22 December 2013

In Memoriam


Władysław Dyda
1920 - 2013

My grandfather, Władysław "Walter" Dyda, died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of December 12th, leaving behind him 6 children, 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. A resident of Llangefni since the end of the 1940s, he had lived at the same address in Ucheldre, Llangefni, since the house was constructed in 1952. A labourer by profession, he had worked on the construction of the Wylfa, Trawsfynydd and Dinorwig power stations among other places. But before all that, he had been a war hero.

Son of Michał and Anna Dyda, Władysław Dyda was born in Lwów in the Second Polish Republic (now Lviv, Ukraine) on the 1st of May 1920. The name Dyda is native to the historic Central European region of Galicia, of which Lwów was the capital. My grandfather's family, then, had lived in the area since time immemorial. That all changed in September 1939.

I have copy-and-pasted (with a bit of editing) the following historical events in order to paint a picture of my grandfather's experiences during World War II. Photo scanning credits go to my uncle, Tony Dyda.

THE SIEGE

Source: Wikipedia

The Battle of Lwów (sometimes called the Siege of Lwów) was a battle for the control over the Polish city of Lwów between the Polish Army and the invading Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The city was seen as the key to the so-called Romanian Bridgehead and was defended at all cost. 

Initially, the city of Lwów was not to be defended as it was considered too deep behind the Polish lines and too important to Polish culture to be used in warfare. However, the fast pace of the German assault and the almost complete disintegration of the Polish reserve Prusy Army after the Battle of Łódź resulted in the city being in danger of a German assault. On September 7th, 1939, General Władysław Langner started to organise the defence of the city. Initially the Polish forces were to defend the BełżecRawa RuskaMagierów line against the advancing German forces. General Rudolf Prich was given command of the Polish forces in the area and on September 11th he prepared a plan of defence of the area. The Polish units were to defend the line of the San river, with nests of resistance along the Żółkiew—Rawa Ruska—Janów—Gródek Jagielloński line. 

The following day the first German motorised units under Colonel Ferdinand Schörner arrived in the area. After capturing Sambor (some 66 kilometres from Lwów), the German commander ordered his units to break through the weak Polish defences and capture the city of Lwów as soon as possible. The German assault group was composed of two motorised infantry companies and a battery of 150 mm guns. The group outflanked the Poles and reached the outskirts of the city, but was bloodily repelled by the numerically inferior Polish defenders. The Polish commander of the sector had only three infantry platoons and two 75 mm guns, but his forces were soon reinforced and held their positions until dawn. The same day the command of the city's defence was passed to General Franciszek Sikorski, a veteran of World War I and the Polish-Bolshevik War

The following day the main forces of Colonel Schörner arrived and at 14:00 the Germans broke through to the city centre, but were driven back after heavy city fighting with the small infantry units formed of local volunteers and refugees. To strengthen the Polish defences, on September 13th, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski left Lwów for Przemyśl and assumed command over a group of Polish units trying to break through the German lines and reach the city of Lwów. 

The German commander decided to fall back and encircle the city waiting for more reinforcements to arrive. His forces managed to capture the important suburb of Zboiska as well as the surrounding hills. However, the Polish forces were also reinforced with units withdrawn from central Poland and new volunteer units formed within the city. In addition, the Polish 10th Motorised Brigade under Colonel Stanisław Maczek arrived and started heavy fighting to regain the suburb of Zboiska. The suburb was re-captured by the Polish forces, but the surrounding hills remained in German hands. The hills afforded the Germans a good overview of the city centre and the German commander placed his artillery there to shell the city. In addition, the city was almost constantly bombed by the Luftwaffe. Among the main targets for the German air force and artillery were churches, hospitals and the city's water and power plants.

On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union declared all pacts with Poland null and void as the Polish state had in their opinion ceased to exist, and joined Nazi Germany in the occupation of Polish territories. The forces of the 6th Red Army of the Ukrainian Front under Filipp Golikov crossed the border just east of Lwów and started a fast march towards the city. The Soviet invasion made all plans of the defence of the Romanian Bridgehead obsolete and the Polish commander of the defence of Lwów decided to withdraw all his units to the close perimeter, opting to defend only the city itself instead of screening the whole area. This strengthened the Polish defences. On September 18th the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of leaflets over the city urging the Poles to surrender. This was ignored and a general assault was started on the city, but yet again it was repelled. 

The intervention of the Red Army on the 17th of September made necessary some changes in the German plan of operations. 

In the early morning of September 19th the first Soviet armoured units arrived to the eastern outskirts of the city and the suburb of Łyczaków. After a short fight the Soviet units were pushed back. However, overnight the Soviet forces completed the encirclement of the city and joined up with the German army besieging Lwów from the west. The Polish defences were composed mainly of field fortifications and barricades constructed by the local residents under supervision of military engineers. General Sikorski ordered organised defence of the outer city rim, with in-depth defences prepared. In the morning of September 19th the first Soviet envoys arrived and started negotiations with the Polish officers. Colonel Ivanov, the commander of a tank brigade, announced to the Polish envoy Colonel Bronisław Rakowski that the Red Army entered Poland to help it fight the Germans and that the top priority for his units was to enter the city of Lwów. 

The same day the German commander sent his envoy and demanded that the city be surrendered to Germany. When the Polish envoy replied that he had no intention of signing such a document, he was informed that the general assault was ordered on September 21st and that the city would most surely be taken. Then Hitler's evacuation order from September 20th instructed his troops to leave the reduction of Lwów to the Russians. The attack planned by the Wehrmacht for September 21st was cancelled, and the Germans prepared to move to the west of the Vistula-San River line. The following day General Sikorski decided that the situation of his forces was hopeless. The reserves, human resources and materiel were plentiful, but further defence of the city would be fruitless and would only result in more civilian casualties. It was decided to start the surrender talks with the Red Army. 

On September 22nd the act of surrender was signed in the suburb of Winniki. The Red Army accepted all conditions proposed by General Władysław Langner. The privates and NCOs were to leave the city, register themselves at the Soviet authorities and be allowed to go home. The officers were to be allowed to keep their belongings and leave Poland for whichever country accepted them. The same day the Soviet forces entered and occupied the city. The act of surrender signed in the morning was broken by the Soviets shortly after noon, when the NKVD started arresting Polish officers. They were escorted to Tarnopol, from where they were sent to various Gulags in Russia, mostly to the infamous camp in Starobielsk. Most of them, including General Sikorski himself, were murdered in what became known as the Katyn Massacre in 1940.

THE GULAGS

Like over a million other Poles from the territories occupied by the Red Army in 1939, Władysław Dyda was deported to SiberiaVictims of Soviet deportations from occupied Poland in 1939-40 were processed by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, labour camps or penal exile in Siberia. The video below documents the experiences of Poles deported to Siberia.


ESCAPE FROM SIBERIA

Source: Wikipedia

The Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 effectively ended on the 22nd of June 1941 when the German Wehrmacht invaded the USSR. The release of many thousands of Poles from the Soviet Gulags, following the signing of the Polish-Russian Military Agreement on August 14th, 1941, allowed for the creation of a Polish Army on Soviet soil. Its first commander, General Michał Tokarzewski, began the task of forming this army in the Soviet town of Totskoye on August 17th. The commander ultimately chosen by General Władysław Sikorski to lead the new army, General Władysław Anders, had been just released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, on August 4, and did not issue his first orders or announce his appointment as commander until August 22nd. This army would grow over the following two years and provide the bulk of the units and troops of the II Polish Corps.

For political reasons the Soviet Union soon withdrew support for the creation of a Polish Army on its territory and reduced the supply rate, which resulted in General Władysław Anders withdrawing his troops to British-held Persia and Iraq. Most of the Poles deported to Siberia were not released from the Gulags, so many of them - my grandfather included, along with a few comrades disguised as painters - had to organise their own escape from Siberia, making their way across a vast hostile territory to join the II Polish Corps in British-held Persia. My grandfather once showed me the route of his journey on a map of the world on his dining room wall, indicating that he and his comrades had reached Persia by crossing Afghanistan.

EGYPT


By mid-1943, having moved from Persia to Iraq, to Palestine and then to Egypt, the II Polish Corps soon found themselves preparing to enter the Italian theatre. By this stage they numbered roughly 40,000 soldiers. The Corps was composed of the 3 Carpathian Infantry Division (comprising 1 Brigade and 2 Brigade), the 5 Kresowa Infantry Division (comprising 5 Wilkenska Brigade and 6 Lwów Brigade), and the 2 Polish Armoured Brigade. The Corps also contained a number of artillery and support units. 

 MONTE CASSINO 


The II Polish Corps arrived in Italy during December 1943 and January 1944, a time when the Allies had been given a bloody nose on the Gustav Line, a major German defensive feature that stretched from Ortona on the Adriatic coast, over the Apennines, through Cassino (the linchpin of the defence line covering Highway 6, the main road to Rome) down to the mouth of the River Garigliano, which ran into the Mediterranean.

Cassino was no ordinary Italian town: on a steep hill, close by, was a monastery founded by Saint Benedict in 524. The site therefore marks the beginnings of the Benedictine Order that went on to influence the fabric of Europe civilization. Saint Benedict had chosen the location with care, for monks and monasteries were often the target of choice for marauding armies. Despite the precautions, the monastery went on to be sacked three times by the mid-eleventh century. Over the following centuries, the defences were bolstered until the monastery looked, from the outside, more like an imposing fortress than a place of holy contemplation. 

The Germans had spent three months building up the Gustav Line, making the best possible use of mountain peaks, gorges and caves (in which they remained unobserved from the Allies and could take cover from any incoming fire). They had also spent time carefully sighting their guns, re-enforcing houses with concrete and laying down reels of barbed wire. Thousands upon thousands of mines had been sown, including the deadly anti-personnel Schu-mine. Although the Germans had announced that the monastery was a neutral zone, the Allies believed – erroneously as it was to turn out – that the position was being used for observation or, worse still, being turned into defensive bulwark.

First to face the Gustav Line around Cassino and in foul weather conditions (which lasted all winter long) had been American units from the Fifth Army. Suffering heavy casualties and making limited headway, they nonetheless managed to capture a number of key points, including a foothold on ‘Snakeshead Ridge’.

This was an important feature, for it offered the Allies a secondary route towards Monte Cassino without having to make a head-on assault from the monastery’s base. However, the Snakeshead still heavily favoured the defender and offered almost no place for an attacker to manoeuvre. Roughly in the middle of this boomerang-shaped feature was Point 593. This rocky outcrop afforded the Germans excellent cover and clear fields of observation. It had to be captured in order for any advance on the Snakeshead to proceed. 

By early 1944, the American units had been relieved. Various units from other nationalities continued to battle over the ground in the following months, but only limited gains were made. During this period the Allies had made the highly-controversial decision of launching a major air strike on the monastery. Thinking they were flushing the Germans out, the Allies were instead bombing Italian monks and civilian refugees. It was a terrible mistake, but one that was a fillip to the Germans. They immediately sent Fallschrimjäger (paratroopers) of 1 Fallschrim (part of the German 10th Army) to occupy the ruins, promptly turning the site into the bastion that the Allies had originally feared. The Germans also used the monastery’s destruction for maximum propaganda effect. 

In the meantime, the Allies began to make preparations for the launch of Operation Diadem, the large-scale offensive aiming to break through the Gustav Line and the next defensive position, the Hitler Line, which was described by the historian Matthew Parker as ‘decidedly makeshift’. While German forces were being battered into submission on the Gustav Line, Fifth Army units holding the beachhead at Anzio (a major seaborne landing that had began as an effort to outflank the enemy on the Gustav Line, but had thus far been contained) would strike out and attempt to seal off German avenues of escape and ensure their destruction. 

On arrival in Italy, the II Polish Corps were incorporated into the Eighth Army and their first front-line experience was during March 1944 on a relatively quiet sector. On the 24th of March 1944, the commander of the Eighth Army, General Leese, met General Anders and his Chief of Staff, General Wisniowski. Leese informed them that the Poles were to have a key role in Operation Diadem: they had been selected to take the monastery and its environs, although they could turn the task down if they felt their troops weren't ready. After a very short conversation, the Poles readily agreed to take on this Herculean task. Taking Monte Cassino, they believed, would garner vital public and political support for Poland from the British and Americans, while also helping to push the Italian campaign along. 

The Poles were scheduled to take over the positions near to the monastery during the last week of April. The offensive was set to begin with a massed artillery barrage starting at 23:00 on the 11th of May. Learning the lessons of the previous assaults, Anders decided that Polish forces would focus on taking the high ground beyond the monastery. If they succeeded, the Germans’ hold of the site would then become extremely tenuous and probably force their withdrawal. 

The Kresowa Division was chosen to tackle Phantom Ridge and from there, Colle Saint Angelo. It would then push on to Point 575. The Carpathian Division was to strike and seize Point 593 and then attack Point 569. If it succeeded, the Carpathian Division would battle away from the Snakeshead, past the Albaneta Farm, and on to Point 505. 

Having taken over from their British counterparts – who were struck by the Poles’ determination to grapple with the enemy – it soon became apparent that the question of supply was going to be enormously tricky. Through great effort, including the brave work of five Cypriot mule companies, the difficulties of supply and stockpiling were overcome. There was, however, a continuing toll of dead and wounded as German artillery fire on the main route up was as accurate as it was deadly. 

Anders’ orders on the eve of battle, declared: ‘We go forward with the sacred slogan in our hearts: God, Honour, Country.’ The assault began with a spectacular preliminary barrage of roughly 1,600 guns across the whole of the Cassino front. At 01:30 on 12 May, the Carpathian Division started its assault. Despite its impressive scale, the bombardment of German positions had been relatively ineffectual, the enemy having made good use of the shelter afforded by the reverse slopes, caves and other secure defensive positions. 

Facing fierce resistance, the 2 Carpathian Battalion managed to take Point 593 by 02:30 before continuing on towards Point 569. With casualties mounting, their effort started to falter. The German 3 Parachute Regiment, under Colonel Heilman, prepared to make a counter attack – mortar and machine gun fire from the monastery covering them as they moved into position. As soon as supporting fire lifted, the parachutists advanced to take back the lost ground. 

The ensuing fight was a close run thing at first and, at some points, became a hand-to-hand struggle. With momentum on their side, however, the Fallschrimjäger eventually won back control of Point 593. Casualties for the Poles had been high. Indeed, the 2 Carpathian Battalion had been ripped apart, only a few dozen front-line men left. 

Farther away, the battle to take Phantom Ridge had also stalled. Once again the Allied bombardment had been ineffectual and the enemy responded with a deadly hail of mortar and machine gun fire. Advancing spasmodically, most Poles were forced to dive for cover and hope for the best. For some the intensity of the battle proved too much and their minds cracked under the extreme psychological pressure. 

By 03:00 all three battalions of the 5 Wilkenska had been committed to the battle for Phantom Ridge. To help their efforts, the 18 Battalion from 6 Lwowska Brigade was also thrown into the fray. Despite their bravery and tenacity, the terrain and the relentless enemy fire proved insurmountable obstacles. Bloodied, but not broken, the Poles eventually withdrew. 

Although thwarted, Anders' men had at least tied down German units and distracted their attention from other Allied assaults. Indeed, overall progress thus far had been relatively positive, with the Free French on the far left of the battle line making particularly good progress. Fissures in the German defences were starting to show. 

On May 16th, the British 78 Division (supported by the 6 Armoured Division) started its attack across the River Rapido, which runs in front of Cassino town. The unit was aiming to conclusively break through to the Liri valley and advance along the axis of Highway 6. To divide and distract German focus away from 78 Division’s advance, the Poles launched their second offensive. They were also determined to finally take the monastery. 

Prior to the start of their second offensive, the Poles busied themselves by bringing up more supplies and sending out patrols to gather intelligence or disable mines. Stanislaw Bierkieta was involved in a particularly tough reconnaissance mission at this time. He led a patrol – one of two – to a quarry near to German positions across the heavily-mined valley separating the two sides. Setting off first, Bierkieta and his men reached the quarry and found it unoccupied by the enemy. ‘But they quickly became aware of our presence,’ he remembers, ‘and started raining down all sorts of fire on us. It was so intense that all we could do was crouch behind cover and pray we wouldn't be hit.' 

The second patrol eventually arrived. Shaken and worse for wear, they had lost a number of men wounded and killed on the journey over. Pinned down until nightfall, the two teams then slipped away and began their trek back. A party of volunteers went off to pick up those who had been wounded or killed earlier. Disaster then overtook them. ‘My sergeant – a very, very brave man – and a number of others were killed by an anti-personal mine while undertaking this search,’ Bierkiera recalls, adding ‘the rest of us now struggled hard to get all of the wounded and dead back in. It was tough and terrible work, but somehow we managed.' 

In the days leading up to May 16th, Anders had revised his plans. It was decided that the 6 Lwowska Brigade of the Kresowa Division would tackle the north end of Phantom Ridge. The responsibility for taking Albaneta and the hills beyond fell to the Carpathian Division. The 2 Carpathian Brigade was charged with helping take the dreaded Point 593 and then, if it was possible, making an attack towards the monastery. 

At 22.30, May 16th, the second Polish attack began. Aggressively pushing forward, the casualties soon mounted as the Germans again responded with a storm of mortar and machine gun fire. 

The Poles continued to advance, however, and made particularly good progress on the north end of Phantom Ridge. Before long, the toe-hold there had been expanded and used as a jumping off point to advance on Colle Sant’ Angello, the bulk of which the Poles took by the dawn of May 17th. However, German counter attacks were becoming stronger. At one point the Poles were cut off from their comrades bringing up supplies. Contact was only re-established once the enemy had been fought off in a desperate fight. By now, the men were shattered and too worn out to afford any help with the Carpathian’s attack on Albaneta. 

The Carpathian Division had succeeded in taking and then holding the dreaded Point 593. Again casualties had been high, but with a greater supply of grenades to hand they had dislodged the Germans and then fought off their inevitable counter attacks. The idea pushing towards the monastery was promptly shelved once it became apparent that the attack by those units striking towards Albaneta was struggling to make headway. By the end of May 17th, the fighting slackened as the combatants recouped and prepared for further combat. The battle for the monastery had come to a head and yet it was to end abruptly not long afterwards and in a way that came surprise for most men on both sides. 

The price of victory German Command, led by Kesselring, was now aware that the Gustav Line was no longer tenable and ordered a withdrawal to the Hitler Line. The decision was an unpopular one, particularly with the defenders of the monastery.

They considered themselves undefeated and, despite the high casualties and horrific conditions, had expected a fight to the finish. Nonetheless a retreat began in the late hours of May 17th. So tight was the Allied noose now around the monastery that most parachutists able bodied enough to retreat were either killed or captured by British or Polish patrols. Very few made it back to German lines. 

In the early hours of May 18th, the Poles were aware from intercepted radio traffic that the Germans had ordered a retreat from the monastery. A scouting group from the 12 Poldolski Lancers (Carpathian Division) was subsequently sent out to discover whether this was the case. The journey was tough and, given the paucity of intelligence about the German withdrawal, must have been quite nerve racking. The men entered the surviving hulk of the monastery to discover wounded Fallschrimjäger, corpses and total destruction. The battle was finally complete when a home-made regimental pennant was hoisted atop of the ruins. Once this was done a bugler played the legendary Krakow Hejnal

Total casualties for the Poles at Monte Cassino were 72 officers and 788 other ranks killed and 204 officers and 2,618 other ranks wounded. Five officers and 97 other ranks were listed missing. More casualties were added to the list when the Poles secured nearby Piedimonte after making four assaults on the town over 20-25 May. Although the cost had been high, the fall of Monte Cassino made the headlines as the Poles had hoped. But the fame was fleeting. General Mark Clark’s ‘liberation’ of the open city of Rome with Fifth Army units breaking away from Anzio soon grabbed the world’s attention. This was then overshadowed by the Allied invasion of Normandy

In the meantime, the Germans made full use of the opportunity handed to them by Mark Clark’s vainglorious decision; they were able to organise a massed retreat of their 10th Army and escape the thin pocket that the Allies had striven so hard to achieve. For the Poles, this failure to spring the trap was a particularly hard pill to swallow. Their hopes and dreams of a telling success in Italy and then a quick advance into the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe (hopefully leading to reappraisal of Allied policy regarding post war Poland) had been dashed. 


By autumn/winter 1944, the Allied breakout from Normandy had slowed, while large swathes of Polish territory were now firmly under Soviet control. Prior to this, reports of the dreadful repression the Nazis had undertaken after the Warsaw Rising soon filtered through. So too did the treachery of Stalin, who had ordered the Red Army to remain outside the city while the Germans liquidated the resistors. 

But despite the obstacles and grim news from home, the men and women of the II Polish Corps continued to fight with the same spirit of determination it had been born with. It is this commitment that excites the interest of Poles today. For them, Monte Cassino is almost a physical manifestation of the nation’s struggle and suffering against the odds. In this sense, the battleground has a far greater significance for Poland than Anders could have conceived when asked if his soldiers could win where all others had so far failed.

Władysław Dyda was awarded the Italy Star for his participation in this battle and his service in the Italian Campaign.

ANGLESEY 

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, Władysław Dyda was posted to Anglesey to await demob. There he met and married a local girl, Ann Ellen Fitzgerald of Gwalchmai (born December 1928), daughter of William Fitzgerald of County Roscommon and Jane Lewis of Gwalchmai. They wed in 1947. The following year their twin daughters Ann (my mother) and Janet were born, followed by four more siblings - Michael, Julia, John and Anthony. 

My grandmother died in August 2009, after 62 years of marriage. My grandfather joins her now after 4 years of widowerhood. May they rest in peace.

1 comment :

  1. Very interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete