The War Years Blog

Welcome to The War Years blog. World War Two resulted in the deaths of 85 million people. Civilian deaths including those subject to war-related disease and famine totalled 55 million. Tens of millions more people were displaced. However, amid all the carnage people demonstrated remarkable courage, fortitude, compassion, mercy and sacrifice. We would like to honour and celebrate all of those people.  

The Story of My Monte Cassino Cross

The Heroes of Monte Cassino

The Battle

The Battle for Monte Cassino was a series of four battles fought by the Allies in an attempt to smash the German Gustav Line of defences during the Italian winter of 1943 to the early summer of 1944. British, American, French, North African, Asian, Canadian and Polish troops all took part in this epic series of battles.

The Germans cleverly integrate the historic Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino into their defensive positions, which commanded the town of Cassino, Liri and Rapido valleys.

The Allies believed the Germans were using the monastery as an observation post.  In response, it was heavily bombed and reduced to rubble on the 15th February. Two days later, German paratroopers took up new defensive positions within the ruins.

The savage fighting at Monte Cassino is widely recognised as the worst of the war in the West. It’s estimated the Allies lost around 55,000 men while the stubborn German defenders lost about 20,000 killed and wounded.

On the 18th of May 1944 a group from the Polish 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment finally made it to the top of Monte Cassino and raised a Polish flag over the ruins. The Polish troops found just 30 wounded German defenders.

MY Medal

Back in 2004 I purchased a Monte Cassino Cross from a guy that said he’d found it during a house clearance in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Luckily, Monte Cassino Crosses are numbered, so I wrote to The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum to see what I could discover about the medal’s recipient.

One of the men who fought at Monte Cassino was Private Jan Stanislaus Zdaniukiewicz, born 1912. Jan served with the 15th Poznan Lancers (recce) Regiment, 5th Kresowa Infantry Division, Polish II Corps, British 8th Army. It was Jan’s medal that I now owned.

15th Poznan Uhlans, Regimental History

On 17 April 1942, Battalion "S" was formed in Yangiyo'l near Tashkent under command of Cpt. Zbigniew Kiedacz. On 8 October 1942, in Iraq, the unit was transformed into the 15 Regiment of Armoured Cavalry, reconnaissance unit of the 5th Borderlines Infantry Division. At the end of 1942, the regiment was renamed to 15th Poznan Uhlans Regiment. In next months, the unit was trained in Iraq, Palestine, Libya and Egypt. During February and March 1944, the regiment was moved to Italy. The Uhlans took part in fighting on 6 April 1944 near Capracotta, and during the following days reached Genoa.

Between 3 and 29 May 1944, the regiment took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino, fighting on Monte Castellone and later broke through the Hitler Line capturing Pizzo Corno and Monte Cairo. On 20 July the unit ended its fight in the battle of Ancona.

In October 1944, the regiment was fighting in the Emilian Apennines on the Gothic Line. On 23 October, the regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Zbigniew Kiedacz, was killed in action. The regiment received the award Virtuti Militari for a second time for the Italian Campaign. In January 1945, the 15th Reg. was moved to Egypt, where it received new tanks, and was subordinated to the 14th Greater Polish Armoured Brig. (Polish: 14 Wielkopolska Brygada Pancerna).

In October 1945, after the war’s end, the brigade was moved to Giulianova, Italy. Finally, the regiment was moved to Browning Camp, Sussex, England in June 1946 and disbanded in 1947.

A Life in Exile

Having been demobbed, Jan, the recipient of my medal, appears to have moved to Kent. There was no going back to a Poland: lost to Soviet domination and Stalin’s tyranny. Instead, sometime between April and June 1952, Jan married Patricia M. Maddison (born 1932, Pancras, London) at Tonbridge, Kent. Jan was naturalised, becoming a British citizen, on the 17th October 1969 while living at 163 Silverdale Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

Sadly, Jan died on the 10th of March 1971. He was cremated on the 17th March 1971; the ceremony presided over by a Father of the Catholic Church. Jan’s ashes were scattered beside a nearby pond and waterfall. Jan was just 58 years old. In civilian life he’d been a tailor, possibly running his own business from Silverdale Road, which today is a fish and chip shop. Jan’s wife, Patricia, survived him, but I’ve not been able to find any information whatsoever about her subsequent life or whereabouts. It seems that Jan and Patricia had no children. As I’ve not been able to find a death certificate for Patricia, it’s quite possible she is still living – she would be in her 80s.

It saddens me to think that Jan Stanislaus Zdaniukiewicz’s life can be so briefly summarised, not even filling a single sheet of A4 paper. It saddens me more that his Monte Cassino Cross was lost or discarded, only to be sold by a stranger to another stranger. However, Jan’s Monte Cassino Cross is now proudly displayed, and his memory kept, although I never met him or even have a photograph. To me, he’ll be forever young. I see him now, dressed in his thick woollen uniform, laden with equipment. He’s bent-double, sweating from fear, the Italian sun and sheer physical effort of fighting his way up Monte Castellone. But he’s never alone in my dreams; he’s always surrounded by his countrymen and brothers-in-arms, the brave men of the Polish 2nd Corps.