German Soldiers of World War II Why They Were the Best, and Why They Still Lost


German Soldiers of World War II

Why They Were the Best, and Why They Still Lost

Mark Weber
February 2018

The German soldiers of World War II have often been portrayed, both during the war and in the decades since, as simple-minded, unimaginative and brutish. Hollywood movies and popular U.S. television shows have for years contrasted confident, able and “cool” American GIs with slow-witted, cynical and cruel Germans.

“Propaganda is an inescapable ingredient of modern conflict,” British journalist and historian Max Hastings has noted. “In the Second World War, it was considered essential for the struggle to defeat the German army that the peoples of the Grand [Allied] Alliance should be convinced of the qualitative superiority of their fighting men to those of the enemy. One [American] dogface or one [British] tommy was worth three wooden-headed krauts. Hitler’s robots could never match the imagination and initiative of Allied soldiers on the battlefield …” Major wartime American motion pictures portrayed German soldiers as dull-witted and simplistic. In the decades since the war, Hastings notes, “a spirit of military narcissism, nourished by such films as ‘The Longest Day,’ ‘A Bridge Too Far’ and ‘The Battle of the Bulge,’ has perpetuated mythical images of the Allied and German armies.” / 1

In accord with the prevailing propaganda image of the enemy, Britain’s wartime premier scornfully disparaged German soldiers and officers. In a 1941 radio address Winston Churchill spoke of “the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers … [and] the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.” / 2

Soldiers like these fought with unmatched ability, daring and resourcefulness


Like so much else that the public has been told about the Second World War, this demeaning image bore little relation to reality. As specialists of military history who have looked into the matter agree, the men of Germany’s armed forces — the Wehrmacht — performed with unmatched ability and resourcefulness throughout the nearly six years of conflict.

Trevor N. Dupuy

Trevor N. Dupuy, a noted American military analyst, US Army Colonel, and author of numerous books and articles, studied the comparative performance of the soldiers of World War II. On average, he concluded, 100 German soldiers were the equivalent of 120 American, British or French soldiers, or 200 Soviet soldiers. “On a man for man basis,” Dupuy wrote, “German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances [emphasis in original]. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.” / 3

Other respected military historians, such as Martin van Creveld and John Keegan, have made comparable assessments. Max Boot draws a similar conclusion in his detailed book, War Made New. “Man for man,” writes this influential author and military historian, “the Wehrmacht was probably the most formidable fighting force in the world until at least 1943, if not later. German soldiers were even known for showing more initiative than the soldiers of democratic France, Britain, and the United States. / 4

Another scholar who has written about this is Ben H. Shepherd, an author of several books who teaches history at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. In a recent detailed work, Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich, he dismantles the image of “zombie-like obedience popularly ascribed to the German military.” In fact, the Wehrmacht “stressed qualities such as flexibility, daring and independent thinking,” and “Nazi ideology placed great importance upon qualities such as courage, endurance, resourcefulness and strength of character, as well as upon comradeship.” He also takes note of “the stress that the German army placed on superior organization. At all levels, the German army was more effectively organized than all the opposing armies it faced …” / 5

Looking at the 1940 campaign in France, Shepherd writes: “… It was the Germans’ own strength that enabled them to triumph so spectacularly. Among other things, they profited from an imaginative and daring operational plan. But if one single, overall reason for the German army’s triumph in the west can be pinpointed, it is that its doctrinal approach to tactics and operations far outclassed that of its opponents. At all levels, it possessed qualities of daring and adaptability, and a capacity to react to the rapidly changing battlefield situation … The qualities of the German soldier, and the ability of commanders at all levels to think and act independently and effectively, were indeed key to German victory …” / 6

Even after the tide of war had turned, he writes, German troops fought well. “The army sustained its initial success thanks to high levels of training, cohesion and morale among its troops, and thanks also to excellent coordination with the Luftwaffe [air force] … Much has been made of the German soldier’s qualitative superiority in the [June-July 1944] Normandy campaign, and there is indeed much to be said in this. One especially exhaustive study of the [German] Westheer in Normandy concludes that, all other things being equal, a hundred Germans soldiers would have made an even fight against 150 Allied soldiers.” / 7

“As a result of all this,” says Shepherd, “German army units exhibited great staying power in defense [that is, especially during the final year of the war]. They also exhibited great resourcefulness and flexibility … From 1943 onwards, the German army executed a fighting retreat of unparalleled tenacity, against an increasingly formidable Red Army in the east, and a Western Allied coalition powered increasingly by the economic and military might of the United Sates.” / 8

Max Hastings, a respected and widely read British historian, is the author of more than a dozen books, including several about World War II. These include Bomber Command and Armageddon, and a masterful overview, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. In Overlord, a history of the 1944 Allied invasion of northern France, and the tough campaign to take control of Normandy, he writes: / 9

“The Allies in Normandy faced the finest fighting army of the war, one of the greatest that the world has ever seen … The quality of the Germans’ weapons – above all tanks – was of immense importance. Their tactics were masterly … Their junior leadership was much superior to that of the Americans, perhaps also to that of the British … Throughout the Second World War, wherever British or American troops met the Germans in anything like equal strength, the Germans prevailed. They possessed an historic reputation as formidable soldiers. Under Hitler their army attained its zenith.”

Max Hastings

Moreover, Hastings points out, the German military fought with equipment and weapons that were usually better than those of their adversaries. “Weapon for weapon and tank for tank, even in 1944, its equipment decisively outclassed that of the Allies in every category save artillery and transport,” he writes. Even during the war’s final years, “the Allied leaders invited their ground troops to fight the Wehrmacht with equipment inferior in every category save artillery and transport. German machine-guns, mortars, machine-pistols, antitank weapons and armored personnel carriers were all superior to those of Britain and America. Above all, Germany possessed better tanks.” / 10

Throughout the war, the German soldiers’ performance remained unequaled. “… The Americans, like the British, never matched the extraordinary professionalism of the German soldier,” Hastings writes. “Few Allied soldiers saw themselves for a moment as other than civilians temporarily in uniform, while their German counterparts possessed an uncanny ability to transform themselves from butchers and bank clerks into natural tacticians. One of the more absurd propaganda clichés of the war was the image of the Nazi soldier as an inflexible squarehead. In reality, the German soldier almost invariably showed far greater flexibility on the battlefield than his Allied counterpart … The inescapable truth is that Hitler’s Wehrmacht was the outstanding fighting force of World War II, one of the greatest in history.” / 11

Winston Churchill

After the war, Winston Churchill commented on the conflict more truthfully then he had while it still raged. In his memoirs, he compared the record of British and German forces in the Norway campaign of April-June 1940 — the first time during World War II that soldiers of those two nations faced each other in combat. “The superiority of the Germans in design, management and energy were plain,” Churchill wrote. “At Narvik a mixed and improvised German force barely six thousand strong held at bay for six weeks some twenty thousand Allied troops, and, though driven out of the town, lived to see them depart … The Germans traversed in seven days the road from Namsos to Mosjoen which the British and French had declared impassable … We, who had the command of the sea and could pounce anywhere on an undefended coast, were out-paced by the enemy moving by land across very large distances in the face of every obstacle. In this Norwegian encounter, some of our finest troops, the Scots and Irish Guards, were baffled by the vigour, enterprise and training of Hitler’s young men.” / 12

High-ranking British military figures were similarly impressed with the skill, tenacity and daring of their adversaries. “Unfortunately we are fighting the best soldiers in the world – what men!,” exclaimed Lt. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the 15th Army Group in Italy, in a March 1944 report to London. One of General Montgomery’s ablest staff officers, Brig. Frank Richardson, later said of the German soldiers he and his comrades faced: “I have often wondered how we ever beat them.” / 13

Similar views were shared by front-line soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Italian artillery lieutenant Eugenio Conti, who was deployed along with units of other European nations in the savage fighting on the Eastern front in the Winter of 1942-43, later recalled: “I … asked myself … what would have become of us without the Germans. I was reluctantly forced to admit that alone, we Italians would have ended up in enemy hands … I … thanked heaven that they were with us there in the column … Without a shadow of a doubt, as soldiers they have no equal.” / 14   A US Army officer who fought in Belgium in late 1944, Lt. Tony Moody, later spoke about how he and other American GIs had regarded their adversaries: “We felt the Germans were much better trained, better equipped, a better fighting machine than us.” / 15

Even during the final weeks of the war, when the outlook was gloomy indeed, Hitler’s men continued to battle with astonishing verve — as a Soviet intelligence report of March 1945, acknowledged: “Most German soldiers realize the hopelessness of their country’s situation after the January advances, though a few still express faith in German victory. Yet there is no sign of a collapse in enemy morale. They are still fighting with dogged persistence and unbroken discipline.” / 16

Milovan Djilas was a senior figure in Tito’s anti-German partisan army, and after the war served in high-level posts in Yugoslavia. Looking back, he recalled the German soldiers’ endurance, steadfastness and skill as they slowly retreated from rugged mountainous areas under the most daunting conditions: “The German army left a trail of heroism … Hungry and half naked, they cleared mountain landslides, stormed the rocky peaks, carved out bypasses. Allied planes used them for leisurely target practice. Their fuel ran out … In the end they got through, leaving a memory of their martial manhood.” / 17

However better the training, dedication and resourcefulness of Germany’s fighting men may have been, and however higher the quality of their tanks, machine guns and other equipment, none of that was enough to offset the great quantitative superiority of their enemies.

Despite limited resources, and especially a persistent shortage of petroleum, as well as other formidable challenges, the German nation and their leaders showed extraordinary organizational ability, inventiveness and adaptability in 1942, 1943 and 1944 in utilizing the available human and materiel resources to dramatically increase production of high-quality weapons and equipment. But during that same period, the Soviet Union and the United States harnessed their much more abundant natural resources and manpower reserves to turn out far greater quantities of weapons, ships, bombers, fighter planes, tanks and artillery.

Above all, the major Allied powers had vastly larger numbers of men to send into battle, and many more people to deploy at home to support the war effort. (Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal of World War II, Soviet forces did much more than those of the US to defeat Germany. Some 80 percent of Germany’s armed forces were destroyed by the Soviets.) / 18

It was the superiority of numbers that was ultimately decisive. The Second World War in Europe was a victory of quantity over quality.

Even as their nation endured ever more crushing privation, destruction and suffering, and as their cities were being pounded into ruins, German fighting men at the front, backed by their people at home, displayed tremendous dedication, discipline and resourcefulness in defiantly withstanding the quantitatively superior might of great enemy powers.

This point was underscored in the somber final German armed forces communique, issued on May 9, 1945: / 19   “In the end the German armed forces succumbed with honor to enormous superiority. Loyal to his oath, the German soldier’s performance in a supreme effort for his people can never be forgotten. To the last, the homeland supported him with all its strength in an effort entailing the heaviest sacrifices. The unique performance of the front and homeland will find its final recognition in a later, just judgment of history. The enemy, too, will not deny his respect for the achievements and sacrifices of German soldiers on land, at sea, and in the air.”


1. Max Hastings, “Their Wehrmacht Was Better Than Our Army,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1985 ( ). In the popular weekly American television show “Combat!” (1962 to 1967), a small unit of US soldiers deployed in France in 1944 routinely and easily killed larger groups of unimaginative German troops. In every single episode of the popular US television sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” (1965-1971), World War II Germans, and especially German military personnel, were portrayed as timid, easily fooled and cowardly, while the Allied soldiers, especially Americans, were always smart, resourceful and creative.

2. Churchill radio address of June 22, 1941. Quoted in: Winston Churchill, The Second World War, volume 3/ “The Grand Alliance” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), p. 371.

3. This assessment of Trevor N. Dupuy first appeared in his book A Genius for War: The German Army and the General Staff, 1807-1945 (1977), pp. 253-254. An updated summary of his work on the subject is in: Trevor N. Dupuy, David L. Bongard and R. C. Anderson, Jr., Hitler’s Last Gamble (1994), Appendix H (pages 498-501). This quotation of Dupuy is given in: Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (New York: 1984), pp. 184, 326 (n. 30); John Mosier, Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin, 1941- 1945 (Simon & Schuster, 2010), pp. 443-444 (note 48);

4. Max Boot, War Made New (New York: 2006), p. 462. See also pp. 238, 553.

5. Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich (Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 524, 87, 396, 525.

6. Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers (2016), pp. 87, xi.

7. Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers (2016), pp. 87, 437.

8. Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers (2016), pp. 533, xiii.

9. Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (New York: 1984), p. 24, 315-316.

10. M. Hastings, Overlord (1984), p. 24; M. Hastings, “Their Wehrmacht Was Better Than Our Army,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1985.

11. M. Hastings, “Their Wehrmacht Was Better Than Our Army,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1985.

12. Winston Churchill, The Second World War, volume 1/“The Gathering Storm” (Boston: 1948), pp. 582-583.

13. Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (NewYork: 2012 ), pp. 512, 520.

14. M. Hastings, Inferno (2012), p. 312. Source cited: Eugenio Conti, Few Returned: 28 Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1942-1945 (1997), p. 138.

15. M. Hastings, Inferno (2012), p. 572.

16. M. Hastings, Inferno (2012), p. 594.

17. M. Hastings, Inferno, pp. 586-587. Source cited: Milovan Djilas, Wartime (1980), p. 446.

18. B. H. Liddel Hart, History of the Second World War (New York: 1971), pp. 257, 486, 487, 710; Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers (2016), pp. 245, 328-329; M. Hastings, Inferno (2012), pp. 315, 351, 369.

19. Final German OKW armed forces communique, May 9, 1945. )

World War II justified by former German soldiers

German troops in Riga(Latvia) ww2 footage.

World war 2,German troops near Daugavpils(Dunaburg)moving to Riga(Latvia). Fights and the liberation of Riga.Communist war crimes,Nazi behavior to Latvian Jews, Nazi propaganda, Fights near Liepaja (Libau).And all of it in one ”Die neue Deutshe wochenschau” video.

Battle of Monte Cassino

Excerpt from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Battle of Monte Cassino
Part of the Winter Line and the battle for Rome of the Italian Campaign/Italian Civil War in the Second World War
Monte Cassino.jpg
Ruins of the town of Cassino after the battle
Date 17 January – 18 May 1944
123 days
Location Monte CassinoItaly
41°29′N 13°49′ECoordinates41°29′N 13°49′E
Result Allied victory[2][3]
 United Kingdom

 United States
 Free France
Poland Poland
Canada Canada
Australia Australia
New Zealand New Zealand
South Africa South Africa
Kingdom of Italy Italian Royalist Army

and others

 Nazi Germany

War flag of the Italian Social Republic.svg Italian Social Republic[1]

Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Harold Alexander
United Kingdom Oliver Leese
United States Mark Clark
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Nazi Germany Heinrich von Vietinghoff
Nazi Germany F. v. Senger und Etterlin
Units involved
United States 5th Army
United Kingdom 8th Army
Nazi Germany 10th Army
240,000 men
1,900 tanks
4,000 planes[4]
Casualties and losses
55,000 casualties[5] ~20,000 casualties[5]

Monte Cassino is located in Italy

Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino, Italy

The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Axis 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-Gari, 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. Lying in a protected historic zone, it had been left unoccupied by the Germans, although they manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls.

Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was being used by the Germans as an observation post, at the least. Fears escalated along with casualties and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage.[6] The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the 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 high cost.[7] The capture of Monte Cassino resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being far fewer, estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded.

Destruction of the abbey

Increasingly, the opinions of certain Allied officers were fixed on the great abbey of Monte Cassino: in their view it was the abbey—and its presumed use as a German artillery observation point—that prevented the breach of the ‘Gustav Line’.

The British press and C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times frequently and convincingly and in (often manufactured) detail wrote of German observation posts and artillery positions inside the abbey.[23] The commander in chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker accompanied by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers (deputy to General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean Theater) personally observed during a fly-over “a radio mast […] German uniforms hanging on a clothesline in the abbey courtyard; [and] machine gun emplacements 50 yards (46 m) from the abbey walls.”[24][nb 1] Countering this, Major General Geoffrey Keyes of U.S. II Corps also flew over the monastery several times, reporting to Fifth Army G-2 he had seen no evidence the Germans were in the abbey. When informed of others’ claims of having seen enemy troops there, he stated: “They’ve been looking so long they’re seeing things.”[26]

Major General Kippenberger of the New Zealand Corps HQ held it was their view the monastery was probably being used as the Germans’ main vantage point for artillery spotting, since it was so perfectly situated for it no army could refrain. There is no clear evidence it was, but he went on to write that from a military point of view it was immaterial:

If not occupied today, it might be tomorrow and it did not appear it would be difficult for the enemy to bring reserves into it during an attack or for troops to take shelter there if driven from positions outside. It was impossible to ask troops to storm a hill surmounted by an intact building such as this, capable of sheltering several hundred infantry in perfect security from shellfire and ready at the critical moment to emerge and counter-attack. … Undamaged it was a perfect shelter but with its narrow windows and level profiles an unsatisfactory fighting position. Smashed by bombing it was a jagged heap of broken masonry and debris open to effective fire from guns, mortars and strafing planes as well as being a death trap if bombed again. On the whole I thought it would be more useful to the Germans if we left it unbombed.[27]

A B-17 Flying Fortress over Monte Cassino, 15 February 1944

Major General Francis Tuker, whose 4th Indian Division would have the task of attacking Monastery Hill, had made his own appreciation of the situation. In the absence of detailed intelligence at Fifth Army HQ, he had found a book dated 1879 in a Naples bookshop giving details of the construction of the abbey. In his memorandum to Freyberg he concluded that regardless of whether the monastery was currently occupied by the Germans, it should be demolished to prevent its effective occupation. He also pointed out that with 150 foot (45 m) high walls made of masonry at least 10 feet (3 m) thick, there was no practical means for field engineers to deal with the place and that bombing with “blockbuster” bombs would be the only solution since 1,000 pound bombs would be “next to useless”.[28] Tuker said he could not be induced to attack unless “the garrison was reduced to helpless lunacy by sheer unending pounding for days and nights by air and artillery”.[29]

On 11 February 1944, the acting commander of 4th Indian Division, Brigadier Harry Dimoline, requested a bombing raid. Tuker reiterated again his case from a hospital bed in Caserta, where he was suffering a severe attack of a recurrent tropical fever. Freyberg transmitted his request on 12 February. The request, however, was greatly expanded by air force planners and probably supported by Ira Eaker and Jacob Devers, who sought to use the opportunity to showcase the abilities of U.S. Army air power to support ground operations.[30] Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark of Fifth Army and his chief of staff Major General Alfred Gruenther remained unconvinced of the “military necessity”. When handing over the U.S. II Corps position to the New Zealand Corps, Brigadier General J.A. Butler, deputy commander of U.S. 34th Division, had said “I don’t know, but I don’t believe the enemy is in the convent. All the fire has been from the slopes of the hill below the wall”.[31] Finally Clark, “who did not want the monastery bombed”,[32] pinned down the Commander-in-Chief Allied Armies in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander, to take the responsibility: “I said, ‘You give me a direct order and we’ll do it,’ and he did.”[33]

The bombing mission in the morning of 15 February 1944 involved 142 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers followed by 47 North American B-25 Mitchell and 40 Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In all they dropped 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the abbey, reducing the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble. Between bomb runs, the II Corps artillery pounded the mountain.[34] Many Allied soldiers and war correspondents cheered as they observed the spectacle. Eaker and Devers watched; Juin was heard to remark “… no, they’ll never get anywhere this way.”[35] Clark and Gruenther refused to be on the scene and stayed at their headquarters. That same afternoon and the next day an aggressive follow-up of artillery and a raid by 59 fighter bombers wreaked further destruction. The German positions on Point 593 above and behind the monastery were untouched.[36]

Damningly, the air raid had not been coordinated with ground commands and an immediate infantry follow-up failed to materialize. Its timing had been driven by the Air Force regarding it as a separate operation, considering the weather and requirements on other fronts and theaters without reference to ground forces. Many of the troops had only taken over their positions from U.S. II Corps two days previously and besides the difficulties in the mountains, preparations in the valley had also been held up by difficulties in supplying the newly installed troops with sufficient material for a full-scale assault because of incessantly foul weather, flooding and waterlogged ground. As a result, Indian troops on the Snake’s Head were taken by surprise,[37] while the New Zealand Corps was two days away from being ready to launch their main assault.

After the bombing

Pope Pius XII was silent after the bombing; however, his Cardinal Secretary of StateLuigi Maglione, bluntly stated to the senior U.S. diplomat to the Vatican, Harold Tittmann, that the bombing was “a colossal blunder . . . a piece of a gross stupidity.”[38]

Monte Cassino in ruins

It is certain from every investigation that followed since the event that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge in the abbey.[39] There is no evidence that the bombs dropped on the Monte Cassino monastery that day ever killed any German troops. However, given the imprecision of bombing in those days (it was estimated that only 10 per cent of the bombs from the heavy bombers, bombing from high altitude, hit the monastery) bombs did fall elsewhere and killed German and Allied troops alike, although that would have been unintended. Indeed, sixteen bombs hit the Fifth Army compound at Presenzano 17 miles (27 km) from Monte Cassino and exploded only yards away from the trailer where Gen. Clark was doing paperwork at his desk.[40]

On the day after the bombing at first light, most of the civilians still alive fled the ruins. Only about 40 people remained: the six monks who survived in the deep vaults of the abbey, their 79-year-old abbot, Gregorio Diamare, three tenant farmer families, orphaned or abandoned children, the badly wounded and the dying. After artillery barrages, renewed bombing and attacks on the ridge by 4th Indian Division, the monks decided to leave their ruined home with the others who could move at 07:30 on 17 February. The old abbot was leading the group down the mule path toward the Liri valley, reciting the rosary. After they arrived at a German first-aid station, some of the badly wounded who had been carried by the monks were taken away in a military ambulance. After meeting with a German officer, the monks were driven to the monastery of Sant’Anselmo. On 18 February, the abbot met the commander of XIV Panzer Corps, Lieutenant-General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin.[41] One monk, Carlomanno Pellagalli, returned to the abbey; when he was later seen wandering the ruins, the German paratroopers thought he was a ghost. After 3 April, he was not seen anymore.

It is now known that the Germans had an agreement not to use the abbey for military purposes.[nb 2] Following its destruction, paratroopers of the German 1st Parachute Division then occupied the ruins of the abbey and turned it into a fortress and observation post, which became a serious problem for the attacking allied forces.

Evacuation and treasures

In the course of the battles, the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict first established the Rule that ordered monasticism in the west, was entirely destroyed by Allied bombing and artillery barrages in February 1944.[nb 3]

Unloading of Monte Cassino property in the Piazza Venezia in Rome.}

During prior months in the Italian autumn of 1943, two officers in the Hermann Göring Panzer Division, Captain Maximilian Becker and Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel, proposed the removal of Monte Cassino’s treasures to the Vatican and Vatican-owned Castel Sant’Angelo ahead of the approaching front. The officers convinced church authorities and their own senior commanders to use the division’s trucks and fuel for the undertaking. They had to find the materials necessary for crates and boxes, find carpenters among their troops, recruit local labourers (to be paid with rations of food plus twenty cigarettes a day) and then manage the “massive job of evacuation centered on the library and archive,”[77] a treasure “literally without price.”[78] The richness of the abbey’s archives, library and gallery included “800 papal documents, 20,500 volumes in the Old Library, 60,000 in the New Library, 500 incunabula, 200 manuscripts on parchment, 100,000 prints and separate collections.”[79] The first trucks, carrying paintings by Italian old masters, were ready to go less than a week from the day Becker and Schlegel independently first came to Monte Cassino.[80] Each vehicle carried monks to Rome as escorts; in more than 100 truckloads the convoys saved the abbey’s monastic community.[81] The task was completed in the first days of November 1943. “In three weeks, in the middle of a losing war, in another country, it was quite a feat.”[81] After a mass in the basilica, Abbot Gregorio Diamare (it) formally presented signed parchment scrolls in Latin to General Paul Conrath, to tribuno militum Julio Schlegel and Maximiliano Becker medecinae doctori “for rescuing the monks and treasures of the Abbey of Monte Cassino.”[82]

Among the treasures removed were Titians, an El Greco and two Goyas.[83]

A Canticle for Leibowitz

The American writer Walter M. Miller, Jr., a Catholic, served as part of a bomber crew that participated in the destruction of the ancient Monte Cassino monastery. As Miller stated, this experience deeply influenced him and directly resulted in his writing, a decade later, the book A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is considered a masterpiece of science fiction. The book depicts a future order of monks living in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war, and dedicated to the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man’s scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it.[84][85]

United States military history reviews

The U.S. government’s official position on the German occupation of Monte Cassino changed over a quarter-century. The assertion that the German use of the abbey was “irrefutable” was removed from the record in 1961 by the Office of the Chief of Military History. A congressional inquiry to the same office in the 20th anniversary year of the bombing stated: “It appears that no German troops, except a small military police detachment, were actually inside the abbey” before the bombing. The final change to the U.S. Army’s official record was made in 1969 and concluded that “the abbey was actually unoccupied by German troops.”[86]



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