Poles Capture the Monastery at Monte Cassino on May 18, 1944 A Place Where Americans and Poles Fought and Died

By Frank J. Dmuchowski

In the early morning of May 19, 1944 a group of Poles in the II Corps under the command of General Władysław Anders finally achieved a major goal of the Allies by capturing the monastery at Monte Cassino. For the Poles it came at a terrible cost of over 3000 casualties including 1072 killed.

Over the past several years I have focused on various aspects of the Battle for Monte Cassino in which was really a series of four battles fought from January 17, 1944 to May 18, 1944. This was part of a broader campaign to capture Rome and to break German control of their key defensive line known as the Gustav Line. Monte Cassino was a key point in this defensive position.  During the entire campaign in very rugged territory the Allies had casualties of over 55,000 while the Germans are estimated to have had casualties of approximately 20,000. The Allied losses were comparable to those experienced during the First World War. You can understand how difficult it was for the Allies to go against the German defensive positions.

In this article I want to briefly focus on a little known fact that Americans and Poles fought and died over virtually the same identical ground during the battle for the Monastery. I would be remiss if I did not mention that there were actions which also involved Canadian soldiers at Monte Cassino. Also to give you a sense of how difficult and vicious the fighting was I am going to present the situation only from an American perspective. For the Poles the situation was more difficult because they had to contend with the German advantage of being able to defend from the ruins of a bombed out Monastery. So what you read from an American perspective is precisely the same as what the Poles experienced.

American II Corps with the 34th Infantry Division in the Mountains North of Cassino and the Aftermath

The Wikepedia article on this battle is very accurate. The section we are going to quote from deals with the same terrain and a similar strategy that both Poles and Americans had to use to capture the monastery. The American effort began in January and lasted for approximately a month before it was broken off because of casualties and battle fatigue:

It was very tough going: the mountains were rocky, strewn with boulders and cut by rocky ravines and gullies. Digging foxholes on the rocky ground was out of the question, and each feature was exposed to fire from the surrounding high points. The ravines were no better since the gorse growing there, far from giving cover, had been sown with mines, booby-traps and hidden barbed wire by the defenders. The Germans had three months to prepare their defensive positions using dynamite and to stockpile ammunition and stores. There was no natural shelter, and the weather was wet and freezing cold.

…by February 7 a battalion had reached Point 445, a round top hill immediately below the monastery and no more than 400 yards (370 m) away. An American squad managed a reconnaissance right up against the cliff-like abbey walls, with the monks observing German and American patrols exchanging fire. However, attempts to take Monte Cassino were broken by overwhelming machine gun fire from the slopes below the monastery. Despite their fierce fighting, the 34th Division never managed to take the final redoubts on Hill 593 (known to the Germans as Calvary Mount), held by the 3rd battalion of the German 2nd Parachute Regiment, the dominating point of the ridge to the monastery. [The exact point Poles were to later fight and die for in May].

On February 11, after a final unsuccessful 3-day assault on Monastery Hill and Cassino town, the Americans were withdrawn. U.S. II Corps, after two and a half weeks of torrid battle was fought out. The performance of the 34th Division in the mountains is considered to rank as one of the finest feats of arms carried out by any soldiers during the war. In return they sustained losses of about 80% in the Infantry battalions, some 2,200 casualties.

This was the maelstrom into which the Poles were thrust when they began their effort in May to capture Monte Cassino.

Poles Capture Monte Cassino on May 18, 1944

Beginning May 11, 1944 as a part of the fourth battle to break the Gustav line the Polish II Corp was given the responsibility to capture the now bombed out monastery. The capture was important because it now represented a key German propaganda point which hyped the superiority of the German war machine against the Allies’ attack. It was important to the Allies because it was the German anchor point in their vaunted Gustav Line. For the Poles it was important because it would become a symbol of Polish determination and success against the Nazi war machine both in Poland and throughout the West. As you can imagine, besides Berlin being unhappy, Moscow was furious that the western Allies would allow such a prominent prize to fall to the Poles.

Conclusion:

It is always difficult to compare battles. However, I would like to mention two that can perhaps be used as basis from which to understand the ferocity of the fighting. The first is the Battle for Falaise in August 1944 in which the Polish position was overrun constantly by the escaping German Army. Yet the Poles did not yield.

The second was the American battle for Iwo Jima ( February 19, 1945 – March 26, 1945) in which the now famous planting of the American flag on Mount Suribachi by four American soldiers has now become memorialized in sculpture near the Arlington National Cemetery and is a great symbol of American Marine Corp valor since 1775.  The fighting for Iwo Jima was so intense that the Americans sustained over 27,000 casualties (6900 killed). In addition the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded 27 times (13 posthumously). Our nation’s highest honor is awarded to those who distinguish themselves:

“With conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against the enemy of the United States”

A similar statement could be used to describe the bravery of Poles who received the Virtuti Militari and Canadians who received the Victoria Cross or anyone else who received their nation’s highest honor for bravery.  So it is in this spirit that we mention the names of an American recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Canadian who received the Victoria Cross and a Pole who received the Virtuti Militari during the four Battles for Monte Cassino. They are:

Congressional Medal of Honor  – Robert T. Waugh

Victoria Cross -John K. Mahoney

Virtuti MilitariEmil Kornacki

I would like to close this article with the words above the Polish Cemetery at the foot of Monte Cassino. While these words express a Polish sentiment they could just as easily with small modification represent the emotion that one would attach to every Pole, American, Canadian, British, Free French, and any others who died in the fighting for Monte Cassino.

For our freedom and yours

We soldiers of Poland

Have given our souls to God

Our bodies to the soil of Italy

Our hearts to Poland

In Polish

 

Za naszą i waszą wolność

my żołnierze polscy

oddaliśmy Bogu ducha

ciało zimi włoskiej

a serca Polsce

 

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