino

In the winter of 1943-44, the Allies found themselves confronting the Gustav Line, which crossed Italy south of Rome. For much of its length the line ran along rivers, with the Garigliano, Gari and Rapido strengthening its southern sector.

It crossed Route 6, the Rome-Naples highway, which ran on to Rome along the Liri valley, between the Abruzzi and Aurunci mountains. The entrance to the Liri valley was dominated, then as now, by the great bulk of Monte Cassino which is crowned by an ancient Benedictine monastery. Behind the monastery, the ground rose even more steeply to form what the military historian John Ellis has called 'a vile tactical puzzle'.

In front of the hill stood the little town of Cassino, and the rivers Gari and Rapido. On the Allied side was Monte Trocchio which was known as 'million dollar hill' for the fields of view it offered to artillery observers.

It takes about two hours to reach its summit, and the view is staggering. It was one of the strongest natural defensive positions in military history, with the monastery, like some great all-seeing eye, peering down on everything.

'Instead of hurling a wildcat onto the shore all we got was a stranded whale.'

The Allied plan for the breaching the Gustav line was hurriedly conceived. On Churchill's insistence, it would use an amphibious hook round the German flank, to be launched before the landing craft were withdrawn for use in Normandy.

American divisions of 5th Army would attack at Cassino to draw German reserves southwards. This accomplished, an Anglo-American corps would land at Anzio, about 30 miles south of Rome. It was expected that the shock would provoke the Germans into giving up the Gustav Line and falling back north of the Eternal City.

The first phase of the operation (the First Battle of Cassino) comprised an attack across the Gari south of Cassino by the US 36th Division, which was savagely repulsed. Then a longer thrust into the mountains north of Cassino by the US 34th Division, and a heroic attack by the North African troops of the French Expeditionary Corps on the high ground further north.

With German reserves duly drawn south, on 22 January 1944 Major General John Lucas's US VI Corps landed at Anzio and Nettuno. There was almost no resistance. However, Lucas was warned by Clark not to 'stick your neck out' in a dash for Rome. Instead, Lucas chose to hold a narrow beachhead in which to laboriously build up men and material.

Churchill was furious: 'Instead of hurling a wildcat onto the shore all we got was a stranded whale.' However, although Lucas is not one of history's most inspiring generals, in one sense it is hard to fault him. He could not seize Rome and secure his logistic base. Once the Germans had decided against withdrawal, he was committed to defending his beachhead against reserves rushed to Italy from all over Europe.

The fighting at Anzio took on characteristics grimly reminiscent of World War One. It was soon evident that far from Anzio helping the Allies breach the Gustav Line, attacks on the Gustav line would have to be launched to take the pressure off Anzio. The tail had begun to wag the dog.


The First Battle of Cassino dragged on until mid-February. An eyewitness who saw survivors of the 34th Division descending from the mountains wrote:

'It was more than the stubble of beard that told the story; it was the blank, staring eyes. The men were so tired that it was a living death. They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.'

The second battle began on 15 February, with the controversial destruction of the monastery by heavy and medium bombers. On the one hand, it seems likely that there were no Germans in the monastery at the time. However, they were to defend its ruins tenaciously. Furthermore, the nearest Allied troops were too far away to take advantage of the shock of the bombing.

On the other hand, however, most combatants had come to hate the building so much that they simply wanted the all-seeing eye poked out. John Ellis rightly judges the attack that followed to be one of the low points of Allied generalship in the war.

He castigates 'a wilful failure at the highest level to take due account of the terrible problems involved in mounting a concerted attack across such appalling terrain [which] were still being grossly underestimated a full month later'.

British and Indian troops attacked the high ground, while New Zealanders bludgeoned their way into Cassino itself. While there were some gains, the German grip was not shaken. The third battle began on 15 March, with yet more bombing. Despite the prodigious courage of British, Indian and New Zealand troops, the German parachutists holding the town and the high ground still hung on.

It was not until May that the Allies at last brought their full might to bear on Cassino. They did it by moving much of the 8th Army from the Adriatic coast, while 5th Army shifted its weight to reinforce the Anzio beachhead, now under the command of Major General Lucian Truscott.

The new offensive, Operation Diadem, smashed through the neck of the Liri valley by sheer weight, and the Polish Corps took Monte Cassino. Between the Liri and the sea, the French Corps made rapid progress through the Aurunci Mountains, and by the third week in May the Germans were in full retreat.

Clark had a number of options for the breakout from Anzio, and was eventually ordered by Alexander to thrust into the German line of retreat. Although this manoeuvre would not have bagged all the defenders of Cassino, it would have captured most of them and much of their equipment.

In the event, however, Clark chose instead to strike for Rome, guaranteeing himself a place in the history books but letting the Germans escape. The distinguished American military historian Carlo D'Este called his decision 'as military stupid as it was insubordinate.' As its direct consequence, although the Gustav Line was broken and Rome was liberated, the hard-fought battle of Cassino was indeed a hollow victory.

Perhaps Clark was too ambitious, or Alexander too gentlemanly. Or perhaps, the whole sorry episode simply underlines, yet again, the difficulties inherent in coalition warfare.

Find out more


Cassino: The Hollow Victory by John Ellis. This is not only the best single book on the subject but a model of how military history ought to be written.

The Monastery by Fred Majdalaney. He fought there as an infantry officer and wrote this at the end of the war.

Neither Fear not Hope by General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin. He was the commander of the German corps that defended Cassino for much of the fighting. He gives a moving description of his own wartime service there.

Fatal Decision by Carlo D'Este. This is the best account of Anzio.

The Fortress by Raleigh Trevelyan. For a personal view of Anzio, this can scarcely be bettered.

Naples '44 by Norman Lewis. For some of the moral conundrums of the Italian campaign.

The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby by Alex Bowlby. A perceptive private soldier's war.

About the author

Richard Holmes is professor of military and security studies at Cranfield University. His books include The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French and Riding the Retreat, and he is general editor of The Oxford Companion to Military History. He enlisted into the Territorial Army in 1965 and rose to the rank of brigadier. He was the first reservist to hold the post of Director of Reserve Forces and Cadets in the Ministry of Defence, until he retired in 2000.

Published: 2001-08-01


Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/battle_cassino_05.shtml

Documentary Description

'Battlefields of the Second World War' is what every Richard Holmes fan has been waiting for. In this fascinating and brilliantly articulated study of the Second World War, he clarifies the complexities of four of its campaigns: El Alamein, Monte Cassino, Operation Market Garden (of which Arnhem formed a crucial part)and the RAF's bomber offensive against Germany. The book originates in his firm conviction that the sacrifices made by British service personnel are not properly understood. It uses eye-witness accounts to illuminate the horror, confusion and sheer enormity of war, and puts this in the context of the conflict's broader strategy.


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