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The Vatican’s Secretariat of State had reached an agreement with both German and Allied commanders to respect religious structures of historic importance. Accordingly, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring ordered that the monastery be excluded from German defensive positions. His subordinate, Tenth Army commander General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, was a devout Catholic, and he assured the seventy monks living there that he would not use the site, thus depriving the Allies of any reason to bomb it. General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, commander of the Fourteenth Panzer Division, who was initially tasked with defending the Cassino area, was not only a Catholic but also a lay member of the Benedictine Order to which the site was especially sacred (as it housed Benedict’s remains). He claims in his memoirs to have made his orders clear and to have posted military police to prevent soldiers from entering the site. A number of his junior officers also seem to have been observant Catholics.
What follows is drawn from M. W. Clark, Calculated Risk (New York: Harper, 1950); F. Majdalany, Cassino: Portrait of a Battle (London: Cassell, 1957); Ellis, Cassino, the Hollow Victory (see n. 106); F. von Senger und Etterlin, Neither Fear nor Hope: The Wartime Career of General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, Defender of
Cassino (London: Macdonald, 1963); D. Hapgood and D. Richardson, Monte Cassino:
The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo, 2002); E. P. Hoyt, Backwater War: The Allied Campaign in Italy, 1943–1945 (London: Praeger, 2002); L. Clark, Anzio: Italy and the Battle for Rome—1944 (London: Headline, 2006).
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On the Allied side the American Lt.-Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army, always claimed that he had been against bombing the abbey, for several reasons—paradoxically not for the religious reasons that may have been dearer to the defenders. He was sure from reconnaissance that it was not being used militarily, that bombing it would be a tactical hindrance to the American advance (virtually requiring the Germans, who had kept out of the functioning abbey, to exploit its ruins as shooting positions), that stray bombs would kill innocent civilian refugees (as they did), and that the inevitable propaganda defeat for having bombed a famous holy place would not help the Allied cause. Clark’s original plan had sought to avoid a frontal attack on Cassino altogether by outflanking it on the right and the left. His superior, British General Harold Alexander (Commander-inChief in Italy), had also ordered that the abbey be spared, with the qualification that “Consideration for the safety of such areas will not be allowed to interfere with military necessity.”136 On the basis of stated German and American policies and intentions, then, we might have guessed that the site would never have been bombed. Yet it was destroyed. Why? The picture is not perfectly clear even after extremely intensive investigation of ample personal and documentary resources. But the main lines have emerged from the work of historians carefully piecing together bits of evidence. It was a complicated series of events, affected also by chance.
Plans for the monastery changed dramatically with the arrival of new divisions to relieve the badly depleted and demoralized US ThirtyFourth and Thirty-Sixth, which had suffered horrendous casualties in the first battle for Cassino, when their flanking efforts had failed catastrophically. Clark now adjusted his plan to include a direct assault on the Cassino massif. Fresh divisions (from the British Eighth Army) were formed into a New Zealand Corps under Gen. Bernard C. Freyberg, a First World War hero with enormous prestige. His corps comprised a New Zealand division (Second) under a General Kippenberger and a British-Indian division (Fourth) under General F. I. S. Tuker.
But Freyberg and Tuker soon requested from Clark that, if they were now to be ordered to make an assault on the massif, the abbey first be softened up by air strikes or artillery bombardment. Clark refused for the reasons given above. For the New Zealanders it did Cf. Hoyt, Backwater War, 133–34.
not matter whether the site was being occupied for military purposes:
it was the psychological centre of the German line. In his view, given the extraordinary number of Allied casualties suffered in the previous unsuccessful assaults, he could not ask his men to do to the same thing again under the same conditions. The monastery loomed ominously above them, fortress-like, and it was imperative on grounds of morale that the hated “monster in the sky” be removed before another assault was tried. Air power was the only area in which the Allies enjoyed overwhelming superiority, and the only plausible way to provide the troops evidence of hope. (When the bombs eventually dropped, many in the trenches reportedly cried for joy.) So Tuker persuaded his superior Freyberg, who tried to secure Clark’s authorization, as the order would need to come from him.
But as chance would have it, Clark was visiting the new beachhead at Anzio to the north and could not be reached. Since time was short, Clark’s Chief of Staff called the headquarters of C-in-C Alexander for advice, while assuring him that Clark would resolutely oppose the bombing. Alexander inclined to defer to the divisional generals, recognizing their need to inspire their troops, and so informed Clark’s office that, although the order must come from Clark, Alexander agreed with Freyberg and Tuker. When Clark learned of Alexander’s directive he felt trapped, indeed set up by Freyberg, though he now had little choice but to order the bombing. He would later insist that if they had been American subordinates he would have flatly refused, but in a coalition army he had to tread carefully.
When bad weather postponed the bombing, Clark tried again to dissuade first Alexander and then his own foreign subordinates, to no avail. As chance would have it Tuker had been abruptly forced by a recurring tropical disease to relinquish his command, though from his sickbed he maintained pressure for the bombing. The massive aerial assault was supposed to kick off a concentrated push against the Gustav Line: the “second battle” for Cassino. The Fourth Indian Division in the hills above Cassino would exploit the expected shock and occupy the mountain top, as the balance of the Fifth Army poured through Cassino town below, secured by the New Zealanders, after which the forces would join up in the Liri Valley and continue on to Rome. But it was not to be. The remarkably precise bombing runs did indeed destroy the monastery. But the air attack was not coordinated with the ground forces, who were more surprised than the enemy and not ready to exploit the opening. The Germans, on the other hand,
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quickly recovered and occupied the ruins, as Clark had feared, turning the lofty site into an even more lethal defensive position.
The bombing of Monte Cassino suggests many cautions for historians of the Judaean war. First, it shows that we can never assume a static policy with respect to tactical objectives, impervious to changing conditions. Many factors, from natural conditions—the Air Force chose their bombing day, surprising the army, because it was the only one for which there was a favourable weather forecast—to psychological perceptions affect and even determine tactical decisions.
Second, one cannot draw inferences about the intentions of historical actors from their actions or even from the orders they give. As the diaries of modern politicians that come to light only after their deaths demonstrate, we may not assume that leaders personally support even the operations they directly order, much less actions in which they merely cooperate. We require detailed and independent evidence— diaries are helpful, though they are not infallible—to reconstruct the real feelings of individuals, if indeed the individuals could honestly say that they knew their own clear views in such periods of stress.
In Clark’s case we have the possibility of a reality check on his literary memoir in the form of his own diary, his post-war interviews, and the reports of those who worked alongside him. In real time he had objected strenuously to accepting British Eighth-Army divisions under his charge (“No use giving me, an American, British troops”), especially when these would be commanded by the famous General Freyberg (“a prima donna... to be handled with kid gloves”). But in
his more diplomatic memoir he emphasizes Freyberg’s heroic status:
although he realized that the British had to handle New Zealanders tactfully, he claims to have been proud to welcome Freyberg with his troops.137 This kind of comparison reminds us again how much we cannot know about ancient daily realities.
Third, and most importantly, the Cassino example shows how complicated a decision such as this can be, and how defective any single source is. Clark’s memoir, for example, entirely omits Tuker’s crucial role. Placing the blame squarely on his bête-noir Freyberg, whose motives he simply claims never to have understood, he creates a picture that would have thrown historians completely off the trail if it The more candid remarks are quoted in Ellis, Cassino, the Hollow Victory, 161;
for the memoir see Clark, Calculated Risk, 190, 238.
had been the only surviving account. Tuker’s role changes everything.
Instead of the bombing being an unwelcome distraction motivated by the eccentric insistence of a lone general whom no one wanted to cross for diplomatic reasons (Freyberg), it appears to have arisen—much more understandably—from another general’s concern for his men’s morale.
There is also the fascinating question of the motives that play a role in explaining events after the fact. Given the worldwide consternation that followed the abbey’s bombing, one might have assumed that the main concern of apologists would be to deflect responsibility for destroying such a holy or cultural site. In the case of Jerusalem, as we have seen, it has been assumed that Josephus wrote to clear Titus of the stigma of having destroyed a sacred site. But in both contexts the situation is more complicated.
With Monte Cassino, although German propaganda did indeed exploit the bombing, German commanders in the area and Allied generals understood that the Allies would of course bomb it if military considerations required that. Churches had been destroyed by both sides without much hesitation, the lives of soldiers and the larger mission taking priority over brick and stone. No one was about to blame Clark for ordering the monastery destroyed on grounds of military necessity—once the inhabitants had been warned to leave, via a leaflet drop the preceding day. His own account of his opposition to the bombing has nothing sentimental about it, and expresses no embarrassment. He would have called for the abbey’s destruction, he says, if he had considered it a tactical need, but he did not. For him, the bombing resulted from interpersonal struggles in the higher command and differences of military judgement.
In the case of Titus, our easy assumption that Josephus must have wished to shield him from blame needs closer examination. Against whom would the Flavians wish Titus’ reputation defended? The world that mattered belonged to them. As for tactical necessity, Tacitus echoes Josephus in describing the temple as a virtual fortress (Hist.
5.12: templum in modum arcis propriique muri, labore et opere ante alios) occupied by the (Zealot) faction of Eleazar and John. His narrative breaks off before the end, but it is clear enough in what survives that a temple serving as a fortress had, in his view, lost any claim to the right of asylum. When Josephus portrays the war council, he has all the legionary commanders agree that “the law of war” calls for such a temple’s destruction: “once a fortress, it is no longer a shrine”
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(B.J. 6.238–240). The Romans had not spared temples in Carthage or Corinth when they destroyed those cities two centuries earlier (146 b.c.e.), and in this case Titus himself appears to have had no qualms whatsoever about the temple’s fall. His joint triumph reportedly depicted “fire engulfing holy places” and the strongest of walls and hilltop cities being taken (B.J. 7.144–145). The temple furnishings proudly displayed in that procession were reportedly placed on permanent exhibit in Vespasian’s Temple of Peace (B.J. 7.158–161). And the capture of these most sacred symbols from Jerusalem’s shrine was portrayed in stone on the arch of Titus that remains today, erected under Domitian to mark Titus’ apotheosis.138 The lost arch, honouring Titus in the Circus Maximus, though it did not explicitly mention the temple, memorialized the supremely capable young man’s comprehensive destruction of the city: “he subdued the nation of the Judaeans and destroyed the city of Jerusalem” (urbem Hierusolymam... delevit), which no one allegedly had been able to do before (CIL 6.944).139 In a similar vein, the Flavian poet Valerius Flaccus praised Vespasian in
the prologue to his Argonautica (12–14):
your son [Domitian] tells of the overthrow of Idume, for he is able, and of his brother [Titus] begrimed with the dust of Jerusalem, scattering fire-brand and causing havoc in every turret (spargentemque faces et in omni turre furentem).140 No embarrassment is discernible anywhere here, and in view of the Flavians’ energetic Iudaea capta coin production, there is nothing to suggest that their brutal destruction of Jerusalem ever caused them to lose sleep.
In view of the experience of armies at all times—still today, except when troubling leaks and photographs find media outlets—we may suppose that the Flavians, whose proof of imperium-worthy potency depended so heavily on the Judaean war, had no regrets about “doing what was necessary over there,” in the common parlance. If Tacitus’ Cf. M. Pfanner, Der Titusbogen (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1983).