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January 17, 1944: The Battle of Monte Cassino Begins

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In January 1944, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Italian Campaign of WWII began at Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino was an ancient Benedictine abbey that towered over the city of Cassino. Sometimes referred to as the Battle of Rome, the Battle of Monte Cassino consisted of a series of four assaults by Allied forces against the defensive German Gustav Line. Before German troops retreated, the conflict claimed the lives of 55,000 Allied soldiers and destroyed the cultural treasure of Monte Cassino.

Allied forces landed in the Italian peninsula in September 1943. The Apennine Mountains divided the peninsula and Allied troops split and advanced on both sides. They took control of Naples and continued the push towards Rome.

Monte Cassino was the gateway to Rome, about 80 miles away. It provided unobstructed views of the area. German troops occupied lookouts on the hillside but agreed to stay out of the abbey because of its historical importance. The precious manuscripts and antiquities housed in the abbey had been removed to Vatican City for safekeeping (although some works of art were stolen by German troops and transported north).

The first phase of the operation began on January 17th with an Allied attack on German positions. Thomas E. McCall, a farm boy from Indiana, found himself in the crosshairs of the battle. On January 22, 1944, during heavy fighting, he was accidentally struck by friendly fire. Presumed dead, McCall was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Unbeknownst to his unit, McCall was alive but wounded. He became a German POW and spent the next 18 months in makeshift hospitals. “They didn’t even have an aspirin to give you,” he said. “There were no pain-killing drugs for either the Germans or us. The surgeon had a handful of tools and two or three other guys would hold you down while he operated on you.” McCall was eventually liberated and earned the distinction of being one of the few posthumous Medal of Honor recipients that lived to tell about it.

By early February, Allies reached a hill just below the abbey. Some reports suggested Germany might be using the abbey as an artillery observation point, resulting in a controversial decision to destroy the abbey. On February 15th, 1,150 tons of bombs rained down on the abbey reducing it to rubble. German forces quickly took up position in the ruins, utilizing its vantage point to prevent Allies from advancing.

A third offensive began in March with heavy attacks in the town of Cassino, but tenacious German forces held their position. The fourth and final assault, known as Operation Diadem, began on May 11th and included attacks from US troops with help from British, French, and Polish Allies. On May 18th, Polish forces captured Monte Cassino. Soon after, on June 4, 1944, Allied forces liberated Rome.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Monte Cassino and see more photographs, search our archives on Fold3.com.

148 Comments

  1. Please correct your implication that M C overlooked Rome

    • Thank you, William, we did. We were implying that the abbey provided unobstructed views of the town below, but obviously, we could have clarified that in a better manner. Rome is actually 84 miles away.

  2. I was a veteran in the Air Force, but would like to share a story when I was a boy. My father and family were touring Italy in the summer of 1960.( We were stationed in Germany) My dad was a career Army veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He was in the NY national guard when the Japanese bombed pearl harbor. The rest was history. He ended up in Nam during the Tet. Anyway getting back to Italy in the summer of 1960. I was 9yrs old and We had just left Rome heading to Southern Italy. We stopped to eat at a beautiful vista for a meal. I looked up and said dad what is that and he said that is Monte Cassino. Then he told me it was bombed in WWII and was rebuilt after the war etc. Well you know the rest.
    I was a kid. I thought it was so beautiful. I didn’t know the history of Monte Cassino at age nine. But I knew about WWII in general. It wasn’t until years later that I read history, that I took in what I saw as a nine yr old then. So much death at such a beautiful place. It was not beautiful then, I believe it was cold rainy and of course war torn. I read what many have written here and it is emotional and historic. God bless all those who went through all this hell and bless their families for their suffering.

    • My father flew A20 Havaland and told me that battle was thenworst he was ever in. I think this battle was probably the caust of hid night mares.

    • How sad and how beautiful to have witnessed the rubble and destruction and the learn that the abbey was rebuilt. I just lost my son December 2 who did 4 tours – 3 in Iraq and 1 in Afghanistan. On route on his last day in a Humvee he had two you men with him and they both died – one with his head in his lap. He never recovered and received significant injuries and was a Bronze star recipient. Physically he looked ok – 2 arms – 2 legs but received injury to his brain. War is hell and people often don’t think of the sacrifices young men and women have done for their country to attain the freedom we have.

  3. The Poles open the door to Cassini, they took the Abbey approaching from the difficult eastern side and this action brought an end to this ‘bloody’prolonged Battle .My father was a sergeant in the Royal Artillery.

  4. We need to hear more stories like this. For many wars are distant events happening to others. I wonder why we’re fighting, what difference does it make? What purpose are we serving? Who do I ask?

    • Nancy,

      People who wage war have numerous excuses (reasons) to do so: Religion, Jealousy, Territory, perceived political differences and whatever.
      Generally speaking, war has no honest meaning.
      Those of us who served in the military and as police officers would really be happy if everybody would pick up their “toys” and go home, but it ain’t gonna happen.

    • NANCY, as to who do you ask, just ask me (degrees in political science, English, and history.) I will be glad to give you some objective thoughts on war. There are a few necessary wars and a lot of others that are fought because of three main reasons: religion, greed, and the egos of politicians.
      I’m old enough to have heard a lot about WWII from the soldiers who fought it. The biggest danger to society is politicians, driven by their own agendas, convincing people that wars must be fought.

    • world Peace, is why we were fighting! still a issue with this today, just a different playing field. Dont forget History!

  5. the term WITH HELP by British and Polish Forces is Quite insulting.

    • I also find it insulting to state that the battle was won WITH HELP FROM THE BRITISH. My Father was in the Rifle Brigade and fought at Cassino and was injured there…he put his life on the line as much as anyone else. As usual the Americans want all the glory!!

    • I conquer. Minimizing strength in numbers doesn’t properly represent the clear picture!

    • From The Globe and Mail published May 18, 2018:

      After five months of fighting by the Allied forces – composed of Americans, British, Canadians, Free French, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians, Nepalese, Moroccans and Poles – it was the Poles who finally took the abbey, or what little was left of it.

      Credit where credit is due.

    • Don’t know if Mr Kennedy is the nice person I met in Belgium, Bastogne, over a decade ago

  6. My father, Thomas McKeon, was in the US Army Artillery Division that fired canons upon Casino.

    • My father, Russell Wilson (Tennessee), also fired artillery on Monte Cassino. What further information is available about this extended battle?

  7. My father flew A20 Havaland and told me that battle was thenworst he was ever in. I think this battle was probably the caust of hid night mares.

  8. If the forces from other countries were only ‘helping’ the US why did the US follow orders they did not agree with from a ‘helper’?

  9. My mom’s uncle fought in WW II and was killed at Anzio (Beach), Italy in February 1944. He was in the 252nd or 262nd Ordinance Maintenance Co, AA. I’m new to researching his history – can anyone direct me to resources to obtain information about him during that time? Please and thanks to anyone who can offer suggestions.

    • Don’t know if this will help at all, but her’s a site that might give you a place to start.
      https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/first-deadly-round-at-the-battle-of-monte-cassino/.
      The warfare history network might give you some leads.

      /Martin

    • I used the Army Heritage center in Carlisle, PA. My uncle also died at Anzio and I was able to get all of his info, right down to the day and time he died. He is also buried there and I have a picture of his grave, My grandparent did not wish to have the body returned, due to not knowing the condition of the body. I know my wife picked up quite a bit of information when we were there regarding her father and I got all the info on my father from there. They also have a facility in the Midwest, however they experienced a fire and lost a good deal of their info. Good luck on your search and we can answer any other question please contact me. Good luck.

    • The first thing to do would be to go through the process of requesting records. They may show citations, units served with, promotions and much more if available. As was mentioned, the archives in St. Louis, MO were heavily damaged in a fire back in the 1970s. But the first step is to use that link to find out what is available for you. Good luck. https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records

    • My brother was in the landing at Anzio Beach. He lived to talk about it. Thank God!

    • Your mom’s uncle is your great uncle.

    • There arr many books but the authoritative bunker by bunker account probably starts with the Army’s official history of the campaign battle by battle.

  10. You make no mention of the New Zealand forces that were heavily involved in this battle. The battle for Monte Casino remains as one of the major battles that New Zealanders fought in during World war II. I know because in 2012 I stood in the middle of the New Zealand section of the cemetery containing the graves of hundreds of New Zealand servicemen at Monte Casino. It would be appropriate if you would correct this disgraceful oversight on your part.

    • David,
      Unfortunately, Americans tend to lump ANZAC forces, and for that matter, any of the Commonwealth forces under the “British” catch-all.

    • My father (American) told me about Monte Cassino and specifically mentioned the New Zealanders and their courage and sacrifice there. Many historians may miss specifics but the men that were there remembered and passed it on.

  11. My uncle zygmunt Lewandowski joined the polish forces in Italy after fighting the Germans and Russians near Warsaw what a legend

  12. After reading the story I read Mr. Gravino’s comment and was quite moved.
    It is such a wartime reality and a pity that the Abbey was destroyed.

  13. My stepfather, Francis “Buddy” Morse was a machine gunner with the Red Bulls in that battle. In recent years, he has reflected on how few of his company walked away; only a fraction of the men.

  14. I’m sorry to say but I wonder if we could put together enough troops with the mettle and bravery of the WW2 generation to save the world again. Hard to fight with a phone in your hand

  15. Did anyone even notice we destroyed St. Benedict’s Monte Cassino and everything in it forever? NOTHING is sacred, nothing holy to annyone in war, so what is worth all the destruction of the Sacred, the Holy, the horror and gore and violence and absolutism and foreverness of any war? A “we won” and 50 years later an email letter saying my grandfather told me about the battle? What of Monte Cassino?

    • This is the first sensible comment I have read here about Monte Cassino. As a historic truth, the Germans respected the abbey and did not occupy it even as an observation post to avoid its being bombed. It took a bunch of ignorant hillbillies to reduce it to rubble, which the Germans then occupied to great effect.

    • Monte Cassino was nothing but a building. Jesus referred to the temple as his body that he would raise in 3 days. In that respect, thousands of temples created by God were sacrificed in that battle and war. Those are the buildings that really matter.

  16. This is one of the greatest comments I’ve seen with our service here in World War 2.
    The destruction of a famous city Monte Cassino was absolutely devastating to see our city in rubbles.
    Many brave men will not be forgotten for the freedom of our greatest nation of the world….

  17. As a normal person the violence of war turns my stomach, and I agree that most wars are political or religious. However WWII was different for Americans. We engaged a merciless, mentally ill tyrant, that deceived his own people and brought terror to Europe. His goal was to join forces with the Japanese and Italians to conquer the world, and for everyone to live under his own rule as the “King of the World”. If we had not engaged in war we would be living in a different sort of world now. One that would not allow anyone to express such opinions as we are displaying here. It was unfortunate that Monte Cassino was destroyed along with many other antiques, artifacts, and archeological sites. War has a single purpose and is blind in it’s pursuit.

    • Rod, thanks you very much for your comment. Sometimes war is unavoidable to prorltect and preserve precious freedoms– speech, religion, assembly, and others– that are often taken for granted. Such was World War II.

  18. My late father served in the Signals. He said little about the war but I was gobsmacked by something he let slip when in his early seventies, not long before he died.
    He said he was at the Battle of Monte Casino, doing his job as a driver. (He was called up in 1942, so not a career volunteer as we would say now, but a conscript.)
    But the real surprise was my father said he was detailed to be Harold MacMillan’s chauffeur when he came out to Monte Casino to encourage the troops.He was a minister in the Colonial Office at the time, I believe.

    • My Dad was also in the 8th Army Royal Corps of Signals (Sigs) and was in N Africa, and then went on to Sicily and Monte Cassino. They ironically called themselves ‘The D-Day Dodgers’ after Nancy Astor supposedly made a disparaging remark comparing their bravery to that of men during D-Day. They were very bitter about that.

  19. My BIL H Lyons was also with the red bulls (34th Division) as an infantryman. He landed in Anzio . I asked him one time if he ever killed anyone in the war. The only thing he would say is that he did shoot but did not know if he hit anything. As a side, he was recalled during Korean “POLICE ACTION” and
    they made him a radioman even though he was color blind. Just in case you might not be aware, radiomen also had to rewire radios and had to distinguish different colored wires to make proper connection. Love the military, don’t understand the thinking sometimes.

  20. It took American idiots to destroy a priceless monument of Western civilization, much like it took Turkish idiots to destroy the Parthenon. What a bunch of creeps! They owned the battlefield and had the advantage of mobility -those imbeciles could have leapfrogged the abbey, as pointed out by military historian Basil Liddell-Hart.

    • B. S. They were moving the battlefield forward but certainly didnt own it. The 45th Infantry Division was cut up bad on Anzio and again on the boot. Sicily hadn’t been a picnic. Dad said the Germans were well entrenched and although they suffered high casualties, they inflicted a lot of additional damage to US forces.
      But, of course, Europe could have been under Nazi rule today, had not these US boys done the job the Europeans didn’t.

    • Listen very carefully to Gary comment below. You never know when their help may be required yet again.

  21. It must be nice in hindsight to comment on others, however, it was a war, and soldiers have to follow orders. There is no need to be so sarcastic. PS I am NOT an American.

  22. Some acts are needless stupidities with no military or humanitarian justification, much like the destruction of the library at Alexandria which set us back centuries. Those who shrug off Monte Cassini as a mistake, should do well to remember Fouche’s comment about some “mistakes”, namely: “It was worse than a crime, madam, it was a mistake”…

  23. Dad told me the 45th Infantry made the amphibious landings on Sicily the sweep and then the landing on the boot of Italy. They lost 50% of the unit at Anzio and the assault on Monte Cassino was a real bitch. He recalled shooting the headlights out of the lead trucks bringing up reinforcements when they were revealing their positions to the Germans. He said German casualties were pretty high.

  24. Polo, I simply cannot understand Nazi sympathisers like yourself knowing the genocide and crimes they perpetuated. Sacrifices were made by men who gave everything to stop them.

    • Mark Clark’s bombing of the abbey was a military and historical blunder carried out to polish his image by making him win the “race to Rome” and to cover his tracks for the disastrous crossing of the Gari river two weeks earlier. He wasn’t sacked only because of his close friendship with Eisenhower since cadet days, which propelled his career throughout WWII.

      If I’m a “Nazi sympathizer” for pointing out the truth, then so must be Alexander (his own Brit CinC), Patton, and Clark’s own men, who in 1946 as a Veterans’ Association petitioned two Congressional investigations “…to correct a military system that will permit an inefficient and inexperienced officer, such as General Mark W. Clark, in high command to destroy the young manhood of this country and to prevent future soldiers being sacrificed wastefully and uselessly.”

      The fact is that the army hierarchy at the time was riddled with nyncompoops and incompetents rather than military geniuses, while the German military staff was incomparably more professional. Indeed, faced with insurmountable logistical odds, and short on manpower, fuel, armor, planes and transport vehicles, the German commanders had the presence of mind to divest precious resources in relatively outlandish amounts to protect priceless cultural treasures by moving them to Rome to avoid destruction. Facts are facts – you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.

    • Thanks Gary for your astute comments. As one “southern” comedian frequently points out … “You can’t fix stupid.”

    • Gary, I don’t read Polo’s comments as those of a Nazi sympathizer, but rather as an inexperienced idealist not tuned into the complexities of hostile, fast moving situations confronting solders in any war. Just because the Germans said they would not “occupy” the abbey doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have used it as an observation point (not doing so would be a military mistake!). Having said that, I too recall that Mark Clarke was incompetent and his tactics cost a lot of lives. On the other hand, there were far more competent leaders than not in our armed services. Perhaps in using the term “riddled with nyncompoops and incompetents” he was thinking of the Civil War. That could be said if that war, but not WWII.

  25. Sue’s comment made me check.
    According to the clasp on my father’s Africa Star, he was in the First Army.

    • Your father was probably in V Corp of the British 1st Army which served in the Eastern part of the North African Campaign. After the Axis troops were defeated in North Africa the British 1st Army was disbanded and V Corp was assigned to the British 8th Army before the onset of the Italian Campaign. So your dad’s clasp will have been from his time in Africa but he will have served under the 8th Army in Italy, (like Sue’s dad).

  26. How is it you say that they liberated Rome when Italy was an Allie of Germany?

    • Italy surrendered to the Allies on 8th Sep 1943 and switched sides by declaring war on Germany on Oct 13 1943; allowing Rome to be liberated.

  27. Interesting. Again, my father said little, but on another occasion he did say he landed in Algiers when sent to theatre. He wouldn’t have admitted that much I imagine: the matter only came to light when I found some Algerian banknotes in our attic, which my father said he’d kept after the war.
    Algiers is east; perhaps he wasn’t there long. I must dig out his service record….

    • Andy Clark, what branch and unit was your father in? My father served in the US Fifth Army and, after taking desert training in the states, went to North Africa to fight the Germans and Italians only to find that the Germans were already defeated by the British before they arrived. So they took amphibious training in Africa and were sent to Italy. Perhaps that is why your father was in Africa but wasn’t there long as well. My father didn’t say much about the war either, unless he was asked.

  28. You didn’t mention it was rebuilt and is a magnificent place to visit

    • we were there last year and it has been rebuilt and is absolutely stunning in its beauty. There is also a huge memorial for all of the allied service men that died there.

      My dad was in the Merchant Marines and was in Italy uring WWII. He said that it took a duffel bag full of Lira to buy anything or if you had a pack of cigarettes or chocolate it would buy just about anything you wanted..

  29. My father Bernard I Meyer was on one of the first amphibians that landed on Anzio beachhead. He said it was worse than hell. Out of his group only him and another man survived, the rest were shot down as coming onto the beach.
    They had interviewed him and the other man on a Saint Louis radio station. We have a copy of the transcript.

  30. My father, Roy Steenberg, 3rd Infantry Division, was also on one of the first landings on Anzio. He said most of the craft hung up on sand bars, and didn’t make it all the way to shore, and the 90-day wonders who’d come fresh from West Point panicked and started yelling, “What do we do, Sargent? What do we do?” Dad said he started grabbing the nearest guys to him and throwing them over and telling them to swim because they were sitting ducks where they were. He said most of them were only kids. When I asked him how old he was, he paused and thought back and said, “I was about 22 by then, and had been in through North Africa, so I had a little more time on me than those poor kids.” He said most of them never made it to or past the beach.

  31. Cassino was indeed a heartache for the New Zeakand Division in WWII. If anyone is intereted in the NZ perspective there’s a good article at https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/the-italian-campaign/cassino–quote ‘The struggle for Cassino in early 1944 was one of the most brutal and costly battles involving New Zealand forces in the Second World War. For the New Zealand Division, this German strongpoint southeast of Rome would prove the most tragically elusive prize of the Italian campaign.’

    It was the New Zealand commander who originally called in the Americans to bomb the monastery. His decision was taken out of concern to spare the lives of his soldiers. But the Germans fortified the ruins and fought with great tenacity. Eventually the New Zealand Division had to withdraw from Cassino, with 343 deaths and over 600 wounded.

    Give credit to the Poles who eventually took Cassino–and the Germans for their resistance, with the tide of the war running heavily against them.

  32. My father was in the RAOC mobile laundry units [MLU] 3 & 26 in Italy. Apparently the Captain in charge took a wrong turning and ended up on the long approach road to Monte Cassino when they were stopped by an American tank and asked where they thought they were going, on responding they were going to Monte Cassino they were told in no uncertain terms ” to get off the road or they would be blasted off by the tank”. The MLU eventually ended up in Rimini before its liberation & Venice as its final destination before VE day.

  33. Russ Wilson (Jr.), the comment “you can’t fix stupid”, quoted from a “southern” (sic) comedian, and ostensibly applied to me, is interesting. You may not know this, but it was commonly voiced by British officers in WWI and II when seeing -nonplussed- the performance of the US army. That isn’t surprising. It takes time to develop a superb army and the US only had fought injuns, messicans and the Civil War. In WWII the army was still sloshing on the slow slope of the learning curve This is not to diminish in any way the effort, bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers, of course. But things change over time. Hopefully it will also happen to you, as you read and think about historic and military matters. It has been done before, you know.

  34. After reading thru all of these replies from around the world, it sounds like some of you are still angry, still fighting, still at war with each other. Everyone in that war are now dead. Can we let them Rest In Peace?

  35. My Dad was at Monte Cassino. He told me that, out of his platoon of 36 from the Cheshire regiment, only 5 men survived. When we hear so much about PTSD these days, I wonder what horrors men like him lived with.

  36. Thanks all for the comments on this huge battle in which my late father served as a Gunner with the NZ Forces. It was a privilege to revisit the area in 2001 and see the places Dad went as a soldier, even down to identifying the house he stayed in. He was lucky to come home – one of his mates remains in the Commonwealth War Cemetery. Interesting to read the various criticisms. Dad made an enduring comment on such things: “its easy to criticise from the luxury of peace, fact remains tho that this was no game, you didn’t have a beer with the other side in the evening, there was only going to be be one winner and it HAD to be us”.

  37. Bob
    My father was in the Royal Corps of Signals.
    I can’t give dates, as I’ve not yet found the paperwork about his service, somewhere in our attic.

  38. My father served as a jeep & truck driver in Headquarters Battery, 936th Field Artillery Battalion, 5th Army. In Sept 1943 the 936th sailed from New York and landed in Algeria. Dad drove a truck in the military convoy to Bizerte, Tunisia and in November sailed to Italy landing just west of Naples. By January 1944 the 936th fought its way to Monte Cassino. Dad watched the bombing of the abbey and stated in an April V-mail “I had a grandstand view of the bombing and shelling”. His unit suffered from one of the first major incidents of friendly fire in WWII on 15-16 March 1944 while there. Dad described it in a V-mail letter as “a little excitement.” After the FFire, many men of the 936th & 937th were given passes to Caserta for some R&R. Dad got to watch Mt. Vesuvius erupt.
    Other V-mail he sent mentioned: “Hear a lot of shells but am so used to them now I only get scared when they start coming close.” “…at least they [he meant the folks back home who complained about rationing] can go home every nite and nothing to worry about.” “Seen a lot of sights since I left the States, some were good and some not.”
    Dad only mentioned the war a couple of times while I was growing up. After his death I found the sergeant in charge of the motor pool for HqBtry 936th FA Bn and with a year’s research documented all but about 2 weeks of the 3 years Dad served in the army during WWII.

  39. Polo?
    “You may not know this, but it was commonly voiced by British officers in WWI and II when seeing -nonplussed- the performance of the US army.”
    Is this one of British officers famous for ordering their men into battles, repeatedly, where they never saw the front in person and had no idea the slaughter they caused.

    “US only had fought injuns, messicans and the Civil War”
    Forgetting the King’s redcoats? Spain? WWI?

  40. My Father in-law Edwin J. Vanek fought at Monte Cassino with the 88th Division, A913FA, He said that he lost many of his friends in that battle.

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