American troops liberated Rome from German occupation just 2 days before D-Day. What made it possible, and why did the liberation occur when it did?

Show Notes

I was not planning for a podcast today, but yesterday hit me with unusual force and a flood of memories swept me toward this unscheduled podcast.

Yesterday was June 5: sandwiched between two very important ones.

June 4          Liberation of Rome from the German troops, 78 years ago

June 6          D Day, the massive invasion of Allied troops vs. German positions, 78 yrs

The Liberation of Rome was a wonderful moment, but it was mostly symbolic:

Key Battle: Not at Rome but at Monte Cassino, on the Gustav Line

Not quite half-way between Naples and Rome. This Fortified Line was where the Germans stopped the Allied Advance, which had been moving from south to north, from Sicily toward Germany.

“The Stalingrad of the Italian Campaign”:  4 long months of bitter fighting, much of it in bitter weather, mostly divided into 3 battles, one in Jan, one in Feb, one in March

Then in May a final push through the Gustav line and seizure of the Abbey of Monte Cassino founded by Saint Benedict almost exactly 1,500 years ago.

The Abbey is located on a steep hill with a commanding view of the valley leading to Rome.

The battles acquired extra importance for me because on the 50th anniversary of the recapture, I rented a car and went to visit the Abbey at Monte Cassino. This was May 18, 1994

I was not prepared for what I encountered. It certainly confirmed that travel can sometimes be deeply educational.

There were tour buses filled with British and American veterans from the battle, back to revisit the spot where they had fought and become brothers in arms with so many others.           Some, of course, never returned.

It was tremendously moving to speak to them:

They spoke of the hardships of the weather as well as of the fighting. I asked them about sleeping in snow in tents, and one soldier said he threw his tent away, because his weapons were so heavy they were all he could carry.

Which is the soldier’s virtue: courage or toughness?

Their stories made me resolve that when I got back to Rome, I would learn more about the bombing that had destroyed the Abbey, the other attempts to break through the German’s line, and the campaign after the Germans marched in retreat toward Rome

The word “tragedy” is overused, but it was supremely annoying that the tour companies who were taking these veterans around had brought them to the Abbey when it was closed for a long midday break. The soldiers who had come all the way from the States or England had to get back on their buses without even entering the rebuilt Abbey that had been a focus of their efforts for four months.

I somehow knew to visit other war memorials in the area. The Polish Cemetery, the German Cemetery, the town of Cassino, which was destroyed in the third battle, the one in March.

The most moving site for me on that day: the British Cemetery

Beautiful location at the base of the mountain, a good vantage for seeing how hard it was to take the monastery

Filled with very old and unfirm veterans and their families

Religious Service underway

Tombstones marked the ages of the fallen soldiers, very often in their teens & early twenties

Graves of Soldiers from India, New Zealand, South Africa — all over the British Empire


I later hit the books and learned of several issues worth pondering.

Here are three that question the judgment of the high command

  1. Was General Clark at fault for launching the first attack? (The one in January.) Some thought so, and he was taken to court after the war.If I remember correctly, it was members of the Texas Division that brought the case: they had suffered greatly. 1,600 men in 48 hours
  1. Who approved the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and was this a criminal or supremely stupid act?

It was an ancient and magnificent structure, solid as a fort, and with its first iteration built by Saint Benedict, almost 1,500 years ago. “The Mother of All Western Monasteries” (The Rule of St. Benedict, and a sort of spirituality that helped to give Europe its identity). Destroyed in the single largest air attack ever launched against a single building.

142 Flying Fortresses dropped 287 tons of 500 lb bombs;  66 tons of incendiary bombs

47 B-25’s dropped 100 tons of high explosive bombs

  1. Was General Clark right to liberate Rome on June 4, or should he have turned his attention elsewhere, as I will explain?

I have never done anything to help win a war, so I am reluctant to find fault with those who accepted such responsibilities, but I’ll briefly sketch the issues surrounding the first two questions and then focus a little more on the third.

  1. In the beginning, summer 1943, there was a debate over whether to march up the long Italian peninsula.

Very mountainous, Ribs of rivers flowing from the central spine to coasts, Very long: 1,000 miles long x 100 miles wide (near Rome), German troops in good positions after Italy dropped out of the war

Almost never done before, but consider Bellasarius in the Gothic Wars in the 6th Century.

When Hannibal invaded Italy, he came from the top down: much easier entry point because the broad Po Valley allows maneuvering.

  1. Churchill persuaded other allied leaders to attempt it, partly to show the Russians that the western allies were making contributions. This might limit Stalin’s power at the bargaining table after the war.

And the taking of North Africa and Sicily had gone well; Mussolini was overthrown by the Fascists themselves, July 25

So, hopes for easier pickings in an Italy that was no longer in the war. But the Germans under Kesselring occupied Italy

  1. It was a hard battle and long fight to get to Naples, then a couple more months to reach the Gustav Line.

Two months, Nov and Dec, and 16,000 casualties to move 8 miles to get to the Gustav Line.

To break through the line, the Allies undertook two actions at the same time.

  1. An amphibious hook landings at Anzio and Nettuno, 22 January 1944

(An easy 1 hour train ride from Termini, and worth the trip)

  1. An attempt to break directly through the Line by crossing the Rapido River at the base of Monte Cassino

The idea was that each of the two different attacks would make the other easier.

The Germans would have to divide their attention and their troops.

The landing succeeded in getting the men ashore, but failed to create havoc.

A good metaphor or simile can win an argument: Of Lucas and his troops, Churchill said, “I had hoped to hurl a wildcat on the shore, but all we got was a beached whale.”

The attempt at Monte Cassino failed miserably and led to a law case after the war against MW Clark

Troops were poorly equipped and ill prepared for the assault, and many died

Controversy #2: The bombing of the Abbey

Hugely destructive: most massive air attack on a single building. Abbey was a great building rebuilt in the Renaissance. Rebuilt again after the war, but invited charge that the US was insensitive to the importance of cultural sites

Massive Failure:

Allied troops were supposed to take the position

German troops got there first

Commonly said the Germans had not even occupied it before the bombing

So this bombing is widely criticized and condemned.

My own inclination:

The coordination between air and ground was bad, and this made the bombing counterproductive.   I agree. The land forces did not know the air force was going to attack when it did. Weather might be a partial explanation. But this was bad.

As for the argument that the Germans had not even occupied the Abbey, I think this is true, but I’m not sure that this was known, or could have been known for sure, by the troops on the ground in 1944.

And even if it was not occupied, if it was left as a sanctuary, unharmed, it would still make for a wonderful lookout position for German scouts just outside of its walls. They could then radio down the coordinates for any Allied movements. The Germans did not need to put their artillery there, only their observers.

The air attack on the Abbey caused great loss and proved counterproductive, but before blaming those who called for it, I put myself in their position. If someone ordered me to send a group of soldiers up the side of the mountain, as New Zealand’s General Freyberg was ordered to do, I’d want an air attack on the fortress-like monastery at the top.

Even if there were no German troops in it when I started up from the base of the mountain, if I started to make progress, I suspect they’d want to take advantage of the fortress-like Abbey at the top. Then what would happen to my troops and the hopes for my mission?

Controversy #3: The taking of Rome on 4 June.

The Gustav Line was broken in mid-May after 4 months. The Germans tried to form new lines, but they did not hold. So they retreated toward Rome with Allies on their heels.

But at about the same time, the Allies broke away from the beach at Anzio and Nettuno. (If you consult a map, and I’ll put a few on my website, you will see that Anzio and Nettuno are closer to Rome than Monte Cassino.) They are allied troops that are in a sense “ahead” of the Germans.

Question: What should these troops do?

Answer 1: Race toward Rome

Answer 2: Attack the retreating Germans on their flank, before they get near Rome

General Clark chose the first alternative.

Why? He says explicitly that he wanted to get to Rome before D Day. If D Day came first, the liberation of Rome would barely be noticed. There was no battle there.

There was no significant victory: that had been won at Monte Cassino.

But if the Liberation of Rome came first, then its symbolic importance would put it on the front page of all Western newspapers. Rome, after all, had been Mussolini’s capital, so it was the first of the three capitals of the German-Italian-Japanese alliance to fall.

I don’t mean that General Clark wanted the headlines only for himself: he must have also wanted his soldiers to be recognized for their hard slog north. This is completely understandable.

But the Germans were able to march by Rome and reform into a new line near Florence, the Gothic Line. And there they remained for almost another year, keeping the Allies from putting more intense pressure on Germany and allowing the Soviets to be the liberators of much of Europe.

So the question remains whether General Clark might have found a gap in the Lepini Mountains to the south of Rome through which to send his troop from Anzio and Nettuno against the flank of the repeating German Army. Driving and hiking in the area made me think there might have been such a gap between Velletri and Cori.

If such an attack had been possible, it would have been an even greater accomplishment than the Liberation of Rome, wonderful moment though that was.

So, thanks for joining me for this extra D Day episode on the Liberation of Rome. It’s certainly been good for me to remember the grit and sacrifices of those who fought in the Second World War, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too. I was surprised not to see any mention either of D Day or the Liberation of Rome in either of the papers I read each day.

Share this podcase episode