Polish Centre, Hammersmith, February 23, 2004
A few months ago, I wrote a review of Matthew Parker’s book, â€˜Monte Cassino’ for the Daily Telegraph, but failed to mention the efforts of the Poles. Not long after I received a letter from Teresa Rubnikowicz rightly admonishing me for the fact. I wrote back telling her that I was writing a book about the Italian campaign myself and that I certainly intended to give the Poles full credit for the part they played – which is true, as it happens. Anyway, with this in mind, today I met up with three former Polish veterans of the Italian campaign: Col. Stanislaw Berkieta, Wladek Rubnikowicz, and Prof. Tomas Piesakowski, at the Polish Centre in Hammersmith. Wladek Rubnikowicz smiled at me and said, â€˜You have had some correspondence with me wife,’ and then showed me the letter I had sent her. It caught me rather off guard as by that time I’d forgotten all about it.
They were fascinating, though. I hadn’t fully appreciated just how terrible their experiences were. All three had been captured not by the Germans at the beginning of the war, but by the Russians. By the time of Barbarossa, they were all in Gulags north of the Arctic Circle. Liberated some months after the German invasion, they made their way some 3,000 miles to Kazhakstan, where the Polish Army was mustering. Emaciated and wracked with disease, they travelled through Persia and into Iraq, where they gradually built up strength and began training. This continued through 1943 in Palestine until in early 1944 they were considered ready for battle and sent to Cassino. Their first combat action was the fourth battle of Cassino, where they took the monastery, a feat that no-one else had managed in six months of fighting. And then having continued battling their way up Italy, they were completely shafted by Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta in February 1945. Incredible. And all three were so good humoured and fun.