On the night of 21 April 1944, a thin Maj Gen Wladyslaw Anders stood next to Kiwi Lieut Gen Freyburg and watched in silence as the first units of his Polish II Corps secretly replaced the shattered New Zealand Corps in the vicinity of Monte Cassino. Anders’ smallish frame and unpretentious demeanor was exasperated by Freyburg’s larger-than-life presence, but Anders was by far the more experienced. A veteran of the First World War, the Russo-Polish War of 1920, a brigade commander in the old Polish Army, Anders was one of the few men on the planet who had walked out on the Soviet’s infamous Lubyanka Prison alive. Now he was the commander of 100,000 exiled Polish soldiers. For last three years, he and his men and women had prepared for this moment, for the road back to Poland went through the Germans at Monte Cassino.
Poland was secretly partitioned by the Germans and their Soviet socialist brothers as part of their de facto alliance in August of 1939 and dual invasion of Poland in September of 1939. Invaded from all sides, the Polish army collapsed after fighting for only 37 days. Having already experienced German and Russian occupation in the First World War, millions of Poles fled the country. Some went north through Scandinavia and eventually to Britain. Some went south to the Balkans. And some went east, only to be captured and interned by the Soviets. Of those hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees in Soviet Russia, 20,000 teachers, officers, politicians and intelligentsia were separated out by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, and murdered. The rest were condemned to prison or labor camps in Siberia by the Soviets… at least until they became useful again for something other than slave labor.
The German’s sudden and inevitable betrayal of Soviet Russia in June of 1941 proved to be the imprisoned Poles saving grace. Stalin, in desperate need of soldiers to fight the Germans, offered to raise a Polish Army from those refugees as long as Britain equipped them. Churchill agreed. Col. Wladyslaw Anders, one of the highest ranking Polish officers still alive, was chosen to lead the new Polish Army. Training camps were set up in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles volunteered rather than be worked to death. They departed their labor camps in Siberia over the winter of 1941/42 and made the long trek to the training camps. Tens of thousands starved or froze to death enroute. Nevertheless, Anders collected 50,000 soldiers and 100,000 family members in his camps around Tashkent. In the spring of 1942, Stalin recognized the cognitive dissonance of supporting a Polish army from refugees he created, and wished the problem to go away, so he stopped rations to “Anders’ Army”.
Anders knew they could no longer stay in the Soviet Union. In a modern day Anabasis, Anders led his army into the desert, marched 3,500 miles out of the Soviet Union and through British held Persia to Palestine. There he joined other free Poles: the 3rd Carpathian Division, comprised of Poles who fled south to the Balkans after the invasion, and the forgotten defenders of Tobruk— the Free Polish Brigade who fought with the British in North Africa. With these units he formed the II Polish Corps in early 1943, and after the invasion of Italy by the Allies, was assigned to the British Eighth Army along the Adriatic coast. In March, 1944, Anders was told that if the Kiwis failed at Monte Cassino, the Poles would finally get their chance to fight the Germans.
One factor would color all of Anders’ decisions in the coming battle at Monte Cassino, which would be the largest the Western Allies fought against the Germans to this point of the war. It was that he had a national army but no national state. More practically, he didn’t have a country from which to receive replacements. Unlike other national armies who were under the command of the British or Americans; such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, France and the Netherlands; Poland had no state support structure or colonies from which to receive resources. His army, for the most part, was Poland. Furthermore, there were no more replacements for his army from Poles outside Poland: the Poles in Britain formed the I Polish Corps and they were preparing for their part in the upcoming invasion of France. Stalin killed any Pole left in the Soviet Union. Those who emigrated abroad, to their everlasting credit, enlisted in the armies of their adopted homeland, whether it be America, Canada or Australia. There were Poles forced into conscription by the Wehrmacht, but they were few and likely to be killed before they made it to him. The only way back was forward. Killing Germans was good, but the men needed to fight the Soviets were in Poland, and the Germans at Monte Cassino stood in Anders’ way.