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.
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