Early 1944, Italy: the Allied armies had been fought to a standstill by the Germans beneath the gaze of the shattered Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Under leaden skies, the living clung to life, while 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 preparing for a renewed offensive – one they hoped would finally break through the German defenses. 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 the Polish soldiers, it was an opportunity to avenge the misery and destruction the Third Reich had inflicted on their homeland. It was also a chance to earn a battle honor that would remind the world that Poland was still fighting hard for an Allied victory and, importantly, a nation free from the interference of their other sworn enemy: Joseph Stalin.
They had previously been prisoners of the Soviets until they were allowed to form their own corps. They were placed under the command of General Władysław Anders. He was released after 18 months of captivity, and Anders was tasked to form the Polish Army in the Soviet Union. He distrusted all things Soviet and later wrote in his autobiography, “God only knows how many were murdered and how many died under the terrible conditions in the prisons and forced labor camps.”
After arriving in Italy, the Polish corps eventually swelled to a force of 110,000.
The first Polish unit to see action in Italy was the Independent Commando Company. On December 29, 1943, it took part in a diversionary raid with British No. 9 Commando on the Garigliano River estuary defenses. The 3rd Carpathian Division entered combat along a quiet sector of the front on the Sangro River. On February 10, Lt. Gen. Anders reported to General Leese at the Eighth Army headquarters at Vasto, and the Polish II Corps officially became part of the Eighth Army.
British soldiers readily acknowledged the fighting spirit of the Poles. An Irish Guards officer in the 78th Division described his encounter with them. “Their motives were as clear as they were simple. They only wished to kill Germans and they did not bother at all about the usual refinements when taking over our posts. They just walked in with their weapons, asked where the Germans were, and that was that.” The 78th Division history carried a significant entry. “Of their resolve, there was no doubt. For whose gallantry the Division soon learnt to feel an awed yet amused admiration. They exposed themselves with the most reckless abandon. They seem to know no fear.”
The 3rd Carpathian Division’s first patrol went out on February 21, northwest of San Angelo. In May it moved up to Monte Cassino, where the Poles proved their worth in capturing the destroyed abbey high atop a mountain that commanded the Allied approaches through the valley below.
The German defenses at Cassino had not been penetrated despite three assaults and heavy bombing. The enemy held fast and continued to block the road to Rome. In May, along the 18-mile stretch from Cassino to the Gulf of Gaeta, 17 Allied divisions stood ready for the next phase of the battle. After previous attempts had failed to take Cassino, General Leese called Anders and his chief of staff, General K. Wisniowski, to Eighth Army headquarters on March 24. Leese told Anders of the planned offensive, Operation Diadem, to open the road to Rome.
Leese offered the Polish corps the mission of taking Monte Cassino. After a brief discussion with Wisniowski, Anders accepted the task. Anders later described his reasoning. “The battle would have international scrutiny and impact; it would be the first face-to-face battle with the Germans since 1939; capture of Monte Cassino would disprove the Soviet propaganda that the Polish Army was unwilling to fight the Wehrmacht; casualties would probably be the same in a supportive role; it would have great significance for the future of the Home Army of Poland.”
General Anders’ order of the day just before the assault on Cassino read: “Soldiers, The task assigned to us will cover with glory the name of the Polish soldier all over the world. The moment for battle has arrived. At this moment the thoughts and hearts of our whole nation will be with us. We have long awaited the moment for revenge and retribution over our hereditary enemy. For this action let the lion spirit enter your hearts, keep deep in your heart God, honor, and our land—Poland! Go and take revenge for all the suffering in our land, for what you have suffered for many years in Russia and for years of separation from your families.”
A postwar Polish veteran explained their motivation: “The spirit of self-sacrifice that had been manifested at the Battles of Grunwald, Chocim, and Warsaw is passed on from generation to generation and constitutes the bedrock of Polish pride. The Poles entered the Battle of Cassino with the vision of a free Poland … carried in their hearts and minds. They joined the battle not because they were so ordered but because of their inner love for Poland and their hatred for the oppressor of their Motherland.”
For the night assault, the Polish troops blackened their faces and equipment and donned camouflage wraps.
A 40-minute barrage opened the assault. Immediately, the Poles caught an unlucky break. The Germans planned to relieve defenders with fresh units, and they had nine battalions in the strong points when the assault started. At 1 am, the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division’s 1st Carpathian Rifle Brigade assaulted Point 593 (Mount Calvary on Snakeshead Ridge), Hill 569, and Albaneta Farm. The 1st Carpathian Battalion’s attack on Massa Albaneta failed with heavy losses, due mainly to German artillery. By 2:30 am, the assault battalions had lost one of every five men.
The 2nd Carpathian Battalion of the 1st Carpathian Brigade carried Point 593. Four counterattacks by German paratroopers, the final ending with bitter hand-to-hand fighting, left few Poles in the position at dawn. Forced to retreat, the entire 2nd Battalion numbered no more than a few dozen men. The 3rd Carpathian Battalion strike on Hill 569 also failed.
The 5th Kresowa Infantry Division’s 5th Wilenska Brigade jumped off a half hour after the Carpathian Brigade to seize Colle Sant’ Angelo, Hills 706, 601, and 575. The infantry ran into heavy fire. By 3 am, all three battalions were engaged along Phantom Ridge. The division commander, Brig. Gen. Nikodem Sulik, committed the 18 battalions of the 6th Lwowska Brigade to reignite the advance, but it was not possible to continue the attack.
The 13th and 15th Battalions of the 5th Wilenska Brigade were decimated. According to the brigade diary, “In the valley and on the slope of the ridge lay corpses, twisted human shapes, shattered limbs, bloody bits of bodies.” General Anders had no alternative but to terminate the assault.
The Poles had attacked with panache and skill but took heavy casualties. The Germans committed a horrific atrocity after the assault. Two young officer cadets were captured, and the Germans crucified them with barbed wire and nails. No quarter was given by either side from that moment on.
The II Corps staff immediately began drawing plans for a second assault. Leese arrived and expressed satisfaction with the Poles’ attack because it was “of great assistance” drawing artillery fire and reserves away from the British. Anders used the same basic strategy, but this time the attack would be made by both entire divisions. Brigades of the 5th Kersowa Division were directed on Colle Sant’ Angelo. The 3rd Carpathian Division focused both brigades on just Albaneta.
The Poles concentrated their artillery support and planned a rolling barrage for the advancing infantry. Polish sappers and engineers cleared minefields and obstacles during the interim. Leese endorsed the entire endeavor.
The second assault jumped off at 10:30 pm on May 16. New brigades were leading the assaults, supported by 200 air sorties at daybreak. One observer wrote, “When the second attack began the soldiers were drained physically and psychologically. The issue hung on a knife edge, only vigorous leadership could overcome the exhaustion and inertia.” Fighting raged all night.
Lance Corporal Dobrowski of the 5th Battalion described the assault on Hill 593: “We begin to ascend Hill 593, the weakest soldiers can no longer keep pace. We are in no particular formation. No sections; no platoons. The situation is such that we must use our own initiative. Now we engage the enemy. All is confusion and the Germans’ positions are mixed with ours. With munificent impartiality, we hurl our hand grenades. From the neighboring heights Spandaus, Schmeissers, and heavy machine guns catch us in a murderous crossfire.” The hill was taken and held.
The divisions seized the initial objectives on Phantom Ridge and Snakeshead Ridge then moved on to Hills 601, 575, 505, and 569. By May 18, the Poles had seized the objectives. The French Expeditionary Corps breakthrough south of Cassino forced the German Tenth Army to order the withdrawal of the 1st Parachute Division from Monte Cassino.
The Poles intercepted the radio message but were too weary to pursue the paratroopers. Corps headquarters sent word to the 3rd Carpathian Division to send a patrol from the 12th Podolski Lancers Reconnaissance Regiment to scout the abbey. The scouting party, led by Lieutenant Casimir Gurbiel, entered the ruins of the abbey and found them empty except for a few wounded German paratroopers. A homemade regimental pennant was raised at 9:50 am above the ruins. A Lancer bugler played the medieval Polish military signal, the “Krakow Hejnal.” When the notes were heard in the 4th Carpathian Battalion’s command post, officers and enlisted men unashamedly cried.
A Polish officer wrote in his diary about that occasion. “We hung on grimly until the exciting news arrived that the monastery was in our hands. I shall never forget the pure joy of that moment. We could hardly believe that our long task was done.”
General Anders walked up to the abbey late in the afternoon. He recounted the moment in his postwar memoirs. “The battlefield presented a dreary sight. Corpses of Polish and German soldiers, sometimes entangled in a deadly embrace, lay everywhere, and the air was filled with the stench of rotting bodies. There were overturned tanks with broken caterpillars. Crater after crater pitted the sides of hills and scattered over them were fragments of uniforms, helmets, Tommy guns, Spandaus, Schmeissers, and hand grenades. The slopes of hills where fighting had been less intense were covered with poppies in incredible numbers, their red flowers weirdly appropriate to the scene.”
The Poles continued fighting until May 25, by which time the positions of Saint Angelo Hill, Point 575, Passo Corno, and Mount Cairo were captured. The Polish II Corps lost 50 men a day, about 20 percent of its strength, by the end of the Cassino battle. The Poles immediately attacked east to penetrate the Hitler Line before the Germans could man it.
Through Operation Diadem, the capture of Rome, and the advance beyond the Italian capital, the Allied forces were heavily battered. The British and Canadian rifle companies had 30 percent casualties. The American casualty rate was 41 percent, but the Polish II Corps had the highest with 43 percent, sustaining 3,784 casualties of which 860 were killed. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wrote after the war, “Only the finest troops could have taken that well-prepared and long-defended fortress.” Immediately after the battle, General Charles de Gaulle commented to the press, “The Polish Corps lavished its bravery in the service of its honor.”
Polish troops finally captured Monte Cassino on May 18, 1944, five months into the bloody campaign and four months after the monastery was leveled.
The Polish II Corps received an honorary decoration after Cassino. Eighth Army Order No. 65 granted the right of all individuals who took part in the Cassino operation to permanently wear the Eighth Army shield on their right shoulder even if in the future they were no longer part of the Eighth. Later, Order No. 95 extended the privilege to any soldier of the Polish II Corps.
Because of the Soviet occupation of Poland, most of the Cassino veterans never returned to their homeland. Inexplicably, the Poles were not allowed to participate in the massive victory parade in London.
Ten members of Parliament signed a letter published in the Daily Telegram in June 1946, objecting to the treatment of the Poles. The letter read, “Polish dead lay in hundreds on Monte Cassino. The Poles fought at Tobruk, Falaise, and Arnhem. Polish pilots shot down 772 German planes. The Polish Forces who fought under British command have not been invited to the Victory march on June 8. Ethiopians will be there, Mexicans will be there, the Fiji Medical Corps, the Labuan Police, and the Seychelles Pioneer Corps will be there—and rightly too. But the Poles will not be there.
In the end, the Polish troops played a pivotal role in the successful siege but paid a heavy price for their effort. Among the 54,000 Allied troops who lost their lives on the battlefield, about 1,000 were Polish. They were later buried in the Polish war cemetery on the slopes of Monte Cassino, which also became the final resting place of their commander, General Władysław Anders, who died decades later.
British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wrote in his memoirs, “Poles played a part which gained them the admiration of their comrades and the respect of the enemy.”
Historian Thomas Brooks noted in The War North of Rome, “Anders matched his men in fighting spirit and toughness of mind and body, with a fiery Polish patriotism”
On the 75th anniversary, Minister of National Defense Mariusz Błaszczak wrote that capturing the monastery at Monte Cassino was one of the most glorious pages in the history of the Polish military.
"The soldiers storming the stronghold held by Germans showed unprecedented bravery, courage, and persistence. In his call to attack, General Anders said that 'In these times the thoughts and hearts of the whole nation will be with us, we will be sustained by the spirits of our comrades in arms. May the lion live in your hearts,'"
Sources for the article.