Opinion & Features

How St Benedict’s abbey survived Goths, Saracens and Nazis

Allies shell positions below the ancient Benedictine abbey in 1944 (Getty)

Monte Cassino remains a Benedictine landmark. Yet 75 years ago it was virtually destroyed in a bloody battle

‘Next time you invade Italy, don’t start at the bottom.” That was the post-war puckish advice to a British officer from the German general in command at Monte Cassino, the Catholic nobleman Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin.

The reason was geography. For the most part, Italy is a long, narrow peninsula, at Cassino barely 80 miles across. The Apennine mountains run along almost its entire length, over 800 miles, the coastal plains widening only near Rome. Numerous rivers flow east into the Adriatic or west into the Tyrrhenian sea. “Behind every hill there’s another river,” said US General Mark Clark, commanding the Allied troops trying to break through at Cassino, “and behind every river there’s another hill.”

Behind every hill and river, too, there were battle-hardened German troops.

The Italian campaign to date had been achingly slow, and costly. In July 1943, British and US forces invaded Sicily from North Africa. The island was taken in just over a month, but with heavy casualties. In early September, with the fall of the fascist government in Rome, the Italian king authorised an armistice, and the British Eighth Army, including Canadian, South African, New Zealand and Indian troops, under General Bernard Montgomery, crossed the Straits of Messina unopposed to gain a foothold on the toe of Italy, as well as directly from North Africa to take the heel.

A week later, however, American and British troops of General Mark Clark’s 15th Army made an assault landing at Salerno just south of Naples against unexpectedly strong German opposition. The Eighth Army, trying to advance on the Adriatic side of the Apennines, found the going equally tough.

Meanwhile, the Germans were preparing the “Gustav Line”, a string of formidable defences across the peninsula from Ortona on the Adriatic to Minturno on the Tyrrhenean, aiming to hold the Allies south of Rome during the winter. Monte Cassino, high above the Liri Valley, dominated the road north, as it had done for more than two millennia; the Volsci of central Italy had first established a fortified lookout here in the 5th century BC. In 312 BC, having vanquished their Volscian rivals, the Romans erected a temple to Apollo on the heights, and in the valley below built the town of Casinum.

With the gradual collapse of the Roman Empire from the 5th century AD, however, central Italy was ravaged by Goths, Vandals and other Germanic tribes. When St Benedict of Nursia arrived to found the monastery around 529 AD, the region had reverted to paganism, and Casinum lay in ruins. At Monte Cassino, nevertheless, Benedict introduced his Rule: ora et labora, devoting special attention to the sick (the monastery establishing probably the first hospital in Europe) – and this became the founding principle of Western monasticism.

Monte Cassino’s strategic importance remained, however, and the monastery suffered periodic depredations as a result. Soon after Benedict’s death the Lombards sacked the place and it lay abandoned for more than a century; in the late 9th century, Saracen raiders burned the new abbey to the ground. It was rebuilt on a grand scale in the 11th century by Abbot Desiderius, but an earthquake in 1349 did much damage. It was rebuilt in its present form during the 17th and 18th centuries, but in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops pillaged it. Then in 1866, after the dissolution of the monasteries during the latter stages of Italian unification, the abbey was classed as a national monument. The monks remained, however, as custodians of its treasures.

Mindful of Monte Cassino’s great heritage, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander-in-chief in Italy during the Second World War, ordered that the abbey was not to be incorporated in the defences of the Gustav Line, and so-informed the Allies.

By December, General Clark’s 15th Army had closed up to Cassino, but the Gustav Line and appalling weather stopped the advance in its tracks. In January, an offensive to break through in the Liri valley was repulsed with heavy casualties.

Preparations began for a second attempt in February. Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg VC, commander of the spearhead force, the New Zealand II Corps, including Indian and British troops, believed the monastery posed a major threat. The Germans had observation posts in caves on the hillside below the walls, and they could occupy the abbey itself at any moment. Some commanders believed they already had. It was as much a psychological as an actual threat: “Wherever you went,” wrote one officer, “there was the monastery, looking at you.”

Clark rejected Freyberg’s request for an aerial bombardment. Not only did it go against the “gentlemen’s agreement” with Kesselring, but also the monastery had become a refuge for many of the civilian inhabitants of Cassino. Besides, blasting it to rubble would create an even more impregnable fortress, and the Germans would no longer be under an obligation to keep out. Freyberg, however, appealed to the Allied commander-in-chief, General Sir Harold Alexander, who reluctantly agreed with him.

On the night of February 15, 1944, two waves of bombers attacked the abbey. Dom Rudesind Brookes, chaplain of 1st Battalion Irish Guards, Alexander’s old regiment, recounted how “Alex told me that giving the order to bomb the abbey had been the most difficult decision he had ever had to make, but that he had finally decided that men’s lives must come before stones, however holy.” Alexander would have been in no doubt about just how holy: his cousin was Dom Stephen Rawlinson, of Downside Abbey.

General von Senger, right, escorts Abbot Diamare out of the abbey grounds

More than 200 refugees were killed in the bombing, and a great many artefacts destroyed. The cultural loss would have been far greater, however, had the Germans not removed works of art and historic manuscripts beforehand.

In November, Lieutenant-Colonel Julius Schlegel of the Hermann Goering Division, and one of the medical officers, Captain Maximilian Becker, proposed transferring the library and masterpieces by Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto and Leonardo to the Vatican. General von Senger at once agreed. Materials for crates and boxes, carpenters from among the troops, and local labourers were somehow found, the latter paid with food rations and 20 cigarettes a day. In three weeks, more than 100 truckloads of cultural treasures, each with monks as escorts, were removed to Rome. The abbot, Gregorio Diamare, was finally seen off in person by von Senger in a German staff car.

After the bombing, the Germans occupied the ruins and began turning it into a fortress. Allied attacks over the next three months failed to dislodge them, and paid a huge price. The trench conditions and foul weather began to resemble those of the Western Front in the First World War, as did the work of the military chaplains. In a letter to the mother of Fr Benedict Fenlon of Shrewsbury diocese, one of the chaplains, a soldier wrote how “Your son was in the Cassino battle, right in the thick of it among us all, giving us renewed hope and courage… words cannot describe the happiness that enters a soldier’s heart after a long time in action, when he sees a Catholic priest approaching his position.”

The Germans only abandoned the monastery when the Gustav Line was breached further west, the Polish 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment then taking the heights with relatively light casualties in the early hours of May 18. In all, some 55,000 Allied troops had been killed or wounded in the five months’ fighting, and 20,000 Germans.

Abbot Diamare’s successor, Ildefonso Rea, resolved to clear the debris with his bare hands. Pope Pius XII appealed for help, and in January 1949, Luigi Einaudi, the Italian republic’s second president, pledged to rebuild the monastery “where it was, as it was”.

During the reconstruction, the mortal remains of St Benedict and his sister St Scholastica were found, and the relics were placed under the high altar. In October 1964, Pope Paul VI rededicated the abbey to peace and European unity, formally declaring St Benedict the patron saint of Europe.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier. His Fight to the Finish: The First World War, Month by Month is published by Penguin Random House