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The Battle of Cassino, January-May 1944

By the beginning of 1944 German forces in Italy had drawn up a strong defensive position, known as the ‘Gustav Line’, in order to block the Allies’ route to Rome, and which Hitler himself ordered them to hold at all costs. The linchpin of the Gustav Line was the town of Cassino, known for its Benedictine monastery founded in the 6th century.

Offering the Germans a unique defensive position, Cassino was repeatedly attacked by Allied troops between January and May of that year. After multiple failed assaults and a conviction that the abbey of Monte Cassino was being used as a German artillery observation point, Monastery Hill was bombed by 1,150 tonnes of high explosives on 15th February, reducing the entire summit to a smoking mass of rubble. By 20th March, when the third battle had begun, Churchill sent this telegram asking why Cassino continues to be ‘the only place which you must keep butting at’, where ‘five or six divisions have been worn out going into these jaws’, and asks if this is indeed the only ‘passage forward’. It seems his patience was wearing thin.

General Harold Alexander, in his reply, explains that the Liri valley is the only suitable road to Rome that will support artillery and armour, and that this exit is ‘blocked and dominated by Monte Cassino on which stands the Monastery’. The steep hills, deep ravines and rocky escarpments make this position very difficult to attack, and attempts by American and New Zealand infantry to outflank this bastion had resulted in heavy losses. These natural barriers were only worsened by the destruction wrought ‘in Cassino to roads and movement by bombing [which] was so terrific that employment of tanks or any other fighting vehicles has been seriously hampered’.

Not only do these telegrams offer a detailed understanding of the challenges faced by the Allied forces at Cassino, and why it was so crucial that they took the town, they also highlight the very demanding expectations Churchill had of his generals. General Alexander also speaks of the ‘tenacity’ of the German paratroops who had been subjected to incredible fire power, writing ‘I doubt if there are any other troops in the world who could have stood up to it and then gone on fighting with the ferocity they have’.

Eventually, on 18th May 1944 Polish troops made it to the summit of Monte Cassino and raised a Polish flag over the ruins. After 55,000 Allied, 20,000 German and over 2,000 local casualties, the town and abbey of Cassino was razed to the ground, and the Gustav line was finally broken.

CHAR 20/160/25-28: Telegram from General Harold Alexander [Later Lord Alexander of Tunis, Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in Italy] to WSC marked "Most Secret and Private".

CHAR 20/160/15: Telegram from WSC to General Harold Alexander [Later Lord Alexander of Tunis, Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in Italy] marked "Personal and Secret. Private and Confidential"

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