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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 18:07 GMT
Polish memories of Monte Cassino
Tomasz Skrzynski in 2004
Tomasz Skrzynski: At 20 he was already a veteran of Tobruk
Tomasz Skrzynski was a 20-year-old cadet in the Battle of Monte Cassino, in which Polish forces played one of their most prominent roles in World War II.

It was they who finally walked into the ruins of the monastery on 18 May, once the remaining German soldiers there had surrendered.

Mr Skrzynski, a member of the Carpathian lancers, was in the uplands above the monastery.

Like other Polish soldiers he had been fighting at close quarters to gain control of a hilltop or a mountain hut, sometimes spending days in a foxhole.

It was May, but there was no greenery around - there were only stumps of trees, everywhere just stumps, as far as you could see
Tomasz Skrzynski
At one point, Polish troops who had run out of ammunition, and were cut off from their supplies, even resorted to throwing stones.

"The shelling continued day and night, there was no such thing as silence," he says.

"Once I was ordered to count the shells falling nearby, but after two hours or so it was above 500 and I lost count."

Corpses in a blanket

It was an eerie landscape, scarred by months of battle.

"It was May, but there was no greenery around. The mountain was frayed," he says.

The battle for Monte Cassino was one of the most devastating of World War II

"There were only stumps of trees. Everywhere just stumps, as far as you could see."

Much of the area around the monastery had changed hands more than once.

"For several days our position was a small ruined stone hut. When my men started to dig in to strengthen the position they found three corpses of German soldiers rolled in a blanket and covered by a thin layer of earth," Mr Skrzynski says.

"We buried them and put up a provisional cross to mark the grave."

Despite his youth, Mr Skrzynski was more experienced than many of the Polish soldiers, having already fought at Tobruk in North Africa.

Tears

There was one who had just turned 18 and still looked like a child.

"After one assault on a hill, he came back and cried on my shoulder saying how many people had been killed.

Tomasz Skrzynski in 1944
Mr Skrzynski's bravery earned him the rank of second lieutenant
"I told him: 'This is war. Be happy that you're alive.'

"In less than two hours he was killed in an artillery attack."

When the Poles finally entered the monastery, having spotted a tattered white flag flying above it, not a shot was fired.

Inside they found a handful of ragged German soldiers surrendering, three severely wounded young paratroopers, and many dead.

Someone played a medieval Polish bugle tune, the Krakow Hejnal, reducing battle-hardened soldiers to tears.

Overall, the Poles had suffered nearly 4,000 casualties, or about half of their men.

At first a pennant of the 12th Podolski Lancers Regiment was raised on the ruins. The next day it was replaced by a Polish flag and a Union Jack.

Tomasz Skrzynski was interviewed in Krakow for BBC News Online by Witold Turopolski.


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