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    The Polish 2nd Corps in Italy: A Brief Introduction

    The Polish 2nd Corps (2 Korpus Polski) was transferred from Iraq to Palestine in August 1943 where it completed further training. The Corps was under the command of General Władysław Anders. The Corps included the 3rd Carpathian Division (3 Dywizja Strzelców Karpackich), the 5th Kresowa Division (5 Kresowa Dywizja Piechoty) and the Warsaw Armoured Brigade (2 Warszawska Brygada Pancerna). On September 3, 1943 Italy formally surrendered. The British 8th Army including the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, began to cross over from Sicily to begin the invasion of the Italian mainland. The Germans moved more of their forces into Italy.

    Map is from Margaret Brodniewicz-Stawicki, For Your Freedom and Ours. (Vanwell Publishing Ltd, 1999), p. 189

    In the fall of 1943, the Polish 2nd Corps left Palestine for Egypt. On December 7 General Anders gave the order for the 2nd Corps to sail for Italy.  They sailed from Port Said and Alexandria. From December 15, 1943 to April 1, 1944, 55,000 men and women of the 2nd Corps were transferred from Alexandria to Taranto in Italy. San Basilio became the training centre and they had base camps at Bari and Brindisi.

    The 2nd Corps became a key force in the Italian Campaign, fighting and contributing in significant ways to the Allied advance from the Gulf of Taranto to the final battle at Bologna. The 2nd Corps chose to fight in Italy for several reasons. The main goal of the Corps was always to fight their way back to Poland and to liberate their country. At one point Italy was considered the soft underbelly of the 3rd Reich, and as far as the 2nd Corps was concerned, a possible route back to Poland. Maybe more importantly was the need for the Polish forces to prove themselves. Russian propaganda continually proclaimed that the Poles were afraid to fight. The Italian Campaign would prove them wrong. For many individual soldiers this campaign was also a revenge fight, a chance to get even for all the death and terror the Germans had unleashed on Poland.  

    By February, units of the 2nd Corps took their positions on the Sangro River. Their headquarters were established at Vinciaturo. There were also British, French and Canadian forces spread across the Italian front. Most of the action along the Sangro River front consisted of skirmishes with German units. While the 2nd Corps served along the Sangro River front 2 officers and 36 soldiers were killed and 18 officers and 199 soldiers were wounded.

    In March 1944, General Anders agreed to the proposal that the 2nd Corps was to assault the Abbey on Monte Cassino. American, British, Canadian and French forces were to attack along the Liri River valley. This would be the 4th planned assault on the Abbey stronghold. Indian and New Zealand units had attacked the Abbey in February and then later in March but had been unsuccessful. The Abbey represented a major obstacle to further advances up the Italian peninsula. The 2nd Corps was going to attempt to do what other forces had been unable to do.

    Anders moved his HQ near to the town of Cassino. In April Polish units started to take up positions for the assault, relieving the 10th British Corps. On May 11, 1944 General Anders issued his famous order and the artillery began to fire all along the front and the 8th and 5th Armies began the assault. Two Polish divisions succeeded in taking some of their objectives. Because these gains could not be reinforced or supplied, Anders ordered a withdrawal to their starting points.  

    On May 17, the Polish assault was renewed and this time they took their objectives and the next day a patrol of 12th Podolian Lancers entered the monastery. A Polish flag was hoisted above the monastery. The 2nd Corps experienced their greatest victory. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Polish 2nd Corps lost 72 officers and 788 regular soldiers and 204 officers and 2,618 regular soldiers were wounded.   

    The Allied Forces moved forward in the Liri Valley and the Germans withdrew to the Hitler Line. The Poles continued their assault on the Piedimonte-Castrocielo line. Following the Battle of Monte Cassino several of the Polish units were placed on rest leave and the Corps was placed under direct allied command.

    On June 4, 1944, the Allies entered Rome and shortly thereafter the Allies withdrew 7 infantry divisions, 3 tank battalions, 11 artillery divisions and many other units which were to support the Normandy invasion.  This had a major impact on further operations in Italy. The 2nd Corps was assigned to the Adriatic coast. Polish HQ was located in Campobasso. General Anders took command of the Adriatic front with the Polish 2nd Corps and several British, Canadian and Italian units under General Utili (Corpo Italiano de Liberazione). The Italian units were very poorly outfitted.

    Campobasso, 1945; painting by Charles Comfort.

    The 2nd Corps was ordered to pursue the retreating enemy and take the port of Ancona, since the Allies had a need for a major supply port in northern Italy. This was no easy assignment as the enemy had dug in on various heights along the route and the roads and bridges along the way had been badly damaged while most of the sappers’ units had been shifted to the Rome front.

    On July 2, the Battle of Loreto began as a means to establish a front for the battle over Ancona.  The order to take Ancona was given on July 15. On July 18th the Carpathian Lancers Regiment were the first unit to enter Ancona. In this battle the Corps suffered the following losses: 150 officers and 2,000 regulars wounded and 34 officers and 150 regulars killed.

    On July 23, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, Commander-in-Chief of all Polish forces, in the ruined stadium in Ancona decorated Gen. Alexander and Gen. Leese, the commanders of the British 8th Army with the Virtuti Militari Cross. General Sosnkowski had replaced General Władysław Sikorski as Commander-in-Chief after he was killed in a plane crash off Gibraltar on July 5, 1943. Generals Sosnkowski and Anders were also invited to welcome Gen. Collingwood. General Collingwood was in fact King George VI. The King appeared as the ‘Duke of Richmond’ for security reasons.

    After their withdrawal from Ancona, the Germans set themselves up on the Gothic Line which ran through Pesaro on the Adriatic, along the Foglia River, through Florence and along the Arno River to the Ligurian Sea. The 2nd Corps was to be active on the Adriatic front opening and protecting supply lines for the British 8th Army. Reaching the Gothic Line required crossing several rivers each of which created natural lines of defense for the German forces. British, Canadian, Italian and Polish forces were assigned to cross these rivers which they did. The Battle for the Gothic Line, as well as the advances by the 2nd Corps along the Adriatic, ended on September 2nd. During this campaign the Corps suffered 288 officers and 3,403 regulars, wounded or dead. After these battles the 2nd Corps retired to the region of Ancona for a rest. 

    In the fall of 1944, the battles in the Emilian Apennines began. The 2nd Corps was assigned to the left flank of the front aiming to outflank the enemy. The Corps entered mountainous and roadless areas on their way to the Lombardy plains. There were more mountain paths than roads. The Corps advanced along a line running along the axis of Santa Sofia-Galeata-Forli, thus clearing the roads from San Piero in Bagno to Roca San Casciano, thus improving communications between the units of the 8th Army. Numerous small towns had to be liberated and many rivers had to be crossed.

    In mid November the Battle for Faenza began. Canadian, British and Polish forces were involved in the assault. Again, there were some very difficult battles and the Polish forces had to engage in house-to-house fighting in order to advance. The Germans in Faenza were still providing a stubborn defense. However, by late December the New Zealand Division entered Faenza. In the battles in the Apennines and for Faenza the 2nd Corps lost 42 officers and 627 regulars, 184 officers and 2,630 regulars were wounded, with one officer and 32 regulars missing in action. 

    On November 26, 1944 American General Mark Clark was placed in charge of the Allied Forces in Italy replacing Field Marshall Sir Harold Alexander. The Allied Forces in Italy were then renamed the 15th Army Group and included the British 8th Army which included the 1st Canadian Corps, 5th American Corps, 2nd Polish Corps, and the 10th British Corps.

    By the end of December, the British 8th Army including the 2nd Corps was on the Senio River. The winter front was established along the Senio River.

    Following the Allied landings in Normandy and the imprisonment of German POWs, a significant number of Poles from the German army volunteered to serve with the Polish forces.

    It’s worth mentioning that after the coerced incorporation of part of the Polish lands in 1939 into the Third Reich (Pomorze, Wielkopolska, Śląsk) many Poles had been forcibly conscripted into the German Army. Refusal to serve could result in the soldier’s family being sent to concentration camp such as Auschwitz or Stutthof. These Poles just waited for the opportunity to join the 2nd Corps. General Anders when asked where he would be able to find recruits for his corps, often replied that his recruits were in front of him, not behind, for they were in the German army.

    At the same time a recruitment drive began in France to get Poles living in France to join the Polish forces. In September 1944, the British authorities agreed to the transfer from southern France to Italy of 20,000 Poles to join the 2nd Corps. At the beginning of 1945, both Polish divisions were given a third brigade consisting of these volunteers.

    In early 1945, the Poles became aware of the Yalta agreement which essentially betrayed Poland and left her under the control of the Soviet Union. This created huge problems both politically and militarily for the Polish Forces in the West. General Sosnkowski had resigned as Commander-in-Chief. His nominated replacement General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski was in a German prison, so General Anders was selected as acting Commander-in-Chief. Anders served in this capacity until the end of May 1945. On March 11, 1945 Anders nominated General Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko, to command the Polish 2nd Corps.

    The spring offensive began with the Battle for Bologna and the campaign for the Pad River. The 2nd Corps was to break through the enemy defenses on the Senio River and cross the Santerno River

    The 2nd Corps had been strengthened by two infantry brigades and two newly formed heavy artillery regiments and a Commando Battalion. The 2nd Corps included also other Allied units: the 7th British Armoured Brigade, part of a Sapper brigade, 43rd Hindu Brigade, 14/20 Hussar Regiment and part of the 27th Lancer Regiment and four artillery regiments.

    Again, the Germans put up a strong defense, and it was the German 1st Parachute Brigade, the same unit that held Monte Cassino that held their ground. After heavy fighting, Polish units captured a small bridgehead which enabled the 2nd Armoured Brigade to enter the fray. On April 20th the German forces were in full retreat.

    On April 21st, the 2nd Corps broke through the final defenses to the south-east of Bologna and entered the city. The 9th Carpathian Lancers’ Battalion of the 3rd Carpathian Division, was the first unit of the 2nd Corps to enter Bologna. From that day forth the battalion carried the name „Bolognian”. The joy of the inhabitants of the Italian city was great – it remained undamaged, because most of the heavy fighting in the area was conducted by the Allied forces outside of Bologna. In gratitude for the liberation of the city from the German forces, the authorities of the city of Bologna awarded 11 commanders and 215 soldiers of the 2nd Corps with commemorative medals. The ceremony took place in front of the Bologna City Hall. Here on April 22, Gen. Mark Clark, formally acknowledged the contribution of the American, British and Polish units.

    Following the surrender of Germany, the 2nd Corps headquartered at Porto San Giorgio and provided guard duties and patrols under the Allied Military Government in Italy. Many schools were set up to occupy the soldiers ranging from secondary schools to officer’s training schools.

    On August 15, 1945 in Ancona and in Loreto, the last parade involving the 2nd Corps honouring “Święto Żołnierza / Soldier’s Day” took place. The special guest was Field Marshall Harold Alexander. Alexander was leaving to become Governor General of Canada.  

    The Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino was officially opened on September 1, 1945. Present were Bishop Gawlina, Field-Marshall Alexander, and General Anders. 

    Despite the intentions of the Polish Government in Exile and the hopes and dreams of the Polish soldiers the 2nd Corps was not going to continue on to liberate Poland., which was now under the control of the Soviet Union.  In the middle of 1946, the British government, determined that the 2nd Corps was to leave Italy by ships through Naples and by trains through Germany and France and be stationed in Great Britain. In August 1946, a commission from Canada arrived to select 4,000 soldiers willing to work under contracts in this country.

    General Anders and the command of the 2nd Corps left Italy on October 31, 1946.

    To conclude this short introduction to the 2nd Corps in Italy, I would like to propose a toast to the Polish 2nd Corps and to those who are joining us on their never-ending journey, which will only reach Poland virtually – Na tę ścieżkę pamięci!

    Poster – Polish 2nd Corps, 1945

    Author: Stan Skrzeszewski

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