Next year 2019 is the 75th anniversary of several of the most important battles of the Second World War including the Normandy landings, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of Monte Cassino.
In history books the battle of Monte Cassino is often overshadowed by the others but it was the first major battle of the western Allies on European mainland as they advanced north from the foot of Italy. The successful capture of the mountain top monastery and the town of Cassino below was crucial in opening the road to Rome.
The monastery of Monte Cassino from the Polish cemetery
Its capture from a skilful and determined German Army required four separate hard fought battles involving Allied soldiers from Britain, America, Canada, France, Morocco, India, Poland, and New Zealand. They were all gruelling ferocious close fought battles often hand to hand reminiscent of the gruesome bloodbaths of the First World War. Many of the German defenders even compared them unfavourably with the Battle for Stalingrad. colour
By the time of its capture the bloody and destructive battle had been raging over four months. Both the beautiful ancient Benedictine Monastery at the top of the mountain and the historic town of Cassino in its shadows below lay shattered and in ruins. The battle had cost the lives of over 50,000 Allied and more than 20,000 German soldiers.
But talk to any veterans of the conflict, either Allied or German, and their eyes light up. It is almost as though it was an honour to have been there – but that’s because it was.
For the Germans it was honour in defeat. In a war in which they were tainted by crimes and controversy at Monte Cassino they had conducted a successful defence of pure military brilliance which highlighted the efficiency of their soldiers who had fought so long and hard. For the Polish 2nd Corps who led the final assault and capture of the monastery it was, and still is, arguably one of their finest ever military achievements. Their war time motto was “First to Fight” but of those at Monte Cassino most originated from the eastern Kresy region and had suffered years of Russian brutality, deportation, exile and starvation and it was their first military involvement. By the time of the battle they were already fighting in vain for the liberation of their homeland. Nevertheless, for them, their relatives and their compatriots Monte Cassino is a place of the highest esteem.
The Poles were honoured with a magnificent cemetery on the mountain top alongside the abbey where many had died fighting. The monastery and town were both eventually rebuilt and returned to their former glory but tragically it wasn’t so for Poland – ripped in half at the beginning of the war it would never return to its pre-war position.
During post-war communist times the heroic Polish 2nd Corps were a taboo subject in Poland but since the fall of communism they have once again been recognised for the part they played in their countries history and even the commemorative Monte Cassino Cross awarded to all combatants at the battle, originally an award of the wartime Polish Government in exile, has been elevated to a full Polish Government state decoration.
Every year on 18 May, the anniversary of its capture, Monte Cassino becomes a place of pilgrimage where ex-combatants re-unite with friends and former adversaries alike. Sadly each passing year sees fewer and fewer being able to make the journey but over the years they have been joined by such notables as Pope John Paul II (in 1994), Polish President Lech Kaczyński (in 2009) and Pope Benedict XVI (also in 2009).
It wasn’t only the common soldier, General Władysław Anders the charismatic commander of the Polish 2nd Corps and arguably the most important figure in the Polish struggle was a regular visitor. His last visit was for the 25th anniversary in 1969 shortly before his death.
25th anniversary in 1969
Anders, like many of the Poles who had fought at Monte Cassino, was never allowed to return to his homeland and such is the importance of Monte Cassino that his dying request was to be buried together with his fallen soldiers at the elegant Polish soldier’s cemetery on the mountain top just beneath the monastery. His wife Irena remained a regular visitor until her passing in 2010.
Funeral General Władysław Anders May 1970
Even now, the great name of Anders is still significantly represented. Anna Maria, his daughter, now a Polish Senator in Warsaw is the global ambassador for the Polish 2nd Corps and attends all official celebrations. In the past few years she has also represented the name of the Polish 2nd Corps at major events in Poland, England, Russia, and Uzbekistan in addition to major celebrations throughout Italy.
President Lech Kaczyński and Mrs Maria Kaczyńska with Irena and Anna Maria Anders Monte Cassino in 2009
During research for a book on the history of the Polish 2nd Corps I have been honoured to record conversations with several ex-combatants and though now well into their nineties their vivid memories of seventy years ago are totally undiminished. The recall, with equal measures of sadness and affection every little detail and can talk for hours without pause or losing interest and never becoming boring.
Their stories are a wonderful testimony to the epic they all had endured and whilst it’s all captivating I find some of the more personal aspects the most fascinating and reproduce three examples below:
Józef Królczyk (5th Kresowa Infantry Division Artillery). Sadly Józef died at Christmas last year not long before his 100th birthday. In the last few months of his life I spent many hours with this gentle man so full of humility. Despite the trauma of his ordeals he was such a dignified and accepting individual with no malice for anyone and kind words for everyone. In the clip he describes the start of the first Polish artillery barrage on the 11 May but his narrative starts a few days previous with his preparations of the ground for his canon. It will come as no surprise that he tells of going hungry in order to share his meagre rations with starving Italian children. RIP Józef you are missed by so many.
Romuald Lipinski (12 Podolski Lancers Regiment – 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division Mortar Brigade) outlines his journey to his frontline position just below the monastery two weeks before the start of the 4th battle. (With kind permission from Romuald in reproducing extracts of his unpublished autobiography.)
“At the foot of the hills there was the fast flowing Rapido River, which we crossed via a wooden bridge. On the other side of the river there were some barracks, in varying states of destruction. We were stopped from further march, up the hills, because what we had to climb was a narrow foot path. A convoy with mules was coming down in the opposite direction and the foot path was too narrow to accommodate two columns – one going down and the other going up.
Climbing the hills away from the foot path was impossible due to land mines scattered everywhere. We waited for the convoy on a small yard near the barracks, packed like sardines, for about half of an hour and then resumed our trip. When we climbed far enough that the last men from our regiment were leaving our waiting area by the barracks, some artillery or mortar shells exploded right where our regiment was not long ago. If the Germans had fired on us a few minutes earlier there would be a bloody mess.
Romuald’s map showing the route to his frontline position
We were so close together that any shell would result in a massive carnage. We walked in complete silence, it’s hard to estimate how long we walked, but finally we reached the positions of our predecessors. I think they were British. We did not have to change anything as far as our equipment is concerned: they had their mortars in place with various targets marked. One of them was the monastery. It was difficult to orient myself where we were at that time. On the basis of what I read about our movements during that period we must have been somewhere in the area of the Great Bowl (‘Wielka Miska’).
After two days we were moved, during night of course, to the left end of the Polish forces, to hills that almost overlooking the town of Cassino. Further to the left of us were some troops from the XIII British Corps.
The area was a living testimony of what war is all about. There was not one tree that had its branches green with leaves. There were only naked limbs, stumps, sticking out here and there. Grass has disappeared also. Bare rocks, covered with dust, unfriendly, were everywhere.
Also, there was a testimony of what was there in the past – dead bodies. Some were half decomposed, some half covered with dust or whatever dirt could be scraped from the surface, in most cases, they were covered with lime. These were the reminders of the ferocious fighting that had been going on there for four months, since January, when the American 34th and 36th Division made the first assault, crossed the Rapido river just to be decimated by the Germans. Both of these fine divisions were practically ceased to exist as a fighting force. The entire history of the battle could be read from these corpses. There were corpses of the Americans, Germans, Ghurkhas, British soldiers, some with their faces half eaten by insects, mice or other animals, darkened by time, empty eyes, with only teeth shining. Odour from these decomposing bodies was suffocating. They were all quiet now, resting in their eternal sleep after the dance of death a few months ago. Every time I looked at one of them a sad thought was going through my mind: when will I be like them? In this situation I realized that the odds are against me, that it is just a matter of time when my number will come up and sooner or later I will be looked at just the way I looked at these dead men, who at one time were young, vigorous, full of life and hopes for future. And look at them now.
And flies. They were big, fat, gorging themselves on the dead, decomposing bodies. Stink of death was everywhere. And there, down below was that beautiful valley full of red poppies. At times it was hard to realize the contrast: here an atmosphere of death and destruction and there beauty, peace and quiet. I thought: how these two worlds can coexist sided by side. But that’s how it was.”
Interestingly, it was a patrol from Romuald’s unit (12 Podolski Lancers) that were the first to enter the monastery during the morning of 18 May, 1944 as he describes below.
“About 08:45 a patrol from our regiment was sent to find out what is the situation in the area of the monastery. They successfully crossed the mine field and reached the outer walls of the monastery. They found that the Germans left the monastery during the night, leaving only 16 wounded, with two medics under a command of one officer cadet.
The Germans were scared because their command told them that Poles murder their prisoners. Our men took care of the wounded, giving them the help that they could, and those who could walk were sent further to our area. It is interesting to note, that sometime in the 1970s someone announced on German radio that Polish soldiers were killing their prisoners. To that answered one of those German paratroopers that was found by our patrol at the monastery, stating that it was a lie, that he was one of the wounded soldiers found by the Polish patrol on the 18th of May, and that he was provided with medical care and was treated very well. The 3rd Carpathian Division Association got involved and arranged a meeting between this ex-German paratrooper and Lt. Gurbiel, the commander of that first patrol that entered the monastery.
It must have been some meeting and similar to that I had on May 18, 1994 with the Germans ex-paratroopers at Monte Cassino. It was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of taking the Monastery, there was a big celebration at the Polish cemetery. I met some of my friends, and we started to go through the surrounding hills trying to find some familiar places. Suddenly, from one of the houses there, came three German veterans who come to visit the German cemetery in a nearby village. They told us that were in the 1st Parachute Division, who we had been fighting during the battle.
They were quite friendly to us, so we started talking to them. It was a funny conversation: we were telling them how we tried to kill them and they were telling us how they did their best to kill us. But soon we found common language. This was the first time that I was so close to German soldiers alive. They showed us their decorations, we showed them ours. They told us about another meeting with veterans from New Zealand whom they had met day before. They showed us a hill where five New Zealand tanks had reached. They were all destroyed, by these German’s detachment. All the tank crews had been killed, with one exception: one of the New Zealanders had got away. The day before our arrival he came to visit Monte Cassino and they met that man. That must have been some meeting too…”
Tadeusz Mastalski (3rd Carpathian Infantry Division) tells in his own inimitable way how he was present on the front line for the entirety of the battle but the only blood he ever shed on the battlefield was when he revisited the same area twelve years later as he was retracing his steps and was scratched by brambles and shrubs that had grown since the battle.
My brief overview presentation on the history of the Polish 2nd Corps.