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During the Second World War, the campaign in Italy was the most destructive fought in Europe – a long, bitter and highly attritional conflict that raged up the country’s mountainous leg. For frontline troops, casualty rates at Cassino and along the notorious Gothic Line were as high as they had been on the Western Front in the First World War. There were further similarities too: blasted landscapes, rain and mud, and months on end with the front line barely moving.
And while the Allies and Germans were fighting it out through the mountains, the Italians were engaging in bitter battles too. Partisans were carrying out a crippling resistance campaign against the German troops but also battling the Fascists forces as well in what soon became a bloody civil war. Around them, innocent civilians tried to live through the carnage, terror and anarchy, while in the wake of the Allied advance, horrific numbers of impoverished and starving people were left to pick their way through the ruins of their homes and country. In the German-occupied north, there were more than 700 civilian massacres by German and Fascist troops in retaliation for Partisan activities, while in the south, many found themselves forced into making terrible and heart-rending decisions in order to survive.
Although known as a land of beauty and for the richness of its culture, Italy’s suffering in 1944-1945 is now largely forgotten. This is the first account of the conflict there to tell the story from all sides and to include the experiences of soldiers and civilians alike. Offering extensive original research, it weaves together the drama and tragedy of that terrible year, including new perspectives and material on some of the most debated episodes to have emerged from the Second World War.
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James Holland was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and studied history at Durham University. A member of the British Commission for Military History and the Guild of Battlefield Guides, he also regularly contributes reviews and articles in national newspapers and magazines. He is the author of three previous historical works – Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943; Together We Stand: North Africa 1942-1943 – Turning the Tide in the West; and Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War. His many interviews with veterans of the Second World War are available at the Imperial War Museum. James Holland is married with two children and lives in Wiltshire.
PART IThe Road to RomeONEThe Eve of Battle May 1944
There were many nationalities and differing races in the two Allied armies waiting to go into battle. The British and Americans formed the largest contingents, but there were also French, Moroccans, Algerians, Canadians, New Zealanders (whites and Maori), Poles, Nepalese, Indians (all faiths), South Africans (white, Asian, black, Zulus), and in the air forces, Australians, Rhodesians and others beside. Whatever their differing creeds and wide-ranging backgrounds, they all were relieved to see that on this day, the eve of battle, the weather was being kind. Thursday, 11 May 1944, was a glorious day: warm, with blue skies, and, by the afternoon, not a rain cloud in sight, just as it had been for most of the month. By evening, the temperature had dropped somewhat, but it was still warm, with just the faintest trace of a breeze – even near the summit of Monte Cassino, some 1,700 feet above the valley below. In their foxholes, the men of the 45,600-strong II Polish Corps waited, repeatedly checking their weapons; eating a final meal; exchanging anxious glances. The minutes ticked by inexorably slowly. It was quiet up there, too; quieter than it had been for many days. Not a single gun fired. The mountain, it seemed, had been stilled.
It was now three weeks since the Poles had taken over the Monte Cassino sector and since then, almost every minute, both day and night, had been spent preparing for and thinking about the battle ahead. By day, the men had trained; they had held exercises in attacking strongly fortified positions, practising rock climbing and assaulting concrete bunkers. New flamethrowers were also introduced, while each squadron and platoona was given clear and detailed instructions as to what they were supposed to do when the battle began.
By night, the Poles had been even busier. Vast amounts of ammunition and supplies had to be taken up the mountainside, a task that was impossible during daylight when the enemy would easily be able to spot them – secrecy was paramount; so, too, was saving lives for the battle ahead. It was also a task that could only be achieved by the use of pack mules and by the fortitude of the men, for there were just two paths open to them – both old mountain tracks, which for more than six miles could be watched by the enemy. A carefully adhered-to system had been quickly established. Supplies were brought from the rear areas by truck. Under carefully laid smoke screens, they were loaded onto smaller, lighter vehicles, then, as the mountain began to rise, they were transferred onto mules and finally carried by hand and on backs by the men themselves, slogging their way up the two mountain tracks that led to the forward positions. All this was done in the dark, without any lights, and as quietly as possible. Even so, the men were often fired upon. The German gunners around Monte Cassino would lay periodic barrages along various stretches of these mountain paths and despite their best efforts, casualties mounted – casualties II Polish Corps could ill-afford.
Now the waiting was almost over, and as the sun slipped behind the mountains on the far side of the Liri Valley, and darkness descended, the Poles knew that at long last the moment for which they had endured so much in the past four-and-a-half years was almost upon them.
In what had once been a lovely mountain meadow, the men of the 2nd Squadron, 12th Lancers, were now dug in. Part of the Polish Corps’ 3rd Carpathian Division, they were some 600 yards from the crumbled ruins of the monastery, and the ground ahead of them was pockmarked and churned by shell holes, and strewn with twisted bits of metal and remnants of the dead. Not that twenty-seven-year-old Wladek Rubnikowicz had had much chance to examine the area that was to be his part of the battlefield. In an effort to keep their presence a secret, Wladek and his comrades had been forbidden to send out patrols to reconnoitre the area. In fact, since arriving in their positions on the night of 3 May, Wladek had done little but bring up more supplies by night and brace himself for the attack by day.
The Lancers were cavalry, trained to use armoured cars and to operate as a fast-moving reconnaissance unit, but for the battle they had become infantrymen, foot-sloggers like almost every other soldier that had fought across this damnable piece of land for the past four months. The armoured cars now waited for them miles behind the line with the rear echelons. Only once the battle was won, and the men were out of the mountains and into the valleys below, would they get their vehicles back.
For the vast majority of Polish troops now lying in wait on the mountain, their journey there had been long and tortuous – an epic trek that had seen them travel thousands of miles, crossing continents and enduring terrible losses and hardship – and Wladek was no exception. It was a miracle that he was alive at all.
The blitzkrieg that followed the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 had lasted just twenty-eight days and on 29 September, the country was carved in two by the month-old allies, Germany and the Soviet Union. What had been a beacon of democracy was now subjugated under fascism in one half and Stalinist communism in the other. Its cities and towns lay in ruins, while its stunned people wondered how this apocalypse could have happened in such a short space of time.
Wladek, then a cadet with the Polish Army, had been wounded in the shoulder in the final days before the surrender. Left behind in a disused schoolhouse, he was helped by some local girls who tended him and brought him food and water and, once fit enough to walk, he began the long journey back home to Glebokie, a small town in what had been north-east Poland, but which had now been consumed by the Soviet Union.
His older brother had been killed in the fighting, leaving a wife and two small children, while his home town had been devastated by the war. ‘I could see that every thing that made life worthwhile had come to standstill,’ Wladek recalled. Nor could he stay at home. Russian troops were everywhere, arresting Poles in their droves. He eventually managed to get to Warsaw after travelling most of the way by clutching to the buffers of a train in temperatures well below freezing, and despite being arrested at the German – Russian border. Temporarily locked in a barn, he quickly escaped and made his way through the snow into the German-occupied half of Poland.
For a while Wladek worked for the Polish resistance movement, but on a mission back into Russian-occupied Poland, he was arrested at the border once again. This time he did not escape.
For thirteen long months, Wladek was held at Bialystok prison. He was one of fifty-six prisoners crammed into an eight-man cell. Occasionally he would be interrogated and beaten. Eventually he was sentenced to three years in a Siberian labour camp. In June 1941, he and 500 others were loaded onto a goods train, fifty to a wagon, and sent to a labour camp in the Arctic Circle.
Ventilation for the wagon came from a small, barred hole and an opening in the floor used as a toilet. There was not enough air and they all struggled to breathe properly. Each prisoner received 400 grammes of bread and one herring at the start of the journey, but the salty herring made them thirstier. They were eventually given a small cup of water each, which, they were told, had to last until the following day. Dysentery soon gripped many men, and most had fever. A number died, their bodies remaining where they lay amongst the living. ‘Can you imagine?’ says Wladek. ‘We didn’t realise then that of course the Soviets hoped these conditions would kill off many of us on the way.’
The journey lasted two weeks. The further they travelled the more bleak and desolate the surrounding country became. Eventually they halted at a railhead on the Pechora River. Staggering off their wagon, they were herded towards a transit camp before continuing their journey by paddle steamer. This took them a further 700 miles north. They disembarked a week later at Niryan-Mar Gulag, in one of the most northern parts of Russia.
Conditions had been bad at Bialystok, but Niryan-Mar reached new depths of deprivation. The men were housed in large marquee-like summer tents, each sheltering around 180 men, and although they each had a rough wooden bunk to sleep on, there were neither mattresses nor blankets and the prisoners slept fully clothed at all times. They kept their clothes stuffed with cotton wool and although they just about managed to keep warm, they were soon plagued by lice.
Every day the prisoners were put to work at the nearby port on the mouth of the Pechora for twelve-hour days of physically demanding labour, sustained only by meagre rations of water and hard bread. As Wladek says: ‘We worked as slaves.’
The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, but there was nowhere a prisoner could go even if he did escape: they were miles from anywhere and the surrounding forests and marshes were home to wolves. Even so, Wladek did make one bid for freedom. A Swedish vessel came into port and thinking the crew seemed friendly and sympathetic, he managed to slip away and hide in the hold. He misjudged them, however. Soon discovered, he was handed back to the Soviets. ‘The punishment I received I shall never forget,’ he says; Wladek was beaten to within an inch of his life.
Inevitably, many prisoners succumbed to disease. Illness, however, was no excuse not to work. Despite high fevers and crippling dysentery, prisoners had to keep going, as ‘the alternative to working was death’. Wladek’s malnutrition caused him to start to go blind. His affliction was worse in the evening and to ensure that he did not step out of line and that he made it safely back to camp each night, he depended on others to guide him.
This hell did eventually come to an end, however. Months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he and his fellow prisoners were released and, armed with a free rail pass and some meagre rations, were told to head south. As they did so, Stalin had already begun to renege on his promises and large numbers, Wladek included, were forcibly detained on collective farms. He and several others managed to escape by stealing and pilfering, and, weeks later, they finally reached the Polish camp at Guzar in Uzbekistan, one of the most southerly points in the Soviet Union.
Even before Wladek had left the gulag and set out on the journey that would take him eventually from the Arctic Circle to the edge of Persia, he had been in a weakened physical state – and just a fraction of his normal body weight. Several thousand miles later, having travelled by rail, boat, and on sore and bloody feet, he was seriously ill. Struggling with a high fever, he staggered to the Polish camp’s registration office and was then sent to the first aid station, where he was told he had contracted typhoid.
Meanwhile, General Wladyslaw Anders in the southern Soviet Union, and General Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Free Polish Forces, in London, had been having a difficult time with the Soviet leaders. It had been the Poles’ hope and intention that the reconstituted Polish Army should fight as a whole against Germany on the Eastern Front, which would send out a strong signal to the world about Polish solidarity and their fighting spirit. Stalin, however, who had designs on Poland if and when Germany was beaten, had no intention of allowing this to happen, and so had been making life as difficult as possible, giving the Poles mustering areas and camps in inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union where disease – such as typhoid – was rife, and waylaying potential Polish troops by forcing them to work on collective farms.
Eventually, however, Stalin decided he wanted to free himself of any obligations to arm and provide for the Polish Army, no matter how useful they might one day be. Churchill had let it be known that he wanted Polish forces fighting alongside the Allies in the Middle East, and so under pressure from both Britain and America, Sikorski agreed that Anders’ Polish Army should be evacuated to Persia, from where they would train under British guidance.
Wladek Rubnikowicz was still making his miraculous recovery from typhoid when the first evacuation to Persia was made, but he joined the next one a few months later, only to contract malaria. After a couple of weeks the fever subsided leaving him with recurrences of the disease that would plague him for years to come. Things were looking up, however. He made his way to Iraq, where he joined General Anders’ camp at Quisil Ribat Oasis and where training began in earnest. It was whilst there that Wladek also heard good news about his parents. They too had escaped from the Soviet Union and were at a camp in Iran. He even managed to get leave to see them.
Now with the 12th Polish Lancers of the newly formed II Polish Corps, Wladek moved with his regiment to Kirkuk. With plentiful rations and a moderately balanced diet, he and the rest of his Polish comrades gradually began to build up their strength. ‘We all felt anxious to get to the front,’ he says, ‘and begin fighting for the liberation of Poland. That may sound strange, but it’s true.’
After further training in Palestine, the 12th Lancers, part of the 3rd Carpathian Division, reached Italy in December 1943. Several months were spent carrying out final training and acclimatising, until, in the middle of April, they were moved up to the Cassino front.
In fact, General Sir Oliver Leese, commander of the British Eighth Army, under which II Polish Corps served, had visited General Anders on 24 March and proposed that his troops be given the task of taking the Monte Cassino heights and then the hill-top village of Piedimonte, several miles to the west in what would become the fourth battle of Cassino. ‘It was,’ noted Anders, ‘a great moment for me.’2
The Polish commander had suffered as well in the previous years of war. Captured by the Russians in September 1939, Anders had been imprisoned in Lubianka after refusing to join the Red Army. Released after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was given permission to trace and recruit Polish POWs held in the gulags. It was largely thanks to his tireless efforts that he managed to muster some 160,000 men in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan who were then trained to continue the fight for Poland. Now, at Cassino, he had a small corps of two divisions and an armoured brigade made up of 45,626 fighting men. It was an incredible achievement by the dashing and charismatic fifty-two-year-old.
For a few moments only, Anders had considered Leese’s suggestion. He was well aware that Monte Cassino had not been taken in two months of bitter fighting; that it had hitherto eluded the efforts of battle-hardened and highly experienced troops. The task that Leese was putting forward was an awesome proposition for his men in what would be their first battle since the fall of Poland. ‘The stubbornness of the German defence at Cassino and on Monastery Hill was already a byword,’ Anders observed. ‘I realised that the cost in lives must be heavy, but I realised too the importance of the capture of Monte Cassino to the Allied cause, and most of all to that of Poland.’3 And so he accepted.
Now, on the evening of 11 May, the moment had almost arrived. Wladek and his comrades had been thoroughly briefed. The messages of Generals Alexander and Leese to their troops had been translated into Polish and the single sheets of thin paper passed around. So too had Anders’ own message. ‘Soldiers!’ he wrote, ‘The moment for battle has arri...
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