Why Monte Cassino?

In Love and War in the Apennines the travel writer Eric Newby describes an accidental encounter with a German officer in October 1943 while he is on the run in northern Italy.  After reassuring Newby that he is off duty for the day, the officer gives him advice on reaching the Allied lines:

“If you take the advice of an enemy, you will try to pass the winter here, in these mountains … Until a few days ago we all thought we would be retiring beyond the Po; but now the winter line is going to be far south of Rome … You have Termoli and Foggia on the east coast, which means that you will now be able to use bombers in close support and you have Naples; but take my advice and wait for the spring.”

Oberleutnant Frick’s assessment was an accurate summary of the military situation in Italy at that time and indeed for the subsequent half year.   Even after the Allies had landed in Italy, German strategy was still being disputed by two of their leading field marshals. Rommel believed that the Germand should defend only northern Italy, whereas Kesselring believed that it was both essential and feasible to hold the Allied advance in the south.

The issue was finally settled on 4thOctober 1943 when Hitler ruled in favour of Kesselring.  The Germans would defend Italy south of Rome.

Map of the Gustav Line
Map of the Gustav line, which ran from Minturno to Ortona.
Note the mountains, and the River Liri valley through them at Cassino.
The Germans held the line for six months from December 1943 to May 1944.

The 1943-44 Winter Line, also known as the Gustav Line, ran north-eastwards from Minturno (some 75 Km up the coast from Naples) and across Italy to Ortona on the Adriatic coast.   Along the coastline north-west of Minturno the Aurunci Mountains provided strong defensive positions for German forces.  The Central Apennine mountains formed the bulk of the line: impossible country for any military offensive.  On the Adriatic coast the winter rain and mud made it impractical for the Allies to advance – besides, north of Ortona there were no significant political or military goals until Ancona, some 200 Km further north-west.

There was only a single gap in this natural line of defence. Some 27 Km north of Minturno lay one of the few major roads passing through the mountains, the SS6 or Via Casilina.  This headed north-westwards in a valley formed by the River Liri.  Upstream of the town of Cassino this valley was little more than 5 or 10 Km wide.  Downstream it widened out, with a straight run through to Rome.

Of course another alternative for the Allies was to outflank the German positions by landing further up the coast behind the Gustav Line.  On 22nd January 1944 three such landings took place: a British force north of Anzio, a US force in Anzio itself, and a further US force to the south.  Initially these operations were successful.  However, the resources allocated to them were insufficient to support the breakout needed to dislodge the Germans.  For four months until May 1944 the Allied force remained confined in an area that stretched about 20 Km inland from a 30 Km coastal stretch.

This would not be the last time that the Allies deployed insufficient resources in the Italian campaign, but neither would it be the last time (paradoxically) that it would provide a strategic advantage for them in the war as a whole.  As a result of the Anzio landings the German High Command dropped plans to transfer five top divisions to north-western Europe where they would have presented tougher resistance against the D-Day landings later that year.

Nevertheless it left the Allies with just one option: a successful breakthrough at Cassino.

At Cassino, the surrounding mountains dominated the Liri valley and the road to Rome.  They provided formidable defensive positions for the German 1st Parachute Corps.  To break through the line and advance on Rome the Allies would first have to dislodge them.

Achieving this took four battles over five months.  These battles reduced both the town of Cassino and the ancient abbey on Monte Cassino above it to rubble.  They delivered a harsh lesson about the reality of running an offensive campaign in Italy: the futility of fighting between December and April, the magnitude of superiority needed to defeat a defensive force, and the value of co-ordination between the ten national armies fighting on their side.

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby [Amazon UK]

The Italian Campaign begins

In May 1943 the British First Army fighting from the west and the British Eighth Army fighting from the east met in Tunisia. The German and Italian forces there surrendered and the three-year campaign in North Africa was over. Not only had the Axis powers lost more than 400,000 men together with significant equipment, the Allies now had the Mediterranean Sea under their control. With substantial armies no longer fighting, and no prospect of an invasion of Western Europe until the following year, the question facing the Allies was “what next?”.

By this time, the tide had also changed for the Axis in Russia. Over winter 1942-43 the German Sixth Army had been annihilated at Stalingrad, and the Red Army had already started to make progress westwards. Stalin had requested that pending a Western European invasion the Allies open up a second front to divert German military strength away from the Eastern Front. Churchill also believed that a strike up the Adriatic coast of Italy into Slovenia and beyond to Austria could shorten the war.

The US was not enthusiastic about diverting effort away from the planned invasion of Western Europe, which in mid January 1943 could potentially have taken place as early as that summer. Nor were they keen about taking resources away from the Pacific war against Japan. However at the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff conference held in Casablanca that month it was agreed that at the least the Allies should invade Sicily, with three objectives: to secure the Mediterranean; to divert German forces from the Eastern Front; and to intensify pressure on Italy.

Therefore on 10th July 1943 the Allies landed on Sicily, completing their conquest of the island on 17th August.

On 24th July the Fascist Council in Rome turned against Mussolini, who was deposed and imprisoned two days later. All Fascist institutions were disbanded. The new Italian government opened secret negotiations with the Allies for an armistice. As a result, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff decided to go ahead with a full invasion of mainland Italy, planned to coincide with the signing of the armistice.

On 3rd September 1943 the new Italian government signed the armistice, and Italy changed its allegiance from the Axis to the Allied side. The Germans had planned for this and moved quickly to secure Italy as far as they could. Before the Italian armed forces could receive clear orders from their commanders, they were disarmed and neutralised.

On the same day, the US Fifth Army landed at Salerno, around 50 Km down the coast from Naples. Here they met significant resistance but after two weeks of taking heavy casualties established a bridgehead.

Also on 3rd September 1943 the British Eighth Army’s XIII Corps made an amphibious landing in Reggio Calabria in the south-west. Part of the objective for this was to divert German attention from the US landings at Salerno. However, the Germans had already decided not to engage the allies so far south, the British met only light resistance, and no immediate relief was provided to the US forces further north.

Following the German defence at Salerno which had nearly deprived the Allies of a bridgehead, Hitler took the decision to defend Italy as far south as was practical. The Germans may not have been able to stop the Allies from landing on the Italian mainland, but they could prevent them from making easy progress northwards. They had the terrain of the country on their side, with easily defendable mountain positions at strategic points. They also had the weather in their favour: over both winters of the campaign this would prevent the advancing Allied armies from making any significant progress between December and March.

The third Allied landing took place on 9th September 1943 when the Italian government declared the city and port of Taranto open, allowing the British Eighth Army to land there unopposed. Some six weeks later on Saturday 23rd October, Captain Patrick Maybin arrived there from North Africa.