Taking the High Ground: Overcoming Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line

Guiding Question:

Why was it so difficult and important for the Allies to penetrate the Gustav Line and capture Monte Cassino?


Using interactive technology from the American Battle Monuments Commission, maps, eyewitness accounts, and primary and secondary sources, students will examine and discuss defensive fighting positions in general and those specific to the Gustav Line and Monte Cassino. Students will discover why the Allies needed to break through the Gustav Line and why the Abbey at Monte Cassino was key to that objective. They will also examine the history of Monte Cassino and the controversy over whether or not to bomb and to destroy this historic location. As a culminating activity, students will design and build their own defensive stronghold model.


Historical Context

The Allies invaded Italy in 1943 to remove Italy from the war, secure the Mediterranean Sea, and draw German troops away from the Russian front. The capture of Rome would signal that Berlin, already under attack by Allied bombers, was next. To defend Rome, the Germans constructed a defensive line, known as the Gustav Line, about 90 miles south to stop the Allied advance north. The town of Cassino stood at the center of the Gustav Line with its 1400-year-old abbey perched high above. With heavily fortified mountain defenses, difficult river crossings, and flooded river valleys, Cassino was the cornerstone in the Gustav Line. Cassino and the Gustav Line blocked the Allied route north to Rome and had to be overcome. The Italian campaign played a vital role in the overall Allied victory of World War II. The Battle of Monte Cassino became one of the most important battles of World War II, and one of the longest, bloodiest engagements of the Italian campaign.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe the many obstacles built into the Gustav Line;
  • Identify the importance of high ground;
  • Identify the advantages of a defensive fighting position;
  • Evaluate the decision to bomb the Abbey at Monte Cassino; and
  • Construct a model of a defensive fighting position.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.
D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.


Activity One

Activity Two

Assessment Project

Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Origins of the Battle (55 minutes)

  • Distribute the Origins of the Battle Handout and Central Italy During World War II Map to each student.
  • Ask students to read the Origins of the Battle Handout.
  • Project the Central Italy During World War II Map in the front of the room.
  • Ask the following discussion questions:
    • Why did an invasion of Italy seem like the logical next step for the Allies? (Teacher Tip: Direct students’ attention to the small insert map showing the location of North Africa and its proximity to the Italian peninsula.)
    • Why were the British in favor of the Italian invasion?
    • Why were the Americans reluctant to agree with the plan?
  • Project the Entering Italy: The Naples-Foggia Campaign Interactive.
  • Analyze the progress of the Allied invasion with your students.
    • Highlight each tab at the bottom of the presentation to show the rate of advance.
    • As you advance through the presentation have students record on their Italy maps the Allied advance and label or highlight the following: Anzio, Foggia, Messina, Naples, Rome, Salerno, Sicily.
    • Explain to your students that the German Army fought a controlled retreat northward to the prepared positions along the Gustav Line. The blue line on the interactive map represents the Gustav Line. This is where the Allied advance stalled.
  • Show students the film Germans in Italy defend Cassino and Monte Cassino. Begin playing at 1:50 and stop at 4:30. This clip shows German troops preparing and fighting from positions along the Gustav Line in Italy.
    • Teacher Tip: This video features German audio. Encourage students to focus on the visuals in the video.
  • Ask the following discussion question, What type of obstacles, military or geographic, would cause the Allied advance to stall?

Activity Two: The Gustav Line (55 minutes)

  • Project the photograph, “View of Cassino,” to the class. Ask the students:
    • Why were the Allies in Italy?
    • Where and why did the invasion stall?
    • What was the Gustav Line?
  • Distribute The Gustav Line Handout.
  • Ask students to read The Gustav Line Handout and to list advantages of the high ground and defensive fighting positions on the handout.
    • Ask students to analyze the following statement, “He who would defend everywhere defends nowhere.”
    • Explain to students that while preparing a defensive position, you must determine the most likely and vulnerable avenues of approach by your enemy. This is where you create your defense and why central Italy was chosen for the construction of the Gustav Line.
  • Call on students to share from their list. As the class discusses the advantages make sure the following items are addressed:
    • High Ground Advantages: Elevated observation points, wider field of view, soldiers fighting uphill will tire more quickly, greater range out of projectiles (artillery, rockets, grenades), mountainous terrain can be an obstacle for heavy armor, higher chance of radio communication (less obstructions).
    • Defensive Fighting Position Advantages: Obstacles meant to slow down the enemy (mines, wire, rivers, flooded fields, tank traps), fortifications (bunkers, pill boxes, homes, tunnels), using the forward slope of the hill to attack, using the reverse slope of the hill for concealment of troops, interlocking units and positions that can fire on the same attacker.
  • Inform students that all of these advantages were used by the Germans along the Gustav Line.
  • Distribute the excerpt from Salerno to Cassino for students to read.
  • Discuss, How important was the high ground around the town of Cassino and do you think the Allies were justified in the eventual destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino?
  • Show students the video from the lesson presentation Germans in Italy Prepare for Allied Drive; Action in Cassino and Monte Cassino Abbey. Begin playing at 1:04 and stop at 3:50.
    • Teacher Tip: This video features German audio. Encourage students to focus on the visuals in the video. This video clip shows the German military removing the treasures from the abbey and the ultimate bombing of the abbey.

Assessment Materials

  • Distribute the Defensive Stronghold Model Handout to students.
  • Review the directions and Defensive Stronghold Model Rubric with students. Use the images in the PowerPoint file as an example.
    • Teacher Tip: This project can be completed in class or can be assigned as a home project. Students can work individually or in pairs at teacher discretion. Students will need at least three class meetings to complete the project or three days of work at home for completion. This would allow the needed time for glue and paint to dry.
  • Evaluate the models using the Defensive Stronghold Assessment Rubric.

Methods for Extension

  • Students with more interest in defensive strongholds can research the following similar topics from World War II: the Atlantic Wall, the Gothic Line, the Maginot Line, and the Siegfried Line.
  • Students can visit the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery web site and learn about the final resting place of the Fallen Heroes who encountered the Gustav Line.


  • Teachers can pull out any of the activities and teach as a singular lesson eliminating the multiple day lesson plan.
  • Teachers can assign the readings as homework to allow more class time for activities one and two.
  • Teachers can simplify the requirements of the assessment project making it more feasible for younger learners.
  • Teachers can modify the assessment project so that it can be used as an art or engineering project.
  • Teachers can project written materials in front of the class eliminating the need for copies.
  • Teachers can extend class time for completion of activities.