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History
Minnesota National Guard
Battle of Cassino -- A Bloody Struggle shrouded in Controversy

Minnesota National Guard Flint Whitlock, author of Rock of Anzio -- and Veterans of the Fifth Army --  relate the bitter attacks against German defenses in the attempt to liberate the Italian Peninsula and take Rome

The following is a partial transcript of the April session of the Harold C Deutsch World War II History Roundtable The speaker was Flint Whitlock, author of Rock of Anzio, and veterans of the Fifth Army

After much debate at the Casablanca Conference, American leaders conceded that the Allies were still unable to land troops in France as General Marshall wished to do and British Prime Minister Churchill had promised Stalin they would do The British, by organized diplomacy and minimized internal disagreement, were able to carry the disorganized and quarreling Americans along to an invasion of Sicily (Gen Albert Wedermeyer said "We lost our shirts we came, we listened, and we were conquered") Having agreed to invade Sicily, Americans were not able to avoid the next logical decision, to land in Italy Several alternative reasons for expanding to the Italian campaign in late 1943 have been posited by historians, such as the drive up the Italian "boot" would divert German divisions from the Eastern Front and provide air bases for Allied bomber strikes against the Third Reich, or Italy's collapse would weaken Germany politically and militarily



British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that Italy was the "soft underbelly" of Europe but nothing could be further from the truth The difficult terrain and weather of the Italian Campaign made for some the war's hardest fought and costliest battles During the last few months of 1943, the British and American efforts to move up the Italian boot were frustrated by the stiff German defenses at the Gustav Line The Battle of Monte Cassino was a series of four battles beginning in January 1944, with the intention of breaking through the Axis Gustav Line The Germans held the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys and certain surrounding peaks

Italy Map

The first battle began when the American 36th and 34th Infantry Divisions, and British and French-Moroccan troops launched attacks on the Gustav Line This first battle was coordinated with the Allied landings at Anzio and Nettuno These landings met little initial German defensive action, but the Allies were unable or unwilling to capitalize on the opportunity The battle lasted until February 11, when the Allies finally broke off the battle

The second battle began on February 15th with the destruction of the Abbey at Monte Cassino by 1,400 tons of bombs dropped by American bombers, killing those Italians who had taken refuge there Founded in 524 AD, by Benedict of Nursia, the monastery dominated the hilltops around above the town of Cassino and the entrances of the Liri and Rapido Valleys

During the fall of 1943, the Germans removed the Abbey's treasures to the Vatican for safekeeping In December 1943, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring ordered German units not to include the Monastery itself in their defensive positions and informed the Vatican and the Allies The Germans had not occupied the hilltop of the Abbey, had told the Vatican and the Allies that the monastery was neutral, and General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, defender of the Gustav line, ensured that Abbey neutrality was strictly observed by his troops

The Germans had set up defensive positions on the slopes below the abbey walls Two days after the bombing of the abbey German paratroopers took up positions in the rubble which made it harder for the Allies to achieve victory The Gurkha regiments of British Indian 4th Army attempted to take the remains of the monastery while New Zealand Maori battalion attacked across the Rapido and into the town of Cassino but the tough terrain and lack of armored support caused them to retreat

Beginning on March 15, the third battle was launched behind a heavy bombardment of artillery and armored support, while the New Zealanders attempted once again to take the town of Cassino and the Gurkhas fought up towards the Monastery but were once again repelled by the dug in German paratroopers The exhausted Indian and New Zealanders were withdrawn and re-organized

The final battle began on May 11th with an artillery and air bombardment of German defensive positions and an attack along the 20 mile Gustav line by 20 Allied divisions, which included American, British, Free French, Polish, New Zealand, and South African units Bitter vicious fighting continued until May 18 when Polish forces took the ruins of the monastery and found only wounded Germans who could not be moved The rest of the German troops had evacuated in the night and retreated to form the Hitler Line (later renamed the Senger Line)

With the Gustav line broken, the 5th Army linked up with the 6th Corps on May 25th and marched into Rome on June 4th Kesselring retreated once again, to the Pisa-Rimini Gothic Line the next line he set up across Italy By mid-August many US and all of the Free French combat forces were re-deployed to participate in the landings in southern France (Operation Anvil / Operation Dragoon) After this, the Italian theater stalemated again Many historians claim that Anvil prevented the Allies from driving through the Po River Valley and the Alps to Austria Italian operations proved to be an excellent training ground for Anglo-American forces, and the casualties inflicted on German ground and air forces were a significant return on investment

Published by WW II History Roundtable
Edited by Dr Connie Harris
April 14,  2011
Volume 19   Number 8
wwwmn-ww2roundtableorg



Further Reading:


Martin Blumenson, Bloody River; the Real Tragedy of the Rapido (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1970)

Duane Schultz, Crossing the Rapido (Yarkdley, PA: Westholme, 2010)

Matthew Parker, Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2005)

George Forty, Battle of Monte Cassino (Kent Science Park, Sittingbourne, UK: Ian Allan Publishing, 2004)

David Hapgood and David Richardson, Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II(Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002)

John Ellis, Cassino: The Hollow Victory: The Battle for Rome, January - June 1944 (London: Aurium Press, 2003)

Frido von Senger und Etterlin, Neither Fear Nor Hope: The Wartime Memoirs of the German Defender of Cassino, (Novato, CA:  Presidio Press, 1963)
Article source
http://www.mn-ww2roundtable.org/schedule1011.html



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