On the 15th February, 1944, 1400 tons of high explosives were dropped by the Allied forces advancing upon Rome, on the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. The aerial bombardment marked the beginning of one of the most amazing episodes of World War II – the defense of Monte Cassino by a numerically and technologically inferior force against massive enemy firepower and manpower.
As the dust settled on the ruins of what had once been one of the greatest cultural and religious landmarks on the European landscape, Fallschirmjäger (German paratroopers) began to move into the perfect cover conveniently created for them by the air raid. During the course of World War II, the Fallschirmjäger had been prominent in many notable engagements with Allied forces. From the assault on Fort Eben-Emael, to the invasion of Norway and the Battle of Crete, German paratroopers had played a singular role in German victories and had achieved a reputation for bravery and fortitude that had few equals.
While these campaigns were won during the early years of the war, when Germany was at the height of its power, it was in 1944, in the death throes of Axis power in Europe, that the Fallschirmjäger, spurred on not by the desire for conquest but by the need to stay the advance on their homeland, that, at Monte Cassino, they achieved their most noteworthy action which was to mark them for all time as being among the bravest of the brave.
Taking advantage of the surrounding ruins, the German paratroopers were able to conceal artillery, machine gun emplacements and mortars that would take a heavy toll on enemy assaults. On the 15th of February, British troops advanced on Monte Cassino and suffered a decisive setback when met by stiff resistance from the Fallschirmjäger, with a company of the 1st Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment taking over 50% casualties. On the 16th of February the Royal Sussex Regiment moved forward to the assault with an entire regiment of men. Once again the British were met with a determined resistance from the Fallschirmjäger and driven back to their own lines.
The following night, the 1st and 9th Gurkha Rifles and the 4th and 6th Rajputana Rifles attempted to assault Monte Cassino but were withdrawn after suffering appalling losses. Also on the 17th of February, the 28th Maori Battalion succeeded in advancing as far as the railroad in Cassino Town but were dislodged by a German armoured counterattack.
On March 15th a large scale assault upon the German positions was signaled by the dropping of 750 tons of explosives and a massive artillery barrage that accounted for the loss of 150 German paratroopers. New Zealand and Rajputana soldiers were sent into the assault in the hopes that the paralyzing effect of the enormous bombardment would enable them to seize Monte Cassino while the Germans were still in a state of shock. To the dismay of the Allied command, the Fallschirmjäger fought back with such determination that the assault had to be called off. A surprise armoured assault upon Cassino four days later was also repulsed by an aggressive German counterattack that succeeded in destroying all the tanks the Allies had committed to the assault. By this stage, the Allies had lost over 4600 men killed or wounded.
Further attacks on Monte Cassino were delayed while the Allies massed troops for what was hoped would be an unstoppable offensive. On the 11th May, over 1600 artillery pieces commenced a massive barrage upon the German positions. Moroccan, Polish and American troops surged up the slopes of Monte Cassino with the paratroopers holding their positions and forcing them to into a brutal fight for every yard of contested ground. Soon, however, it became clear that the Allied advance threatened to cut off the German lines of supply and the Fallschirmjäger were ordered to withdraw to the fortified Hitler Line. When the final attack came on the 18th May, only 30 German soldiers, too wounded to be removed, were found in the ruins.
Monte Cassino had finally fallen to the victorious Allies but the cost in men and material had been prodigious. The battle for Monte Cassino will be remembered in the annals of history as a testament to the bravery and determination of the German Fallschirmjäger, who, even in defeat, had nevertheless added to the military laurels of this elite body of soldiers.