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  • James Houser

May 18, 1944 - Polish Armies in Exile & the Battle of Monte Cassino

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 18, 1944. The Polish II Corps, an army in exile far from their Nazi-occupied homeland, finally takes the German stronghold of Monte Cassino in the mountains of Italy. Among the 50,000 soldiers on the rolls, one soldier stands out – Private Wojtek. Wojtek, in fact, is a Syrian Brown Bear, and his strange journey is a testament to the strange and tragic story of the Polish forces in exile during World War II.

Immediately after the fall of Poland to invading Nazi and Soviet forces, a Polish Government in Exile formed in London under Wladyslaw Sikorski, a famed general and politician. Those Poles that were able to escape the fall of their nation and join the Western Allies managed to put together a number of small units that took part in the 1940 defense of France, and Polish pilots made an often-overlooked contribution to defending England in the Battle of Britain. However, their numbers remained small; most Polish residents were under harsh repression by Nazi or Soviet authorities, and most of the original Polish Army were prisoners of war in concentration camps or gulags.

The Soviets occupied eastern Poland by secret agreement with Hitler in 1939, and while their tyranny did not equal Nazi policies it was terrible in its own right. Many Polish citizens, soldiers and civilians were deported to Siberia, and a large number of captured Polish officers were executed en masse in the Katyn Forest in 1940. The Soviets repressed any alliance with the Polish Government in Exile because of its anti-communist and anti-Russia tilt.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, however, the situation changed for the Poles locked up in the Soviet gulags. The British and Soviets made an agreement that almost 75,000 Polish citizens would be transferred from Soviet to British custody by way of Persia. The Soviets saw the obvious problems in trying to raise a Polish army from men and women they had thrown into prison camps, and the British, who always suffered a shortage of manpower, gained a great boost to their forces in the Middle East.

Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders had led a cavalry brigade during the German invasion of Poland, and tried to escape to Hungary but was captured, tortured and imprisoned by Communist authorities. He was finally released in 1941, and by March 1942 he had assumed command of the Polish forces in Persia, which had been designated II Polish Corps but are sometimes better known by the name “Anders’ Army.”

As the Polish exiles made their way to training camps in Persia, one cadre of refugees was at a train station near Hamadan when they met a young boy with a bear cub whose mother had been shot by hunters. 18-year old Irena Bokiewicz, one of the refugees, persuaded a Polish officer to buy the poor creature, and the bear cub came along with the Polish soldiers to their training camp. He ended up in the custody of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, which transported shells and charges to the new Polish artillery battalions. It was these soldiers who named him “Wojtek”, a nickname of the old Slavic name “Wojciech” which means “Happy Warrior.”

As Anders’ Army trained for the fight, it was moved from base to base within the British Empire, travelling to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Wojtek went with them. A wild animal has probably never had a more unusual upbringing. He was nursed with condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. He drank coffee in the mornings, but beer was his favorite drink, and he ate cigarettes and even smoked them (though apparently not for long.) He wrestled with the soldiers, saluted at a command, marched on his hind legs beside them and even kept his comrades warm at night.

Wojtek the Bear became a mascot and symbol for the Polish II Corps at their camp in Egypt as they waited to be committed to the growing war in Europe. In 1944, the Allies were fighting a grinding mountain campaign in Italy, and they needed to free up troops for the upcoming invasion of Normandy. It was decided that Anders’ Army would join the Allied force in Italy to help push back the Germans and capture Rome.

After the Allied landing in southern Italy in 1943, they fought a muddy, miserable campaign of attrition against German forces dug in along the stiff Apennine Mountains of central Italy. The Germans had put together a formidable defensive line centering on the old Benedictine Abbey atop Monte Cassino, a formidable strongpoint that resisted attacks for months. Starting in January 1944, the Allies launched three heavy assaults on the mountain stronghold, which was defended tenaciously by the elite German paratroops of the 1st Fallschirmjager Division. The U.S. 34th and 36th Infantry Divisions failed with heavy casualties in January 1944 (I did a post on January 20 about this very battle.) Attempts by the 2nd New Zealand and 4th Indian Divisions in February and March also came to nothing.

When the Poles left Egypt for Italy in February 1944, they learned with dismay that British regulations forbade animal mascots or pets from going on board the ships. Wojtek would have to come with them – after all, he drank, smoked, and worked as hard as any of the rest of them! Somehow the soldiers convinced their officers of the obvious solution. Just before the Polish II Corps embarked, Wojtek was enlisted as a Private in the 22nd Company. He had his own paybook, rank, and serial number, and lived with the soldiers in a specially built crate transported by truck. Wojtek would go with the Poles to Italy, come hell or high water.

In May 1944, the Allies finally prepared for their combined offensive that would defeat German forces in southern Italy, crack their mountain defenses, and capture Rome itself. It’s worth noting at this point that the Allied forces in Italy were truly one of the strangest hodgepodge of units that ever fought in a single theater. Just in the upcoming campaign there would be: Americans, French, Moroccans, Algerians, British, Indians, New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans, Italians, and, of course, Poles with one Syrian brown bear.

The next year would also see the U.S. Army’s only all-black and all-Japanese infantry units, as well as the Brazilian 1st Infantry Division, the Jewish Brigade from Palestine, and a Greek Brigade committed to the Italian Front. The armies in Italy could only succeed if they were truly Allies. This would make Italy, and Monte Cassino in particular, an Allied victory.

On May 12, a massive artillery bombardment opened the Polish attack on Monte Cassino.

The Allies surged forward across the Italian front. On the far left, close to the western coast, American troops hammered through German positions in the narrow river mouths. To their right, the French mountain troops, mostly Algerian and Moroccan colonials, began cutting through the high passes. To the right of the French, British and Indian troops made a forced crossing of the Garigliano River under heavy fire to pave the way for the 1st Canadian Armored Brigade to punch through the German position.

The Poles on the far right had the critical mission: take Monte Cassino. To do this, they would attack north of the great fortress, hoping to link up with the Canadian tanks and surround the mountain before making the final assault. As their guns pounded away at the German trenches, the Polish troops rushed forward into their baptism of fire. The artillery were well-supplied. Marching along with his fellow soldiers, Wojtek the bear carried 25-pounder howitzer shells up the steep mountain paths to keep the guns firing.

The first Polish objective was Monte Calvario – Mount Calvary, just north of Monte Cassino. The next three days saw a seemingly unending struggle as the Polish infantry fought bitterly against the German paratroopers, and both sides suffered heavy losses in the mud and rain of Italy. The leading Polish battalions had been nearly wiped out, and by May 15 the attack had to be called off. The II Polish Corps had suffered almost 4,000 casualties in this first miserable assault. Mount Calvary was referred to as a “miniature Verdun.”

Farther south, it was the French-led Algerians and Moroccans who had achieved the decisive penetration, unhinging the whole German defensive line. The Germans were terrified of the knife-wielding North Africans, who demonstrated alarming aggressiveness and favored night attacks, and they made rapid progress. As British reinforcements came up to help the Poles and complete the encirclement, Anders’ Army focused their entire attention on the linchpin of the German line. They braced themselves for the second attempt on Monte Cassino. The fortress had to fall; the entire offensive depended on it. Could the Poles succeed where Americans, Kiwis and Gurkhas had all failed?

On May 17, the Poles launched their final attack. Under constant artillery and mortar fire, the infantry clawed its way up the slopes. Fighting was hand-to-hand, but the exiles struggled past the German paratroopers and began to push them back. By nightfall, the situation was uncertain, and General Anders feared the attack had failed again.

On May 18, 1944, the Polish flag flew over Monte Cassino. The attacking forces had been so battered and were so weary that it had taken time to find a man with even the strength to raise the flag. The German paratroopers had retreated, both from the pressure by the Poles and the threat from the Canadians, British and French to their rear. After five months, the Allies held Monte Cassino, and the road to Rome was open. All the Polish soldiers – Wojtek included – had conquered.

Throughout 1944 and into 1945, the II Corps fought its way up Italy alongside the rest of the Allied forces. Even as they suffered losses, they often liberated Polish prisoners and conscripts from the German forces and incorporated them into their ranks. The Germans had often used Poles as slave laborers in factories or on fortifications, and when they were liberated they eagerly joined the Polish armed forces. In northern Europe, as well, other Polish forces contributed to the war; the Polish 1st Armored Division fought in Normandy and the Netherlands, and the 1st Polish Airborne Brigade attempted to save the British airborne forces trapped in Arnhem. Polish soldiers all along the front, far from home, fought to the very end of World War II in Europe.

Their future, though, was not bright. In 1944 and 1945, the Soviet Union overran Poland and set up a communist dictatorship in the “liberated” country. They were deliberately cold to bringing the Polish forces in exile home – they were perceived as Western agents and capitalist influencers. Besides, the Soviets wanted a communist Poland fully under their control, and a bunch of war heroes who had fought with the democratic Western Powers would preclude that authoritarian dream. When World War II ended, the Polish Government in Exile – along with the armies that had fought the Nazis in Italy and France – found their future very much in doubt.

The Soviets broke their promise to hold free elections in Poland after the war and began to snuff out anti-communist resistance. Anders and his soldiers were accused of funding terrorists and being in the pockets of the British. The Government in Exile would not be allowed to resume control of their home country; the puppet Soviet government was now in power. The Poles had helped liberate Europe, but they could never go home again.

The Polish Armed Forces in the West were disbanded in 1947 and went their separate ways. Most refused to return to Poland, where they would be treated as “enemies of the state” and often greeted with imprisonment, torture and death. Many ended up being welcomed to settle in Canada, Australia, or the United States, but most – 114,000 of them – made their home in Britain, where they became the seed of Britain’s Polish minority population. Most experienced endemic and cruel racism where they settled – which must have been particularly harsh given the role they played in the Battle of Britain.

Wladyslaw Anders was stripped of his Polish citizenship and his rank by Communist Poland, and settled in Britain where he wrote his memoirs. He devoted his life to running aid and charity organizations for his veterans until he passed away in 1970. As per his wishes, he was buried among his fallen soldiers in the Polish War Cemetery at Monte Cassino. After his capture by the Soviets, Anders never saw Poland again.

Wojtek had been promoted to Corporal after Monte Cassino for his fine performance, and carried shells for the Polish artillery to the end of the war. In 1947, he was mustered out along with the rest of the Polish forces and took up residence in the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived the rest of his life in happy ease, having done his part for the cause. He was frequently visited by his old comrades from the Corps, who would often toss him cigarettes to munch on, and he was a common guest on BBC children’s programs.

Wojtek died in 1963 at 21. He is honored with statues in Edinburgh and Krakow and a plaque in London’s Imperial War Museum. This bear had found his home among the men and women of the II Polish Corps, and just like them had lost his home after the fighting was over. He lived a happy life, but just like his comrades living and dead, he never saw home again.

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