Texans And Poles—At the Battle of Monte Casino
By Phyllis Ewing
The WWII Battle of Monte Cassino involved Allied forces against the heavily fortified German Winter Line. Four major battles took place over a four month period. The Texas 36th division of the U.S. 5th Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, had landed and fought at Salerno, then San Pietro and now just one month later had moved up the Italian “boot” to fight again at Cassino. The Fifth Army had reached the Gustav line on January 15th,1944, having taken six weeks of heavy fighting to advance the last seven miles, and sustaining 16,000 casualties.
They fought through rivers and ravines filled with mines, booby-traps and hidden barbed wire. The German defenders had three months to establish a foothold in the mountains. There were no natural shelters, and the weather was wet and freezing cold. Digging foxholes in the rocky ground was out of the question as the Germans had dug in positions and were able to fire upon the Allies from surrounding high points.
The Allies feared that the abbey formed part of the German defensive strategy and ordered bombing it on February 15th. The abbey was viewed as a potential threat rather than an actual state of occupation. American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs onto the fourteen-centuries old Abbey reducing the entire mountain top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble. With the exception of some manned positions in the steep hillsides below, the Germans left the Abbey unoccupied because of its historic significance. The only people killed during the bombing were Italian civilians seeking refuge in the abbey.
The rubble left behind, provided excellent protection for the German paratroopers who took up positions in the ruins. In April, high level discussions were under way for a massive offensive. The plan called for a large-scale deception to convince the German defenders that the Allies had finally abandoned plans for further attacks on the Gustav Line, and that their mission was now to land north of Rome. In order to remain convincing, the Allies resorted to several diversionary tactics.
German Intelligence intercepted coded messages indicating that the Allies were planning an amphibious landing further north. A few Allied troops were dispatched to Salerno and Naples to be seen “practicing” landings while Allied air forces were conspicuously making reconnaissance flights over the beaches. False information was spoon-fed to German spies while Italian partisans were put into action.
As these diversions were being carried out, the Allied positions at Monte Cassino and Rapido were being heavily reinforced under camouflage. The II Polish Corps, already positioned at Monte Cassino, was ordered to maintain strict radio silence. Its location was cleverly concealed by miles of camouflage.
The French Expeditionary Corps, consisting of 99,000 men was completely hidden from view. The camouflage was so successful that it not only hid an entire army, but permitted the construction of six bridges. All troop movements were done secretly and under the cover of darkness. The Germans did not suspect a thing as they sent two armored divisions with additional reserves northward.
On May 11 at 23:00 hours, the Allies opened intense bombardmentfrom 1,600 guns aimed directly at German positions all along the 18 mile coastal length of the Rapido Valley. Despite intense German fire, the French were able to extend their bridgeheads. The Germans were completely taken by surprise.
To the II Polish Corps was given the most difficult task of all —the capture of Cassino and Monastery Hill. The II Polish Corps went into battle under heavy fire and lost 20% of their men. They were the first to reach Phantom Ridge, but were caught in a barrage of gunfire, mines and traps. Casualties were very heavy and the units were almost completely wiped out.
At one point, Polish troops who had run out of ammunition, and were cut off from their supplies, even resorted to throwing stones. Overall, the Poles had suffered nearly 4,000 casualties, or about half of their men. But it was they who finally walked into the ruins of the monastery on May 18th, where they hoisted the Polish flag around 10:20 AM. Between January 17th and May 18th, Gustav defenses were assaulted four times by Allied troops. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost.
The monastery has been completely reconstructed and today we can see and visit this peaceful place along with the impressive Polish Military Field of Honor. The cemetery, in the shape of an amphitheatre with an altar, and its monument are placed on a mountainous slope below the abbey of Monte Cassino. 1,052 Polish soldiers are buried there. At the graveyard’s entrance are two gateposts with the following inscription:
“We Polish soldiers
For our freedom and yours
Have given our souls to God
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
And our hearts to Poland.”
The Battle of Monte Cassino is of particular interest to me as a Texan of Polish ancestry. I have had the pleasure and honor to visit this awe-inspiring, reverent place, three times.