Ernie Pyle in Italy – Part 2

DavidChrisinger.com
By David Chrisinger
28 Mar 20

“The land and the weather were both against us,” Ernie Pyle wrote of the Italian campaign in November 1943 after spending two months at home in the States. “The country was shockingly beautiful, and just as shockingly hard to capture from the enemy.”

The Allies’ ultimate goal was to liberate Rome, and the only viable passage to Rome was through the Liri Valley, along Highway 6. Guarding the entrance to the Liri Valley was Monte Cassino, with its gleaming white Benedictine abbey, which for over 1,500 years had been one of Christianity’s most revered sanctuaries.

On Christmas Day this past year, I hiked the highland glens above Cassino, mostly because I was by myself and because most stores and restaurants were closed that day. It was a beautifully sunny and mild day. No need for a jacket. A far cry from the rainy slog experienced by those fighting in the winter of 1943-1944.

On Hitler’s orders, Monte Cassino became the linchpin of the German’s defensive line in Italy. As I walked along the ridge where the Germans had once been entrenched, I could see why. Their installations were perfectly suited for observation and defense. What were once the Allied positions below were nearly totally exposed to observation and fire.

To appease the Catholic hierarchy, the German higher-ups had been promised that no German soldier would enter the abbey. The surrounding slopes, however, were fair game.

The road that leads from Cassino town up to the abbey is a series of seven winding switchbacks that cut deep into the steep sides of the mountain. For centuries pilgrims have labored up on foot, but today it is easily climbed by busloads of tourists. From the gates outside the monastery, there is a magnificent view of the whole valley and of the mountains to the east.

On February 14, 1944, two American generals flew in an observation plane above Monte Cassino. They later reported seeing “Germans in the courtyard and also their antennas,” as well as a machine-gun nest 50 yards from the abbey wall. Another American airman pledged, “If you let me use the whole of our bomber force against Cassino, we will whip it out like a dead tooth.”

Later that night, Allied gunners lobbed two dozen shells that burst 300 feet above Monte Cassino, showering the abbey with leaflets that read: “Now that the battle has come close to your sacred walls we shall, despite our wish, have to direct our arms against the monastery. Abandon it at once. Put yourselves in a safe place. Our warning is urgent.”

The next day nearly 600 tons of high explosives and incendiaries were dropped on Monte Cassino.

“Scores of us—Yanks, British, Indians and Kiwis—line the ridge, looking at the destruction through glasses,” an American ambulance driver noted in his diary.

The sight was “gigantically stimulating…comparable to seeing the early Christian being eaten by lions,” a Royal Artillery gunner wrote.

“We all started cheering wildly and hugging each other. Here we are, cheering the destruction of one of the great monuments of Christendom.”

By two pm, the abbey—and hundreds of the Italian refugees seeking shelter behind its walls—were nothing but smoldering memories.

German troops were then promptly ordered to burrow into the rubble. They nested their machine guns in the crumbled masonry. Artillery observers perched themselves in the battered ramparts. When a single company of men attempted to seize the abbey the next day, the German defenders killed or wounded half the men before they were able to cover 50 yards. Another attack the next night by a full battalion collapsed when the Germans fired three green flares, which mimicked the Royal Sussex signal to withdraw.

The destroyed abbey, my tour guide told me, came to symbolize the grinding war of attrition that the Italian campaign had become by 1944. By the time of the bombing in February, the Fifth Army’s advance had exhausted eight divisions and cost 16,000 casualties.

The abbey, fortunately, has since been completely rebuilt with warm Travertine stone. It looks exactly as it did before it was bombed, owing to the fact that the original blueprints had been evacuated to Rome and thus spared. The only difference is the stone doesn’t yet have that aged, yellow color the older version of the abbey used to have. “But it will,” my guide told me. “It just takes time.”

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Ernie Pyle in Italy – Part 1

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Ernie Pyle in Italy – Part 3