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The highlight of the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy took place in May 1944. After the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943, the Germans attempted to stop the Allied advance on Rome by using the city and the Abbey of Cassino as strategic points of defense. Between November 1943 and spring 1944, it was regularly the target of the Allied offensives, which culminated on February 15, 1944 with the destruction of the famous abbey; in May, Cassino is the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
The battle of Monte Cassino: five months of fierce fighting
It all started in January 1944. After disembarking in Sicily in July 43 (Operation Husky), then in the south of mainland Italy (Operation Avalanche) in September of the same year, the allies began their advance towards the north of the peninsula. Faced with the American Vth Army (Clark), British VIIIth Army (Leese) and the CEF (June, 4 Divisions including 3 North African) the Germans oppose Army Group C under Marshal Albert Kesselring.
If Albert "the smiling", as he is nicknamed, has only two small armies (14th and 10th) with less equipment than those of their opponents, he can count on elite units. On the other hand, he will make admirable use of the tormented geography of the theater of operations. Italy is a narrow peninsula, the center of which is occupied by the mountain range of the Apenines. Kesserling built up successive lines of defense around the Apenines, the most powerful of which remains the Gustave line.
The Gustave line that the allies approached at the end of 1943, had as its strong point the position of Monte Cassino. It defends the great north-south road, passing through the valley of the Liri river and which represents the only valid axis of progression towards Rome. With a 14 century old monastery at its summit (which will be destroyed by aerial bombardments), it overlooks the town of Cassino and constitutes a formidable obstacle.
The Allies will have to do it several times before they break the Gustav Line. The XIVth Armored Corps (Panzerkorps) and the German parachute battalions will put up fierce resistance to the assaults of the various units involved (Americans, British, but also French, Indians, New Zealanders and Poles). For the allies, it was first a question of securing the German defenses, until a successful reversal landing in the Anzio region (Operation Shingle, January 22, 1944).
Unfortunately the troops landed at Anzio (led by the American general Lucas) do not manage to widen their bridgehead, to take the XIVth Armored Corps in reverse. At the beginning of February 1944, the situation was blocked for the allies, whether in Anzio or around Monte Cassino, despite the exploits of the French colonial troops. Between February 15 and 18, 1944, a new frontal assault on the Gustav line will be further repelled by the Germans.
In the months that followed, the Allies repositioned their forces for a new operation. The plan of Operation Diadem is based on a daring maneuver proposed by General Juin. It is a question of bypassing the defenses of Cassino considered too strong, by the southwest through the Aurunci mountains, which until then had been considered impracticable for any army. June hopes that his rustic colonial troops (Moroccan goumiers and tirailleurs in particular) with logistics provided on the back of mules will be able to progress quickly. At the same time the British troops will go to isolate the town of Cassino by taking control of the national road, the Americans will cover the progress of the French in the south and the Poles will be assigned the arduous task of seizing the monastery of Monte Cassino. An ambitious plan, the secrets of which Kesselring will not succeed in unraveling.
On May 11, Operation Diadem was launched. After initial assaults of rare violence, the sharpshooters of the 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division seized Mount Majo. Exploitation through the Aurunci Mountains is then possible. Faced with the rush of French mountain troops that began, and faced with a general assault on the rest of the line, the German command realized that the maintenance of its units on the current line could only mean their encirclement. When the Poles seized the monastery on the 18th, the bolt that guarded the road to Rome was blown.
Marshal Kesselring, commander-in-chief of the Axis troops engaged in Italy, before the breakthrough of the French units of the CEF (French Expeditionary Force of General June) ordered the abandonment of this position. The Liri valley is open to the allies, and with it the road to Rome which will fall on June 4 ... The most memorable battle of the Italian theater has just found its bloody outcome. For the German troops it is the beginning of the withdrawal towards the Gothic line positions (north of Florence) which they will keep as best they can until spring 1945.
Famous for the intensity of its mountain fighting, the Battle of Monte Cassino contributed greatly to the reputation for bravery of the French colonial troops in North Africa.
- Cassino, a bitter victory: The battle for Rome, January-June 1944, by John Ellis. Albin Michel, 1987.
- The Battle of Monte-Cassino, by Gérard Cardonne. First, 2007.