The red poppies of Montecassino and the sacrifice of the Polish soldiers

The conquest of the ruins of the abbey on 18 May 1944 opened the way to Rome for the Allies. The heroic and dramatic story of an army that came from the Soviet gulags. 80th anniversary ceremony with the President of Poland Andrzej Duda

“For our and your freedom we Polish soldiers gave our souls to God, our bodies to the land of Italy, our hearts to Poland”. The phrase engraved on a large obelisk in the monumental cemetery of Montecassino is close to the inscription at the entrance: “Passerby, tell Poland that we have fallen faithful in his service.” There is an epic, heroic and dramatic story, which goes beyond the victory of Montecassino which opened the way to Rome on 18 May eighty years ago; a story of suffering, blood, sacrifices and bitterness for exile. The Abbey of Montecassino, symbol of Christianity and Western culture saved from barbarism, had been razed to the ground with 380 tons of explosive devices in the unfortunate aerial bombing of 15 February 1944, because for the Allied soldiers it had become the hated symbol of resistance German. In the sacred enclosure, contrary to what was believed, there was no Wehrmacht soldier, but the destruction of the abbey founded by Saint Benedict had provided them with an ideal battlefield to resist.

General Anders’ time

Every attempt to breach the Gustav Line from there had failed with a very high cost of human lives. On 11 May it was the turn of the Poles of General Władysław Anders’ II Army Corps to attack, following the decision of the commander of the British 8th Army, General Oliver Leese. At 11.00 pm a deadly artillery fire was poured on the German strongholds held by the expert paratroopers of the 1st division who at the end of December 1943 had conducted the house-to-house battle in Ortona, breaking the impetus of Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s offensive on Ortona. Polish tanks and infantrymen maneuver at 1.30 am on May 12th. The 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, the 5th Kresowa Infantry, the 2nd Warsaw Armored Brigade and the divisional artillery group are deployed on the line of fire, for a total of around 50,000 men. The fighting is furious, the Germans contest every inch of ground, attacks and counterattacks follow one another without rest. “I don’t remember if we slept, when and where, not even if we ate (…). There were the dead, the wounded (…) but the tension was such that nothing could have distracted us from what we had to do”, is the memory by Mieczysław Rasiej.

The fourth and final battle

Anders’ soldiers came from the Soviet gulags, having been taken prisoner in September 1939 by the Red Army which had invaded Poland on the 17th according to the agreement contained in the secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and without a declaration of war. The soldiers had been locked up in concentration camps, their family members had been deported and the orphans destined for Russification, 22,000 officers had been exterminated with a shot in the back of the head on Stalin’s orders and buried in the Katyn forest. Anders escaped this fate because he had been imprisoned in the infamous Lubyanka prison where he was subjected to interrogations and torture. After Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941, Stalin had ordered the liberation of the soldiers, expelling them from the USSR for refusing to join the Red Army, and Anders had succeeded in the small miracle of taking away not only the military but also civilians, women, children, orphans. A people. One hundred and twenty thousand traveled 12,500 kilometers in 1,334 days from the remote Soviet gulags to Persia, Palestine and finally to Italy, where the II Korpus had been established at the end of 1943. From Abruzzo it was then moved in March to the western appendix of the Gustav Line , and on March 24 he had been given the task of conducting the fourth battle of Monte Cassino.

A song written on the eve of the victory

The victory was paid for with 923 dead, 345 missing and 2931 wounded. The evening before the conquest of the ruins, May 17, the composer Alfred Schütz, on the verses of a poet enlisted in Anders’ army, Feliks Konarski, wrote the melody of the song «Red poppies in Montecassino»: red because they had drunk Polish blood , “and on the poppies the soldier walked and fell.” In the place that Saint Benedict had chosen to build the monastery in the first half of the 6th century, a river of blood had been shed by soldiers of eleven nations: Germans, Poles, Americans, British, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Nepalese, French, Moroccans, Algerians. On the morning of May 18, the red and white flag of Poland was flying over the ruins and the trumpet of Corporal Emil Czech could be heard announcing the victory and the end of the battle.

The exile of fighters “for our and your freedom”

The road to Rome was open, even if the Americans would only enter on June 4th. Along the way, the colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Force committed mass rapes of women aged from 11 to 80 and also of men, including a parish priest, in an orgy of horror that would be numerically surpassed only by the Red Army in 1945 in the eastern territories of Germany and in Berlin. General Anders’ Poles will be brought back to the eastern front where they will fight going up the Peninsula to Bologna. But there will be no return home for them. Most of them came from the eastern territories, which had been ceded to Stalin in the Yalta agreements, and had neither a home nor a homeland. The soldiers who had fought in Italy were considered by the communist regime to be “in the service of a foreign power”, for them it was better not to return to Poland, and Anders himself, also deprived of his citizenship, will be forced into exile. He died in London on 12 May 1970 in London, and for his express wish he was buried in the Montecassino cemetery together with his soldiers. His wife has rested next to him since 2010, and his daughter Anna Maria was appointed ambassador to Rome in 2019. On Saturday 18 May, next to her, for the solemn ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, the President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda and the President of the Senate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, for the tribute to the fallen Polish faithful Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish who fought “for our and your freedom”.

By Editor

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