2nd Polish Corps, Monte Cassino



 

The Poles at Monte Cassino

In September 1939, when the Red Army invaded Eastern Poland pursuant to Joseph Stalin's agreement with Adolph Hitler, about 200,000 soldiers of the Polish army who were in the occupied territory were taken as prisoners

The soldiers taken prisoner by the Red Army were transferred at first to a prisoner of war camp. Later on they were exiled by Stalin, together with thousands of Polish civilians, including many Jews, deep inside the Soviet Union, to the very harsh conditions and extreme cold of Siberia.

The thousands of exiled Poles constituted the main work force in the establishment of the Polish army within the framework of the Soviet Union's "Anders Army."

The "Anders Army" was established in July 1941, after the German attack on the Soviet Union. In the pact that was signed between Stalin and General Wladyslaw Sikorski - the exiled Polish Prime Minister in London, (Britain established the Polish army),  it was agreed to establish a "Polish regiment" within the framework of the Red Army.

This "Polish unit" was named after its General - General Wladyslaw Anders.

The "Anders Army" numbered 70,000 soldiers, among them about 5,000 Jews, mostly volunteers. At the end of 1942, the "Anders Army" troops left the Soviet Union, joining the British High Command in the Middle East, traveling through Iran, Iraq and Palestine.

The Polish Jews in the "Anders Army" had additional goals apart from fighting the Nazis. When the "Anders Army" left the Soviet Union on its journey towards the Middle East, families of the soldiers and groups of Jewish children, war orphans, joined the Jewish soldiers.

The Anders Army's most famous battle occurred at Monte Cassino, Italy, in May 1944. It was one of the most historic and strategic campaigns during Would War II.

During the first weeks of 1944, the 2nd Polish Corps became involved in the Italian campaign, where it came under the operational command of the British Eighth Army. It was based initially in the River Sangro area and in May, along with the British 10th and 13th Corps, took part in the final, successful Monte Cassino battle.

The final battle, which took place between 11 and 18 May as part of Alexander's spring offensive (DIADEM), involved the Eighth Army's 13th Corps and the 2nd Polish Corps as well as Clark's Fifth Army. The FEC now moved to the Garigliano bridgehead, cut across the Aurunci mountains, which were thought impassable by most, and destroyed the southern hinge of the German defences. Further inland 13th Corps took Cassino town and struck along the Liri valley, but the task of capturing Monastery Hill was given to the Poles. Their first attack was repulsed, two battalions being virtually wiped out, not one man escaping death or injury. A second night attack took two important features but the hill itself remained impregnable. By now, however, the Gustav Line was no longer tenable and late on 17 May the German paratroopers defending the hill reluctantly withdrew; but it took the Poles, whose casualties amounted to about 3,500, time to find anyone with enough strength to climb up and occupy the monastery's ruins.

The defeat of the German stronghold at Cassino opened the road north to Rome, but in June the Poles were directed east to the Adriatic coast. They took a leading part in the battles for Ancona ( July 1944), against the Gothic Line, and for Pescara and Faenza, and in April 1945 they took Bologna, in the last major battle of the Italian campaign. In a tribute to the Poles, Lt-General McCreery pointed out that the corps had faced three of the Germans' best divisions and had pushed them back. In the process, though, they suffered more than 11,000 casualties.

 At the end of the war General Anders' troops were engaged in occupation duties in Italy. Their presence proved something of a magnet for the many displaced Poles and released Polish prisoners-of-war who found themselves in Austria or southern Germany. Anders and the majority of his men were bitterly opposed to the Teheran–Yalta accords, under which Poland was apportioned to the Soviet sphere of influence.

They refused to return to Poland under communist rule, and in late 1946 were transported to the UK where they were demobilized. In September 1946 the provisional government in Warsaw stripped Anders and 75 other officers of their Polish citizenship—in Anders' case, for ‘conducting abroad activities detrimental to the Polish State’.