The Poppies of Monte Cassino

GAZETTE AUGUST 2017

Standing in the summer sun of Southern Italy it was hard to believe that here in the Liri Valley, and gazing up at the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino, that one of the bloodiest series of battles of the last war had claimed the lives of over one thousand allied soldiers in this now peaceful and idyllic place.

From January to May 1944 the allied army fought to capture Monte Cassino which blocked the only route north to Rome. Of all the heroes that fought in that brutal winter war few did so with more distinction than the Polish Carpathian Brigade under General Anders. I was here to keep a promise made to Polish friends that one day I would visit the Polish cemetery and also see for myself how forbidding is the height of Monte Cassino and how rough and rugged the terrain.

The story of the Polish soldiers begins long before the battle as this army had been interned by Stalin and was only released from Siberia to fight the common enemy. General Anders and his men and their families marched from Siberia to Iran to make contact with allied forces. While the families went to camps in Western North Africa, the Poles formed into their armed brigade, rifle brigade and lancers to fight the 8th Army until Rommel surrendered after El Alamein.

The Poles then fought their way through Sicily into Italy where the waves of their assaults broke on the impregnable defences of the Gustav line anchored by Monte Cassino. Over a hundred thousand allied soldiers died in the campaign and some of harshest fighting took place on Hangman’s Hill which the Poles held despite ceaseless attacks from the German paratroopers. Ultimately the Poles were victorious and their flag was the first to be hoisted at the peak.

Tragically under the Yalta agreement Poland was surrendered to Stalin and Anders men knew there was no way home for them. Over a thousand lie in the cemetery which I visited and the flowers are still fresh on the grave of General Anders. Many of the Polish heroes made their way to Ealing where they have since earned the respect and affection of all of us.

My admiration for these proud people increased even more when I looked at the graves at those who fought and died for our shared freedoms.