Freyberg and the Abbey at Monte Cassino

Discussion in 'Italy' started by Slipdigit, Aug 23, 2011.

  1. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Old Hickory Recon

    Did Bernard Freyberg ever publically acknowledge the error in the bombing and subsequent destruction of the Abbey, when it was shown that there were no Germans occuping the area until after the air attacks?
  2. Paul Reed

    Paul Reed Ubique

    Jeff, I don't know what you mean by "occupying the area" because there were certainly plenty of Germans around the Monastery. It's actually a remarkable small area. Every 4th Indian vet I have met swears they were inside, too. But of course that is a debate that will go on forever.
    Ken P likes this.
  3. Wills

    Wills Very Senior Member

  4. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Jeff what Paul says is accurate inasmuch as the Germans were certainly very close to the Abbey - while not perhaps actually INSIDE it- they were close enough to become an overwhelming threat by observing every movement - which was the whole object of the bombing - to remove an alleged threat of observance and in that then Freyburg - and to a lesser extent Tuker of the 4th Indian Div were right to advise the bombing.

    Co-incidently at that time - "Hap" Arnold had been sent out to talk to his Air Chiefs- both RAF and USAAF about the November complaint by Monty of the Air Forces taking an undue share of all supplies - yet owing the weather - they were doing nothing - so his advice to the Air Chiefs was to "go out an Bamb something" then the target was Cassino Monastery.

    So Freyburg never thought of it as an error probably - significantly a miles long high hessian "fence" was built down the Highway to mask all movements and the smoke containers were also made more available - and Ron with his AA guns was pumping smoke all over the place choking everyone- so there were people who were also responsible than Freyburg...

  5. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Wills - I don't know what it is all about - but when I try to bring up your videos - my PC goes into a non responsive mode-- and I have to shut it down to get rid of it...
  6. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Old Hickory Recon

    Jeff, I don't know what you mean by "occupying the area" because there were certainly plenty of Germans around the Monastery. It's actually a remarkable small area. Every 4th Indian vet I have met swears they were inside, too. But of course that is a debate that will go on forever.

    I was referring to the confines of the Monastery, Paul, not the slopes or the village of Cassino itself.

    The arguement at the time was whether or not to bomb the religious structure.
  7. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Jeff -
    I hope that I won't be interjecting your remarks to Paul but the main arguement was whether or not the enemy was using the religious structure as an observation point - then facts emerged after the bombing that it was not - BUT - it was thought to be by just about everyone within shouting distance - it was a menacing and fear inspiring structure - not the light and beautiful building we see to-day - the enemy were certainly close to the Abbey as many regiments found to their cost including the US 34th Division in the first battle - in JANUARY - and it took until the middle of MAY to break through to the Liri Valley - with the combined forces of both the US 5th Army as well as most of 8th Army- with the KIwi's and 4th Indian divs no longer the strong divisions they had been all the way from El Alamein- they were tough battles in severe conditions.

    Ken P likes this.
  8. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Old Hickory Recon

    Yes, Tom. Thank you. I am reading two separate accounts of the campaign at present and am mainly interested in what Freyberg had to say post-bellum about the destruction of the abbey, if anything at all.
  9. bexley84

    bexley84 Well-Known Member


    Clearly, there are many concerns about the strategic and tactical decisions taken during the whole campaign in the advance through the Liri Valley, including the efficacy in bombing the abbey in February 1944. Some were raised at the time, most with the benefit of later knowledge.

    I visited the area once with my father who was present in the Liri Valley from February 1944 to May 1944 (including 3 weeks spent overlooking the abbey from the comforts of Monte Castellone), and he was amazed at the perfect views across the valley that were possible from the slopes of the mountain, although it must be said that the clearest views were possible from below the abbey walls.

    You may well have read the accounts in the Offiicial History of New Zealand during World War II

    Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino | NZETC

    The small section below seems very appropriate to any discussion of the decision taken by Freyberg/Alexander.

    Even if the Germans were certainly known to have observed the neutrality of the monastery, they made it impossible for the Allied troops to do likewise. The hill crowned by the monastery happened to be the commanding feature of the battlefield. The Germans had every right to defend it, and they would have neglected to do so only at the almost certain risk of opening to the Allies the road to Rome. But once the enemy had decided to include Montecassino in his defensive system the building on its summit inevitably became a legitimate target;for though the mountain might have been defended, it could not have been captured, without attention to its summit. No one now doubts – and the Allies well knew at the time – that military activity was going on in the immediate vicinity of the abbey. Was this activity to claim immunity? If not, the bombing of targets on that steep declivity would have been equivalent in practical effect to bombing the monastery itself. It is the nature of war not to be a game played to the whistle between white lines.
    Further, even if the enemy had hitherto been punctilious in preserving the abbey as a neutral zone, the past was no sure index to the future. There could be no assurance, as Tuker noted, that hard-pressed defenders would not fly to its protection in the last resort; and in fact we have evidence that the division defend Montecassino as planned, in extremity, to revise its attitude towards the abbey by using it for the reception of wounded.

    Perhaps the most weighty consideration of all, however, was the duty of the commanders to their own troops. What the generals believed was one thing. What the troops believed was another, and, right or wrong, their belief was a substantial fact in the situation. They believed, widely if not universally, that ‘Jerry’ was sitting in the ‘wee white hoose’. They were ordinary men who could not easily be brought to see that human lives, their own or others', should be sacrificed to save a certain disposition of bricks and mortar, however illustrious the building they composed. The building, moreover, they hated. Day and night they had lived under its baleful eye; it was a constant intruding presence; it looked into everything, it nagged at their nerves and became a phobia and an obsession. In the fullness of this knowledge, no infantry commander could have sent his men to storm the mountain with the fear in their hearts that the enemy was waiting for them unharmed at the top. This fact alone made an attack on Montecassino unthinkable without an attack on the great edifice that dominated its slopes.

  10. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Writing as someone who was there I can only agree with statement above, particularly the section that says

    "Day and night they had lived under its baleful eye; it was a constant intruding presence; it looked into everything, it nagged at their nerves and became a phobia and an obsession."

    When I went back in 2005, I looked down into the valley from the Monastery and marveled at the men who had fought their way up the slopes to take the high ground. Then I went down below into the British cemetery and paid my respects to those who never made it.

    Ken P and Smudger Jnr like this.
  11. bexley84

    bexley84 Well-Known Member


    Yes - I say a prayer each time I visit the cemetery. A most poignant time is visiting on a Sunday morning, accompanied by the bells from the abbey clearly echoing across the valley.

    A further excerpt of the NZ offical history might indicate some of the post facto feelings of the Corps leadership.
    It has been argued above that in the circumstances in which it found itself when it fell heir to the battle of Cassino, the command of the New Zealand Corps had no realistic alternative but to demand the bombardment of the monastery and that the only effectual form of bombardment was by heavy aircraft. Tactically, the bombing was a necessity – and a necessity notwithstanding that it was an almost unmitigated failure. But had earlier decisions been different, the necessity might never have arisen. It is true that Cassino abbey stood guard over the most direct route to Rome. It is true, too, that the Via Casalina (Route 6), upon which the advance of a great army ultimately depended, passed beneath it. But there was nothing inevitable in the strategy that chose for repeated attack the strongest point in a defensive line of remarkable strength. Another strategy might have saved the abbey of Montecassino and some of the lives which its destruction failed to save.
    Another must read that provides a "contemporary" context is, of course, Fred Majdalany's book about Cassino, which directly draws from the memories of Lt-Gen Freyberg, and Maj-Gen Kippenberger.
  12. Mussolini

    Mussolini Gaming Guru

    Would it not stand to reason that any German presence on the slopes being targeted by the Air Force would also endanger the Abbey? They did not exactly have precision strikes back then so I would imagine any strike on the hillside would endanger the Abbey. Having visited the site myself, it has a rather amazing view of the surrounding area and the slopes are extremely steep...the flatter areas being on the top immediately around the Abbey (I believe there is some sort of farm up there today and the Abbey itself is perched right on the edge of the hilltop).
  13. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    The many moral aspects of the bombing was considered before the final decision to bomb the monastery and equally afterward in Alexanders move to assist - here is a little known part of that story told to me by my good friend and neighbour from Highcliffe near Christchurch in what is now known as Dorset - Lt Col. Maurice Menage - who was CRE to 8th army and was sent by Alexander to assist the Abbot along with an American Colonel...

    BBC - WW2 People's War - The Abbey at Montecassino

  14. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Old Hickory Recon

    So, I can assume that no one knows if Freyberg ever addressed his role in the bombing after the war, or if he did, then are his comments not readily available?
  15. Wills

    Wills Very Senior Member

    Campaign in Italy...If you enjoy mountain warfare, as I do, then you might be interested in this book...however, it is loaded with pro-Allied propaganda and the amazing achievement of the German Wehrmacht in Italy are partially ignored...Yet Hoyt doe

    Page 159 -Gruenther made it quite clear that Clark was against bombing the monastery and that if the request came from an American commander he would refuse it. It was only because the request was British, and furthermore came from one of the touchy Commonwealth commanders,that he was even considering it. But Alexander now joined in the insistence, and so it was decided that the British should have their way and the monastery would be destroyed.

    The tragedy of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino—the saturation bombing by the American air force that needlessly destroyed this historic landmark has been described at length elsewhere. However,not so well known is the role played by a minor British commander,Lieutenant General Bernard C. Freyberg of the New Zealand Corps, who refused to attack on the ground unless the saturation bombing was carried out. After the bombing was over, Freyberg tried and failed to capture the abbey. This could have been predicted; Freyberg was the man who seized defeat from the jaws of victory on Crete, losing the island to an inferior force of German paratroopers because of his failure to attack at the strategic moment. General Clark, quite properly, took responsibility for the debacle at Monte Cassino, but the records only indicate the depth of the command quarrels that led to his decision about the bombing. It was a spectacular display of Allied disunity that marked the entire Mediterranean operations.
  16. ropey

    ropey Member

    To directly answer the question, no, I am not aware that Freyberg ever apologised for the bombing. As other posters have intimated, nor would I think that he thought any apology was required.
  17. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Wills - there is no doubt that this suggestion by Freyberg and Tuker raised many moral arguements and Alexander had a tough decision to take - but it boiled down to the fact that he had to back his man - or sack him - he backed him - !

    Clark thought all British were touchy- and MacCreery a feather duster ....MacCreery backed him all the way with X corps and finished off the campaign with great tactical moves at the Argenta Gap - but still British - and a feather duster ....


    I have no knowlege of Freyberg ever saying anything on the decision at any time
  18. Wills

    Wills Very Senior Member

    Thank you Tom, These days my interest is to some the boring side of warfare. The 'nuts and bolts' Q.G and A - spent many long hours studying the tactical aspects when serving. My last few years I became a fully paid up - operator desk, static and comfortable! To my horror I realised that it was not a cushy number, hours multiplied by day often came out shy! 'Where is my .....(insert requirement) became the norm. Books - I look them up and will link them here, however - I feel it is often a case of -not necessarily the thoughts of the management. I have in study periods been horrified to see historians manipulate 'facts'- yes often they are facts, but when cross referenced to intreps (intelligence reports) or Signals logs from the units, these historians have altered them chronologically. I remember an LI Colonel giving a lecture on the reporting of Jutland, the Admiralty collated the ships logs, gunnery navigation etc, coming to the conclusion rightly that there was not one battle of Jutland each ship fought it's own battle and the reports could confirm or contradict - Two pictures emerged one for Admiralty records and one for public release! My complete 'war' collection of books? Three, The Hamilton, Montgomery trilogy. I shall have to search - I remember reading of an RA officer during the Italian campaign refusing to lay on a church - suspected of being used as an observation post. If memory serves the officer was exonerated due to his convictions.


    I have the honour to remain.......
  19. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Whilst we are writing about Monte Cassino I have been doing a bit of back-tracking and was drawn to this excellent article on the BBC People's War Archives. BBC - WW2 People's War - Monte Cassino - "Smoke Trains".

    It tells of the smoke trains that kept the valley in almost permanent smoke and my mob (the 49th LAA) was heavily involved in this particular operation.

    Not I personally, I want you to understand.

    I was lucky, my 24/7 job as a wireless-op kept me from being farmed out for these extra duties, but it didn't stop me from suffering the same incessant shelling and mortaring that was the hallmark of this hell-hole and the same terrible living conditions that saw me go down with a debilitating skin complaint.

    The stalemate at Cassino was not for the faint hearted and I think I can safely speak for my fellow sufferers when I say we revelled at the sight of the bombers going in to pulverise the Monastery.

    As always, we were never given the benefits of 60 to 70 years of hindsight.

  20. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

    Hello Jeff,

    Just read the thread and the nearest to a specific answer to your question came from Richard; as quoted above. This may be a useful source.

    I am also aware that there are a couple of biographies, one an official NZ biography, which may draw on the personal commentary or recollections of Freyberg.

    I trust that this is helpful, if still not a specific answer to your question. :)


    Last edited: Jul 22, 2017
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