Early 1944, Italy: the Allied armies had been fought to a standstill by the Germans beneath the gaze of the shattered monastery of Monte Cassino. Under leaden skies, the living clung to life, while the bodies of the dead littered the landscape. Rats and carrion birds feasted on their remains. No one who fought at ‘Cassino’ would ever forget its horror.
By spring, the weather finally began to improve and the Allies started to prepare for a renewed offensive that they believed would break through the German defences. Fresh to the theatre, the II Polish Corps was charged with capturing the monastery and prising the surrounding high ground from the enemy’s clutches.
For Polish soldiers it was an opportunity to avenge the misery and destruction the Third Reich had inflicted on their motherland. It was also a chance to earn a battle honour that would remind the world that Poland was still fighting hard for an Allied victory and, importantly, a nation state free from the interference of their other sworn enemy – Joseph Stalin.
The lost and found
Even before it reached the Italian theatre, the journey of the II Polish Corps had been a tale of endurance. The story began with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Having put up a valiant resistance against Hitler’s war machine, Poland soon teetered on the brink of collapse. The Soviet attack launched from the east on 17 September delivered the coup de grace. While many thousands escaped via the southern border, the bulk of Poland’s armed forces fell into enemy hands.
With Poland securely divided between the USSR and the Third Reich under the provisions of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet security agency, the dreaded NKVD, moved against the Polish military elite and intelligentsia within its sphere of control. Massacres occurred, including the slaughter of 4,321 officer POWs in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Poles who fell foul of the Russians even for the minor and petty offences were rounded up and sent to work in the gulags. The numbers sent vary from 1-1.5 million souls.
Somewhat ironically, it was the German invasion of Russia, starting on 22 June 1941, that extended a lifeline to the Poles in Soviet captivity. In British eyes, Poland’s stock was still high and so the promise of aid to Russia was made partially dependent on Stalin agreeing to the release of the Polish prisoners (also including women and children) and allowing an independent army to be formed. Stalin signed a deal to this effect with representatives of the Free Polish government in Moscow on 30 July 1941.
Instrumental in forging this new force was General Anders. Born in 1892, he had served in the Tsarist army in the First World War and then fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian-Polish War of 1919-1920. At the start of the Second World War, Anders commanded a cavalry brigade that managed to chalk up some minor successes. But once the Soviet invasion from the east began in earnest, he realised it was imperative to withdraw his forces into neutral Hungary. Unfortunately, Anders was wounded before he could lead his men to safety and was taken to a hospital to recover instead.
Soon captured, he was put on ‘trial’ by the NKVD. ‘I had, I learned, betrayed the international proletariat by fighting the Bolsheviks in 1918-1920. I was also indicted for having fought Soviet troops and was held responsible for the casualties suffered by them.’ For extra measure, Anders was condemned as a spy. Somehow he avoided the executioner’s bullet and was thrown in jail. In March 1940, he was transferred to the headquarters of the NKVD in Moscow, the dreaded Lubyanka, where he faced a year of interrogation, fear and poor health.
In July 1941, Anders was released and told he was to become the commanding officer of the Polish Army about to be formed in the USSR. News of their freedom to join this army – under what the Russians termed an ‘amnesty’ – was delivered to captive Poles in a half-hearted manner. Many were never told, while others only heard rumours. Some Poles were fortunate to travel on specially-seconded trains, but most had to rely on their own initiative to reach the main assembly points – one of the first was at Buzuluk (roughly equidistant between Moscow and the Ural Mountains).
Large numbers of those freed under the amnesty had their hopes dashed when Stalin declared that far fewer Poles than first agreed upon would be allowed to join the new army. Stanislaw Bierkieta, in his late teens when he was arrested by the Russians, was one of those men affected. He remembers a civil servant informing them en route that they were to be sent a collective farm instead of joining the new army. ‘We would have lynched him then and there if he had been in reach,’ says Bierkieta.
Those who succeeded in making it to Buzuluk and other Polish army camps were often shadows of their former selves. For Anders it was not surprising to find his compatriots were arriving in such an atrocious state. What did take him aback was the notable lack of officers and NCOs. Around 15,000 known to be in Soviet captivity had yet to be traced – it was if the men had vanished into thin air. When directly asked by the Poles about the disappearance of these men, Stalin suggested that they had escaped – to Manchuria, perhaps. This pathological in-joke was typical of Stalin’s grim sense of humour. The Poles came much closer to the truth when Merkulov, the right-hand man to Beria, the head of the NKVD, was asked where he thought the missing officers were. ‘In their case we made a fatal mistake,’ he replied.
New model army
Despite lacking experienced officers and NCOs, the Poles got on with the business of constructing an army. Exercise was immensely difficult due to the harsh winter conditions, which also led to poor health, frost bite and even death. Weaponry was in short supply too. However, greater amounts of British clothing and equipment soon arrived, giving the Poles – who by now had moved to more southerly climes in the USSR – a somewhat motley appearance when combined with the mixture of Russian and worn-out Polish equipment they were already wearing.
After constant prodding by the British and the Polish government-in-exile, the Russians eventually allowed Anders’ army to leave Soviet territory and cross into British-controlled Persia. The evacuation took place in two phases: one in April and one in August 1942. Roughly 113,000 men, women and children made the journey. A small number of escapees from various gulags and collective farms also managed to directly cross into Persia.
The first priority once the Poles joined the Western Allies was to build up their health. Many of the women and children were sent to live on bases in India or Africa, where they could recover in peace. Other women joined rear-line units, becoming, for example, vehicle mechanics. Once fitness was restored, training along British lines began in earnest.
By mid-1943, having moved from Persia to Iraq, to Palestine and then to Egypt, the II Polish Corps soon found themselves preparing to enter the Italian theatre. By this stage they numbered roughly 40,000 soldiers. The Corps was composed of the 3 Carpathian Infantry Division (comprising 1 Brigade and 2 Brigade), the 5 Kresowa Infantry Division (comprising 5 Wilkenska Brigade and 6 Lwow Brigade), and the 2 Polish Armoured Brigade. The Corps also contained a number of artillery and support units.
Clash at Cassino
The II Polish Corps arrived in Italy during December 1943 and January 1944, a time when the Allies had been given a bloody nose on the Gustav Line, a major German defensive feature that stretched from Ortona on the Adriatic coast, over the Apennines, through Cassino (the lynchpin of the defence line covering Highway 6, the main road to Rome) down to the mouth of the River Garigliano, which ran into the Mediterranean.
Cassino was no ordinary Italian town: on a steep hill, close by, was a monastery founded by Saint Benedict in 524. The site therefore marks the beginnings of the Benedictine Order that went on to influence the fabric of Europe civilization. Saint Benedict had chosen the location with care, for monks and monasteries were often the target of choice for marauding armies. Despite the precautions, the monastery went on to be sacked three times by the mid-eleventh century. Over the following centuries, the defences were bolstered until the monastery looked, from the outside, more like an imposing fortress than a place of holy contemplation.
The Germans had spent three months building up the Gustav Line, making the best possible use of mountain peaks, gorges and caves (in which they remained unobserved from the Allies and could take cover from any incoming fire). They had also spent time carefully sighting their guns, re-enforcing houses with concrete and laying down reels of barbed wire. Thousands upon thousands of mines had been sown, including the deadly anti-personnel schu mine. Although the Germans had announced that the monastery was a neutral zone, the Allies believed – erroneously as it was to turn out – that the position was being used for observation or, worse still, being turned into defensive bulwark.
First to face the Gustav Line around Cassino and in foul weather conditions (which lasted all winter long) had been American units from the Fifth Army. Suffering heavy casualties and making limited headway, they nonetheless managed to capture a number of key points, including a foothold on ‘Snakeshead Ridge’.
This was an important feature, for it offered the Allies a secondary route towards Monte Cassino without having to make a head-on assault from the monastery’s base. However, the Snakeshead still heavily favoured the defender and offered almost no place for an attacker to manoeuvre. Roughly in the middle of this boomerang-shaped feature was Point 593. This rocky outcrop afforded the Germans excellent cover and clear fields of observation. It had to be captured in order for any advance on the Snakeshead to proceed.
By early 1944, the American units had been relieved. Various units from other nationalities continued to battle over the ground in the following months, but only limited gains were made. During this period the Allies had made the highly-controversial decision of launching a major air strike on the monastery. Thinking they were flushing the Germans out, the Allies were instead bombing Italian monks and civilian refugees. It was a terrible mistake, but one that was a fillip to the Germans. They immediately sent fallschrimjäger (paratroopers) of 1 Fallschrim (part of the German 10th Army) to occupy the ruins, promptly turning the site into the bastion that the Allies had originally feared. The Germans also used the monastery’s destruction for maximum propaganda effect.
In the meantime, the Allies began to make preparations for the launch of Operation Diadem, the large-scale offensive aiming to break through the Gustav Line and the next defensive position, the Hitler Line, which was described by the historian Matthew Parker as ‘decidedly makeshift’. While German forces were being battered into submission on the Gustav Line, Fifth Army units holding the beachhead at Anzio (a major seaborne landing that had began as an effort to outflank the enemy on the Gustav Line, but had thus far been contained) would strike out and attempt to seal off German avenues of escape and ensure their destruction.
Preparing for the fight
On arrival in Italy, the II Polish Corps were incorporated into the Eighth Army and their first frontline experience was during March 1944 on a relatively quiet sector. On 24 March 1944, the commander of the Eighth Army, General Leese, met General Anders and his Chief of Staff, General Wisniowski. Leese informed them that the Poles were to have a key role in Operation Diadem: they had been selected to take the monastery and its environs, although they could turn the task down if they felt their troops were unready. After a very short conversation, the Poles readily agreed to take on this Herculean task. Taking Monte Cassino, they believed, would garner vital public and political support for Poland from the British and Americans, while also helping to push the Italian campaign along.
The Poles were scheduled to take over the positions near to the monastery during the last week of April. The offensive was set to begin with a massed artillery barrage starting at on 11 May. Learning the lessons of the previous assaults, Anders decided that Polish forces would focus on taking the high ground beyond the monastery. If they succeeded, the Germans’ hold of the site would then become extremely tenuous and probably force their withdrawal.
The Kresowa Division was chosen to tackle Phantom Ridge and from there, Colle Saint Angelo. It would then push on to Point 575. The Carpathian Division was to strike and seize Point 593 and then attack Point 569. If it succeeded, the Carpathian Division would battle away from the Snakeshead, past the Albaneta Farm, and on to Point 505.
Having taken over from their British counterparts – who were struck by the Poles’ determination to grapple with the enemy – it soon became apparent that the question of supply was going to be enormously tricky. Through great effort, including the brave work of five Cypriot mule companies, the difficulties of supply and stockpiling were overcome. There was, however, a continuing toll of dead and wounded as German artillery fire on the main route up was as accurate as it was deadly.
Stanislaw Bierkieta, now a platoon leader in the 15 Pozañskich Lancers Regiment, remembers how Military Policemen while directing the troops along the road would also listen closely for the threat of incoming fire. Bierkieta recalled: ‘A nearby MP suddenly shouted for us to take cover. I jumped behind a dead mule and found myself lying next to a very dark-skinned chap, who I assumed was a Cypriot. Once the MP declared it was safe to move on, I stood up and then noticed my neighbour remained on the ground. “You can get up now”, I told him. He didn’t respond. I then realised I had been taking cover next to the blackening corpse of a man killed some time beforehand.’
Anders’ orders on the eve of battle, declared: ‘We go forward with the sacred slogan in our hearts: God, Honour, Country.’ The assault began with a spectacular preliminary barrage of roughly 1,600 guns across the whole of the Cassino front. At on 12 May, the Carpathian Division started its assault. Despite its impressive scale, the bombardment of German positions had been relatively ineffectual, the enemy having made good use of the shelter afforded by the reverse slopes, caves and other secure defensive positions.
Facing fierce resistance, the 2 Carpathian Battalion managed to take Point 593 by before continuing on towards Point 569. With casualties mounting, their effort started to falter. The German 3 Parachute Regiment, under Colonel Heilman, prepared to make a counter attack – mortar and machine gun fire from the monastery covering them as they moved into position. As soon as supporting fire lifted, the parachutists advanced to take back the lost ground.
The ensuing fight was a close run thing at first and, at some points, became a hand-to-hand struggle. With momentum on their side, however, the Fallschrimjäger eventually won back control of Point 593. Casualties for the Poles had been high. Indeed, the 2 Carpathian Battalion had been ripped apart, only a few dozen frontline men left.
Further away, the battle to take Phantom Ridge had also stalled. Once again the Allied bombardment had been ineffectual and the enemy responded with a deadly hail of mortar and machinegun fire. Advancing spasmodically, most Poles were forced to dive for cover and hope for the best. For some the intensity of the battle proved too much and their minds cracked under the extreme psychological pressure.
By all three battalions of the 5 Wilkenska had been committed to the battle for Phantom Ridge. To help their efforts, the 18 Battalion from 6 Lwowska Brigade was also thrown into the fray. Despite their bravery and tenacity, the terrain and the relentless enemy fire proved insurmountable obstacles. Bloodied, but not broken, the Poles eventually withdrew.
Although thwarted, Anders' men had at least tied down German units and distracted their attention from other Allied assaults. Indeed, overall progress thus far had been relatively positive, with the Free French on the far left of the battle line making particularly good progress. Fissures in the German defences were starting to show.
Eye of the storm
On 16 May, the British 78 Division (supported by the 6 Armoured Division) started its attack across the River Rapido, which runs in front of Cassino town. The unit was aiming to conclusively break through to the Liri valley and advance along the axis of Highway 6. To divide and distract German focus away from 78 Division’s advance, the Poles launched their second offensive. They were also determined to finally take the monastery.
Prior to the start of their second offensive, the Poles busied themselves by bringing up more supplies and sending out patrols to gather intelligence or disable mines. Stanislaw Bierkieta was involved in a particularly tough reconnaissance mission at this time. He led a patrol – one of two – to a quarry near to German positions across the heavily-mined valley separating the two sides. Setting off first, Bierkieta and his men reached the quarry and found it unoccupied by the enemy. ‘But they quickly became aware of our presence,’ he remembers, ‘and started raining down all sorts of fire on us. It was so intense that all we could do was crouch behind cover and pray we wouldn't be hit.'
The second patrol eventually arrived. Shaken and worse for wear, they had lost a number of men wounded and killed on the journey over. Pinned down until nightfall, the two teams then slipped away and began their trek back. A party of volunteers went off to pick up those who had been wounded or killed earlier. Disaster then overtook them. ‘My sergeant – a very, very brave man – and a number of others were killed by an anti-personal mine while undertaking this search,’ Bierkiera recalls, adding ‘the rest of us now struggled hard to get all of the wounded and dead back in. It was tough and terrible work, but somehow we managed.'
In the days leading up to 16 May, Anders had revised his plans. It was decided that the 6 Lwowska Brigade of the Kresowa Division would tackle the north end of Phantom Ridge. The responsibility for taking Albaneta and the hills beyond fell to the Carpathian Division. The 2 Carpathian Brigade was charged with helping take the dreaded Point 593 and then, if it was possible, making an attack towards the monastery.
At 22.30, 16 May, the second Polish attack began. Aggressively pushing forward, the casualties soon mounted as the Germans again responded with a storm of mortar and machinegun fire. Stanislaw Zurakowski, a company runner in the 16 Lwow Rifle Battalion of the 5 Kresowa, was at the heart of this maelstrom. He remembered the sickening sensation of racing from point to point with a message: ‘I always felt that every gun was aimed at me,’ he says, adding, ‘I thought I was a sitting duck, but somehow I always made it. None of the other runners in my company did.'
The Poles continued to advance, however, and made particularly good progress on the north end of Phantom Ridge. Before long, the toe-hold there had been expanded and used as a jumping off point to advance on Colle Sant’ Angello, the bulk of which the Poles took by the dawn of 17 May. However, German counter attacks were becoming stronger. At one point the Poles were cut off from their comrades bringing up supplies. Contact was only re-established once the enemy had been fought off in a desperate fight. By now, the men were shattered and too worn out to afford any help with the Carpathian’s attack on Albaneta.
The Carpathian Division had succeeded in taking and then holding the dreaded Point 593. Again casualties had been high, but with a greater supply of grenades to hand they had dislodged the Germans and then fought off their inevitable counter attacks. The idea pushing towards the monastery was promptly shelved once it became apparent that the attack by those units striking towards Albaneta was struggling to make headway. By the end of 17 May, the fighting slackened as the combatants recouped and prepared for further combat. The battle for the monastery had come to a head and yet it was to end abruptly not long afterwards and in a way that came surprise for most men on both sides.
The price of victory
German Command, led by Kesselring, was now aware that the Gustav Line was no longer tenable and ordered a withdrawal to the Hitler Line. The decision was an unpopular one, particularly with the defenders of the monastery.
They considered themselves undefeated and, despite the high casualties and horrific conditions, had expected a fight to the finish. Nonetheless a retreat began in the late hours of 17 May. So tight was the Allied noose now around the monastery that most parachutists able bodied enough to retreat were either killed or captured by British or Polish patrols. Very few made it back to German lines.
In the early hours of 18 May, the Poles were aware from intercepted radio traffic that the Germans had ordered a retreat from the monastery. A scouting group from the 12 Poldolski Lancers (Carpathian Division) was subsequently sent out to discover whether this was the case. The journey was tough and, given the paucity of intelligence about the German withdrawal, must have been quite nerve racking. The men entered the surviving hulk of the monastery to discover wounded Fallschrimjäger, corpses and total destruction. The battle was finally complete when a home-made regimental pennant was hoisted atop of the ruins. Once this was done a bugler played the legendary KrakowHejnal.
Total casualties for the Poles at Monte Cassino were 72 officers and 788 other ranks killed and 204 officers and 2,618 other ranks wounded. Five officers and 97 other ranks were listed missing. More casualties were added to the list when the Poles secured nearby Piedimonte after making four assaults on the town over 20-25 May. Although the cost had been high, the fall of Monte Cassino made the headlines as the Poles had hoped. But the fame was fleeting. General Mark Clark’s ‘liberation’ of the open city of Rome with Fifth Army units breaking away from Anzio soon grabbed the world’s attention. This was then overshadowed by the Allied invasion of Normandy.
In the meantime, the Germans made full use of the opportunity handed to them by Mark Clark’s vainglorious decision; they were able to organise a massed retreat of their 10th Army and escape the thin pocket that the Allies had striven so hard to achieve. For the Poles, this failure to spring the trap was a particularly hard pill to swallow. Their hopes and dreams of a telling success in Italy and then a quick advance into the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe (hopefully leading to reappraisal of Allied policy regarding post war Poland) had been dashed.
By autumn/winter 1944, the Allied breakout from Normandy had slowed, while large swathes of Polish territory was now firmly under Soviet control. Prior to this, reports of the dreadful repression the Nazis had undertaken after the Warsaw Rising soon filtered through. So too did the treachery of Stalin, who had ordered the Red Army to remain outside the city while the Germans liquidated the resistors.
But despite the obstacles and grim news from home, the men and women of the II Polish Corps continued to fight with the same spirit of determination it had been born with. It is this commitment that excites the interest of Poles today. For them, Monte Cassino is almost a physical manifestation of the nation’s struggle and suffering against the odds. In this sense, the battleground has a far greater significance for Poland than Anders could have conceived when asked if his soldiers could win where all others had so far failed.
Two British soldiers search an Italian farmhouse dated 22/12/43. Something of a staged photograph, it nonetheless gives a good impression of how cold the weather was and how this impeded soldiers in the field, who were forced to fight in their bulky greatcoats.
Tough, resourceful and well-led, the fallschrimjäger held on to Monte Cassino with a determined grip that was finally broken by the Poles - but only after fearsome casualties had been inflicted by both sides.
Map of operations (click to enlarge)
Plan of action
Leese (left) and Anders (right) in close conversation. The men met for the first time on March 24, 1944, with Leese outlining the role the Poles would have to take in Operation Diadem, including the capture of Monte Cassino.
Death from above
Bombs fall near Cassino in this rather grainy image. Allied bombing of the monastery was controversial even at the time. Instead of flushing the enemy out, it allowed the Germans to move in and set up an almost impregnable defensive position.
Artillery from II Corps gets down to business shelling enemy positions.
Polish medics treat an Italian baby in the field. For the local population, there was very little one could do except try to escape the war zones, and then pray for the safety of family and friends.
Inside the abbey, the Poles found complete destruction. After the war, the Italians painstakingly rebuilt the monastery to its former glory.
Master Corporal Emil Czech plays the Hejnał mariacki, a somewhat mournful tune that cuts off suddenly. It is played at the city of Krakow, commemorating the attack of the Mongol horde, and is known across Poland.
Polish II Corps poster made soon after Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino is a physical manifestation of Poland's sacrifice in World War Two.
Their finest hour
A BBC radio news report filed soon after the Poles took Monte Cassino with some excellent photos and archive materials.