With Antoni Łapiński about dramatic moments at Monte Cassino and the winning streak of Polish soldiers talks Piotr Korczyński.
You come from a family of railwaymen, so you found out about the war immediately after it broke out.
On the night of August 31 to September 1, 1939, I was on duty at the railway station in my hometown of Łapy – I went in my father’s footsteps. In the morning, after I finished my shift, I heard someone shout: “Planes, planes!” Unfortunately, they were German… That’s when they started bombing. This war feeling was in the air much earlier, though. Several days after the raid my father, my older brother and myself broke away from the Germans as far as to the environs of Vilnius. When however on September 17, the Soviet forces crossed the eastern border, we came back to Łapy on foot. The occupants were already there, and they had started to introduce their own order. As early as in October 1939, the Soviets announced a referendum, and the main question of it was: “Do we want to be annexed to the Soviet union, to the Belarusian Republic?”
Was it then when the real trouble started?
The plebiscite was held on a beautiful Sunday, so the crowds went to vote. On that day, we found out that on the market of our little town some high-school students got arrested because they were critical about Soviet authorities. My brother was one of them. He disappeared without trace. Afterwards, it turned out that he was convicted to ten years of forced labor in a Soviet gulag. This penalty was changed into ten years of forced labor in the mines in the Karaganda Coal Basin. As to the rest of us, we also were doomed to cope with the surrounding reality. In the morning of April 10, 1940, a loud knock on the door and a shout: “Open up! Open up!” woke us up. Our house was surrounded by NKVD. We were to pack our things and leave within two hours. We went to the railway station. They loaded us onto cattle cars, and we set off on a very long journey. We passed Ural, and our transport stopped before Novosibirsk. From there, the deportees were distributed by cars to different places around the country. We were transported to the Vsevolodivka kolkhoz. We lived there in difficult conditions and we worked very hard, but we stayed in good relations with local Russians. That’s where I met my first love – Katia. We were not however meant to be together, because in the spring of 1941, we were taken to Atbasar near Akmolinsk (today: Nur-Sultan), to the great construction site, where the Poles were cheap labor force.
How did your situation change after the German-Soviet war broke in June 1941?
Initially, it was worse. One day, we had a roll-call, where our bosses informed us that German fascists attacked the Soviet Union. For that reason we were to make a decision that from then on – and of our own accord – we would work twelve hours instead of ten per day. It all changed after the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was signed in July 1941. We heard at the meeting: “Brothers Poles! You are our friends. We will fight together against Germans. From now on, you are free, and you are treated as our allies.” I thought at once that my brother could have been released from forced labor in the mine. From that moment, we could freely use our spare time, so we used it for keeping our family shifts: every day one of us was on duty at the railway station, running along the trains and shouting out loud: “Is Łapiński on this train?” One day my sister heard: “He is!” We were together again at last.
Did you both join General Anders’ army?
Yes, as soon as we found out about forming the Polish army, we quickly decided: let’s go! When me and my brother saw the white-and-red flag on the building of Polish command, we were deeply moved and thought: “Poland will still exist, and we will come back there!” I was deployed to the 10th Light Artillery Regiment of the 10th Infantry Division, and my brother to infantry in the same division. The conditions in our army were very harsh. Every day we suffered from hunger and freezing weather. We had very small food rations, and we lived in the holes in the ground covered with canvass. We would often see our fellow soldiers carrying their dead colleagues out of these holes. It was horrible! The news about evacuation of our army to Iran was a relief. Upon the arrival to Pahlavi (today: Bandar-e Anzali) we saw a new beautiful world! British medical care and commissariat were organized brilliantly. For example, every day we would get sweetened condensed milk. Unfortunately, the mortality level in our troops was still very high. Many soldiers after a long period of starvation were exhausted… Those however who survived this period, soon started to get better and slowly we changed into a real army.
This army soon went through a real test – in 1944…
At the beginning of that year I was in Palestine, where several weeks earlier in Barbara camp I graduated from the fourth grade of gymnasium, and passed the so-called “little matura exam”. There, the order came that we – gymnasium graduates – be trained as stretcher bearers, and that was my role in the Polish II Corps during the famous Battle of Monte Cassino.
I remember the moment we entered the village of Cassino. We were welcomed only by rubble and ruins of burnt houses, and by flooded bomb-craters. The streets were so narrow that our cars could barely fit in. We were driving in the cloud of dust on a winding road up the hill. Here and there we saw military police controlling the traffic and the signs saying: “Don’t be stupid, don’t get killed.”
The night fell when we got to our destination – a building among the trees at the bottom of a hill. In the moonlight, we got off our cars, hearing only silent orders of our commanders. There were over 50 of us, soldiers. We went up the pathway, about one-and-a-half-meter wide, and every 200 meters we would stop in front of makeshift shelters built by our allied predecessors. In each of them, four of stretcher-bearers were left behind. According to my calculations, on our pathway there were 14 such shelters. The last one was at the bottom of the hill area called the Great Bowl. Fifty meters higher, there was a farm building. We passed by it, and we continued to go up the three-meter wide pathway. On both sides, there were white tapes, and our commander warned us: “Don’t cross the tape line, because there are minefields there. Go straight in the middle, because when you carry a wounded person in the night, you can easily slip on the stone, cross the tape and fell out to the minefield.”
Finally, we reached the forwarded first-aid station, called “Doctor’s House”, where doctor Adam Majewski worked with two paramedics. There we were ordered: “You are dismissed. Go and find yourselves some place to sleep, but you have to stay close to the house, so you are here when we need you. You can rest your head on the stone and take some sleep.”
Was the surrounding shocking to you when you woke up?
First thing I saw was that the emergency room’s wall in doctor Majewski’s house is covered with a canvass because it was destroyed by a German shell, and that there was the Red Cross sign on the roof. I also immediately saw the ominous ruins of the Monte Cassino abbey. Looking straight, it seemed the abbey was right ahead, with only “the Death Valley” in between. At once I realized that German forces used the spoiling attack, which meant once in a while they fired several shells to designated targets, and then took a break. They’d had a lot of practice by then, so every time some of us got killed or wounded.
My team was tasked with taking away seriously wounded soldiers from doctor Majewski, and transporting them on the stretchers to the bottom of the Great Bowl, which was the starting place for our relay team. The end was the spot where we got off the cars last night. The last stage of evacuating the wounded was a jeep drive to the field hospital. It was not an easy job: a wounded soldier usually weighed about 60 kg, the wooden stretchers – another 17 kg, plus the helmet and personal equipment, which made it a total of 80 kg or so. We had to carry all of this about a kilometer on a bumpy pathway. On our way back, we often carried 20-liter canisters filled with water, and some victuals. We never carried ammunition – this was prohibited for paramedics. We were often under fire. The Red Cross bands on our arms didn’t do their job – the wounded and the killed were also among us.
All of this was taking place before the actual battle?
Exactly. On May 11, 1944, at 8 p.m., our commander called us to the Doctor’s House and read the order by General Anders that the Polish II Corps had attacked our enemy along the entire frontline. We were excited. At 11.00 p.m. over a thousand allied cannons started shelling German positions – the night changed into a day. The hurricane fire lasted until 1.00 a.m. Then, our 1st Carpathian Brigade took off. We were waiting for the wounded. The first were brought around 2.00 a.m. With every second, there were more. At the break of dawn there were so many of them, we were unable to carry them to the Great Bowl. We were dreadfully tired, and the worst was yet to come – the battle changed into a bloody carnage, and none of us no longer counted the killed and the wounded. I was yearning for some sleep, at least a short little nap while resting my head on the stone. I don’t remember eating anything warm during the entire battle. Adrenaline and tinned beef kept me going. On May 17, the 2nd Carpathian Brigade went to second attack. All the Corps’ reserve forces were mobilized. The 2nd Brigade attacked the “Ravine” (“Gardziel”) and Mass Albaneta, and finally there was a breakthrough. German forces were visibly weakened, and they were forced to withdraw from the fortification line. Their paratroopers were only left to conduct delay activity and cover the withdrawal of main forces.
The day of May 18 came – a very happy day for the soldiers of the Polish II Corps…
For me, this day was especially happy. Early morning, our troops entered the ruins of the abbey at Monte Cassino. About 9:00 a.m., I was standing near the Doctor’s House, looking at the seized ruins of the abbey. That night, I had managed to take a three-hour sleep, resting my head on my medical bag. Suddenly, I saw a group of seven soldiers coming from ‘the Ravine’ (‘Gardziel’), led by some officer. When they got closer, just a few meters away from me, I recognized the officer, the second lieutenant: it was my brother Józef! He looked exactly as when he was released from a forced labor camp a few years before – skeletal, unshaved, in a dirty, tattered uniform. This however meant nothing compared to the fact that my brother survived! Saying goodbye, he pointed to his soldiers and said: “Look how many alive men I was able to gather after my platoon’s attack on Mass Albaneta and the ‘Ravine’.” Before the fight, the platoon counted thirty men and was part of the 6th Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Carpathian Brigade. The second time me and my brother met, he told me that ultimately over a dozen more soldiers from this platoon were found alive later – which made up a total of 18 survivors. All other young soldiers in his platoon were killed on the Monte Cassino slope covered with red poppies.
The Carpathian Division, along with other troops of the Polish II Corps, took off via Ancona and other Italian villages on its winning trail, which ended with seizing Bologna in the spring of 1945. Did the seizure of Monte Cassino mean the end of war for you?
After we seized the abbey, I did many jobs in the 1st Carpathian Light Artillery Regiment. I was, among other things, a liaison officer and a surveillance officer; I also graduated from the artillery school for cadet officers in Matera, Italy. Above all, I was a young man. I was 20 years old. I very much enjoyed the trip to newly liberated Rome, because I was hoping to see the renowned Roman monuments, which I knew about from my history and Latin lessons back in Józef Piłsudski Gymnasium in Białystok. The trip however was only about visiting several wine bars and drinking a reasonable amounts of wine… We had great fun, though, young Italian girls were charming and didn’t stand aloof from their liberators. Leaving the Eternal City and those liberated girls brought a little tear to my eye. I was infatuated, I only wasn’t sure with which girl…
The front was also an unforgettable experience, for example after the Carpathian infantry seized Osimo. The village on the hill was a perfect observation point for our infantry. The battery communication platoon, where I served at that time, was tasked to communicate on the phone with the divisions of the 1st Carpathian Light Artillery Regiment. During the attack flanking Ancona, I operated the phone line, when a regiment commander, Colonel Juliusz Moździeń, used all his cannons to fire at German positions. The view of the camouflaged observational point was so fascinating that I won’t forget it to the end of my life. The cannonade of our 24 cannons, and the shell bursts among German bunkers were the payment for the year of 1939 and dark days of German occupation. We were so proud of ourselves. We felt that five years of terror and humiliation was partially compensated for.
Our combat trail, although victorious, was not easy, and I always remembered the words I saw on the sign in the village of Cassino: “Don’t be stupid, don’t get killed.”
LtCol Antoni Łapiński – a deportee, a soldier of the 1st Carpathian Light Artillery Regiment, part of the Polish II Corps, in the ranks of which he served throughout its entire combat trail in Italy. He was decorated with e.g. the Siberian Exiles Cross, the Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross, the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Medal “Pro Bono Poloniae”, and the British Italy Star.
autor zdjęć: archiwum Antoniego Łapińskiego