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Prince Harry has reacted with amazement at the damage wreaked on an historic monastery during one of the Second World War’s most important battles.

Harry is marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino by visiting the site of the Italian conflict and joining Poles, Britons and New Zealanders in honouring their war dead.

Allied forces launch four battles in 1944 to destroy Nazi forces holding a strategically important rocky outcrop, home to the 1,400 year-old Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Heavily defended, it was an obstacle to the Allies’ progress to Rome.

Americans, British, Indians, Poles, Canadians, and Free French from North Africa, Gurkhas and New Zealanders had to contend with icy mountains, mines and bombardment from Nazi forces. Progress was slow and it became the bloodiest battle in Europe with an estimated 250,000 men killed or wounded.

Controversially, the monastery was heavily bombed and destroyed in a bid to make a breakthrough, but the move failed and the holy site was later rebuilt.

Harry visited the famous Monte Cassino and was given a guided tour by Father Antonio Potenza, the Abbott’s secretary.

As he walked into an exhibition chronicling the destruction of the holy site he saw a huge black and white image of its ruins and said: “Unbelievable – they knocked the whole thing down.”