This multi-faceted battle marked one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of the Italian campaign during World War II. After attempts to overcome the Germans in the Liri Valley and at Anzio ended in stalemate, the Allies struggled to capture the western anchor of the Gustav Line and the Roman Catholic abbey of Monte Cassino. Two more offensives, which resulted in the destruction of the abbey and aerial bombardment of the region, again failed to produce the desired result. Only with the launch of Operation Diadem in May 1944 did the Gustav Line finally collapse, with the Second Polish Corps succeeding in capturing the abbey.
Allied strategy in Italy during World War II centered on keeping the Wehrmacht fully committed so that its veteran divisions could not be shifted to help repel the cross-Channel invasion. However, the Allied high command mistakenly believed that the determined German defense of the invasion beaches of Salerno in September 1943 masked their preparations for retreat to the north. They never reckoned that the Germans would effectively use the weather and the terrain to turn the Italian campaign into a costly stalemate at the Gustav Line.
Mark Clark’s disastrous attempt to split the Gustav Line in the Liri Valley died on the banks of the Rapido River (“the bloody Rapido”) in January 1944, and when the Allied end run at Anzio also failed, there was now a stalemate on two fronts. In early February the U.S. Thirty-fourth Infantry Division failed to capture the western anchor of the Gustav Line, and one of the holiest shrines of Roman Catholicism, the abbey of Monte Cassino. A second offensive in mid-February again failed and resulted in one of the most hotly debated incidents of the war–the destruction of the abbey by Allied bombers.
The Third Battle of Cassino in mid-March was preceded by a thunderous artillery barrage from nine hundred guns and a massive aerial bombardment of the town. Follow-up ground attacks by New Zealand troops once again ended in failure. Only with the launch of Operation Diadem in May 1944 did the Gustav Line finally collapse when the Second Polish Corps succeeded in capturing the abbey on May 17, thus ending one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of the Italian campaign.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.