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Destroying Cassino June 9, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

There is a demolition expert in all of us. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing something large and complex being blasted to a million smithereens?

Beachcombing, certainly, finds architectural snuff movies relaxing.

In the hope then of soothing his readers – with the possible exception of medievalists whose blood will run icy cold – he offers this short film of the Allied bombing of Monte Cassino 9.45 AM 15 February, 1944. Any other historical destruction films gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

In what follows a building whose origins stretched back into the early Middle Ages, a monastery that had been created by the father of western monasticism, Benedict himself, was destroyed in a matter of seconds by high explosive.

The film is, unfortunately, the normal pastiche of Second World War shots and there are also views of bombs falling on the town of Monte Cassino. But about half way through there are clear images of the destruction of the monastery itself.

the destruction of Cassino [click to download or open]

The Allied logic in destroying this bastion of Christendom was always suspect. It is true that the monastery was positioned on the Gustav line defended by Kesselring’s Germans in their expert fighting withdrawal through the peninsula. It is true too that the Germans had taken up position below and to the side of the monastery. But, to this day, there is not a sliver of evidence that the Germans had entered the abbey other than as visitors or for reasons of liaison with the authorities there.  Vague Allied claims that German spotters had been seen in the upper windows of the building – there was talk of the flash of binoculars –  were misunderstandings or imaginings.

Then even if there had been a moral justification for destroying one of the oldest continuously used buildings in Western Europe, there was no strategic justification. The bombing of the monastery meant that German paratroopers could swarm over the ruins and use these against the waves of Allied infantry. The Allies, among them Dominion troops, Gurkhas, Brazilians and, most memorably, Poles would, in the spring of 1944, pay with their lives for this catastrophic decision.

The monks themselves and refugees hiding in the monastery had been warned ahead of time of the bombing: as it was they chose not to leave  – believing that the bombing would not, in fact, take place. It was a fatal mistake. About a hundred refugees died as the bombs fell – so much for the catharsis of destruction – and the monks praying deep in the crypts below had to dig their way out. Imagine their faces as they emerged to see what had become of their world.

Abbot Diamare described on the radio, soon after, the events of that day. Iris Origo was in Tuscany when she heard the broadcast ‘without a single adjective, quietly, in a tired and saddened tone, [the abbot] told the whole story as if it had happened a hundred years ago. It was terribly moving and I can hardly imagine what the Benedictines from the monastery now scattered all over the world must have felt in hearing that quiet, heartfelt account of the end of that source of civilisation – now, after fourteen centuries of religious life, buried for ever.’

Beachcombing usually indulges in sly digs at the Wehrmacht but he thought he would round off this annihilating post by paying tribute to two German heroes from Cassino.

Lieutenant colonel Julius Schlegel had the great foresight to get the fourteen hundred odd manuscripts and 70,000 volumes stored in the monastery to the Vatican and safety before the battle began. When you go today to the (rebuilt) library of Monte Cassino and order a codex in Latin you have Julius to thank.

In the final assault that came in May it fell, meanwhile, to a Lutheran (!) Eugen Schmid to challenge his superiors and evacuate wounded monks and their nurses, a group of nuns, from a makeshift hospital beneath the wreck of the monastery. He did so with volunteers from his regiments and hand carts as his commanders refused to give him any mechanised vehicles for the job.

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29 October 2011: Larry put us on to the science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. This work that talks about the destruction of knowledge and the collapse of civilisation was allegedly inspired by Miller’s part in the bombing raid on Cassino. Thanks Larry!