11–18 May 1944

The Battle of Monte Cassino is usually remembered for the destruction by bombing on 15 February 1944 of the fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery on the mountaintop overlooking the small Italian town of the same name, Cassino. Yet the battle for the mountain top really began after the monastery had already been destroyed.

Here German paratroopers from the First Fallschirmjäger Division, part of the Gustav Line set up by the German army in central Italy in late 1943 to block the advance of Allied armies, dug into defensive positions high above the Allied forces and withstood every effort to dislodge them until the assault that began on 11 May by two divisions of Polish soldiers. The Poles succeeded, under withering fire and in the toughest terrain, in capturing the heights, an achievement of remarkable audacity.

A poster announces the victory of the Polish and British Commonwealth forces at the Italian town and hillside of Cassino, finally secured on 18 May after months of fierce face-to-face combat. The final storming of Monte Cassino, with its destroyed monastery, was carried out by the 3rd Polish Carpathian Division.

The scale of the Polish success can be measured against the repeated failure to dislodge the Germans from the heights in three battles for Monte Cassino that took place between January and March 1944. The aim of the Allied armies, under the command of the British general Harold Alexander, was to push up the Italian peninsula towards Rome, with US General Mark Clark’s 5th US Army on the left and General Oliver Leese’s 8th British Army on the right.

Progress was slow as a result of poor weather and a landscape of hills, mountain crags and small rivers that made mobile warfare difficult. Snow, mud and rain made tracks impassable except by mule or horse. German artillery and machine-gun emplacements could easily be concealed in this topography and a lethal field of fire established over the narrow valleys and defiles. On 22 January 1944 an attempt was made to outflank the Gustav Line by landing on the coast at Anzio, south of Rome, and attacking the German forces commanded by General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin from the rear. The Anzio assault failed to break out of the beachhead. In the end the only way out of the impasse was to assault the Gustav Line directly, which meant attacking the Monte Cassino massif.

The first battle began on 17 January but American troops made little progress against two ridges, Snakeshead and Phantom, which dominated the mountaintop and the monastery, and the operation was called off on 11 February. A second assault by the 4th Indian Division began on 15 February but petered out three days later with no gains. An assault on Cassino itself by the New Zealand Corps between 15 and 23 March took massive casualties but failed to dislodge the enemy.

The assault was halted until large new resources could be brought forward. Alexander’s staff drew up a new plan, Operation Diadem, designed to outflank the German defenders and drive down the valley of the River Liri towards Rome. A French corps was to take the Aurunci Mountains to the south; British, Indians and Canadians were deployed for the attack on the valley, but the critical task of finally clearing Monte Cassino and the ridges around it was given to the Polish 2nd Corps under General Władysław Anders, who was given ten minutes by the British commander to decide whether or not to accept the assignment. Anders saw the risks but wanted a Polish success, so that the cause of Poland would be brought ‘to the fore of world opinion’, and he agreed.

The Polish Corps had been formed from Polish prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, who had been allowed to leave Russia and join British forces in North Africa. The Polish units had a good number of mountain troops, accustomed to the forbidding terrain, and a great deal of unrestrained enthusiasm for killing Germans. In early May huge supplies of equipment and ammunition were secretly moved into position (but much smaller quantities of food and water). The Poles were forced into a silent and patient wait for the start of the operation, a situation for which they were temperamentally ill-suited. Finally at 11 p.m. on 11 May a massive artillery barrage opened up on German positions. Anders told his men to remember the sacred slogan ‘God, Honour, Country’ and two hours later the Polish divisions were released up the slopes of the mountain, one towards the strongpoint known as Point 593 on Snakeshead Ridge and the other towards Colle Sant’Angelo on Phantom Ridge.

Conditions for both sides were appalling. Dry, dusty weather made water supplies imperative, but military equipment took priority. Artillery and mortar fire shattered the rocks and cliff face, sending shards of rock as lethal as shrapnel in all directions. Dead bodies were left where they fell and quickly decomposed. German paratroopers were issued with gasmasks to keep out the putrefying odour.

The Poles had to cope with mines on every track, including the S-Mine, nicknamed the ‘de-bollocker’ by the British because it was triggered to leap in the air, spraying ball-bearings at groin height. There was little cover for the attackers. The Poles were forced to fill sandbags with stones to provide some rudimentary protection. On the first day of action the 1st Carpathian Brigade, assaulting Point 593, had only one officer and seven men left alive and unwounded. There were 4,000 Polish casualties in the first assault, for little gain. Since the wounded were difficult to evacuate, they were treated where they lay and in many cases carried on fighting. Hand-to-hand combat between small groups of soldiers characterized much of the fighting and neither side readily took prisoners. The Germans took high losses, but fought in many cases to the death because of the persistent rumour that the Poles killed out of hand any German they caught.

The Poles had much to prove and Anders was keen that his force achieve the impossible and ‘cover Polish arms with glory’. After a rest of a few days, spent precariously dug into the mountainside, a fresh assault on the mountains began on 17 May, coinciding with a heavy attack by the 8th Army in the Liri Valley that aimed to prevent the Germans from switching their shrinking reserves and artillery fire between the two fronts.

Major General Sulik’s 5th Kresowa Division stormed the slopes of Phantom Ridge but failed to dislodge all German resistance while continuing to take high casualties. One unit ran out of ammunition and hurled rocks at the Germans, all the while singing the Polish national anthem. The 3rd Carpathian Division fought for Point 593 and Snakeshead Ridge above the monastery. Under heavy fire, the Poles struggled bitterly for every metre, taking, losing and retaking the Point several times. On the night of 17 May the Poles were forced to rest and consolidate their costly gains, but during the night German movements could be detected.

The Polish assault had proved too much for their embattled enemy. The monastery was abandoned by the morning and an incredulous unit of Polish lancers cautiously approached it. Only the German wounded were left. An improvised Polish flag was hoisted to the cheers of the onlookers. At 10.15 a.m. a Polish bugler stood on the monastery walls to play the Kraków Hejnal, the historic Polish trumpet call, while Polish soldiers wept with emotion. Savage fighting continued on the other ridge where the trapped paratroopers fought to the last out of fear of Polish vengeance, but finally Colle Sant’Angelo was in Allied hands as well.

The battle cost the Polish Corps 3,682 casualties, 860 of them killed. German losses are harder to calculate because the units moved during the battle to other fronts. After the battle German and Polish bodies could be found in a deathly embrace, having fought with knives and bayonets to the last, a brutal physical conflict with little quarter given. The hardships endured by the Polish attackers were exceptional but their courage under fire was unquestioned. Anders recommended one-third of the attackers for the Polish Cross for Valour. The dead were later buried in a cemetery between the monastery and Point 593. General Anders asked that he be buried beside them and when he died in 1970, his wish was fulfilled.