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Coalition Warfare 1944: The Monte Cassino Campaign

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 5 December 2013

Acclaimed author and battlefield guide Peter Caddick-Adams examines the Monte Cassino campaign, arguing that it is perhaps the campaign of the Second World War that most closely anticipates the coalition operations of today.


Peter Caddick-Adams:

Let us just ponder - and to reassure you, I'm not going to talk about the development of the Mini in 1960s Italy courtesy of Michael Caine - but we are in fact thinking of the Italian theatre in 1944-45. 

Now, I had the great good fortune to work at what was the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, now the UK Defence Academy, and one of the things we do there from year to year is undertake battlefield tours and staff rides. And so Monte Cassino fell into our ambit several years ago.

And I ventured there with the good Professor Richard Holmes. And if there's anyone I would like to pay tribute to at this juncture, it is Richard. He headhunted me to go down and join him at Shrivenham 15 years ago and really as a military historian he has taught me an awful lot of what I know. And it's such a shame he is no longer with us, because probably that Monte Cassino staff ride all those years ago was one of the best I've ever done, and the professor and I boxed and coxed very happily up and down the hills and valleys of central Italy.

Well, let us start not in 1944, but in 1942 in the Western Desert just after El Alamein. And this interesting commander here you will all know [Bernard Law Montgomery]. And he's perched in his staff car, 'Old Faithful', the Humber Snipe, bowling along the Western Desert, along that coastal stretch that moves out of Alexandria and takes you all the way through those battlegrounds. And he's chasing the 8th Army because he's been back for a conference and he's heading up to the front line. And he likes to be on the ground rather than in the air so he can stay in touch with the reality of his troops on the ground. And in that long journey - we're talking hundreds and hundreds of miles - and a car journey that stretches over days... But that's Monty.

After a while, conversation with his staff officer and his driver peters out to nothing because they've used up all the topics of conversation and there's nothing to see. Until in the distance there's a small speck, and the small speck grows larger and larger and it's another vehicle coming the other way. No surprises there, no threat, but of course it's an interesting topic for conversation because there's nothing else around. 

And as the speck grows larger, it magnifies into a British Army truck with a driver sitting at the front. And as the truck grows larger it's apparent that the driver is not wearing a top. Well, no surprises in the Western Desert. But as the truck passes it is then apparent that the driver is not wearing anything underneath either. 

To add insult to injury - and Lord knows where he has found it - the driver doffs a top hat that he has found somewhere or other at this anonymous staff car, he knows not who is in it, and the two vehicles pass their separate ways. And, as the driver later related, this could have gone two ways: this could have been the funniest thing that Bernard Law Montgomery had ever seen, or there would be a car chase across the Western Desert. And fortunately it was the former and that amused Monty for the next few hours. But even he realised that things had gone too far.  

He says in his memoirs that he never really issued much in the way of dress regulations, but he was very, very famous for issuing his orders of the day. And in fact during the course of his military career, there was only one order that he ever issued about dress, and that was that in the 8th Army top hats will not be worn!

Well, we take the good Field Marshal now to Sicily in July 1943 - Operation HUSKY. And we've just passed the anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Sicily which took just over a month in July-August 1943. And it's quite interesting that Allied strategy is slightly directionless. The 8th Army fights its way through Alamein. The British 1st Army has landed with Americans as part of Operation TORCH, moving from the west to the east. And the two collide with the Afrika Korps, which is bottled up in Tunisia, defeated in May 1943. And thereafter the Allies then start to scratch their chins - where do they go next? 

The interesting thing is that, of course, the Americans have got their eyes already fixed on Normandy. And British policy, rather through the eyes of Churchill, is to do everything to prevent the Americans going to Normandy prematurely. Because the British view is that the Germans are a very powerful opponent and if we go into an invasion of northern France too early we're bound to get a bloody nose. And we certainly don't want that for the Americans. And they've already received a minor-ish set back at the beginning of 1943 in the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. 

And in retrospect that's a very, very wise policy, but it does mean - what's the alternative? And the alternative is a campaign against mainland Italy. Now, that being an Axis partner has several advantages - Italy also being perceived as rather weak. And therefore if we can hop into Italy, perhaps take the Italian capital, Rome, that's an enormous psychological leap forward for the Second World War where victory is still not in sight. 

At the beginning of the year, yes, we defeated the Germans at Stalingrad and, if you like, this is a sort of even keel at the moment. There's probably no prospect to the Germans invading the United Kingdom, for example. But we've got to do a lot more to prevail and make sure that we actually secure victory. 

So Italy is perceived as a holding operation, retaining the initiative, removing one of the Axis partners and gaining that valuable combat experience before going to Normandy. And by then the Allies will be ready doctrinally, in terms of equipment, but also having learnt that experience which an awful lot of Americans are pretty fresh to combat against the Germans. And quite rightly, I think, we feel that we're not quite ready.

So there's the rationale. And if the Italian campaign goes on for longer than expected, you have the added bonus in the Allied planners' minds of tying the German reinforcements, that might otherwise go to Normandy, down in sunny Italy. So there's a lot of merit and perhaps there's a lot of self-justification there, but this was the thinking at the time. 

That means that we step into Sicily in July 1943 and then in September 1943 we then march into Italy. And it is inevitable that the two will be bound up to one another. Fortunately for us there have been negotiations behind the scenes between the Italians who depose Mussolini in the middle of 1943. And just before the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno in early September 1943, the Italians announced that they've not merely surrendered, but changed sides.

And that presents a real headache for the Allies. What do you do against the Italians who have been fighting us since 1940, have spilt a lot of Allied blood, killed a lot of British soldiers and Commonwealth soldiers? They now not only want to surrender, but join us. And the logical thing is to welcome them as allies. That sticks in the throat of a lot of senior military and political commanders who, in retrospect I think rather grudgingly and probably shamefacedly, call them co-belligerents rather than allies. Because they will be important in our story in Monte Cassino having been responsible for so much of the logistics that we will need to sustain that campaign.

So Italy surrenders at a very fine timeline of... not willing to surrender unless we're going to invade, where we're not willing to invade unless they're going to surrender. So you can imagine the negotiations behind the scenes, a bit like forming a coalition government.

So with our map of Italy we have an arrow at the bottom, that's the Salerno bay where a combined British and American force land under the command of General Mark Clark, more of him later. And the aim is to move up the coast and seize Rome - circled there - and the optimistic idea is that we will be eating out platefuls of spaghetti in the eternal city by Christmas 1943. 

Well, that's a tall order and we've got three months in which to do it and the map also here gives us the topography of Italy: a spine of mountains going down the centre, very little in the way of movement corridors that will take large numbers of Allied soldiers northwards to occupy the Italian peninsular. And of course very few Germans in Italy in the middle of 1943, rather more as Sicily is taken and 40,000 Germans emerge into southern Italy having been thrown out of Sicily.

But Hitler is not willing to give up the Italian mainland, because were the Allies to occupy the whole of Italy that would bring them right up to the Austrian border. They would then be able to use the airbases in Italy to bomb southern Germany and Austria. And Hitler wants to keep particularly Allied aircraft, but also Allied soldiers, as far away from the Third Reich as possible. 

So his policy is to defend forward and so he's going to contest the Italian mainland as much as possible, has second guessed that the Italians are about to surrender, so as they do floods Italy with masses of German soldiers. And those Italians who resist are for the main part either engaged in combat or locked up. And over half a million Italians are then shipped off to Germany as war workers or prisoners of war, and have a very grim fate, unfortunately.

So, the Salerno landings are meant to pre-empt any German reaction, but in fact the Germans have second guessed us and therefore what we're faced with is a bitter fight. And we only just manage to hang on to the Salerno beach head. And in the fullness of time it's the Allied numbers that prevail and the Germans are forced back.

Well, that's the movement corridor that we would like to use which is governed by rivers, particularly the Liri River which takes you straight up to Rome. The Germans then as part of their delaying strategy draw across the waist of Italy several defensive lines, using mountain ranges and rivers. There are a whole series, but the main one that interests us is that of the Gustav Line. And the Gustav Line runs pretty much where the red line is on the map. And that runs across that movement corridor where the Gustav Line intersects the Liri valley - we actually have a confluence of a couple of valleys and river lines -but there is the little town of Cassino, and on the top of the nearby hillside is the ancient Benedictine monastery with which our story is concerned. And that gives us the context and the reason why there is so much fighting in that vicinity and for so long.

Monte Cassino, or the abbey at Cassino founded in the first millennium, if you like, is a treasure trove of artefacts from benefactors through history, and so today would be a Unesco World Heritage Site. Extremely well known and been visited by lots of people through history, including Charles Dickens. And he writes about it in one of his factual books 'Pictures from Italy' in the 1850s, and from that we get a sense of how similar it was to 1944 - it really hadn't changed architecturally. 

To defend the abbey there was a small town that grew up at the foot of the hill with a castle and walls around the old town. This is what it looked like when it was called San Germano in the middle of the 19th century. And then if we leap forward to 1944 the mountain range opposite Cassino, and they are separated by a river valley that is five miles wide, the mountain range opposite is called Monte Trocchio and this is where Allied troops arrive in January 1944.

And that's the view they would have had. So we're looking north-north-east. The snow-capped mountain is Monte Cairo, dominating the entire feature. Half way down and slightly to the left, I've ringed the abbey settlement. Half way down and slightly to the right, lower down, is the castle on top of its own little hill. And at the bottom is the town of Cassino, about 15,000 people. It has at least quadrupled in size today and that whole river valley is now populated with industrial estates and housing estates, although the geology is pretty similar.

So in the forward edge of the Allied line in this photograph in January 1944 looking across and the Gustav Line, the German defensive line, incorporates the rivers that we can't quite make out, but are in the middle of the valley there, the hillsides as much as possible, some concrete bunkers that we might expect to have seen in Normandy as well are there but generally the Germans have used terrain as much as possible. 

And so venturing down into the valley is going to bring things like artillery fire directed from the heights down on you, the Germans have laid a lot of minefields. They've flooded the rivers where possible to create a boggy river valley which is no use for tanks and pretty impassable for human beings as well.

This is a similar sort of view, but as it would have been in about 1900 and you can see how the abbey dominates all around. 

Here we are, the little town of Cassino, a view impossible to have today because it is so comprehensively destroyed. This is circa 1930 and you can see the abbey up there dominating everything.

Well, this is a picture postcard of the upper reaches just on the way up to the abbey and it is a reminder that this has been an inhabited spot from way before even Roman times. And traditionally St Benedict went up there for peace and quiet, found an old pagan temple there that the Romans had developed, but the Romans were only the latest tenants in a series going right back to pre-history. And before then there were the Etruscans and these walls here were already 2,000 years old before St Benedict even arrived and there are remains of them even in the site today. 

It reminds us that if you're going to build up there, you need to build big and strong to withstand the extreme weather conditions of winter and the fact that there is the odd earthquake. And so the abbey is really more of a fortress than a religious settlement. The walls at the base of the abbey - these are just the outside exterior estate walls - but the abbey's walls are about 60ft [18m] thick at their base and 100ft [30m] high at the highest extent.

Well, this is a view that we have of the abbey today. And it's been completely restored from the bombing and destruction of 1944, but it gives you a sense that this is no mean small series of cloisters perched on a little hillock. This is a very substantial building that had been developed over 1,500 years and fortunately, because the blueprints of the abbey were removed before the destruction was vested in the area, was able to be rebuilt after the Second World War pretty much as a dead ringer to how it was before.  

This is how it looked before. The hillside had been terraced into submission by generation of monks and effectively the whole place is self-supporting - its own wells, its own food, and so on. But this is the original. 

And the area, in fact the whole of the Mediterranean, not just Italy and not just the Cassino front, is commanded by General Albert Kesselring. Smiling Albert was his nickname, both within his own side and the Allies, but you only crossed him once. He wears the uniform of a field marshal of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, but of course the German air force is a new creation of the 1930s so he had started off in the Bavarian Artillery in the First World War. 

Therefore he has an understanding, being an airman, not only of air operations but of land operations too. And of all Germany's commanders he is probably the one who thinks most in terms of tri-service military operations in terms of trying to integrate army, navy and air force and is a good steady hand and trusted by each of the services, which makes him different to many of the other field marshals and senior commanders who are probably army men and have no dealings and no trust with the Luftwaffe. So a steady hand and a vicious opponent.

Now it's significant I think that we're in the Italian theatre pitching a dictatorship against a democracy and that will inform the way two armies work and perform in battle. The Commonwealth forces, of course, are under the figurehead of their King, His Majesty King George VI. And I was struck by how quickly George VI went to the Cassino battlefield after the fighting had died down. The battle was over in June 1944, he's there is July.

And the presence, I think, of him not just awarding VCs but going around and chatting to the troops - and we all know more now about George VI through that wonderful film The King's Speech and how nervous a conversationalist he was in public - brought, I think, a lot of psychological benefits certainly to the British and Commonwealth forces. And it is significant that his opposite number, if you like, Adolf Hitler, never strays out of East Prussia at all. The multiplier effect of having that figurehead would have been beneficial as we always used to say about Wellington on the battlefields as well. 

So George VI - here pictured in a command car next door to General Mark Clark, one of the two Army commanders in the Italian theatre, the other being Oliver Leese who has replaced Montgomery as head of the 8th Army. Mark Clark commands the 5th American Army which has a British corps under command. And Mark Clark, well, we will find out more about him. 

On his staff was a young journalist called Alan Whicker, sadly no longer with us, but Alan Whicker learned his trade as a journalist and an individual doing pieces to camera in the Italian theatre and was very dismissive of Mark Clark's love of publicity. And he said that at the height of the Italian campaign when we were desperately short of manpower Mark Clark maintained a publicity staff of 200 on his personal staff and made sure that all press releases began not 'The 5th Army has done this' but 'Mark Clark's 5th Army has done this'. And whenever there was a photo opportunity he would perch in the appropriate place. An aide would then run up with a helmet and two hand grenades which would be placed around his person, the photographs would be taken and then Mark Clark would resume his normal dress, as you can see here, and meanwhile whatever signpost was in the back was then unscrewed and taken off to the Mark Clark collection of souvenirs. But that's the way the Americans do business.

And next door to him we've got General Sir Harold Alexander, a bit of a favourite individual of mine, born the younger son of an earl but achieves an earldom in his own lifetime. He is the Army Group Commander because having two armies on the Allied side in the theatre they clearly need a higher level of co-ordination. Churchill's favourite general who leans heavily on the intellectual acumen of his Chief of Staff who was then Major General Sir John Harding, later Field Marshal Lord Harding of Petherton.  

So there is some of the Allied command team and unfortunately before we wade into the Italian theatre we really haven't done our homework in terms of geology or climate and as soon as we land in September 1943 the next month the Italian rainy season begins and all those wonderfully constructed bailey bridges are swept away. The Italian roads, which there aren't many that are paved, become quagmires and you can see the effect on the most mechanised army in the world. This is what we're going to rely on for speed and momentum to get us into Rome, to get us through the Italian terrain and it all bogs down remarkably quickly in a series of perfectly predictable climatic events that no one has really thought to sit down and ponder. 

And if that's not enough, the following month once the frosts have come and gone then the Italian winter sets in. And given the fact that we're up in the hills the temperature is magnified there so we've gone from an Italian summer of perhaps 30-40 degrees, and you will know how warm it gets in central Italy if you've been there, but in the winter the temperatures plunge to -20 sometimes in the valleys, but if we're on the hilltops we're going down to -30 and even more than that. And you will know, any of you who have been in armour, that it's horribly hot in summer but freezing cold in winter, as the poor New Zealanders of the 2nd New Zealand Armoured Division - of whom these are their Sherman tanks - would have found. 

And of course we're used to today, and the museum is full of them, specialised kit for working in different climatic conditions, whether it is the Arctic snows or the Falklands or Afghanistan or Iraq. But in 1944 winter simply means you unroll your great coat from your backpack, but there's no other specialised kit. And if you've forgotten or never had your gloves issued, then tough! The trouble is that some units, like the Americans, haven't even had an issue of winter kit and some of the German units haven't either. So they are working somehow or other, and I don't know how they manage it, in the extremes of winter still in summer linen and cotton garments.

Well, there are four battles of Monte Cassino and before we plunge into them it is just worth saying that we can divide them into different kinds. The first and the fourth are battles of manoeuvre spread along wide areas of terrain where we're trying to outflank the Germans with some pretty intelligent types of attack. The distance from the coast, the Gulf of Gaeta, up the river lines to the little town of Cassino is only about 20 miles and the first and fourth battles are fought all along that length of river line, trying to outflank the Germans who are defending on the left in the slide. The second and third battles forego the length and breadth of that kind of attack for a narrow attack simply against the area of Cassino town and the heights with the monastery and so on. 

And ticking away in the background is another clever plan that the Allies have come up with, which is to attack the port of Anzio. You can see it on the slide quite clearly here, Anzio 20 miles, on the coast, 20 miles away from Rome. The idea is that if you make a large landing, two divisions, essentially an army corps, at Anzio you threaten the German rear and they will either have to divert reinforcements from Cassino to Anzio or they will worry about Rome itself being seized. So tied in with the launch of the first battle is an assault landing at Anzio in January 1944. 

And Mark Clark, you can see him there, the 5th Army commander, bottom right, his mind is focused solely on Anzio for most of the campaign. And there's a very good reason for that. He is the protege of General Dwight Eisenhower, his great mate who he has soldiered with for a long time. The two have shared pretty much the same military path trajectory. They're very young, full generals, gone a long way very, very quickly. And Mark Clark knows that Eisenhower is planning a Normandy invasion and that will be sometime in the summer.

The last seaborne assault before Normandy will be Anzio and therefore Anzio has to go well. If it goes poorly as Salerno was very much touch-and-go, and under Mark Clark's tutelage, if Anzio goes poorly it will give the Germans great heart that they can defeat or stall seaborne invasions. If it goes extremely well then that will offer all sorts of morale boosting events for the Allies who will later land in Normandy. So that's where his focus is. So the Cassino battles are largely left to the operational commanders on the ground.

Above Mark Clark there is Oliver Leese and opposite him are the two German commanders, General Von Vietinghoff, who is the overall German commander of the German 10th Army, but more to the point his local corps commander, responsible for defending the Cassino area, is General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin. 

A word about him. An old Bavarian Catholic aristocrat, interestingly a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before the First World War, speaks perfect English, French, Italian, all the romance languages, a thoroughly well versed Renaissance man and knows all his opposite numbers, he's bumped into them in the interwar years. And not only that, he is a lay member of the Benedictine order whose monastery he is about to defend in the four battles of Monte Cassino. Therefore, I suggest, his inner self is full of tensions. He is working for a dictatorship he detests. Ethically he's a military soldier and has to do the best he can, but everything the regime that he works for represents goes against his Catholic religion. And so remarkable that he puts in as good a performance as he does.

There's the scene of Anzio which for the entire time of the four Monte Cassino battles is ticking over in the background. Of course the Germans react very strongly to the first Anzio landing and the two divisions and more troops fed in there are bottled up pretty much for the entire time, the five months of our four battles. It hasn't gone well.

Well, the campaign is also the scene of bitter propaganda. And there's a propaganda war being waged as the Allies' advance - hoping to be in Rome, remember, for Christmas 1943 - had slowed right down. And what we have is a gift for the Germans to be able to point out to the Allies and to the wider world that the Allied campaign in Italy is not producing the sort of results intended. And certainly the setbacks at Anzio produce all sorts of opportunities for propaganda that the Germans take every opportunity in stuffing down the Allies throats.

Well, the first battle is one, as I say, attacks on a broad front. The French are operating on the Allied right under Alphonse Juin here and we have to remember that one of the interesting points about the campaign in Monte Cassino is it is very much a coalition operation. At any one point, I think, after the war Alexander identifies the fact that there are about 22-23 nations under Allied command fighting in the Italian theatre. 

And that gives us an interesting parallel to military operations today, because at any one time in Afghanistan the coalition numbers are around about 20-22 partner nations, as indeed it was doing in Iraq a few years ago. So a lot of crossovers, because these are coalition partners, not alliance partners. They haven't signed a treaty identifying their common goals. They don't have standardised military equipment. They happen to be in an ad hoc coalition fighting the same enemy. The French, for example, are comprised of four divisions who, once French North Africa fell, had been fighting on the Vichy side and had then joined the Allied side.

A fifth French division, which later joins the force, had right from the word go in 1940 declared for De Gaulle and had always been the 1st Free French Infantry Division. Once the French corps arrives in Italy, mostly Vichy troops, the 1st Free French Infantry Division takes the decision they will not fight alongside the Vichy French who have been pro-Nazi for the last three and a half years. It's a very French solution, isn't it? 

So the large French division takes part, belatedly, in the fourth battle but not in the first because of these political differences that have got to be ironed out. Juin's performance is closely watched by people like De Gaulle, because Juin, himself a former Vichy French commander, needs to prove himself not only to the Allies but to the French as well, so wheels within wheels. And most of the troops he commands in the first and fourth Cassino battles are French, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Berbers, Muslim hill men from the hilly parts of north-west Africa.

They do extremely well, but the winter attrition of simply climbing those ice-strewn hillsides in January pretty much defeats them. But they do attrite a lot of the German defenders in the area. But weather is against them and they don't have enough reserves to quite defeat the Germans on the northern flank on the first battle, but they certainly fix the Germans who are left in possession.

This brings us onto the subject of logistics, because not only are the Cassino roads completely impassable because of firstly the mud but then the snow, but we're leaving the roads anyway because we're doing a lot of fighting in the hills. This is something the Allies really haven't encountered up until now and that means we have a logistics headache - how are we going to get all the combat supplies we need off the main highways and up into the hills. And the answer is everything from batteries, radios, medical supplies, ammunition, food, fuel, whatever, has to be man packed up, which is going to take up a huge amount of your available military manpower. Or we have to use mules. 

Now, we have 300 mules in the Allied armies at the time of the Sicily campaign in July 1943. By February 1944 we have 15,000. Now, where have they come from? Well, this is where the Italian Army come to our rescue and they use mules for their mountain artillery and for exactly this sort of problem. But 15,000 mules means you need veterinarian surgeries, you need mule shoes as opposed to horse shoes, you need harness makers who will make all the harnesses to carry all the ammunition, the food, the mortar you can see on the mule there. 

You need mule handlers and there aren't enough mules in Italy to sustain the Allies' requirement for mules, we need 5,000 a month. Some die and a lot are blown up, unfortunately. So they are purchased around the world, Cyprus, Lebanon, Palestine, further afield, all the way across North Africa, even into South America, and North America provides mules as well

Researching mules was not something I ever anticipated having to do, but I discovered they have different diets depending on which country they've been brought up in and they speak different languages! They speak the language of their handler, so an American mule handler cannot communicate with an Italian mule and requires a different diet. So this just magnifies the whole logistics problem. It's an interesting and salutary lesson. It's not a problem we had identified even as late as December 1943 and yet by February, two months later, we've got all these mules. 

That kind of logistics problem is one that could easily happen to us today. Fortunately, we were flexible enough to realise the problem and have some means of coping with it because we still had the British Indian Army divisions under command and there are three British Indian Army divisions in the Italian theatre, all of whom had mule handlers. So we had a core of knowledge about what to do with these stubborn four-legged beasts. But we've rather lost that today. So were we ever to find ourselves in this theatre and without enough helicopters - and where have I heard that echoing accusation - this might be a solution. But you do need some knowledge somewhere in the institution.

The first battle then comprises the French trying to work on the northern flank, British forces on the southern flank trying to bounce across the River Rapido - it has several names along its different lengths and this is the river that runs along the Gustav Line into the sea. And in the centre the Americans are going to try and attack opposite Cassino town and this is the 36th Texan Infantry Division. 

Unfortunately, they are attacking in January when the river is at its height, living up to it's name, Rapido, full of snowmelt and overlooked in the exact place where the German's have got artillery stationed in the high ground of Monte Cassino with observation posts. And the best efforts of the Texans over three days can make absolutely no headway against all the fixed German defences, the difficult river crossing, minefields and all the rest of it. And the Texans lose about a third of their strength in those three days. Bitterly disappointed, but it means that the first battle largely comes to a halt.

But the American forces are also sustained by their own rainbow coalition of nations. And were you to be a second generation Japanese American living in Hawaii and have joined the Hawaii National Guard, you would be keen to show your patriotism and do your bit with the Hawaii National Guard, wouldn't you. So the American minds in Washington in their infinite wisdom are slightly nervous about the second generation Japanese, don't want them in the Pacific theatre in case they start contacting their second cousins, so they will send them to another theatre. And why not send them to sunny Italy, except it's not!

So, the Nisei battalion of the Hawaii National Guard who fight all the way through the Italian theatre but arrive in January, I mean they never even see an ice cream for goodness sake and they're now soldiering in -20 and worse. The battalion cycles through something like 500% of its strength in the five months of fighting and wins more decorations than any other American unit, and it just underlines the point of these gentlemen from Hawaii really trying to do their bit and they do extremely well. But, again, it underlines the point that this is a rainbow coalition.

Now, also featuring in the first battle we have plenty of Allied armour - we've got plenty of armour and the proclivity of many military commanders in different campaigns through history is because you've got an asset, then use it. So we've got oodles of tanks, several battalions worth - from memory it is about 300 tanks - but when we deploy them we suddenly realise this is a theatre completely unsuited to armour in winter. And even if it can get forward this is the result of armour in a boggy Italian field.

The trouble is Allied doctrine in North Africa and as will be the case in Normandy, relies heavily on an integrated infantry armour approach to an enemy-defended locale. And you can see a lot of scratching of heads going on here because the approach that we've developed throughout 1943 in North Africa just isn't going to work in central Italy.

Well, you will be pleased to hear that we will move onto the second battle, but in conclusion the first battle really fails because instead of a narrow thrust with a lot of forces we spread out our offensive efforts over a 20-mile front and do it not simultaneously, lots of attacks happening at the same time, but sequentially - the French first, then the British, then the Americans. And that allows Von Senger und Etterlin to mobilise his forces to rush from one attack to another, a bit like a fire brigade, and meet and plug each gap and penetration. So we never quite achieve the effect that we might. And we certainly don't realise that we need as many troops as we do to achieve a breakthrough on the Cassino front in the first battle.

And it is significant if we just draw a parallel with the fourth battle for a second. The fourth battle is essentially the same as the first battle, done in the middle of summer in much better weather conditions, but with a much, much higher force ratio. Where we attack with a division in the first battle, essentially four divisions in the first. We attack with an army corps of two or three divisions in the same sort of place in May in the fourth battle. So broadly similar in concept, but a much, much higher number of forces. 

Well, the second battle results after a pause, partly induced by the weather, partly because Mark Clark is completely focused on what is going on at Anzio trying to unscramble the troops being bottled up there. And so he delegates to the next most senior land commander who is Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg who commands an ad hoc corps of the 2nd New Zealand Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division - their two badges you can see there.

Now, Freyberg, a very interesting individual and known obviously to you all, had commanded the Commonwealth forces on Crete in 1941 from which he had been unceremoniously bundled out. When he discovers that the German defenders at Cassino are the same paratroop formations that had battled with him in Crete in 1941 I think the battle becomes personal. I think there's a sense of him losing the wider perspective and quite determined to see off the Fallschirmjäger, the German paratroops, in the vicinity of Cassino itself, which is why the front narrows down. 

But Freyberg, a tall man, therefore inevitably known as 'Tiny', has acquired three DSOs [Distinguished Service Orders] during the First World War and will acquire his fourth in the Second World War, but even more impressively has a Victoria Cross. So, were you to then as a colleague, perhaps Oliver Leese or Mark Clark or even Harold Alexander, go up to Freyberg and say, 'Don't you think you're attacking on too narrow a front and you should be doing this and that...' It's very difficult to argue with a VC. It's sort of a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

He's also a great friend of Churchill. And in the 1920s it was said he went to a dinner party at Chartwell, a country weekend house party, at which Churchill was the host. And after dinner, having demanded that Freyberg regale the other dinner guests with a few choice war stories from the First World War, Freyberg was induced to remove his dinner jacket and his shirt and Churchill and his guests counted 24 war wounds and battle scars about his body. To which Freyberg modestly said, in a way that only Freyberg could, 'Ah but Winston, only half of them count; the others are exit wounds.'

So Freyberg is going to battle against Monte Cassino town at the bottom and the abbey at the top. And that's really the second battle of Monte Cassino. It begins on 15 February, because what he is also going to do is enlist airpower to batter the Germans before his ground troops arrive. And air power is the equivalent of a big artillery barrage on the Somme that he would have witnessed in the First World War. 

Unfortunately, air power in 1944 is not as precise as we would understand today. There are no precision-guided munitions and the RAF's definition of precision in 1944 is unfortunately five miles. This means that if you are going to batter the surrounds of the abbey before you go into the attack then your own troops are as much at risk as the Germans. And this, of course, is the result.

It does mean that a lot of the abbey is battered and effectively destroyed, but so are many of the surrounding valleys, the forward lines of our own troops as well. The Germans have second guessed what is going to happen. General Von Senger has warned the abbot, who he persuades to leave, and more importantly he has been instrumental in making sure that the art treasures in Monte Cassino abbey have been evacuated to the Vatican in Rome. And therefore this is why most of them survive. 

Now, it's the Luftwaffe field divisions who are removing them up to the Vatican, the art treasures, which probably explains why one or two valuable paintings end up in a salt mine in Austria with labels on it, 'Happy Birthday to Hermann Göring, our sponsor'. But Senger has done a good thing here in terms of getting the monks and the art treasures out of the abbey. 

The bombing is also accompanied by a lot of ground fire from Allied weapons systems, mortars, artillery and whatever there is. And this is the result - that wonderful venerable building is left in ruins.

And here is a view from roughly where that picture postcard that I showed you earlier was, taken just after the battle, looking at the north-west front. And you can see great gaps in the line of the abbey buildings, a bit like broken teeth. But the one side, which is the only side from which we can attack from the surrounding hills, is ironically the one side that has been left intact by the Allied bombers. And this is it. 

But what you've done there under the rules of war is you've turned a religious building now into a fortifiable viable military defensive position. You could occupy it under the rules of war. You can use those 60ft thick walls to defend your position, And so the Germans - and there's a big debate as to whether they were in there or not, we think on balance that they weren't - so the Germans now occupy Monte Cassino as a feature and occupy the abbey.

This is a battle fought by the New Zealanders, but also the Indian division. And I always think it's a great shame that, for example, the Sikh community in Birmingham have absolutely no knowledge that their forbearers were fighting on the British side actively in the Second World War to the tune of three divisions, about 50,000-60,000 men. But all the other Indian communities as well and there seems to be a disconnect along the way there.

The second battle is inconclusive because of this lack of coordination of airpower and land power, going in and achieving a result against the abbey. And there is then a pause in the fighting as far as the Allies are concerned, although the Germans only recognise three battles of Monte Cassino and the second and third in their minds are fused into one. We pause because Freyberg wants to shift the emphasis to Cassino town. Remember his aim is to get into the Liri valley - you can see in the bottom left of the slide there - and get up to Rome. So if he can't do it over the heights by subduing the German dominating position there, he's going to do it into the town.

But he's going to pause because he's going to batter the town in exactly the same way that he battered the abbey with another massive aerial assault by four-engine bombers with the same lack of precision. And you might have thought that he would have learnt the lessons from that. Unfortunately, Mark Clark's own command caravan is bombed in a valley 15 miles away, so is a French field hospital. And I suppose to an airman coasting along at 300mph all the valleys and hillsides look the same. But an airman would say that, wouldn't they. But it underlines the point that air and ground is very difficult to integrate in this campaign.

And that's the result. This is Cassino town in March 1943 and you can just see the effect from one of the planes that has just flown over. So Cassino town today is completely modern, there's not a single old building in it for this very reason. And it is so sad because it doesn't achieve the result that the expenditure in munitions and airpower really warranted. There's an attack by ground artillery at the same time and it's amazing that any Germans survive this, but the paratroopers do. They burrow into the basements and then wait for the inevitable Allied assault. But this is the price really of liberation and freedom in the Italian theatre and particularly in Monte Cassino town itself.

Well that battle grinds to a halt after a few more weeks of fighting and by the end of April, with the weather getting better, although the Allies are still battering away, the big battles have come to a halt and we're left scratching our heads as to what to do next. Then nature intervenes in a way that nature only can. And if three battles in the Cassino area aren't enough, Vesuvius then erupts and we're faced with a massive humanitarian aid relief mission of the kind that we know so well from very recent events, and we have to move several villages worth of Italian civilians. And this isn't an eruption on the scale of AD79 but it's the most impressive in recent history.

And we've got several wonderful eye-witness accounts. Spike Milligan - Gunner Milligan - is there at the time and remembers the gouts of dragon's breath erupting from the hillside and night turned into day and then night again and then day again as though someone is flicking a switch of a giant light bulb on and off at the wall. Lieutenant Joseph Heller, who wrote that intriguing novel Catch 22, is stationed here with his twin-engined B25 bombers, all of which - the entire wing, over 120 aircraft - are wrecked by the effects of the ash raining down, red hot ash, on the aircraft. But the Americans can sustain that kind of loss. Major Denis Thatcher, who married our late Prime Minster, was serving here and in Sicily as well, and remembers again this enormous and very impressive eruption. 

Meanwhile, we plan what we're going to do about finally subduing Cassino and trying to arrange a breakout from the Anzio beach head. The plans are Sir John Harding's and he conceives an idea of building on the way the first battle was fought, attacks all along the line, sequential but using massive force - he builds up a force of 18 divisions, so we're talking well over 200,000 personnel, four-five times the amount who took part in the first battle. And at the same time, whilst distracting the German reserves enabling a breakout from the Anzio beach head at the same time.

Well, the weather improves so we don't have the same problems as mid-winter. We logistically were extremely well resourced and we can build up huge amounts of supplies and we've got new coalition partners. Beside the French and all the others, four divisions of Polish troops, who have made their way one way or another out of what was the Soviet Union and have come through Iraq and Iran, have trained up and are now fighting on the Allied side, led by their rather noble commander, General Anders. Noble because he's already had a year and a half in Lubyanka courtesy of the NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs]. And anyone who then wanted to take up the baton and fight on the Allied side - the Russians, of course, being allies - is extremely noble in my view. 

I always think the Poles don't get a fair shout. After all, we went to war for them in 1939 and didn't manage to give them back their country in 1945. And yet here are four divisions of them fighting extremely well and bravely under Allied command in Italy at a time when in a few months hence they're about to be told that the Yalta agreement, agreed between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, will not give them their homeland back. And yet they still carry on fighting extremely well on the Allied side.

So they're going to attack on the northern flank, where the French had been attacking in the first battle. They're going to take on the Cassino abbey and Anders is given the choice, 'Would you like to do this?' It takes him about 15 seconds to say yes. It is not exactly the no-brainer you might think it is, because no one else attacking the abbey has succeeded. And were the Poles to get this wrong, then that would have repercussions internationally on their military prowess. But of course if they get it right, this is the first blow for freedom of the Poles attacking the Germans back in a very public way and triumphing which is, of course, eventually what happens.

The propaganda that I've referred to earlier is still trying to batter away, mostly German induced propaganda, aimed at the Allies. And anyone who has been fighting at Cassino for three battles now over four months could be forgiven for beginning to start to believe this. But there is no evidence that they do. I think this probably supplies much needed lavatory paper rather than anything else. 

And the Poles busy battling away for three days in the heights eventually overcome the Germans in the monastery who are reduced to a pitiful rump. Most of them have withdrawn by the time the Poles arrive. But the erection of the Polish national colours and a Polish bugler standing at the highest point playing a Polish national anthem is not only morale building for the Poles themselves but for the whole of the western world and this is great headline copy.

Well, with the heights one side of the Liri valley in Polish hands, we've still got to fight through the town but we need also to fight through the heights south of the Liri valley to the coast. And this is where the French and the Americans play their part, particularly those French warriors I talked about earlier who had taken part in the first battle, those hill warriors, the Berbers from French North Africa very suited to battling through the Aurunci Hills there where the Germans are weakest.

The gamble that no one can work in those really hilly regions, the French take it on and so very quickly both sides of the Liri valley - you can see in the middle there - are taken. The French to the south, the Poles to the north and an America corps is also pushing along the coast of two divisions. And at the same time the British and Americans are building up strength to break out of the Anzio beach head. But, again, this is the price that all those little villages, particularly in the hills, liberated by the French and the Americans, have to pay.

The French, intriguingly, being North African tribesmen mounted in almost medieval fashion, a lot of them using mules, a lot of them using antiquated equipment but under Allied command. And unfortunately some of the French Berbers get carried away. They see the Italian civilians that they are liberating as far game. There are a lot of reports of abuse, particularly of women in the area, so much so that the Pope lobbies the Allied high command to withdraw the French North African soldiers from the theatre. They are eventually withdrawn and go off to invade southern France. But it underlines another aspect of coalition warfare which is you can't necessarily expect everyone to adhere to the national codes and culture that you have. 

And if ever there is a photograph that sums up the utility of mules, the difficulty of the Italian terrain, it's this. The most mechanised army in the world, its vehicles and its equipment mean nothing in the context of the Italian theatre where you have to go back almost to a medieval pace and use the logistics that are most appropriate to the theatre.

Well, with the south and the north of the Liri valley having been subdued we can then push up the centre. And the Allies have got enough personnel and equipment to be able to do that with a British corps and a Canadian corps and in reserve a South African armoured division. So you can see how multinational this whole campaign has been. And to cross the river line, the Rapido River, pretty much where the Germans were trying to do this in January with great disaster we're pushing across several bailey bridges. 

This is the most famous exploit. The bridge was called Amazon bridge and this is that wonderful artist Terence Cuneo painting his picture of the Royal Engineers pushing their bridge across the Rapido. That means there must be a little mouse there doing his bit as well. On the nose of the bridge - I don't know if it comes across quite clearly - but there's a sergeant gunner with his Bren gun busy blatting away as he's pushed across the river subduing German machine-gun placements on the other side.

It's all very successful and largely because the Germans, of course, have had no reinforcements in the campaign, whereas we've built up a massive superiority of numbers. But by the end, once we've cleared Cassino and we've got across the river, we're beginning to push the Germans up the Liri valley.

This is what Cassino town looks like. And if you remember the first few views I showed you of the terrain, you can see just how much the impact of five months of hot shrapnel on Italian hillsides has done to the area. And if you visit it today, it's amazing how much it has recovered.

Well this was what the abbey was like once we had moved on and we're moving into Rome in early June. This was how it had been restored ten years later. And ten years after that this was how it looked - it's exactly the same angle and, apart from a few more shady trees, organised car parks policed by Italian car parking attendants who seem to have to done their training at the Gestapo school of car parking attendants, this is pretty much Cassino as it is today.

Well, I mentioned Mark Clark earlier and the fact that he knew that Eisenhower was going to land in Normandy. And the plan was for the Allies to break out of Anzio, bottle up the retreating Germans from Cassino and therefore end the Italian campaign in June 1943. Because Mark Clark knows that the Allied invasion of Normandy is about to happen, instead of going ahead and bottling up the retreating Germans, he goes for Rome to hit the headlines as the Allied captor of Rome - famous for five minutes - because he realises that everything in Italy will take second place to the great invasion of Normandy, which is about to happen, undertaken by his great friend, colleague and mentor, Dwight Eisenhower. And so it is that Rome is liberated on 5 June, whereas 6 June we associate forever with the invasion of Normandy.

And I will finish, you will be pleased to know, on a final note which is the sacrifice that the various nations made. And for my money the most poignant and moving Commonwealth War Graves cemetery anywhere in the world that I have ever visited is the one at Monte Cassino because you can see the graves of all of those who gave their lives in the battle overlooked by the rebuilt monastery, but its predecessor which they would have all or mostly seen during the course of the campaign. 

And if you remember Lady Astor in late 1944 made a very ill-advised comment that the troops battling in Italy were somehow D-Day dodgers. And I always feel that she had really rather lost the plot. And if anything ever sums up the point that they certainly weren't D-Day dodgers it's an image like this and reminds us just of the extremes of temperature, extremes of climate, extremes of casualties of the Italian theatre.

And the crossover, the lessons that we get from it today: that this is coalition warfare that we somehow manage to make work for us extremely well. But the crossover is today, we never fight alone as the British Armed Forces we're always in partnership with other nations. And therefore the coalition lessons we learnt from Monte Cassino in 1944 are just as valid and important to us today as they were back in the Second World War.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.


Paul Traynor
31 January 2014, 1.23pm

Many thanks for making

Many thanks for making lectures like this available online - excellent service.

31 January 2014, 4.02pm

A fascinating subject for any

A fascinating subject for any ww2 history buff like me. Thank you!

Ranesh B
27 May 2014, 2.58pm interestingly presented interestingly presented campaign; more in the nature of a series of anecdotes. Nonetheless I enjoyed reading it. Thank you. The bit about coalition armies was specially thought provoking, including the personalities of 'theater commanders'; guess its been the same ever since Alexander decided to conquer the world...

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