One of our most remarkable sites is the abbey of Monte Cassino (or Montecassino), renowned as the place where St Benedict established his now world-famous order in around 529AD. What many visitors do not realize is that the abbey was subject to almost total destruction during the Battle of Monte Cassino, which raged during the first months of 1944. Due to intelligence reports and its’ strategic location, the Allies believed the abbey to be occupied by German troops. Commander-in-Chief Allied Armies in Italy, Sir Harold Alexander, ordered the bombing of the abbey. With terrible effectiveness, Allied bombers reduced the abbey to rubble. In the end it turned out that the intelligence reports had been mistaken, there were no Germans within the abbey and the only people killed were 230 Italian civilians who had taken shelter to escape the fighting elsewhere.
In a savage twist to the tale, the ruins of the abbey were then garrisoned by German paratroopers who were afforded far better defensive cover by the shattered remnants than they would have been by the abbey itself. As to the treasures of the abbey that were removed prior to its’ destruction, sources differ. One version has it that two German officers had a vast number of irreplaceable documents and artifacts loaded into 120 trucks and transferred to the Vatican rather than risk their destruction. However, some sources claim only strenuous protests saw the trucks diverted from their original destination somewhere in Germany to the Vatican. Some go further, claiming that 15 cases containing treasures of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, were actually sent to Germany and presented to Hermann Goring for his birthday. What is certainly true today is that after the war, Monte Cassino – not for the first time – rose from the ashes. As we wander today through this serene place, with its’ views through stone archways out onto perfect azure skies which have been compared to an impression of heaven, we can ponder, reflect, reach back and connect not only with the holy order of the Benedictines, (a handful of whom are still in residence), but strangely perhaps amongst such tranquility, also to the terrible destruction of 70 years ago.