So, the battle of Monte Cassino came to an end. We left our positions on 24 May. I will never forget when we were leaving the Cassino area, we passed close to the temporary cemetery. Long columns of bodies wrapped in blankets were lying, waiting for burial. It had a chilling effect on me and my buddies. We all realized that we had all been very close to being among these less fortunate, who not long ago had been young men, full of vigour and dreams about the future, having somewhere somebody dear who was praying for their safe return, that would now never come about. Our regiment had not suffered losses as heavy as those of the infantry battalions: killed were one officer and 17 non-commissioned officers and lancers; wounded were seven officers and 68 non- commissioned officers and lancers. Total losses were 93 soldiers, which was one-quarter of the total manpower engaged in the combat.
The battlefield of Monte Cassino.
They scaled the rocky mountain to plant the Polish Flag on the top.
A Polish Flag is raised over the ruins of the Monastery
of Monte Cassino.
Emil Czech of the 12th Podolski Cavalry Regiment plays
the Mary Bugle call (the hejnal Mariacki) in front of the Monastery at Monte Cassino on 18 May 1944.
17 May 1944: the straw that broke the camel's back
On 17 May, a new assault was made on Hill 593. Our commanders knew that the Germans were probably exhausted enough that, if they were pushed just a little bit more, they would decide that they had had enough. They were right. Also, after many attempts and heroic efforts with heavy losses by the sappers to clear the mines, some tanks showed up on the battlefield. Throughout the entire day of 17 May, fighting for Hill 593 continued. During the night of 17-18 May, it was relatively quiet. The Germans, through loudspeakers, voiced some propaganda mixed with insults from the monastery, and we answered them using our mortars.
18 May 1944
The successes of the 5th Kresowa Division in the region of the Phantom Ridge prompted the division commander to order on 18 May, at about 08.45, a patrol from our regiment to go and find out what the situation was in the area of the monastery. They successfully crossed the minefield and reached the outer walls of the monastery. They found that the Germans had left the monastery during the night, leaving only 16 wounded, with two medics under the command of one cadet officer. The Germans were scared because their command told them that Poles murdered their prisoners. Our men took care of the wounded, giving them all the help 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 had killed their prisoners. That announcement was counter-argued by a German paratrooper who had been found by our patrol at the monastery; he stated that that was a lie, that he had been one of the wounded soldiers found by the Polish patrol on 18 May, and that he had been provided with medical care and had been very well treated. The 3rd Carpathian Division Association got involved in the act and arranged a meeting between this ex-German paratrooper and Lt. Gurbiel, the commander of that first patrol that had entered the monastery. It must have been some meeting.
It must have been similar to the meeting that I had had on 18 May 1994 with the German ex-paratroopers at Monte Cassino. At that time, it was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of taking the Monastery; there was a big celebration at the Polish cemetery. Iza and I went with a group from Washington to Italy, and the trip was scheduled so that on 18 May we were at Monte Cassino. 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 came like us to visit the German cemetery which is in a nearby village. They told us that they had been in the 1st Parachute Division, the one that we had against us during the battle. They were quite friendly to us, so we started talking to them. It was a funny conversation: we told them how we had tried to kill them and they told us how they did their best to kill us. But soon we found a common language. This was the first time that I was so close to live German soldiers. They showed us their decorations; we showed them ours.
They told us about another meeting with veterans from New Zealand whom they had met the day before. They showed us a hill where they had attacked five New Zealand tanks. They had all been destroyed by the German's detachment and the crew 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...
At 09.50, a banner of our regiment was placed at the highest point of the ruins of the monastery as a signal that it was taken by our forces. This banner is now in the General Sikorski Institute in London. The British 10th Brigade of the XIII Corps also took the City of Cassino. Although by this time the Germans were emerging from cellars and dugouts to give themselves up, sporadic fighting continued throughout the day. Mines and some fanatical paratroopers who had not received orders to withdraw continued to shoot at our troops, taking a toll on our soldiers’ lives.
The Germans on the battlefield
We had against us the crack German division of paratroopers. The 1st Paratroop Division was under the command of 48-year-old Gen. Richard Heindrich. Directly against us was the 3rd Regiment of the 1st Division. Further north, there was the 100th Mountain Regiment. Their defence was based on resistance points that could support each other in case of need with machine guns, mortars and other weapons. Their bunkers were well-camouflaged and the attackers could find them only after being shot at. The paratroopers were well-trained to fight in small groups or individually, tough, ruthless soldiers, recruited either from fanatical Nazis or from gullible young men who believed that they were the master race and that soon the entire world would be under their domination. There were specific cases that gave testimony of their fanaticism. For example, a badly wounded soldier refused a blood transfusion; he preferred to die rather than to have his enemy's blood in his veins.
The Germans used all kinds of tricks to increase our losses. For example, at one point just taken by our troops, a man appeared in British uniform, sitting at a distance in front of our soldiers. When our guys started to call to him in Polish and English, he disappeared. As soon as he was gone, there was a barrage of mortar shells on our troops. Evidently, he was a German sent to find out about the location of our troops. Upon leaving the monastery, the Germans left a lot of mines with delayed detonators. One mine exploded in the area of the monastery five days after the capture of the monastery.
Among the prisoners taken near the monastery there were four officers including a battalion commander. Our commander of the convoy asked Capt. Beyer, the German officer, about the passage through the minefields. "Even if knew, I would not tell you. The minefield was put for you and you have to find it" - was the response. Because of such a response, they were ordered to go directly through the minefield. They went without saying anything. The exploding mines killed four of them, but they did not reveal the safe passage.
The Pole after the battle in Monte Cassino
After the battle, our troops were very popular among the allies. Wherever we appeared, we were welcomed as heroes of Monte Cassino. Sometimes, when somebody was hitchhiking, a high-ranking officer, be he British, American or French, would stop to invite us to his car, offer us something to drink, and take us wherever we wanted to go. One time we were drinking in a tavern, and at the neighbouring table were some American soldiers. When they heard that we were speaking Polish, one of them approached us and asked, "Polski? Polski?" When we said that we were Poles, they invited us to their table and we had a feast. Some of them were of Polish origin and they spoke some Polish, which helped us to communicate. From other tables came other American soldiers, and we had to tell them about the battle, about our times in Siberia, how we got out from there, in other words, the whole story. It impressed me then for the first time how little the world knew about the fact that close to two million Poles had been deported to Siberia, They thought that we ran away to Russia from the Germans! Anyhow, we had a great time together, and our American friends brought us to our quarters at wee hours.
The battle of Monte Cassino and the Italian campaign - tactically and strategically under question
The Italian campaign in general and the battle of Monte Cassino in particular have been the subject of controversy right from the beginning. There has been a lot written questioning the judgment of the Allied commanders. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller wrote that the entire campaign was "tactically the most absurd and strategically the most senseless campaign of the whole war" (History, Vol. I, P. 407). Gen. Francis Tuker, Commander of the 4th Indian Division which was practically wiped out during the second battle of Monte Cassino wrote that the strategy of British commanders is an obsession that they have to attack the enemy at the point where he is strong rather that take advantage of his weakness ("... It is an extraordinary obsession in British commanders' minds that they must challenge the enemy's strength rather than play on his weakness. Perhaps it is a little bit unsporting to pit strength against weakness" - History, Vol. I, P. 408). Would it have been easier to have dislodged the Germans from their positions elsewhere? Probably there is no answer to this question.
Most of the Italian peninsula is covered with mountains, a terrain that is ideal for defensive warfare. The only other segment that could offer more favorable terrain conditions was on the Adriatic coast, a rolling type of countryside. That area would be favourable for tank action and, perhaps there, the Germans would have been more vulnerable. But Cassino was on the way to Rome and it is well-known that all generals are prima ballerinas, anxious to get their name on the front page of newspapers. As a matter of fact, if Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the 5th American Army, instead of going straight to Rome, had struck the retreating Germans across the Italian peninsula, he would have cut off several of their armies and would, therefore, have shortened the war in Italy by several months. Instead, pursuing his desire to be the first to take Rome, he went to the Eternal City allowing the Germans to sneak out unharmed. He was under congressional investigation for his tactics not only for his Rome handling but, even more so, for his ill-conceived offensive at Monte Cassino during the first battle in January 1943. At that time, the Rapido River was swollen from heavy rains and launching an assault under these conditions would have conflicted with any common sense. At that time, the plan was for the US 36th (Texas) Division of the US II Corps to force crossings over the Gari River to enable Combat Command B of the US 1st Armored Division to pass through and debouch into the Liri Valley. The attack was a complete fiasco. Most of the troops of the 36th Division did not even cross the river, and, even worse, provided no menace to the well-entrenched Germans. The entire division was practically wiped out.
When the frontal attacks against the Liri Valley entrance failed, Clark decided to assault the Cassino complex from the north. He requested that the US 34th Infantry Division cross the Rapido River north of Cassino, approximately where we would be going four months later, and attack southwards in the mountains north and behind Monte Cassino. This attack was coordinated with General Juin's French Expeditionary Corps. The Americans penetrated the northern outskirts of the town but withdrew after strong German counterattacks. At one point the lead troops of the 34th Division advanced within 500m of Point 593 on Snakehead Ridge, and, on the left, they were on Point 445, little more than 400m from the Abbey. But again, after bitter fighting, they were forced to withdraw.
The contribution of the participation of Poland in Monte Cassino to the Polish cause - personal reflections
A lot has been said and written about whether the Polish participation in the battle of Monte Cassino made any contribution to the Polish cause. There is no easy answer. Maybe looking at the overall political arena will shed some light on the subject. Some say that at that time Poland's fate had already been decided by the Allies; our government in London knew that one-third of Polish territory would be given to Soviet Russia and that the rest would be within her orbit. It is my understanding that the Allies were panicky about the possibility of a separate treaty between Germany and Russia. They did it in 1918 during WW I, and the Allies thought that they could do it again. In the United States as well as in England, there was widespread hysteria regarding the heroism of the Russian people and their suffering at the hands of the Germans. This was amplified by the pro-communist press in England ("Daily Worker") and in the United States. At the instigation of the Soviet government, the press on both sides of the Atlantic wrote that Polish soldiers were pro-Nazi, that they did not want to fight the Germans and, by their departure from Russia at the time of the German advances, they proved their pro-German sympathies. On 24 May 1944 Prime Minister Churchill in the House of Commons gave a speech in which he developed his views on the resolution of the future of Poland. It was an agreement whereby part of Poland was to be given to Russia and the remaining part to be under Russian domination. Later he was more blunt. During his talk with General Anders on 21 February, he said that England did not need any Polish help because she had enough troops, and therefore, "... you can take your divisions out, we will manage without them."
In 1994, the 50th anniversary of the capture of the monastery we travelled to Monte Cassino. There was a big ceremony to which even the President of Poland, Lech Walesa, came. But veterans, participants of the battle who came from Poland and other parts of the world had to finance the trip themselves or by donations from private individuals. In May 1995, I went again with Yolanda to Europe, and we visited Monte Cassino. I scheduled our trip in such a way that we would be there on 18 May, the anniversary of the capture of the monastery. There was a small ceremony; a Mass was celebrated at the cemetery; and there were many generals from Poland. Again, what impressed me was that there was not even one participant in the battle from Poland. There were only two of us: one from the sappers and myself. Apparently, there was no room on the plane for the poor guys who had been fighting there because they had to make room for the generals and other dignitaries who wanted to have a trip to Italy. It was evident that the high-ranking dignitaries were using these occasions as an excuse to have a trip to Italy with their families. Ironically, during the Mass, the celebrant said that "... here are the soldiers that the world betrayed and forgot." When I listened to this, I could not help thinking that they were also forgotten by those who were living in the country they had fought for.
The situation in the United States was not much better regarding Polish interests. Roosevelt and his advisers were all under the spell of communist propaganda. Their political philosophy was deprived of any moral scruples, any regard for the millions of people that were to be thrown into the Soviet Gulag. Their main objective was to be re-elected for another term. It is well-known from literature written after the war that, when Roosevelt came to the Yalta conference, he did not even try to negotiate with Stalin the future of Eastern Europe. He agreed to his demands right away. This is what Churchill wrote in his memoirs. Churchill wrote that, when he raised the question of Poland, he was quietened down by Roosevelt. And Stalin knew what he wanted; at that time his armies were victorious pushing the Germans to their fatherland. And later on, nobody questioned his loyalty to the Allies during the Warsaw uprising when Russian troops were on the left bank of the Vistula River while the insurgents were dying in the city. I read somewhere that, during the uprising, Russian soldiers were bathing in the Vistula River on one side and Germans were swimming on the other and they exchanged jokes in a friendly fashion. At the same time, the Polish uprising was being crushed by the Germans. At one point, Polish troops fighting alongside the Russians crossed the Vistula River suffering heavy losses to give help to the insurgents. But the Russian command cut off any supplies to them and they had to withdraw.
It was obvious that, although England participated in that infamous conference, the two big partners made all the decisions: Russia and the United States. Of course, we soldiers in combat did not know all the sordid details about the machinations of the powers dividing Poland and making decisions about the lives of millions of people. We knew, however, about the Russian advances and had many uneasy thoughts about our future. Later on, I read about the political situation that was developing in London, Moscow and Washington.
The motivations of General Anders
Some say that, in accepting the assignment to assault the monastery, General Anders was motivated primarily by his own ambition and the perspective of personal gain. I don't believe this. I think that he was aware of the developing unfavorable political situation described above. He knew that to refuse to take the assignment to participate in the battle would be like adding oil to the fire of the Soviet anti-Polish propaganda. And he probably had illusions that some compromise would be worked out and, that having the Polish Army strong, having proven its value would be one of the factors in future negotiations and may change the course of history. Sure, the price was high. But it was a war, and in war, people were killed. Yet, some accusations that our command was generous with Polish blood may be substantiated. I am thinking of the young boys who were sent to Italy from Cadet school in Palestine as soon as they reached the age of 18. Many of them were killed. The Polish cause probably did not gain much from this, and it would have been much better if, instead of sending these untrained boys to Italy to be killed, they had been sent to universities to develop a new Polish intelligentsia which was so decimated by both the Germans and the Russians.
In summary, there will be probably many opinions about the battle of Monte Cassino in general and about Polish participation in particular. There will be some rationale on both sides of the argument. I think that we were in a no-win situation. Polish people, because of our geo-political situation, are condemned to suffer more than many others and to bear sacrifices to preserve their identity and freedom. Our national life has been a struggle throughout the centuries and, unless Polish people are willing to fight for their place in the international community, they will become extinct. "We are condemned to greatness." said Józef Pilsudski, the first marshal of Poland after regaining independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitioning between Russia, Germany and Austria. Maybe it sounds too pompous but, thinking about the unfortunate situation that Poland is in, there is only one of two alternatives: fight to the end or succumb to nothingness.
We have lost many battles in our history, and we have won many victories. Poles are generally good at winning battles. They are not so successful at winning peace. But we will always fight for our right to exist, to preserve our identity and our place on the map. Poland came out of the WW II as a loser. Ironically, the countries that became the most prosperous after the war are Germany and Japan. But it is not the first time in the history of Poland that a war was lost. Somebody said: "Even a great nation can fall, but only a dishonorable one can annihilate it." The bottom line is that Poland was raped; the biggest offenders were of course Germany and Russia, but the western countries were co-conspirators because they did nothing to prevent it. This was a crime that they had to pay for later in Korea and Vietnam with their blood and money.
At Monte Cassino, having lost our country to the Germans and the Russians, as well as many of us our families, we were trying to make a desperate effort to win some trumps that would help our cause. We were fighting for revenge and honour of our country without much hope of seeing it again. The tragedy of Polish soldiers is perhaps best summarized in the inscription that can be seen at the cemetery on the slopes of Monte Cassino: