On this day in 1944, Allied troops began their first assault on Monte Cassino, a Benedictine Abbey on the Winter Line, a German defensive position. Italy had the war begun as a Fascist power under Benito Mussolini, but by 1944, the tide of the conflict had turned and the Italians sided with the Allies. The Germans effectively took over the defense of the country and, as the Allies worked their way up the “boot” of Italy into what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the soft underbelly of Europe”, they strengthened their positions in preparation for the Allied drive to capture Rome.
Monte Cassino, built in 529, offered commanding views over the Liri and Rapido valleys. These two mountainous corridors offered the only real pathway to Italy’s north, and as such, the Germans devoted considerable effort to reinforcing their position there. Repeated Allied bombing runs on Cassino only succeeded in reducing the old structure to rubble, rubble that offered the elite paratroops of the german 10th Army excellent protection from Allied direct fire weapons. From January to May, repeated Allied assaults on the position failed; elsewhere, the Winter Line began to crumble as Canadian troops seized Ortona and the Allies breached German positions in the Liri valley. The fourth and final assault ended on May 18th as men from the Polish II Corps – anxious for revenge after the devastation of their home country – reached the crest of Monte Cassino and hoisted their flag atop the ruins. Running low on supplies and battered by the vicious Polish attack (which devolved into hand-to-hand combat), the German 10th Army was forced to pull back to the north.
The Battle of Monte Casino was an Allied success and, like most battles, came at great cost. Over 70,000 men on both sides were injured or killed, as well as 2,000 civilian deaths. Seizing Casino enabled the Allies to press on to Rome; unfortunately for Allied command, however, the 10th Army escaped and lived to fight another day.