Monte Cassino is located about 90 kms south of Rome. Its history is linked to the nearby town of Cassino which was first settled in the fifth century B.C. by the Volsci people who held much of central and southern Italy. It was the Volsci who first built a citadel on the summit of Monte Cassino.
Fast-forward a few centuries and to the 1940s. We get to the point when the Benedictine monastery was literally razed to the ground by Allied bombers during the battle of Monte Cassino and during the Italian Campaign of World War II. From January–May 1944 the Abbey was heavily damaged by approximately 400 tons of bombs, mostly from the American-led air raids. The German military forces had established the 161-kilometre “Gustav Line” in order to prevent Allied troops from advancing northwards. However, the Abbey itself was not initially utilised by the German troops as part of their fortifications owing to General Kesselring’s admiration for the historic monument.
It had actually been the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Armies in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander of the British army, who had ordered the bombing. The bombing was carried out because many reports from the British commanders of the Indian troops on the ground believed that German soldiers were occupying the monastery. It had been considered a key observational post by all those who were fighting there. However, during the bombing no Germans were present in the Abbey. Subsequent investigations found that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge there. After the bombings the German paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Division occupied the ruins because they provided excellent defensive cover.
More precisely, on February 15th, 1944 from 9:45 am to 12:20 pm 147 Allied “Flying Fortresses” dropped 297 tons of bombs on the Abbey (each bomb weighed 250 kg) and with 66 tons of incendiary bombs (weight: 50kg each). This was followed by 47 B25 bombers and 40 B26 bombers which dropped 100 tons of bombs.
Many believed that the truly massive bombing was useless. Even America’s General Clark, the Commander of the 5th Regiment, said that the bombing had been an error seeing that the Monastery didn’t hide German soldiers nor machine-gun nests. The few German soldiers who did go there, and only because the old abbott allowed them to do so, went instead for confessional purposes.
One month later a whopping 775 Allied planes dropped 2,500 bombs on the nearby town of Cassino killing many innocent Italians. On May 18th, 1944 General Enders and his brave Polish troops conquered the ruins of Monte Cassino. And there, just 1 km away from the mountain at the Polish War Cemetery lies General Enders (along with his wife) and his 1,000 loyal Polish soldiers who died during their battle against Hitler’s troops.
In December 1943, some 1,400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, mainly patristic and historical, in addition to a vast number of documents relating to the history of the Abbey, were sent to the Abbey's archives for safekeeping. German officers Lt. Col. Julius Schlegel and Capt. Maximilian Becker from the Hermann Goring’s Panzer-Division had them transferred to the Vatican at the beginning of the battle.
The Abbey was eventually rebuilt from scratch after the war and Pope Paul VI consecrated the rebuilt Basilica on October 24, 1964 (St. Benedict was made the patron saint of Europe). The VERY rich museum also contains a magnificent painting by the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli.
A good time to visit the Abbey and the museum is on Sunday.