The battle of Monte Cassino officially began on this day in 1944.
Also known as the ‘Battle for Cassino’ or the ‘Battle for Rome’, it was a costly series of four assaults by Allied forces over the first five months of 1944 on Axis defensive positions along the Gustav Line, with the objective of breaking through and capturing Rome.
The Gustav Line ran across Italy from just north of where the Garigliano River flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, through the Apennine Mountains to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast in the east.
Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529, overlooked the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido river valleys. It was key terrain, whose ownership was decisive for the outcome of the battle as it completely dominated the surrounding area and Highway 6, which ran through the nearby town, leading directly to Rome.
Following the Axis surrender in North Africa in May 1943, the Allies launched Operation ‘Husky’, the Invasion of Sicily, in July 1943 spearheaded by the US 7th Army (under command of Lieutenant General George Patton) and British 8th Army (under command of General Bernard Montgomery). Over six weeks the Allied amphibious and airborne operations were successful, leading to the removal of Benito Mussolini from power, and the cancellation of a major German offensive against the Russians at Kursk, in order to divert German forces to Italy.
In early September 1943 the Allies followed up this success with the Invasion of continental Italy, with British forces landing at Reggio (Operation ‘Baytown’) and US forces (now the 5th Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark) landing at Salerno (Operation ‘Avalanche’).
In October 1943, Hitler was persuaded by Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, that the defence of Italy should be conducted as far away from Germany as possible. This would make the most of the natural defensive geography of Central Italy, whilst denying the Allies the easy capture of a succession of airfields.
Kesselring was given command of the whole of Italy and immediately ordered the preparation of a series of defensive lines across Italy, south of Rome. Two lines, the Volturno Line and the Barbara Line, were used to delay the Allied advance so as to buy time to prepare the most formidable defensive positions, which formed the ‘Winter Line’, the collective name for the Gustav Line and two associated defensive lines on the west of the Apennine Mountains, the Bernhardt Line and Hitler Line.
The ‘Winter Line’ proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting the Fifth Army’s advance on the western side of Italy. Although the Gustav Line was penetrated on the Eighth Army’s Adriatic front, and Ortona captured, blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December caused the advance to grind to a halt. The Allies’ focus then turned to the west, where an attack through the Liri valley was considered to have the best chance of a breakthrough towards Rome.
The ‘First Battle of Cassino’ launched on 17 January 1944 involved 5th US Army attacking along a 30 kilometre front, with the British X Corps crossing the Garigliano River below its junction with the Liri River near the coast.
The US II Corps would then follow on 20 January 1944 with the main thrust in the centre, crossing the Garigliano River eight (8) kilometres downstream from Cassino. Simultaneously, the French Expeditinary Corps would continue its ‘right hook’ toward Monte Cairo, which was the hinge to both the Gustav Line and Hitler Line.
The initial attack by the British X Corps was successful but they could not make a decisive breakthrough. The initial success of their operations caused a lot of concern for the Germans and resulted in the deployment of two Panzergrenadier Divisions from Rome to reinforce the German line.
The central thrust, an opposed river crossing over the Garigliano River by US 36th Division on 20 January 1944 was a costly failure due to well dug in German defensive positions and a lack of sufficient armoured support.
On 24 January 1944 US II Corps again attacked across the flooded Rapido River valley north of Cassino with the 34th US Division and French colonial troops. Flooding made movement very difficult, particularly for armour and it took eight (8) days of heavy fighting to establish a foothold.
The French assault on the right made good initial progress against the German 5th Mountain Division. However by 31 January 1944 their attack had ground to a halt.
The task then fell to the US 34th Division to fight south across the hilltops near Monastery Hill. Despite tough conditions and fierce fighting, by early February the Americans had captured positions no more than half a kilometre from the Abbey itself.
On 11 February 1944 after a final unsuccessful three (3) day assault on Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino, exhausted US forces were withdrawn, with some battalions losing 80% of their strength.
Three further attempts were made by Allied forces to capture Monte Cassino, the final attempt by the Polish Corps in May 1944 being successful.