Heinrich Vietinghoff

Heinrich Vietinghoff : Nazi Germany

Heinrich Vietinghoff was born in Germany in 1887. He joined the German Army and on 24th November 1938, was appointed commander of the 5th Panzer Division.

Vietinghoff took part in the invasion of Poland under General Wilhelm Leeb. Promoted to general in June 1940 he led the 46th Panzer Corps in Yugoslavia. During Operation Barbarossa he was part of Army Group Centre under General Fedor von Bock. Later he served with General Heinz Guderian in the 2nd Panzer Army.

In August 1943, Vietinghoff was sent to Italy to head the 10th Army. This involved opposing General Mark Clark and his Allied forces when they landed at Salerno in September 1943.

General Albrecht Kesselring withdrew his forces to what became known as the Gustav Line on the Italian peninsula south of Rome. Organized along the Garigliano and Rapido rivers it included Monte Cassino, a hilltop site of a sixth-century Benedictine monastery. Defended by 15 German divisions the line was fortified with gun pits, concrete bunkers, turreted machine-gun emplacements, barbed-wire and minefields.

On 25th October 1944 Kesselring was seriously injured when his car collided with a gun coming out of a side road. He was in hospital for three months and his command in Italy was taken over by Vietinghoff.

Vietinghoff returned to Germany in May 1944 to receive the Knight's Cross from Adolf Hitler. While he was away General Harold Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander in Italy, ordered a new offensive at Monte Cassino. On 12th February the exhausted US Army at Cassino were replaced by the New Zealand Corps. Alexander now decided to use these fresh troops in another attempt to capture Cassino. General Bernard Freyberg, who was in charge of the infantry attack, asked for the monastery be bombed. Despite claims by troops on the front-line that no fire had come from the monastery, General Harold Alexander agreed and it was destroyed by the United States Air Force on 15th February, 1944.

Once the monastery had been bombed, the German Army moved into the ruins. As Basil Liddell Hart pointed out later in his book The Other Side of the Hill the bombing "turned out entirely to the tactical benefit of the Germans. For after that they felt free to occupy the ruins, and the rubble provided mud better defensive cover than the Monastery would have been before its destruction. As anyone with experience of street-fighting knows, it is only when buildings are demolished that they are converted from mousetraps into bastions of defence."

After the bombing the Germans were able to halt several attempts to capture Monte Cassino. It was not until troops led by General Wladyslaw Anders (Polish Corps) and General Alphonse Juin (French Corps) that the monastery was taken on 18th May, 1944.

Vietinghoff succeeded General Albrecht Kesselring as supreme German commander in Italy on 23rd March 1945. Vietinghoff surrendered on 2nd May 1945 and remained a prisoner of war until 1946. Heinrich Vietinghoff died in 1952.

Primary Sources

(1) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

An historical postscript can now be added to the much discussed question of the destruction of the historic Benedictine Monastery on Monte Cassino as a preliminary step in the Allied offensive there in February. The task was carried out by a large force of American bombers and supporting artillery. According to the announcements of the Allied Command at the time this destruction was ordered because the Monastery, which dominated the approaches to the town, had been "occupied and fortified" by the Germans. These statements were repeated in Field-Marshal Sir H. Maitland Wilson's report published in 1946 - which seemed strange in view of earlier testimony from the Vatican and the Abbot himself that the Germans had avoided trespassing on the Monastery, despite the tactical disadvantage which this involved for them.

The irony of the bombing was, as both Senger and Vietinghoff remarked, that it turned out entirely to the tactical benefit of the Germans. For after that they felt free to occupy the ruins, and the rubble provided mud better defensive cover than the Monastery would have been before its destruction. As anyone with experience of street-fighting knows, it is only when buildings are demolished that they are converted from mouse-traps into bastions of defence. Batteries posted and concealed in the ruins were able to enfilade and break up the subsequent British attempts to drive through to the town of Cassino.

(2) General Harold Alexander was responsible for the controversial decision to bomb Monte Cassino.

The battle for Cassino-or rather the series of battles for Cassino - began on 17 January 1944, when X Corps attacked across the Garigliano. On 20 January, United States II Corps attacked across the Rapido, but this blow failed and X Corps, after meeting with some initial success, were checked by heavy counter-attacks. One more attack began on 16 February, and it was this assault that was preceded by the destruction of the monastery by bombing and artillery fire. But Cassino town and the monastery were not to be captured until 18 May, when the Poles raised the red and white standard with the white eagle over the ruins of the monastery.

Till the February bombardment, the great Benedictine monastery had been spared deliberately, to our detriment. Whether the Germans took advantage of its deep cellars for shelter and its high windows for observation I do not know; but it was obvious that this huge and massive building offered the defenders considerable protection from hostile fire, merely by their sheltering under its walls. As Winston Churchill has observed, the enemy fortifications were hardly separate from the building itself.

Was the destruction of the monastery a military necessity? Was it morally wrong to destroy it?

The answer to the first question is 'yes'. It was necessary more for the effect it would have on the morale of the attackers than for purely material reasons.

The answer to the second question is this: when soldiers are fighting for a just cause and are prepared to suffer death and mutilation in the process, bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, cannot be allowed to weigh against human lives. Every good commander must consider the morale and feelings of his fighting men, and, what is equally important, the fighting men must know that their whole existence is in the hands of a man in whom they have complete confidence. Thus the commanding general must make it absolutely clear to his troops that they go into action under the most favourable conditions he has the power to order.

In the context of the Cassino battle, how could a structure which dominated the fighting field be allowed to stand? The monastery had to be destroyed. Withal, everything was done to save the lives of the monks and their treasures: ample warning was given of the bombing.

The great Benedictine monastery, from which a magnificent view of the surrounding country can be gained, has been completely rebuilt in cut stone. Both outside and in, it has been restored to its former condition, even down to the marble work and interior decoration.

The bombs of the Allied air forces had left nothing of the building standing except part of one of the outer walls - all else was a heap of rubble. Yet amidst this appalling destruction St. Benedict's tomb, in the centre of the monastery, went utterly unscathed.

After the capture and liberation of Rome I was able to tell the late Pope of its survival. He was deeply moved. He assured me, moreover, that he well understood the military necessity for the bombing and the inevitable destruction of the monastery.

(3) General Rudolf von Senger fought under Albrecht Kesselring at Monte Cassino.

Field-Marshal Kesselring had given express orders that no German soldier should enter the Monastery, so as to avoid giving the Allies any pretext for bombing or shelling it. I cannot testify personally that this decision was communicated to the Allies but I am sure that the Vatican found means to do so, since it was so directly interested in the fate of Monte Cassino. Not only did Field-Marshal Kesselring prohibit German soldiers from entering the Monastery, but be also placed a guard at the entrance gate to ensure that his orders were carried out.

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