The Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the toughest and bloodiest battles that determined the outcome of World War II. It was the fourth assault by the Allied forces on German troops controlling the Benedictine abbey atop the hill of Monte Cassino in Italy. It ended in the victory of the Polish 2nd Corps which broke the German defense lines and opened the Allied Armies the road to liberate Rome.
Monte Cassino was the key position of the German system of fortifications in the narrowest part of the Italian Peninsula, called the Gustav Line. In the first half of 1944 Monte Cassino witnessed fierce fighting between Allied forces and German troops. Over several months German troops occupying strong positions repulsed Allied attacks. Three successive assaults by American, British, French, Canadian, South African, New Zealander and Indian forces failed.
Allied Commander Oliver Leese asked the Polish General Władysław Anders, the commander of the Polish 2nd Corps, to join the battle of Monte Cassino. General Anders agreed, believing that Polish involvement in the battle would prove Poland’s solidarity with the nations whose freedom, like Poland’s, was flagrantly violated by Germany. On 11 May, General Anders issued a historic order to the soldiers of the 2nd Corps:
The task that has befallen us will bring worldwide glory to the Polish soldier. In these moments of trial we will be in the minds and hearts of the entire Polish nation. The spirits of our fallen brothers in arms will support us.
Let the lion awake in your heart!
Soldiers – we march ahead with the holy motto of “God, Honor, Homeland” in our hearts, remembering Germany’s bandit attack against Poland, the German-Soviet partitions of Poland, the thousands of ruined towns and cities, the murders and tortures inflicted on hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters, the millions of Poles deported to Germany as slaves, the plight and sorrow of our country, our suffering and exile, with the faith in the justice of Divine Providence.
After bloody fighting that lasted almost a week the abbey was conquered. Another field of German defense, called Hitler’s Line, was broken. On May 18 at noon, a victorious white-and-red flag was hoisted on the Monte Cassino hill. The assault cost the lives of 923 Polish soldiers, 2931 were wounded, and 345 were never found.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a testimony to Polish bravery and sacrifice. Most importantly, it was an expression of solidarity with other nations of the world fighting against Nazism. The Polish victory was critical to the history of World War II. It was also meant to remind Western leaders of the need to restore Poland’s independence at the time when the Soviet Union had already occupied half of Poland’s territory. As it turned out later, the decisions about the future of Poland and its borders had already been made by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943 and further sealed in Yalta.
After the war, a Polish military cemetery was created on the hillside and became a national sanctuary.
The battles of Monte Cassino were commemorated by a plaque at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw and by an inscription on a torch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Krakow. A monument to honor the battle and its Polish heroes was unveiled in 1999 in Warsaw, near the Władysław Anders Street and the Krasinski Park.