Lieutenant-General Władysław Anders

The battle for Monte Cassino became one of the biggest Polish historical myths. Losses of the II Corps there amounted to 4,199 men, of whom 923 were killed, while the German casualties were four times smaller. Did that great sacrifice serve Poland, or only personal ambitions of Gen. Władysław Anders?

The Italian campaign, launched with a great vigour in September 1943, after initial successes stalled on the barrier made of two lines of defence: the Gustav Line and the Hitler Line, expertly prepared under the command of Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring. The Allies' main strategic objective was to take Rome. Yet, direct routes to the city were blocked by heavily fortified German positions with the towering ancient Benedictine abbey atop of Monte Cassino. The commander-in-chief of the 15th Army Group, General Harold Alexander, decided to storm them in frontal attack, although the commander of the French Expeditionary Corps, Gen. Alphonse Juin, proposed outflanking the enemy through a manoeuvre across the Aurunci mountains.

After three bloody and inefficient assaults at Monte Cassino by the American II Corps and the the New Zealand II Corps, as well as the failure of the auxiliary landing operation at Anzio, Gen. Oliver Leese, the commander of the British 8th Army, to which the II Polish Corps was subordinated operationally, proposed to Gen. Władysław Anders to carry the fourth assault at the abbey. General Anders made that fateful decision without consulting his supreme commander, Gen Kazimierz Sosnkowski. He explained later that he was driven by the desire to counter the Soviet propaganda, which - in view of strained relations - was wielding the argument that the Poles after leaving the Soviet Union did not want to fight the Germans; he also believed that victory would give new courage to the resistance movement in Poland and would cover Polish arms with glory. [Anders Wł. (1949).]

Yet, Sosnkowski was terrified, especially from the idea of direct frontal attack on the heavily fortified German position, which the British staff officers from the outset planned in the way defying fundamental principles of warfare. There came to a dramatic argument between the two Polish generals. Gen. Sosnkowski was at that time the most experienced Polish high-ranking commander, while Gen. Anders, the commander of a cavalry brigade before the war, had virtually no operational experience.

Historians rarely have an opportunity to review such a dramatic course of events by comparing different positions. In this case, however, both antagonists have commented the conflict on the pages of their memoirs. Anders confined his remarks to generalities, bringing the dispute to the difference of opinion on the tactics. He wrote that the commander-in-chief warned that the losses would be huge, and yet Monte Cassino would not be taken. He saw a chance for success - just like Gen. Juin - in a manoeuvre outflanking the enemy on the left wing.

Sosnkowski was not so enigmatic. According to his memoirs, he accused the commander of the II Corps in following his private ambitions:

It's true that I told General Anders the words he quotes: "You are dreaming of white plume". But I told him way more: First of all, I told him that I considered his willfulness a violation of military discipline, especially dangerous and damaging in exile; furthermore, I told him that to spend Polish blood in the pitched political struggle for the future and rights of our nation belonged to the highest authorities of the Republic, and ignoring those authorities in name of foreign political centres facilitated the latter's winning individual ambitions for their own objectives, which, after all, might be in contradiction with our own national interests, as the Teheran Conference and Churchill's speech in the Parliament of 22 February had it proved. [Sosnkowski K. (1966).]

Although in normal circumstances such a behaviour of the corps commander would cost him his post, Sosnkowski gave up disciplinary sanctions, fearing - rightly - that such a scandal would only spark mutual enmities in the Polish camp, and provoke unpredictable consequences in the international affairs. What is worse, Anders, insolent from his impunity, had openly sided with Alexander and Leese.

And so, the badly planned Polish attack commenced on 12 May 1944. After six days of bitter struggle with the élite 1st Parachute Division (Lt.-Gen. Richard Heidrich) reinforced with alpine rifles, which could not be beaten, and even less crushed, patrols of the 12th Lancer Regiment eventually seized the ruined monastery. It was seized, not taken, as the Germans had it abandoned earlier.

The heroism of a soldier fighting in the toughest conditions and against well-trained and valiant opponent is indisputable. Yet, there is the open question of how well the assault on Monte Cassino was planned. Maj. Ludwik Domoń, the commander of the 18th Infantry Battalion of the 5th Infantry Division, assessed the course of the battles briefly, but highly critically, emphasizing the lack of co-ordination, resulting from inapt command of the higher levels, especially on the level of the corps command: Col. Klemens Rudnicki, the deputy commander of the 5th Kresowa Inf.Div. was the only high-ranking commander, who (...) knew what was going on the battlefield, and had his say in the course of the fights. The conclusion of his reasoning is clear: It was our magnificent soldier that had won the battle of Monte Cassino, from private up to the battalion command inclusively and that's it. [Domoń L. (1989).]

Contrary to the legend created later in the West with the remarkable contribution of General Anders, who did not disdain even forging of documents, the effort of the II Corps did not play the key role in the battle for Rome, as the fall of Monte Cassino was delivered not by the bloody but inefficient frontal attack, but the clever envelopment of the German defences by Gen. Juin's corps, which had finally got free hand to realize his concept. Anders' thesis that the sacrifice of his troops would matter politically, because it would focus the world's public opinion on the Polish question, did not prove true either. The soldiers of the II Corps became media stars merely for few days. The British prime-minister Winston Spencer Churchill in his memoirs offered barely a sentence to praise the Poles: They greatly distinguished themselves in this their first major engagement in Italy. [Churchill W. S. L. (1986e).] Of course, they won a soldier's (but not generals') glory, yet outside Poland only military historians remember it.

As a result, the bloody sacrifice of the II Corps at Monte Cassino served only what Sosnkowski feared so much - consolidation of the political position and the false myth of its commander.