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The Abbey at Montecassino

by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Contributed by 
Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
People in story: 
Tom Canning
Location of story: 
Central Italy
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Contributed on: 
14 March 2005

As History now relates, the bombing of the Abbey at Montecassino took place at the insistence of both Lt.Gen. Freyburg of the New Zealand Corps and Maj.Gen Tuker of 4th Indian Division along with the exhoration of the American Air Chief of Staff Gen. “ Hap” Arnold to his USAAF and RAF air chiefs to “go out and bamb something”. This was in response to Monty’s two month old complaint that the Air Forces were taking an undue share of all supplies but they were not doing anything !

It was felt by the Infantry, who had been subject to this ‘menace’ for many weeks, that the enemy were using the Monastery as an Artillery O.P. and was an ominous presence over the whole area. One ironic fact of this situation was that the German General in charge of the area was the Roman Catholic, Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, who was a member of the Third order of St.Benedict and consequently defender of all things to do with St.Benedicts’ monastery, which he did extremely well by halting the Allied armies for nearly six long months, resulting in a state of “sustained awfulness” to all involved

The charge by the Infantry was therefore unfounded !
The actual bombing took place on February 15th ’44 much to the surprise of all in 4th Indian Div who were not expected to start their attack until the night of the 16/17 as the 1st Sussex regiment were exhausted and due to be replaced, and as a consequence failed to follow up the devastation caused by the dropping of 442 Tons of bombs, at or near(sic) the Target area , owing to the usual “foul up’ in communications !
So for the fourth time since it was founded in around 529 AD by Benedict who had converted the pagan temples of Jupiter and Apollo to Christianity, the other times being 581; 883; and 1349, this latest destruction then allowed the Monastery to be used as an observation point by the enemy, thus being counter productive to the Allied Infantry , who still suffered under the ominous menace , until both armies joined in Operation Diadem - May 23rd to June 4th when the Gustav / Hitler lines were broken and Rome was “liberated’ !
Later, Gen. Sir Harold Alexander ordered two Engineer officers to contact the Abbot of the Abbey to offer assistance in clearing up the site ready for the rebuilding process.The British representative was Lt.Col Maurice Ménage M.B.E who offered the use of a 750 man pick and shovel battalion of Pioneers, the American officer offered as many Bulldozers and other Mechanical equipment as necessary to get the job done. Over tea, the three discussed the ramifications of the task at hand and finally the Abbot announced that he and his monks would do the job by hand. He then asked the two officers to convey his thanks to Gen. Alexander for his concern, and generous offer of assistance
The site was in fact cleared by hand by the monks over many months who found an unexploded British Artillery shell at the foot of the statue of St.Benedict ., this was checked and cleaned up and presented to His Holiness Pope Pius X11 by Gen.Alexander at a public audience in early June of 1944, at which I may have been present although too busy standing guard at the Gestatoria Sedia awaiting His Holiness’ return to notice anything else going on at the time !

For all the destructive force of 442 tons of bombs plus another 36 tons two days later, the bones and artefacts of both St Benedict and his sister St. Scolastica were unharmed as they lay in the crypt of the main church and were reinstalled in beautiful
Reliquaries in the tomb of both saints.

Most of the rebuilding funds came from the Italian Government but the West German Government of the then Chancellor Conrad Adenaur donated the bronze statue of the dying Benedict (March 21st 547 AD) supported by his disciples which stands at the entrance cloister of the original church which Benedict dedicated to St Martin of Tours. Very few of the beautiful fresco’s survived the bombing but happily the main Artworks had been removed to the Vatican early in the invasion and were thus returned to their glory

The Abbey overlooks much of the area where the bitterest battles took place, the River Liri; Pignatoro; S Giorgio; Pontecorvo; Aquino; Piedmonte, witness the surrounding five cemeteries including the massive Polish memorial and cemetery which altogether contain more than 12,000 graves of many nationalities in the quest for peace !

This is now truly a peaceful area and well worth a visit , however it still makes more of an impact if one were to approach from the South as did the Allied Armies in those awful months of Dec ’43 — June ’44 ! The awesome view of the many mountains congregated around Cassino still catches one’s breath when it was realised that we had to fight our way through them under tremendous disadvantage, makes us truly humble that we survived and we recall the words of the last verse of the song the “D-Day Dodgers”

- ‘Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain,
- see the scattered crosses, some that have no name
- heartache and sorrow all gone
- the boys beneath them slumber on
- they are the D Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy ‘

The famous rule of St Benedict is a document full of Roman wisdom and spirituality which was to instruct men and nations in Christian Saintliness, Brotherly love, The habit of work, and in the Joy of Peace and Progress, which were sadly lacking in those times of battle !

Hopefully we go forward keeping those tenets in mind at all times.

The rebuilding of the beautiful Monastery was completed and blessed by Pope Paul V1
On October 24th 1964, who said in his speech —“ here we find peace, like a precious treasure in safest keeping !”

,It was a very strange war at times !

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Message 1 - The Abbey at Montecassino

Posted on: 14 March 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


Another splendid contribution. The destruction of 1349 was by earthquake. Following that the Abbey was rebuilt with massive walls 20 feet thick at the base, a vast complex of buildings with five courtyards. The monastery's great library preserved the books of antiquity for Europe, in 1943 it contained over 40,000 manuscripts and much of the works of Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and others. Ironically, over the gate was carved one word: PAX.



Message 2 - The Abbey at Montecassino

Posted on: 14 March 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Peter -
Thank you for your kind words, happily the students at the St Benedict Boarding School will benefit from the great classics which were preserved. We also benefit in the study of the only painting which survived and is now installed in the Altar of the Chapel of Our Lady which depicts the 'Assumption of the Virgin Mary' by Paolo De Mattheis.

The words of Paolo Dell'Olio still ring true " O veneranda sede di studi e di preghiero....... O venerable seat of learning and of prayer, You beheld the morning,but you will not see the evening. Like the soaring eagle,the civilisation of Rome, The flower of our soil,hovered over you...
You ever moulded yourself on the rays of Eternal Rome; And you will shine brightly eternally with Eternal Rome.
We can only marvel at the beauty of the works of so many craftsmen and artists who gave of their talents
for Pax Christi !

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