From Siberia to Monte Cassino – Otton Hulacki’s Unforgotten Odyssey

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Natalia Bryl,

From Siberia to Monte Cassino – Otton Hulacki’s Unforgotten Odyssey

On September 25th, the Polish Embassy announced the death of Lieutenant Colonel Otton Hulacki. He died at his home in Wootton, Isle of Wight, after succumbing to heart failure, aged 102. At only seventeen, Otton was a member of the Polish Underground Resistance and went on to valiantly serve with distinction in General Anders’ Polish 2nd Corps. His profound and enduring commitment for not only a free Poland, but for a recognised and appreciated Poland, will forever be remembered. Otton Hulacki reminded us that patriotism is not merely a duty; but it is a way of living that is etched somewhere in every Polish soul.

Otton Hulacki was born in Lwów (Lviv) on January 2nd 1922, during a definitive period in which the city was Polish. Since his youth, Otton was an active patriot. He would sell stamps for the Polish Maritime and Colonial League.[1] In 1935, he joined the ‘Young Eagles’ Riflemen – a Polish paramilitary cultural and educational organisation – and later became a junior instructor.  His years of participation in this association would soon prove fundamental and indispensable to his survival…

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Vyacheslav Molotov had sent a declaration of war to Wacław Grzybowski, Polish ambassador in Moscow, on September 17th and distortedly claimed that the Polish Government had disintegrated. This fabricated statement would serve as the trigger for the Soviet assault on Poland along its whole eastern border. The Hulacki family household was located within this Soviet Zone. The area faced a campaign of mass persecutions almost instantly. The Soviets were known to target social elites, including intelligentsia, civil servants, public officials. One of which was Otton’s father, a police officer, who was arrested by the NKVD on April 10th, 1940, and deported with immediate effect to a Gulag within the Ural Mountains of Russia. It was two days later that Otton was apprehended and sent into Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. He arrived on May 1st following a three-week journey. It was well known since the 17th century that Siberia was the almost certain destination of Polish patriot martyrs.

Despite living in primitive cattle wagons, alongside the harrowing sense of the unknown, Otton would recall the experience as being ‘a kind of adventure’.[2] How one managed to remain somewhat optimistic in such conditions may be a mystery to many of us. Otton, however; always sought comfort in his faith, whether it was his faith in God or a free motherland. In an interview recorded with Stowarzyszenie Odra Niemen, we notice Otton’s extraordinary passion when describing the faith one needed to psychologically get through struggles. ‘We had to always believe! We had to have faith that something would happen for us! […] Faith that Poland would be free once more’, Otton exclaims.[3] Here, his raised voice and emphatic gestures confirmed to us that it was his faith that transcend the cacophony of conflict. His dialogue still has the power to move a listener. During his time in the camps, Otton would come to remember Józef Piłsudki’s administrative exile to Siberia and be overwhelmed by past and present memories of the myriad Poles that had shared the same fate.

For more than a year, Otton laboured at a brick factory and was later moved to an alabaster mine, where he contributed to digging new blast furnaces even with frozen grounds during winter. When Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Sikorski-Mayski treaty was agreed, allowing the release of Poles from Soviet labour camps. Prisoners were to be evacuated into British-controlled Middle East. This treaty further paved the way for the formation of a new Polish army under the command of General Władysław Anders. On his journey south, Otton was miraculously reunited with his father at a train station. Many provisions, like food and clothing, promised by the Soviet Government did not arrive, and thousands of Poles died of starvation. Hulacki described it as a time of mendicity, flee infestations and inhumane living conditions. He recalls being saved from starving to death after unknowingly eating some stew with dog meat. It was a time in which one did not have the privilege to object such things. Otton even succumbed to a serious bout of typhus, which resulted in him waking up one day amongst dead bodies.

Exposure to death, sickness and struggle fractured some whilst strengthening others. Otton Hulacki belonged to the latter. He maintained a surprising sense of humour considering his living conditions when describing: ‘I was dying from hunger, but at least I saw some of the world!’[4]

In March 1942, Otton arrived at the army recruitment office in Uzbekistan. He was assigned to join the 6th Armoured ‘Children of Lwów’ regiment. Alongside Anders’ army, with 114,000 soldiers and dependants, Otton travelled to Persia. They were known as the skeleton army. It was in Persia, where Otton resumed his studies at 20 years of age. After graduating high-school in 1944, Otton’s regiment was merged with the 2nd Warsaw Armoured Brigade – a part of the Polish 2nd Corps.

From 1944 to 1945, the Polish Army participated in the liberation of Italy. Otton was one of the 55,780 Polish military troops in Italy by the end of April 1944.[5] For time on end, the German defence across the Gustav Line proved impenetrable and in turn, had devastating effects on armies that had attempted attacks. With Germans occupying the Monte Cassino monastery, a linchpin in the Gustav Line, they were in a position of advantage. Nestled on top a ragged hill, Germans held a natural defence position with a clear view of the Liri Valley and Highway 6 – the road leading to Rome. By April 1944, the abbey became renowned for its ability to hold such a dooming ‘physical, but also a psychological hold over the troops’, as stated by Marianna Bukowski.[6]

Otton Hulacki was involved in the fourth attempt to take Monte Cassino. With the British 8th Army on the right, the US 5th Army on the left, the French Force at the centre, it was the Polish 2nd Corps that would be asked to do the unthinkable… Brigadier General Oliver Leese outlined his wish to General Anders for the Polish troops to take the Monastery Hill by frontal attack. Despite being proposed the most strenuous and dangerous task of all, Anders understood that he must accept for the sake of Poland’s reputation: ‘If we do capture Monte Cassino, and capture it we must, then we will bring Poland’s cause […] to the fore of world opinion’. The weight of Polish history converged at this very decision.’[7]

Six days prior to the fourth attack of Monte Cassino, Otton was transferred from the ‘Children of Lwów’ regiment to the Advance Tank Supply Squadron. Hulacki understood that this attempt would require a daring foray from the Polish troops. Despite being separated from his brother, Mieczysław, before battle, Otton displayed resilience and responsibility when accepting the position of overseeing a 38-ton Sherman tank with a two-person crew. Their role was to open up Cavendish Road and carve a path for the infantry behind. In an interview with Wiktor Moszczyński, Otton jokingly claimed that he was given this responsibility as he tended to speak his mind too often.

On the night of May 11th 1944, the Polish Army, under the cover of darkness, faced harsh weather conditions and well-fortified German defences – strategically imbedded within the labyrinth of the ancient abbey. In fact, German positions were so well disguised that Allied artillery was firing blindly at them. Otton described this bombardment at the start of the first night as ‘a bloody cannonade’; intense and terrifying. When the infantry attack commenced at 1:00 in the morning, Otton’s tank was the second to advance up towards the rear of the Benedictine monastery, making way for the infantry advance. The tank that went prior fell down the side of the mountain due to the narrowness of Cavendish Road.

The Poles finally broke through Germany defence at the end of the second day. Seeing the raised Polish flag, after a crescendo of emotions, Otton felt pride and joy, for Anders’ Army had left an indelible mark in the liberation of Italy. Despite this, the battle for Monte Cassino continued even till late May, during which the 6th Armoured ‘Children of Lwów’ regiment attempted to further break the Hitler Line. Hulacki participated in the attack on Piedimonte on May 20th despite the lack of fuel, artillery and infantry support. Twenty-seven out of forty-nine tanks used by the regiment were destroyed or abandoned. On May 25th, they broke through the Hitler Line, forcing the Germans to retreat.

Till this day, the battle for Monte Cassino is described as a series of ‘small epics’.[8] In the coming months, 22 year old Otton fought in the Battles of Ancona and Bologna – at the end of which, he was promoted to sub-lieutenant. He finished his studies in April 1945.

At the end of the Second World War, Otton and his brother did not return to Soviet-occupied Poland, knowing full-well the extent of the communist regime. The political landscape became inhospitable for many. During the Yalta Conference of 1945, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill not only redraw territorial boundaries but also human boundaries – displacing many homes of Polish veterans. Otton’s hometown, Lwów, was no longer a part of Poland.

Instead, Otton moved to Britain, yet on arrival he frankly recalls: ‘We could not go on a victory parade […] – we did not win the war. They sold us out.’ Otton soon joined a printing business in London and went on to establish a successful printing firm. He married Jacy Stewart from Portsmouth and after more than twenty in London, he settled on the Isle of Wight with her. They went on to have five children together.

Throughout the course of his life, Otton Hulacki remained an active member of the Polish community in London and Portsmouth. Amongst many things; he raised money for the Polish Government in Exile through the Polish National Fund, co-founded the ‘Friends of Błyskawica’ Society in 1997 which commemorated the defence of Cowes, and helped found a Polish Saturday school on the Isle of Wight. Furthermore, Otton was instrumental in restoring the Polish memorial in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth that was dedicated to Polish survivors of the 1830 Polish November Uprising. In 2019, Hulacki was honourably invited to the Royal Albert Hall for the Royal British Legion’s Remembrance Festival, during which the Polish Army’s contributions to the liberation of Monte Cassino were recognised.[9]

Otton rarely declined any invitation to represent his former Polish comrades. He attended the Monte Cassino commemorations annually, including the one held this year, and since 2016, would march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in London. By doing so, he tirelessly kept the memory of his comrades going. For his war services, Hulacki received the Polish Army Medal, the Monte Cassino Cross, the 1939-45 Star and Italy Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939-45.[10]

It was heroes like Otton Hulacki that won Poland not only her fame but her liberty. Despite the formidable challenges he faced throughout the Second World War, Otton was a poignant testament to the indomitable spirit of Poles; not only during the war but surpassing it, as well. His resolute stance in all matters concerning the past and future of Poland should be remembered by all.

Let us preserve Otton’s chapter in history.


Bukowski, Mariann, ‘Poland’s Revenge at Monte Cassino’, pressreader (2019),             https://www.pressreader.com/uk/history-of-war/20190321/281552292182953

Chorley, Liam, Polish Embassy’s tribute to Isle of Wight’s Otton Hulacki (2023),             https://www.countypress.co.uk/news/23814950.polish-embassys-tribute-isle-wights-        otton-hulacki/

Hulacki, Otton, ‘Galeria Pamiatek. Rozmowa z Ottonem Hulackim cz. 1-4’, conducted by             Stowarzyszenie Odra-Niemen, 23 February 2021.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x1s0QYs7JE

Keegan, John, Six Armies in Normandy (London: Pimlico, 2004)

Marino, James I., ‘The Polish II Corps in Italy’, Warfare History Network (2014),

https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/the-polish-ii-corps-in-    italy/#:~:text=In%20May%201945%2C%20the%20corps,former%20citizens%20of%  20eastern%20Poland.

Moszczyński, Wiktor, ‘Lt Colonel Otten Hulacki 1922-2023’ (2023),       http://polishlondoner.blogspot.com

[1] Wiktor Moszczyński, ‘Lt Colonel Otten Hulacki 1922-2023’ (2023), http://polishlondoner.blogspot.com, [accessed: December 9 2023], para. 2 of 14.

[2] Otton Hulacki, ‘Galeria Pamiatek. Rozmowa z Ottonem Hulackim cz. 1-4’ conducted by Stowarzyszenie Odra-Niemen. 23 February 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x1s0QYs7JE, [accessed: December 9 2023].

[3] Ibid.

[4]Marianna Bukowski, ‘Poland’s Revenge at Monte Cassino’, pressreader (2019), https://www.pressreader.com/uk/history-of-war/20190321/281552292182953 [accessed: December 9 2023], para. 8 of 55.

[5] Marino, James I., ‘The Polish II Corps in Italy’, Warfare History Network (2014),

https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/the-polish-ii-corps-in-italy/#:~:text=In%20May%201945%2C%20the%20corps,former%20citizens%20of%20eastern%20Poland. [accessed: December 9 2023], 18 of 19 sections.

[6] Bukowski, para. 17 of 55.

[7] Bukowski, para. 23 of 55.

[8] John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (London: Pimlico, 2004).

[9] Moszczyński, para. 10 of 14.

[10] Liam Chorley, Polish Embassy’s tribute to Isle of Wight’s Otton Hulacki (2023), https://www.countypress.co.uk/news/23814950.polish-embassys-tribute-isle-wights-otton-hulacki/ [accessed: December 9 2023].