NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
Castel Di Sangro
By December 1943 I was on the move once more and by different methods of transport found myself in Port Said at the north end of the Suez Canal. A huge convoy of around seventy ships was assembled there to be filled with army personnel, vehicles of all kinds, tanks, guns and everything an army on the move required. Nearing the end of December we set sail out into the Mediterranean Sea heading for Italy. The weather was foul. Only a few could face eating at mealtimes but I was one of them. Most poor souls were leaning over the side being sick.
We were guarded all the way by ships of the Royal Navy and also by the air force. As far as I know we were not attacked at all although we heard alarms twice. Perhaps the stormy weather helped to protect us. After three days we drew close to Italy. As we neared the port of Taranto one destroyer guarding our convoy came quite close to us and suddenly someone on our ship noticed that it was flying the Polish flag. What excitement that caused! Nearly everyone rushed to the side of our ship nearest the destroyer, shouting and yelling and then throwing their hats up into the air. There were hundreds of hats airborne.
The crew of the destroyer saw and heard us and began shouting back, throwing their caps in the air too. It was a wonderful and emotional moment which cheered us all and lifted our spirits up. Shortly after, our ship docked and I set foot on yet another country, Italy.
My first impression was of terrible poverty. Children were coming round the soldiers and begging. They were not looking for just chocolate or sweeties but for anything. They were poorly clad and hungry. The population looked thin, sad and dejected. The front line was further to the north and we began making our way slowly towards it. Sometimes we marched and sometimes we travelled in lorries. The weather was wet and cold. Conditions for us were rather poor and we had to contend with a great deal of mud. At night we might stay in camps that the advancing army ahead of us had previously occupied. Other times we made use of any parts of houses that were still standing after being bombed or shelled. Sometimes we slept in tents or we just had to bed down in the open air.
Onwards we advanced, through Cerignola and Foggia. The rain had now turned to snow and with the strong wind blowing there were deep drifts. We were issued with spades and had to clear the roads to enable us to continue our journey ever northwards. In places the snow was three and four metres deep. All the bridges had been destroyed but some road bridges had been repaired by the Allied forces who had already passed this way.
Eventually we reached the village of Castel Di Sangro on the river Sangro. Many of the houses were bombed or shelled while some were undamaged. The villagers were still living there and were made up of mostly women and children as the menfolk had been taken away to fight. We occupied what we could in the unoccupied damaged houses and settled in for a short stay. The Germans were just some way ahead of us now, across the river and up in the mountains beyond. If the sun came out we could see them against the snow, sometimes moving about on skis. I was one of a group of ten soldiers who shared a ruined house. There were two rooms still standing which we could occupy and sleep on the floors. A young Italian lad of fourteen or fifteen years came to us offering his services. Like nearly all Italians he was pale and thin and certainly hungry. We gave him odd jobs to do, like sweeping the floor and polishing our boots, and paid him with bread or any other food we could spare. Money was again useless as the shops were empty and I think closed anyway.
From time to time there would be an exchange of artillery and mortar fire between us and the Germans positioned high on nearby hills.. We had some casualties when patrols went out and stepped on land mines. We soon realised the Germans were watching our movements during the day then sneaking across at night and laying mines where they knew we would be walking.
It was decided to do something about this. At one place there was a house situated just across the river which, it was suspected, the Germans were using for their night time mine laying manoeuvres. A patrol was to be sent out with the orders to try and intercept these Germans and if possible bring back some prisoners. I was one of the platoon of thirty soldiers. We went out one night with the instructions to hide by the river till the Germans arrived. We were told to stay three nights and three days if necessary and had enough rations with us for that length of time. Nearing the river we divided ourselves into three groups, ten in each. Two groups had to conceal themselves, about eighty metres apart, on the near side of the river while the third group had to cross the river by inflatable boat and occupy the house on the other side. There was something wrong with the boat which refused to be blown up. The boat had to be abandoned and the soldiers were forced to wade across the river with the water up to their armpits. They then made their way to the house where they were relieved to find only one occupant, a friendly Italian male. They had reason to believe this man made himself equally friendly to both the Germans and the Allies so they secured him and settled down to wait.
Meanwhile on my side of the river we had problems too. It had been decided from the beginning that the groups, once having concealed themselves separately, would keep in touch only by radio and would not visit each other. Almost immediately we, in our group, discovered our radio was not working. After a while it was decided that we had better let the other group on our side of the river know about this problem and I was sent to tell them. I felt a bit exposed and vulnerable as I made my way across towards them remembering that this was the very thing we had agreed not to do. The weather was absolutely terrible with snow and gale force winds blowing straight into my face. I called out to my comrades that I was coming but my voice was just blown away. I pictured them on the lookout and if seeing me probably deciding I was the enemy. Luckily as I drew nearer my frantic shouting was heard and recognised so their machine gun, which had been facing me, did not come into action.
I had been with this group for a few minutes when we heard bursts of machine gun fire from across the river and guessed correctly that some Germans had turned up at the house. Our group decided to fire towards the house but aiming high just to let any Germans know that there was more of us about. It wasn't long before all firing ceased and we ventured down to the river bank to find out what had happened. Already our group from the house were making their way back across the river with two prisoners. One was a wounded German and the other the Italian. It was difficult for them to cross the deep river because apart from manhandling the prisoners they had to carry the machine gun and other equipment. The Italian was struggling and suddenly broke free, dived deep down into the water and was away like a fish.
When the German patrol had approached the house expecting it to be only occupied by the friendly Italian they must have been greatly shocked to be met by deadly machine gun fire. They withdrew, leaving several dead comrades and one wounded. It needed four of our men to assist this man across the river. As they reached the shore we took over in helping. One of our radios was working so a call was made for an ambulance. It was quite a struggle to get the wounded man, plus all our equipment to the road which was over 200 metres away across difficult uphill terrain. Once at the road side we had only a short wait before the ambulance arrived and took our prisoner away for treatment and into captivity. As we now had successfully completed our mission we collected up all our equipment and made our way back to Castel di Sangro.
On a different occasion a patrol from another company of our Battalion was sent out to try and capture Germans laying mines in no man's land. Unfortunately this patrol suffered casualties. Private Krasinski was killed and my two friends, Cadet Officers Olek Bobrowski and Stanisûaw Janulewicz were both wounded. We were stationed for quite a while in Castel di Sangro and became friendly with the residents. It has to be said that quite a number of our soldiers became very friendly with some of the local girls. I think the Italians had had quite enough of the Germans and the war. Now that the Italian government had capitulated, Italy was no longer an ally of Germany so the German soldiers had become less friendly towards the Italian civilians. As they retreated northwards, up through Italy, they must have often been short of supplies because many Italian people repeatedly told us "The Germans have taken all our food and run away".
We were now nearing the front line and had already passed the town of Isernia from which the Germans had retreated from after it had been heavily bombed and shelled by the Allies and left in ruins. To the west of us was Monte Cassino with it's magnificent monastery perched high on its summit looking down to the town of Cassino and, more importantly, on the main highway, route 6, to Rome. The Germans were occupying this huge, impregnable building which had the strategic advantage of looking down at anyone or anything approaching from afar. It was obvious the Allies could not advance northwards along route 6 or over the flat surrounding plain towards Rome as long as the Germans could fire down on them from the monastery and the high ground around it. It was proving impossible to remove the Germans from this position which had the added advantage of tunnels under the monastery and a cave in which they could hide and shelter every time there was heavy artillery fire directed at them. Already the Allies had made three different unsuccessful attacks using Allied armies of several nationalities and suffering very heavy losses. Among them were British, Canadians, Americans, Indians, Free French and of course Poles.
On March 29th General Sosnkowski came to visit us. He was the overall chief of the Polish Army, Navy and Air Force at that time. During his short stay he decorated some of my comrades for bravery including Cadet Officer Dunajewski who had led the successful group that had captured the wounded German soldier at the house by the river.
Now the time had come to move out of Castel di Sangro and advance towards the front line at Monte Cassino. The local people had come out to wave us "goodbye" and it was with sadness they did this as they knew only to well what lay before us. We were approximately thirty miles north east of Monte Cassino as the crow flies and in mountainous country. Castel di Sangro was itself situated on a mountainside so we travelled downhill by lorry to Civitanuova. On May 6th we left this place for Venafro, where part of our army was gathering and resting before proceeding any nearer to Monte Cassino. We were now about ten miles from the fighting and could clearly hear the gunfire. There was no rest for me because the same day that we arrived I was sent out with a reconnaissance group to familiarise ourselves with the lay of the land on which we would soon have to traverse. Ahead of us was our 1st Brigade, who were already dug in and preparing for the forthcoming attack. The plan was that at some time after they had made their attack they would fall back and we, of the 2nd Brigade, would replace them and continue the fight.
We went by lorry across the flat land towards Monte Cassino but when we came to a minefield and where the road ahead of us had been damaged by bombs we had to leave the lorry and proceed on foot. Soldiers already there showed us the safe way to cross the minefield by following a narrow path marked out previously with white tape. We were near the River Rapido and approaching the foothills of the mountains just north of the monastery. We were now among some of our artillery guns which fired from time to time. Some soldiers who knew the area well guided us on a path which led up these mountains and along which all supplies of water, food, ammunition, medical equipment etc. had to be carried on the backs of mules. Higher in the mountains we were shown where our soldiers were positioned, hidden in different gullies. There were so many soldiers spread over this mountainous region that it took us several nights, and sometimes in daylight too, to locate them all and memorise their positions. With this vital information we had to report back to our superior officers. We at last returned down the mountains and met up with our 2 nd Brigade, who had in the meantime moved forward. Our reconnaissance group were exhausted from their exertions. I had previously dug myself a shallow trench in which I now lay down and feeling partly protected from flying shrapnel, fell into a deep sleep.
As I slept our Polish soldiers in the nearby hills commenced their attack. It was now 11 th May 1944 and at 11pm (23:00), 1,700 artillery guns opened fire on surrounding German positions including the monastery at Monte Cassino. The noise must have been deafening, not only with the firing of so many guns but also with the explosions when the shells landed. The Germans, of course, retaliated but not with so many guns. I slept on. Then just over one hour later at five minutes past midnight (00:05), on May 12 th, the first wave of soldiers, from the 1st Carpathian Brigade, moved forward to attack the German lines. At a quarter past one (01:15) the rest of the brigade foll owed them. Ten minutes later at one twenty five (01:25), the 5th Polish Infantry Division (Kresowa) positioned to the right of our 1st Brigade started their attack. I slept on.
At one forty-five (01:45) someone wakened me as my battalion was about to move forward in the direction of the 1st Battalions positions. At first we rode on lorries and experienced heavy artillery fire from German guns. We could only move very slowly as it was so dark we could hardly see and we could not use any lights. To our left, westwards, the British and American units were moving forward across the flat plain of Liri, beside route 6. When we could not proceed any further by lorry we had to continue by foot. We were now at the minefield where I had passed through previously so we were able to use the safe path marked through it. We also had to cross the River Rapido before we reached the supply path which led up into the hills. Up this path we went until it forked; to the right it led to the 5th Infantry Division (Kressowa) positioned at Mt. Cairo and to the left it led to our 1st Brigade positions which was our destination. We took the left fork and with mules carrying our supplies journeyed on some way further until ordered to stop. There, high on the hills, we had to dig in as best we could among the sheltering crevices of the mountainside. Here we remained for a few days, being periodically shelled by the Germans.
On receiving orders to move forward towards the 1st Brigade we began suffering casualties, including fatalities, to our soldiers and mules from German artillery fire. News of the 1st Brigade's first attack had now been relayed to us. They had managed to reach some German positions but because of heavy machine gun fire had had to retreat with heavy casualties. They were also shelled by artillery guns which had destroyed their means of communication.
On the 17th May our 2nd Brigade moved forward to Mass Albanety and by the next morning we were on high ground very near to the monastery of Monte Cassino. This once magnificent edifice had now been reduced, more or less, to a heap of stones by continual bombing and shelling. The hill it stood on was a sorry sight with all the green vegetation blasted away and only a few ragged stumps of trees remaining. Some of our 2nd Brigade were now ahead of my company and engaging in fighting the Germans sitting on pillboxes. Suddenly I met a group of returning soldiers belonging to the 1st Brigade and was amazed to see that one of them was Josef Olszewski, my friend and neighbour from Poland and who, along with his mother and sister, had shared our house in Kuskuduk, Siberia. He said he was sorry to tell me that after the heavy fighting of the last few days there were only thirty soldiers left alive in his company of about one hundred men. We could not talk for long as we were going in opposite directions, he was withdrawing while I was going forward. We said farewell and went on our way and our paths never crossed again.
During the last two days, as we had been walking nearer and nearer to the monastery, we came across many dead bodies of Polish soldiers. They lay there from the fighting that had commenced on May 12th. It was difficult for me to believe what I was seeing. Was it really true? These young men had been fit and well a few days ago and had been full of life, filled with hope of returning to a free Poland. The memory of them will always be deep in our hearts.
On our left was the 12th Regiment of Polish Lancers who had managed to make their way right up to the monastery. After days of fighting and a great deal of loss of life many of the remaining German soldiers had slipped away northwards under cover of darkness. Now the remaining German officer in charge contacted this Polish regiment and surrendered. He asked for help for his wounded soldiers. At long last the bloody fight for the Monastery of Monte Cassino was over. Some Polish soldiers managed to climb to the top of the ruined building and raise their Polish flag. Feelings were mixed. There was, of course, some jubilation but mainly the feelings were of relief and great sorrow at the tremendous loss of life in this, and previous attacks on this unforgettable building.
Our company was at that time about two hundred metres from the monastery after having walked through part of the night. We were commanded to halt and rest. I looked around for a suitable piece of ground to lie down on and noticed what I thought was an upturned saucepan. In the next split second I realised it was a land mine and one of quite a few lying about. I immediately warned other soldiers nearby and soon some sappers came forward to deal with the hazard.
We stayed in the area until early in the morning of May 22nd when our company received the order to advance northwest towards the nearby village of Piedmonte San Germano. We set off while it was still very dark and after some time the Germans began firing towards us with artillery guns and mortars. The whining noise of the shells coming near to us was frightening. We all dropped to the ground when we heard it. The shells landed all around us but as far as I know we had no casualties at that time. When the firing ceased we got up and walked forward until the firing began again and then we fell to the ground for shelter once more. While lying on the ground I was hit by a piece of flying shrapnel which luckily struck my helmet and did no damage. We continued to travel in this fashion for about one and a half hours.
By then we had reached a house at the edge of Piedimonte. It was large and partly damaged by shells. We were ordered to enter this house and on doing so we realised that our company was far from complete and that some of us had got lost on the way. A decision was made quickly and I was ordered to return back the way we had come to try to find the missing soldiers. It was still in the hours of darkness as I slipped back out of the house, alone, with only my Tommy gun and two grenades for company. Although I could hardly see I thought I knew the direction in which to go. We had walked down out of the hills and were now on flat stony land but it was difficult to travel over this ground as it was covered in shell holes which, of course, I could not see. My task seemed hopeless. I listened but could hear no voices in any language let alone Polish ones. I certainly couldn't see anyone so I finally decided I would have to call out some of their names in the hope that they were nearby and might hear me. This was a risky thing to do as the Germans were aware of our presence hereabouts and might have sent out patrols hoping to intercept us. I took the chance and called out a few names without any answers. I walked on further and tried again. Louder and louder I shouted and before very long I got a welcoming reply. I met up with our group of soldiers and guided them back to the house to join up with the rest of the company. We were still not complete because as the sky lightened with the approaching dawn some more stragglers appeared and somehow managed to find where we were hidden.
When it was full daylight we saw that it was going to be a beautiful day, warm with blue skies. Piedmonte was right beside us although stretching up onto slightly higher ground. The plan was to attack it that day but first we had to establish if the Germans were still in occupation or had perhaps retreated further north. The tanks accompanying us, slightly to our rear, did not have an unlimited supply of shells so it was presumed prudent not to begin firing on Piedmonte if it might be abandoned already. When the time came for us to make a move it was Corporal Antek Krzyłanowski and I who were ordered to take small patrols of four men each and advance on Piedmonte, either to draw their fire or to find the village empty. In the event of the Germans firing at us we were to fire a rocket in their direction to pinpoint their position. Our two patrols left the house and, walking about twenty five metres apart, advanced towards the village. This was over open, stony ground with no cover whatsoever so we could be clearly seen from any village house we were approaching. We had only moved forward about thirty metres when, from one of the houses, there was a burst of machine gun fire with tracer bullets, aimed at the other patrol and narrowly missing them. Antek immediately fired his rocket and we all retreated back to the house.
Antek, myself and one other member of the patrol were then ordered to stay outside the house and act as observers. We sat on a flight of stone steps which ran up the side wall of the house. As soon as we had taken up this position the tanks opened fire with their shells and machine guns. Again the noise was deafening. Some of the bullets were passing just a metre and a half above us. Some were even catching the corner of the building and tiny bits of masonry were falling down on us. Some of the machine guns had tracer bullets which were clearly visible as they flew through the air enabling us to watch their passage as they flew overhead towards the village.
Suddenly I saw what can only be described as red lines coming, low down, towards us and my leg went numb. I toppled over to my left and rolled down the step, landing on my back on the ground, still holding my Tommy gun. I thought my leg had been shot away which was a terrible shock for me. I moved my hand towards my leg and with the tips of my fingers reassured myself that it was still there. Raising my head slightly I was more than relieved to see all my leg, including my foot, but I couldn't move it when I tried. The next thing I remember was our chief medic approaching and giving me a shot of morphine. This was big, cheery Bruno Kotewa, a talented violin player, and the very same soldier who had fainted while holding the lamp as I had my lip stitched back in the Middle East.. Bruno then tried to lift me up to carry me to the first aid post but I screamed with the excruciating pain so he had to lay me down again. Soon a stretcher was fetched and I was carried some fifty metres to receive attention. Antek had also been seriously wounded, his knee had been hit. He also had to be carried by stretcher but the third soldier, sitting on the steps, only received a flesh wound to his arm and was able to walk.
At the First Aid Post I learned that my left leg had been hit by shrapnel, shattering the top of the femur. My left hand had also been hit and a bone fractured. I remember seeing one bit of shrapnel sticking out of my finger and I pulled that bit out myself. Temporary dressings were put on my wounds as well as strappings on my broken leg to secure it. A carrier was brought forward which was a small version of a tank but with no superstructure. I was lifted up still on the stretcher, and placed across the top of this vehicle along with Antek and the other wounded soldier. We were to be taken to a position further behind the front lines. The ground was relatively flat but still very stony and full of bomb and shell craters. The driver did his best to avoid all these holes by twisting and turning between them. It was a terribly painful journey for us as we travelled on for about an hour. From time to time the Germans fired at us with their artillery guns and mortars but thankfully, although coming close, never hit us. When we finally stopped I found I was at another First Aid Post but this one was bigger, with tents and more equipment. Here my broken bones were set with bandages and plaster of Paris. I must have been kept at this First Aid Post for four nights but my memories of it are hazy, probably because of lack of sleep and morphine injections. On the 26th May I was put into an ambulance and travelling on a proper road, which was so much more comfortable, set off for a Polish Military Hospital some distance away leaving the sounds of war behind.
At the hospital I received further attention to my leg and hand from Mr. Srokowski, the head surgeon. The hospital building had previously been a school but had now been converted into a bright and adequate medical facility totally run by Polish staff of whom some were nuns. There were about six beds in every ward and it was well equipped, with generously sized beds and as comfortable as such a place can be. Every morning at around ten o'clock, Mr. Srokowski, with his entourage of doctors and nurses, would make his rounds of the wards. Stopping at every bed he would enquire how that patient was fairing. Notes were taken as they moved from bed to bed and it was obvious that every wounded soldier received proper care and attention.
An unexpected incident happened while I was lying there one day. When the surgeon came to a soldier lying in a bed diagonally opposite me he examined the patient's broken leg and was not satisfied at the way it was healing. In fact the leg was not straight. The surgeon took a blanket, folded it several times, laid it across the offending leg and then with a wooden implement, similar to a rolling pin, hit the leg one blow. The mending bone broke again. I was rather taken aback by this procedure and actually don't remember what followed but I presume the leg was reset and healed in a more straight fashion.
Traction had to be put on my leg to prevent it from shortening too much. This involved drilling a hole in the bone just below the knee and inserting a metal pin through it. The pin stuck out either side of my leg so that a stirrup contraption could be attached. This was then weighed down with the help of cords, pulleys and a bag of sand. Thankfully this was done under general anaesthetic.
The highlight of each day was when one of the nurses, a nun, would come into the ward with a bible in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other. She would kneel down in the centre of the floor and pray loudly. Everyone listened then afterwards she would go round each patient and pour them a glass of rum. There was something else that always cheered us up and that was when American ladies from the Red Cross would arrive and give out chocolates, cigarettes and chewing gum to us all.
We also had some well-known Polish artistes coming to entertain us who had broadcast on the radio from Lwów before the war. They had been very popular because of their different skills. Now they came round the wards, cheering us with Polish songs and amusing sketches. This was very much appreciated by all of us. The meals we received were excellent, both in quality and quantity.
At night-time if we couldn't sleep because of our wounds we would be given an injection of morphine. We would then have a deep sleep and forget all our pains and worries. There was one soldier in the bed furthest from the door who was perhaps a bit of a mummy's boy and who had the habit of calling out for a nurse during the night. As she passed my bed in the darkness on her way to him she occasionally and accidentally knocked against the foot of my bed which sent sharp pains through my broken bones.
By the end of July more beds in the hospital were needed for the newly wounded soldiers so some of us had to be evacuated elsewhere. The walking wounded were sent to Egypt and some of the more seriously wounded, like myself, were examined and if found fit enough were prepared for a journey by ship to Great Britain. The surgeon began his round of soldiers with legs attached to traction contraptions and began the procedure of dismantling them. It seemed a relatively easy task. With his fingers the surgeon took hold of one end of the pin protruding from the patient's leg and gently, but firmly, pulled it out.
When he came to me and began pulling the pin it would not budge. It had grown into the bone! Mr. Srokowski had to resort to more drastic methods. He produced a pair of pliers and with one hand holding my leg below the knee he gripped the end of the pin. Twisting the pliers a little one way and then a little the other way the pin gradually loosened and was slowly but surely extracted. It was excruciatingly painful and I could not help letting out a few screams. When the pin emerged it looked revoltingly gory. I was given two tots of rum and an injection of morphine. Despite this bit of extra drama my leg continued to heal but I had to have it re-plastered to give it protection for my forthcoming sea journey. And so it was that with others from our battle zone I was transported, on a stretcher, to the sea and boarded the hospital ship Atlantis. While on board we were on proper beds and very, very well looked after. In preparation for my future stay in Britain I learned two English words, "yes" and "no" and with this fluency of a new language I landed in Liverpool in August 1944.
From the ship I was carried, like many others, on a stretcher to waiting ambulances. We were driven to a station and put aboard a special train which had bunk beds for us and nurses in attendance. One nurse came round and gave each wounded soldier a small gift such as a comb, a razor or a pair of scissors. Somehow I was missed out and was too shy to speak up. The train carried us out of Liverpool on a long journey through the night. At the time I did not know where we were going but it turned out that our destination was Scotland. We finally arrived near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. We were surprised and delighted when we found out we were to stay in Taymouth Castle at the eastern end of Loch Tay, near the village of Kenmore. We were even more surprised to find this castle had been turned into a Polish military hospital, run by Polish doctors and nurses. Here the plaster was soon removed from my leg and I could walk with the aid of crutches. I stayed for a few weeks, gaining strength all the time and walking in the lovely grounds of the castle.
From there I was moved into a small convalescence home which must have been a private house at one time. It was named Killin and in Aberfeldy and I believe it is now no more. Here the nurses, like the others, were kind and beautiful but British. This house also had a lovely garden with a putting green which I was soon able to make use of. Before long I was even well enough to kick a ball about. Life was beginning to look good again.
When I had recovered enough to leave the convalescent home in Aberfeldy, I was sent to an army camp in Peebles where there were other recovering wounded servicemen. From there some would be returned to their army units and others, less fit like myself, were offered a variety of courses we could attend. I chose to go on a commercial course in Glasgow, which I hoped might benefit me on my return to Poland. My decision to go to Glasgow turned out to be a momentous one but not in the way I expected.