An exceptional burial
In 1970 the Polish War Cemetery at Monte Cassino became the site of the burial of General Władysław Anders, the commander of the Polish 2nd Corps which conquered the monastery hill in one of the bloodiest battles of the WWII in May 1944. Few realise that this was an extraordinary interment. The cemetery, established on the General’s orders, had been intended solely for those who had fallen in the fourth battle for Monte Cassino and Piedimonte. Only a few exceptions to that rule had ever been granted. They included Archbishop Józef Gawlina, who had visited the Polish troops in the Soviet Union and then accompanied them on their way out of that country, and General Bronisław Duch of the II Corps.
"Not an easy subordinate"
This posthumous bending of rules may be seen as symbolic. General Anders often made controversial decisions, opposing his superiors. In an obituary in the Polish émigré magazine ‘Kultura’, published in Paris, Józef Czapski summarised that trait in the diplomatic phrase ‘He was not an easy subordinate.’
with no hope of victory should be cancelled’
General Anders’s ‘difficult’ behaviour, however, often brought about good results. Perhaps he followed the rule which he once quoted in an interview given to the Paris ‘Kultura’: ‘From the tsarist cavalry officer cadet school to the French military academy, I’ve always been taught that any action with no hope of victory should be cancelled.’
A soldier’s biography
Władysław Anders was born on 11 August 1892 into a Polish-speaking family of German, Swedish and Hungarian descent. In 1910 he was conscripted into the Russian army as a so-called one-year volunteer. He studied at Riga Polytechnic, and in the first World War led a cavalry troop in the tsarist army. Wounded three times, he received the Order of St. George – the highest military decoration of the Russian Empire, awarded for bravery in action. He took part in the formation of the 1st Polish Corps under General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki. In the Wielkopolska uprising of 1919 he was Chief of Staff of the Wielkopolska Army. After taking part in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, he studied at the École Supérieure de Guerre in Paris. During Pilsudski’s May Coup of 1926 he sided with the government and organised President Wojciechowski’s escape from Belweder. In contrast to most officers who had fought on the government’s side, he continued his career in the army. A seasoned cavalryman, he led the equestrian team which in 1932 won the Nations Cup in Nice.
The year 1939 saw Anders as commander of the Nowogród Cavalry Brigade in Baranowicze. The brigade was incorporated into the Modlin army, which was to defend Warsaw from the north. During retreat after a lost battle General Anders received a shrapnel wound in the back. Nonetheless, on 13 September he led an attack on Mińsk Mazowiecki. He was then ordered to withdraw to the Lublin region. On 22 September in the battle of Tomaszów Lubelski his troops broke out of the German encirclement. Faced with the double threat – German and Russian – Anders disbanded his units and ordered the soldiers to make for Hungary in small groups. On 29 September he was wounded in a skirmish with a Ukrainian People’s Militsiya unit, and later handed over to the NKVD. He was one of the few commanders who had fought both against the Germans and the Soviets in September 1939.
General Anders was first hospitalised in Lwów, then, after being arrested by the NKVD, was taken to the local Brygidki prison, and finally to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. In Brygidki he was treated brutally, denied medical treatment, and kept in a cell where the temperature fell well below zero. At the same time, a senior post in the Soviet army was repeatedly offered to him. In the Lubyanka the conditions were much better, except for intense psychological pressure during interrogation. Anders’s situation improved with the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Following the shock of the initial Russian defeats across the whole of the front, even Polish military personnel temporarily stopped being regarded as enemies of the state.
From prisoner to commander
On 11 August 1941, when he assumed command over the Polish army to be formed in the Soviet Union, Anders was a physically enfeebled ex-prisoner. Even so, he proved capable of undertaking not only that huge organisational task, but also the difficult negotiations with Soviet authorities.
That evacuation was made possible by the Sikorski–Mayski agreement of 30 July 1941, signed by the Prime Minister of the government-in-exile of the Republic of Poland, Władysław Sikorski, and the USSR Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ivan Mayski. The treaty re-established diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been broken off by the Soviet Union on 17 September 1939. It was criticised by some of the political parties in exile, as it did not solve the question of the restoration to Poland of the territories annexed by the USSR after 17 September 1939. Despite this unresolved issue, the agreement did lead to the formation of a Polish army in the USSR and an ‘amnesty’ for Polish citizens unlawfully held in Soviet prisons and camps. Both those clauses had a direct impact on the lives of Poles who had been deported deep into the USSR. On August 4, 1941, General Anders was simultaneously informed of his release from the Lubyanka and offered command of the army that was about to be formed.
‘We lived on clay-like bread, oat gruel and fish. [...] Nothing much happened, apart from disease, death and backbreaking work. Towards the end of the summer the news broke: >We’re free!< [...] we can go [...] where we wish, within Russia of course; and [...] there’s going to be a Polish army. Generals Sikorski and Anders have signed a peace treaty with Stalin, we’re no longer prisoners. My father took us to a nearby village, where we moved in with an old couple, very kind people; this was in order to make life easier for our mother, my brother and myself, as my father and seventeen-year-old sister prepared to leave and join the army. [...] Our goodbyes were painful and quiet; Mother didn’t cry in front of us. We walked to the road with them, then our father hugged us, kissed us and said, >Farewell, my little ones<.’ This is how Alfreda Ferschke parted from her father when he set off to join the Anders army.
Shoes of a Polish deoprtee released from Gulag (1941)Original Source: Imperial War Museums (available under IWM Non Commercial Licence)
A barefoot army
In his memoir, ‘Bez ostatniego rozdziału’ (published in English as ‘An Army in Exile’), Anders recalls his first visit to the camp in the village Totskoye, where the 6th Infantry Division was being formed: ‘For the first time in my life, and I hope the last, I took the salute of a march-past of soldiers without boots. They had insisted upon it. They wanted to show the Bolsheviks that even in their bare feet they could bear themselves like soldiers on their first march towards Poland.’ He also mentions malnutrition, lice and widespread disease.
Despite the demands of the Soviet leadership under Stalin, Anders was reluctant to send his soldiers to the front. He invoked the exact wording of an early agreement, according to which the Polish army could only be used as a whole. Urged on by NKVD Major Zhukov, he resisted. ‘I said that the whole army must go into action together and that, first of all, the men must be properly fed, armed and trained. I pointed out that if separate divisions were sent to the front, they would be almost lost among the vast numbers engaged there, and the fact that Polish troops were fighting would hardly be realised, even in Poland. Our troops were physically exhausted and their rations so small that normal training was impossible. I could not point out to general Zhukov, though as a matter of fact the Russians were well aware of it, that we were also feeding many Polish women and children who had arrived near the military camps. It was the only way of keeping them alive.’
Memories from a transit camp
Despite the commanders’ efforts, living conditions for civilians were hard. Zbigniew Bartosz recalls: ‘In Kermine there was a transit camp for the army. […] The soldiers would stop there for a few hours’ rest, during which we crowded around them. […] That was how I found my father […]. He gave me a few packets of biscuits. Our conversation was short, because soon marching orders were issued. I was very upset that father didn’t take us with him; I really held it against him, not understanding that he could not. […] In the evenings we used to go to the edge of the camp, where food was given out to the soldiers; there was always something left for us. When my brother fell ill I would go alone, with an empty tin that I’d found (a tin like that was a great treasure). One day, walking back with my tin full of soup, I stumbled and spilt it all; what a disaster that was! Now we would both go hungry.’
Dispatch no 701
‘The situation of the army here is close to catastrophic. Supplies of some foodstuffs, such as lard, oil and vegetables, have all but ceased; other products we receive in negligible amounts. The soldiers are hungry, more than ten per cent suffer from night-blindness. There is no hope of the conditions improving; on the contrary, they are becoming steadily worse,’ wrote General Anders in his dispatch no 701 to Commander-in-Chief Władysław Sikorski on 7 June 1942. ‘As a result, the army’s morale is sustained solely by the hope of leaving the USSR and through tremendous patriotic discipline. Transport, as far as bringing in supplies from Persia is concerned, is extremely and increasingly difficult. Conditions for training – non‑existent. No petrol, tyres, means of transport or spare parts. External interference with our internal affairs is forever on the increase.’
Conflict over the evacuation of the army from
Anders had long been pressing for the evacuation of the Polish Army from the Soviet Union. The Polish Commander-in-Chief refused to allow it at first, as it would be in breach of the Sikorski–Mayski agreement, which he’d signed. The government-in-exile wished to leave the Polish army in the Soviet Union for political reasons. At the same time, Soviet-British talks took place, because the British wanted to use the Polish troops to defend oil fields. Regardless of all calculations, however, it was Anders who knew the poor physical condition of the people who came to join his army. The question whether the existence of a Polish Army in the USSR could have been used to better political advantage can never be answered. One thing is certain though: the evacuation which Anders so stubbornly demanded saved about 116 thousand Poles, including 40 thousand civilians.
The evacuation of civilians
General Anders insisted on the evacuation of civilians from the Soviet Union against direct orders from the Polish government-in-exile. In his memoirs he quotes a dispatch from London, signed by chief of staff General Klimecki: ‘British authorities are alarmed by the news that families are included in the military transports, that not being within the framework of the evacuation. In view of the great food difficulties in Iran it is necessary to stop absolutely transport of families until agreement is reached with British authorities as it may hamper or restrict military evacuation.’ This dispatch was ignored. General Anders feared that another opportunity for evacuation might not arise. His disobedience saved the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. Using today’s language, one could say that Anders turned a military operation into a humanitarian one.
The Polish Army in the USSR, which continued as the Polish Army in the East, had substantial support services. Apart from their practical usefulness, those units served another purpose. Before food supplies were dramatically reduced, as described earlier, they depended on the numbers formally enlisted in the army. In other words, being a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Service or the Cadet Force was often a matter of life or death for the starved victims of soviet labour camps, and Anders was aware of that.
Schools and camps
Several thousand children and teenagers reached the camps where soldiers were being recruited for the Anders army: Totskoye, Vrevskaya, Guzar, Jalal-Abad, Kermine and others. The orders were clear: take them in regardless of age in order to help them leave the Soviet Union. The children and the army parted ways in the Middle East. The younger boys and the girls were sent to the settlements in Valivade and Balachadi, the story of which is told in our exhibition ‘The Way to India’. Older boys were admitted to the Cadet School, which offered both military training and general education. The school educated a total of 1276 cadets and finally closed in 1948, after the last student had passed the school-leaving exams. In total, the Anders army provided secondary and university education to about four thousand young people during its existence.
Women’s Auxiliary Service
One of the support formations within the Anders army was the Women’s Auxiliary Service (renamed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Service in 1944). Its members were sometimes informally referred to as ‘Pestki’, from the abbreviation of the force’s Polish name (Pomocnicza Służba Kobiet or PSK). At first they worked as nurses and orderlies. Over time, the scope of roles assigned to them increased, as they became office workers, child carers and mechanics. At its peak the organisation numbered about 7000 women.
More than 116 thousand people left the Soviet Union during the evacuation of the Anders Army. About 40 thousand of them were civilians, including at least 20 thousand children under the age of 18. The civilians, mainly women and children, were moved in 1942 and 1943 to numerous settlements established in Asia, Africa, Mexico and New Zealand. Polish consulates and branches of the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Education were set up in all those places to look after Polish civilians.
Following the sun
One of the evacuees, Hilaria Stryjak, described the route in a letter written on 29 April 1975 to her daughter Barbara, who wanted to retrace her mother’s journey: ‘I’m sending you a map of my travels to give you some idea. We set off from Tehran at the beginning of April by train (through more than a hundred tunnels) to Ahvaz; from Ahvaz in lorries to Basra; from Basra to Baghdad on a little train with tiny carriages – the khamsin blew all the way, you couldn’t see a step before you, only the red desert dust swirling and howling. From Baghdad four days by lorry to Jerusalem, nothing but desert and black rocks, not a blade of grass by the road. Only after we’d crossed the border into Palestine did tilled fields begin. In April it was already really hot there; I wore a light drill uniform: skirt, cotton shirt, short sleeves.’
The movie Children of Isfahan (Polish History Museum) about the reunion of the children evacuated with Anders Army.
The Second Corps
The Polish 2nd Corps, under British command, was formed on 21 July 1943 in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. It included the experienced soldiers of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, already renowned for defending Tobruk, as well as the not fully trained troops evacuated from the USSR. Those differences were reflected in the jocular appellations used by the soldiers for one another. Those who had come from the USSR were called ‘Orthodox’, those who had been to Britain went under the name ‘Lords’, while the Carpathians with combat experience gained in Libya were ‘Ramseses.’ With time, however, these differences disappeared. After they were transferred to Italy in 1943/44, the 2nd Corps already functioned as a cohesive unit.
The painter and writer Józef Czapski said that the 2nd Corps was not only an army, but a Little Poland in exile. A network of cultural and educational organisations grew around the army, with such prominent figures as the journalist Adolf Bocheński, the poet Władysław Broniewski, writer and journalist Melchior Wańkowicz and the famous pre-war actress Hanka Ordonówna, who was intensely involved in the search for and evacuation of orphans from the Soviet Union. In Palestine, the Film Team (Czołówka Filmowa) of the Carpathian Rifle Brigade was formed by Józef Lejtes and Michał Waszyński. The ensemble ‘Polska Parada’ (‘Polish Parade’), of which General Anders’s future second wife Irena Jarosiewicz (stage name Renata Bogdańska) was a member, gave performances for the troops. In one of those shows, in May 1944, the song ‘The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino’ was performed for the first time. Art exhibitions were organised in Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, Tel Aviv and Teheran. After the war a group of soldiers studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome with Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko.
The number and quality of periodicals published by the Anders Army was extraordinary. ‘Mała Kronika’ (‘The Little Chronicle’) for children, the religious fortnightly ‘W Imię Boże’ (‘In the Name of God’) as well as ‘Orzeł Biały’ (‘The White Eagle’), edited i.a. by Józef Czapski, Jerzy Giedroyć and Gustaw Herling-Grudziński – all those magazines gave the soldiers as well as the civilians following the army access to information in their native language. After the end of the war General Anders partially funded the Literary Institute, founded by Jerzy Giedroyć, which published among other titles the monthly ‘Kultura’ (‘Culture’) and was moved to Paris in 1948.
Because all the citizens of Poland could enlist to the Anders army, the Jews joined it as well. Some of them were the supporters of zionism – a political movement that wanted to re-establish a Jewish state on the territory of biblical Israel. This goal was to be achieved by settling the Jews in the Palestine under the British mandate. This process started in the XIXth century. In the autumn of 1943, when the Anders army reached Palestine, 3 500 of its Jewish soldiers faced a dilemma between adhering to their military oath and fighting to fulfill their dream of the independent Israeli state.
Their own free country
What was General Anders’s attitude to that dilemma? About the deserters he said, ‘They want to fight for their own free country,’ and he ordered the military police not to pursue them. That order was kept secret, because it might affect the morale of the army and even antagonise the British allies who might see it as interference with their mandate in Palestine. About two thirds of Jewish soldiers took the opportunity. They constituted a significant reinforcement of the Jewish presence in the region. Some joined paramilitary organisations such as Hagana or Irgun. Others went to work in kibbutzim or enlisted in the ‘Jewish Legion’ of the British Army. About 1300 soldiers of Jewish origin remained in the Anders army. In the war cemeteries at Monte Cassino, Ancona and Bologna there are a number of tombs with headstones that carry the Star of David.
Among those who left the Anders army there was a soldier whose name appeared in his papers as Mieczysław Biegun. He was a graduate of the University of Warsaw. In contrast to others, he asked to be released from his oath before he left. Afterwards, as a member of Irgun, he took part in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. Years later, as Menachem Begin, he became Prime Minster of the independent state of Israel and was awarded the Nobel Peace in 1978. He is top left in the photo.
Reinforcements from behind the enemy lines
The 2nd Corps was different form other Allied units in that it didn’t have a rear base from which it could draw reinforcements. General Anders shocked his superiors by saying that ‘reinforcements would come from beyond the front line.’ The Italian campaign confirmed his predictions. Poles forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht escaped to join the 2nd Corps; later they were followed by Poles, Belarussians and Ukrainians who had been detained in German POW camps.
The most important decision
Lieutenant General Oliver Leese gave General Anders not an order, but a proposal to use the 2nd Corps in the assault on Monte Cassino. Some historians see this only as a gesture of courtesy, a de facto order presented as a voluntary decision. Colonel Kazimierz Wiśniowski, chief of staff of the 2nd Corps, quotes the British commander as having said, ‘I have decided to entrust the capture of the abbey and of Monastery Hill to the Polish 2nd Corps. I am aware of both the importance and the difficulty of the task. Should you decide not to undertake it, I will have to assign it to another unit, and use the 2nd Corps elsewhere. General, would you please retire to the other room to confer with your chief of staff and give me an answer in ten minutes.’
Monte Cassino: Anders in conflict with his
Anders’s superior, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, disapproved of the decision to use the 2nd Corps in the assault on Monte Cassino. He saw it as an expression of Anders’s quest for personal glory, and he commented by exclaiming, ‘You want to play the hero with a white crest on his helmet!’ He also disliked Anders taking the decision without consulting him. Sosnkowski himself recounts in his memoirs: ‘I regard his self-willed action as a breach of military discipline, highly dangerous and all the more harmful in exile; I told him that shedding the blood of Polish soldiers in the hard struggle for our nation’s rights and its future is a prerogative of only the highest authority of the Republic.’ Sosnkowski even considered depriving Anders of his post of corps commander, but decided against it, fearing both the effect on the soldiers’ morale and the difficulty of gaining the consent of the British command.
The rationale behind the decision
Anders himself gave the following reason for his decision: ‘I realised that the cost in lives must be heavy, but I realised too the importance of the capture of Monte Cassino to the Allied cause, and most of all to that of Poland, for it would answer once and for all the Soviet lie that the Poles did not want to fight the Germans. Victory would give new courage to the resistance movement in Poland and would cover Polish arms with glory.’
The 2nd Corps did not capture Monte Cassino
The bloody fighting in which the 2nd Corps participated took place in the hills around the abbey; the aim was to isolate Monastery Hill and force the enemy to retreat. Anders was, however, aware of the potential propaganda effect of taking the monastery itself, which was presented in German newsreels as a symbol of indomitable resistance. The capture of dozens of German bunkers, Phantom Ridge, Colle Sant’ Angelo or Massa Albaneta would not make a story that would be repeated all around the world; and that was the real purpose of hoisting the Polish flag over the monastery. There are two ideas about how Anders led his soldiers to victory. According to one, he identified the critical moment in the battle when both sides were exhausted and ordered the Poles to slow down until the resistance weakens. In the other interpretation, information from the radio watch proved decisive.
The capture of Monte Cassino was not the end of the battle. Immediately afterwards the 2nd Corps made an assault on Piedimonte. Fighting continued in the surrounding hills.
The outcome of the battle
Because of the extreme conditions, the battle of Monte Cassino is sometimes compared to First World War battles such as Verdun. Polish losses amounted to about 10 per cent of the Corps. In his memoirs, Anders stressed the chaos of modern combat: ‘I had often seen pictures of famous battles, with the general in command, field glasses to his eyes, watching the progress of his troops and giving orders. How different was this from present-day reality, when battles, for the most part, are fought out of sight of the commanding officers . [... The battle] is a collection of small epics, many of which can never be told, for their heroes took to their graves the secret of their exploits.’ The propaganda effect of the victory was huge, but soon, following the allies’ Normandy landings, the Italian front became less important.
Polish bugler in Monte Cassino (1944)Original Source: Wikimedia Commons
Waiting for a third world war
On 29 September 1945 the 2nd Corps numbered 104,996 soldiers. Its commander hoped they would constitute a force capable of reinforcing Poland’s political situation, as well as her military strength in the case of armed conflict between the Soviet Union and the West. The final words of his memoirs testify to this hope: ‘At the time of finishing this book the train of events that began with the German aggression against Poland on September 1, 1939, has not been ended but only interrupted. For the other Allied nations the war finished in 1945 with victory. Not so for Poland. We are now living in the expectation of the last chapter of this great historic upheaval. We believe... and expect.’
Polish Resettlement Corps
The expected conflict between East and West did not happen. General Anders tried to keep the Polish troops ready as long as possible, but in February 1946 the British government decided to disband the Polish Armed Forces. In September the British approved the formation of a Polish Resettlement Corps. Its aim was to make the demobilisation process easier for the soldiers by preparing them for return to civilian life.
For General Anders the possiblity of returning to Poland ended with a decree of the Provisional Government of National Unity of 26 September 1946, which stripped him of Polish citizenship. The victor of Monte Cassino became an émigré politician, holding the important positions of Inspector General of the Polish Armed Forces and Commander-in-Chief, but also immersed in a conflict-ridden reality. He had already clashed sharply with Stanisław Mikołajczyk, having tried in vain to dissuade him from returning to Poland. For the patriotic émigré community, however, General Anders became an unquestioned authority.
Those who hoped for a change of political system in Poland were dismissed by the communists with the ironic comment ‘they’re waiting for General Anders on a white horse.’ To the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland he remained a symbolic enemy. At the same time, his legend was reinforced by the monumental three-volume work of reportage by Melchior Wańkowicz ‘Bitwa o Monte Cassino’ (‘The Battle of Monte Cassino’) and its shorter version, ‘Szkice spod Monte Cassino’ (‘Sketches from Monte Cassino’). The legend was also influenced by the memories of the soldiers and civilians brought by the General out of the Soviet Union. The thousands of lives saved testify to General Anders having made good decisions.
Author: Pawel Koziol, PhD
Consultant: Grzegorz Rutkowski
Translation into English: Marta Umińska
Review: Professor Zbigniew Wawer
Photographs from Imperial War Museums Collections used according to IMW Non Commercial License