On the exposed rocks of the Monte Cassino hill, medics had to work miracles to save lives of wounded soldiers.
The victory of the Polish II Corps in the Battle of Monte Cassino should be credited not only to the bravery and exceptional skills of the front-line soldiers, but also to the professionalism of the medical personnel. The devotion and courage of doctors and medics significantly increased the wounded soldiers’ chances for survival. Many of them would quickly regain full combat readiness, which was crucial in a situation when MajGen Władysław Anders’ army had been virtually cut off from new recruits.
The core of the Polish II Corps’ medical staff was medical personnel of the Military Medical Center [Centrum Wyszkolenia Sanitarnego], established in 1930 at the Ujazdowski Hospital in Warsaw. After the war started, the staff were supplemented with doctors and medics trained on courses in France and Great Britain. As a result, the Corps would hardly use medical support of allied states during warfare.
The medics bustling about on the exposed rocks of the Monte Cassino hill worked miracles to save the soldiers’ lives. Their acts of courage and devotion could inspire as great a movie as the famous Hacksaw Ridge. Doctors provided help at dressing stations for 48 hours straight, without taking any breaks, often under artillery fire, in discomfort, on their knees, under makeshift roofs made of blankets and tarpaulins. The main surgeon of the Polish II Corps, MajGen Bolesław Szarecki, although already 70 years old at the time, personally tended to the injured soldiers at the main dressing station in the Inferno Track.
Józef Brzeziński, a medic, risking his own life, tirelessly searched for wounded soldiers and dressed their wounds on Hill 593. He managed to save almost 40 soldiers. Although three times wounded himself, he left his post only upon his superior’s clear order. Another medic, Ludwik Radziszewski, also assisted the wounded without a moment of rest on Phantom Ridge. When he ran out of bandages, he ripped his shirt into pieces when advised to do so by his commander, Maj Leon Gnatowski, and continued to dress bleeding wounds. When he himself was wounded, he refused to leave his post and continued to help soldiers for another two hours, until he was shot again, in the thigh. After the battle, both medics were awarded the Virtuti Militari.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a real baptism of fire for the doctors, medics and nurses of the Polish II Corps. It was assumed that losses among the Polish soldiers fighting in difficult open mountainous terrain would be very high – up to several hundred wounded a day. The irony of fate was that the first victims were the medical personnel members.
On May 8, at 17:30 hours, German artillery shelled the dressing station of the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division, located in the Inferno Track, despite the fact it was clearly marked with a red cross. They killed two doctors (Lt Adam Graber and 2ndLt Wincenty Napora), two medics (Cpl Wincenty Giruć and Pvt Emil Toczyłowski) and a chaplain (Father August Huczyński). Another 17 people were wounded. After this event, a decision was taken to move the dressing station to a safer place, mask it with nets, and not mark it with a red cross.
Innovative Changes to the System
Despite that tragic event, the Polish medical personnel still worked efficiently due to exceptional organization and great engagement. It was established that combat conditions require a very precise procedure of tending to the wounded, and thus it was divided into four phases. The first phase was self-dressing one’s wounds using the dressing from personal equipment. Then, a soldier was taken care of by a medic (there were four medics per company). The third phase was treatment at the field hospital, i.e. medical evacuation point, also called the field evacuation hospital, where soldiers would often stay until full recovery and return to service. There, they also received psychological support after traumatic battle experiences. The fourth phase was specialist treatment at the military hospital located in the rear, to where the wounded were sent from the field hospital, most often by air.
In the Battle of Monte Cassino, due to the extremely difficult access to field hospitals in the mountainous landscape, and the necessity to operate in mined terrain, the second phase was very extensive – wounded soldiers would already undergo relatively simple medical procedures, such as setting broken bones, cleaning wounds, transfusions or amputations. Also, the medical personnel created mobile hospital stations – forefront transfusion and surgical points, which could be set up quickly in any place. It was possible, for example, to instantly create two operating rooms lit with lamps powered by mobile power units. Such a mobile station had a personnel of two doctors (a surgeon and an anesthesiologist) and about ten medics.
Providing help in the second phase was divided among particular stations – first, the wounded soldiers were transported to battalion dressing stations, then to forward dressing stations, and later to main dressing stations, from where they were taken to field hospitals. The whole procedure was to provide constant care to a patient during a dangerous and long way (transport often took as long as four hours) from the site of injury to the operating room.
In order to improve the evacuation of patients under incessant fire along the steep route leading from the Doctor’s House at the foot of Hill 593 to the forward dressing station in the town of Caira – a kind of relay race was organized. Every 100 meters or so along the over two-kilometer-long route, several stretcher-bearers, located in shelters, shifted the wounded patient from one to another. In other places, the wounded were transported to the forward dressing station in jeep cars. Ambulances were only used to transport them to the main dressing station.
Waves of Wounded
From among the battalion/advanced dressing stations, the station of the 3rd Carpathian Rifles Division, the so-called Doctor’s House [Domek Doktora], deserves a particular mention. It was organized in a 19th century building, a former hermitage, near a valley called Little Bowl [Mała Miska], only 250 meters from the front line. Hundreds of Polish soldiers setting off to attack Hill 593 went past it, and hundreds of wounded men were taken there for immediate medical help. During the first 24 hours of the Polish attack, a medical team led by Dr Alfons Wawrzyniak worked there non-stop, helping over 500 soldiers.
An important element of medical care were also field evacuation hospitals, particularly No. 3 and 5 in the Venafro-Pozzilli region, to where most casualties were taken from the main dressing station. Both hospitals had a team of doctors and eight nurses. The head of hospital No. 3 was Dr Leon Kehle, and No. 5 – Dr Stanisław Sikora. Each of the hospitals, being a group of tents, provided place for 200 soldiers – 50 beds for the most severely wounded, and space for 150 stretchers. Incoming patients underwent selection, and were directed for operation or specialist treatment to one of the rear hospitals. The equipment held by the preoperative ward enabled blood transfusions, resuscitation and x-rays. The operating room was organized in two adjacent tents, in front of which stood an ambulance ready to transport patients to hospital wards. The personnel slept in the wards or camped nearby. Food was provided by canteens run by Women’s Auxiliary Service. Hospitals No. 3 and 5 took turns in admitting casualties, and each shift lasted 24 hours. This gave the hospitals time to prepare patients for transport to other hospitals, and thus make room for another wave of casualties.
Wounded soldiers were also admitted to the field hospital in Campobasso, organized in the buildings of a former monastery. Medics worked there non-stop, in three shifts. One of the doctors, Dr Bolesław Kucharski, recalled that after stepping away from the operating table you could pour sweat out of your surgical shoes. Casualties requiring longer treatment and fit for transport were taken to the Polish military hospitals in the deep rear, in the south of Italy. The hospital in Palagiano, led by LtCol Dr Józef Oktawiec, had 2,000 places for patients. Most of them were in tents, only the operating room and the surgical ward were located in the local school. The wounded soldiers were flown in to the airport, and then transported to the hospital by ambulance. The hospital in Casamassima, established and led by Col Dr Tadeusz Sokołowski, had 1,200 places. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, the personnel of both hospitals worked non-stop, virtually without sleep. There were so many patients that convoys with the wounded blocked all the access roads to the hospitals.
Snatched from Death
Statistical data show that the number of survivors among patients admitted to field evacuation hospitals was surprisingly high. During the Polish part of the Battle of Monte Cassino, the death rate at the hospitals in Venafro-Pozzilli and Campobasso was about 1.5% in total. It remains debatable if such a high number of survivors resulted from the virtuosity of Polish doctors or the fact that only the strongest patients with the biggest chances of survival made it to the hospitals after many hours of transport from one dressing station to another. Whatever the reason, the fact was that those successfully delivered to one of the hospitals could be certain to leave it alive. Therefore, the professionalism, great courage and devotion of the Polish medical personnel must nevertheless be acknowledged. They proved that they fully understood the sense of the expression “medical service.”
autor zdjęć: NAC