The second battle of Cassino (15-18 February 1944) was the most controversial of the four battles, and saw Allied bombers destroy the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino without any military benefit (battle of the Gustav Line).
During the first battle of Cassino (12 January-12 February 1944) the Allied had tried to attack to the north and south of Cassino town, and in each case their attacks had been repulsed, or they had made at best limited progress. One notable feature of the battle was the accuracy of German artillery fire, and the Allied soldiers soon came to believe that the Germans had artillery observers in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, which sat on top of an impressive mountain to the west of the town.
The Germans had actually behaved unusually well at the Monastery. The portable artistic treasures had been moved to Rome and placed under the protection of the Vatican (at the same time as other members of the Nazi hierarchy were looting Italian art for all they were worth). General von Senger was actually a lay brother of the Benedictine Order, and had placed an exclusion zone around the buildings. None of this was known to the Allies. There were German positions within a few hundred yards of the buildings, and it loomed in the minds of the troops, who became convinced it was filled with German observers.
The new attack was to be carried out by General Tuker’s 4th Indian Division, which had the task of capturing Monastery Hill from the north, while the 2nd New Zealand Division attacked Cassino town. The 4th Indian Division had only just taken over its positions on the hills north of Monte Cassino. They had moved to the foot of the mountains west of the Rapido on 12 February, but had only been able to make the ascent to the American positions on the afternoon of 13 February, replacing the exhausted 135th and 168th Infantry Regiments.
Tuker was worried about the potential defensive qualities of the monastery, and hunted through the bookshops of Naples until he found a description of its construction. Its thick stone walls made the buildings a potential fortress. Tuker argued that it didn’t actually matter if German troops were in the buildings before the battle, as they would probably move into them once his troops got close. He requested that the buildings should be destroyed by heavy bombers before the attack, to deny the Germans its shelter.
This request caused a great deal of controversy amongst the Allied commanders. Tuker’s immediate commander, General Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Corps agreed with his request and passed it on to Alexander. Alexander consulted with General John Cannon, head of the Twelfth Air Force, who promised to destroy the position if he was allowed to use his entire bomber force. In general the air commanders were keen on the operation, believing that a heavy enough air attack would leave any defensive position untenable. General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces and General Jacob Devers, Deputy to the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, actually flew low over the building and stated that they had seen a radio antenna and German uniforms drying in a courtyard. General Clark was opposed to the bombing, partly because he didn’t want to be responsible for destroying such an iconic cultural treasure, partly because he knew that ruined building were often a better defensive position than intact ones and partly because there were civilian refugees in the buildings. General Keyes, commander of the US II Corps also flew over the building and stated that he saw no evidence of the Germans. Alexander eventually approved the bombing on the grounds that it was a military necessity, and that ‘bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, cannot be allowed to weight against human lives’
Unfortunately the actual bombing and its follow-up was botched, so the Allies got no benefit from the destruction, and instead created a perfect defensive position that the Germans were entirely free to use. The basic problem was that the timing of the attack was left up to the airmen, who wanted a forecast of 24 hours of clear weather, and wasn’t coordinated properly with the troops on the ground. The original plan was that the raid would take place on 16 February. A warning was issued to the refugees on 14 February, and after negotiations with the Germans it was decided that they should leave the buildings at 5am on 16 February. The 4th Indian Division only moved into the front line on 12-13 February, and had lost most of their grenades and mortar shells on the way to the front. They were thus out of place and not fully equipped when the airmen decided to carry out the raid a day early because the weather forecast improved.
The attack began at 9.45am on 15 February. Over several hours waves of heavy and medium bombers dropped 600 tons of HE on the buildings. The attack was supported by the Allied artillery. Around 280-300 refugees were killed in the bombardment, although the Abbot and most of the monks survived, after taking shelter in the crypt. A vast amount of damage had been done to the buildings, but the base of the 10ft thick walls was largely intact, creating a perfect fortress for the Germans to move into. On 17 February the Abbot and the surviving refugees left the Monastery, and elite German paratroops moved in.
The first infantry attack towards the ruins came on the night of 15 February, when the Indians attempted to advance from their position on the ‘snakehead’ ridge, to the north-west of the Monastery Hill. Attacks on the night of 16 February (by the Sussex battalion, 7th Brigade) and on 17 February (six battalions from the 7th Brigade) also failed.
In the valley two companies of Maoris managed to capture the railway station at the southern end of Cassino town late on 17 February, but were driven back by counterattacks on 18 February after the Germans moved the 211th Grenadier Regiment to the front.
Alexander then decided to halt the attack on 18 February to give time to prepare for a fresh bombardment of the German positions. There was then a longer than expected gap before the start of the third battle of Cassino, largely caused by three weeks of poor weather, which made any attack almost impossible