Cassino – Opening the Road to Rome

Posted on Friday 27th July 2018

An article by Richard Doherty based on his new book, Monte Cassino – Opening the Road to Rome (Pen and Sword Books, 2018).

It was the toughest battle fought by the Western Allies in the Second World War. In conditions ranging from snow and ice in the mountains, through the mud and floods of spring to early summer’s heat, Allied and Axis soldiers fought nature and each other on the Gustav Line, the German defences intended to stop the Allies reaching Rome.

Four battles ensued from January 1944, when French colonial soldiers struck into the mountains north of Cassino town, To the south, British forces crossed the Garigliano river to form a bridgehead – the first breach of the Gustav Line.

However, US troops in the centre were repelled along the Gari river near Sant’Angelo in Theodice, 36th (Texas) Division suffering horrendous casualties. Also sustaining high losses was US 34th Division, which attacked into the mountains near Monte Cassino Abbey and into the northern sector of the town.

A British 7.2-inch howitzer bombards German positions in the Gustav Line; this weapon fired a shell weighing 202lbs (92kg).

Exhausted, the Americans were relieved by the New Zealand Corps and Indian and New Zealand troops took over the attack. In spite of the bombing of the Abbey, on 15 February, and the town, on 15 March, they made little progress in the second and third battles.

While Allied forces re-organised and prepared for another assault, infantry units garrisoned the mountains where so many of their comrades had fought. French colonial, British, Indian and Polish troops in turn held mountain positions overlooked by German posts. Daylight movement invited shell and mortar fire. Even so, the Allies inflicted hurt on the Germans, prevented attacks, and cut an important supply route.

Cassino in ruins after the bombing of 15 March 1944, with the ruins of the Castle on Rocca Janula above.

Meanwhile, Allied forces were being reinforced and supplies built up while Allied airpower dominated the skies. A detailed deception plan confused the Germans about the timing and strength of the assault, Operation Diadem.

On 11 May, Diadem was launched – preceded by a bombardment from over 1,600 guns – and achieved surprise. British and Indian troops forced crossings of the Gari and Poles attacked into the mountains. On the southern flank, 85th and 88th US Divisions attacked from the bridgehead across the Garigliano while a strengthened French corps thrust through the wild Aurunci mountains.

In spite of stout defensive fighting, the Germans were forced back, the pressure from the French proving most effective. British and Indian forces advanced from the Gari and the Poles renewed their attacks. Canadians joined in to punch through the next German defensive positions on the Hitler Line as the French threatened to roll it up from the flank.

With the Poles advancing through the mountains on one flank, the French on the other, British, Indians and Canadians in the centre, and Americans breaking out from Anzio, the Germans were forced to retreat.

On 4 June US forces entered Rome, liberating the Eternal City. As Allied forces came ashore in Normandy on 6 June, their comrades in Italy were pursuing the Germans along the Tiber valley and preparing for the next clash of arms in Italy. The hardest battle in Western Europe was over.

Two GIs look up at Monte Caira, which dominates all the ground around the Cassino massif and was held by the Germans until the final battle.

Author Richard Doherty (left) pictured with Danilo Radcliffe, standing in Monte Cassino Abbey, overlooking the Liri valley.

Richard Doherty

One of the leading military historians in the UK and Ireland, writer and broadcaster Richard Doherty has 29 books to his credit, two of which were nominated for the prestigious Templer Medal. Chronologically his titles range from The Williamite War in Ireland, 1688-1691 to Helmand Mission: With the Royal Irish Battlegroup in Afghanistan 2008. His 30th book is due for publication in 2018; entitled Monte Cassino: Opening the Road to Rome, it is a study of the four battles for Monte Cassino in 1944 and of the forces and commanders involved.

He has researched, written and presented several historical series for BBC Radio Ulster, presented two major historical programmes for BBC TV, for whom he has also researched and written several historical programmes, and has contributed to, or advised on, many programmes for BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Radio Four, RTE (Irish radio and TV) and a number of independent producers. His BBC Radio Ulster programme on the North African campaign, part of the Sons of Ulster series, was nominated for a Sony Award in 1989. He has also contributed on two occasions to the popular BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, providing information on the families of actor David Tennent and celebrity baker Paul Hollywood.

A popular speaker, he has addressed audiences in the UK, Republic of Ireland, France, Italy and Greece, as well as the United States, where he has lectured (on limited warfare) at the US Marine Corps Staff and Command College at Quantico, Virginia. Since 2002 he has been a guest speaker on cruise ships: topics range from military and naval history, including the Battle of the Atlantic, through Celtic history, to Irish myth, history and culture. He leads battlefield studies and tours in Ireland, Normandy, Italy and Greece, as well as at sea, writes historical articles and book reviews for newspapers, magazines and journals; is Chairman of the Irish Regiments Historical Society; Chairman of the Royal Artillery Council, Northern Ireland; a member of several military history societies in the UK, Ireland and the USA; a trustee of the Royal Irish Fusiliers’ Museum, Armagh, and of the Royal Irish Regiment Museum; a trustee, and member of the Council of the Northern Ireland War Memorial; and an area president of St John Ambulance. He is also the honorary historian of the Royal Irish Regiment.

Further Reading

Monte Cassino
(Hardback - 426 pages)
ISBN: 9781526703293

by Richard Doherty
Only £25.00

One of the bloodiest European battles of the Second World War was that from January to June 1944 for the Gustav Line, anchored on Monte Cassino, famous for its Benedictine Abbey. Better known as the Battle of Cassino, the campaign only ended when Rome was liberated. With General Sir Harold Alexander in overall command, the Allied Army Group in Italy, consisted of Fifth (US) and Eighth (British) Armies. Both were truly multi-national with some 20 allies nations involved. The book recognises the contributions of all elements and flags up the…
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