The Bombing of Montecassino

In the first article our readers were informed about the saving of the library, archives and works of art from the famous Benedictine Monastery of Montecassino. In this article we wish to quote from dom Martino’s diary about the bombing, as they lived it themselves. We will relive the 15th February 1944, next month, the 16th, 17th and 18th February.

From dom Eusebio’s diary: (He kept the diary from 14th October 1943 until he took ill on 27th January 1944, when dom Martino would continue. Dom Eusebio died on 13th February 1944.)

Friday 31st December 1943: A terrible year is over, but even in the most difficult of moments, Divine Providence has never abandoned us. It is a year that will hold memories for the history of our Abbey, as it will for the history of our poor country, lost and trampled upon, surrounded by the enemy and deprived of sincere friendship. (…).

Saturday 1st January 1944: Anno Domini 1944. In nomine D.N. Jesu Christi cui honor in saecula. Amen. (…).

Tuesday 15th February 1944: (…) We all celebrate our Masses in our place of hiding. At about 8.30a.m. we recite Prime, Terce, and the Conventual Mass “de Octava” in a small room that has been made into a chapel. Afterwards we go to the Abbot’s small room to recite Sext and None. While we are praying the final antiphon of Our Lady “et pro nobis Christum exora”, we suddenly hear a tremendous explosion. Numerous others follow. It is about 9.30a.m. We kneel in a corner of the room, the Abbot is standing. He gives us absolution; we pray, waiting for death. The noise is so loud that we have to put cotton wool in our ears. The thick walls “jump” terribly. Smoke and dust come in through the windows and we can see flames from the bombs that have fallen on the side of the college. I don’t know how long this inferno lasts, it certainly seems a long time. Bombs are still falling when the deaf and dumb Giuseppe Cianci enters the room, frightened and pale. He kneels with us and shows us the medal around his neck making us understand that its thanks to it that he has been saved. He was in the Church when the bombing began. With sorrow he is able to “tell” us that the Church has been destroyed.

At about 11.15a.m. the bombing stops. Thanks be to God, our small monastic community is all safe and sound. We look around us; all the windows are shattered. The Abbot wants to go out and I help him to Bramante’s cloister. The entrance to the church is still standing, but with horror we can see that the sky is now the roof of the church!

We fear for those civilians hiding in the carpenter’s shop. People hiding at the post office, office, and the old olive press left their hiding places in absolute fear while the bombs were falling; many have died. (…) I return with the Abbot to our hiding place; I will not distance myself from him in case anything happens. We put some order into the Abbot’s room, to prepare a place for the Blessed Sacrament that dom Agostino has gone to get from the chapel of the Pieta. – All of a sudden – at about 1.00 p.m. there are terrible explosions all around us, all the walls are shaking.ruins of Montecassino

The Abbot and I rush to a corner of the room to protect ourselves from any falling debris. Bombs continue to fall all about and I notice that the door has been blocked with huge pieces of brick and stone. Calmly I tell the Abbot, “we are blocked in”. The women and children of our three families are crying in despair. Then we hear the voice of dom Agostino who just made it back in time with the Blessed Sacrament. He gives Holy Communion in the form of Viaticum to the families and to himself, thus consuming the Sacred Species.

At about 1.30 the bombing stops, but we are worried about the other monks. Even though Fr. Abbot and I are trapped, by shouting we are able to communicate with dom Agostino. He replies by telling us that where he is everybody is safe. (…) We must leave this room though. I help the Abbot climb over a wall and with difficulty we get him down the other side. Carrying the suitcases we had prepared the night before, we leave by the staircase, now heavily damaged. What a sight presents itself before our eyes! Everything is in ruins. The courtyard “della palestra” is one huge crater: on either side of it one can see the ruins of the college and of the destroyed columns. The Bramante Cloister and the Loggia del Paradiso no longer exist. The central well has been destroyed and at the bottom of it there is reddish coloured water. The grand staircase that leads to the church is littered with huge pieces of fallen masonry. Nothing remains of the Benefactors’ Cloister.

While we stand there in sorrow and fear, looking at all this destruction, Anglo-American hand grenades begin exploding all around us too. I tell the others that it would be better for us to go down to the “rabbit hutch” (hiding place). As we cross over what is left of Bramante’s Cloister we find out what has happened to the others. Dom Oderisio, dom Nicola, fra Pietro and dom Falconio, (a diocesan priest) were trapped in the room next to the Abbot’s. Fortunately they saw a shaft of light through a hole. By enlarging the hole they were able to get out. Dom Oderisio asks the Abbot what he is going to do. He replies that he will stay with me, but that everyone is free to do as he feels best, (thus temporarily relieving the monks of their vow of stability). Dom Nicola, dom Falconio and fra Zaccaria who are terribly shaken say that they can’t stay here any longer, and they will leave. Fra Pietro joins them too, thinking that the Abbot is leaving too. Dom Oderisio also decides to leave with Mr Salveti.

Many frightened civilians had left the Monastery after the first wave of bombs had fallen. Others have been killed by the hand grenades. We decide to go to the chapels on the lower floor of the “Torretta” (tower). On our way there we hear someone crying; it is a woman who has had her feet blown off. We take her with us to the Torretta. On the staircase of the lower floor and in the chapels we find hundreds of people. We go the Chapel of the Pieta where we decide to stay. Fra Romano, with the help of some men, goes twice to our original hiding place to get the food we had prepared the night before and which luckily he was able to get without too much hindrance.

Just before dusk fra Pietro returns. He and others had hid themselves under the walls of St. Agatha. He returns to be with the Abbot. (…) On the staircase and in the other chapels there is the continual sound of crying and lamentation. With nightfall it gets even worse. – We are in the Chapel of the Pieta. The Abbot is seated on a chair “in cornu epistulae” of the altar; I sit next to him on the floor and next to me is d. Agostino. “In cornu evangelii” fra Giacomo is lying sick on a mattress. Next to him is fra Romano, then fra Pietro, fra Carlo and the deaf and dumb man. We eat a little bread and cheese; we have no water.

At about 8.00 p.m. a German officer arrives. He gives the following information to dom Gregorio, the Abbot:

“At the Pope‘s request (auf Wunsch des Papstes), the German Fuhrer, A. Hitler asks for a ceasefire from the Americans so that the Abbot, his monks and all the civilians may leave Montecassino. The Abbot, monks, wounded and children will be taken by car via Cassino, but they must make their way to the cars on foot as the vehicles can’t reach the Monastery, the roads being badly damaged. The others, also on foot, will leave the line of fire as best they can. The Pope wants the Abbot and monks to be brought to the Vatican. We will wait until tomorrow or the day after for an answer. Tonight Field Marshal Kesselring will ask for the ceasefire. We hope that the Americans will give it, otherwise it will fall back on them”.

Then the Officer asks the Abbot to put in writing that at the time of the bombings there were no German soldiers in the monastery. The Abbot agrees and the declaration, signed on the altar of the Pieta Chapel, was given without force or pressure, because it is the truth. I tell the civilians about the ceasefire: they don’t believe me.

I pass a sad and sleepless night. I think of the tragic situation in which we find ourselves: the words of the officer give a ray of hope. But if it is not true, and there is no ceasefire, how will we carry the wounded and sick away from the line of fire? Will the Abbot be able to reach Roccasecca on foot? If we remain, how will we live with so many sick, old and wounded? Will we all die under the ruins?

All of a sudden there is a terrible noise and we are covered in a thick dust. The pharmacy and the roof of the Via Crucis Chapel have fallen in close by us. No casualties: it is 1.30 a.m.