A Journey to World War II Battlefields Part 9: The Valiant Poles at Cassino
Editor’s Note: This article is the ninth installment from Carlo D’Este’s A Journey to World War II Battlefields. Please click on the following links to read Carlo’s other articles from this series: Tunisia, Kasserine Pass, Malta, Sicily, Biazza Ridge, Messina, Salerno and San Pietro Infine.
A few short miles from San Pietro, at the western edge of the Liri Valley, is situated the town of Cassino. On the heights above the town is the Abbey of Monte Cassino, a great stone edifice that in 1944 became the scene of some of the bloodiest and most controversial battles of World War II.
The story of the capture of the town of Cassino and the storming of the abbey were horrific battles that tested the combatants like no other. The battles for the Liri Valley also spawned a disastrous incident in which the 36th Division was bloodied attempting to cross the Rapido River. (Both are subjects of future articles.)
This month the focus is on Lt. Gen. Wladislaw Anders’s II Polish Corps, which fought with distinction in the assaults and eventual capture of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Part of the most diverse multi-national allied force ever assembled to fight the Italian campaign, the II Polish Corps was an independent force that consisted of two infantry divisions, one armored division and one armored brigade. Created in 1943, its 50,000 men and women made it the largest free Polish military force to fight with the Allies during World War II. During the battles fought in the Liri Valley and on the hellish slopes of Point 445, Point 593 and the slopes of Monastery Hill the Poles fought with exceptional valor.
Their commander, Gen. Anders, was a gallant cavalry officer who had fought in World War I under Tsar Nicholas II. Anders commanded a Polish cavalry regiment in 1939 during the German blitzkrieg and the battle for Warsaw. Anders was wounded three times and was on crutches when the Russians captured him. He was incarcerated and tortured in the notorious Lubyanka Prison. Anders remained a prisoner for nearly two years but was later released to form a Polish force to fight as a Russian ally after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Anders and his men, many of whom were released from POW camps eventually migrated to the west where he formed and commanded the II Polish Corps that arrived to fight in Italy in December 1943. For the Poles it was all about revenge against the Germans for the rape of their nation and the pogroms that decimated Poland’s Jewish population.
As David Hapgood and David Richardson note in their superb account, Monte Cassino, Anders and his troops
“had emerged from a world of nightmare unimaginable to the Westerners around them. They came from an Eastern Europe that two monstrous tyrants between them had turned into a place of torment and slaughter such as the world had never known. In their homeland Stalin had done his worst during the twenty months he ruled half the country, and the Nazis were now staging an unforgettable demonstration of the principles on which they based their rule of those they conquered.”
(David Hapgood and David Richardson, Monte Cassino, Congdon & Weed, 1984 p. 182.)
Heretofore, the German commander at Cassino, Lt. Gen. Frido von Senger und Etterlin, a devout Catholic, a lay Benedictine and a Rhodes scholar, had scrupulously avoided utilizing the abbey as a defensive position. However, after the misguided bombing of the abbey in mid-February 1944 by American bombers all bets were off and German paratroopers utilized the ruins as very effective defensive positions that helped them to repeatedly repel unsuccessful attempts by American and New Zealand units to capture it.
Blood ran freely on the ridges and hills surrounding the abbey. The last to launch a fresh offensive in mid-May was the Poles who fought bloody battles on Point 445 and Point 593 and captured the abbey on May 18, 1944 during the fourth battle of Monte Cassino. The capture of the abbey was anticlimactic: The German defenders, the 1st Parachute Division, recognizing that that the great Allied offensive called Operation Diadem doomed their hold on the Gustav Line, were ordered to disengage the night before, leaving only a few wounded soldiers in the care of medics inside. Not all the Germans escaped; the majority of the abbey’s defenders were killed or captured when they encountered Polish and British patrols. Payback was unsparing.
On the mountainside below the abbey the Poles left a trail of blood and dead in a sea of red poppy fields that dotted the landscape of a bitter Italian spring. Unable to find a Polish flag to hoist over the abbey, lancers of the 3rd Carpathian Division raised a homemade pennant of their regiment while a bugler played a medieval tune called the Hejnal (also called the Kracovian Hymn).
By the end of the Italian campaign in May 1945 the Polish II Corps had suffered very heavy losses: 2,301 killed, over 8,000 wounded and over 500 missing.
It was at the base of Point 445 that the Poles buried their dead. Those lost in the Liri Valley during the battles to capture the Abbey of Monte Cassino have been laid to final rest in a cemetery a few hundred yards below it. Their cemetery contains the graves of just over a thousand Polish fighters who gave their lives storming Monte Cassino. Among those buried there are Gen. Anders, whose wish to be buried among his men was fulfilled after his death in London in 1970.
In the cemetery is a memorial that bears this inscription:
We Polish soldiers
For our freedom and yours
Have given our souls to God
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
And our hearts to Poland.
Before visiting the abbey, our tour group stopped at the Polish cemetery where we gathered for a moment of silence and to lay a wreath in remembrance of these brave men who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. It was a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon and the cemetery was filled with both people and a large number of wreathes and flowers, making it clear that even after more than a half century these men are not forgotten.
During our brief ceremony I read the group the words from a Polish anthem called “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino.” Composed by a Polish composer and II Corps soldier named Feliks Konarski on the eve of the final assault on the abbey it quickly became the symbol of the Polish experience and sacrifice at Monte Cassino. Its most familiar and haunting stanza is:
The red poppies on Monte Cassino
Drank Polish blood instead of dew . . .
O’er the poppies the soldiers did go
‘Mid death, and to their anger stayed true!
Years will come and ages will go,
Enshrining their strivings and their toil!
And the poppies on Monte Cassino
Will be redder for Poles’ blood in their soil.
Suggested further reading:
Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle, Henry Holt, 2007.
John Ellis, Cassino: The Hollow Victory, McGraw-Hill, 1984.
David Hapgood and David Richardson, Monte Cassino, Congdon & Weed, 1984.