Bombing of Montecassino

Sixty-one years ago, on Tuesday 15th February 1944, the Benedictine Monastery of Montecassino was destroyed by Allied bombs. Italy, it must be remembered, was Germany’s ally, until July 1943 when King Victor Emmanuel III removed Mussolini as head of the Government, putting Pietro Badoglio in his place. From then on, Italy was on the side of the Allies. The Allied troops began their offensive in Italy by penetrating Sicily and embarking at Salerno in mid 1943 and slowly tried to gain ground by making their way north to Rome. The war reached the area of Montecassino in July 1943 when the military airport at Aquino was hit, and then the town of Cassino itself was bombed in September 1943. Civilians, as well as Religious sisters whose convents had been badly hit made their way up the mountain to the monastery, to Montecassino, seeking refuge. Surely, they thought, no one would bomb this holy house that contained the mortal remains of Saint Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica. Even the Abbot, dom Gregorio Diamare thought likewise, albeit that the Episcopal palace at Cassino had been destroyed. (He was both the Abbot of Montecassino and the Ordinary of the diocese of Cassino.)

Considering pope st. pius x position, Montecassino had an advantage of being an excellent “look out post”, dominating the whole valley below. Were the Germans in the Monastery, looking down from this vantage point on the Allied forces’ every move? No, they were not. At no time whatsoever did the German troops take over or live in the Monastery, and they also respected an area of 300 metres around the Monastery precincts. The German soldiers would only enter the Monastery (ruins) when the monks had left, on 17th February; and three months later, on 18th May 1944, the Allies would take “possession” of the Monastery, the Germans being driven further north. The Allies would enter Rome in June 1944.

That the Germans were not, therefore, in the Monastery, is objective truth, as told me by dom Agostino (+1999), – one of the monks who lived through all of this, including the bombing, and survived. (See also the book “Il Bombardamento di Montecassino” war diary of dom Eusebio and dom Martino).

Objective credit must also be given to two German officers, – Lt. Colonel Julius Schlegel, (a Catholic), and Captain Maximilian Becker, (a Protestant), both of the Herman Goering Division. On 14th October 1943, these two soldiers, in separate interviews with the Abbot, told him that they could not guarantee that the Monastery would not be destroyed, and for this reason they strongly recommended the Abbot to remove the Monastery library, archives works of art and other treasures to safer surroundings, e.g. Castel Sant’ Angelo or even further north of Rome. They also thought it would be prudent if the monks left too.

Dom Gregorio was skeptical. How could he be sure that these treasures would be placed in sure surroundings and not taken to Germany? He asked for time to think so as to be able to discuss this with the community. After a heated discussion with the whole community, it was agreed to move all to Rome, to safer surroundings. The first consignment of books left for Rome on 19th October and over the next few weeks everything else would be packed and sent to Rome. The Germans also gave passage to the Religious sisters who had sought refuge at Montecassino to other convents in Rome. Thanks thus to the initiative of these two German officers, the monastery library of 70,000 books, the archives containing 80,000 documents (eg. the works of St. Gregory the Great, hand written works of St. Thomas Aquinas) works of art and other treasures belonging to the Italian State and the Italian Royal Family, were saved from perdition when the Monastery was destroyed.

Of the eighty monks, all except 11 would accompany the documents and archives to Rome. Dom Tommaso Leccisotti would leave with the first consignment, being given the task of liaising for the Monastery with the Italian Government and the Vatican Secretary of State. From the diary of dom(s) Eusebio and Martino we read: “3rd November 1943; The Abbot decides to remain at Montecassino. (…) Remains therefore, all to see and as a guarantee before everybody, the superior of the Abbey, its official authority. Of the monastic community the following remain at Montecassino with the German command’s permission:

1) the most reverend Abbot, dom Gregorio Diamare, aged 79;
2) dom Oderisio Graziosi, aged 39;
3) dom Martino Matronola, aged 40;
4) dom Agostino Saccomanno, aged 34;
5) dom Nicola Clemente, aged 33;
6) dom Eusebio Grossetti, aged 33;
7) fra (Brother) Carlo Pelagalli, aged 79;
8) fra Pietro Nardone, aged 39;
9) fra Giacomo Ciaaldi, aged 30;
10) fra Romano Collela, aged 24;
11) fra Zaccaria di Raimo, aged 30.”.

All the monks would survive the bombing of the monastery, with the exception of dom Eusebio Grossetti, who would die of typhoid on 13th February, two days before.

In the year 2000, the only monk still alive of this group was Fra Giacomo (James) Ciaraldi. (Those of us who went to Montecassino during our Holy Year pilgrimage will perhaps remember seeing him in the monastery bookshop.)

On the 14th February 1944, the Allies (The Fifth Army) dropped leaflets on and around the monastery telling civilians to leave the area.

It read: “Italian friends, ATTENTION! Up until now we have tried to avoid bombing the monastery of Montecassino. The Germans have taken advantage of this. But now the fighting has gotten even closer to this Holy area. The time has come where, unfortunately, we have position our arms against the Monastery itself.

We are telling you this so that you have the possibility of saving yourselves. Our warning is urgent: Leave the Monastery. Go away immediately. Respect this warning. It is being given to you for your own good. THE FIFTH ARMY.

The Monastery was bombed the following day. Many civilians died. From dom Tommaso Leccisotti’s diary we read: “Tuesday 15th February. A day of mourning and sorrow. The English radio informs us that Montecassino was this morning bombed over a long period of time because the Germans had transformed it into a fortress. (…) To complete this I quote what a daily paper had as its headline: The enemy orders the destruction of the historical abbey of Montecassino”. The newspaper continues: “The Vatican had formally asked Germany and the Allies to avoid the horror of the destruction of the Abbey. It is said that the Germans have made the Abbey into a fortress. Therefore the Allied commanders asked themselves for how long they could avoid attacking the Abbey. However, the Allies did not waste time. The latest information tells us that they dropped leaflets warning civilians to leave the area for their own safety.”

The evening paper informs of us of the following: “This morning at about 9.30 a squadron of 30 bombers repeatedly bombed the Monastery which has been almost completely destroyed. The Germans deny ever being in the Monastery.” We will know the truth if the monks who were there are able to make it to Rome.

All in all, from the 15th February 1944 until the 18th May 1944 when it was “liberated” by the Allies, 1,500 planes would drop 2,500 tons of bombs on the Monastery.

In a subsequent article, we will “relive” the bombing of the Monastery as written in the diary of dom Martino Matronola, the diary that was abandoned amidst the ruins but was found and returned to him.