South Africans in one of the most bitter battles ever – Cassino

South Africans in one of the most bitter battles ever – Cassino

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Rare image of South Africans in combat during one of the most bitter battles of World War 2 – Monte Cassino. Overlooked by the ruins of this hill-top monastery, South African engineers of 11th Field Company, South African Engineer Corps, clear rubble from ‘Route 6’, the main road through Monte Cassino. The final German resistance had ceased only hours before. 


The Battle of Monte Cassino was a costly series of four assaults by the American, British and Commonwealth Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by primarily German forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II.


The intention was a breakthrough to Rome. At the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri, and Garigliano valleys and some of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Together, these features formed the Gustav LineMonte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys, but had been left unoccupied by the German defenders. The Germans had, however, manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls.


Fearing that the abbey did form part of the Germans’ defensive line, primarily as a lookout post, the Allies sanctioned its bombing on 15 February and American bombers proceeded to drop 1,400 tons of bombs onto it. The destruction and rubble left by the bombing raid now provided better protection from aerial and artillery attacks, so, two days later, German paratroopers took up positions in the abbey’s ruins. Between 17 January and 18 May, Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops, the last involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a very high cost.


All in all, it is estimated that the British and American Allied Forces had 55 000 battle casualties taking Monte Cassino and the German Axis forces experienced 20 000 casualties.  What Churchill had once quipped would be the “soft under-belly of Europe” for invading forces to enter Germany via Italy had indeed proved to be a tough old gut instead.


Copyright Imperial War Museum Collection