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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.

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The Exceptional Polish II Corps

“Soldiers! My dearest Brothers and Children! The time of battle has come. Long have we waited for this moment of retaliation and revenge on our eternal enemy. We will fight shoulder to shoulder with the British, American, Canadian, New Zealand divisions. The French, the Italian, and the Hindu will also fight.”

The Polish Army soldiers in the East in Palestine, 1942–1943

These words were uttered by General Władysław Anders in his order given before the Polish detachments attacked the Monte Cassino hill, the keystone of the German Gustav Line, stretching across the Italian Peninsula and guarding access to Rome. The attack was carried out by the soldiers of the Polish II Corps, which between 1944–1945 fought Germans in Italy, participating in the fights for Rome, Ancona and Bologna.

The Way to Monte Cassino

The Battle of Monte Cassino is referred to as the Battle of Nations for a good reason. There were many more reasons than those General Anders mentioned in his order, but compared to all formations made up of soldiers from around the world, the II Corps was a truly remarkable phenomenon. None of the big corps that took part in the battle had been through the hell that the Poles had suffered. For most of them, the world fell apart on September 17, 1939, when the Soviet Army attacked the eastern regions of Poland to help Germans in their plan to destroy the Republic of Poland. Thousands of Polish families were suddenly thrown out of their homes and taken to the infamous “Gulag Archipelago” to die in the Soviet concentration camps, in the taiga, at the Polar Circle, or in the desert steppes of Kazakhstan. It seemed that the only thing awaiting the destitute Poles was death of starvation and exhaustion.

Their fate changed suddenly and miraculously with the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in June 1941, when the former allies, the 3rd Reich and the Soviet Union, became mortal enemies. A month or so later, the Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief in exile in London, General Władysław Sikorski, succeeded in concluding with the Soviet government an official alliance agreement, as a result of which the Polish Army was to be formed on the territory of the Soviet Union. The army was to be joined by hundreds of thousands of Poles released from camps, prisons or deportation places. General Władysław Anders was appointed commander after having been released from the infamous Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. He was still curing the wounds he had suffered while fighting the Red Army in September 1939, and his soldiers were to be the same people who had been stripped of all hope on September 17, 1939. Human shadows in ragged clothes started to flock to camps where the Polish army units were to be formed. Many had died on the way or in the happy moment of catching a glimpse of the white-and-red flag fluttering over the military camp’s gate. There were also those who had not been informed about the forming of the Polish units and who thus remained Soviet prisoners. Out of those, who rose from the dead and put on the Polish uniform, General Anders began to form the Polish Army in the Soviet Union.

Eventually, he never entered Poland with his army using the shortest way to the west. Stalin’s intrigues and British interests in Iran were the reason why the Polish Army was evacuated from the Soviet republics in Southern and Central Asia to the Middle and Near East. By September 1942, about 115,000 people, including 78,500 soldiers and 37,000 civilians and military families, had been transported to Iran; the Soviets did not agree to release more, so several thousand Polish citizens were forced to stay in the Soviet Union. Among the evacuated, there were 18,000 children. The survivors to the end of their lives were grateful to their commander for taking them away from this inhuman lands. In Iraq and Palestine, these nomad soldiers joined the elite of the Polish Army, namely the Carpathians (the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade) who were famous for their fights during the Siege of Tobruk and the Libyan Campaign. “The Buzuluks” (Buzuluk is a Russian town, where at the break of 1941/42 the headquarters of the Polish Army in the Soviet union was located), along with the Middle-Eastern “Ramseses,” formed the new Polish Army in the East. Part of it, in July 1943, became the II Corps, which under Anders’ command in December 1943 arrived at the Apennine Peninsula occupied by Germany. According to General Anders’ plan, the Polish POWs or Wehrmacht deserters could also join Polish troops, because Germany on the occupied Polish western territory annexed to the Reich in 1939 (Silesia, Great Poland, Pomerania) obligatorily Germanized Polish citizens, and made them join the German army.

Volunteers from the cartography platoon of the Polish II Corps at the Monte Cassino Polish War Cemetery celebrating the second anniversary of the battle, May 1946

The Polish II Corps became the formation of Poles coming from all territories of Poland, but the Eastern Borderline (Kresy) customs prevailed in this army, both as regards the names of military units and regiment traditions. The Corps’ panzer units called their tanks with proper names, among which the most popular were the names of two capital cities of the eastern regions of Poland, namely: Lviv and Vilnius. With those names, they would go from victory to victory, starting from the seizure of Monte Cassino on May 18, 1944. This victory was followed by another one in the Battle of Ancona, and by capturing Bologna. General Anders’ soldiers believed that this victorious campaign would make it possible for them to “march from Italy to Poland,” as the Polish legionnaires in the service of Italian republics sang 150 years earlier. This desire is still inscribed in the stone at the Monte Cassino Polish War Cemetery: For our freedom and yours, we, soldiers of Poland, gave our soul to God, our life to the soil of Italy, our hearts to Poland.

Italian “Blue Berets” in the Polish Commando

The first commando squads during World War II were formed by the British, and they would soon become international elite of Allied forces. Next to the British commandos, there were the French, Greek, Yugoslavian, and even German and Austrian commandos, who fought in the anti-Hitler coalition. In the Polish commando company fighting in the Polish II Corps in Italy there also were soldiers of other nationalities who had decided to fight in the ranks of the Polish army.

At the beginning of December 1943, the 1st Independent Commando Company (also known as No. 6 Troop, part of the international No. 10 Inter-Allied Commando) arrived at the Italian front as the first Polish military troop in this war. The commandos were sent to the Central Apennines, near Capracotta town in the mountains at the Sangro river, which along with the Garigliano and Rapido rivers formed the primary line of German defense. When in the spring of 1944, following the commandos’ footsteps, the Polish II Corps arrived in Italy, its troops used the help of Italian volunteers. They were joining Polish ranks quite willingly, as the Polish soldiers treated Italian civilians very well, providing them with food and medical assistance. At the same time, the Poles lacked soldiers to protect military facilities, bridges, roads or warehouses, which was a crucial argument for forming in March 1944 the 111st Bridge Protection Company at the command of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. It was to be an Italian guard and technical unit with Polish commanders. The privates were the highlanders from the very region where the Polish commandos were operating, i.e. South Abruzzo and Molise in the Central Apennines. The company initially numbered about forty Italian volunteers, and seven Polish officers and NCOs.

The fate of the company was affected by the Battle of Monte Cassino, where the Polish II Corps suffered enormous losses during attack. The Polish command, trying to figure out how to complement the ranks of the Corps thinned in the bloody battle, thought of Italian highlanders who dedicatedly served the commandos as guides and carriers.

They had proved to be very useful in that role also at Monte Cassino. For that reason, the 111st company was not to be wasted for guard duty tasks, but rather transformed into a combat troop, or even more – into a commando troop. What was left from the original purpose of this unit was only its name – the 111st Bridge Protection Company. The name was left to disinform the Germans as to its actual tasks, and calm the Italian Allied forces in case of their potential protest against recruiting Italian citizens to foreign combat military forces.

In mid-May of 1944, the commando company was transferred to Oratino near Campobasso in Molise, where new volunteers from the region joined it. Additional officers and NCOs of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division and the instructors of the 1st Independent Commando Company were also tasked to start intensive training of Italian soldiers. After the training ended in midJune 1944, the 111st Bridge Protection Company counted 68 Italian volunteers and 23 Polish officers and NCOs. The Poles took commanding posts at the team level and higher. The company commander was an experienced line officer, Lieutenant Feliks Kępa, and the second in command was Lieutenant Commander Edward Zalewski. The youngest soldier in the company – barely 16 years old – was Mino Pecorelli, who after the war became a renown attorney and journalist. Just like the Polish company, the Italian one was also divided into three platoons. Instead of green berets – commonly worn in commando units – Italian commandos wore blue berets with Polish eagle insignia and red Poland patches on their arms. With time, Italian commandos were referred to as “the Blues” (“Bławaty”), and this name clang to them until the end of the fights along the Adriatic coastline. Moreover, unofficially, the 111st Bridge Protection Company was called “the 2nd commando company” or simply “the Italian company”. The very good training results affected another decision of the II Corps’ command, namely the formation of the 1st Commando Group by joining the 1st Independent Commando Company and the 111st Bridge Protection Company. Major Władysław Smrokowski (the hitherto commander of the 1st company) took the command.

The Polish II Corps soldiers in Italy, second on the right is Brunon Jankowski (rifleman)

While the Italian volunteers were intensively training commando fight, the II Corps was tasked by the Allied command in Italy to independently carry out an offensive towards Ancona. The 1st Commando Group was engaged in the operation, and on June 21, 1944, it was deployed from Oratino to the Adriatic coastline. At the beginning of July, the unit arrived at the Monte Lupone frontline via Monte Pagan and Porto San Giorgio. The group was assigned at the tactical level to the Polish 2nd Panzer Brigade and was deployed in the Castelfidardo region, but was not engaged in the first fights for Ancona. On July 8, General Anders allocated the Group to the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. Both companies of the Group occupied the frontline between Villa Virginia and the bridge near Numana, manned with the soldiers of the Carpathian Uhlan Regiment, under the command of which they remained. On the next day, the Italian company had their combat baptism. Its two platoons and the 1st Uhlan Squadron hit with bravado the enemy-manned hills of Monte Freddo and Hills 119 and 107. Seizing this important for the entire Carpathian regiment position was paid for with the death of two soldiers. In the battle, commando Attilio Brunetti heroically saved his wounded commander, Sergeant Zygmunt Piątkowski, transporting him on his own back several kilometers away from the frontline. Brunetti was later decorated with the Polish Cross of Valor.

The first fight of Italian volunteers proved how unjust were the opinions about the reportedly low value of an Italian soldier, and the battles that followed only cemented the new Polish-Italian brotherhood of arms. Not incidentally, the first troop to enter Ancona as the forward guard of the Carpathian Uhlan Regiment through the gates of Santo Stefano on July 18, 1944, was the 2nd commando company.

By the end of July 1944, the Polish and Italian commandos separated. The Polish 1st Independent Commando Company was deployed to be formed again in the south of Italy as a result of a decision on transforming it into the 2nd Commando Motorized Battalion. The Italian company returned under the command of the Carpathian Uhlan Regiment and fought along with its soldiers until the seizure of Pesaro on September 2, 1944. It was then that the decision on disforming the 111st Bridge Protection Company was taken. The Italian company – under Polish command until October 18, 1944 – lost 14 soldiers in total (10 of them Italian), and 29 soldiers were wounded. General Anders, in recognition of the valor of the Italian commandos, decorated them with Polish combat insignia: out of all 19 decorated Italians, 17 were awarded with the Cross of Valor (nine of them posthumously), one with the silver and one with the bronze Cross of Merit with Swords.

Polish Lot

The Japanese Bushidō code says there is no greater solitude than that of a warrior who survived a battle and reached the end of his road. It’s true. A soldier, whom the Providence allowed to live after a bloody fight, becomes a different man.

Such people function as if they were living in two parallel worlds: in the present and in the time of the bygone war, which persistently, as a palimpsest, pierces through reality. It is not only and exclusively about trauma. On the contrary, those soldiers are often characterized by calmness and softness of mystics. I met such people – all of them were veterans of the Polish II Corps, and they fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino. They had come to the Corps from all over the world, and their lives after the war were very different. Still, each of these meetings left me deeply moved, and at the same time quite uplifted by the awareness that I had been lucky to meet a good man.

The 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division soldiers. From the left: Antoni Łapiński and Ryszard Kaczorowski, a rifleman and the last Polish President in Exile (1989–1990)

All of the veterans, with no exceptions, always began with: “I am no hero. Those who died are heroes, but not me.” I heard that every time. It is the true modesty of soldiers and wisemen who have looked death in the eye. The first soldier I met was Colonel Wojciech Narębski, living in Cracow, Little Poland region, a professor in geochemistry and petrology. In Italy, he served in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, famous for its special soldier – Wojtek the Bear, who used to carry munition boxes. As they both had the same first name, the Professor jokingly told me his fellow soldiers called him Little Wojtek to distinguish him from Wojtek the Bear.

Released from a Soviet prison camp in 1941, he was told he had very little chance to survive. “I became a soldier, but – above of all else – I was alive, although I left this ruthless land as a human wreck,” he told me with a calm smile.

I found another veteran of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division in Rumia, in the Kashubia region. Brunon Jankowski at Monte Cassino served in… Luftwaffe. Being a Pole from the Pomerania region, he was forced to join the Luftwaffe antiaircraft battery, and was sent to the Italian front. In the hell of Cassino, he ran away to the other side of the front, and joined the famous Carpathians. He recalled: “I remember, as if it were today, the moment I got off the truck and saw a Polish whiteand-red flag on a long flagpole. I thought: Finally! I am among my fellows.”

After my visit in Pomerania, I went to the other end of Poland, to Podhale – to Orawka near Nowy Targ. There, after many years of exile in the West, Józef Kowalczyk found his own harbor. He was the uhlan of the 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment, whose soldiers were the first to plant their victorious flag in the rubble of the abbey. When asked about the Battle of Monte Cassino, he replied, tears in his eyes: “Let me remind you the inscription over the gate of the Monte Cassino Polish War Cemetery: Passer-by, go tell Poland that we have perished obedient to her service. I remember the German artillery fire decimating my team on Hill 593. The Germans replied to our attack with wellaimed and powerful gunfire; I remember how my fellow soldiers, wounded and dying, groaned in pain. Only two soldiers from my team survived this attack – myself and one more soldier. During short breaks in fights, the stretcher-bearers would come to take the wounded only, as there was no time to take the killed. Only after the battle ended, they could take the fallen, although many a time it was hard to identify the remains… I was in this hell for twenty days. I got wounded several times, but I didn’t pay attention to it at all.”

Uhlan Józef Kowalczyk, 1944I also visited Colonel Antoni Łapiński in Warsaw. His great sense of humor and serenity hit me from the start. The Colonel was a young soldier in the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, and he so recalled the day of their triumph, May 18, 1944: “For me, this day was especially happy. In the early morning, our troops entered the ruins of the abbey at Monte Cassino. About 9:00 a.m., I was standing near the Doctor’s House, looking at the seized ruins of the abbey. That night, I had managed to take a three-hour sleep, resting my head on my medical bag. Suddenly, I saw a group of seven soldiers coming from ‘the Ravine' (‘Gardziel'), led by some officer. When they got closer, just a few meters away from me, I recognized the officer, the second lieutenant: it was my brother Józef! He looked exactly as when he was released from a forced labor camp a few years before – skeletal, unshaved, in a dirty, tattered uniform. This however meant nothing compared to the fact that my brother survived! Saying goodbye, he pointed to his soldiers and said: »Look how many alive men I was able to gather after my platoon’s attack on Mass Albaneta and the ‘Ravine’.« Before the fight, the platoon counted thirty men and was part of the 6th Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Carpathian Brigade. The second time me and my brother met, he told me that ultimately over a dozen more soldiers from this platoon were found alive later – which made up a total of 18 survivors. All other young soldiers in his platoon were killed on the Monte Cassino slope covered with red poppies.”

In the famous scene of Andrzej Wajda’s movie Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds), Maciek Chełmicki is standing at the bar counter and talking to his friend Andrzej; in the background Sława Przybylska is singing The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino. Maciek sends the vodka shots to Andrzej, shooting them across the counter, then kindles the drinks – Andrzej pays tribute to their fallen friends by naming the shots: Haneczka, Wilga, Kossobudzki, Rudy, Kajtek… He blows out the match when Maciek wants to kindle the last two vodka shots, and says: “We’re still alive.” Maciek bursts into manic laughter. Here, again, the song lyrics can be heard: They went to avenge and to kill; on the enemy’s destruction, bent; to their honor they harnessed their will. After each of my meetings with the veterans, like a déja vu I would replay this scene in my mind. It is thanks to my Heroes – in spite of their protests, I will be calling them that – I did experience the scene in real life.

Piotr Korczyński

autor zdjęć: CAW, NAC

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