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“There are two things that a soldier passionately wanted. The older ones had teeth, the younger ones had a watch.”

“There are two things that a soldier passionately wanted. The older ones had teeth, the younger ones had a watch.”

Dariusz Kaliñski draws on the memories of Polish commandos and historical sources to recreate the battle trail of the most daring Polish special forces. In the battles for the Monte Cassino area, the company’s losses amounted to 52 wounded and eight killed. We are publishing a fragment of the book “Adventurers and heroes. On the war trail of the Polish ‘band of brothers’ – 1st Independent Commando Company”.

To carry out an attack on Colle San’t Angelo from the side of the Spectrum, it was necessary to overcome a rather deep, mined valley, originally covered with an oak grove, already significantly damaged by artillery, on which the enemy was laying down heavy fire from his fire weapons. After crossing this death zone, called the “valley of death”, some of the Poznań commandos and uhlans were crushed to the ground on the slope by heavy machine gun fire from the still uncleared German positions and remained behind, which led to a certain impasse in the operation of the “Group…”. Rapid-firing MG 42s, firing from the narrow loopholes of the stone bunkers, covered the rocky foreground with an avalanche of bullets, trying to pick out the Poles moving in short jumps, from hiding to hiding. No one who survived the firing of “Hitler’s saw” ever again confused this characteristic sound of the fired bursts with any other weapon. It was impossible to distinguish individual shots and they all merged into a monotonous sound, reminiscent of the clatter of a working circular saw.

Sergeant Władysław Szablowski, known for his “juicy” Polish, tried to encourage the commandos lying under furious fire to attack, but it didn’t seem to help much. The bullets ricocheting off the stones created sparks and split smaller rocks. The account of Second Lieutenant Jan Lalko, commander of one of the two platoons of the Poznań Uhlan assault squadron, allows us to realize how difficult the conditions of this action took place:

When we were somewhere halfway down the slope, the Germans were waiting for us – to keep us in their sights – and we were hit with machine gun fire. We instinctively fall down and everyone takes cover wherever they can. Only now do I realize that we were in a murderous fire. But there is no time for meditation, the task is to get to St. Angela. So I shout as hard as I can “forward, forward”. Only Cpl. Supiński is with me. I don’t see anyone else. It looks as if everyone had suddenly sunk into the ground. No one is moving forward. It’s a stupid situation – “the army doesn’t listen.” What to do? I know that if I lie in this place for a while, I will get a series. In my mind I think – “the dog licked your face”. A quick thought – I say to Supiński, we have to reach the ravine – which is about 100 meters in front of us. But how to get there? The space is open and we are falling down, we are like a frying pan for the enemy. Instinct he tells me to make the shortest jumps possible. Fall down, get up immediately, run a few steps, fall down again, and get up again so that he can’t aim. At one point, I got a burst right in front of me, maybe a meter away, and I instinctively shook my head after getting out of the water, and we jumped again and we made it to the gorge. It all took about a minute. I guess I wouldn’t have been able to do such jumps in any other situation. […] After some time, we heard my uhlan Lejs calling us to go to him. After 50 meters of crawling we were with him. This was the northern ridge of S. Angelo. This is where part of the 17th WBS with command was located and this is where our task was to get. In addition, the commander of the commandos, 10 of his soldiers, Lt. Cygielski and a few lancers, second lieutenants, were already there. Bagpipe. The rest, about 80 percent of the entire unit, just like my people, remained on the Specter – “lie down”. Seeing this situation, I stopped being ashamed of myself for leading the platoon badly. Others had the same situation as mine – it was bad. […]

Our situation, that is, that of the gathered handful of soldiers, was quite peculiar. There were 50 of us sitting in an area of ​​maybe 80 square meters of rocky clefts. Above us, 5 meters up and 50 meters in the distance, there were German nests. We couldn’t do anything to them, nor could they do anything to us. Although they could have killed us with grenades. But apparently they didn’t have it, or it wasn’t easy sitting in the bunkers. They couldn’t shoot us with mortars because they would hit their own people.

Unrecognized fragments of the Monte Cassino battlefield, probably San Angelo Hill National Digital Archives

The attack on Colle San’t Angelo again reduced the forces of “Major Smrokowski’s Group”. The 2nd platoon suffered especially, with the wounded including: commander, second lieutenant Antoni Zemanek, and his deputy, senior sergeant Zygmunt Gradowski. The command of the platoon was then taken spontaneously by Sergeant Henryk Jedwab, who initially gathered only 6 people around him.

In addition to the “Major Smrokowski’s Group”, Colonel Klemens Rudnicki also sent the 18th Lviv Rifle Battalion into action, which began its attack by crushing the rest of the Germans on Widma.

By 5 p.m., thanks to the joint efforts of Major Smrokowski’s soldiers mixed in the fight and the riflemen of the remaining battalions of the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division, despite German counterattacks, Małe San’t Angelo was recaptured. However, the exhausted Polish troops no longer had the strength to conquer the entire hill and clear it of German bunkers. In the evening, despite problems with communication, which was often interrupted, Polish soldiers on Colle San’t Angelo received an order from Colonel Rudnicki to accept a defensive group for the night. Direct communication between “Major Smrokowski’s Group” and the command was virtually non-existent and Captain Zajączkowski had to fight his way through the “valley of death” to Widmo, where he could send a direct report from the radio station that was originally intended to mediate the transmission – such dangerous, lonely escapades through minefields and a shelling zone. will take twice.

The commandos, uhlans and other Polish infantrymen penetrated the terrain as much as they could for the night. Throughout the entire fighting, both sides went on the defensive, trying to maintain their positions. Although some Poles were tempted by the adventure and started looking for various souvenirs that could be obtained from the Germans. Watches in particular were highly valued:

There are two things that a soldier passionately wanted. These older ones, came from Russia – to grow their teeth. And the younger ones – have a watch. A watch on your wrist – it’s a passport of “betterness”, a ticket to pecuniary favors (PSK – women’s auxiliary service – “PESTKA”), respect from the chief’s sergeant who can manage the car more calmly if the driver has a watch, popularity among officers, knowing when it ends service – what can I say – a watch, it’s like putting eyes in a blind man.

The leader here was especially senior rifleman Józef Górny from the 17th Lviv Rifle Battalion, who had already captured seven valuable timepieces during this attack. Even though the commandos who came from England were usually better off, some of them had a sporting streak: “collecting watches is like collecting scalps.” Senior gunner Górny agreed on one such action against a large enemy bunker with senior gunner Wacław Kwiecień from Commando, who, after being temporarily “missing”, joined the unit on the hill:

– The company commander is sitting there… – Górny tempts – a gold watch, for sure… It’s as if he said that the red and curly scalp needs to be torn off. They were sneaking up from both sides. Whoever they see first, their fate is bad – and whoever they see first, their fate is bad – and whoever they see first – good luck and a watch.

An alert bunker killed Górny. And right after that, Kwiecień threw a grenade, dragged the crew into captivity, and what a chance! – of the two watches obtained, one was gold “Longine…”. […] Kwiecień took the deceased Górny’s seven better and worse watches from his right and left pockets, returned to the 17th Battalion and said:

– Please divide these seven watches among the platoon, because they are the watches of the late. Górnego.

The strength of the Commando company was then 52 people. The wounded were still floating away, some of them tried to crawl to the rear themselves, although not everyone wanted to evacuate, there were no orderlies and stretcher bearers, and those who were less injured were treated by themselves or a teammate. Corporal Konrad Brauliński from the 1st platoon stood out in particular, as he worked hard to carry wounded Polish soldiers out of the fire. You had to be very careful and attentive, because German mountain shooters were on guard and any movement noticed on the hillside immediately provoked fire. The skillfully disguised trap mines were equally deadly.

At night, the Germans illuminated the slopes of Colle San’t Angelo with flares, shedding bright light on all the reliefs of the terrain and creating an incredible play of shadows on the rocks. The soldiers on the hill were suffering from cold, thirst and hunger, because their own meager supplies had run out and due to the shelling it was impossible to deliver supplies here. Lieutenant Tadeusz Monsior tried twice to send water and provisions to his colleagues, and each time the soldiers transporting them were forced to retreat. Despite this, the mood in the Commando company was good. Commandos and uhlans carried out active patrolling and security activities, and German mountain shooters who tried to counterattack were stopped. After midnight, two German paramedics with a Red Cross flag came down from the summit and asked Captain Zalewski to collect their wounded and take them to a Polish dressing point. After obtaining consent, Polish soldiers were shown:

[…] original procession: a huge Kraut with a huge red beard walks at the head, followed by a procession of twenty-three bloody cripples; they drag one another, two of them are carried on stretchers. There is nothing harder than watching such marches of wounded soldiers. Killed – finished his life: single wounded – waiting for his fate; but these organized marches of people barely alive, barely dragging along, this self-help, this reporting, this is the depth of misery and the depth of tragedy.

The enemy soldiers, escorted by a Polish medic, were taken to the rear. Around 2 a.m., German artillery salvos hit the Polish positions on the slope. They were killed and wounded again. This time it was the Poles who evacuated their victims under the flag of the Red Cross, which the Germans respected and did not open fire. At dawn on May 18, the southern part of the hill was still in German hands, while the northern part was in Polish hands.

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Source: Gazeta

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