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leon_memorial_p3_1Lt.Col. Leon Gnatowski was one of the bravest and most valiant officers in the Polish Army. He was a professional soldier. Apart from his bravery he had a common sense, which enabled him, in times of difficult battle situations, to control his emotions so as to make logical decisions to achieve set goals with the lowest possible loss of life. He respected life and the blood of his soldiers. Always in control, with a great sense of humor, first one in line when it came to attack, he inspired in his soldiers a belief in leadership, gaining great respect and reputation – they adored him. Amongst other commanders he stood out because of his humor, his kind heartedness and this incredible facility to connect with his soldiers. He was not only their commander but also their friend, their mentor, someone to look up to.

 


He was born on the 25th of July 1903 in Rozan nad Narew. As a seventeen year old he enlisted in the newly formed Polish Army and fought defending his Fatherland against the Bolshevik invasion. In 1920, as a very young under-officer, he was promoted to platoon chief and to quote one of his soldiers,” always there where the action is, without a helmet, always first in line.” For his exploits at the battle front he was awarded by Marshal Jozef Pilsudzki personally , the highest military honor, the Silver Class Virtuti Militari as well as the Cross of Valor twice. He was only seventeen.

 

After the war he entered the cadet school in Bydgoszcz and remained in the army as a professional soldier.

 

leon_memorial_p4_2During the September campaign in 1939 Captain Leon Gnatowski, in command of the CKM 77 company of the Infantry Regiment from Lida, he distinguished himself with honor and was awarded two more Crosses of Valor. Twice wounded at the battle of Janowo Lubelskie, on 28th September 1939 he was taken to a prisoner of war camp from where, thanks to his soldiers, he was able to escape. After convalescing from his wounds, he decided to try and join the Free Polish Army in France. Whilst trying to cross the Hungarian border he was arrested by the Soviet Authorities and, under an assumed name, spent two years in a gulag in Workuta.

 

In 1942, when the Soviets allied themselves with the West, he was able to join the newly formed Polish Army under General Anders. He was promoted to Major and, passing through Iran, Palestine, Egypt , Major Leon Gnatowski commander of the 15th Wilno Battalion of the 5th KDP of the 2nd Polish Corps landed in 1944 to fight the German Army in the Apennine Peninsula.

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He distinguished himself at the Battle of Monte Cassino. He was the first one to reach the hellhole of Widmo (the most bitterly defended position by an elite German parachute regiment), first one to attack German bunkers with grenades and the last one to leave Widmo although ordered to do so a few hours before. Nobody could believe that he and his soldiers could have survived the onslaught, the artillery bombardment refusing to leave their position. His action contributed to the course of the battle of Monte Cassino for which he was awarded the Gold Class Virtuti Militari. Following that, he distinguished himself further at the battles for Ancona and Bologna. He became a legend in the 2nd Polish Corps and both Melchior Wankowicz (author of the famous book on Monte Cassino) and Feliks Konarski (Ref-Ren) the author of the famous song “Red Poppies at Monte Cassino” devoted their works in his honor.

 

Here is a fragment of a poem by Feliks Konarski entitled "Valiant Soldier":

 

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".... There was a time when the golden sands of the desert,

Changed to the dark soil of Italy

On which landed the valiant Major Gnatowski.

Full of fantasy, bravery, a soldier by conviction

One could almost call him Wieniawa of the 2nd Division.

Lively, youthful, good-natured and loyal in his friendships

Abhorring the effects of war but yearning a real battle...."

 

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Because of his exploits during the Italian Campaign he was awarded twice the Cross of Valor, twice the Cross of Merit with Swords, promoted to Lt.Colonel and named Second-in-Command of the Wilno Brigade. He was also highly honored by Allied Command, receiving one of the highest military decorations from the British, the Distinguished Service Order and by the Americans the Legion of Merit.

 

leon_memorial_p7_1After the war, in the Polish emigration, Lt.Col. Leon Gnatowski maintained a very close contact with his soldiers. He would visit them in America, Canada and Argentina. And they would also come to the UK to visit him. For numerous years he was President of the 5KDP Military Association.

 

leon_memorial_p7_2It might surprise the reader, when reading this article about Leon Gnatowski, that I underline the fact that he was a Lt.Colonel. This I am doing for a reason: During the post-war years the Polish Government in Exile became obsessed and started to profusely “promote” ex-soldiers, even posthumously and, whether they wanted it or not, to higher ranks. Leon Gnatowski categorically refused any such nomination. He had no time for fictional promotions.

 

The death of Lt.Col. Leon Gnatowski in 1987 had a profound effect on the surviving soldiers of the 2nd Corps around the world. The funeral service at the at the Church of St. Andrew Bobola in London was packed to the full with representatives from the Polish Government in Exile, different Combatant as well as the Polish Scouting Organizations.

 

He was buried at Gunnersbury Cemetery next to the Katyn Memorial amongst many distinguished Poles. His Commanding Officer, General Klemens Rudnicki, delivered the eulogy and many of his soldiers and friends bid him their last farewell. On his coffin were spread red poppies and earth from Monte Cassino.

 

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On the 25th of May Lt.Col. Leon Gnatowski returns to a Free Poland and to quote General Stanislaw Maczek "... our fate may encounter various hardships in exile – but our goal will remain forever a Free Poland"

 

He has come back to "stand eternal guard" in the most important Polish Pantheon where lie fallen soldiers who, through their valor, pain and suffering , fought for the freedom and independence of Poland.

 

He returns to show future generations their history, what Poland stood for, to instill in them a pride in, and care for, their country, and be an example to the many hundreds of thousands of young people visiting the Military Cemetery at Powazki.

 

Zygmunt Prugar-Ketling