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Road To Rome

Polish Forces, Italy 1944.
By Charles Stubbs.

“For this action let the lion spirit enter your hearts, keep deep in your heart God, honour and our land — Poland! Go and take revenge for all the suffering in our land, for what you have suffered for many years in Russia and for years of separation from your families!” ~ General Anders, addressing the troops before Monte Cassino.

2nd Polish Corps Formation

General Wladislaw Sikorski, the head of the Polish government in exile in London negotiated with the Soviet government to free the Poles detained in the USSR to form a new army. After the agreement was signed in 1941 two new Polish infantry divisions were formed. Major General Wladislaw Anders, a former prisoner, was appointed to command the new army.

In December 1941 it was decided to expand the Polish army to six divisions, of which 25,000 men were transferred to the west. A move to Iran started in March 1942, followed by a further contingent in August. 

Now in the Middle East, the Poles went through a phase of reorganisation and training leading to a new title of Polish Army in the East. The Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, which had served with distinction at Tobruk and in the Western Desert, became the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. Other new formations were the 5th “Kresowa” Infantry Division, the 2nd Armoured Brigade and the 2nd Artillery Group. In June 1943 the force was re-designated the 2nd Polish Corps. At the Quebec conference in August 1943, Churchill decided to send the 2nd Polish Corps to Italy.

In July and august of 1943, the 2nd Polish Corps moved to Palestine for final training. This consisted of manoeuvres in the mountainous regions to acclimatize the troops to the terrain they would encounter in Italy.

Due to manpower shortages, both divisions were comprised of only two infantry brigades. The 3rd Division had the 1st and 2nd Carpathian Rifle Brigades, and the 5th Division had the 5th “Wilenska” and the 6th “Lwowska” Infantry Brigades.

The rest of the divisional order of battle followed along British lines, i.e. 3 field artillery regiments, 1 anti-tank and 1 anti-aircraft artillery regiment, 1 reconnaissance regiment – the 12th “Podolski” Lancers in the 3rd Division and the 15th “Poznanski” Lancers in the 5th Division and all the other support and service units of an infantry division. The Corps’s 2nd Armoured Brigade consisted of 3 armoured regiments and supporting units.

General Wladislaw Anders
Replacing battle casualties became a severe problem for the Polish high command. The Polish infantry suffered heavy casualties, especially at Cassino. This caused commanders to scrape the bottom of the barrel for replacements, due to the Polish Government’s policy of deploying the corps together. 
Cassino Battlefield

To solve this problem, reinforcements were enlisted from Poles who had been forced into the service of the German army and had subsequently been recaptured by the Allies. This allowed units to maintain a level of strength to continue combat operations. Apart from replacing losses, this rather unconventional method also reinforced the 2nd Corps. An additional third brigade was formed for both infantry divisions, which was in line with the British order of battle.

The 2nd Armoured Brigade was reinforced to become an armoured division in 1945. A new armoured brigade, the 14th “Wielkopolska”, and other new regiments were also formed. To support the operations of the 2nd Polish Corps was the 2nd Base Corps. This unit consisted of the 7th Infantry Division as a training reserve, an army training centre, four general hospitals and various support and service units.

The Poles Arrive in Italy

Elements of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division began landing at Taranto on 21 December 1943. The transfer of all Polish units from Egypt and the Middle East continued until the middle of April 1944. These troops landed at the Italian ports of Taranto, Bari and Naples, which had been captured by the Allies. The 2nd Polish Corps was followed by the 2nd Base Corps. The first Polish unit to see action in Italy was the Independent Commando Company. On 29 December 1943, it took part in a diversionary raid with No 9 Commando on the Gariglianio river estuary defences.

Under the command of the 8th Army, Lieutenant General Wladislaw Anders led his fellow exiles of the 2nd Polish Corps with dash and determination. After the death of General Sikorski, Anders became the main influence of Polish hopes. To his countrymen he was an inspiration, and to his allies he was a military leader whose ability commanded the greatest respect.

Gustav Line

The Allied armies hoped to be in Rome by December of 1943, and Churchill had assured Alexander “You will be in Rome by the end of the year”. A combination of weather, difficult going and skilful German defence had slowed the Allies advance to a crawl. Since 21 November 1943 Field Marshal Kesselring was appointed C-in-C Army Group C, a brilliant commander whose skill, imagination and flexibility in defence caused the Allies great difficulty.

By December 1943, the defences of the Gustav Line had halted Alexander’s drive on Rome.

The Gustav Line was the German main defence line in Italy, with Monte Cassino as its central point. It crossed the Italian peninsula at its narrowest and most mountainous region, where the mountains extended from the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west to the Adriatic Sea in the east. 

Polish Bugler
Poles clamber over the rugged hill around Cassino.

The first offensive against the Gustav Line started on 4 January 1944 with US and French forces unable to break through by the beginning of February.

The Indians and New Zealanders replaced the Americans for a new offensive on 15 February from Cassino to take Monte Cassino. Bad weather halted the attempt. The Germans replaced their 15th Panzer Grenadier with the 1st Parachute Division during this period in the Cassino sector. For three months the Allies had been held at Monte Cassino, with every attack repulsed by the German paratroopers. Thus it was decided to outflank the monastery and not frontally assault it. The third offensive started on 15 March, which was preceded by an aerial bombardment aimed at total destruction of the monastery and the town of Cassino. This attack too had failed by 22 March.

The 4th Battle of Cassino

The 2nd Polish Corps was assigned to launch the fourth assault on the monastery, from the northern flank. The offensive started on the night of 11/12 May with the 5th “Kresowa” Infantry Division’s, 5th “Wilenska” Rifle Brigade to assault Saint Angelo hill, Points 706, 601 and 575. This attack failed with heavy losses due mainly to German artillery. General Anders withdrew the division to its start line on the night of 12 May. The 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division’s 1st Carpathian Rifle Brigade was to assault Point 593 (Mt Calvary) and Albaneta Farm.

Poles storm a hill during the battle.
12th “Podolski” Lancers hoist the Polish flag over the ruins of the monastery.

This attack succeeded at the start by taking Point 593 by surprise. However on 12 May the German paratroopers repeatedly assaulted the Polish defenders no less than four times. After desperate defence, the Poles were forced to withdraw.  

General Anders now had both divisions back at the start line. Both divisions attacked again four times on 13 and 14 May. Another attack on 16 May by 6th “Lwowska” Rifle Brigade on the right and 2nd Carpathian Rifle Brigade on the left succeeded in capturing Point 593, Albaneta Farm and other German strongpoints near the monastery.

On 18 May the 12th “Podolski” Lancers reached the monastery and hoisted the Polish flag. The Poles continued fighting until 25 May, when the positions of Saint Angelo hill, Point 575, Passo Corno and Mount Cairo were captured. Eight hundred Polish soldiers had been killed in the battle.

On the Adriatic Coast

After the battles of Monte Cassino, the 2nd Polish Corps was deployed on the Adriatic coast.
On 15 June the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division replaced the 4th Indian Division and this sector now came under command of the 2nd Polish Corps.

The 2nd Polish Corps headquarters was located at San Vito near Ortona. Additional British units also arrived to bolster the strength of the 2nd Polish Corps. The 17th and 26th Heavy Artillery Regiments Royal Artillery, the 7th Queens Own Hussars and other units were placed under command of the 2nd Polish Corps. The 5th “Kresowa” Infantry Division arrived between 18 and 21 June, followed by the 2nd Polish Corps artillery and the 2nd Armoured Brigade.

The Poles moved fast up the Adriatic coast and by 20 June were at the Aso River. As they advanced, stiffer German resistance was encountered around the Chienti River. This held up the Polish offensive temporarily, and by 6 July had captured Osini, which was only 10 miles south of the port Ancona. After a fierce battle the town was captured on 18 July. On 19 July the Poles crossed the Esimo River, and encountered strong German opposition near Ostra. The Germans had brought part of the 71st Infantry Division and the 1st Fallschirmjager Division into this sector. It was another ten days before they reached the next river, the Misa. Another battle developed for the town of Senigallia.

On 11 August, the Cesano River was crossed and by 22 August the 2nd Polish Corps was across the Metauro River. This brought them to the edge of the Gothic Line.

Polish Machine-gunners.

The Gothic Line

The Allies now reorganised their forces before the impending assault on the Gothic Line. The 2nd Polish Corps was on the extreme right flank of the Adriatic coast, with the 1st Canadian Corps on its left. Operation Olive, the break-through in the Adriatic sector began on the night of 25-26 August.

The 2nd Polish Corps opened the offensive, capturing the high ground north of the resort of Pesaro. 

A Polish officer congratulates some Italians of the CIL.

Their task complete, the 2nd Polish Corps now withdrew to become a reserve force. After a short period of rest the 2nd Polish Corps returned to the battlefield and occupied Predappio, which was the birthplace of Mussolini, and Castrocaro on 27 October. The Poles bypassed Faenza, crossed the Lamone River and captured the town of Brisighella on their way to the Senio River. All operations in the region ceased by the end of December 1944.


During the period from October 1944 to January 1945, the 2nd Polish Corps was reinforced and reorganised. 

The 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division and the 5th “Kresowa” Infantry Division had the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Brigade and the 4th “Wolynska” Rifle Brigade added respectively. The 2nd Armoured Brigade was reinforced into an armoured division with the addition of the Carpathian Lancer Regiment, 2nd Motorised Commando Battalion, 16th “Pomorska” Infantry Brigade, 4th Armoured Regiment “Skorpion”, 1st “Krechowieckich” Lancer Regiment and the 6th Armoured Regiment “Dzieci Lwowskich”.

In January 1945 the Italian front was at a standstill. The 8th Army, after a series of hard fought river crossings stood on the banks of the Senio River. The country was sodden from winter rains and armoured operations were impossible.

A Stab in the Back

In early March 1945 General McCreery commander 8th Army, met with General Anders. During this discussion of the battle plan, Anders learned of the terms of the Yalta Agreement. It meant Poland would be handed over to a Communist regime to be a satellite state of the Soviet Union. General Anders said, “How can I ask my soldiers to go on fighting. I must withdraw them from the line.” To which McCreery said, “There were no troops to replace them and a 10 mile gap would be opened up.” Anders remained silent for a minute and said “You can count on the Polish 2nd Corps for this coming battle. We must defeat Hitler first.” 

Polish Commandos in Itay, destined to become motorised infantry.
The Final Offensive

The final offensive to break the stalemate on the Italian front was scheduled for the night of 9 April 1945. The 2nd Polish Corps, spearheaded by the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division attacked over the Senio River, north of the Via Emilia (Highway 9) towards Bologna. By 14 April the town of Imola was captured. At this point the Poles were confronted by their old enemy, the German 1st Parachute division. The Polish attack was so successful that the German 1st Fallschirmjager Division completely disintegrated. The divisional flag was eventually presented to General Anders as a trophy. Bologna fell to the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division on the morning of 21 April. Victory was declared in Italy on 2 May 1945.

Road To Rome Polish Forces in Italy, 1944

To field Poles in Italy use Road To Rome (page 114).

Last Updated On Friday, September 12, 2014 by Wayne at Battlefront