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W związku z powyższym przygotowaliśmy dla Państwa informacje dotyczące przetwarzania przez Wojskowy Instytut Wydawniczy Państwa danych osobowych. Prosimy o zapoznanie się z nimi: Polityka przetwarzania danych.

Prosimy o zaakceptowanie warunków przetwarzania danych osobowych przez Wojskowych Instytut Wydawniczy – Akceptuję

On the Italian Front

In 1944, the units of the Polish II Corps were transported by the British to the Apennine Peninsula (under German occupation since September 1941) from the Middle East.

Left: Władysław Raczkiewicz, Polish President in Exile during 1939–1947. Right: General Władysław Anders, Polish II Corps Commander. London, March 1946.

The Polish II Corps, along with the American and British forces, was to join the Italian Campaign. The Corps was commanded by a Polish General, Władysław Anders.

Cavalryman

Anders is one of the most famous Polish commanders – a talented officer, who organized the army, an ideological and political leader of post-war immigration, an uncompromising opponent of the Soviet Russia and Polish communists. He was born on August 11, 1892, on the territory of Poland deprived of independence and partitioned between three occupants, on the Russianoccupied territory of the Vistula Land (Kraj Przywiślański, which is the Russian name for the central territory of Poland). Władysław Anders descended from a family of German-Swedish-Hungarian roots, but he felt closely knit to the Polish culture. Just as his three younger brothers – Karol, Jerzy and Tadeusz, he pursued his career in the military, which he started in the Russian army during his studies at Riga Polytechnicum. During WWI, he proved to be a great officer, distinguished by personal courage and superb commanding capability. As a result of his daring cavalry raids, he gained recognition of the Russian commanders, promotions to higher ranks, and was awarded many military decorations.

Following the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, he left the ranks of the occupant’s army, and joined the Polish I Corps, a voluntary formation allied with the Russian army commanded by Polish General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki, who hitherto had also been in the Russian service. After the Corps’ demobilization in 1918, forced by the Germans occupying western governorates in the Russian Empire, he got through to Warsaw. Here, he joined the Royal Polish Army (Polnische Wehrmacht), a military formation subordinate to the authorities of the Kingdom of Poland, which was formally a vassal of Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary.

At the moment of collapsing of all three occupants in November 1918 and regaining independence by Poland, Anders became an officer in the new Polish Army. In 1919, he was engaged in forming the Polish forces in Greater Poland region, western part of Poland, where an uprising broke out against the German rule. As the chief of staff of the Greater Poland Army (Armia Wielkopolska), he proposed a daring offensive towards the north, via Polish Pomerania, to open the way to – very much desired by the Poles – the Baltic Sea coastline. Later on, as a commander of the 15th Poznań Uhlans Regiment, he had a number of successes in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War.

Anders’ achievements on battlefields were significant. As a result, he was sent to study at the French Ecole Superieure de Guerre, and then deployed to the General Cavalry Inspectorate (Generalny Inspektorat Kawalerii). His career was not disturbed even by his fight against Marshal Piłsudski during the military coup d’état in May 1926, when he supported the government and the president, who put up armed resistance to the rebellious forces commanded by the Marshal. On the contrary, Piłsudski gave Anders command of the 2nd Independent Cavalry Brigade, and in 1934, he promoted him to the rank of brigadier general.

When commanding the Nowogródzka Cavalry Brigade during the fights with Germany and Russia in September 1939, he was wounded twice, and was taken prisoner by the Soviets. He was born Lutheran, and here is his recollection of how he was welcomed in a Moscow prison: “I was ordered to get off in the yard. It was clearly the prison’s yard. They led me through the nooks and crannies. I was bodysearched several times. After the first body search, they took all my things, including my suitcase. What I was left with was a blanket, a soap, a toothbrush, and a cup. My clothes, shoes – all cut up and ripped. At some point, they found my little medal with an image of the Holy Mother. They gathered around my medal. I heard this boorish laugh: »We’ll see if this b… helps you in the Soviet prison.« My holy medal was thrown to the floor and trampled out. I can’t recover from it to this day – I still remember that terrible feeling. Afterwards, in prison, I used to have dreams about my medal. In my dreams, I saw a little face of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, very often similar to the face of St Teresa. I felt her constant care. My faith in God was deepening with every atheist laugh I heard around me. My faith gave me strength to overcome human weaknesses in my hardship.”

LtCol Władysław Bobiński in the M4 Sherman tank during fights for Ancona, July 17–18, 1944.

Severely battered and brutally interrogated for almost two years, he was released from the Russian imprisonment in Moscow’s Lubyanka in August 1941, after the signing of the Polish-Soviet agreement. He then became a commander of “the Polish Army in the Soviet Union,” formed out of a mass of Polish citizens released by the Russians from concentration camps, prisons or from exile. The Army – as Anders himself defined it – was a “nomadic little Poland,” which in 1942 was evacuated from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. From there, part of it – now as the Polish II Corps – still under Anders’ command, got to the Italian front at the break of 1943/44. By the end of World War II, Anders took the duties of commander-in-chief, and held the post until June 1945. The demobilization of the Polish Armed Forces fighting in Western Europe took place during 1946–1947, but Anders had already lived in London, where until 1954 he was the General Inspector of the Armed Forces, and during 1954–1970 – a member of the so-called Council of Three, i.e. a collegial body created by the Polish Government-in-Exile with prerogatives of the President of Poland.

Władysław Anders never accepted the communist rule in Poland; he demanded that the truth about the fate of thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Russians in 1940 (the Katyń massacre) be revealed. For that reason, he was considered as the primary enemy by the communist authorities in Poland. He was deprived of Polish citizenship, slandered by propaganda, but nevertheless continuously respected by his former subordinates, particularly the soldiers of his army saved from the Soviet gulags in 1941. In the Soviet-enslaved Poland, Anders personified hope for regaining freedom and was the symbol of persistence in the fight for the sovereignty of his Fatherland. The General did not live to see it – he died in exile in 1970, and according to his last will, he was buried among his subordinates at the Monte Cassino Polish War Cemetery.

The Poles at Monte Cassino

And they planted their red-and-white flag in the rubble amid the clouds – Feliks Konarski wrote in his song The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino – a poignant story about sacrifice and devotion of Polish soldiers in this bloody battle.
During WWII, the Germans fortified the mountain massif with the famous Benedictine abbey, including it in the co-called Gustav Line – the line of fortifications cutting the Apennine Peninsula into half, and shutting off the way to Rome. The key to this lock was Monte Cassino. The defense of the region was the task of the elite 1st Parachute Division, which decimated American forces trying to seize Monte Cassino in January 1944, and the British units (Hindu, New Zealanders, English, Irish), which were attacking the mountain in February and March. As it turned out, it was nonsensical for the US air force to bomb the abbey into ruins as it was free from military quartering by virtue of political agreements: only after the abbey had been destroyed, the Germans took their positions in the ruins.

When the Allies decided to renew the offensive in the spring, they chose to send a newcomer in Italy to the frontal attack: the Polish II Corps. General Anders took this unrewarding task in the hope that the potential success could be later used in the game for keeping Poland’s sovereignty, since as of January 1944, Polish territory had been occupied – for the second time in this war – by the Red Army.

A sapper of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division during the Battle of Bologna, April 1945.

The attack, which was to distract the Germans’ attention away from the activity of the Allies, was preceded by very detailed preparations, such as building the famous Polish Sappers Road (the Cavendish Road). On May 11, 1944 at 11:00 p.m., the drum artillery fire launched Operation Honker – the assault of the British 8th Army and the US 5th Army on the Gustav Line. The assault fire in the Polish sector by three hundred guns weakened the enemy only slightly, and when the infantry attacked, the German forces opened well-aimed mortar and machinegun fire. The Polish forces, although temporarily, managed to occupy some of the hills, but rapidly growing losses and German counterattacks halted the assault. A difficult, mined area, and artillery fire hindering the engagement of the reinforcements and tanks, forced Anders to withdraw back to their initial positions.

Although the Poles did their task, blocking significant enemy forces, thus creating a passage for the British XIII Corps to get into the depths of German defense in Liri Valley, it was Anders who decided to make one more attempt to seize Monte Cassino. The second assault, launched on the night of May 16/17, this time ended in victory. Despite hard-fought resistance, the Polish forces partially broke off the German lines, and when the attack started to break down, the last reserve force – an improvised battalion of drivers, clerks, and soldiers of auxiliary forces – went to fight. On the morning of May 18, Mass Albaneta and Hills 593 and 569 were seized, followed by capturing the abbey’s ruins on Monte Cassino deserted by the Germans. About 10:00 a.m., the patrol of the 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment planted the white-andred flag there.

A bloody epilogue of the battle was the fight for Piedimonte San Germano, fought by the Poles between May 20 and 25. It ultimately paved the way to Rome, and the US forces entered the Eternal City on June 4.

Polish losses were heavy – as many as 924 Polish soldiers were killed or died of wounds, 2,930 were wounded, and 345 missing. The fallen were buried in 1946 at a war cemetery built on the hillside between Monte Cassino and Hill 593. Soon after, it became one of Polish mausoleums. When approaching the tombs, visitors are treading on a monumental inscription on the pavement slabs at the cemetery’s gate: Passer-by, go tell Poland that we have perished obedient to her service.

Ancona and Bologna

The fights between the Polish II Corps and Germany in Italy started in February 1944, and the Battle of Monte Cassino in May were their peak. However, in total Polish soldiers participated in this campaign for 15 months, fighting in the mountains and coastal areas, forcing the rivers and fortification lines. After the battle, the Allied offensive sped up. The exhausted II Corps was initially to be withdrawn from the front for a month, but the commander of the 15th Army Group, General Harold Alexander, deployed it to the Adriatic front to conduct pursuit activity. From June 4 to 25, the detachments were being deployed to the eastern edge of the Italian boot. However, before the deployment ended, they had received an order to launch attack towards Ancona. The chase after the withdrawing along the coastline German 278th Infantry Division turned out to be very difficult, because the enemy’s delaying activity was extremely skillful, blocking in effect the narrow (just a few kilometers in width) littoral passage, available for the motorized forces. Only as late as on July 1, the army succeeded in seizing Loreto with its famous Basilica of the Holy House (sanctuary of the Virgin Mary), the bridgeheads behind the Musone River, and started their struggle for Ancona. In the first week-long phase of those fights, called the Battle of Loreto, the Polish forces ultimately pushed the enemy away, who however did not break off, called for reinforcements, and formed a new defense line.

The soldiers of the 15th Poznań Uhlan Regiment of the Polish II Corps welcomed by Ancona residents.

Anders used the break in the attack to arrange the detachments, replenish supplies and prepare for direct attack on Ancona. According to plan, on July 17, the Polish 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division launched feigned aggressive activity, which was to engage German forces, while at the same time the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division, supported by the 2nd Panzer Brigade and the British 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, performed the main attack to the west of the city. Despite fierce resistance, Polish detachments were gradually pushing the enemy away, successively seizing towns and breaking off enemy defensive lines by the end of the day. At eight in the evening, Anders ordered the Polish panzer forces to turn towards the sea, and cut the enemy off to prevent retreat. The German forces however managed to withdraw part of their troops from Ancona. On July 18, at 2:45 p.m., Polish commandos, supported by the 15th Poznań Uhlan Regiment, entered the undefended city. They succeeded to achieve one of the main goals of the allied offensive – capture an undamaged port, at which five days later the first supply ships arrived.

The Ancona offensive was the only operation that was independently planned and carried out by Polish soldiers only. During this operation, General Anders commanded not only the Polish II Corps, but also – subordinate to it – the Italian Liberation Corps, and the British: 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, and 17th and 26th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiments. This enormous success was however paid dearly for: in direct fights for Ancona, 377 soldiers were killed and wounded, and during the entire offensive on the Adriatic coast – 496 killed, 1,789 wounded, and 139 missing. The bodies of the fallen were buried at the Polish War Cemetery in Loreto near the sanctuary of the Virgin Mary.

After the exhausting chase in summer and fall of 1944, the Polish II Corps shifted to defense activity at the Senio River. In March 1945, the Corps launched preparations for a new offensive to damage German forces in northern Italy. One of the main tasks for the 8th Army was given to the Polish soldiers who were to force the Senio river and – after breaking down German defense – outflank towards Bologna and cut the enemy off. They launched a successful attack on April 9 with the support of the British corps and engineering units, artillery and aviation. While chasing the enemy, the Corps was forcing consecutive water obstacles, and on April 21, it seized Bologna. This success significantly contributed to disrupting German troops in Italy, and in consequence, to their capitulation and ending the Italian Campaign by the Allies. During the spring offensive, the losses of the Polish II Corps reached over 200 killed, over 1,200 wounded, and over dozen missing. The killed soldiers were buried at the Polish War Cemetery in Bologna.

An Italian girl on the M4 Sherman tank with the soldiers of the 1st Krechowce Uhlan Regiment after the Polish II Corps entered Bologna, April 21, 1945.

The Italian campaign of the Polish II Corps took place in the shadow of – incomprehensible to the Allies – tragedy of its soldiers. The eastern territories of Poland had just been annexed by the Russians: these lands were homeland for most Poles, who in 1942 left the Soviet Union with Anders’ army. That meant their return to Poland was not possible. In August 1944, Warsaw Uprising broke out against the Germans, and the Red Army, standing on the other side of the front, did not help the insurgents, waiting at ease for the Nazi to annihilate this birthplace of Polish mutinies. At that time, Anders sent from Italy a message to the Polish Minister of National Defense and to the Commander-in-Chief in London: “A soldier does not understand the purposefulness of the uprising in Warsaw. Nobody here had any illusions about the Bolsheviks helping Warsaw, despite their continuous promises. In these conditions, Warsaw – despite unprecedented examples of heroism in history – is doomed to be destroyed. We consider evoking the uprising as a heavy crime, and we ask who carries the responsibility for it.”

In 1945, Polish detachments in Italy were very close to rebellion against their previous allies. Ultimately, in the next year, the army was demobilized – the British agreed to transport the Polish army to England and Scotland. From there, Polish soldiers, having adapted themselves to civil life, left to eventually scatter around the world. This soil belongs to Poland, Though Poland be far from here.

Wojciech Markert

autor zdjęć: Centralne Archiwum Wojskowe, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, koloryzacja zdjęć: Mirosław Szponar

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