Polish veteran of the epic Battle of Monte Cassino and
recipient of the Virtuti Militari medal
Major Stanislaw Tarazewicz, veteran of the General Anders’ Polish 2nd Corps, one of the victors of the Monte Cassino battle, was born on January 22, 1922 in Budslaw near Wilno (today called Vilnius). He was the fourth of eight children of Szymon Tarazewicz, an employee of the Polish National Railways, and Stanislawa Tarazewicz (nee Poloczanska) The small town of Budslaw, located picturesquely on the river Serwecz, entered history first in 1812 as the Napoleonic armies marched through it on their way to Moscow, and again in 1920, by being the place of vicious battles with the Bolsheviks during the Polish Russian War.
In the period between the First and Second World Wars, a cavalry regiment of the Border Protection Corps (KOP) and an infantry regiment were stationed there. The local population had always manifested their Polish patriotism and attachment to the Catholic Church. For this reason a magnificent basilica of Virgin Mary was built there in 1783 and contains the Budslaw Mother of God Icon brought as a gift in 1598 from Pope Cement VIII to the local Bernardine Monastery.
After competing his local primary schooling, Stanislaw moved to Wilno at the age of 14 to study at a technical school in the Roads and Hydraulic Department. He was an enthusiastic kayaker and two years later joined the school volleyball team. Years later this love of volleyball was apparent when he was selected to represent the Polish Corps at the Eighth Army competition.
On September 1st, 1939, the Germans launched their attack on Poland, and the Second World War started. Sixteen days later, on September 17th, massive Soviet armies crossed the Polish eastern border throughout its length. Immediately, on September 18th, Stanislaw volunteered for the ad hoc organized Polish forces and was dispatched to the local Volunteer Formation of 600 young men under the command of Lieutenant- Colonel Dabrowski. Wilno fell to the Soviet III Corps and on the basis of a Soviet-Lithuanian agreement, the Soviets handed over Wilno to the Lithuanian authorities and it was incorporated into the Lithuanian state.
Stanislaw was arrested by the Lithuanian authorities and spent the next 10 months in an internment camp in Zagary in Lithuania. He escaped from there and made his way back to Wilno and joined the Polish underground army (A.K.), which became the largest and most effective underground resistance movement in Europe. His squad was divided into “cell units of 5 men”. He was appointed a cell leader and was given the code name “Maly” (“Shorty”). His pre-war military cadet training while attending technical school helped him in his cell leader capacity, as well as additional secret training which he received from the military sappers who were also arrested by the Soviets (one of them, Zygmunt Gaiko, is well known in the Ottawa Veterans Association).
After the arrest of his cell (in 1940/41), he escaped capture and spent the next few months in hiding, avoiding the homes of his family and friends. However, he was recognized on the street by the Soviet secret police NKWD (presently called the KGB) and arrested on the spot. This occurred in March/April 1941. The NKWD started their “activities” on August 3rd, 1940 when the Soviets incorporated Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Without a trial, Stanislaw is deported by the NKWD to a labour camp in the depth of Russia via Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Pskov and Kirov and even further north in the direction of Archangelsk . After a 4-week journey by cattle car, the prisoners were taken by barge across a huge lake, and then marched on foot to their destination.
Several months later an event occurs, which can be described as a miracle. After the attack of Nazi Germany on Soviet Russia on June 22nd, 1941, an agreement was signed by the leader of the Polish government, General Sikorski, and Stalin on the basis of which an “amnesty” was proclaimed by the Soviets for the Polish internees in Soviet Russia, and a Polish Army was to be formed in the USSR.
Stanislaw learned about this astounding news from a newspaper clipping he got from a Russian prisoner in the camp. Together with four Polish companions, he left the camp and after many adventures (including five arrests and releases by the Soviet authorities) he reached Gorki, which is situated in southern Russia. In Gorki, he was informed by a worker of the Polish Red Cross that a Polish 5th Division was being formed. Stanislaw left Gorki in an oil tanker and, racked by hunger over many days, he reached Kuybyshev. From Kuybyshev he reached Saratov by train, and finally on the 28th of September 1941, he reached the 5th Division headquarters in Tatiszczew. He enlisted as a recruit into the Polish Army by lying about his age. At this time he was only nineteen years old!
At the beginning of 1942, with the rest of the Polish Army units, they were transferred to Dzalal-abad in Uzbekistan. There Stanislaw signed up for officer cadet school in Kirgizja. Before graduation, at his own request, he was transferred to army sapper training in Wriewskaja. Since Stalin made training of the Polish Armed Forces in the Soviet Union increasingly difficult, in August 1942 the Polish Army was part of the second evacuation from the USSR to Iraq and he left the “inhuman land” (as the Soviet Union was called by the Poles). In Iraq, he graduated from the cadet officer sapper school with an excellent score of 18/83. During the graduation ceremony, the Commander of the Polish Armed Forces in the East, General Wladyslaw Anders (also released from a Soviet Union prison) stated the following in his address:
“Remember you young sappers, that these days, sappers are the foundation of the modern army. All the bad experiences that you have lived through are behind you, and all the difficulties that you will experience are ahead of you, which you can and will overcome.”
Officer Cadet Stanislaw was assigned to the 10th Battalion in the Polish 2nd Corps in which he stayed until the end of the Second World War. He now went through a period of very intense military training, commencing in Iraq and Palestine, followed by additional training in the mountainous terrain in Lebanon and Egypt.
At the beginning of 1944 the 10th Sapper Battalion was transferred from Port Said, in Egypt, to Taranto, in Italy. Stanislaw was involved in the Polish 2nd Corps' Italian campaign from the beginning to the end: the defences of the Sangro River, the battle of Monte Cassino, the pursuit of the German forces along the Adriatic, the campaign in the Apennine mountains, the defence of the Senio River and the battles for Bologna.
In the historic battle of Monte Cassino, Stanislaw displayed exceptional courage and dedication, for which he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Virtuti Militari, Class V. His actions in the crucial battles at Phanton Ridge (Widmo) on the 17th May 1944 are described in detail by Melchior Wankowicz in his monumental work The Battle of Monte Cassino, which he dedicated to the soldiers in that battle.
The recollection of Major Stanislaw Taraszewicz is as follows:
We receive the order to march out of the area of Venafro in the Lira River valley. At dawn, on that fateful day in May in 1944 we drove along the road, alongside which on every available space an artillery unit: was set up, firing non-stop above our heads producing a deafening and overwhelming, continuous roar. Because of the barrage of the artillery shells, it was as bright as daylight. An overpowering stench of dead mules that were disintegrating along the Rapido River bore witness to what had happened here before. We climbed along the Polish Sappers’ Road to our positions among rocks, from which we were to commence the attack. We climbed onto the tanks and moved into action. A few hours latter, I was lightly wounded, and eight sappers were wounded so seriously that they were not able to continue the assault. I was badly traumatised by the death of my closest friend Mundek Kluczynski, who was killed on the 11th of May, at the beginning of the battle. He was shot through the head, and I found him the next day, as if he was sitting, by a big boulder. I was terribly shocked and saddened and felt a bitter taste of the end that was awaiting us. This was my baptism by fire in the first days of the Monte Cassino battle.
In the next few days, attempts to capture formations of Gorge (Gardziel) and Phantom Ridge (Widmo), which were guarding the road to the famous hill 539, were not successful and our losses were climbing. On May 17th, I and my sappers, under the command of Lt. Kawalkowski supported the opening attack of Lt. Kochanowski’s tanks on Phantom Ridge. After approximately two hours of intensive attack, under concentrated German artillery fire, we managed to clear the mines to provide access for the tanks, which soon reached the summit of Phantom Ridge. During this attack, I was wounded twice, and for my actions during the attack I was awarded the Silver Cross ot Virtuiti Militari, which I received in August 1944 from General Sosnkowski, the Supreme Commander ot the Polish Army. After opening the access passage for the tanks, when men were withdrawing under enemy fire, a German medic approached us. Because he was wearing the Red Cross armband we did not stop him. He, however, threw a hand grenade in our direction which seriously wounded my sapper Kuks and me (my third wound in one day). After this cowardly action he immediately threw his hands up in the air in an act of surrender. When we calmed down after the shock of the explosion, my hand immediately went for my pistol, but my military discipline and honour of a Polish soldier forbidding the shooting of prisoners outweighed my impulse. The German was transferred to the rear of the front where there was a German POW camp. I think he had plenty of time there to explain his cowardly actions to his conscience and account to God for his criminal act. The next day there was a tremendous joy and relief. The monastery on Monte Cassino was taken, and the Polish flag was flying triumphantly.
Unfortunately, my superior officer Lt. Czeslaw Kawalkowski, who was also awarded the Virtuti Militari medal for his actions on Phantom Ridge, did not survive the Italian Campaign. A couple of months later, in August 1944, we were driving in a Jeep to carry out a reconnaissance of the area. Unfortunately for haste and lack of care, when you are a sapper you pay a dear price. We crossed two mine fields, and after carrying out our assignment we retraced our steps, unfortunately not exactly. All of a sudden there was a tremendous blast. When I regained consciousness, for some time I did not know where I was. I was lying face down at the bottom of a huge crater. I started to examine my body and with a great relief I concluded that I still had my arms and legs, although I could not move them in full control.
I could hear the groans of the driver and Lt. Kawalkowski. When I regained sufficient strength, I crawled over to them and saw that they were seriously wounded. After tending their wounds as best as I could, I returned to my unit and with other sappers carried them out from the minefield. After several months in hospital they returned to health. Lt. Kawalkowski was directed for further convalescence. On his way there, he stopped to visit us in the battlefield where we were occupied building a Bailey bridge. Unfortunately, as he walked towards us, he accidentally wandered off the marked pathway, detonating a mine. The explosion ripped off both of his legs, and he died within an hour. He was conscious till the last minute and he asked me to pass on his last farewell to his mother. His death was a big blow to me and the rest of the sappers in his platoon.
Sapper duty is very special. A sapper cannot be carried away by the excitement of the battlefield. His work requires internal peace of mind and total concentration. Very frequently he acts alone, recognising the dangerous spots in a river ford, a road, or a detour. One error can mean the end. The fear of dying and an even greater fear of being seriously wounded and disabled for life, and also responsibility for the safety of his fellow soldiers, are always on his mind but need to be overcome. My friend, sapper Niepokajczycki, with whom we worked together on May 17th in fording the Gorge and Phantom Ridge, wrote in his memoirs entitled The Road to Freedom: “They know very well, that without the sappers nobody can take Monte Cassino.”
Even on the battlefield there were moments of humour. One evening we loaded up cement bags and some other materials to construct an observation bunker (we later found out that the bunker was intended for Churchill, who would visit the area). The Italian night was as black as ink, but the enemy knew where we were because of the noise of the motors and hammers. The enemy mortars were getting close to us, trying to determine our location, and one of them hit a huge cesspool. The spray of the unpleasant content that rained in every direction was something to behold, and the Polish proverb “Don't disturb the s..t then it won’t stink” proved to be true. And it stank so badly that it was more unpleasant than the German mortars.
At the end of July 1944, the English King, George VI visited the units of the Eighth Army in Italy. I had the honour of being one of the soldiers in the guard of honour of the Polish 2nd Corps. I remember that day vividly, because of the intense heat, which we felt even more because of the full uniforms and ceremonial dress and arms that we had to wear. We stood for several hours rehearsing the appropriate greetings. Finally the King arrived, surrounded by his entourage. Maybe because I was tall and looked smart, the King approached me and asked me my name. Because I was standing in the “present arms” position, which prevents talking, I did the compulsory “arms at ease” so that I could reply. My movements obviously confounded the King, and maybe even slightly frightened him. He recovered, however, and after a moment he moved further along the line before I was able to introduce myself. And so the King never found out who startled him during the ceremony, and luckily, I never received a reprimand for my action.
It is often said that in the historic Battle of Monte Cassino, we fought for a free Poland and for “your freedom and ours ”. With the perspective of time, the curtain has now been drawn to reveal the distasteful and dirty politics that occurred in those days and it is apparent that in certain circles these words have been interpreted as pathetic and empty slogans, and the efforts of the Polish 2nd Corps belittled and considered as not really necessary. Many publications appeared which distorted the historical truth and insulted the memory of those that gave their lives on the field of battle, those that survived the war and have died, and the quickly shrinking handful of those still alive and to which I still belong. After the war, the Polish Communist government, installed in Poland by the Soviets with a silent approval of the allies was, of course, not interested in correcting the lies that were spread and are still being spread by the political hyenas in the historical void created by the long silence of the post-war Polish administration.
It needs to be considered whether the present Polish administration is doing enough to alleviate the previous neglect and to defend the good name of the Polish soldiers who fought on the Western Fronts. I can assure everyone that if I were shot fatally on the field of battle, I would die with the words “Long Live Poland”. Today, after so many years, when I think of those things, my eyes fill with tears and I neither see the naiveté, nor the theatrical pathos in this gesture. I want to pass on these thoughts to those who, in the silence of their offices, have still been considering whether it was all worth it
Conquer your foe in the Casino Abbey
Hidden high in a cloudy shroud
That is the way to get to Poland
And once again be free and proud
White skeletons and red poppies
The colours. of the national flag
The battle heros wile sleep forever
Under the coverlets of a granite slab
Those, who God chose to spare,
To fulfill the bloody deed
Must drink from the Olive Garden chalice
The ever bitter mead
Thus drink the bile, as Christ had done
Do not have any doubts
With the last drop you will ascend into heaven
Through the Cassino clouds
In April 1945, Officer Cadet Stanislaw Taraszewicz was promoted to an Officer. After the battles of the Senio River, he was dispatched to a course specializing in the construction of heavy-duty Bailey bridges. Shortly after the last bathe of the Polish 2nd Corps in Italy, resulting in the capture of Bolonia on April 21, 1945, Lt. Taraszewicz received an assignment to command the 20th Sapper Battalion specializing in road construction.
In the summer of 1946, the Polish 2nd Corps was transported to Great Britain. The Polish Sappers were now employed in the modification and construction of camps for the civilian Polish population that would stay in Britain. Lt. Taraszewicz was demobilized on the 15th of January, 1949, in the army barracks at Ulton Park, Cheshire.
For the next seven years, he settled in Manchester, where he worked as a draftsman in the design of heavy industrial facilities. At the same time, he became active in all kinds of Polish civilian clubs and associations. He joined the Polish Veterans Association, became a lead dancer in the Polish National Dance Troupe, and became Captain of the Polish Volleyball Team in Manchester.
In 1949, in recognition of his efforts and achievements during the war, God rewarded him with the highest possible prize. He met a beautiful 17 year old girl, Teresa Oczepko, from the area of Wolhynia: a girl with lovely blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes that reminded him of Polish corn-flowers They married in 1955 and, in the same year, they immigrated to Canada. They moved to Montreal. In 1957, their son Richard was born, and in 1984 they rejoiced in the birth of their grand-daughter Rebecca.
Stanislaw signed a contract with the Shawinigan Water and Power Corporation whilst he was still in England. After this, he worked for Atomic Energy of Canada, and then for the General Engineering Company, where he specialized in the design and operation of paper-making machines. He also worked in the design of the La Fontaine Tunnel under the St. Lawrence River. At the time, it was a design that was unique in the world. For the last nine years, prior to retiring in 1982, he worked for Canada Cement Lafarge.
In 1987, they moved from Montreal to Dunrobin, near Ottawa, where they are living to this day. In 1987, Stanislaw joined the Ottawa chapter of the Polish Veterans Association. In 1995, he became its President, and he held this position until 1997. On the 28th of February, 2000, Stanislaw was promoted to the rank of Captain, and on the 22nd of October, 2010, to Major of the Polish Forces.
Stanislaw was awarded the following Polish and British military medals: the Silver Cross (V Class) Virtuti Militari, the Monte Cassino Cross, the 1939/45 War Medal, the Italian Star, and the Defence Medal. He is also entitled to the 1939 September Campaign and the Polish Underground Army (A.K.) medal.
The above memoir, fully authorized by Major Stanislaw Tarazewicz, V.M., was written by Dr. Jan Z. Galuszka. In this write up, large sections of Stanislaw Taraszewicz's life story were adopted from Dr. Andrew Garlicki’s publication in SPK bulletin, No 1 (37), Ottawa, 1992. The English translation was done by Les Slawecki, PEng., and edited by Dr. Jan Z. Galuszka and George Zurakowski, PEng. Dated: Ottawa, November, 2011.
Permission to include this story was kindly granted by SPK Branch No. 8 in Ottawa, Canada