The bombing that destroyed the abbey of Montecassino, on 15 February 1944, was welcomed with a sense of liberation and enthusiasm by the Allied soldiers deployed on the slopes, who saw in that building a stone enemy to be defeated, an obstacle to the breakthrough of the Gustav Line and the German defenses. The symbolic value was magnified by Allied propaganda whose wartime military correspondents filmed the havoc of the sacred place from every possible angle. Everything possible had been done to spare the abbey, but then the translator of a German dispatch had confused the word “Abt”, abbot, with the abbreviation of “Abteilung”, military department, deriving that inside the walls there were ‘they were the soldiers of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring instead of Bishop Gregorio Diamare. When the Allies realized the tragic mistake, the bombers had already left for their mission and it was no longer possible to stop them.
The corrections and adjustments of the front in that sector responded to Kesselring’s defensive tactics, frustrating the continuous efforts of the attackers. The landing in Anzio (January 22, 1944, Operation Shingle) had not yielded the desired results and had almost resulted in a disaster. The Gustav held and in the Liri Valley near Cassino the 14th Armored Corps of General Frido von Senger und Etterlin blocked the road to Rome making use of the Apennine massifs, the river design and the fortified works created, gaining time in the fighting along the Line of winter. The abbey of Montecassino, from above, watched over the miseries of men and the tragedies of war, dominating the war scene.
The sacred place had been founded by San Benedetto in 529. The Gothic king Totila had visited it on a pilgrimage, but then the Lombards had razed it to the ground in 591, forty years after the death of the founder. The abbey had been profaned and destroyed again in 883 by the Saracens (the reconstruction took place only seventy years later) and would not even have been spared from the earthquake of 1349. In Montecassino the cultural treasures of antiquity had been saved, such as the work of Virgil, and preserved the heritage of classicism thanks to the Benedictine order which in 1866 had managed to avoid the suppression of several monastic orders decided by the government of the Kingdom of Italy.
In the fury of the Second World War, that oasis of peace and spirituality was perceived by the Allied soldiers as a ruthless insurmountable barrier that demanded a continuous tribute of blood and prevented the breakthrough of the Gustav. The frustration with the failures on the front pushed irrepressibly towards the decision to destroy the abbey, wrongly considered as a German observation point implacable in reporting every slightest move on the battlefield and in unleashing countermoves, with targeted artillery shots and infantry clashes. The New Zealand general Bernard Freyberg had no doubts about it and asked several times, eventually obtaining it, for the green disc after the carpet bombing.
Commander in Chief Dwight Eisenhower, before landing in Sicily, had written to General George Marshall that it was necessary to use every caution in a museum country like Italy to “avoid the destruction” of “irremovable” works of art, but as long as they were not hinder military operations. And he had specified to all the commands, on 29 December 1943: “We are fighting in a country that has contributed much to our cultural heritage, a country rich in monuments which since their creation have testified to the growth of a civilization which is ours. We are obliged to respect these monuments as far as the war allows. If we have to choose between destroying a famous building or sacrificing our soldiers, the lives of our men count infinitely more than the building. But the choice is not always so clear. In many cases monuments can be saved without any detriment to operations.”
This was not the case for the Abbey of Montecassino. The capable General Senger, anti-Nazi and Anglophile without hiding it, was a lay Benedictine (he had taken minor orders) and therefore particularly sensitive to the spiritual, cultural and moral significance of the abbey. He had done everything possible and impossible to save the treasures guarded by the monks, including the ancient library of immeasurable value, and German propaganda had long insisted on the saving work of the Germans (obviously keeping quiet that on some works of art he had Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, collector and compulsive plunderer, got his hands on it). Despite what the Allied propaganda claimed to justify the failures, and in particular the Reuter Agency, there is not a single German soldier in the abbey.
Abbot Bishop Gregorio Diamare had declared it publicly and in writing, and the German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsacker, had reiterated it three times (7 November and 23 December 1943; 12 January 1944). General Senger, for whom ethics and the “honor of a soldier and a Christian” are not a negligible detail, had also had a perimeter drawn up with a radius of 300 meters forbidden to German soldiers, even if wounded, in compliance with an explicit desire of the Vatican.
General Francis Tuker, commander of the 4th Indian Division, was pressuring the New Zealander and Protestant Freyberg to break that absurd “Truce of God” and to carry out an aerial bombardment to wipe out the abbey. February 15 is the day that the Church dedicated to Saint Scholastica, the twin sister of Saint Benedict of Norcia. The day before, the Allied twin-engine planes dropped thousands of leaflets addressed to the “Italian friends” who had taken refuge in the monastery, ordering them to leave because the planes would drop the bombs the next day. The eighty-year-old Abbot Diamare has just finished celebrating Holy Mass in front of five monks and a couple of hundred civilians. It’s 9.45am: 142 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 47 Mitchells and 40 Marauders vomit 400 tons of ordnance in waves.
The Allied cameras positioned on the slopes of Montecassino film that martyrdom of explosions and clouds of smoke that will spare only the crypt. When the dust dissolves the abbey is no longer there. German paratroopers occupy the rubble which becomes a fortress: Montecassino Festung. On March 15, the entire Cassino area will be targeted by over three hundred B-24s and B-17s, and then by another 250 heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force, but the infantry will have the decisive say. General Władysław Anders’ soldiers raised the Polish flag on the ruins of the conquered abbey on May 18, winning the fourth and final battle. L’Osservatore Romano at the time wrote this about Montecassino: “from its smoking rubble arises a reproach and a warning to our unfortunate generation which, in the hateful violence by which it is shocked, destroys works more sublime than virtue and genius have been able to raise in honor of God with the incessant call of the redeemed towards Him”. The Eternal City, Rome, would welcome the Allies as liberators only on the eve of the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944.