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Between January and May 1944 nearly a quarter of a million troops from six continents fought in four battles on and around Monte Cassino and the town of Cassino, Italy.

Churchill had called Monte Cassino the “soft underbelly” of Axis-occupied Europe so no one had predicted that taking Monte Cassino to break Axis defenses would be “The Hardest Fought Battle” of the Second World War.

On the 75th anniversary of the end of the battles of Monte Cassino The Royal British Legion asked the nation to remember all those served and sacrificed from Britain, the Commonwealth, and Allied nations.

Infographic map showing where the forces at Monte Cassino came from

Monte Cassino was overshadowed by D-Day which happened just two days after the liberation of Rome, itself was a direct consequence of the Allied victory at Cassino. At the time there was a perception that the Allied armies in Italy were sunning themselves while other theatres were undertaking the `real` fighting of the war. The men and women serving in Italy were ridiculed as the “D-Day Dodgers”. 

However, the so-called “D-Day Dodgers” at Cassino were to fight in some of the toughest terrain, against a skilled enemy dug-in to the defensive positions along the Gustav Line, and would do so without the resources available to other theatres. They would fight First World War style battles of attrition, in what was later to be described as the “Stalingrad of the West” and would suffer heavy casualties despite their bravery and determination. 

The town of Cassino shrouded in black smoke during the Allied barrage on 15 March 1944
Town of Cassino shrouded black in smoke from an Allied barrage. ©IWM (EA 17892)

By the time that Polish troops had captured the summit of Monte Cassino, Allied armies had suffered over 54,000 casualties and the cemeteries that lie around Cassino today testify not only to the loss of so many but to the mix of nations and forces involved, Britons, pre-partition Indians, Maoris from New Zealand, Poles, Americans, Morrocans and South Africans to name but a few. 

A family places flowers on the grave of an unknown British soldier killed at Cassino.  Credit: ©IWM (TR 001802)
A family at grave of an unknown British soldier killed at Cassino. ©IWM (TR 1802)

The service and sacrifice of the Allies at Monte Cassino is best described by the song of the D-Day Dodgers written by British soldiers. The song finishes:

Look around the hillsides,
Through the mist and rain,
See the scattered crosses,
Some that bear no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The lads beneath, they slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers,
Who'll stay in Italy.

 

The Stories of Monte Cassino

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