Montecassino and The Gustav Line

How the Allies broke through German defences just a few miles south of Mortale

The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a costly series of four battles during World War II, fought by the Allies against Germans with the intention of breaking through the Winter Line and seizing Rome.












In the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys and certain surrounding peaks and ridges, together known as the Gustav Line. The Germans had not occupied the historic hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in AD 524 by Benedict of Nursia and which dominated the town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys, although they manned defensive positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey walls. On 15 February, the monastery, high on a peak overlooking the town of Cassino, was destroyed by 1,400 tons of bombs dropped by American bombers. The bombing was based on the fear that the abbey was being used as a lookout post for the German defenders (this position evolved over time to admit that German soldiers were not garrisoned there but that the risk of the monastery becoming occupied justified the action). Two days after the bombing, German paratroupers took up positions in the ruins; the destruction caused by the bombing and the resulting jagged wasteland of rubble gave troops improved protection from air and artillery attack making it a more viable defensive position. From 17 January to 18 May, the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops. For the last of these the Allies gathered 20 divisions for a major assault along a twenty mile front and drove the German defenders from their positions but at a high cost.

With General Harold Alexander in supreme command, the 8th Army units advanced up the Liri valley and the 5th Army up the coast to the Hitler defensive line (renamed the Senger Line at Hitler's insistence to minimise the significance if it was penetrated). An immediate follow-up assault failed and 8th Army then decided to take some time to re-organise. Getting 20,000 vehicles and 2,000 tanks through the broken Gustav Line was a major job taking several days. The next assault on the line commenced on May 23 with the Polish Corps attacking Piedimonte (defended by the redoubtable 1st Parachute Division) on the right and 1st Canadian Infantry Division (fresh from 8th Army reserve) in the centre. On May 24, the Canadians had breached the line, and 5th Canadian Armoured Division poured through the gap. On May 25 the Poles took Piedimonte, and the line collapsed. The way was clear for the advance northwards on Rome and beyond.

© 2011 Paul Forte

Ruins of Montecassino

nd Polish Corps lost 1500 men in three days

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