Not a crime but a blunder
PERSONAL COLUMN NIGEL NICOLSON
Twenty-five years ago the huge monastery of Monte Cassino was destroyed by Allied bombers. My brigade was then in the hills about eight miles away. We had not been warned of the attack, and were not directly involved in the battle that followed. But we could see the monastery clearly. It dominated the whole valley and the whole battle. Two American divisions had already smashed them- selves against its defences. We were glad to see it go, and imagined that the way to Rome would now be open. It was thrilling to witness from a safe distance so dramatic a display of power; to see so massive a target hit fair and square. But was it fair, and was it square?
The demand that the monastery be destroyed originated with the soldiers of the 4th Indian Division who were about to attack it. The divisional commander, General Francis Tuker, elaimed that 'Monte Cassino is a modern fortress and must be dealt with by modern Means.' Whether the Germans were actually in occupation of it or not, in the last resort they would be bound to take refuge within its walls, and use it as a rallying-point for sorties and wounded. It was impossible to make a tactical distinction between a strongly fortified mountain and the buildings which crowned its summit. The monastery was an integral part of the German defence system. Tuker's argu- ment was endorsed by Freyberg, passed on a little hesitantly by Mark Clark (the army commander) to Alexander, and there the buck stopped. Alexander took the final responsi- bility.
'When soldiers are fighting for a just cause,' be wrote in his memoirs, 'and are prepared to suffer death and mutilation in the process, bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, cannot be allowed to weigh against human lives. In the context of the Cassino battle, how could a structure which dominated the fighting field be allowed to stand? The monastery had to be destroyed.' I remember him saying much the same thing when he
visited onr brigade a few weeks after Cassino fell. 'A commander, if faced by a choice be- tween risking a single soldier's life and destroy- ing a work of art, even a religious symbol like Monte Cassino, can make only one de-
cision. Otherwise the moral problem would become insupportable.' He said this with a sincerity that was impressive.
We now know that the Germans were not occupying the monastery. Their fortifications were on the bill around it, but no closer than 200 metres from its walls, and they posted sen- tries outside the main gate to prevent any troops entering the monastery itself. The German corps commander, General von Senger, told me in London after the war that Kesselring's policy, like-Alexander's, was to spare religious monu- ments whenever possible, and he had informed the Vatican that Monte Cassino would not be occupied by his troops. Unfortunately, the ver- sion of this declaration which reached the Allies was that 'no considerable body of troops' was in the 'immediate vicinity' of the build- ing, which left the matter in doubt.
The Allies could scarcely believe that any commander would resist making use of so for- midable a fortress in the very centre of his line. Von Senger, however, saw it differently. Apart from his strong personal feelings about the sanctity of the place (he was a Catholic from Bavaria), he was unwilling to bottle up his troops in so obvious a target when they could occupy the shellproof emplacements which had been prepared on the surrounding hillside during the previous three months. To the Allies looking up from the valley it seemed that a German observer must be stationed behind each of the monastery's thousand windows. But to the Germans the upper part of the hill below the walls afforded even better observation, because it was unrestricted and concealed. To add fifty feet to a hill already 1,700 feet high gave them no extra advantage. 'Even under normal conditions,' von Senger wrote in his autobiography, 'Monte Cassino would never have been occupied by artillery spotters. So conspicuous a landmark would be quite unsuitable.'
Fred Majdalany, in his book on the Cassino battles, argues that it was irrelevant whether the Germans were in the monastery or not. He calls the question 'the great red herring.' The troops who were to attack it thought that it was occupied, and that was all that mat- tered. They could not be asked to undertake so dangerous an assault while this menace hung over their heads. But was the question so irrelevant? If the monastery were destroyed, and the Germans could prove afterwards (as they did, by the widely publicised statement of the Abbot) that they had respected its neu- trality, there would be four results. The bomb- ing would be wasted, since no enemy soldiers would be killed by it nor military installations destroyed. The ruins would make an even more formidable strongpoint than the intact building. The Germans would then have the pretext to occupy it immediately. And world Catholic opinion would be deeply shocked.
This is just what happened. The occupation of the ruins ('a far finer defence position than it would have been before its destruction,' wrote von Senger) made the Allies' task more difficult. The bombing bolstered German more than Allied morale, after the first impact bad passed. There had been insufficient coordina- tion between the air attack and the ground
attack, for the assault troops had been warned to expect the bombing a day later, and were not ready. Three months were to pass before the monastery was captured by the Poles, and then they bypassed it to the north. So, in the end, the bombing helped nobody, except the Germans. To them it seemed nothing more than a petulant gesture by the Allies in com- pensation for their previous failures to cap- ture the position. The tough parachutists in Cassino town were cock-a-hoop.
The bombing of Monte Cassino, like the bombing of Dresden, worried the Allied con- science at the time, and still worries it. Mark Clark, who had said neither yes nor no to the Tuker/Freyberg request but left it to Alexander, wrote after the war that the bomb- ing was not only an unnecessary psychological error but 'a tactical military mistake of the first magnitude.' All other Allied commanders, supported by Churchill, have defended the de- cision in retrospect, and so have the majority of historians. My own view is that it was a blunder, but not a crime. The question of German occupation was highly relevant to the decision, but it was treated as secondary, and the evidence for it was based upon chance observations from ground and air, not on repeated and specific inquiries through the Vatican, which in such a matter could have afforded an exceptional channel of communi- cation between enemies. Nor was it fair to leave the decision to Alexander. It should have been taken at the highest political level.
If the troops could have been assured by their commanders that not a single German soldier was in the monastery, they would have been as relieved as by the information that a major blockhouse on the Normandy beaches was unoccupied. If they had known that only the Abbot, five monks and some hundreds of peasants had taken refuge there, the monastery would have been neutralised in- their minds as well as on the ground. It was possible to fight the battle round the hill, as indeed it was fought, without damaging the monastery by more than a stray shell.
I say that the bombing was not a crime be- cause these facts were not known, and because Alexander was certainly right in his definition of a commander's responsibility for his men's lives. The Pope told him, after the capture of Rome, that he fully understood the necessity for it.
My father wrote in the SPECTATOR a week after the bombing, 'I should not hesitate for an instant to save St Mark's from destruction even if I were aware that by so doing I should bring death to my sons.' I read that article in Italy with mixed feelings, and heard to my delight that it aroused strong protests in England. 'The loss of even the most valued human life,' he went on, 'is ultimately less disastrous than the loss of something which in no circumstances can ever be created again.' Well, the monastery has been rebuilt around the cell and tomb of St Benedict which miracu- lously survived untouched. Religious sites are in a sense always more replaceable than works of art, since religion is not concerned with material or temporal things. Still, the monastery at Monte Cassino was both, and it could have been spared. How easy to say this now! I think back to that February morning in l944 when I watched the bombs explode, and I remember my elation. I know, too, that had I been Alexander, I would have acted as he acted.