Background: The Allied advance in Italy had been halted at the town of Cassino, 100 miles south of Rome. The rugged mountains, winter weather, and outstanding soldiers had enabled the Germans to hold out against far superior Allied forces. Allied attempts to break through had failed in January, February and March of 1944. The fourth attack began on 11 May. This time, the Allies drove the Germans back, capturing the ruins of the monastery of Monte Cassino. This article, from the Nazi Party’s daily newspaper, puts the best interpretation on the situation.
For another interesting perspective on the battle, see a book titled Paper War: Nazi Propaganda in One Battle, on a Single Day, Cassino, Italy, May 11, 1944 (Mark Batty Publisher, 2005). I wrote the introduction to the book, which reproduces Nazi leaflets dropped on Allied troops during the battle.
The source: “Der Sinn der Abwehrschlacht in Italien,” Völkischer Beobachter, May 22, 1944, pp. 1-2.
The Meaning of the Defensive Battle in Italy
The Germans withdrew from parts of the fortified line that existed until May 12 under direct tactical enemy pressure, from other parts by the free choice of the military leadership. However, behind the trenches and machine positions taken or occupied by the enemy are many more. Enemy accounts note, with some discomfort, the fact that after advancing a few kilometers, one faces still another and toughly defended confusion of positions for artillery, mortars, machine guns, and infantry. They give these positions rather remarkable names that owe less to military custom than the needs of propaganda. They know that they must continue the attacks, and that the heavy losses of the first weeks are only a part of the cost in blood that they will have to pay for their offensive. German positions on the hills are always so placed that they can fire easily on the approaching enemy, whether they attempt to attack the hills themselves or to pass through the valleys beneath. The narrow roads force the enemy’s motorized forces to concentrate in a small area, sometimes several hundred tanks in a single valley. That thick concentration gives their attack considerable strength, but also gives the defender’s artillery opportunity for a rich harvest.
That will not stop the enemy leadership from ordering that the attacks continue. The attacks are an important part of the enemy’s operational plan, as we have known since the Teheran conference and other information we have.
The extraordinary fierceness of the battle and the extent of the energy and military sacrifice on both sides should not make one forget that, in view of the total situation, Germany is fighting his battle with its left hand. The German troops there are performing in an extraordinary way, but they are only a fraction of the total German forces. They may be only two or three percent, perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less — but they are in any event only a small branch of Germany’s fighting forces. For the German leadership, southern and central Italy — like North Africa — has always been a military sideshow. They do not see central Italy as the place where real operational decisions will occur. The public does not know where the real main defensive line in Italy is, the line that defends areas important for the whole war effort, but it is clear that this line does not run through Gaeta and Cassino.
The clear goal of the enemy leadership is to force the Germans to change this view. Their goal is to make a main battle front out of a sideshow. They want Germany to fight in central Italy not with its left hand, but with a major portion of its strength. If the Germans do not wish to see central Italy as a major theater, the enemy wants at least to force a preliminary decision here. They should be encouraged to throw as many divisions as possible to the south, so that when the major battles occur somewhere else, German forces will be too weak. Thus although they have used large numbers of troops and masses of material, and constantly run up against German mountain positions, the large losses of the first weeks of attack will not stop them.
It is clear that the leadership needs nerve and cold-bloodedness to respond to the enemy’s goal. It is not, for example, easy to give the order to leave a place like Cassino, for which the troops have so many proud memories. Should one not leave an infantry unit and a few artillery batteries behind to hold the ruins of the city? Such a choice would be possible, but would contradict military necessity. It would mean playing the enemy’s game. The enemy’s troops would be unhappy to find German troops in Cassino, but the enemy’s military leadership would be pleased to hear that news. That is why the order was given to leave Cassino, and why yesterday Gaeta was given up. Later military histories will justify the decision.
It is, however, also clear how much military strength it demands of the troops to defeat the enemy’s goal. Without significant reinforcements from Germany’s operative reserves, they must stop the enemy from breaking through. They may withdraw fighting, but must only do so after they have compelled the enemy to use new forces. The enemy’s goals must be turned upon him by forcing him to expend new and strong units that will therefore not be available to him one day elsewhere.
The battle is of considerable severity. It is a preview of the great and heavy battle that will be fought this summer. The decision as to the outcome of the war will be made elsewhere. However, the brave grenadiers and paratroopers to the south of the Apennines are fighting bitterly against the enemy, forcing him to send new columns of military force onto the battlefield. They are doing their part to prepare for the great battle for their fatherland and for Europe — in a different way than the enemy had imagined.
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