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I first became interested in the Battle of Monte Cassino about 60 years ago when I came across the German propaganda leaflet S.431 entitled POLES go to CASSINO! (See below). I was fascinated by the images of the bleeding skeleton in the torn uniform. I thought the image was striking. I studied the battle at that time and even wrote some short articles on it, but that was decades ago and for the most part they are forgotten.
Recently, Dr. Rod Oakland, the well-known British expert on propaganda passed away. Among his possessions were several German leaflets that mentioned Monte Cassino. This revived my interest and I wondered if it might be worthwhile to write a short story on the various propaganda items used in the battle.
As always, even though these stories are about the propaganda, it is important to give some background on the military situation at the time. Let me start with a quick synopsis. The reader should understand that this is an article about propaganda not strategy, so we will not delve too deeply into the military aspects of the battle.
World War Two started poorly for the politically neutral United States. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack and in a bout of what must have been temporary madness; Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. America was unprepared, but as the “Arsenal of Democracy” was able to supply both itself and other Allied countries with war material. U.S. forces were first defeated in North Africa, but with better training and the addition of General Patton, the U.S. and its British allies pushed the Germans and Italians out of North Africa, and soon afterwards, out of Sicily. The Allies hit the beaches of Italy and started what was expected to be a swift and powerful movement up the boot of Italy to Rome. Then it all went bad. This story is about one of the places where it went terribly bad.
Monte Cassino is a historic mountaintop abbey founded in AD 529. It dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. The Allies made several attempts to drive the Germans off the mountaintop but when it became apparent that they were unable to take the high ground they concluded the abbey was being used by the Germans. A decision was made to destroy it. Later evidence indicates that the German were very careful not to use the abbey and in fact went to great pains to preserve its artifacts.
On 15 February 1944, American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, doing great damage to the abbey and the surrounding countryside. The funny or sad part of all this is the American bombers had produced a wonderful defensive position of stone and rubble that the Germans now did occupy. The American bombing strengthened the German position. What also made it more difficult to take the abbey was that it was occupied by German paratroopers, an elite force willing to fight to the bitter end.
Between 17 January and 18 May 1944, there were four assaults by Allied troops. The Germans were eventually forced off the mountain but the victory was a pyrrhic one. The capture of Monte Cassino resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded.
The Allied forces were made up of the United Kingdom, British India, the United States, the Free French, Poland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. As we will see, the Germans targeted several of these nations in its propaganda leaflets.
The Propaganda Campaign
The Germans loved propaganda. It has been said that they loved it so much that they misused it. Often their leaflets were insulting, antisemetic or pornographic. Early in the war their military was in charge of the propaganda campaign. After the attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944 the responsibility was given to Himmler’s Schutzstaffel (SS). As you might expect, the images and text quickly reached the lowest common denominator. In WWII they called the propaganda campaigns psychological warfare (PSYWAR) and later when they figured out that sometimes it was worth working on the mindset of the enemy even when not at war they started using the term psychological operations (PSYOP). I prefer the latter term so in this article I will use PSYOP. That can imply face-to-face meetings, leaflets, newspapers, and loudspeaker or radio messages.
This German leaflet depicts a smiling skull wearing a British military helmet was dropped in Italy about March 1944. The German Propaganda-Abschnitts-Offizier Italien organization printed the “AI” leaflets for use in Italy. Some were printed in Berlin, others in Italy. The “AI” code tells us that the organization in charge was the SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers for use against Allied troops in Italy. The back is a long message in English which says in part:
Cassino is still in German hands in spite of huge Allied losses. For weeks and weeks the Allies have been throwing all their resources into the battle for Cassino. But all in vain!
The heaviest bombardment of the Italian campaign, by artillery and from the air, was to blast away the German defenders. And in fact about 800 Allied bombers dropped more than 2500 tons of H.E.’s on the little town of Cassino in the space of a few hours…
There is a second version of this leaflet that is identical on the front but has very minor changes in the text on the back. I have read one statement that says AI-058 is the larger version to be dropped by airplane and AI-058a is the smaller version to be delivered by V1. However, I have seen no proof that this leaflet was ever disseminated by V1. The leaflet also mentions driving back New Zealand and Indian troops, and we will see that the German prepared specific leaflets for those forces too.
The gory German leaflet depicts a parade of skulls on the road to Rome and a prominent skull in the foreground with a bullet hole over the left eye. It was dropped on the Allies in April 1944 and is another SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers product. It actually is more about the amphibious attack on Nettuno but it does mention Cassino. It says in part:
The roads to Rome are paved with skulls. There is plenty of room for more of them.
The boys in the blood soaked Cassino Valley found it out at tremendous cost to themselves. Neither the heaviest artillery and aerial bombardment of the Italian campaign nor the mass attacks of Allied troops drove the Germans from Cassino. This road to Rome is blocked and so are the others!
This uncoded German leaflet, dropped in May 1944 is quite intricate. It depicts Death as a skeleton on the front measuring the Allies forward movement up the boot of Italy. It shows the advance from Salerno to Cassino, a distance of 125 kilometers, took 8 months. It uses that length of time to imply that capturing all of Italy will take until April 1948. It then claims that getting to Berlin, another 650 kilometers, will be sometime in 1952. Of course, the Germans were quite wrong and by 1952 the Allies will be fighting Communist troops in Korea. Still, it does show a lot of imagination. The back is a long text that says in part:
After 8 months of murderous fighting the Allies have got as far as Cassino – altogether 123 kilometers from their starting point!
And the price? About 1000 casualties for each kilometer!
The bee line to Northern Italy is still more than 6 times 123 kilometers. That means a further advance of more than 6 times 8 months!
That means another 7 long years of bloodshed.
This German leaflet is almost cartoonish, showing snarling mountains with sharp teeth gobbling up American and British Troops. It was produced by the Propaganda-Abschnitts-Offizier Italien organization and disseminated in April, 1944. I was not going to add this leaflet because the entire message on the back is warning the Allies about the threat of the deadly mountains. But I was told that since it says “Cassino” on the front it must be added. The funny thing is that my copy does not say “Cassino.” Apparently, two versions of this leaflet were made. OK, so be it. As I said, the front depicts snarling mountains and the text:
The Mountains and valleys of “Sunny Italy” WANT TO SEE YOU…
The back has a cartoon of a Skeleton digging a grave in the center and an Allied soldier saying:
What a nice place for my weary bones.
There is a long text message that says in part regarding the mountains:
They want to see you for an APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH!
Every mountain and every valley in Sunny Italy has an enormous appetite. For weeks and weeks the allies have been feeding them with bombs, shells and streams of blood. And whichever way you turn, you only see more such mountain molochs waiting hungrily for you.
Come to Italy - for a date with DEATH!
This leaflet might have actually worked to some extent. Ian Clive Appleton wrote a 2016 thesis for his Master of Arts in History at Massey University, New Zealand. He said about the leaflet:
The feelings and fears that this leaflet is aimed at can be seen surfacing at the time in the accounts of New Zealand soldiers. Artilleryman Martyn Uren ponders the implications of the Cassino battles and records in his journal “what if there are a hundred Cassinos, or a thousand?” On the same subject a few days later he writes of his fear that there might be “a hundred Cassinos! Five hundred Cassinos before we reach Berlin.”
We mentioned at the start of this article that the German targeted other troops as well as the Americans and British. Here they work on the morale of the troops from New Zealand. The front depicts Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt looking at a nut labelled “Cassino” with the text:
A damned hard nut, just the right job for our New Zealand pals.
This leaflet has two code numbers and we know that the AI is from the Propaganda-Abschnitts-Offizier Italien. The LwP is more interesting. The German Wehrmacht (Armed Forces) originally used the leaflet code “LwP.” Later, when Hitler gave the propaganda function to the SS, some army personnel transferred to the SS to continue producing propaganda. The SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers continued to use the LwP code on some of their leaflets in Italy even after they replaced the army units about December 1943. Because so much was classified we do not know exactly what the LwP stood for, but suggestions have been Werhmachtpropagandaabetilung (Armed Forces Propaganda Section) or Luftwaffen Propagandaabteilung (Luftwaffe Propaganda Section). The leaflet was disseminated in March 1944.
The leaflet uses a “divide and conquer” theme to try and build ill-feeling toward the British from the New Zealand troops. On 17 February New Zealand’s 2nd Division attacked Cassino from the south while the 4th Indian Division attacked Cassino from the north. A German counter-attack was successful and the Kiwis were forced to withdraw with over 150 men killed, wounded or captured in this failed attack. The New Zealanders were sent in again on 15 March, and after weeks of fighting were withdrawn in early April with 343 deaths and over 600 wounded. In their time on the Cassino front line the 2nd New Zealand Division lost 1,600 men killed, missing and wounded.
Some of the text on the back of the leaflet is:
Hello Boys of the N.Z.E.F.!
You ought to have found out by now that you are facing German crack troops at Cassino! Months have passed and the Allies are still trying to break through this sector. The Americans have failed to – they were inflicted heavy bloody casualties. The British did not even dare to take their turn.
But you, the pluckiest soldiers of the British Empire, you’re just good enough to be thrown as cannon fodder into the hell of Cassino. And what is the result? A few yards of ground gained – soaked with precious New Zealand blood…
This strange uncoded leaflet targets the British, Australian and New Zealand troops. It has a long all-text message on both sides of the leaflet. Its theme is “divide and conquer” and claims that the Americans are not doing their fair share of the fighting at Monte Cassino. It is mentioned in the Falling Leaf, the journal of the Psywar Society, number 151, winter 1955.
As I mentioned above, this leaflet was what first enthused me about the study of the battle for Monte Cassino. During WWII many Poles escaped to Great Britain where they formed a Polish Free Corps. The Germans often targeted them in their propaganda, somehow hoping the Poles would forget that they had bombed, invaded and occupied their country. Why they believed any Pole might believe their message is beyond me. This leaflet depicts a skeleton pointing toward the battlefront and telling the Poles to advance; while four Poles are shown being blasted by German artillery. The language is Polish and translates to:
POLES, you are going to CASSINO!
The message on the back is rather long and entitled Polish Soldiers! It tells the soldiers that they were lucky that they were not in Poland when the Russians invaded or they would have been killed in the Katyn forest massacre or imprisoned in the “Soviet Paradise.” They do not mention that it was a deal between Hitler and Stalin that allowed the Soviets to take half of Poland. The leaflet does tell the Poles that if they come over to the Germans they will be immediately sent home and be free to work at whatever job they want. I had looked high and low for a translation of this leaflet with no luck. Then I found quite by accident that I had translated it back in 1968 and illustrated it in a British newspaper. Who remembers a short story written almost 50 years ago? The text says in part:
You are facing great danger. You have missed Katyn and you have escaped alive from the Bolshevik paradise. You have been lucky so far – but now you are wanted no more. United Polish troops are not admired by Stalin who is going to destroy your Fatherland. Your leaders in London have received orders from Moscow to destroy you in the least complicated way.
You have stayed till now in quiet positions in the central part of the Italian Front. Now you are going to be thrown into Cassino Hell. Some years ago Stalin sent a group of murderers to liquidate your colleagues at Katyn. The English are smarter. You are going to die at Cassino as great heroes…
The Polish II Corps took part in the attacks on Monte Cassino. The Poles lost 281 officers and 3,503 other ranks in assaults on the German 4th Parachute Regiment. On 12 May, the Polish infantry divisions were met with such devastating mortar, artillery and small-arms fire that the leading battalions were all but wiped out. On 17 May, Polish II Corps launched their second attack on Monte Cassino. Under constant artillery and mortar fire the fighting was fierce and at times hand-to-hand. On 18 May a patrol of Polish 12th cavalry Regiment finally made it to the heights and raised a Polish flag over the ruins. Immediately after the cessation of fighting at Monte Cassino, the Polish government in Exile (in London) created the Monte Cassino campaign cross to commemorate the Polish part in the capture of the strategic point. During the Italian Campaign, the Polish II Corps lost 11,379 men. Among them were 2,301 killed in action, 8,543 wounded in action and 535 missing in action.
German leaflet S.421 targets Polish soldiers. We know that by the code “S” which was always for Poles. I selected this leaflet because I think the artwork is really interesting. We see a Polish soldier marching forward though blindfolded, presumably by his British masters. At his left is a member of the Indian Division who has been injured by an exploding shell fragment. On the ground with a head wound is a savage looking black North African colonial soldier. The Germans often tried to drive a wedge between Allied black and white soldiers pretending that they alone were socially conscious, but to their own people and their Italian allies they mocked blacks and always pictured them as uncultured savages. In the foreground we see the Monastery of Monte Cassino, wrecked by Allied bombardment. The text reminds the Poles of how the British come begging when times are hard. It ignores the fact that the Poles are with the British because the Germans drove them there by an overwhelming sneak attack. The text says in part:
Polish soldiers! Have you thought about who you are fighting with jointly in Italy? The English could always manage problems by themselves until the situation got serious. When it became about their skin, they tried to get others to fight for them. Then they brought in Americans, then Canadians, then French troops from General De Gaulle’s camp, and Moroccans and Hindus. And finally it was the turn of you and the Hindus! And, you were treated worse than the colored colonial army.
The Germans also broadcast radio messages to the Poles. The order to put a Polish-language radio station on the air called Wanda was signed by Hitler in February 1944. The station was broadcast from two rooms in the Italian State Broadcasting Service in Rome. Wanda told the Polish soldiers that any soldier who defected to the Germans would immediately be sent home. One program was taped and the announcer said to the Polish troops at Cassino:
Your land has been delivered to Stalin’s hands by Churchill. You have no place to return to when the war is done.
A great number of the German leaflets reminded the Poles to listen to Wanda, and many also added the phrase Do Domu (Go Home), which they hoped the Poles would easily remember and encourage them to defect. The radio propaganda leaflets were first written in German, then translated to Polish. They were printed in Sulmona. Wanda made her last broadcast on 23 April 1945.
Stanislaw Westwalewicz produced this propaganda poster for the Polish Public Relations Unit in London in 1944. The text is in English and Italian. The Polish soldier wears a British-type uniform with a Polish shoulder patch. He belongs to the II Polish Corps equipped by the British army. Monte Cassino is at the top of the poster.
There were many more leaflets dropped on the Allied troops at Monte Cassino that do not mention the monastery but were picked up off the ground. Many are mentioned in Peter Batty’s 2005 book Paper War – Nazi Propaganda in one Battle, on a Single Day, Cassino, Italy, May 11, 1944. Batty breaks up the leaflets he found that day into several languages and targets. He says that the German thought he was with a British division so mortared two English-language leaflets at his troops. The Polish division was to his right and that confused the Germans and they then fired nine Polish leaflets at his men. In fact, he was with the Indian division, and the Germans finally figured it out and then mortared three Indian-language leaflets to his troops. We will just mention some of the more interesting ones and illustrate one from each group:
Indeed an amusing war – A cartoon of a British woman fleeing with the pants of an American officer who thought he would have sex with her.
Italy wants to see you - A leaflet in the form of a tourist guide.
Polish friend – do you want to die here? – This leaflet mentions several Polish soldiers who have defected to the Germans.
Go Home – A leaflet depicting a little Polish girl in great danger with her father at the front.
Polish friends! Do you want to die for these? – An anti-Semitic and pornographic leaflet depicting a naked woman on the lap of a caricatured Jew.
One mouse is the head of an elephant – A story of how a mouse (England) rules India (the elephant).
Indians – Tells the Indians of the Free Indian Army fighting to free their country from the British.
Boycott foreign goods – This leaflet mentions Mahatma Gandhi and the trials the British put him through.
This ends our look at German propaganda. There were dozens of different leaflets fired at the Allies by artillery and mortar and we have depicted just a few of them. Perhaps in the future we will add more leaflets to this article if we find any particularly interesting ones.
The German Explanation and Postcard Blitz
Immediately after the destruction of the abbey, the Germans did a propaganda blitz where they produced a set of 10 propaganda postcards coded 184 to 193, showing Monte Cassino before and after the bombing. The cards were issued at the end of February 1944. They were offered in an envelope coded PAJ 1/94. “PAI” is equivalent to “PAJ”, and stands for Propaganda Abteilung Italien Gruppe Kampfpropaganda – the War Propaganda Group of the Italian Propaganda Department of the German Abwehr. The Abwehr was the intelligence unit for the German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW). The cards were coded and entitled:
Code 184. The abbey destroyed.
Code 185. Picture of the main altar.
Code 186. A courtyard in the abbey.
Code 187. The abbey.
Code 188. Smoking ruins of the abbey.
Code 189. The destroyed abbey.
Code 190. A courtyard within the abbey.
Code 191. The abbey library.
Code 192. The abbey’s sacristy.
Code 193. The declaration released by the abbot after the destruction, attesting in Italian and German that there had never been any German soldiers in the monastery. The statement by the Bishop of the abbey written in German and Italian said:
This is the statement given out by the Abbot of Monte Cassino after the destruction of the monastery by Anglo-American aircraft of 15 February 1944.
15 February 1944
I testify that the whole truth is that German soldiers have never been within the precincts of the holy monastery of Cassino. For a certain time there were three police with the task of carrying out an inspection of the neutral zone which was established around the monastery, but they were withdrawn 20 days ago. Of my own free will I state that there are not now, and never have been any German soldiers in the Monastery of Monte Cassino.
Bishop and Abbot
American forces in the Pacific were telling the Japanese which cities would be bombed. It was believed that the people knowing that they had been warned and yet being unable to stop the American bombers would be demoralizing to the civilians. Later, in Korea, the Americans again would tell the enemy what cities were about to be bombed.
In the case of Monte Cassino, the Allied did tell those on the mountain top that the abbey was about to be bombarded. This is not a fancy strategic leaflet with colorful images and broad concepts. It is a tactical leaflet put together quickly in an attempt to save some lives. Notice that the text is Italian. The American Fifth Army is warning the monks and Italian civilians on the mountain. The Germans certainly read the leaflets too, but no attempt was made to specifically warn them with German-language leaflets. 11,000 of these leaflets were fired by artillery leaflet shell on 14 February 1944. A second source says that they were air-dropped, so they might have also been disseminated by aircraft. The text is:
Italian Friends Attention!
We have been especially careful until now to avoid shelling Monte Cassino Monastery. The Germans know how to benefit from this. But now the fighting has swept closer and closer to its sacred precincts. The time has come when we must train our guns on the monastery itself. We give you warning so that you might save yourselves. We warn you urgently; Leave the monastery. Leave it at once. Respect this warning. It is for your benefit.
The Fifth Army
This safe conduct pass was signed by Field Marshall Alexander and fired or dropped on German troops at Monte Cassino. Notice that the text in back is in German, Italian (for any Fascist collaborators) and Polish (some Poles were thought to be fighting with the Germans). Since the Allies believed that the regimented Germans were more impressed by fancy diploma-like leaflets, notice that this one bears the seals of the United States and United Kingdom as well as a prominent signature.
We don’t know much about Allied propaganda leaflets prepared for Monte Cassino. It seems likely that most that were fired to the top of the mountain were destroyed, burnt for heat or used as toilet paper. We do know that the above leaflet was part of a propaganda campaign to try and convince the Germans that Himmler was taking power from Hitler. It was found on the ground at the base of the mountain. There were variations of this theme in several black operations. We believe this leaflet was prepared by the Psychological Warfare Branch of the Allied Forces Headquarters, 8th Army (UK). The AFHQ controlled all Allied operational forces in the Mediterranean Theatre of World War II from late 1942 until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.
Researcher Lee Richards found two Cassino leaflets in the British National Archives, reference WO 204/6444. Both are from PWB/AFHQ 8th Army and addressed to Soldiers of Cassino. Both have a safe conduct pass on the back. The text of 8-23 is:
SOLDIERS OF CASSINO!
The game is over! CASSINO is lost for Germany. Look to the Abbey - there you can see the Poles! Look around you: Our troops are approaching from your left and right. You fought bravely. Fighting is futile! You are encircled on all sides - if you do not believe this, send out observers! Nobody forces you to fight until the end. Each of you has the choice:
EITHER - lay down your weapons now! OR - wait until we come; we and the Poles, whose land you attacked in 1939.
GIVE IT UP!
Prisoners of War are treated as soldiers.
This leaflet is very similar to 8-23 except the message is a good deal shorter. The text is:
SOLDIERS OF CASSINO!
THERE IS NO MORE TALKING!
If you want to be taken prisoner come down Via Casilina, through CASSINO.
Hands Up! Without weapons!
Wave something white over your head!
Prisoners of War are treated decently!
This Allied newspaper is not propaganda that was used during the battle. It is the U.S. 5th Army Psychological Warfare Branch newspaper Frontpost South announcing the fall of Cassino. It was meant to tell the German military and civilians of another defeat and attack their morale. It is dated 18 May 1943 and shows a map of the battlefield at the upper right. Some of the Cassino-oriented article is:
A substantial part of the 1st Parachute Division no longer exists.
On May 18th a special communique from Allied Advanced Headquarters announced that the final assault on Cassino had been carried out by British troops of the 8th Army and a substantial part of the German 1st Parachute Division had been destroyed in efforts to escape. The division is one of the best in the German Army.
The same Allied special communique reported: The Gustav Line has ceased to exist… Up to May 17th about 4,500 Germans were taken prisoner in all sectors…On May 17th the Mediterranean Air Force flew over 2,500 sorties. During the same day, one German aircraft was observed over the battle area.
This ends our short look at the propaganda used in the battle for Monte Cassino. The article could easily be three or four times larger if we added all the leaflets we are aware of, but this is just meant to whet the appetite of the reader. It is a wonderful subject for further research. Any readers that care to comment on this article are encouraged to write to him at Sgmbert@hotmail.com.