Monte Cassino – the Battle, the Abbey and the Commonwealth War Cemetery

 

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Douglas Lyne, a British veteran who fought at Monte Cassino, recalled*: “Monte Cassino was an objective hated by every Allied soldier anywhere near it.  So when we saw 250 Flying Fortresses buzzing up from the south on that perfectly clear February day, we thought wouldn’t it be marvellous if they dropped the whole lot on the monastery, then whoosh, down came 500 tons.  There was a colossal cheer, you could have heard it all the way to Naples.”  He paused, and when he continued his voice had changed.  “All except this one very close friend of mine, who said, ‘what are you thinking of, Douglas? are we in this war to destroy monasteries?’ And then I had a huge double take.  I thought, my God, what are we up to? I saw that in the last year and a half we had become literally barbarized.  We had become indistinguishable from any other army, the German army, the Russian army, the army of Genghis Khan, part of the great marauding horde whose instinct is to destroy, whose training is to destroy.”  Douglas Lyne sums up: “A bird of sanity perched on my shoulder.  I think he’s been there ever since.”          * “Monte Cassino – the Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II” by David Hapgood and David Richardson

In the background to the resting place for 3982 identified and 289 unidentified Commonwealth soldiers are the heights of Monte Cassino, the site of one of the most bloody campaigns of WW2.

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I think the reason for our stop at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Cassino may have had more to do with our bus driver needing a compulsory rest stop than allied patriotism. While the 114,979 had been killed or wounded during the four months campaign contained many Americans, all those from the US are buried at Anzio in the north, and our party was predominantly from the US.. There no Australians buried there either. At this stage of the war our troops were fighting for the survival of Australia in New Guinea as the Pacific had become our first priority. Hundreds of Canadians died in this series of four battles, and there were two Canadians in our party who knew that some small towns had lost many young men in this distant place. There were also rows and rows of New Zealanders put to rest here. In a serious of bloody battles attempted to dislodge the German Paratroop regiments with their Tank supports more than 300 New Zealand soldiers were killed, including nearly half of the Maori battalion the lead a major assault on the Mount.  I am very glad we stopped there.

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In this place 289 Graves are lacking a name but there is a memorial list for more than 4000 servicemen whose bodies were never found. I find this epitaph very moving.

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This Grave is named and it could be a relative of my Grandfather, who left England for Australia in the 1870’s.

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In many wars the ANZACs fought together, but at Cassino our Kiwi brother were teamed up with the Indian Gurkhas in some of the fiercest fighting.

The four battles for Cassino had a well lead, desperate German force with an enormous tactical advantage of the high ground, with well prepared defences. The Allied troops were fighting uphill, with no cover and over flooded ground preventing their used of armour. They had an enormous advantage of manpower, material and complete control of the Air. The Allies only won because of their preparedness to pay the price with their men – a butcher’s bill.

Lest We Forget

To return and finish with the Monastery. Built originally by St. Benedict in 529 AD, it had been destroyed and rebuilt four times before WW2, in 581 and 884 it was sacked, it was damaged by earthquake in 1349 and by Napoleon in 1799. Each time it was more lavishly rebuilt and after 1866 was considered an Italian National Monument. It wa, however, s a key stronghold in the 100 Km Gustav Line defending Rome from the Allies. From the Allied point of view, it caused the Germans to keep some of their best troops away from France. Eventually Rome was to fall 2 days before D Day. The Allies were sure that it was being used as an observation post. They were afraid that under heavy attacks German troops would shelter within the Abbey and then launch counter attacks on vulnerable, exposed troops. Accordingly , on February 15, 1944 the abbey was almost completely destroyed in a series of heavy American led air-raids. Enquiries after the war established that at the time of the attack, only civilians were within the buildings (230 killed) and , ironically, the ruins proved to be much more effective in sheltering the German troops, in active fighting roles, than the complete building ever would have. The building was restored after the war. I couldn’t get a photo from a moving bus so you will have to manage with two from Flickr with creative commons licenses one from 1944 and the second after its reconsecration in 1964

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Abbey Cassino

 A magnificent building no doubt, but no replacement for nearly 150,000 men, Allied and German, killed or crippled during the advance on Rome.

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6 thoughts on “Monte Cassino – the Battle, the Abbey and the Commonwealth War Cemetery

  1. The Allies only won because of their preparedness to pay the price with their men – a butcher’s bill.
    Too high a price for any side.

    • Agreed. Interestingly I think that even in war the life of a soldier has become more highly valued. In WW1 thousands died in a single day. By WW2 it was more the civilians being killed.

  2. Now I understand why we couldn’t find any of our countrymen. It did seem very odd at the time. Thanks for the historical perspective.

    • Happy to be helpful John. This is an outstanding resource, well worth the read.
      http://www.veterans-uk.info/pdfs/publications/comm_booklets/monte_cassino.pdf

      I have been unable to find out why the Americans were shifted. They were moved from Sicily – all over the Italian theatre to Anzio. All the major cemeteries including Cassino are actually re burials of soldiers temporarily laid to rest in the field so I imagine that an in principal decision was made to keep all the citizens together. From of the disadvantages of the Allies vs the Axis was the diversity of troops and disagreements amongst the leadership team The Us didn’t even want to be in Italy. it was Churchill’s baby but considered a distraction from the invasion of France. It only went ahead because Winston said it would be quick and cheap. Wrong again!

  3. Hi, there. I was really interested to read this blog as I wanted to find out where the Australians are buried at Monte Cassino. I was told by our tour guide that there are 14 buried there but I only found graves from 6. One war correspondent and five soldiers. Does anyone else know where the other 8 are buried. I walked around for about an hour and couldn’t find them.

    • This is an excellent site http://www.gentracer.org/cemeteriesregions.html

      It lists 13 Australians but I imagine you would have to have a map of the cemetery to be able to find the actual grave and contact the cemetery itself to get a list of names Catherine. I found the site using links from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Gary

      Cassino, Frosinone Province, Lazio Region, Italy) WWII Commonwealth – 2253 United Kingdom, 852 Canadians, 456 New Zealand, 360 Indian, 47 South African, 13 Australian, 4,271 total burials, 289 unknown plus 4000 missing.(see town of Cassino)

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