Overview of the Polish involvement in the battle for Monte Cassino (verbatim excerpt from the book
Monte Cassino, The Battle of Six Nations):
Chapter IV. The Third Battle for Monte Cassino
The Commander of 2 Polish Corps learned from the Army Commander, General Sir Oliver Leese, for the first
time of the anticipated use of his Corps in operations against the mountainous feature of MONTE CASSINO on March 24th (1944),
when the attack by the New Zealand Corps was still in progress, and its use was subject to this attack not achieving success.
General Anders decided to accept the task, having faith in the ability of his troops to win the day. At the same time Gen.
Anders realised that success would bring fame once more to Polish Arms and still further increase the spirit of the Polish
nation, in its belief in the final victory of Justice and Honour. On the other hand there was a risk that the whole Corps
might be lost in one action, an operation in which the best divisions of the United Nations had not been able fully to succeed.
At the beginning, only a small group of Staff Officers started the preparatory work of collecting all necessary
information and of conceiving the plan of attack that was to come. The Corps' plan was based on the Eighth Army's plan for
the spring offensive and this anticipated an attack by the 2nd Polish Corps against the highground of Monte Cassino strictly
related to an attack by the (British) 13th Corps along the Liri valley. Further to the South, the French Corps was
to attack over the Aurunci mountains using the natives of French North Africa for infiltration and the out-flanking of German
defences. The 2nd American Corps was to attack along the coastal road.
The following information was gained as a basis for operational planning. It was known that the heights
of Monte Cassino were defended by the famous 1st German Para Division on the sector between the town of Cassino and hill 593.
Further to the North, the sector up to Monte Caira was held by the 5th German Mountain Division. According to the information
gained from formations which had previously attacked that objective, enemy defences were built in considerable depth and were
reinforced by steel pill-boxes for MGs (machine guns), mortars and light guns; they were also provided with concrete
block-houses. All available buildings and ruins were used to the full as defended localities. The enemy had the support of
artillery of a total strength of about 230 guns and of a regiment of Nebelwerfers comprising about 40 six-barelled mortars
with numerous mortars of smaller calibre. The greatest difficulties were encountered in ascertaining the lay-out of the enemy
defensive system. Formations which had attacked formerly could give no exact details apart from the fact that the whole area
of the battlefiled was covered with a complicated and interlocked net of enemy MG, mortar and gun fire.
The object of the 2nd Polish Corps was:
"To isolate the area of Monastery Hill Monte Cassino from the North and the North-West and to dominate Highway
6 until junction is effected with 13 Corps.
To attack and capture the Monastery Hill."
The decision of the Corps Commander was as follows: To attack with his whole force along the axis Colle
Majola - Mass Albaneta, to breach the enemy defences in the area hill 593 - Colle S. Angelo and thus to achieve domination
over Highway 6 and to isolate the Monastery; to continue the attack and to capture the Monastery.
The tasks were alloted to the divisions as follows:
The 5th Kresowa Division was to attack and to capture the highground Phantom Ridge - Colle S. Angelo and
hill 575 and then to effect junction with units of 13th Corps.
The 3rd Carpathian Division was to attack and capture hill 593. On the capture of of divisional objectives,
the 3rd Carpathian Division was to continue their effort and attack over hill 444, to capture the Monastery.
These operations were to be covered on the flanks by dismounted recce regiments holding the ridge Monte
Castellone on the right and the slopes of Monte d'Onofrio on the left.
Each division was allotted a squadron of tanks which was to be used as the situation demanded. The whole
attack was to be supported by the fire of over 300 guns.
Preparations on an unprecedented scale were carried out. Engineers widened and extended the so-called Polish
Sappers' Road, to double its previous dimensions so that both infantry divisions could be maintained and tanks could be brought
forward. "Inferno Track," a precipitous road through the mountainous massif East of the Rapido valley, was considerably improved.
Signal units laid a series of dug-in lines across the valley of the Rapido to secure them against enemy
artillery fire. This work was carried out by night and many mine-fields had to be cleared.
The following quantities of war material were brought up on lorries or mules, carried, if necessary, by
porters and dumped:
- 500,000 rounds of artillery ammunition,
- 40,000 rounds of mortar ammunition,
- 359,000 gallons of petrol
- 339,000 one day's rations,
- and above all a huge quantity of S.A. (small arms) ammunition, grenades, etc.
The following camouflage material was used:
- 4,000 camouflage nets,
- 7,000 camouflaged snipers suits,
- 5,800 gallons of paint,
- 50 coils of steel wool,
- 1,500 yards of Hessian.
Our own artillery positions had to be established sufficiently far forward to enable support being given during
the attack. Unfortunately this necessitated the siting of guns in the flat Rapido valley under enemy observation from Monte
Cifalco, Monte Caira and from Monastery Hill and under enemy artillery fire directed from the area Belmonte - Atina (North
of Monte Cifalco). Our artillery, therefore, had to be extremely well camouflaged and had to remain silent until the actual
attack started; from zero hour, the gun positions were continuously screened by smoke for the whole period of the attack.
These measures were successful and right up to the capture of Monastery Hill, enemy counter-battery fire did not seriously
hamper the activity of our own artillery. The smoke screen covered a belt of ground 7 kilometres wide. 18,000 Smoke Generators
were used, a total weight of about 400 tons.
All these stores had to be brought forward by lorry to the eastern side of the Rapido valley, where they were
re-loaded into Jeeps, or put on mules, and by night brought to the foot of the montain slopes. Then the arduous and hazardous
work of the porters began.
On 8th April 1944, the Corps Commander finally decided on his plan. From April 15th, Polish troops started
to take over the sector of the future attack in relief of British Units. From that time, feverish dumping of stores for the
oncoming battle took place. All these preparations were finished on May 8th. It was decided that zero hour would be 2300 hrs
May 11. 1944. From the moment of taking over the sector until "D" day, the men had to live in their defensive positions under
enemy observation from many directions. Any movement by day brought down enemy infantry and artillery fire. Moves could be
carried out only by night. During daylight, the men had to stay in cramped uncomfortable positions in shallow hollows
scraped in the rocky ground, without any adequate cover against enemy fire.
Chapter V. The First Attack by the 2nd Polish Corps
Punctually at 2300 hrs, the whole of the Eighth and the Fifth Army artillery sprang to life, from Acquafondata
stretching as far as the Tyrrhenean coast. Throughout the first forty minutes, over 1,000 guns of Eighth Army concentrated
their fire on known enemy artillery and mortar positions in the area of Atina - Belmonte, Villa S. Lucia and the Liri valleys,
"Mortar", Wadi, Passo Corno and the area of Terelle. This counter-battery fire was particularly important to the operation
of the 2nd Polish Corps, as owing to the right angle bend formed by the front line in the area of Monte Caira, enemy artillery
from Belmonte - Atina was able to fire into the rear of attacking Polish troops. At the end of this 40 minutes, that is after
2340 hrs, the bulk of our artillery was directed against enemy infantry positions on the objectives of both Corps attacks,
while at the same time, harassing of enemy artillery and mortars was continued. Artillery preparation on the 2nd Polish Corps
sector continued until 0100 hrs on May 12th and then the infantry of both divisions began to cross their start lines. It must
be added that the 2nd Polish Corps consisted of two divisions only, each two brigades strong, making a total of twelve batallions.
At 0100 hrs on May 12th, the two assaulting battalions of the 5th Wilno Brigade, preceded by sapper patrols
for mine clearing and marking the route, moved from their forming up areas towards Phantom Ridge, an intermediate brigade
objective. The 18th Battalion was in the second flight, behind the 15th Battalion and was to leave its forming up area later
and to pass through the leading battalions to capture hill 575.
Progress made by these leading battalions however, was unexpectedly slow. They were to start their assault
against Phantom Ridge at 0145 hrs, but the forward elements did not reach the ridge until 0230 hrs. This delay was caused
by heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire which began immediately the infantry left their forming up areas, and the forward
battalions suffered approximately 20% casualties in their advance towards Phantom Ridge. In addition, this fire partly disorganized
the assaulting troops and severed communications with the Brigade Commander. Two companies of the 13th Battalion, moving on
the extreme northern axis, reached the top of Phantom Ridge where they met concentrated enemy artillery and mortar fire with
both frontal and enfilade fire from enemy automatic weapons. Under this heavy fire, companies were quickly whittled away.
The two rear companies of this battalion also reached the top of Phantom Ridge, but, after clearing pill-boxes on its northern
sector, were pinned down by murderous fire which made further movement impossible.
In the South the 15th Battalion swarmed to the top of Phantom Ridge and engaged pill-boxes there, a difficult
task owing to the thick undergrowth, the rocky ground and the darkness. Two companies of this battalion managed to force a
way between enemy pill-boxes to reach hill 517 and then they came under enemy fire. The Commander of these two companies,
finding himself out of touch with flank units and completely isolated, withdrew to Phantom Ridge, where he started mopping
up enemy positions that had been overrun.
At 0300 hrs, the 18th Battalion found itself at its forming up place alongside the 14th Battalion defences,
with all communications forward and with the Brigade Commander, broken. The Battalion Commander, seeing elements of the 15th
Battalion passing over Phantom Ridge, assumed that this ridge was completely in our hands and ordered his battalion to advance.
By 0630 hrs, the 18th Battalion had reached Phantom Ridge and its troops joined with the men of the 15th Battalion in mopping
up enemy pill-boxes. By this time, the area was congested with our troops and casualties began to mount under the increasing
weight of enemy fire. At dawn, an enemy counter-attack was hurled back.
The general situation may be described as follows: forward elements were engaged in a battle among enemy pill-boxes
when the second waves, with no space to move forward, were caught and pinned down on the eastern slopes of Phantom Ridge by
enemy artillery and mortar fire. These slopes were the target of enemy DF (defensive fire?), as was proved subsequently
from captured maps and our troops found themselves in the middle of the defensive rectangle of fire, on rocky ground which
offered no suitable shelter. This situation continued until 1300 hrs, when only remnants of units were left, remnants too
small to achieve further success. As a result, the Divisional Commander ordered the withdrawl of the surviving troops. Some
companies, however, remained on Phantom Ridge among the enemy pill-boxes and rejoined their units on May 13th.
The infantry of the 1st Carpathian Brigade left their forming up area at the same time as the 5th Kresowa
Division, at 0100 hrs. The 2nd Battalion had to launch an attack from the area of hill 596 (known as "Snake's Head"),
along the ridge toward hill 593 with the object of capturing hill 593 and hill 569.
The 1st Battalion, West of the 2nd Battalion, attacked with its four companies one behind the other, with
the object first of capturing the Gorge and then Massa Albaneta. A troop of tanks, which had to use the track running
from Colle Majola to Massa Albaneta, supported the 1st Battalion.
The 2nd Battalion stormed hill 593 at 0130 hrs and by 0245 hrs had liquidated most of the enemy pill-boxes
on the hill; further, some infantry elements overran the northern part of hill 569.
The 1st Battalion was held up before the Gorge by heavy fire from the Gorge itself, from the western slopes
of hill 593 and from the high ground of S. Angelo with the result that it suffered heavy casualties. It was not until dawn
had come and there had been more artillery "softening" on Mass Albaneta and the Gorge, that the 1st Battalion, supported by
tanks, could attack the Gorge and succeed in capturing the northern part of it. A part of this Battalion went even beyond
the Gorge but, lacking tank support, was forced to withdraw under murderous fire from Mass Albaneta and hill 575. Some
tanks had been halted by the rocky ground; others had struck mines. The whole Gorge was heavily mined and sappers engaged
in clearing a path for the tanks suffered such casualties that they were unable to continue their work. (From the sapper detachments
engaged in this work, 18 out of 20 were either killed or wounded).
At the same time the enemy artillery and Nebelwerfers held the approaches to hill 593 and to the Groge under
such heavy and continuous fire, that any communication forward, and the bringing up of ammunition was out of the question.
Enemy reserves, supported by overhead MG and mortar fire from the Monastery and by enfilade fire from Colle d'Onofrio, started
a series of counter-attacks. Seven fierce counter-attacks against the 2nd Battalion were launched by the enemy before 1130
hrs. All these counter-attacks were beaten off by artillery fire and by the infantry, but casualties were so high that, on
the southern slopes of hill 593, only one officer and seven men remained. Companies on the northern slopes of hill 593 also
suffered casualties from artillery and mortar fire, particularly artillery fire from area Atina - Belmonte in their rear and
MG fire from S. Angelo and hill 575. A message was received at 1200 hrs that the part of hill 569 that had been captured,
was lost to the enemy. Hill 593 was held by our infantry until 1900 hrs 12th May and then they received orders to withdraw,
the continued holding of this hill being considered useless. The 1st Battalion was also withdrawn from in front of the Gorge,
as they were being cut down by exceptionally heavy fire from enemy artillery which was also shelling our tanks in that area.
The attack of the 13th (British) Corps began according to plan with the forward elements forcing
the river and establishing a small bridgehead on the western bank of the Gari, beginning at its confluence with the Rapido
and extending to the village of San Angelo. As most of the enemy's fire was concentrated on the defence of the high ground
of Monte Cassino, the troops met only slight artillery and mortar fire. By the evening of 12th May, units had pushed forward
at several points to a maximum distance of one kilometre from the river. Progress was slow owing to the difficulty of getting
heavy equipment across.
At 1600 hrs, the Commander of the Eighth Army arrived at Polish Corps HQ and both Commanders reviewed the
position. It was agreed that the attacks by the 2nd Polish Corps and the 13th Corps were too widely separated, that the Germans
might be prepared to lose some ground in the Liri valley and that by shifting their fire and their reserves on to the 2nd
Polish sector they might attempt to destroy it making full use of their advantage of ground. The Army Commander decided that
the 2nd Polish Corps attack would be repeated after the 13th Corps had advanced further in the Liri valley and when the shortened
distances prevented the enemy using his fire manouvrability.
The time of this second attack was to be given by the Army Commander.
The attack by the 2nd Polish Corps on May 12th, beyond reducing the strength of the enemy, did not result
in the expected tactical success. On the other hand it can be said that the operational success gained was considerable: the
enemy had committed the major part of his artillery against the high ground of Monte Cassino and could, therefore, make use
of only a small proportion of his remaining artillery resources against the 13th Corps sector. He thus failed to prevent the
13th Corps from establishing their bridgeheads.
The results of our counter-battery fire became limited as the hours went by and enemy artillery began to regain
its ascendency more and more during the morning of May 12th, its efficiency unimpaired. Enemy artillery from the area Atina
- Belmonte, firing into the rear of our troops, inflicted most casualties. Some enemy artillery from the Liri valley also
Enemy losses included one reserve battalion of the 1st Para Regiment almost completely destroyed by our artillery
concentration; according to prisoners of war only a few score men were left. Companies which were defending our objective
had less than twenty men remaining after the attack, although they had begun at full strength.
As a result of this fighting, it was possible to form a clear idea of the enemy defensive layout and of the
reasons for its strength. It was more the interesting since both the Germans and the Allies' attacking formations looked upon
the natural Monte Cassino fortress as an almost impregnable objective.
Enemy defensive positions covered hills and ridges forming, as it were, two rings. One ring comprised hill
593, Phantom Ridge, Colle S. Angelo, hill 575, hill 505 and Mass Albaneta. The other covered Monastery Hill ridge from hill
444 to hill 476, hill 569 and Colle d'Onofrio. In the middle of these rings there were deep valleys. All strong-points were
sited around these rings and the valleys were defended by fire from all directions. Such a defensive system may be compared
to a Roman amphitheatre, where every man in the audience sees the other and vice versa. Any weapon on the circumference of
a ring could take part in the battle for any other sector on the circumference. The capture of any part of this circumference
did not provide sufficient width to hold the ground taken. It was only by capturing at least half of a ring by simultaneous
assault that success might be secured. In our case, this minimum objective was a sector covering hill 593, Phantom Ridge and
Colle S. Angelo. The lack of suitable forming up places did not permit an attack on all these objectives simultaneously. These
facts confirmed, however, the wisdom of the original plan for the attack and this plan was not changed when the second attack
on May 17th was launched. In the meantime, units were reorganized, carried out recces and continued to harass the enemy.
Chapter VI. The Second Attack by the 2nd Polish Corps
At 0600 hrs on May 17th, artillery preparation began and it lasted until 0700 hrs when the infantry of the
5th Kresowa Division launched their attack. Earlier, during the night of 16-17 May, the 16th Battalion had carried out a surprise
sortie against Phantom Ridge (without artillery preparation), and had consolidated on its northern slopes. The 17th Battalion,
after leaving their forming up places, advanced quickly past hill 706, reached Phantm Ridge and, passing through the 1st Battalion,
stormed Colle S. Angelo at 0710 hrs, following our own artillery so closely that it came partly under its fire. It was largely
due to the speed of this advance that the major part of this battalion escaped enemy defensive fire; this came too late and
only engaged the tail-end of the battalion consisting mainly of ammunition porters, stretcher-bearers, wireless operators,
etc. This battalion was successful in mopping up the North-East slopes of Colle S. Angelo but on its western slopes, a series
of pill-boxes continued tenaciously to be defended by the Germans.
The fighting by the 17th Battalion on Colle S. Angelo was being waged with the utmost ferocity when the Germans
counter-attacked. There were heavy casualties and enemy fire from the southern slopes of Passo Corno with mortar fire from
the valley of Villa S. Lucia being particularly troublesome. Troops of the 17th Battalion, having expended all their ammunition,
were unable either to move forward or to drive off enemy counter-attacks, which reached their climax at 1400 hrs, effectively.
All this time, the battalion in the second wave and assembly areas were constantly under enemy artillery and mortar fire which
prevented communications with the rear. Between 1500 hrs and 1600 hrs a heavy concentration was put down by our own artillery
and mortars, after which the infantry, the 16th Battalion and the Polish Commando Company, carried out a counter-attack against
S. Angelo and succeeded in mopping up its southern slope up to the summit. The attempt to extend the attack to the northern
slopes of Colle S. Agelo did not succeed owing to difficulties in providing artillery support. Thus the situation on S. Angelo
did not undergo any material change until the morning of May 18th.
At 0720 hrs on May 17th, as a result of the great effort of the supporting engineers, a number of tanks succeeded
in reaching the southern slopes of Phantom Ridge where they destroyed several German bunkers and covered the attack against
Colle S. Angleo.
The 6th Battalion of the 3rd Carpathian Division began to advance towards the Gorge at the same time as the
17th Battalion, with two of its companies directed along the western slopes of hill 593 against Mass Albaneta. During the
day, infantry and tanks, assisted by sappers clearing the tracks of mines, advanced yard by yard destroying the enemy defending
the Gorge. Tanks passed through the Gorge onto the open ground of Mass Albaneta and brought Mass Albaneta and the western
slopes of hill 593 under their own fire. The approach to Mass Albaneta itself was very difficult on account of the thickly
sown mines in the open ground before the buildings. By the evening of May 17th, the infantry of the 6th Battalion had approached
to within 150 yards of the ruins of Mass Albaneta. Capture of this stronghold necessitated more mine lifting and this could
not be done before dusk had fallen.
The 4th Battalion carried out its first assault against hill 593 at 0923 hrs on May 17th. The enemy position
was heavily defended by Spandau fire and the enemy succeeded in driving back the forward attacking company. The Company Commander
repeated the assault for the second and the third time suffering appalling casualties. His company was compelled to halt and
was then pinned down by heavy fire. The Battalion Commander threw further companies into the assault, but all with the same
result, and in attack and counter-attack, hill 593 changed hands again and again. At 1430 hrs, and after further preparations,
yet another assault supported by the whole of the artillery was launched. The Battalion Commander led his men personally:
he was killed by a burst of Spandau fire and the first wave of attacking troops was cut down by the enemy fire. This assault
too, fell short of success and once again the attack broke down on the southern slopes of hill 593, 50 yards from the heavily
defended enemy MG positions. At 1535 hrs the 4th Battalion passed over to the defense with the task of holding the captured
At dawn, May 18th, the 4th Battalion repeated an assault against the enemy positions on the western slopes
of hill 593 and this time suceeded in taking the hill completely. The fighting lasted until 0700 hrs, after which the Battalion
began to storm hill 569 and this objective was captured at 1000 hrs. During the night the enemy withdrew his troops defending
the deeper positions, but still tried to hold the forward defensive positions. Our troops were therefore able to annihilate
the enemy in their pill-boxes on the heights, and then moved towards the Monastery, which was reached at 1015 hrs. The German
Commander of this defensive sector surrendered with about 30 men, while about a hundred Germans made their way down the slopes
of monastery Hill, and surrendered to the British. The mopping up by the 3rd Carpathian Division of scattered pill-boxes lasted
until 1400 hrs.
At 1600 hrs one Polish platoon made contact with units of the 78th British Division on Highway 6.
The Commander of the 5th Kresowa Division continued operations on May 18th, but having no fresh troops, he
committed improvised companies formed from men of the Anti-Tank Regiment, Divisional Defence Company, spare drivers, etc.
In the morning, Colle S. Angelo was completely mopped up and the troops approached to the foot of hill 575. The fighting for
this hill was prolonged until the evening owing to the impassable nature of the ground; steep walls and numerous crevices
and fissures in the rocks were used by the German para-troops as dug-outs. As later established, the reason for such desperate
German resistance was the rumour current among them, that the Poles did not take prisoners. They, therefore, fought to the
very end and perished rather than surrender. Hill 575 was eventually captured on the night of 18-19 May.
The Poles showed a similar stubborness and this can be seen from the heavy casualties suffered by the Corps.
For example, out of the commanders of three attacking brigades, one was killed and one wounded; of the commanders of nine
attacking battalions, two were killed and two wounded; casualties amongst company and platoon commanders were, in proportion,
much heavier. In one of the attacking battalions all the company commanders became casualties. The total losses of the 2nd
Polish Corps in the battle against the high-ground Monte Cassino, Piedimonte and Monte Caira were as follows:
Killed...................72 officers and 788 other ranks
Wounded.............204 officers and 2618 other ranks
Missing................5 officers and 97 other ranks
Total Casualties = 281 officers and 3503 other ranks
The German losses were also heavy. After the massif had been captured it was found that the number of enemy
killed was about 900 apart from those already buried by the enemy; the number of wounded during the first attack is not known,
but it was certainly proportionally high.
The fact that all this took place in an area measuring about one square mile, also shows how fierce the battle
From the booklet Monte Cassino, Battle of Six Nations, published by the Dziennika Zolnierzow APW
printing house, Bologna, 1946.
Monte Cassino Sector Landmarks
Droga Polskich Saperow = Polish Sappers' Road
Grzbiet Widmo = Phantom Ridge
Glowa Weza = Snake's Head
Gardziel = the Gorge
Mala Miska = Small Bowl
Duza Miska = Large Bowl
Dolina Smierci = Valley of Death