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Fortress Italy

A Brief History of the Cassino Campaign
by Scott Elaurant

From the Sangro River on the eastern (Adriatic) coast, through the Appenine Mountains to the Garrigliano River on the western (Tyrrhenian Sea) coast, the Gustav Line was a combination of concrete bunkers set into rugged terrain. There was no way to outflank the Gustav Line, and the most direct route of attack was up Route Six to Rome, via the town of Cassino.

Yet Cassino was fortified, lay behind the Rapido River, and was in turn overlooked by Monte Cassino, crowned by a castle and monastery. As one US general said of this part of Italy, “behind every hill there’s another river, and behind every river, there’s another hill." 

Plans and the situation as of November 1943
The First Battle of Cassino

At first things went fairly well. The US II Corps captured Monte Trocchio and drew up to the Garrigliano and its tributaries, the Liri and Rapido Rivers. On their right the French FEC reached Cole Belvedere on the Cassino massif. The first attempt to break through the Gustav Line saw the US 36th Division try to cross the Rapido into Cassino in early January 1944. They were cut to pieces.

To break the deadlock US General Mark Clark landed the US VI Corps at Anzio on 22 January 1944. Surprise was complete and the landing was unopposed. But instead of moving towards Rome, or inland to the Alban Hills, they advanced slowly.

As Churchill said bitterly “instead of hurling a wildcat ashore, all we got was a stranded whale”. German forces quickly moved to first block and then surround the invasion force. By early February 1944 they were pinned down and in danger of being pushed back into the sea.
US forces move through Italy
British troops approach Cassino

The Second Battle of Cassino

To help save the Anzio beachhead, General Clark urgently requested another attack on Cassino. The second attempt would be made in February by the New Zealand Corps, with the New Zealand Division attacking Cassino town, and the 4th Indian Division across Monte Cassino towards the monastery. Before the attack began an allied bombing raid demolished the monastery, even though it had not been occupied by the Germans.

The ruins were even easier for defenders to hide in than the intact structure had been. The attack on Monte Cassino was stopped in its tracks by fire from German positions on the crest of Monte Cassino. In Cassino itself the Maori Battalion penetrated into the town and captured the Railway Station.

However German artillery prevented any support reaching them. The Maoris were outnumbered and gradually forced back. The second attack too was a failure, with further heavy losses.

The Third Battle of Cassino

Rain caused an enforced delay of a month before the third attempt to capture Cassino was launched. This time it was preceded by a massive artillery barrage which was planed to wipe out any defence in Cassino town. The 2nd New Zealand Division led the way again, and the 4th Indian Division also attacked with it through the town. The Essex battalion captured Castle hill and Indian units even approached the monastery. Allied hopes of victory grew.

But the defenders – 1st Fallschirmjäger Division - had other ideas. The bombardment had destroyed most of the defenders in the town, and literally buried all but one of their assault guns. One company commander, Captain Foltin, had sheltered his men in a cave under Castle Hill.

Despite the bombardment, Foltin’s 6th Company, 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment, had survived intact and grimly rallied and pinned down the attackers. Reserves counter-attacked and recaptured most of the town and mountain. One battalion of Ghurkas held out for almost two weeks on an exposed position known as “Hangman’s Hill” not far from the monastery. But in the end they too had to withdraw and Cassino town and the monastery remained in German hands. 

Ruins of Cassino town
3rd Battle of Cassino
French troops The Fourth Battle of Cassino

By now the Allied commanders were beginning to realise the difficulties of attacking Cassino. For the fourth attempt, more time was taken to prepare a large scale front-wide offensive, Operation Diadem. Together the French FEC would attack through the Arnuci Mountains on the left (coastal) flank, the British X Corps would cross the river and advance up the valley to Route Six, and the Polish Corps would attack the town and monastery. The Canadian Corps would exploit through the gap. But the attack would not begin until 11 May.

This time – at last – the Allied preparations were sound. Temporary bridges were erected across the River to help X Corps’ attack. The lightly equipped FEC quickly crossed the 5000 feet Arunci Mountains and surprised German defenders in the Liri Valley. After another two weeks of struggle the Poles attacked from Snakeshead Ridge and finally took the monastery.

Although this ranked as a fine achievement, by then the German defenders had already started to withdraw. The Gustav Line was broken and the Allies pursued the Germans north, clearing the Liri Valley, capturing Valmontan and then capturing Rome on 5th June.

A lack of cooperation between the British 8th Army and the US 5th Army under the orders of General Mark Clark prevented any of the fleeing Germans from being captured in the pursuit. Although Rome fell, a new defensive line was formed by the survivors in the mountains of northern Italy.

Post Mortem

Over the five months, the Allies used a total of 100,000 men against the Cassino position, of which 54,000 became casualties. The Germans used 80,000 (though fewer of these were in the line at any one time due to a rotation policy) and lost 20,000 casualties.

Why was Cassino so hard to capture? Partly it was the well prepared defences of the Gustav Line, partly the epic defence by the German 1st Fallschirmjäger, and partly poor Allied planning. All of these factors played a part. But it was mainly a genuinely difficult position due to the terrain.

Polish raise flag over the monastery
The whole area was so difficult that, despite the Allies numerical superiority, they could rarely deploy enough men at the front to gain any tactical advantage. Monte Cassino was a dominating mountain with steep sides and little cover for attackers to approach under. Meanwhile the town of Cassino next to the ridge was no easier. It sat astride the only inland road to Rome from the south. The river and flooded lowlands funnelled attackers either into the stone walled town, or up the 45 degree slopes of a 2000 foot mountain, with a stone fortress on top. 

Cassino Wargraves

The rebuilt Monastery overlooks the
Commonwealth War Cemetery.

There was simply no easy way to approach or take Monte Cassino. Indeed, after six months it was never really beaten. Monte Cassino Monastery was only surrendered after the French FEC Corps outflanked the Gustav Line, and forced most of the Cassino defenders to withdraw before the Poles reached it.

Even then, the Poles lost thousands of casualties scaling the heights. At Cassino, Churchill’s claim that Italy was the “soft underbelly” of Europe was exposed for the hubris that it was.

Cassino Axis Of Attack Campaign...


Ellis, J. (2004). Cassino: The Hollow Victory, Aurum Press: London
Ford, K (2004). Cassino 1944: Breaking the Gustav Line, Osprey, London
Parker, M, (2003). Monte Cassino, Headline Publishing: London

Last Updated On Thursday, January 18, 2024