Cassino War Cemetery

Cassino War Cemetery

Originally selected for a war cemetery in January 1944, the site was impossible to use until the fighting in this region subsided, as it did when the Germans withdrew five months later. As the area saw some of the fiercest action among the battles of the Italian campaign, the Cassino War Cemetery is the second largest Second World War cemetery in Italy. More than 4,200 Commonwealth graves are located here, of which 200 are unknown and 855 are Canadian, including seven pilots.

Also in the cemetery is the Cassino Memorial, unveiled in 1956, which commemorates the more than 4,000 Commonwealth war dead of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns who have no known grave. The names of 192 Canadians are inscribed on its 15-foot high slabs of green marble.

Cassino was the last German stronghold left along the Gustav Line. Both the town and particularly its hill (Monte Cassino) provided the enemy with dominant defences against Allied assault. Attempts by American and New Zealand troops in January and February of 1944, respectively, left the town still in German hands. Air bombardment and artillery fire leading up to the latter assault destroyed the ancient monastery on Monte Cassino (it has since been resurrected). An attack in mid-March reduced the town to rubble, although most of it was now in Allied hands. However, this latest assault was abandoned and a period of stalemate ensued.

A new, grander offensive was planned to conquer the approaches to Rome. The Allies misled the Germans into believing a seaborne invasion would be conducted north of Rome. The real attack began the night of May 11. As usual, enemy resistance was determined and their defences, strong. But by the 16th, the Germans had retreated to the Senger Line, as African, Moroccan, Algerian, French and other Allied forces were breaking through the Gustav Line and advancing swiftly throughout the region. By the 17th, the Polish forces were moving in on Cassino. Initially, they had been driven back from their objective northwest of the monastery by a vicious counterattack and heavy fire, however the next morning the Polish standard was raised over the ruins of the hill.

Among the Canadian units that had participated in this offensive were the tank regiments - the Three Rivers, Calgary and Ontario regiments - which supported Indian soldiers across the Gari River. The enemy counterattacked, but within four days a bridgehead was established and the Germans had retreated to the Adolf Hitler Line. In the midst of this action, the 1st Canadian Corps, which had recently been shifted into the Liri valley, relieved the Indian Division. On the 17th, they took 200 prisoners, in difficult fighting.

More then 75,000 Canadians were now involved in the Italian campaign. The 1st Canadian Corps began their advance -- the first time a Canadian corps would attack in the war - on the Hitler Line May 23. (While the Allies were pushing against this defensive line, the Americans were breaking out of the Anzio bridgehead.) The Hitler Line was successfully breached by nightfall, despite a tremendous artillery barrage. The Canadians had delivered the main attack, which resulted in the 5th Armoured Division advancing through the gap. By noon of the 24th, the German line was clear except for Aquino. Small battles continued throughout the remainder of May as the Germans tried to escape the Liri valley and retreat to the north yet again.

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The Cassino War Cemetery is located in the commune of Cassino in the province of Frosinone, approximately 120 kilometres southeast of Rome. It is overlooked by Monte Cassino, a dominant hill which was the site of an ancient temple of Apollo and, more recently, a monastery founded by St. Benedict in the year 529. The cemetery contains the graves of hundreds of Canadians, most of whom fell in the valley of the River Liri during the Allied attempts in the first half of 1944 to breach the Adolf Hitler Line and advance to Rome.

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