Monte Cassino, great-grandfather and a bear

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On May 18, the day Australia goes to the polls, on the other side of the world we will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the bloodiest and hardest fought battle of the Italian campaign if not the whole of the Western front of WW2. On that day, a patrol from the 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment raised the Polish flag above the ruins of the Benedictine monastery on top of Monte Cassino, bringing to an end four months and four Allied offensives against the heavily fortified Gustav (or Winter) Line, manned by crack German divisions across the entire width of the Italian boot about 100 miles south of Rome. Some of the German troops, veterans of the Eastern front, thought the fighting was worse than at Stalingrad. Others, on the Allied side, compared the conditions to Verdun. Unlike Russian cities or French fields, most of the fighting around Monte Cassino took place over an unimaginably difficult terrain of steep mountain slopes, deep valleys, wild rivers and landscape stripped bare by the artillery. It was a truly world battle in a world war: pitted against the Wehrmacht were the units from Great Britain, including British India and Rhodesia, the United States, France and its north African colonies like Morocco, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, including Maori troops, South Africa, Italy and Poland. Since the start of the Allied offensive in January 1944, waves after waves of troops of the 5th US and the 8th British armies smashed themselves against the rocks, unable to dislodge the well dug-in Germans. Finally, the fourth battle code-named Operation Diadem, which commenced with a massive bombardment on May 16, threw the British 13th Army Corp and the 2nd Polish Corp against the very linchpin of the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino and its monastery. Two days later it was over.

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The monastery at the end. During the months of the battle it was a target of the US Air Force assaults, a decision that was controversial even in its day, since the abbey founded in 529 AD by St Benedict was one of the historical treasures of the European civilisation.

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This picture gives you a better sense of the landscape, with the ruins of the town of Cassino in the foreground and the tiny speck of the monastery atop the mountain near the top of the picture. Imagine fighting in this terrain.

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The monastery of Monte Cassino has been rebuilt after the war. I went there as a teenager in 1988, during my 16-month stay in Italy while waiting to migrate to Australia. I knew the history of the battle, since Monte Cassino is a well known “Polish battle”, on the account of the crucial role played by the two Polish Army divisions and other units, including in the final breakthrough. The famous war song from that time speaks in terms very familiar to ANZACs of Flanders Fields: “Red poppies of Monte Cassino, instead of dew drunk Polish blood”.

But reading, and looking at the pictures, never quite prepares you for the stark reality of actually being there. Standing at the bottom of the valley and then on the top of the mountain, outside the gates of the monastery, overwhelms your senses. The vastness and the harsh majesty of the landscape makes you feel absolutely tiny and insignificant. How could all these men have ever fought here?

How could they indeed. You only need to visit Italy to see that the whole Italian campaign was perhaps the greatest Allied strategic mistake of the Second World War. Churchill, right from the time of the Gallipoli disaster, remained obsessed about the vulnerability of the continental powers – primarily Germany – through what he called “the soft underbelly of Europe”. The war records are full of his harebrained schemes to attack the Axis through Italy, the Balkans or Greece and knock them out of the fight by a sharp thrust into the Central Europe. This was to be a masterstroke in place of the Normandy invasion, which Churchill strenuously opposed, and later in addition to it, to draw some of the German troops away from the northern France and indeed to get to Austria and southern Germany before the Red Army.

The problem with the soft underbelly of Europe is that it’s anything but. In fact it’s the hardest part of Europe; all rock, no roll. It’s mountains and deep valleys, fast rivers and vast forests, rudimentary roads and virtually no useful infrastructure. Unlike the northern European plains, this is the defender’s country where the Allies lost all the advantage of their numbers, their maneuverability and their armour. The two years of arduous slogfest from the southern Sicily to the Emilia-Romagna in the north might have indeed drawn valuable German troops from the other theaters of war but it was a bloody dead end. Poles were still stuck taking Bologna in April 1945, while only days later the patrols from Patton’s 3rd US Army were reaching the outskirts of Prague.

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Monte Cassino is on my mind today, because entirely coincidentally I’m reading a delightful war book (that’s an oxymoron if there is one) titled “Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero”. It tells the surreal but entirely true story of a bear cub adopted by the Polish troops in northern Iran in 1942, towards the start of their anabasis from Stalin’s Siberia all the way to Italy and eventually Scotland. Accompanying the Poles through all their service in the Middle East and then southern Europe, Wojtek grew up to be a 6-foot, 500-pound ursine, who always thought he was a human. Quintessentially Polish (if only by adoption), he loved beer and cigarettes (he also ate them, but only if lit), taking showers with the troops and riding shotgun in army trucks. Some of his war-time exploits included capturing an Arab spy in Iraq and stealing underwear from a female support unit. But Wojtek truly became a legend during the battle of Monte Cassino, when to his comrades’ amazement he volunteered to carry ammunition in his paws. He was eventually made a Private in the Polish Army, and lived until 1963, continuing to win hearts in Scotland, where the Polish troops were repatriated after the war.

There are some shorts about Wojtek, including the one below, and there was even a documentary made recently, but why Hollywood, with all its CGI magic, has not yet made a movie of this utterly charming and utterly bizarre war story I have no idea.

Aileen Orr writes in her book about the time in late 1945, when Wojtek’s unit was recuperating on the Adriatic Sea: “Wojtek’s favourite trick was to swim underwater towards the group of unsuspecting women bathers, then suddenly surface in their midst. Their squeals of alarm as they found themselves in close proximity to a huge bear were music to his ears… Perhaps you could say he was the furry Jaws of his time… It was also an excellent way for the Polish soldiers to meet young women.”

That’s my kind of a bear! Give him a medal.

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What an absolute cutie!

Thanks to the wonderful work of Aileen Orr in Scotland, there is now Wojtek Memorial Trust, and Private Bear has got numerous statues dedicated to him throughout the world, including in Edinburgh, Duns on the Scottish Bordelands where he ended up after the war, in Italy and in Krakow, all on my next travel list.

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While I now know a lot about Wojtek, I know very little about my great-grandfather who also took part in the battle of Monte Cassino; certainly a lot less than I know about my grandfather, whose war paths at Arnhem in the Netherlands I have retraced a few years ago. And what little I know might be wrong too; everyone who could tell me more is now dead.

Count Jozef Raczko was born sometime towards the end of the 19th century in what was then part of the Russian empire acquired in the 18th century partitions of Poland and had several properties in the Wilno region (Wilenszczyzna in Polish), now of course in Lithuania. My grandmother, Leontyna, was born born in 1919, married my grandfather (a different one than above) in again Russian occupied eastern Poland, in Lwow (today in Ukraine – now you get how crazy the Eastern European history is?) in 1940. My mother was born in 1943 and Leontyna died in 1945, according to family legend because she said she would not go through another Soviet occupation. As for my great-grandfather Raczko, he must have been taken a prisoner of war by the Red Army in 1939 and, unlike the 20,000 Polish officers murdered in the Katyn forest and elsewhere on Stalin’s orders, somehow survived to join the future 2nd Polish Army Corp, which largely formed in the Soviet Union from out of the Poles deported to Siberia in 1939 and 1940. I assume he would have been in the the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division (Kresy, or “the edges”, “the ends” or “the marches” were what Poles used to call the eastern parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; now southern Lithuania, western Belarus and western Ukraine) and the 5th Wilno Infantry Brigade, where he reached the rank of a major. After being demobilised, he worked for a few years in Hong Kong and was returning to Poland in the late 1940s when he died in mysterious circumstances in transit. Whether it was from natural causes or whether he was murdered for his money, he was buried at sea and the small fortune he allegedly made in Asia vanished onboard the ship.

Over the years I have tried to find out more about great-grandfather Raczko, but I’m afraid I started being interested too late, after all the family members who might have known a bit more about him have passed away. There are many Raczkos still in Poland but they are not recently related to the Wilno branch of the family. The family properties around Wilno (Vilnius), needless to say, have been confiscated by the communists in 1944-45 and so many records have now been lost in wars and occupations that this is perhaps one quest, which will remain unfulfilled.

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So there you have it: a bloody battle, a bear and a lost great-grandfather. A very Polish story in many tenuously related acts. On Saturday, please raise a glass in honour of the heroes of 75 years ago. Make it beer. For Wojtek.

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Young Chrenk, on site, circa 1988 (colourised)

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