The men had to load all their heavy equipment; radio transmitters, acid batteries, accumulators, anything too heavy for one person to carry, on to mules. Each soldier had to carry his own blankets, coat and personal equipment in their backpack. They formed a big column and under the cover of darkness and began to wind their way up the mountainside to relieve the British.
The men of the Polish Corps did not know much about the situation at Monte Cassino or the three previous battles.
‘[There were] a lot of stories going about what a terrible place it was, so we were already prepared for the worse.’
Michael did not have to wait long for a dramatic introduction to Monte Cassino. As the column progressed, they were about half-way up the mountainside when German mortar shells began to rain down on them:
‘People started shouting and screaming and mules are screaming and hell broke loose. You see the path was not just …narrow it was winding on those tight bends, but [the] Germans had positions over the months and months that they were there, pinpointing so close, that all the shells were falling either on one bend or the other, they didn’t even have to look. All night there was movement on that path, there was no other way to get up that mountain, so they just opened fire for ten minutes …. it was like hell!’
More horrors awaited them as they reached their positions:
‘The people that [had] done the biggest amount of fighting, …most of them dead, we found them after, not straight away because they were all lying near the bends on those roads. The Gurkhas they just lying there covered with their great coats with the gun …pushed with the bayonet in the ground and they must have been there for a couple of months. There were American soldiers just sprinkled with quick lime.’
The ground was so shallow and rocky it was impossible to bury the dead.
‘The smell was so dreadful, as you went up the hill it was frightful… the higher we went the smell was so obnoxious, so terrible, you could not imagine anything like that, everything smelt no matter what it was…’.
In the ten days that preceded the fourth and final battle of Monte Cassino, Michael was busy laying phone lines. He described the barrage of fire on the night of May 11th that announced the new offensive:
‘This was just unbelievable, …normally our artillery were firing all over German positions as well as Germans replying on to us but that was only sporadic but this time there was something like hundreds and hundreds of great big guns on the British side, on our side and even Americans with their big guns reached the positions …firing on the Germans.
At 1am on 12th May, Michael advanced forward with the infantry. The signallers had been told to carry arms, but with the all telephone equipment it was too much to carry. They went into battle unarmed and frequently had to stop work and take cover, throwing themselves on the ground under enemy fire.
Polish troops throwing grenades at the enemy during heavy fighting around Monte Cassino. Credit: © IWM (MH 1984)
The casualty rate was extremely high, and the wounded officer made the decision to retreat. Soon it would be daylight and the Germans would be able to pick of the remaining soldiers one by one. Michael explained that by the time they got back down and regrouped ‘there was hardly any people left’.
For the next five days the men of the Polish II Corps waited for orders to advance again. Michael became extremely demoralised
‘I remember being so hungry and tired and dejected so badly… that I just couldn’t care less if I survived or was dead. That is the first weary part of the war that I experienced… I was completely finished physically’.
On May 18th, the relative ease with which the Polish took the monastery was unexpected. It was a symbolic moment and the men were proud but the experience of the intense fighting at Monte Cassino would always remain with them.
Polish and British flags hoisted over ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey after its capture. Credit: © IWM (HU 128195)
‘Everything became quite unreal… that battle changed everybody, it’s not just me that has grown maybe five years older, everybody I noticed they changed, the officer, the people became more sort of relaxed against the officer… from then on the attitude of everyone changed and we had grown …a tighter group because we were a smaller group.’