On the 70th anniversary of the capture of Monte Cassino by the Polish II Corps
The old saying goes that all roads lead to Rome. In 1944 one of these roads lead through the rocky slopes of Monte Cassino and was paved with extreme sacrifice, toil, and bloodshed.
The Allied invasion of mainland Italy started in September 1943 by General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group (comprising Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army and General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army).
The strategic goal was to tie down German divisions in Italy in case they might be redeployed when the Western Front opened. The more psychological goal was to conquer Rome and send the message that one of the Axis capitals was in the hands of the Allies.
The landings in Salerno (west coast), Taranto, and Calabria (southern Italy) were followed in January 1944 by the landing in the area of Anzio and Nettuno (on the coast of the Lazio region) in the operation codenamed “Shingle,” which aimed to outflank the line of German military fortifications and enable an attack on Rome.
The Apennine Peninsula has its narrowest stretch of land south of Rome, just around 140 km from the sea. This was the place chosen by the Germans to build three fortified lines named Barbara, Bernhardt, and Gustav.
On the Allies’ road to Rome, within the Gustav Line, stood the strongly defended town of Cassino. Above it loomed Monte Cassino, where in 529 St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery. It headquartered a German stronghold, which was thought to be impregnable. According to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, “the British and Americans would break their teeth on it.”
Thus, a peaceful Benedictine abbey was to become witness to one of the most strategic and attritional battles of the Second World War.
The battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome) consisted of four assaults fought by ten armies for 123 days.
Among the Allied forces was the Polish II Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Władysław Anders, whose life reflected the age of turbulence in Polish history. Anders had fought in the First World War, The Polish-Soviet War, and against the Germans and Russians in 1939. During the September Campaign he was wounded three times. He was later captured, tortured, and spent twenty months in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison.
After the German invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941 he was released, as Stalin needed Polish prisoners to establish units under Russian command to fight the Nazis. Yet, friction with the Soviets arose over political issues as well as treatment of Poles, which led to the eventual departure of 45,000 Polish soldiers (so-called “Anders’ Army”) and 25,000 families via the Persian Corridor into Iran, Iraq, and Palestine.
In 1943 in northern Iraq, the Polish II Corps was formed with units of the Polish Army in the East, and Anders was made its commander. General Patton in his memoir recalled meeting Anders in Egypt before landing in Sicily. “He struck me as very much of a man […] He told me, laughing, that if his corps got in between the German and Russian army, they would have difficulty in deciding who they would want to fight the most.”
In 1944 the Corps was transferred from Egypt to Italy, where it became an independent part of the British Eighth Army under General Oliver Leese. After the three consecutive failures to take Monte Cassino, Leese visited Anders at his HQ in Vinchiaturo on 24 March and gave the Poles the task of taking part in the fourth battle. British historian Anthony Beevor noted that: “The Poles were not just eager for revenge, they knew that they had to obtain a spectacular victory to help the cause of a free Poland.”
The 56,000 Poles that had been assigned to take Monte Cassino were to play a crucial role in the fourth and yet final assault that was part of Operation Diadem, a general offensive planned by Alexander where around half a million men from ten nations were involved. Four corps were engaged in a simultaneous attack: the Polish II Corps, the British XIII Corps of the Eighth Army, the French Expeditionary Corps, and the U.S. II Corps of the Fifth Army.
On 11 May the Poles carried out their first attack, encountering a ferocious defence mounted by a huge number of enemy forces; it turned out that the German front-line battalions were being relieved that night.
In addition to ordinary soldiers, the Polish forces had among their ranks, Private Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear cub found in Iran and adopted by soldiers of the 22nd Transport Company of the Polish II Corps. He would accompany his unit all the way to Italy and helped to load heavy artillery ammunition onto vehicles during the battle. The image of Wojtek carrying a large artillery shell in his arms became the official emblem of the 22nd Transport Company.
On 17 May, the Polish II Corps launched their second attack on Monte Cassino. The struggle for Point 593 (a prominent fortified peak which provided a grandstand view of the whole area for German artillery fire) ended at dawn on 18 May, when Monte Cassino finally fell for good. The road to Rome now stood wide open.
The first Polish soldiers who made it to the top hoisted a Polish flag and a bugler played the “Hejnał Mariacki” (the medieval military call which announced the opening and closing of the gates of the city of Kraków). The battle, however, had taken a heavy toll on the Poles, with casualties numbering 4,000.
As the offensive was advancing and the fall of Rome grew closer, Polish forces fell victim to General Clark’s ambition to take the credit for the capture and his fear of a British conspiracy. When the Gustav Line was about to crumble, General Alexander ordered Clark to cut the German lines to the east and entrap the German 10th Army between the VI Corps and the British Eighth Army. Clark, however, changed directions and pursued an attack towards Rome.
On 3 June, when the fall of Rome was inevitable, Alexander sent a message to Clark requesting a Polish contingent to participate in the entry of Rome to acknowledge their contribution at Monte Cassino. Clark ignored this proposal. Rome fell on 4 June 1944.
By the end of the Italian campaign the Polish II Corps had fought with distinction most notably in the Battle of Ancona and the Battle of Bologna.
Once the war was drawing to an end the fate of Poland was sealed during the Tehran and Yalta conferences with the Iron Curtain and the sickle and hammer casting a shadow over the “liberated Poland” for almost the next fifty years. As Beevor poignantly observed: “The problem of Poland henceforth became the embarrassing one of quietly dropping a brave ally, unavoidably sacrificed on the altar of real-politik.”
The vast majority of Anders’ soldiers could not and did not want to return to Poland under communist rule. After the Polish Armed Forces in the West were transformed into the Polish Resettlement Corps, most of them remained in exile in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. There are 1,054 soldiers buried in the Polish Cemetery at Monte Cassino, with the grave of General Władysław Anders, whose last will was to be buried among his soldiers, at its central point.
The story of Monte Cassino was immortalized by Feliks Konarski, a Polish artist and one of Anders’ soldiers, who wrote the song: “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino.”
This soil was won for Poland
Though Poland is far away
For freedom is measured in crosses
When history from justice does stray
Grzegorz Krzyżanowski studied International Relations at the Jagiellonian University and the Catholic University in Leuven. He is a member of Jagiellonian Club.