Battles of Cassino



 

In November 1943: the allied advance in Italy came to a stop at the "Gustav-Line" which was drawn by the German armed forces crosswise through the whole country. The defence position was most developed in the west of Italy to prevent the venture of the Allied Forces through the Liri Valley to Rome. The Monte Cassino represented a central component in the German defence concept, which is above 520 meters over the city Cassino. A Benedictine Abbey, built in the year 529, was on its top. On 17th January 1944 began the unsuccessful frontal attacks of allied troops against positions strongly assured by Germans around the city Cassino. The assaults and grim ditch fights did not only cause innumerable victims on the defenders side but also on the aggressors´ side. During the anacrusis of the second echelon of New Zealand´s second division, their commander general Bernard Freyberg (1889-1963) ordered therefore the massive bombardment of the defence positions and of the Abbey. Behind its walls he suspected a German radio- and enlightenment station. Out of consideration for the historic meaning of this cultural monument, the German Supreme Commander in Italy, Albert Kesselring, in contrary to Freyberg in December 1943 explicitly had forbidden to involve the Abbey into the defence positions.

For the armed forces soldiers it was forbidden to enter a defined trap circuit around the building.

On 15th February 1944 while 229 American bombers attacked only monks and refugees, mostly women and children, were in the basement vaults of the Abbey, which was destroyed through 500 tons of explosive- and firebombs until the foundation walls. Merely the early-medieval crypt remained undamaged. Directly after the bombing, German troops included the ruins of the Abbey into their defence positions, which remained impregnable for the aggressors also in the next months. Only a withdrawal for the armed forces in a northward direction, which was commanded by Kesselring on the 17th May due to the precarious military situation in Italy, enabled Polish exile associations to take over the Abbey a day later.

Bombing of Monte Cassino - 70 years ago - 15 February 1944

 

Itinerary in the footsteps of St. Benedict: Patron Saint of Europe and Father of the Western Monasticism.


Cassino lies along the Rapido River at the foot of Monte Cassino, 140 km  (87 miles) southeast of Rome. It originated as Casinum, a town of the ancient Volsci people on a site adjacent to the modern town, on the lower slopes of the mountain. Casinum passed under Roman control in 312 bc and thereafter prospered. It became a bishopric in the 5th century ad but suffered badly from successive barbarian incursions. In 529 St. Benedict of Nursia established the nucleus of his famous monastery on the summit of Monte Cassino. A remnant of the city below lingered on until it was abandoned by the remaining inhabitants about 866 for the present site, originally called Eulogomenopolis, later San Germano, and since 1871 Cassino.

The settlement was strengthened in the 9th century by the building of the Rocca Ianula (fortress), where in 1139 Pope Innocent II was besieged and captured by Roger II of Sicily, and where in 1230 Pope Gregory IX made peace with the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. It was sacked by French troops in 1799. During World War II (1944) Cassino was a key point in the German winter defensive line (Garigliano-Sangro) blocking the Allied advance to Rome. At the beginning of January 1944 the U.S. 5th Army won a position facing Cassino across the Garigliano River. Heroic fighting by Allied troops met heroic German resistance in three savage battles. On February 15 the Allies bombed and demolished the Benedictine monastery, erroneously believing that the Germans had occupied and fortified it. Actually, the Germans were able to remove both the monks and the treasures of the abbey; and, after the bombardment ceased, they in fact occupied and fortified the ruins.

A month later Allied aircraft dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on Cassino, leaving the town so heaped with rubble that tanks could not operate until bulldozers cleared paths for them. Finally in mid-May the Allies did break through German lines and, joined a few days later by forces bursting out of the Anzio beachhead, were able to take Rome. German and Allied war cemeteries, still visited by thousands annually, mark the scenes of the fighting. After the war, both the town and the abbey were rebuilt on their previous sites, the town on a completely new plan, the abbey following substantially the lines of its predecessor. Little or nothing of the abbey’s decorative detail was recoverable, but the famous bronze doors, cast in Constantinople for the abbot Desiderius in 1066, were found and restored. The archives, library, and some paintings were saved. Of ancient Casinum the only monuments of note are the amphitheatre, the theatre, and the ruins of the Cappella del Crocifisso, a Roman mausoleum converted into a church in the 10th century. Of the medieval town little more than the site of the upper town, clustered around the ruins of Rocca Ianula, can be discerned.


HISTORY OF THE ABBEY OF MONTECASSINO. In the year 529 at the position of a former Roman fortification (Municipium of Casium) Benedict of Nursia established the first Abbey which was given his name Benedictine order which spread the Christianity in Europe. The relicts of Benedict of Nursia are buried in the crypt, which is protected by huge walls. After destruction of the Abbey through the Lombard in 577, Petronax of Brescia got the order by pope Gregor II to rebuild the Abbey in 717. After that numerous important personalities visited the Abbey, among them the Saxon monks Willibald and Sturmius. Charlemagne was in Monte Cassino in 787 and equipped the Abbey with extensive privileges.

In 883 the Abbey was plundered by the Saracen and was set on fire. However already in the 10th century and 11th century it turned again into political and spiritual prosperity. Training centre. During Desiderius´ abbacy the library of the Abbey were filled with handwritings decorated with miniatures, with mosaics, enamel paintings and goldworks of Oriental style. In 1349 for the third time the Abbey became almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. During the following rebuilding, different supplements and beautifications in the style of the renaissance and the baroque were made. They gave to the Abbey a magnificent look, which it retained up to 15 February 1944. At that time, in the final phase of the World War II, Montecassino was a place of refuge for hundreds of civilians and over months it was in the area of the front line (battle of Monte Cassino). Despite repeated contrary insurances on the side of the armed forces, the Allied Forces thought that German soldiers would be in the Abbey on the hill due to the fact of extremely militarily opportune location. The massive, three hour bomb attack directly towards the Abbey caused many deaths of the refugees.

With exception of the crypt, on this day the Abbey was destroyed down to the foundation walls. Only after the bombardment the armed forces moved into the ruins and occupied them for months. Later also the Vatican confirmed that at no time before the bombardment, German soldiers or war equipment was there. Plans and art treasures of the Abbey had been evacuated in time into the Vatican before the attack of the German lieutenant colonel Julius Schlegel occurred. After the war, the abbey was reconstructed by the ITALIAN STATE   within ten years according to the original building plans - true to the guiding principle of the abbot Ildefonso Rea: “Where it stood and like it was”.


THE LAND OF SAINT BENEDICT : "Terra Sancti Benedicti"


Over the centuries Europe has seen the growth of many places dedicated to St. Benedict, but  since the 6th century this province is proud to be the "Land of St. Benedict", where Benedict wrote his rule - Regula Sancti Benedict - the basic rule, Ora et Labora, for thousands of Christians who are committed to the monastic movement. The itinerary in the footsteps of Saint Benedict, is a journey we can make to trace the path of the Saint. Our spiritual journey can start from Subiaco, where the Saint, in the 6th century, founded 13 monasteries, of which one still survive, we could go on to Veroli and visit the church of St. Erasm founded by him, then the Saint stopped near Alatri where there is a small Chapel dedicated to St. Sebastian, decorated with beautiful frescoes, and finally we can reach the monastery of Montecassino, craddle of the western European monasticism, where the Saint arrived in 529 a.D. 

Following the different stages of the Routes of Faith, the traveller is immersed in a unique atmosphere, one that offers an increasingly rare opportunity to listen to oneself, to one’s own emotions, whilst discovering at the same time the complexity and different forms of the monastic movement, which made its mark on the history, art and culture of Italy from the 6th century A.D. onwards and provided a determining contribution to the birth of European civilisation. The idea of the monastery, its construction and its spatial location, was the innovative element that defined western coenobitic monasticism, of which St. Benedict was the pioneer. As the oriental concept of hermitic monasticism was thus abandoned, the monastery became “the place of faith”, where belief became visible, in an “active piety” which, by including not just monks, but also travellers and believers, actively sought contact with man.

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST. BENEDICT

Benedict lived from 500 to 529 AD in Subiaco, located 30 miles east of Rome. We know from the biografy of Benedict written by the Pope Gregory the Great that he abbandoned Subiaco and came to Montecassino where the father of St. Placidus, one of his disceples, donated to benedict where once stood a temple dedicated to God Apollo.

One enters the cloister in the “crossroads at entrance”. At this position stood the temple of God Apollo, which Benedict transformed into a chapel for the common prayer of the monks and consecrated to the St. Martin Bishop of Tours. In 1953 during construction works one found remains of the original foundations of this chapel. It was in this Oratory that St. Benedict died in the position described by St. Gregory the Great, his biographer: “Standing, supported by some monks after having received the Holy Comunion”. This episode is recorded by a group of bronze figures amid the crossroads which was a gift from the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. 

 

THE MONASTERY OF SUBIACO


The monks of Subiaco Abbey are Benedictines and trace their monastic history back to 5th Century Italy, where St. Benedict lived as a hermit in a cave known as "Sacro Speco" here in Subiaco before going to Cassino. The Abbey grounds, and the fields, forests and rolling hills of the beautiful Aniene river Valley offer a quiet, serene,and spiritual atmosphere for prayer, meditation, reflection, and solitude.

The monastery is built literally on the side of the mountain and is one of the most amazing structures to be seen. The monastery is constructed literally just attached to the existing rock face. The interior of the chapel was beautifully painted with frescoes and so where most of the halls leading down to the cave where Saint Benedict lived. This monastery is the first of 14 monasteries founded by the Saint