Saturday 15 February 2014

The Battle of Monte Cassino

Cassino monastery lay on the Gustav Line (part of the winter line series of defences south of Rome. The assult on the position began on January 18th 1944, attempting to free the entrance into the Liri and Rapido valleys. There were heavy losses. Under the (mistaken) impression that the abbey  formed part of the Germans' defensive line, the Allies sanctioned its bombing on 15 February and today seventy years ago American bombers proceeded to drop 1,400 tons of bombs onto it. In reality there were no soldiers, only civilians, inside, the German defences lay on the slopes outside the monastery. Due to an Allied intelligence failure, the Medieval monastery was almost totally destroyed. Fortunately:
Unloading the evacuated objects (Bundesarchiv)
During prior months in the Italian autumn of 1943, two German officers, Captain Maximilian Becker, a surgeon in the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel of the same unit, with singular prescience proposed the removal of Monte Cassino's treasures to the Vatican and Vatican-owned Castel Sant'Angelo before the war would come closer. Both officers convinced church authorities and their own senior commanders to use the division’s trucks and fuel for the undertaking. They had to find the materials necessary for crates and boxes, identify skilled carpenters among their troops, recruit local labourers (to be paid with rations of food plus twenty cigarettes per day), and then manage the "massive job of evacuation centered on the library and archive," a treasure "literally without price."  The richness of the Abbey’s archives, library and gallery included "800 papal documents, 20,500 volumes in the Old Library, 60,000 in the New Library, 500 incunabula, 200 manuscripts on parchment, 100,000 prints and separate collections." The first trucks, carrying paintings by Italian old masters, were ready to go less than a week from the day Dr. Becker and Schlegel independently first came to Monte Cassino. Each vehicle carried monks to Rome as escorts; in over one hundred truckloads the convoys nearly depopulated the Abbey’s monastic community. The task was completed in the first days of November 1943. "In three weeks, in the middle of a losing war, in another country, it was quite a feat." After a mass in the basilica, Abbot Gregorio Diamare formally presented signed parchment scrolls in Latin to General Paul Conrath, to tribuno militum Julio Schlegel and Maximiliano Becker medecinae doctori "for rescuing the monks and treasures of the Abbey of Monte Cassino." After the war Schlegel spent seven months in an Allied prison as a suspected looter but was freed after favourable testimony from the Monte Cassino monks.
This was well before the US 'Monuments men' got there to try and clear up the mess the US bombing raids had made. A tragic mistake.

Ruins of the monastery


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