The Battle of Monte Cassino has been written about extensively so I will not waste time describing it in general terms. I will limit myself to my experiences and my opinions.
Sometime at the beginning of April, we were taken out from the Sangro Line to a camp near Campobasso, which is located in the central part of the Italian peninsula. We spent about three weeks there during which, again, we went through extensive and exhaustive physical training. Finally, we were told that we were going to be sent to Monte Cassino and we knew what that meant. We saw from Pescopennataro the flashing of artillery salvos and we knew that the Allies were getting a bloody nose over there. We heard about the fiasco at Anzio and, when the news broke about us going to Monte Cassino, we knew that not everybody would come back.
Arrival at Monte Cassino
We arrived in the area of Cassino on 30 April 1944. Our temporary camp was in an olive orchard, a few kilometers from the town of Cassino. It was about 16.00 when I went to the edge of the orchard and took a look at the monastery. There was a valley in front of me, maybe four kilometers wide and, at the other end of the valley, there were rather steep mountains, about 500 feet high. To the left, I could see an awesome mountain, covered with smoke, and the ruins of a once beautiful monastery. There was one thing that impressed me: between our orchard and the hills, the valley was covered with beautiful, red poppies. The beauty of these flowers was in striking contrast to the grim brutality of war. Later on, when we were already in battle, when I wanted to divert myself from the reality of our situation, I would often look at these beautiful flowers and find relief in thinking that somewhere life is going on, serene, happy, where people go about their daily chores, life so different from ours. These poppies were in a striking contrast to our immediate surroundings: death, death, and once more death. Maybe there is some truth in the song composed for us, "Red Poppies of Monte Cassino", that says that they will be more red than before because they soaked up a lot of Polish blood...
We were told that any talk while marching was forbidden because the enemy could hear it and that would bring artillery fire on us. Truck and carrier drivers and regimental administration remained with the headquarters.
Had the Germans fired on us a few minutes earlier, there would have been a bloody mess. We were so close together that any shell would have resulted in a massive carnage. We were walking in complete silence; it is 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 was concerned: they had their mortars in place with various targets marked. One of them was the monastery. It was difficult to orient myself as to 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 the hills almost overlooking the town of Cassino. Further to the left of us were some troops from the XIII British Corps. I shared my shelter with Stefan Strasz. He was a carpenter before the war. He was a square-built man and as strong as a horse. He was a great companion. Together we found some wooden beams which we brought to our post, and we built our shelter. We could not dig it in the ground because there was a rock right at the surface, so it had to be made on the surface. We found a ruined shed that had concrete floor and one concrete wall against the mountain. We leaned our beams against the vertical wall, put some material to protect us from rain and this was our shelter. It was just big enough for two men to sleep there. The shed floor was not bigger than 12 feet square and our shelter was about four feet wide. The Germans would shell us, probably with mortars, usually at night. One shell exploded right next to our shelter. It wasn't more than two feet from us. It was probably a mortar shell, or a howitzer, because the trajectory was too steep for a field artillery piece. During the shelling, for the first time I experienced claustrophobia. When somebody is locked up in a dangerous situation, there is an overwhelming desire to get out onto an open field, away from the enclosure. Common sense tells you that it is safer to stay where you are; nevertheless, one wants to get out. I experienced this feeling many times. Sometimes, I was in my carrier on the road that was shelled by artillery. There was that urge to get out of the carrier and lay down somewhere in a ditch, though it was safer in the carrier because, unless there was a direct hit, the carrier would protect me from fragments of an exploded shell. A carrier had no roof but had steel walls that offered some protection from machine guns firing and shrapnel.
Everything had to be brought by mules or, in the final stage, by men. Sometimes the mules, strewn around on the way up by the firing from the Germans, got blown up on the mines, and only a fraction of the supplies arrived. Fortunately, at the bottom of the hills, we found an old American food warehouse. It had been destroyed by artillery but there were a lot of cans with all kinds of food lying around. We found a safe path to get there and, when we needed food, we would go there to supplement our rations.
The spilling of blood - the price of war
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 had also disappeared. Bare rocks, covered with dust and 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 Divisions had made the first assault, crossed the Rapido River only to be decimated by the Germans. Both of these fine divisions had 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, Gurkhas, British soldiers, some with their faces half-eaten by insects, mice or other animals, darkened by time, empty eyes, with only teeth shining. The 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 went through my mind: when will I be like them? In this situation, I realized that the odds were against me, that it was just a matter of time when my number would come up and sooner or later I would be looked at in the same way I looked at these dead men, who at one time had been young, vigorous, full of life and hopes for future. And look at them now.
For that reason, our most advanced troops, the 2nd and 3rd Squadrons (in Cavalry we had squadrons rather than battalions, which were in the Infantry) were very close to the Germans. Of course, under these conditions any movement had to be confined to night-time only and, even then, in complete silence. The distance between our most advanced positions to the monastery was about 700m and to the closest German bunkers only 80-100m. The Germans were on Hill 445, a small place called D'Onufrio, which dominated the entire sector of the front. About 900m north, behind the first line of our positions, was the regimental HQ, located in a house that was demolished by artillery fire but, at the lower level, there were two rooms that did provide some shelter. About 500m to the east of the regimental HQ was the 1st Squadron, in reserve. Our mortars were located somewhere south of the regimental HQ. It is difficult to locate our positions exactly, because hills look different in terrain than on a map. The description of the location of our positions given here is on the basis of the available information provided in the history of the 12th Podolski Lancers Regiment, "Ułani Podolscy", and the "History of the 3rd Infantry Division," (History) Vol. I, which is written in Polish. The history reports that, even before the offensive (4th Battle of Monte Cassino) started, the total losses of the 3rd Carpathian Division were 236 men, including officers, due to the constant shelling of our positions by the Germans.
The offensive begins
The offensive started with an artillery barrage exactly at 23.00 on 11 May 1944. I never saw anything like it. The entire area where the olive orchards was in constant fire. I saw similar pictures of the artillery barrage in movies about the battle of El Alamain in Africa. One could hear the noise of the artillery shells in the air. The Germans were quiet for a while. After some time, the German batteries started to respond. We found out later on that our artillery did not do much damage to the Germans on the front line. They had two kinds of shelters: one type was combat shelter for firing at us, and the other to protect themselves from our artillery and air bombardment, and to rest and sleep. The combat shelters were well-camouflaged; most of them were made out of steel pillboxes, encased in the rock.
When our infantry started to advance, they went to their firing shelters, and our troops met with stiff resistance. Another thing that is worth noting, and which is not mentioned in many books is the fact that, when the offensive started, the Germans released the troops that were at the Cassino complex. Thus, although they perhaps suffered more casualties in the first stage of the battle, they could mount their counter-attacks with greater strength than if only the initial garrison of soldiers was there.
Organisation of the forces
The organisation of our forces was modeled on the British system. The 12th Podolski Lancers Regiment had in combat group three squadrons, each consisting of nine officers and 80 troops. Additionally, there was a platoon of each: mortars, anti-tank guns, signals, administration, mechanical repairs, and other services, such as health, chaplain, etc. In infantry the basic unit was a battalion, consisting of three companies, 120 troops and five officers each, plus some services. The total number of men in a battalion was 808 soldiers and 37 officers.
Initial success followed by counter-attack
It should be noted that it is difficult to establish the percentage of the losses with respect to the number of people participating in the assault because only certain fractions of the battalion were participating. Further north, tanks from the 4th Panzer Regiment attempted to get on the "Gardziel." The road that they had to proceed on was heavily-mined by the predecessors, as well as by the Germans, and there was no information regarding mine fields. Sappers were removing mines for three nights prior to the offensive but, in spite of heavy losses, they cleared only 250m, removing 59 mines. Having suffered heavy losses, they had to retreat to the original positions. Assuming that the assault of the 3rd Carpathian Division was successful, the 12th Podolski Lancers were supposed to attack Hill 445 (Colle D'onofrio) and then proceed towards the Monastery of Monte Cassino. In view of the failure of the attack on 11& 12 May, the lancers waited for further orders.
Meanwhile, the 5th Infantry Division, fighting north-east of the 3rd Division, was successful in taking Phantom Ridge (Widmo).
We knew that there would be an offensive on the monastery, and that we would be playing a major role. Being in the mortar platoon, we were not in the most advanced position, but we were quite close to the enemy. Our shelter was camouflaged and could not be seen by the Germans, but we had to walk with our heads down, otherwise there was an immediate fire. Our line platoons were so close to the Germans that they could throw hand grenades at them. Sometimes, when our advanced positions required us to fire on the Germans, some of our shells landed among our own troops due to the closeness of the Germans. Yet, they did not allow us to fire further away from them because they claimed our firing would be behind enemy lines. There was always a shortage of food and water.
Looking at this panoramic view, it was evident that the enemy, situated on the top of the hills, had an excellent view into the valley and the slopes of the hills, where our troops were located. At that time, I did not know the whole history of the battle of Monte Cassino. I did not know that the fighting for these mountains was going on for four months, but I knew that it was ‘a’ tough going, and that we would be going up those hills next. Looking at the chain of hills in front of me, I could see explosions of artillery shells here and there. Our artillery shelled some enemy positions hidden in the folds of the mountains.
11 May 1944: first attack on Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino battlefield.
The mountains prohibited the use of motor vehicles.
Mules were used to transport all the supplies of the war.
To the north of the monastery there was a chain of mountains that was considered to be crucial to the success of the offensive. Our role in the assault was to secure the left wing of the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Carpathian Division that was opposite the famous Hill 593, full of German bunkers.
One of the problems that our attacking forces encountered was that they did not have reconnaissance of the enemy nests of machine guns, and they had to figure out where the enemy was being fired upon. And the Germans knew how to hide themselves. The shelters, where they slept, were usually in large caves, protected from air attacks and artillery fire. They had their supplies there, their temporary medical facilities, and so on. Thus, when our artillery started to fire, they took refuge in the shelters that were prepared for that purpose, and did not suffer many casualties.
11 May 1944: first attack on Monte Cassino.
On 12 May, after 40 minutes of artillery fire,
the infantry assaulted pill-boxes and strong points.
Bailey bridges, diversions and mine detectors were their weapons.
They moved over battle-scarred roads, passing through valleys and over rolling hills.
Map of Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino - Hill 593.
Ryszard Stefan Garwatowski.
The engineers excelled themselves.
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 degree of destruction. We were stopped from further march up the hills because, what we had to climb, was a narrow footpath. A convoy of mules was coming down in the opposite direction and the footpath was too narrow to accommodate two columns - one going down and the other going up. Climbing the hills outside of the footpath was impossible due to land-mines scattered everywhere. We waited for the convoy in the small yard near the barracks, packed like sardines, for about half an hour and then resumed our course. When we had climbed far enough and the last men from our regiment were leaving our waiting area by the barracks, a few artillery or mortar shells exploded right where our regiment had been earlier.
Through the ravine called "Inferno" were brought thousands of tons of ammunition in vehicles like this.
The march up the hill
We were told to deliver to the headquarters all papers that could identify us by name or by regiment. All personal papers, letters to our families, documents etc., had to be collected and left with the regimental office.The only thing that we were allowed to retain were the dog tags and equipment that consisted of one blanket, mess kit, and, of course, our side arms, in my case my rifle, and ammo. We were given sneakers or, sometimes, rubber boots, and, I think it was 30 April or 1 May, as soon as it had become dark, that we started our march towards the hills.
The price paid to surmount the craggy crests of these mountains was dear in human blood.
At first, the assault of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 3rd Carpathian Division was successful. They quickly took Hill 593 and moved towards Hill 569. But then the Germans counter-attacked. It is difficult to determine how many counter-attacks the Germans made. After several German counter-attacks, our infantry, exhausted, decimated and lacking ammunition had to withdraw. The losses of the infantry were terrible. Out of the three companies of the 2nd Battalion, only five officers, and 37 enlisted men came back. The total losses, killed, wounded and lost in action in the battalion were 216. The 4th Company of the 3rd Battalion which supported the 2nd Battalion in their attack on Hill 593 also suffered appalling losses. Together with their commanding officer, ten soldiers came back out of the entire company.
And the flies. They were big and fat, gorging themselves on the dead, decomposing bodies. The 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, the beauty of the flowers, peace and quiet. I thought: how can these two worlds co-exist sided by side. But that was how it was.
Simultaneously with the attack on Hill 593 by the 2nd Battalion, the 1st Battalion attacked Mass Albaneta, north of Hill 593. Again, after fighting all night and a good part of the next day, 12 May, the battalion had to retreat to the original positions with a loss of 216 men.
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