Re: The Italian Campaign
- View SourceYes, Dan. The Polish Army kept getting BIGGER, not smaller, as it fought in Italy from early 1944 until the end of the war in the first week of May 1945.
My husband, Aleksander Topolski, has written about his experiences with General Anders Army in the Middle East and then fighting northward up the boot of Italy.
He escaped from the Soviet Union with Anders Army, crossing the Caspian Sea on top of the tanker Kaganovich to Iran. After further training and guarding the oil fields in KIrkuk, Iraq, then passing his high school exams in Camp Barbara, Palestine, he landed in Italy. He was soon posted to HQ Signals at Anders's ever-advancing HeadQuarters. Aleks was triaging messages for the command centre of the Polish Corps that was pushing back Hitler's army in Italy as part of the British Eighth Army. And so he learned a lot about what was going on.
His book about his wartime adventures in Anders Army is his second book of memoirs. This sequel to Without Vodka is called Without A Roof: WAR!. Although written in English, it has already been published by Rebis Publishing House in Poznan under the title Bez Dachu. We hope that before too long it will also appear in English.
In WAR Aleks writes here and there about how the 2nd Corps was able to keep growing in Italy. Here are some key excerpts:--.
The Polish Corps kept growing despite our lack of reserves. Other Allied armies kept recruiting and training in their homelands. We couldn't, of course, but we replaced our casualties and more --to the amazement of the other generals, but not to Anders, who had foretold this. Volunteers kept arriving from places like Harbin [in China] and then there were the Poles who had been forced by the Nazis to serve in the German forces. Some were captured and then volunteered to serve with us. But many more had slipped through the fluid front in order to fight on the side where their hearts lay.
One day General Anders went to see General Alexander, who was the Allies top commander in Italy.
“I have a problem,” Anders told him. “It’s the number of men I have.”
Alexander had expected as much. How could the Polish Corps keep up to strength without homeland reserves to draw on? He was amazed to hear that Anders needed more food and equipment because he now had thousands more soldiers.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~`[In June, 1944, after the Battle of Cassino, Aleks was sent to run a Signals Office in Chieti at the headquarters of an Italian fighting force under General Utili. This Division was now fighting alongside the Allies against Hitler's forces.]
One day when I was looking out of my signal office window in Chieti [south of Ancona near the Adriatic Coast] onto the street below, something caught my attention--a German soldier walking along the street, hatless and rumpled. He was surrounded by about twenty Italian soldiers, their rifles held waist high with fixed bayonets. His escort looked tense, ready to shoot if he made one false step. To my surprise, they turned towards the entrance to our building. Then I heard a commotion downstairs. Moments later the tall Polish-speaking Italian Captain came to my office. He told me they'd caught a German soldier who claimed to be Polish and that was why they had brought him here.
"Fine," I said. "Show him in."
This seem to fluster the good captain. I don't think it was so much concern for my safety being face to face with a German as for the loss of authority over their prisoner. The Italians acted as if it was the first German they had ever captured and didn't want to hand over their prize.
The German soldier was terrified. He believed his escort was an execution squad marching him to his death and yet he could speak no Italian to find out what was to become of him or to plead his case. His face brightened when he found I spoke Polish and even more when the Italians with their bayonets and rifles retreated with reluctance and left him alone with me. But before they would abandon their prisoner to me they demanded assurance that I would see that Col. Izdebski signed the proper paperwork. They wanted to make sure that they got the full credit for capturing him and that we took full responsibility for what happened to him next.
The "German" prisoner turned out to be yet another Pole who had been conscripted into Hitler’s army. During the guerilla-type skirmishes in the mountains, he took the first opportunity to surrender to the Allied side. The Italians had been pleased to show off their vanquished enemy to the whole town. The ancient Romans, who conquered most of the world known to them, had a penchant for victory marches into their capital displaying their captives and booty. In fairness to their twentieth century descendants, the paperwork they demanded was their security blanket to prove their loyalty to us, their new allies. If the prisoner had escaped or gone astray somehow, they could have been accused of being soft on the soldiers of their former allies, the Germans.
The soldier was tired and hungry. We fed him and he spent the night sleeping in my office on the floor--unguarded. The next day he was shipped to the main Polish Corps, where a special camp kept such Poles a few months for debriefing, evaluation and retraining. I'm sure it was no problem for that fellow because he said he'd been in the Polish Army before the war.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~[In the summer of 1944]
From Matera I was sent back to San Basilio, the little town north of the Gulf of Taranto where, fresh off the boat from Egypt, I had spent my first night in a makeshift tent in the snow. I hardly recognized the place. It had become a fully equipped and well organized training camp and base for the new soldiers who kept arriving. Many of them were Poles who had come to us from the German army. Being experienced battle veterans, they needed little training. Some had served for two years with the Germans on the Russian front and so they knew far more about fighting than we did. But they still had to learn about the procedures of the Polish army and about the Allied weapons new to them.
Old habits die hard. And Prussian army knee-jerk reactions had been instilled in them. This led to some funny situations. One of these vets dozed off on guard duty one night. The footsteps of an officer, who happened to be going by that night, woke him up with a start.
"Wer da!?!” Who goes there!?!, he challenged the officer in German, doing his best to sound ferocious, alert and efficient. The officer was terrified. He ran back to his mates and babbled on about German parachute troops that must have landed and already controlled part of the camp.
The base also received new recruits from basic training camps in Egypt [including boys who'd also escaped from Stalin's control and were now old enough to join our fighting units]; Poles hiding in the south of France who'd been liberated by the advancing Americans; and volunteers who kept filtering south through the Balkans. And so, despite being unable to enlist recruits in our homeland, our army kept growing.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Winter war in the Apennines meant artillery duels, constant patrolling and local skirmishes. We pushed forward bit by bit, trying to establish the best possible position for the inevitable Spring  offensive. I moved with Main Corps HQ northwest from the hills of Meldola to the flat ground west of Forli in the Po Valley. Our Polish Corps was gaining strength in two ways. We got more and newer equipment. And, despite casualties and having no way to enlist men in Poland, our numbers of fighting men kept growing. Some of our new volunteers came from parts of France where they had been lying low until advancing Allies--from Operation Overlord into Normandy and Operation Anvil into the Riviera-- pushed the Germans back. And more Poles forced into service with the German Wehrmacht risked their lives to cross the front line somehow and join Anders’s army.
Now, for the first time, each of our infantry divisions had three infantry brigades, the full complement, instead of two. We had enough soldiers to form our own independent Polish Army Artillery Group. Our Armoured Brigade became an Armoured Division. And our Commando Company grew into a Commando Battalion. The 2nd Polish Corps was gaining in strength and in experience..
Anders took the risk of forming two infantry brigades mostly from soldiers who'd come over from the German army. Could we count on the loyalty of these soldiers who'd spent years fighting in the German army in Russia and then in Italy? Any such fears proved to be unfounded. Anders was right. Those patriotic Poles who crossed over turned out to be plus catholique que le pape–fiercely loyal. They were well trained and cautious, yet courageous when need be. Survival after years on the Russian front had taught them caution. They also knew what would happen if they were taken prisoner and recognized as a turncoat. As the Germans retreated, we found a few such soldiers left out in full view with their throats slashed.
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Tue Mar 26, 2013 6:56 am (PDT) . Posted by: "Dan Ford"
lost 11,379 men. Among them were 2,301 killed in action, 8,543 wounded
in action and 535 missing in action."
Is that possible? It amounts to a quarter of the men General Anders
brought out of Russia--or was the "Army" reinforced after Monte Cassino?
The Wiki article on Monte Cassino says that the Polish 2nd Corps
numbered "about forty thousand." Since the Anders Army of 1942 included
airmen, sailors, Jews who remained in Palestine, and no doubt others who
dropped out over the next two years, I suppose there HAD to be
reinforcements, to keep the numbers almost the same. Probably some of
the men who escaped into Romania in September 1939 and who made their
way south instead of east? . . . .