FREE THE WHITE EAGLE
Edward W. Dzierżek
A tremendous explosion shook the ground and the whole great brick barrack building. I was on the second floor and literally swayed on my feet.
“What was that?”
The time — 7 a.m., September 1st, 1939 in the city of Grodno (presently about 20 miles within the Soviet border).
Soon we learnt that the barracks of our armoured battalion situated about 2 miles behind us had been bombed. (Fortunately nobody was inside.) Till then we did not know that the war was some 2 hours old.
At dawn, on the 1st of September, 1939, the Second World War broke out.
I am stressing this point particularly, because a high school student told me that World War II started on the 3rd of September. Some teacher, some book told him so.
This has to be corrected! The Anglo-Saxons, with their characteristic, peculiar “logic”, tend to ignore existing facts in which they do not participate.
If the war broke out on the 3rd, what was that on the 1st? Was it a “private” Polish war? Absolutely nothing had materially changed on the 3rd. The war continued as it before (except for some joyful demonstrations in front of the British and French embassies in Warsaw), only Britain and France entered de jure the existing war. The Polish-German war did not stop and then a new World War was declared. It was one continuous process from the 1st of September, 1939 till the 14th of August, 1945.
Could the Americans or the Japanese say that World War II began with Pearl Harbour, in December, 1941? By the same logic Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, etc. could conclude that there was no World War II at all.
It is not my intention to write about the September campaign. I will not talk of the heroism, incredible deeds, carnage, and despair. My tale is of the events following the Russian invasion 17 days after the German attack.
The first Axis (Berlin-Moscow), secretly formed the previous August for the conquest of Europe, was now revealed.
Let us not forget that the Soviets became our allies only because their original partner double-crossed them.
All facts in this narrative are true and correct.
THE FIRST LESSON
The 17th of September, 1939 found me in Nowo Świeciany, a town 79 kilometers (about 50 miles) northeast of Vilna on the very outskirts of the country, where I delivered a railway transport with military families, evacuated before advancing Germans.
After the completion of this task I was ordered to return to my regiment (brigade) in Lida, some 200 km. (about 125 miles) south-west, where we were to prepare defences against the Germans expected to advance from the direction of Grodno.
The escort consisted of, apart from myself, two sergeants and 12 men. All, except my batman, were reservists and older than myself, especially the sergeants, both veterans of the 1920 war.
That day was spent on the preparation of quarters for civilians, drawing of rations, etc. My men were housed in the barracks of the Frontier Corps battalion and I was billeted in the officers mess.
Next morning (the 18th), I was awakened by my batman with the strange news that the battalion had left the town during the night and that the last, the Administration company, was now leaving for the railway station. Some rumours had it that the Soviets had crossed the border with unknown intentions. (A non-aggression pact with them was in force.)
I was not informed by the local command of anything at all.
The barracks were deserted except for my men. I ordered them to march to the station, about a mile distant, and went there myself on my motorcycle to talk to the company commander about the situation.
The station was empty. The company was hidden in the forest beyond the tracks and a group of soldiers were loading the equipment onto the transport at the ramp some 200 meters away on the opposite side of the station. There was no locomotive.
The day — a beautiful, sunny, golden autumn day. The ground covered with golden maple and linden leaves. A quiet, rather sleepy country morning. You would never know that there was a war on.
The station master confirmed the general situation, but didn’t know any details. He told me that the nearest locomotive was in Turmonty (some 78 km. further north-east) and that it had just started to raise steam (which would take one or two hours). Upon my request he promised to give me a railway coach to be attached to the train.
I walked over to the ramp to talk to the company commander. It was a captain of the Frontier corps. I introduced myself stating that I had fourteen men and one motorcycle, and that we had been their “guests” for the past two days. I asked his permission to be attached to his rail transport.
To my astonishment and surprise he refused: “I have no more room in the train.”
“That’s no problem, sir,” I said. “I have a coach, it just needs attaching to your transport.”
I was stunned to hear: “Lieutenant, I cannot lengthen the transport. You know what air power means.” I could not believe my ears — such comradeship!
Returning to the station I saw my men standing on the platform with a group of civilians, which started to increase gradually.
At this time the station master informed me that the Bolsheviks were in Stare Świeciany, 13 km. to the south. The time — close to noon. The captain now came to the station and I informed him of the situation. At his request, the station master called Turmonty and learned that the locomotive had not yet left and that it would be ready in 30 to 45 minutes. (Add about two more hours for the locomotive to reach us.)
The station master in Stare Świeciany, with whom I was in constant telephone contact, informed me that he could see from his window Russian tanks on the highway moving west. He could not tell if they would take the highway further west to Podbrodzie or north to Nowo Świeciany (to us).
Podbrodzie lay on the crossroads of the main railway line (on which we were situated), about halfway between us and Vilna and the main highway through Stare Świeciany (linked with us by a 13 km. good, new road) to Vilna.
The captain decided to abandon the train and take to the forests to march to Vilna. He said: “You know the situation. The highway is like a table, they can be here in half-an-hour. I advise you to join me.” I replied that I would think it over and he moved to the ramp to unload his equipment.
Every few minutes I talked to the station master in the Old Town.
My men carried a very heavy load: all their equipment, food rations and ammunition for 10 days; they looked like camels. Two days’ march (on foot) to Vilna was hardly possible. Should I wait for the locomotive, or should I join the Frontier company?
If the Bolsheviks got to Podbrodzie first, they would cut off my route. But I would still gain about 40 km. of a very difficult march. If they moved towards Nowo Świeciany, they could be here at any time. But what could they do to me? I could always go across the river into the forest and start marching. Why anticipate this trouble? I decided to wait for the locomotive.
* * *
From the office window I saw the captain walk along the tracks, then right opposite the station building turn left onto a footpath down towards the river and the woods and disappear from sight.
I wanted to notify him of my decision and to say “goodbye”.
Leaving the office, I ran across the tracks and down the escarpment (probably about 30 feet high there). At the bottom of the escarpment I caught up with him, we stopped and talked.
Then, a strange thing happened, the possibility of which had never entered my mind! I heard noises above us: clanging of metal, banging, pounding of many boots on a hard surface, on stone. And almost immediately a “flood” of men poured down nearly knocking us from our feet. My men with both sergeants at their head.
Astonished, I enquired. The senior sergeant replied: “We thought that you were running away, sir, so we too....” Dumb-founded, I addressed the sergeant: “Look around, quiet, peaceful surroundings, platform full of civilian people, what are you running from? Wouldn’t I have called you, if there were a need! Shame sergeant, march back to the platform!”
A few moments later I returned to the station and saw my batman standing by my machine, his face white as a sheet of paper. “Peter,” I asked, “why didn’t you run away with them all?”
“Because you have ordered me, sir, to guard the motorcycle, so I am guarding.” I replied, “Good man!”
Walking towards the station master’s office, I came to realize what an important lesson for every commander this occurrence had been. Age has no meaning here (because, with the exception of Peter, I was the youngest), only the position. A commanding officer is observed, imitated, and his actions voluntary or involuntary, interpreted.
The Frontier company had gone. Otherwise, no news.
About half an hour passed. Turmonty was now notifying us that the locomotive had left. That meant about an hour and a half. Would it come in time?
Shortly afterwards, two squads of police with two light machine guns marched into the station. They wanted to go to Vilna. That pleased me a lot — increasing my fire power considerably in case of need.
It was after two p.m. when the locomotive arrived. Two wagons were attached: one for soldiers and police, one for some civilians, as many as room permitted. Now, on our way.
We had been travelling for about an hour when suddenly the engineer started to brake violently. With a screech and a jerk the train stopped and at the same time with the roar of its engine an aircraft flashed over us nearly touching the tops of the trees. Red stars!
I was out of the train in an instant, so were the two machine gun crews; they took positions beside the tracks. What was the situation?! Woods on both sides of us. In front, about a half a kilometer away, Podbrodzie Station and the crossroads of the railway and the highway.
Looking to the left, through the woods, now deciduous trees bare of leaves, I could see the highway 700-800 meters away. I scanned the length of it forward to Podbrodzie and to the rear. Suddenly, in my field glasses, I saw tanks moving. They were somewhat behind me in relation to the crossroads.
Immediately, I gave the order to board the train and to the engineer: “Get going as fast as you can and don’t stop for anything!”
Now, a race to the crossroads. The short train, light, accelerated quickly. With wheels pounding and screeching on the switches at full speed we passed the station. Crossroads. In front of us freedom, behind — shots, explosions. The train was so noisy. Around the bend we were safe. We won the race by, perhaps, a few hundred yards.
We reached Vilna without further incidents. There, at the station, we met the transport of my regiment, which instead of going to Lida had moved to Vilna. This was a most convenient occurrence for me. I instructed one sergeant to march the men to the barracks of the First Brigade and went ahead on the motorcycle to report my return.
It was completely dark when an alarm was raised and shortly afterwards troops moved out of the barracks with orders to march towards Lithuania.
Because I had a motorcycle, I was asked by the local colonel to stay behind and search for a missing major and then catch up with the column. For an hour or so I engaged on my task among empty buildings, without avail. Suddenly, like hail beating on leaves, a series of bullets began to hit the roofs of the buildings around me, interspersed with much louder explosions of bursting shells. A distant clatter of machine guns and the deeper voice of cannons could be distinguished. Bolsheviks started to shell the barracks. These, now silent and dark like graves, could yield nothing else. It was time to depart. And so, as the last Polish soldier that night, I left the barracks of the Vilna garrison.
At the Lithuanian border at dawn, I met my division commander who, wounded, had recuperated in Vilna. From him, for the first time in many a day, I learnt the exact situation. The heartbreak, tears — hard to describe. One captain shot himself not very far from where we stood.
Food was distributed to troops and negotiations were started with Lithuanians. Russians were expected sometime in the day and a defence was provisionally set up. However, the Lithuanian authorities would not allow fighting near their frontier, because some fire would go into their territory. Anyway, we were in no position (equipment-wise) to put up any but a token defence. Fortunately, no Russians yet.
Early in the afternoon we started to cross the border using some of our own, but mostly Lithuanian-provided, transport.
I remember the commanding officer of the troops of the district say: “Welcome, there will be no shortage of bread and salt while you are with us.”
I stayed on the Polish side with my divisional C.O. till 5 p.m. on that 19th September, when he told me to board one of the last trucks, whilst he followed at the very end.
THE LITHUANIAN INTERLUDE
After about three months’ confinement in Kulautuva, a Lithuanian summer resort on the river Niemen, we were transferred to Kalvaria (in central Lithuania) near Suwalki (on the Polish Side). The camp consisted of a huge redbrick building on the outskirts of the town with some grounds at the back and one side. The front faced a street (with no visible traffic), at the other side was a similar building to ours — a lunatic asylum. Naturally, our building and grounds were surrounded by a 10 foot high barbed wire fence.
There were 5,000 interned officers in this camp, housed in rooms and halls with two layers of wooden bunks and straw mattresses. The food (though not gourmet) was very good and nutritionally quite adequate.
Lithuanians, on the whole, were sympathetic and friendly, many with Polish ancestry. There was a group, however, within the National Guard (Sauliu Sajunga) who, not unlike the Hitler Jugend, were ultra-chauvinistic and hated everyone who wasn’t of their rank.
Fortunately, the latter were in a minority and we were able to make friends and meet ‘cousins’ (only) arriving at our camp.
Whilst still in Kulautuva I was introduced (by letters) to ‘my cousins’ in Kaunas, from whom I received several food parcels of exquisite Lithuanian cold meats during my stay in Kalvaria.
The camp commandant, Maj. Jakstas, was unfortunately no friend of ours — one, we were told, of the leaders of the above mentioned group (we simply called them Shaulis).
Unlike our camp commandant in Kulautuva, Col. Brazulis, who was a very fair and perfect gentleman, Maj. Jakstas was anything but.
We had to endure much unpleasantness, including overly late mail delivery — sometimes a month — and indignities and obstacles accorded to civilians, Lithuanian citizens, visiting us.
And this was only internment, not a prison camp.
Events came to a head when treachery, betrayal and death took place and we all embarked on a hunger strike.
Three officers bribed one young corporal of the guard to help them escape. He was just to ‘close his eyes’ on the exit. The corporal took the money. When at the appropriate time and place the officers approached the fence, he with other soldiers stepped out of the darkness, challenged them and opened fire simultaneously. One officer was killed and one wounded. That the wounded officer (Maj. John Tułodziecki, M.C., my very good friend, living now in London, England) was not killed was indeed a miracle. The shot from a military rifle was fired from 10 paces. The bullet struck the buckle on his ‘Sam Brown’ belt and ricochetted, just grazing his abdomen without causing serious damage.
A terrible uproar broke out in the camp. What could we do? Technically, of course, my colleagues were guilty of an attempted escape. But, treachery! Immediately, with the coming dawn the whole camp went on a hunger strike.
For four days the guards were wheeling the food in and out, which we refused to touch. Four days we waited. There was no such thing as an old crust of bread; all discarded, stale, moulded crusts previously thrown away, disappeared from the bins. Enduring cramps in the stomach, headaches, fainting spells, enduring tantalizing smells of food lingering in the halls, everyone to a man ignored camp ‘hospitality’. Literally, on a few ounces of previously saved stale bread we lasted 24, 48, 72, 96 hours. At last, an investigating commission, consisting of senior, high ranking officers arrived from Kaunas.
After a few days of investigations, when hundreds, if not thousands of people (including myself) were heard, the commission left. Maj. Jakstas was recalled at once, the murderous corporal arrested. The camp was taken over by a new commandant.
Major Maculevic possessed physical and moral qualities well balanced. Tall and handsome, he was also kind, humane and understanding. He did everything in his power to make our lives as pleasant as possible under the circumstances.
The Spring of 1940 looked somewhat brighter to us. Our allies, especially the French and British, poised to strike (so we thought) in the the West; we were treated very well; International Red Cross and the British Military Attaché visited our camp; sports equipment was made available and individual persons, those who wanted, received about two square yards of garden to plant their lettuce and radishes, etc. The possibilities of an organized escape to the U.K. were discussed among designated officers.
Then came the German move. Quickly initial excitement and surging hope subsided, changing into incredulity and an agonizing two weeks of hoping against hope. Then — despair! Not complete, somehow. Britain was to carry on the fight.
The Soviets having ‘liberated’ half of Poland from the Poles and having robbed Vilna of its treasures (68 flat and freight cars were loaded with priceless collections at the railway depot and taken away), handed over Vilna with the surrounding region to Lithuania on 27th October, 1939 in exchange for allowing 50,000 Soviet troops into Lithuania (twice the size of the Lithuanian army).
The usual entanglement, encirclement with military bases, provocation and sabotage followed. Russian stooges, traitors and Soviet troops extended their activities in Lithuania. Diplomatic demands and pressure on the governments of the Baltic States increased.
On 14th June, 1940 the change of government in Lithuania (more amenable towards the Soviet Union) and free entry into Lithuanian territory of Soviet troops was demanded by Moscow. Soviet nominees took power.
On 25th June, 1940 the new Minister of the Interior ordered that the only legal party in Lithuania be the Communist Party. On the 2nd July, the new Prime Minister, Kreve, was told by Molotov in Moscow: “Your Lithuania along with the other Baltic States, including Finland, will have to join the glorious family of the Soviet Union.” Arrests followed. People voted under pressure for one party. Simultaneously such elections were held in Latvia and Estonia.
So ‘elected’, the People’s Diet asked the Soviets on 21st July, 1940 to admit the ‘Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic’ to the U.S.S.R., which request was granted on 3rd August, 1940.
However, long before that date, early in July, Moscow began to rob Lithuania and other overtaken countries of their material assets abroad.
And amid all this we were waiting under lock and key in two large camps in Lithuania, Kalvaria and Polonga, to be collected by the Soviets without any effort on their part. Like a ripe plum. Our soldiers were in similar situations in Latvia and Estonia.
One July morning a hush fell over the camp. Waiting... Then, early in the afternoon — new faces, new uniforms, new language: “Sobierajties s vieshchami!” (Outside with your luggage).
Not Lithuanians anymore. Troops in light khaki shirt-type uniforms with no shoulder straps (only badges on collars), peaked light blue hats with a red band and star. Uniformed N.K.V.D. (National Commissariat of Internal Affairs — today K.G.B.) “Rozbierajties po vosiem!” (Fall in by eights). In a long column we were marshalled into the park, eight abreast, and told to sit down on our luggage. Guards on both sides, every five paces with fixed bayonets.
We spent a few hours like that, while checking and take-over took place; then — marched off to the railway station, where a train of box cars awaited us. We were then counted in groups and loaded — 48 per box car (according to the standard, old rule: 8 horses, or 48 men). When the doors were shut and locked, the light became subdued as it came through four little barred or nailed-shut windows. Little wooden troughs were affixed to one wall by the door with an outlet outside for urinating.
Every man received half a loaf of brown bread and two dried salt fish (called vobla) the size of small kippers. Two buckets of water were put in every box-car and, shortly after such provisioning, the train pulled out of the station. It was the tenth of July, 1940.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
Whilst in Kalvaria, the name Kozielsk cropped up as one of the prison camps for Polish officers. The name had a sinister meaning to us, we could not explain why. Now, we knew, we were being deported to Russia.
Would it be this Kozielsk?
Soon we entered Polish territory moving east. We could see through slits in the windows and doors the familiar landscape; we were moving towards Mołodeczno, a town near the Soviet border.
We became very quiet, with heart-rending realization that we were leaving in such a manner our beloved Eastern Frontiers. As the train was nearing Mołodeczno, the skies clouded and the rains came. Soon lightning and thunder proclaimed the wrath of God and the rain changed into a deluge; the skies opened over these outskirts of Poland to cry over us, we were sure.
It became completely dark, as if the sun had not existed, as before the day of creation. The torrents of water from the heavens, as on the day of destruction, a deluge. The crash of water on the roofs and the thunder of electrical discharges kept not only us, I am sure, in awe.
I don’t remember having ever seen such a storm.
With the roar of heavenly artillery saluting us we passed through our own land, without stopping, into the Godless land.
We wondered if the Russians would transfer us to another transport, or would they change the axles for their wider tracks.
Then we crossed over to Russia. There was no change. We realized then that they had already widened both Polish and Lithuanian tracks to correspond with theirs.
Once a day the train would stop in open areas, away from settlements or woods; everybody had to disembark and be marched off a 100 or 200 yards to give nature its due with guards standing over a few yards away.
We went through stations, often stopping for a long time outside, of course. The guards would walk along shouting not to look out. We did see, however, similar box car trains with people’s faces (men and women) peering through the slits.
During such stops in the day time (when we were not standing alongside another train), buckets of water and the rations of bread and salt fish were brought and issued to us.
There was a problem with water. The motion of the train caused about half of the water in open buckets to spill over. Some officers had field flasks, so they could save their water, but they were in the minority. Some people had tin cups or soup cans, useless for the preservation of liquid in the jolting train. So, they drank their water in advance.
Obviously, we had to devise some system of immediate use and preservation. Flasks were used, as I said, to store some, some was drunk when issued and a little could be kept at the bottom of the buckets.
The journey lasted four days. Late in the afternoon we stopped and disembarked. I don’t remember seeing any station. What I do recall was being marshalled by eights, surrounded by the guards at the edge of a pine forest. I remember a tract of yellow sand tightly packed by a recent hard rain.
The N.K.V.D. troopers were arranged on both sides of us with fixed bayonets at every five paces and every fifth one held a light machine-gun (similar to a Bren gun).
Calling our attention, the commander in charge announced in Russian, translated into Polish, that “Anybody who tries to escape, who breaks ranks, who stops marching in a straight line ahead, will be shot without warning.”
Carrying our meager belongings on our backs we started marching as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.
We marched for several miles on the sandy track through the forest. It wasn’t too bad. The twilight changed into night. We emerged into an open space. In complete darkness we reached a settlement, a big village. Now, there was no longer any solid sand underfoot. We marched along what looked like a main village street in soft, ankle deep, black mud. Buildings on both sides were low and dark. Some windows were lighted, throwing a meager light onto the road; so we could see the ruts and deep black paste we threaded through. There were no street lights.
At fence gates people, mostly women, stood watching. Some women were cursing in Russian (which I understood) the N.K.V.D. guards. I heard some sarcastic remarks thrown at our captors: “You heroes, you got hold of some defenceless people again, who have done us no harm. Why don’t you go and fight the real enemy, the Germans!” Russian people have always distrusted and feared the Germans.
I remember thinking: “So, this is Russia. The heart of European, western Russia. Not even a cobblestone. It’s much worse than I have heard, or imagined.”
Soon we passed through and found ourselves in the forest. The ground became sandy and hard. Much better. But by then we were hot and tired, but had to move steadily on at the same pace. Faces around me showed strain and some exhaustion.
Suddenly I heard behind me and a little to the right: “Colleagues, I can’t go any further, I am done for. Help!”
I looked round and saw Capt. B..., a middle aged man, reeling right and left, as if he were drunk; moving forward, but knocking his neighbours on both sides. I thought he would drop any moment. The guard marching at the side was eyeing him.
As there was no movement in his rank to help, I quickly took one step backwards and to the right, grabbed his waist with my right arm and said: “Don’t worry, we will make it! Lean on me, but try to move your legs in a straight line.”
Lieutenant R. Degorski, who was marching beside, seized my bundle of luggage and that of Capt. B..., which was a great help. The guard at our side moved his hand on the rifle belt, but otherwise nothing transpired.
I put my fainting colleague’s arm over my shoulders and my neck, pulling it down with by left hand, whilst at the same time lifting with the right arm. His feet, however, remained on the ground and he moved them diligently. And so, partly carrying, partly steadying him, we proceeded. People around us were moving like ghosts, some sick, all like automats.
We marched like that, I estimated, for two kilometers, when we saw the gates and some buildings. That was probably our destination and none too soon. My field uniform tunic made of heavy cloth was wet to the outside from perspiration.
We entered the compound illuminated here and there by some lighted windows of nearby buildings.
So, it is KOZIELSK!
We collapsed on the grass; I took my uniform off, it was completely wet through with sweat.
After about, maybe, half an hour we were called to line up for soup. It was a rather ‘thin’ soup, if I recall; nevertheless, it tasted so good. We were not very discriminating diners.
Then we were divided ad hoc into transit barracks for the night. That night was a new experience and unexpected.
I was awakened by something crawling on my neck and biting. Jumping down from my bunk I switched the light on and froze in horror. Swarms of bed bugs, all along the wall. They were huge; almost as big as fingernails, but fat and thin like paper. There was almost nobody in his bunk. People were sitting, standing or lying in the hall and on the steps.
My neck was swollen and bleeding. I forgot that such an insect existed. I did not go to sleep again that night.
This was an introduction to the Russian ‘domestic animal’, with which we had to stay intimately acquainted for the next year.
The following several days are obscure and covered with fog, as it were, in my mind, with one or two islands of clarity.
I remember a big hall, or one of the halls with many N.K.V.D. officers at the tables, towards which we were ushered, one by one. There, the record sheet was written by the interrogator. The questions concerned mainly name, rank, address, occupation, family and the like. It seemed an innocent enough questioning. However, there was undoubtedly another purpose — ‘for future use’. I, for example, was asked: “You were a company commander?” I said: “No, platoon.” He looked at me: “As lieutenant, you must have been company commander.”
I was, actually, a sub-lieutenant, or 2nd lieutenant. This, in the Russian army, equalled lieutenant, because they had (and have) three lieutenants’ ranks: junior lieutenant, lieutenant and senior lieutenant. The latter being our first lieutenant. Of course, in peace time I was a subaltern, but at mobilization I was designated a company commander in the second echelon. Naturally, I wasn’t going to tell him that. I realized then, that politically, from their perverted point of view, a subaltern would be less vulnerable, carrying out orders within the program prepared by his company C.O. and having no disciplinary prerogatives. So, I said — no!
He asked me then, where I went to school. I gave him a village’s name (true enough and one of the schools). So, he asked, in what shire it was. I answered: “Ostrołęka”. He looked at me and said: “There is no such shire in your country.” So I said I didn’t know.
Presumably, he must have thought that such a fool could not be much. He said: “That’s all!”
Then, there was a search (one of many) of belongings and persons, including a look in the rectums.
Again the fog descends on my memory. I don’t remember when and how we were divided into different barracks. I only remember the result. Other ranks, mainly N.C.O.s (over 2,000) were separated from the officers and placed in a series of back barracks, although in the same camp.
Senior officers (majors, colonels) were placed in several small buildings. The majority, alphabetically grouped, were placed primarily in former churches or monks’ refectories along the ‘main street’.
The whole establishment was a former Kozielsk (East Orthodox Church) monastery. I was allotted to barrack no. 11, a former small church, or a monks’ refectory. Two big churches across the street were converted, one into a cookhouse and a storeroom, the other into a recreation and lecture hall. Naturally, the ceilings were very high, so our barrack had triple bunks.
Shortly after our arrival, I don’t quite remember when and where, we were taken for medical examination. I think it must have been in the camp hospital, a low structured building of modern design, which was next to ours.
On the other side of it was barrack no. 9, also modern, a one-storey wooden building with small rooms filled with double or triple bunks.
I remember being ushered, by twenties, into a big room with several armed guards (with fixed bayonets) and ordered to strip naked. When that was done, we were admitted in the nude into another big room full of women, the only male being a similarly armed guard by the door. Actually, I think, there were four or five women; as we learned: two physicians and two or three nurses. I think there also was a male ‘felcher’ — a partly qualified physician. The shock of finding ourselves in this situation did not encourage looking around and counting.
The chief doctor, a small, well past middle-age, thin, witch-like woman with a gruff voice told us to parade and stop in front of them.
I don’t think a stethoscope, or any such devices were used. I remember being stared at, mainly in the mid part of the body and under arms. Some, probably suspicious cases, were slashed on the lower hairy parts by nurses with a big brush (exactly like a painting brush) dipped in some fluid. They must have been looking for lice. Bed bugs were quite enough.
During these first days an order for the camp was read to all setting out procedures and the rules concerning do’s and don’ts and life in general.
One interesting thing, we thought, was a statement that officers were not to be used for any work other than around and for themselves, unless they volunteered. The order was signed by “Camp Commandant Koralov, Senior Lieutenant” (N.K.V.D.)
The Bolsheviks insisted on calling us ‘interned’. We were interned in Lithuania and they took us from there, so they appropriated the term also.
During one of the talks with one of them I said: “What kind of interned? We are prisoners of war! We did not come to you voluntarily (as was the case with Lithuania). You captured us there and brought us here by force. You invaded and attacked us in the back.”
Of course, you couldn’t convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced, but has orders to the contrary.
One thing was slightly in our favour. It was the fact that we were listed with the International Red Cross and with the British government, through the Embassy in Kaunas. At least we told ourselves so, to boost our morale. In fact, it carried little weight (as was evidenced later by transfers to labour camps in northern Siberia), because the Russians were allies of the Germans, extremely hostile to Britain and America, and called the invasion of Poland the previous September an act of liberation not an act of war.
* * *
The names the N.K.V.D. personnel called the British and Americans was worthy of note. The British were “Imperialists and dirty dogs” Number One. Close behind them were the Americans and the French.
We officers were the enemies of the people, the bourgeois class of decadent Europe. The fact that a number of officers were peasants’ or tradesmen’s sons did not make any appreciable difference. Apart from officers, the ones they hated most, strangely enough, were corporals. They spoke less harshly of other N.C.O.s.
The roll calls were twice a day: at 8 a.m. and early in the evening. Actually, it was a head count usually made by a minor member of the guard personnel.
Early in our confinement all the camp was assembled in an empty space in an informal circle. An officer of theirs placed himself on something high and gave us good news about the possibilities of writing home. An envelope and a sheet of paper was given to everyone. The letters were to be delivered, of course, unsealed, and postage stamps, we were told, were unnecessary.
Over a period of time we were all photographed, side and front; some ‘suspicious characters’ many times. Also doprosy (interrogations) at all times, day or night, started.
All services within the camp were performed by our personnel: cooks, stores (under Russian supervision), boot repairers, tailors, barbers, shower house attendants and such consisted of our N.C.O.s and troopers organized for the jobs by the Russians. As examples of the need for services, for instance, all razors, knives and razor blades were confiscated, each man in the camp had a shave every second day, for which one received a ticket to go to the barbers (who were strictly accountable for razors, scissors etc.)
Cobblers repaired boots the best they could with the scraps of materials received. I don’t know of anyone who received a pair of boots. Apparently, an N.K.V.D. person was entitled (we were told by them) to one pair of boots a year and non-N.K.V.D. to one pair every two years.
Our cobblers made a lot of sandals of wood, so that our boots could be preserved (our own invention). Two pieces of wood were moulded as a sole and connected with leather straps nailed with tiny nails on both ends (like hinges), so that it could bend when walking; then other straps to affix to the foot.
Tailors did repairs, as no clothing was issued.
Food, although in marked contrast to the Lithuanian in quality and nourishment value, was at first adequate in quantity. Soups, made of various kinds of grains and potatoes, prepared for main meals were notable by the absence of meat in any but the minutest scraps, almost specks. On a rare day, if lucky, you fished out something worth chewing.
A symbol of adequacy of the food was bread and a symbol of well being — sugar. I remember one of the politruks (political officers) saying that Britain was crumbling and hunger must be killing, as the ration of bread had been set at 135 grams, whilst we had been given 700 grams. Well, of course, we said: Who wants to eat bread alone?
Our ‘daily bread’ was issued daily in the mornings plus kipiatok (boiling water), which we went out to collect at the hot water tap at the cookhouse (outside).
Other ranks received 700 grams of black bread a day. It was good, heavy, but nourishing bread. Officers were issued 600 grams, but this included 200 grams of white bread.
Sugar — real affluence — plentiful in the movies. We saw a good number of movies for home consumption and in everyone of them there was sure to be a big bowl of sugar in sight. Even one film showing an Eskimo family (in Russia, of course) sitting in their tent with the bowl of sugar in the middle of the table.
However, an old man, who used to come from time to time to empty our latrines, said that he hadn’t tasted sugar for 15 years. He used to be a kulak, which means a minor land owner (about 45 acres). The land was confiscated. “And now”, he said, “I am ‘gavnovoz’”. (Shit Carrier — removing the contents of latrines in the area.)
People with a sense of humour listed four ways to drink tea with sugar in Russia. First, na prikusku, which means biting a tiny bit of sugar off a lump, and while holding it in your mouth, sipping sugarless tea. Second, na prilizku. There is only one lump of sugar (not enough for the first method) suspended on a string from the ceiling. Everybody around the table gives it a lick and passes on to the next person. The third method is na prigladku. The piece is too small for anything. Everyone looks at it (only) and drinks his or her tea. The fourth method is na pridumku — which means: you think of sugar and drink your tea.
Discrimination in favour of officers with regard to sugar was difficult to comprehend. That officers (only) received one tablet of toilet soap every second week, I could understand. But sugar was food. Why we received 36 grams, other ranks 28 grams, was a mystery to me. The cake of soap (always the same) was pink, heavily scented, giving on contact with water a tremendous amount of lather, which in seconds turned into bubbles and disappeared.
Washing soap, grey, soft, exuding a horrible sickly odor was in long bars cut with a knife for distribution. It was supposed to have been a good anti-insect, etc. substance. I can well believe that — anything with a sense of smell would be repelled. But people, unlike insects, had to use it and like it.
There were several physicians and surgeons among us, specialists in almost all fields of medicine. They all offered their services at the camp hospital, so we had good care.
Of the Russian doctors, the young Dr. Arciomova (with oriental features) was a nice, pleasant woman, who often called our people in more difficult cases, said how much she had learnt from them. The senior, Kaluzyna, an old woman, was nasty, named by us ‘Grandma of the Revolution’, and the felcher was not much better.
The old woman was in charge as chief of the hospital, but she must have been the boss inside and not outside.
As I said before, our block no. 11 was next to the hospital, so we could often see comings and goings there.
One day at the door on the outside the old doctor and the felcher met, exactly at the same moment. I presume that outside she was not a boss, but a towariszcz (comrade) of the felcher. They both wanted to enter first. As the man was physically stronger, he gave her a shove with his elbow, she fell back a couple of paces and he entered first.
We didn’t like either of them, but of the two he was much preferable, so we were very glad to see the ‘equality’ of sexes. Rude, you would say it was rude! But why should it be otherwise among equals?!
Another example of equal opportunity of achievement we witnessed many times. Supplies of flour, potatoes, etc. were brought from the neighbourhood kolhoz by a 3 ton truck. The driver was also a foreman and he really mastered his crew — about half a dozen women (they were dressed in fufayki, like men labourers). They were something to behold. Each would take on her shoulders from the truck a sack of flour, 80 kilograms (177 lbs.) and carry it up the steps to the store room. (Once, I remember, they unloaded and left them at the bottom of the stairs and we had to take them in ourselves; two of us were needed to manage one sack.)
We had at times some ‘unholy’ socio-political thoughts about some peacetime, often spoiled, western women: let them ago to Russia and learn equality of opportunity between sexes. Man — more mechanically minded — is a driver and foreman, women — good as beasts of burden! Then also, why should she enter the door first — among equals?!
At the risk of offending women’s lib today, I must state that one really learns about predilection, predestination, etc. of people and sexes in a raw environment, where things get down to basics, and are not obscured by artificialities of our lives.
One of the nurses, a fairly young, rather unpleasant red-head had enormous breasts; as she wasn’t very nice to us, we uncharitably called her pieno centras, which in Lithuanian meant ‘dairy plant’. Learning what it meant one politruk asked: “Why do you refer to that nice girl so unkindly?”
“Well, she deserves it in every way.”
The camp commandant was invisible, but his deputy, Dimidovicz, constantly performed his dirty little tasks in as nasty a way as possible with gusto. He was a real son of a bitch. Many of us remembered him ‘for future reference’, just in case, in dark places.
The morale, on the whole, was quite good, waiting with expectancy. We were quite sure that the Russo-German friendship would not last. We told the politruks so, but they laughed, saying that this time nothing would spoil their co-operation; that after the fall of Britain they, with their German friends, would go on to conquer the world.
However, there were casualties. One young man, who left his new bride when the war broke out, went insane and shortly afterwards died. One officer hung himself, one drowned accidentally in the latrine. The latrines were very deep and when not emptied came to a depth of over 6 feet of a quicksand texture. The planks covering them became worn out and dislodged. This victim was not the only man to fall in. And a few departed from more natural causes.
A different loss — very regretful and shameful to think that it happened at all — was turncoats.
It wasn’t a large group, perhaps two to three dozen, but, nevertheless, sad. The Bolsheviks converted some young men, who began to believe ‘the word’ and some not so young, who cared for their own hides, etc. — purely opportunistic turncoats.
The young group consisted mainly of a dozen or so airforce personnel. There was one very young sub-lieutenant of the horse artillery, whom I befriended in our block. He came from a really ‘blue blood’ family, so it was surprising his joining that group. I tried to talk to him, but he was ‘too far gone’, he believed in the ‘message’ that the Bolsheviks were spreading.
The opportunists, although quartering with us, were completely outside our circle and rejected. There were several more prominent men among them, but one was especially worthy of note. Lt. (reserve) Mielnikiel, who before the war was a ministerial school inspector (a high government position), eventually became the Polish People’s Republic ambassador in Ottawa after the war.
Before we stopped talking to these people, I remember Mielnikiel expounding his theories.
“It’s you who are blind fools,” he said. “The winners after all this will be Soviet Russia. Do you really think that the British or the Americans will keep faith with you, or with Poland! They will trade you in.”
We countered that the British were honourable people and America would never agree to anything like that. Kościuszko and Pułaski — America’s heroes (not only Polish) helped them to gain independence. President Wilson did not forget.
He only smiled: “You are so naive! Your allies will sell you out. Americans won’t lift a finger to help you. The Soviets will rule in our part of Europe. I am simply joining the side that will prevail.”
In the light of Yalta and Potsdam (although there is no compromise with the enemy) he was a wise man (if wicked).
A fellow prisoner, Capt. Żwierow (zwier means animal, any significance?) was one of the collaborators. He was a former czarist officer, who fled from the Bolsheviks to Poland. He was a police sergeant in Poland, until he was found out doing something shady and dismissed from the force. Now, undoubtedly, he was buying himself back into the new Russia. He was made the senior of our block. And he did his job conscientiously: denouncing people, reporting and spying on us.
The Bolsheviks confiscated all the money we had, giving us receipts for the amounts. I had quite a lot, about 1,300 złotys (in today’s value, about double the amount in dollars), most of which I received from the regimental paymaster before crossing the Lithuanian border, when he distributed the funds. This money was very helpful in that country, as it was accepted and fully exchangeable into Lithuanian lity.
Now, we found ourselves without any means; not that it would have done us any good, if we had any.
A few weeks after we sent our letters home, I was called to the kommandantura and received a money order for 50 roubles from my father with a card. He said he was very perturbed that I must have been living in utter poverty, not having a few kopeks for a postage stamp; they were charged double the amount for an unfranked letter. He said that a parcel would be on the way. I couldn’t refrain from a sarcastic smile. They told us, no postage would be necessary. Now they charged the recipients double.
In the early fall it was announced that a purchasing commission would arrive from Moscow to buy our watches, gold and silver. I had a nice wrist watch; it cost 25 złotys a few years ago. (At the time 25 zł. equalled 1 British pound or $5.) But it was severely bashed about and hadn’t worked for some time. I took it to one of our colleagues who was a watchmaker. He said he could not repair it properly but could make it go for maybe half-an-hour and that would be the end. He ended: “Come just before you go to the commission, I’ll set it for a little while.”
When the commission called us, I did as he told me. And indeed the watch went. “Don’t shake it, try not to move it,” said my colleague.
When I arrived at the location of the transactions, there were several people before me (selling watches, silver coins, maybe a gold ring). I stood holding my watch on the palm of my hand willing it not to stop before I approached the table. When my turn came, my watch was still ticking. The man put it to his ear, opened the back cover (the mechanism looked very nice, 14 stones), gazed for a brief moment through a magnifying glass and said: “240 roubles.” I said quickly: “Agreed!” before the watch stopped. He put it aside and paid me the money. Russians maintained that the rouble was at par with the złoty (although it had a slightly lower buying power), so I made a fantastic sale, a real capitalistic profit.
With my 50 roubles, I had quite a lot — two months’ wages of a low-graded factory worker in Russia.
At this time they opened a lavochka (a store or shop) in the camp. Our joy was short, however. Nothing eatable to buy. The only things sold there were exercise and drawing books, pencils, cheap envelopes and paper, and previously missing postage stamps. Occasionally, there were candies (the cheapest kind, made mostly of soda). The supply didn’t last long. I had never succeeded in getting any. Every time I learned about them and reached the store, they were sold out.
The day the parcel arrived from home was a great joy to my friends and to me. Apart from underwear, handkerchieves, soap etc., there were smoked, dry sausage and salted pork fat — excellent to eat with black bread.
Several days later I was called to the commandant’s office. There was a letter from home, which was handed over opened to me. After enquiring about my family (to which I replied: “Alright, but you know it, you have read it”), he started the usual dopros, first gently, then threateningly. Then changing the subject — criticism of our army, the Maginot line in France. Then, back again. The object of the questions was: who had been the Information Officer of our regiment. (We knew — he was in their hands, we thought — in Lubianka prison in Moscow. In fact he was kept in Minsk in prison). I kept saying, I didn’t know, which of course, he kept discounting as impossible. Then loudly he said: “You know what we do with people who don’t co-operate?”
Naturally, I was scared and invisibly shaking, but at the same time stubborn fury set in. I jumped up and said equally loudly: “I don’t have to say anything, you are our enemy! I am a soldier who, going to war, is prepared to die. So,” pointing out to the half-open drawer in his desk, shouted: “Shoot me, take it out and shoot me now!” he replied quietly: “We don’t shoot people.” (We did not know about Katyń then — but that was an ironic lie: 14,500 officers murdered in cold blood.) Hotly I said: “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you!” That, of course, was a mistake, I realized afterwards, which I thought confirmed his suspicions. Surprisingly though, he dismissed me.
Returning to the barracks I told my friends the nature of my visit there. One senior lieutenant from our regiment (who said he’d had the same questions), and another close friend, confirmed my fears of probable night interrogations. It was stupid of me to say: “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you!”
However, time passed and I was not called, except to receive another parcel from home without any questions, and once to answer for my misdemeanour of not doing potatoes, when it was allegedly my turn. The turncoat Żwierow denounced me. (There was a letter on the desk written in Russian. Naturally, he didn’t tell me who it was from, but that was quite obvious.) My friend Lt. Półkowski and myself failed to do our work. I asked for the date of this event and, on receiving it, I proved that Lt. Półkowski was in the hospital then and that it was not our group’s (of ten) turn for cook-house duty.
I ended saying: “Tell that scum, who reported us, to have his facts straight before he writes to you.”
This was my last face-to-face interview.
Periodically the Russians conducted searches and confiscated newly made pocket knives, razors (which clever handcraftsmen made of bones, or a piece of steel of an old truck spring found by the fence), playing cards, etc. They would say: “You clever people, if we left you unguarded, you would make aeroplanes and fly out of here.”
Indeed, some beautiful art and craft objects were made. Sculptors in wood were able (by ordering at the camp office) to buy some small chisels of various shapes and sizes, little saws and tiny knives.
The old latrine emptier brought one day to our boot repairers’ shop some leather and asked, if the men there could make him a pair of shoes. He was told that he was short some kind of leather necessary and that it was impossible to make shoes without it.
The poor soul started to weep and said that he was collecting this material for several years in the hope of having a nice pair of shoes, but it was still no good.
Our boys held a short council and promised him shoes for the next week.
How they scrounged the extra special leather, I did not know; but, when the poor fellow arrived on his next visit, a brand new pair awaited him. He left all in tears.
People from the kolhoz who also emptied our food refuse barrels, were heard saying with envy, “how well the prisoners eat,” and were seen eating or putting into their pockets dry old crusts of bread discarded by us.
* * *
The Bolsheviks used four ways of indoctrination of prisoners in an attempt to convert them to their side.
The first method (seldom used) was to call the whole camp, or its major part, together and to read a prepared text, or make a speech. Second, an invitation to volunteer for lectures in the recreation hall (sometimes after movies), with no compulsion. Third, doprosy — interrogations with ‘suggestions’ in a friendly or threatening manner to see things their way.
However, the most frequently resorted to method was visits of politruks in the barracks to ‘teach’ us, to ‘show us the way’ and to attempt to argue their points.
One of such ‘teachers’ was Capt. of the N.K.V.D. Vavulin. He bragged about the fact that he was semi-illiterate. He would say: “Look, how good a life in the Soviet Union is, that I, for example, who can read print but not handwriting so well, am captain in the N.K.V.D.; not as it is in your country. There is no discrimination in Russia.”
One day, according to the program of ‘educating’ and ‘converting’ us, Vavulin entered a hall in block 9, looked around at the officers sitting and lying down and announced: “Boha niet!” (There is no God).
Nobody took any notice of him.
“l am telling you the truth; it’s true like the five fingers on a hand.” And he stretched his hand, on which there were two fingers missing. However, nobody said anything. The case of the “five fingers” was well known.
A little taken aback our ‘lecturer’ repeated in a raised voice: “Boha niet!”
Then one of the officers raised his head above his bunk and said: “Ale czort yest!” (But there is a devil).
Vavulin was stunned by that remark. He didn’t have any directives dealing with such an alternative. Who could have foreseen it? He stood for a moment speechless, then in a quiet voice said: “Ja jeshcho etoj problemy nie rozrabotal.” (I haven’t worked out that problem yet).
That caused immediate reaction. The thunder of spontaneous laughter broke out in the hall so strongly, that the window panes rattled and the roar was heard outside. That was too much for our ‘poor teacher’. He turned on his heel and hastily ran out of the barrack.
There were several priests in the camp. Three chaplains were on the bunk exactly under me (one, Father Dubrawka, a marvelous man, lived in New Jersey after retirement from active pastoral duties). It was a comfort to have them, and they divided their duties throughout the camp. Of course, they were not allowed to celebrate Holy Mass, but when Christmas (1940) approached, the chaplains heard confessions, distributed Holy Communion, prepared wafers for everybody (according to the Polish tradition of breaking bread during the season’s greetings).
The barracks had tiny Christmas trees (made of all sorts of materials). They were not allowed and several were confiscated, but they were replaced by new ones.
Christmas carols were heard in the barracks, permitted or not. And I witnessed a remarkable incident, the perpetrator of which was quite unaware of having been seen. The camp outside was deserted. I had just stepped out of the door of our barrack on the outside steps (carols resounding strongly behind me), when I saw a guard, a N.K.V.D. trooper, who had just passed the steps and the door, take off his cap and cross himself surreptitiously.
Apart from merriment resulting from visits and discussions (like that of Capt. Vavulin) with various political officers, we had a real blockbuster of excitement in the New Year, 1941.
The lavochka (store) was managed by the sister of Capt. Vavulin. I could not imagine a more obnoxious and ugly young woman.
To clean the store and do the work around it a young police constable (reserve corporal) was designated. He was tall, good looking, especially in his blue police uniform.
We used to say that in waters bereft of fish even a crab is as good as a fish.
So, our enterprising constable seduced his boss, for which pleasure he gave her his police greatcoat in navy blue with silver buttons. Nobody would have known anything about it, if the stupid creature did not carry it through the gates over her arm, silver buttons and all.
She was arrested, the corporal was put in solitary confinement. However, he was released after 24 hours (boys will be boys, I suppose), but the girl didn’t come back.
After about two, maybe three weeks, Vavulin came to his usually visited barrack and, crying, informed us that his sister received a 10 years hard labour sentence (in a concentration camp) for (not love making, of course) “allowing herself to be bribed.”
That was the last time we saw Capt. Vavulin.
* * *
With the coming of spring the spirit of the majority became somewhat lighter (although there were some cases of despair and depression). We could play ball. During walks we could see, in a valley far in the distance, trains going west loaded with materials and troops, and returning empty. “There must be a war between them soon.”
The Bolsheviks were scoffing at those notions. “No, the Germans and ourselves are friends. We just delivered them a trainload of butter.”
We thought: you give butter, we know better.
One morning Father Dubrawka woke up and said: “There will be a war (between them) soon. I had a dream; the Germans will strike when the crops start ripening in the fields.” That was music to my ears.
I had a dream also, which, so far, had not come true.
For the first six months of the war I dreamt every night: horrorific war dreams. Now they changed, became less violent, more normal. However, this particular dream was something special, it made an impression on me to this day.
I don’t think that it was caused by the “International” (which was the Soviet’s national anthem then) played at midnight — all four verses of it. This we heard every night and could not turn it off.
In my dream I was in a trench with a medium machine gun, with our troops in a thin line, five paces one from another. In front of us were Russians, millions of them. As far as the eye could see the whole countryside was covered with them standing head to head. They started to sing the ‘International’ and waving red flags moved on us, like locusts, against our thin line. We hoisted our red and white ensign and began to sing “Poland is not yet lost...” but our voices were completely drowned by the thundering “International”. We opened fire. My machine gun was spreading tremendous destruction. They were falling by the thousands, but new thousands were taking their places to fall again and to expose new thousands. My friend was feeding new belts of ammunition to the machine gun. There were walls of corpses and new hordes, singing, were moving on us and falling. It lasted a long time. The ‘International’ became weaker, our anthem stronger. The machine gun was another music to our ears. The invaders’ ranks became thin, their song weak and ceased. Our voices with “Poland is not yet lost, whilst we are alive!” resounded in triumph. There were no longer any Russians in front of us.
I woke up crying, and crying told my story.
“This dream is yet to come true!” said my friend.
One morning a duty group (of ten) from our block were called for work and led out by Dimidovicz beyond the fence. There they were ordered to dig the gardens in front of the Russian quarters.
Some people started work, some didn’t know what to do, but one officer (a veteran from the 1918-1920 war, highly decorated and in civilian life Lord Lieutenant of a county and a gentleman of the highest principles) dropped his spade and refused to dig. Dimidovicz came yelling threats, but the officer said he would not dig their gardens.
“Then, you will go and clean latrines!” yelled Dimidovicz.
“Yes, I will clean our latrines, but will not dig your gardens!” was the reply. Some other officers dropped their tools also.
“Just wait, you will see what is coming to you!” Livid with rage Dimidovicz ordered the guard to take the whole group back to the barracks.
A hush descended on our block and on the camp. There will be an order read in the afternoon.
At 5 p.m. we all lined up in front of our blocks as usual and awaited ‘the word’.
The duty officer arrived. Full of foreboding and unable to believe our own ears we heard the following: “I am reminding all personnel, both guards and the interned, that officers cannot be used for work other than on themselves, or if volunteering. — Koralov, Camp Commandant.” That was all.
A few days later, I was standing on the steps of our block when Dimidovicz approached and addressed me: “Sir, Lieutenant, be good enough to ask Lieutenant X. to come out.” I went in and having not found the man, came out and told him, that this officer was not in.
Dimidovicz, most politely: “Be good enough to tell him, when he returns, to come to the office.”
What is going on?! It’s almost like in Versailles.
However, this was not the end of astonishing incidents. A few days later our senior officers returned from the meeting with the camp commandant and announced that starting from tomorrow (maybe two days hence) a new form of morning roll call would be observed. A duty officer would arrive in front of each block’s company, salute and say: “Zdravstvujtie, gospoda oficery” (greetings, sir officers). Going to other ranks, he would say: “Zdravstvujtie boycy” (greetings, troopers).
We discussed with our seniors what form our response to the greetings should take. It was decided that we salute silently.
All these courtesies were very strange.
We dressed more appropriately for these occasions, wearing caps on our heads.
And so the practice continued until we left the camp.
* * *
The 22nd of June, the first day of summer in the year 1941 began golden, warm and pleasant, but no different for us than many previous spring days. We had our usual genteel roll call, breakfast, the usual occupations and mid-day meal. Because the weather was so nice, most people were outside sitting in the sunshine, walking and generally enjoying the balmy air.
I remember I was inside our more than half-empty building block, enjoying an afternoon siesta in my bunk.
Suddenly, I was awakened by the blaring radio loudspeakers, which were in every hall. “Here speaks Moscow!” What the heck? Very unusual at this time of day (it was about 4 p.m.)
Urgently, the voice from the loudspeakers continued: “These dogs, the Germans, this bandit Hitler struck our homeland today! Without provocation...” etc.
In one leap I was on the floor. The hall started to fill with officers, who came on the run to hear the details. “This dog, Hitler!”
Pandemonium broke loose and the roar of cheers rose from every block.
So it happened as we had predicted, as Father Dubrawka dreamt. God is in Heaven! Two robbers had fallen out, fighting over the spoils.
Within minutes politruks (political officers) burst into the barracks. “Gentlemen, gentlemen, why are you cheering? War is such a terrible thing!”
“We know what war is,” we answered. “We have been in it for nearly two years! Terrible for you. Good for us! Jolly good!”
All depressions disappeared, everybody was in high spirits, the camp wore a holiday mood.
Of course, our routine didn’t change much, except that the guards were more polite and we more self-assured. The turncoats lost their bounce and became quiet and subdued. Politruks would come to commiserate with us, rather than attempting to convert us.
However, some days later we began to notice one change: the food became poorer both in quality and quantity.
Needless to say, we listened devotedly to the radio: war communiques and frantic calls to arms, imploring people to resist and to leave nothing to the Germans; the progress of the latter. “Let’s rally behind our dearest leader, our sun, Stalin!”
* * *
At the beginning of June half of the camp, almost all other ranks and personnel — over 2,000 men — were ordered to pack, marched to the station and taken away east. (They actually worked in north-east Siberian labour camps for three weeks.)
* * *
Our routine remained the same. The bread rations were reduced to 600 grams and white bread disappeared.
The Germans were drawing nearer.
About three weeks after the departure of the first transport from Kozielsk, the rest of us were ordered to assemble with our luggage in front of the barracks. On the other side of the street was a recreation hall and in front of its door stood Arcziszewski (I think that was the name), one of the dedicated turncoats alone with his luggage.
In a while Dimidovicz approached him and asked for the reason of his separation. We couldn’t hear all that Arcziszewski said, but we could very well hear Dimidovicz’s roared reply. It was easily discernible that the former wanted to be detached from the rest of us, because he was afraid to be locked in the box car of a moving train amongst hostile officers.
He must also have asked to be accepted by the Russians.
With surprise and glee we saw Dimidovicz kick his luggage fiercely on the ground and heard him roar: “Get away, we do not need such scum!”
That felt good. Some small measure of justice.
Soon we were assembled in a long column in eight rows in the central street of the camp before the main gate.
We were told to sit on our luggage facing the route and not to turn around. The familiar routine.
On both sides of us and at the interval of five paces stood guardsmen with fixed bayonets on their rifles. Every fifth man had a light machine gun and there were some dogs.
Human nature is interesting and varied. There are individual characteristics, which psychologists classify and arrange in various categories. There are also racial and national characteristics not only physical, but also mental and spiritual.
Of course, individual traits will come to play within the groups, but appreciation of group or even national psychology may often be of service.
Having lived in Russia for nearly a year (though in confinement), reading, hearing things, speaking with them, and mostly observing, I found a certain psychological make-up of an average, typical Russian very interesting and useful. It was characterized by an ancient Russian saying: “It’s a good master who punches you hard in the face.” This indicates a passive nature, submitting to force, recognizing superiority both physical and spiritual.
I would not advise one to put all one’s life ‘chips’ on the notion of being always right in judging the situation, but sometimes you can get away with it.
Sitting on my luggage I wanted to talk to my special friend, who sat behind me. I turned around and began conversation. Suddenly, behind and to the side of me, loud shouting and metallic clinks broke out. One of the guards yelling and pointing his rifle at me.
I turned my head towards him and shouted back: “You, f*ck your mother, they told you to stand there and guard. So, guard and shut up and mind your own business, you son of a bitch.”
He put his rifle down and I continued talking to my friend.
After a lengthy wait the column was raised and we were marched off along the same route we had covered about a year before, only in the opposite direction. During the morning we arrived at the station. To be precise, it was outside the station, where the train of small box cars was waiting for us at the siding. As usual, 48 men to each car and we embarked at 5 p.m. (1700hrs) on 29th June.
Before the doors were closed and bolted on us, each car received one small barrel two-thirds full of tiny salted fish (the size of small sardines, or sprats) and two buckets of water.
The train left the Kozielsk area at 5 a.m. on 30th June.
We spent about four days and three nights in the train. They were indistinguishable from one another except for minor variations and/or excitements.
Once a day the train would stop in an open field, the doors would be flung open and the occupants herded out. The guards would march us in straight lines from the cars for 100-200 yards for the purpose of emptying our bowels.
The train seldom stopped at a station. I don’t mean at the passenger platform; by that I mean outside, or at a siding. The problem was water. Two buckets for 48 men without adequate facilities to preserve the liquid in a moving and jolting train, were inadequate. Especially if you consider the diet: brown bread and salt fish.
Once or twice we had slight excitement, when we stopped alongside a similar train with civilians being deported ‘somewhere’. Through slits in doors and windows we were able to ascertain the character of those passengers. They were deportees and possibly, but not likely, refugees, because in most cases they were confined to similar box cars as ours.
At one such stop alongside a train of civilians, we waited for our ration of water, which was not forthcoming. After a lengthy wait, dry-mouthed people began to lose hope.
I exchanged a look with my friend, a small but gutsy sub-lieutenant and started to yell at the top of my voice: “Open the doors! Bring water, you sons of bitches!” I was joined by him in vociferous requests. Some older officers tried to quieten us down, fearing reprisals, but we countered: “Would you rather suffer dehydration?” And we continued to shout demands and obscenities.
When our verbal efforts did not produce results, we took a board from a bunk and began hammering the doors with it, shouting even louder.
Very shortly we heard running boots. Noisily the door was flung open and one of the guards enquired anxiously: “Gentlemen, what is the matter? Don’t shout!”
Of course, they didn’t want such a disturbance in front of civilians. Bad propaganda.
“Water, bring water, you son of a bitch!”
“Quiet, quiet, gentlemen, we will get you some water!”
About two box cars from us similar shouting broke out.
A few minutes later, two fresh buckets of water were delivered to us and then to the other noisy box car.
Of the whole train only our two cars were given water, all the rest were not. It didn’t pay to be nice and quiet. Sometimes rudeness, disorderliness, produces results.
We still didn’t know where we were going, except that it was east and north. We assumed that we were following our colleagues of the first half of the camp’s population. Most people prayed a lot. Conversation was scant, but we were not depressed. Faith and knowledge that the Germans were driving east gave to most of us confidence in the future.
In the early afternoon of the fourth day after embarkation the train was stopped among green fields and small woods of low trees and bushes. Golden sunshine illuminated this strange, fascinating scene. Not unlike Europe, yet different.
We were ordered out of the train with our belongings at 1 p.m., marshalled in a long column and marched off at 2:30 p.m. towards the new unknown. At 3 p.m. we stopped before a small settlement, and an area surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence that looked like a camp. We sat by the road side for several hours before being admitted into the compound.
Marching along a short street between a few stone buildings we were greeted by Polish officers, prisoners of war, inhabitants of the camp.
Looking at the faces standing along the street, suddenly I stopped in my tracks. Leon, Leon Czerednik, my friend from the early high-school days in Grodno! We embraced heartily, promising to meet, and moved along.
There were some 400 prisoners in this camp — Griazoviec — now receiving an additional 2,000 plus. We were allocated into some permanent buildings, room permitting, some make-shift wooden sheds and tents in the fields along the small river bisecting the camp area.
I was placed in the jail, several men in a cell. A stone building. Nothing on the floor. Just my greatcoat on the stones, a bundle with the change of underwear as a pillow.
I met Leon later and we walked and talked for hours. He had a piece of some newspaper, which he showed me. The light was fading but quite enough to read by. I said that it was probably about 8 p.m. Leon looked at his watch — midnight. What, how is it possible! So light. Yes, white nights, at this latitude. It was the first time I experienced this phenomenon.
The first few nights I spent on my jail floor. The days, however, were much more pleasant. Walking in the sun, visiting Leon, getting acquainted with some of the ‘old crowd’ of Griazoviec, and rationing our decreasing rations of bread, which by now had dropped to 400 grams a day.
The weather was very nice, pleasant but not hot, and the nights were quite cold. Even during the warmest parts of the day there were very few enthusiasts for swimming, as the water was rather ‘fresh’. One day I braved a short dip in the river; it wasn’t too bad, but I wouldn’t care to repeat it often.
Now, I don’t know whether it was my refreshing swim that day, or my nights on the jail stones, but I developed an ear infection in both ears, quite badly in the right one. For about three days I was completely stone deaf. When walking, I ‘heard’ the vibrations of steps in my head, but heard no sound at all. A very peculiar sensation. We had our own medical team including an ear specialist. I attended his surgery regularly. My left ear opened up shortly, but my right one stayed closed for nearly three weeks oozing pus and requiring constant dressing.
Leon took pity on me and invited me to his barrack onto his bunk. We placed his straw mattress sideways across the bunk, so we obtained wider space, though our legs and feet were on the wooden planks.
As we all went to bed hungry, food was on our minds. One night lying on our bunk in masochistic indulgence Leon and I started talking about food — what we would like to eat. I chose a stuffed goose with apples, or a suckling pig, Leon wanted juicy pork chops with some extravaganza in additives. Suddenly from several corners of the room we heard threatening voices: “Shut up, or we’ll make piglets out of you! We cannot listen to this, so keep your mouths shut!” Well, that was that.
The Russians started to erect wooden barrack huts along the river banks. We were issued blankets and straw mattresses. Food rations decreased.
While still in Kozielsk we observed several deportations of small groups of officers. First, very shortly after the arrival there, several very heroic and merited men were taken away and only one was later seen again. Then, about two months later, General Przezdziecki and eleven other younger officers were taken away. Well, a general, an ‘arch-enemy of the people’, we could understand, but why a small group of lieutenants?
The mystery was partly solved now. The eleven were found in Griazowiec. They were not, however, with the main body prisoners, they were kept in a separated compound with some French and English troops. I remember speculations: that they were volunteers for special assignments, or agreed to some collaboration with the Bolsheviks. But, what were the French and the English doing there? We never found out.
I moved into one of the new wooden barracks on the riverside and was alright — in the summer time, although mornings were cold and washing in the river water nippy and ‘most refreshing’. The major morning occupation was dividing one’s bread ration to last all day. 400 grams (of heavy bread) divided into four thin slices, or three thicker ones, or two chunks. It was a ‘major’ decision. Some people chose to have one good feeding and consumed it all at once, some in two installments, etc. I chose to have a slice four times a day.
Breakfast consisted of tea (dry tea, issued once a week), boiling water collected at the cookhouse tap, and the above mentioned bread.
Mid-day meals (the most substantial) were made up of a small bowl of soup, mostly fish soup. You were hunting for pieces of fish in the liquid and a small bowl of cereal, primarily millet, with a spoonful of oil.
In the evening — a reduced portion of either cereal, or soup and hot water for tea.
Apart from permanent cooks, every day about 10 people were sent to the cookhouse to help the cooks with washing, cleaning, etc. This was the most desirable occupation, because you were allowed double portions of food.
There were several people who, at almost every meal, stood at the door of the cookhouse asking for handouts. “I am hungry.” Most people did not pay any attention to these beggars. We were all hungry.
As the time went by, it became worse, as supplies were reduced and not always reliable. I remember when the bread ran out and — no supplies.
I became so weak that, when walking and a strong gust of wind blew, I was ‘gone with the wind’.
Head spinning was a normal occurrence. Once I was lucky and secured some skins and bones of fish, which the cooks threw into the refuse barrel. It was not so easy, because the crowds were waiting every day at the cookhouse for this. Then, I found some old beetroot leaves. (They must have been remnants of a garden at the settlement.) I got some water into my field mess dish, put the skins and bones in, chopped the leaves; Leon started a fire in the field of sticks and grass and we proceeded to cook our soup.
It was awful. Almost as black as tar. The skins were uneatable. They were like leather.
Russia has always suffered from supply and distribution problems. Great distances, and organization is not their strong point.
We were comparatively close to the White Sea, therefore the supply of those huge fish was fairly reliable; but not so bread, or other items coming from the south. Where bread and grain was produced, there you could expect the shortages of our fish.
The days dragged on. People were hungry, nervous. Arguments and fights would flare up. But we were waiting. We were waiting for something to happen, something good. And, apart from physical weakness and dizzy spells due to the lack of nutrition, most of us were in good spirits.
The Russians were being beaten. Surely, they will ask the Allies for help and our turn must come. It’s only a question of time!
* * *
The day was sunny, pleasant and warm. Mid-August. Life could be good, if only events rolled quicker.
I was just outside, when I heard the radio loudspeaker announcing a special communique: According to the London agreement between the governments of the Soviet Union and Poland, military arrangements were concluded on 14 August 1941, in Moscow. The Polish Army will be organized on Soviet territory and this Army will be part of Sovereign Poland and will fight together with the Soviet Union and the Allies against the common enemy.
Oh God! So it happened! Thank You, Lord! As we knew, it would. As we knew, You would show us Your Almighty Hand!
People were laughing, talking, falling on their knees and praying everywhere.
Our Senior Officer of the camp, Col. Marian Bolesławicz, went to the Russian H.Q. for information and returned with the news that a Senior Officer of Polish Command would arrive in a few days with instructions for us.
Distrustful as we were, we warned ourselves not to trust anyone unknown; there may be Russian stooges sent to mislead us, etc.
Then came a few days of earnest waiting and expectation.
At last, we were told that he had arrived and would be talking to us in the camp square.
“Watch it, fellows. We will have to see some good credentials.”
The man wore a black civilian suit and hat and a huge mustache. I did not know him. But, several officers and N.C.O.s ran to him and back to the rest of shouting: “Colonel Sulik, our C.O. from Poland, our C.O. from the September campaign!”
Well, that was good. The Colonel told us that the commission would be set up at once to enlist volunteers for the army. He brought the instructions. The Russians declared that they would pay ‘damages’ to Polish personnel in the following amounts: generals — 10,000 roubles; officers — 2,000 roubles; all other ranks — 500 roubles.
The first daily order of the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army in Russia was issued in Moscow on 22nd August, 1941.
This order was brought to us promptly and read in front of the assembled personnel. Of course, we were lucky. Our camp was the largest known concentration of officers Gen. Anders could draw upon at once.
On 25th August Col. Bolesławicz, who by then was appointed camp commandant, issued his first Order in the Polish Military camp of Griazoviec.
The camp was divided into temporary sub-units with appointed commandants and duty rosters for the 25th and 26th of August. I had the honour to be named one of the duty patrol officers for the 26th. (The copy of the order in full is in my possession.)
On the 26th of August we were notified that the Commander-in-Chief would visit us the next day. Oh, joy and honour!
The instructions were issued for individual and unit readiness. The companies marched out to the places designated for them for tomorrow’s inspections, as a dress rehearsal. Excited and animated talks resounded here and there but no quarrels. We went to bed sombre, but happy like on the coming of a promised Messiah.
The 27th of August was a day which was destined to become one of the two most memorable days in my life, though very different. The first was the 19th of September, 1939, when at the Polish-Lithuanian border I met my divisional commander and learned the full extent of the catastrophe suffered at the hands of our two enemies. Despair! This, the second day was quite the opposite: elation and joy.
From the early morning we cleaned and scrubbed our tattered uniforms and polished our boots — with spit, if not with polish. The morning dragged on, then noon came and passed. We had our mid-day meal in silence. No news. Waiting. We began to feel apprehensive. Would we be disappointed? Mid-afternoon arrived and passed. Suddenly, duty officers appeared running ‘at the double’, shouting: “Fall out, march by companies to the square. He is here, he is being received by the Russians at their H.Q.!”
We formed three sides of a huge square in double line by companies: officers, N.C.O.s, some policemen and troopers; in all about 3,000 of us.
Our position was on a very slight elevation, a swell of the ground, the open side overlooking perhaps about one-half kilometer of road leading to the gate and the Russian H.Q.
I was about in the centre of the main facing line. The sun leaning towards the west. We stood transfixed, gazing at the distant gate. Nothing yet. Then the gate opened, a group of about a dozen people moved forward. We could not recognize anyone yet. Too far. They moved very slowly. Why so slow?
Then I noticed a glitter of silver embroidery over the cuffs of the sleeves of two people. There were two generals! One wore a forage cap and one a square silver-embroidered peaked cap. But which is he? Slowly the group neared, so that we could distinguish their uniforms. The general in a soft forage cap walked with a cane and limped badly. That must be General Anders. His face was as white as a sheet of paper and black cropped short moustache accentuated his paleness.
Yes, we could see, he wore two stars with the general’s insignia — Lieutenant General. The other had one star — Major General. Who was he? Physically, he was in marked contrast: a ruddy red face, springy gait and wearing magnificent light brown boots. They were surrounded by the Russian ‘brass’.
When the group approached close enough the colonel in charge ordered: “Attention! Eyes right!” (or left) and went to report the camp ready for inspection (number of officers, N.C.O.s, etc.) Gen. Anders moved towards the ranks, the rest of the group stopped.
He walked extremely slowly looking into each man’s eyes. First line, second line, I strained my eyes. Then, slowly, my vision faltered. I couldn’t see. Something was wrong with my eyes. The General, moving very slowly towards us, appeared and disappeared. Of course, standing to very strict attention we daren’t move. I just squinted a bit at my neighbour, an old staff sergeant and noticed two long streaks of water flowing from his eyes down his cheeks. I looked straight (although the position for us was ‘eyes left’) and the figure of the approaching General disappeared. I know, my eyes were covered with the curtain of tears. Oh, God, don’t let me miss his eyes!
The General passed the staff sergeant and was in front of me. My vision cleared miraculously. For a moment he stopped. His beautiful black eyes, which seemed both hard and soft, looked through yours into your very soul. Then he looked at the man in the second line and moved on. It took a long time for the General to inspect every single man’s eyes. We stood like statues, hardly daring to blink an eye. Then, he went in front of the assembly, saluted (with the whole hand; we didn’t know why, because our salute was with two fingers) and greeted us in the usual cherished manner: “Czołem żołnierze Rzeczpospolitej Polski!” (Salute, soldiers of the Republic of Poland), to which the troops replied in unison. What followed was something so astonishing, so incredible, that I wouldn’t have believed it possible. If you drilled the best guards brigade for the length of the two years we were locked up, you would not have achieved the result, produced by this varied group, often resembling a mob rather than soldiers. The reply: “Czołem Panie Generale!” (Salute, Sir General) was so uniform and so strong, that we were asked subsequently by the citizens of the city of Vologda, 4 km. distant, what that thunder was in the prisoner of war camp. The answered greeting was all from the hearts, the sound was only incidental.
Then, the General spoke to us. He said that very shortly, in a matter of days, the Polish Commission sitting here in the camp would receive the applicants for the Forces and would divide them into three different areas (agreed upon with the Russians) of large unit formations. The H.Q. of the Army would be Buzuluk; 5th Division in Tatishchevo, near Saratov on the Volga; 6th Division and a reserve regiment in Totskoye. Soon we would be fighting for Poland again. The 5th and 6th divisions were to be ready for action on the 1st October, 1941.
The general who accompanied him was Maj. Gen. Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyko, head of the Polish Military Mission to Moscow from London, bringing greetings from the Government.
Further, the General was saying: “Today, as your commander and the Commander of the Polish Armed Forces organized in the Soviet Union, I realize most profoundly the duty and the responsibility that befalls me. And, therefore, whatever transpired before, I forbid you to talk and comment; I order you to refrain from all personal recrimination, because all this is naught compared to the interest of Poland. On the other hand, I promise that those cases, in the proper time, I will review in accordance with honour.
“I am ordering and calling upon you for moral discipline and obedience to orders and also to approach certain problems as Poles should. I am more than pleased that I was able to come and stand in front of you, the Soldiers, like a Polish Soldier.
“We are striving for a Poland independent, just and democratic, which will give happiness to all citizens.”
At the conclusion the General called for cheers: “Long live the Republic! Her army! the Supreme Commander! and the Allied Forces!”
The General turned towards the group of Russians and spoke to the camp commandant. They sprang to attention, heels clicking: “Taktochno, Gospodin General” (Yes, Sir General)! Oh, it was good. It was good to watch that. The Russian commandant raised his arm and made some signal and the rifles of the guards on the perimeter towers were laid on the floor.
The General said there would be no armed guards and that we could go beyond the prison compound. He requested us to not go to town nor into the Russian messes, as there would not be enough food. However, we were welcome in the store beyond the gate, within Russian quarters.
After that Gen. Bohusz-Szyszko spoke and we were freed. We broke ranks. The colonel in charge started shouting orders to go back in line and to march off by companies.
Gen. Anders said to him: “Why, Colonel? Let them come to us. They want to talk. We want to talk to them.”
So we surrounded our two generals for informal talks, and for exchange of information. The Russians withdrew discreetly.
Could we be ready by 1st October? Gen. Bohusz winked an eye and said; “We shall see. Our government is in no hurry.”
We stayed for a long time talking, asking, listening. We learned that we were going to have religious services, to which the Soviets agreed. This was a very exceptional concession considering the life and structure of their country. Agreement was also secured for the formation of an Auxiliary Women’s Service.
The General wrote later in his memoirs, what great joy he felt that he had caused by his visit to us and declaration of our forthcoming freedom.
This was an understatement. His visit was a heavenly deluge of happiness, the greatest event in the lives of most of us; the most unforgettable day for me.
A very characteristic feature was a markedly increased religious fervour in us all. Therefore, when the next day our priests celebrated an open field mass, the whole camp assembled to the last man around the altar. The hymns, unheard for decades, resounded from thousands of throats and rose to the heavens through Soviet skies. Throughout the day we were called to the Russian offices, where their paymaster paid us our ‘damages.’ I received my 2,000 roubles and with these I went to the lavochka (store) to look for a fortune in goods. I was able to buy an oilcloth trouser belt with a little metal clasp, a pen knife and one-half pound of starchy sweets. That was all. The sweets were the cheapest possible and tasted like sweetened flour. The pocket knife was good looking and I was pleased. However, it was made (as we sarcastically used to say) of “Russian steel — bends and doesn’t break.” Indeed, the blade would bend and stay bent. You straightened it and it was liable to bend the other way. Needless to say, it broke off in short order.
The Polish Commission began their sitting in the offices of the Russian command and we started to enlist. I was posted to 5th division. The official date of rejoining the Polish Forces in Russia was 29th August, 1941.
On this night, like the previous two after the visit of the General, sleep wouldn’t come for a long time. Yesterday prisoners — today Soldiers of Poland! We turned on our hard bunks reliving the last few days; thinking, whispering, comparing.
So ended the first half of the Russian episode, the unhappy part, the chapter of captivity. For us the dawn of freedom had arrived.
The departure from Griazoviec camp took place on the 2nd of September, 1941 at 19.00 (7 p.m.) A long and happy column set off this time on that pleasant evening to the railway station at Griazovie Griazoviec.
Strangely, there were no guards. Only a few liaison officers marched at the head of the column to travel with each transport to facilitate and help with our passage to our respective destinations. I was bound for Tatishchevo, the location of the 5th division.
Singing military songs we marched in gentle sunshine — free men.
Then, the clouds began to gather. And as we reached the station at about 21.00 o’clock (9 p.m.) it started to rain. It was not just a rain, it was a deluge. As if to cleanse us, wash off the dirt, the moral dirt of captivity, the skies discharged torrents of water on us and the world around. Just like the Polish skies nearly 14 months ago cried and thundered over our deportation without wetting us (we were locked in the box cars), so were the Russian skies wetting all and us too. There was no angry thunder, however, just torrential rain. Of course, these skies were not friendly. We were not leaving Russia, we were only leaving captivity. At both ends of the period of imprisonment by the Soviets, at the entry and exit we were submerged in a deluge.
Fortunately, there were buildings to shelter in, and the train was already at the platform. So we were not soaked through. It wasn’t a passenger train. These were the same familiar box cars. However, they were alloted to about half the number of men each as compared to previous journeys. The transport was to start all at once, and then it would be divided on route and directed to the respective destinations. We had some provisions issued, but were informed that for main meals we would stop at stations en route: the liaison officers would see to the arrangements.
We embarked and this time it felt strange, the doors were not closed. No dogs, no guards walking by, no guards on the train.
Our journey lasted some five days. The route — leading through Vologda, Yaroslavl on Volga, Ivanovo, Murom, Saransk, Ruzayevka, Penza, Rtishchevo and finally the railway station for Tatishchevo camp — Mieshchanovka. We were at out destination in the early evening of the 7th of September. It was the location of a military summer camp outside Tatishchevo, a small town, 45 km. from Saratov on the Volga. So, we followed generally a course parallel to the flow of the river Volga — South; touching it in Yaroslavl and Saratov.
Indeed we stopped at major stations in early afternoons for meals in a stolovaya (dining hall). The time chosen and arrangements made were such, that we were the only occupants of a place. A room and food were prepared for us.
It was rather pleasant to get off the train at a platform and go into the eating hall. The routine was rather comical, you could say. At the entrance of a small hall you were greeted by being issued a spoon by a local official (usually a sombre looking woman). Then you entered a huge hall sometimes so large that it could hold several thousand people, and took your place at one of the tables.
The diet was very much the same as in our camp in Griazoviec, except that it was not so skimpy — almost adequate and the soup base was not necessarily fish (as we were drawing away from the ocean). The second course was invariably the same yellow cereal dressed with some yellow oil, served in small earthenware bowls.
On leaving you had to surrender your dirty spoon at the door by dropping it into a huge box, which operation was supervised by the same officious looking individual.
Sometimes, we were able to get off the train to buy some food or something else at the station. Nearing the end of our journey, at one of the reasonably well supplied stations (I don’t remember exactly which), probably in the Saransk-Penza area, I managed to secure a tin of crab and a tin of beans. The crab was good, at least it tasted good, so did the beans. I ate them with gusto. The next day my stomach felt queasy.
When we arrived at our camp, we were met by none other than Colonel Sulik, whom we had met previously in Giazoviec, as head of the recruiting commission in Tatischevo. He brought with him a team of officers from Moscow for assistance.
Food awaited us. If I remember correctly, it was something like a very thick barley-bean soup. Although my stomach was not feeling right I ate my supper and felt somewhat better.
Leon came and we went for a walk. We walked quite far, beyond the camp. I remember talking about the sensation we felt. This lack of restraint, this physical freedom of a walk, walking as far as we wished.
We were shown our tents for sleep. They were a single layer linen-type cloth.
The next day we were divided into three regimental groups and shown the areas where we were to quarter. I received a posting to the 15th regiment. Men began arriving.
This day I didn’t do much, didn’t see much. I wasn’t feeling well. My stomach wasn’t queasy, it was bad. As the time went by it became worse. Latrines were 400 metres behind the camp (according to Russian health regulations) and it was quite a trip. I made several journeys during the night. In the morning it was worse and the marches to the latrines became so frequent, that there was no longer enough time to return to the tent and be there in time again! In the end I ‘established my residence’ half way between the camp and the latrines.
Finally, I collapsed under a bush somewhere on the way to camp.
I didn’t quite lose consciousness, because I do remember seeing people around me like through a thick fog, being picked up and carried on a stretcher. I was taken to one of the buildings at the edge of the camp — the hospital. The latter was still manned by the Russians.
I found myself in a 3 or 4 bed room (but I was alone) and a Russian siestra (nursing sister) tucking me in bed and informing me that the doctor has been summoned. The doctor soon arrived — another young woman — just as pretty as the nurse. Brief examination — dysentery.
As weak as I was, I could still appreciate beauty, but could not decide which one was the prettiest of the two. Looks aside, they were marvellous professionals: both doctor and nurse. The only problem was to finally win an argument about going by myself to where dysentery patients have to go.
It was with regret that I found out several days later, that they had been replaced by Polish personnel — doctors and nurses. Maybe because I was getting better, I did not receive quite as much attention. I was sorry I had no chance of thanking them, nor meeting them when I was well again.
When I left the hospital, I found the camp almost full of men; my high boots (the only pair) stolen from my tent, so I had to continue walking in wooden-soled sandals; and that I was attached to 2nd company of the 1st battalion of the 15th regiment.
The camp, for 12,000 men, was made up of a wide belt of tents (10 men each) situated along a line of bush and small trees. It faced a very wide, empty parade area. On the right flank of it, opposite our regiment, was a beautifully made athletic stadium with wooden fence all around its over 400 metres perimeter. There were large wooden bleachers on one side. Further to the right was the hospital, a permanent building. Still further and ahead, in a valley, a cluster of buildings, where the divisional H.Q. was situated.
More to the left, closer to the centre, was a wooden and/or steel parachute training tower (not very high, maybe 20-25 metres). And still further away and across a large empty area, a huge wooden hall, where the officers mess for the entire division was housed. Behind the hall and to the left, opposite the 13th regiment — nothing. Steppe, with stands of woods here and there in the distance, the first 3 km. away.
I must explain the organizational terminology, so that there is no misunderstanding of similar concepts based on different terms. The term ‘regiment’, as it is used here, is that of Polish, Russian and even German (and mostly continental) military organization.
The idea of a British, or Canadian regiment is that of an original base, or mother unit, connected with a place of formation in the understanding of the term. It is based entirely on tradition. Consequently, a regiment by its name is usually represented by a battalion; or even such-and-such regiment may in fact be actually only a company of men.
Although in Polish and Russian etc. organizations, traditions and origins are of importance, the word regiment applies to numerical strength and making of a unit. A battalion is never referred to as a regiment. It is only a battalion, whether it is an independent one or part of a larger unit.
Three battalions plus support units form a regiment. Therefore, a regiment in my terminology equals a brigade.
Consequently, when reference is made to a regiment, read brigade (approximately 3,000 men).
We still awaited the arrival of the newly appointed commander of the 5th Division, Maj. Gen. Mieczysław Boruta-Spiechowicz. All we knew of him was that he commanded a Highland division in Poland and that he had been released from Lubianka prison in Moscow. Those who knew him said that he was very energetic and demanding, but fair.
People in charge of large units temporarily administered creditably their sub-units and received and alloted arriving men with dispatch. All supervised and directed by Col. Sulik.
Then the day came when we were told that Gen. Boruta-Spiechowicz had arrived and wanted to meet all officers of the division.
We assembled that afternoon on the parade field closest to the H.Q. The general arrived with a group of senior officers brought with him from Moscow. Col. Sulik reported the numbers present and the general greeted us with the loud “czołem gentlemen”, although officers (without troops) alone were not greeted that way. But he liked this more democratic form, which under the circumstances of our confinement on Russian territory, suited quite well. We learned to reply in a similar manner.
The general was tall, slim, good looking and relatively young. He described the organization of the Forces, numerical sequence and the names of the units. Ours was to be named the 5th Kresowa Dywizja Piechoty (5th Frontier Infantry Division) and its regiments — the 13th, 14th and 15th.
Of the three infantry regiments and the three artillery regiment commanders we knew only Col. Sulik, as most of them had just arrived and were introduced to the assembly right then.
‘WOLVES’ IN TATISHCHEVO
To command our 15th Regiment Lt. Col. Antoni Czesław Tadeusz Szymanski, former Polish Military Attaché in Berlin was appointed. A very wise man and a perfect gentleman, who became beloved by all officers and men. (Later he became head of the Polish Military Missions in France, Belgium and Holland and a major general).
On Tuesday, the 9th of September, 1941 he was introduced to the officers of the division as commander of the 15th. His 2nd in command was Lt. Col. Stanisław Krajewski. The colonel had with him the exact instructions for the organization of the regiment, as it was to be a Russian type, strength and setup. We were to follow this organization of regiments in a light division.
Between that day and Friday, the framework of the regiment was established, so that the first briefing of officers, and then N.C.O.s, took place on Saturday, 13th September. That was the first task, as set by Gen. Boruta. The regiment numbered then about 1,500 men including close to 100 officers.
The next day, Sunday the 14th, the whole division heard Holy Mass celebrated on the parade field. For many people it was the first service since September, 1939.
On the 18th, the preliminary organization was completed.
Days grew shorter and nights colder. At the very beginning of October the work on underground shelters began. Actually they were big holes in the ground to be covered with planks of wood, earth, tents, etc. They were to house 300 men each. Very shortly, these kinds of ‘buildings’ proved to be slow to build and impractical in many ways, such as damp and very difficult to heat.
Then some engineer or sapper devised a small ‘building’ — for ten men — the occupants of one tent.
I remember, all officers and the general converged on the location where the enterprising engineer exhibited his invention. The division commander liked it and instructed us to proceed with such accommodations.
The armament for the division was given priority by the Russians over clothing and food, so we began to receive their weapons. In the matter of a few days we were armed; so much so, that on Sunday, the 5th October, the division presented itself at a field mass — armed, although mostly in rags, often without boots. I managed to borrow a pair of boots from a colleague, who miraculously had two pairs. We, as a whole, looked terrible, yet we felt wonderful — like soldiers.
Through this period a verification commission sat in the H.Q., where everyone holding rank had to go and prove it with documents and/or witnesses.
We were the only division of the Polish Army that was armed, although there were gaps and shortages never filled in. Rifles, pistols, revolvers, small (50mm.) mine throwers and machine guns were in full supply. Divisional artillery had their field pieces, 76mm. — very good (like the British 25 pounders), but not ammunition carriers. Medium mortars (called mine throwers) — 82mm., excellent quality, but no carriers again. Heavy mortars, 120 mm. — never materialized, neither did anti-tank, nor regimental field artillery, nor anti-aircraft guns. Ammunition for the supplied weapons, however, was delivered.
We also received horses at the same time, but they were mostly a sorry lot. Frightened, wild and weak; many had to be literally supported by men when walking from the trains.
Almost immediately with the receipt of weapons our regiment was designated to conduct an exercise with live ammunition as a show for officers and N.C.O.s of the division. A company supported by a two-platoon battery of 82mm. mortars and a battery of light mortars was to attack and capture an objective. All live ammunition.
Lt. Col. Krajewski, knowing me for a regular officer, called and asked if I could take over a battery of medium mortars to conduct a shoot the day after the morrow. I could familiarise myself with the weapons and instructions (written in Russian) that afternoon, the next day we would practice in the field and the day following would be the show. I agreed with some trepidation, because I didn’t know the men whom I would get from the battalions, nor was I familiar enough with the weapons. He said he counted on me and for this reason persuaded our C.O. to undertake the task given to the regiment.
The field practice wasn’t quite to my satisfaction: the preparation time too short, target areas were only generally established, no exact places or distances.
Next morning, with 3,000 spectators watching, we took position on the back slope of a crest, with the rifle company in the valley in front of us. I couldn’t make out given targets. They were well camouflaged. I didn’t think that all my platoon and gun commanders were satisfied on that point either. However, I pointed out directions and fire sectors, and the gun leaders staked the former. It was to be an independent aiming initially.
At this time I learnt a new lesson in range estimating. (We didn’t have a range finder then). Distances don’t seem the same in all places. If you learn to tell the distance on land, in an average terrain, don’t go with this experience into the mountains; the sea is even worse. I was acquainted with those visual illusions, but the steppe was something new to me.
Well, I gave the distance as 1,500 metres and ordered one mortar per platoon to fire, to check directions within sectors and the distance. To my astonishment the shells fell less than half way to the target — both of them (unlikely to be a faulty charge).
Col. Krajewski shouted: “Where are you shooting?!”
Oh, my goodness! Instantly the thought hit me: “rolling steppe — like the sea.” I ordered: “Distance — 3,500! Both platoons — two shells each gun!”
The company was moving forward very nicely. The first four shells hit the target areas well and the next salvo covered them. I repeated it, then ordered the changes of direction to alternative targets (by the simple expedient of moving the sights on the barrels by a few degrees in relation to a fixed aim) and back again. The distance needed little altering.
It all went very well; we had some near and even direct hits. The general thanked me and the platoon commanders and we all went home with a satisfied feeling that our regiment scored well.
Two days later I was called to H.Q. and offered the command of the regimental support (brigade support) 82mm. mortar company. I was told that I would be the only specialist, as neither officers (reserve), nor N.C.O.s were trained in mortars and there were no men found who had served with these weapons.
Of course, there were at least two good crews from the shoot, whom understandably the battalions wouldn’t give away, as they themselves needed them for their own support platoons.
It was a challenge and I accepted gladly. The company was to consist of four platoons of three mortars each, although we started with two (as we were a bit short). Transportation — initially on men’s back, as we didn’t have any wagons or carts, nor horses.
As it turned out, there was one sergeant who served with mortars some time ago, so he was of some help. His talents, however, proved to be invaluable in another direction. He was by trade a bricklayer and stove-builder.
On the 24th October the regiment, now numbering 1,900 heads, received some Soviet help with clothing, namely: 700 pairs of trousers, 200 fufajki (tunics made of padded cotton — in appearance like windbreakers), and 700 winter caps.
On the 25th October, orders came through with my appointment and the formation of the Mortar Support Company, which up to this point hadn’t existed (though contemplated).
On the same day the whole division paraded in front of the Commander-in-Chief, General Anders, who came to inspect our progress.
Two days later the name and emblem of ‘Wolves’ was confirmed on our regiment, which we had chosen as a symbol of tenacity. More importantly we took over the tradition of the 15th Regiment from Poland, which carried this emblem. The term was actually first applied to the regiment in 1920, during the Polish-Russian war. Even Budienny, the Russian marshal, was reported to have used the term: “Kak volki” (like wolves), when his advance was halted by the regiment.
Budienny with his cavalry army was rushing from the south of Poland to save the main Bolshevik armies at Warsaw from destruction. The regiment not only stopped him and held their positions, withstanding over 40 charges, but annihilated several of his regiments and caused Budienny to retreat.
* * *
As a priority I proceeded with the construction of dugouts, as the weather began to threaten. I took it to be a rule that each tent, 10 men, were to make accommodation for themselves. So I instructed the sergeant major to employ the men the best he and they could to ‘house’ them with dispatch. There were about 100 men in the company plus officers.
We didn’t have enough spades and picks and only two axes and one saw. Wood was extremely scarce. The construction could not be very fast, and in the first order ten sleeping ‘houses’ and a company office were started. The sergeant major reported that when the eleven units were dug out and covered, he would take all the company to prepare the officers’ shelter in one day. This was all right with me.
To begin with, a large hole was dug in the ground — a square, the size of a tent and 6-7 feet deep. Then a frame of wooden planks, each about two feet wide, was fastened up and around the edge with openings cut for door and windows (the majority had one window). The next step was to cover the top with trees and planks, branches, straw and earth. This was the ceiling, on which a tent was erected for a roof. The steps had to be made and lowered in the hole, the door frame built and installed. Then, of course, bunks were needed for 10 men, double layers. Stoves were almost exclusively made of half an oil or kerosene drum and chimneys of sheet metal or connected cans.
Wood and boards were a problem. There were none in the neighbourhood. The nearest stand of woods and bush was 3 km. away, but the use of it was forbidden to us. Of course, the settlements in the vicinity of the camp — towards the town, its suburbs, the railway station and the wooden stadium — were possibilities.
The forest for our exploitation (actually a bush with some small trees) called Idolga was 20 km. away. We did use it; but with the horses being in such poor shape, the supply of wood from that source was difficult. Later I will describe our ‘expeditions’ to Idolga.
Bricks were almost unobtainable. The few acquired were ‘appropriated’ from the building sites in the suburbs. Glass panes were something else. Not a single one was issued to the troops, yet every dugout had at least one window, officers quarters and offices had two. The Division had about 12,000 men, ten men per dugout, officers and senior sergeants less. Well, you can see the number of quarters and window panes that had to be acquired. I have never found out where my windows came from.
Once a passenger train was left at a siding outside the station overnight by ‘careless’ Russians. Result — not a single glass pane was found in the morning. Houses were ‘losing’ their windows mysteriously. The Bolsheviks complained, but they had to catch the culprits.
One morning speaking to my men I noticed one soldier standing very dejectedly and crestfallen. On enquiring, I found out that on the night before he went glass ‘hunting’. He started his ‘operation’ on one of the nearest houses, not realizing that a divisional H.Q. was located there and, worse luck, he began on the general’s house! The latter heard a noise outside, stepped out and caught the man in the deed of cutting out the pane.
General Boruta-Spiechowicz was both loved and feared by all. As he told the officers at the first briefing that: “You must keep your men with one hand at their throats, with the other holding their hearts,” so he did — all the division.
The man turned to stone. It was no light matter to run afoul of the general.
I asked, what had the general said.
“He asked my name and said: ‘Well, are you going to steal your general’s windows?’” the man answered.
“What else?” I asked.
“Then,” I said, “I think you may relax!”
We heard nothing more about it.
I remember another funny episode I witnessed.
We were having lunch in the officers’ mess. The big hall was full, but outside there was no one, as the men were having their mid-day meal.
In front of the building there was a load of boards dumped for some alterations. I just stepped outdoors. The whole huge area between the mess and the tents was deserted except for one man, my man, a little Jewish fellow. His back was towards the door and me. He was standing by the pile of boards looking right and left furtively.
Then, suddenly he stooped, grabbed one board, which was certainly longer than himself, and ran. He ran on his short, bendy legs all the 300 odd metres across the parade field at his even trot without having looked back once. I stood there in the doorway roaring with laughter, as he disappeared among the tents. He did not realise that he had been seen — all the way.
So, the construction of small dugouts proceeded, the building of big ones was suspended for the time being. They were later completed and used as recreation and meeting places.
In a few days major work on my company’s dugouts was completed and the sergeant major reported: “Tomorrow, we shall dig yours out, sir and build it. We have wood for it.” That was fine. But words remained only words for the next 3 or 4 days.
The next morning, when I woke up and uncovered my nose, it felt cold. Gathering courage, I pushed the blankets and the great coat off my chest and tried to get up. However, I couldn’t raise my head. I yelled: “What the hell! Who is the joker?! Let go, you damn fool!” Nobody answered. I looked around — no one in the tent. I realized that my hair was frozen to the canvas. I had to extricate myself from that awkward situation, alone.
My companions must have slept with their friends in other units, where the quarters were warmer. Rats!
Water in the bucket was frozen. When I dressed and went out it was really cold. The thermometer at H.Q. stood at -43 centigrade (about 46 Fahrenheit below zero). The introduction of winter had come suddenly with a vengeance. Later I borrowed a thermometer to check the temperature in the tent. It was -25 centigrade (-13 Fahrenheit).
The sergeant major came with the men to start digging at the location designated for our quarters (only a few steps from the temporary tent).
Then, the folly of the delay became painfully apparent. The spades were quite useless. Only two picks and two axes. They had to be used chopping as in excavation, like rock. The ground was by then about two feet deeply frozen. A shortage of tools, frost, deeper and deeper hardening of the earth, resulted in achieving at the end of the day a dent in the ground about 5 x 3 and about 1 and a half feet deep.
My officers, as I said before, found better quarters with their friends. I had an extra canvas dropped over my tent, which I occupied alone for several nights.
The sergeant major looked very guilty and apologetic. The next day ‘excavations’ restarted again, but the frost went deeper. This game continued for a few days until the frost eased off and the pick and axe men reached soft earth and spades took over.
When the digging and construction work was finally completed, the sergeant major came with the stove builder and said happily: “Now, sir, to make up for your inconvenience, the sergeant here will build you a proper brick and clay stove, with channels and chimney and you will have the best quarters in the regiment.”
He sent men out to ‘appropriate’ bricks and other necessary ingredients in the suburbs; they really succeeded (including glass for two fair-sized windows).
When our 5-foot beautiful brick stove was made and dried out properly, we really had the best quarters (as small dugouts go) in the regiment, if not in the entire division.
My wayward officers returned. Now, mornings were pleasant to rise, having normal room temperature in spite of the outside one dropping to -46 centigrade. You could sit in shirt sleeves.
Stalls, mostly open though with roofs, were being constructed for horses at the same time. Again, shortages of materials hampered work and limited success.
Horse provisions were so scarce that the poor creatures began to chew the stalls and swallow sand.
Fodder had to be ‘appropriated’ from the kolhozy and their fields as much as it was possible to find. 2nd Lt. Lech, the O.C. of the heavy mortar platoon, learned that there was a haystack in an open field, 5 km. away. After two nightly expeditions, which he led on horseback and wagons, the whole stack disappeared as if it had never existed.
Provisions for horses were not the only problem in the field of victuals. Food for people was anything but adequate. Soups for men were so ‘thin’ that they looked and tasted like dirty water. The officers mess did not provide much better food; certainly the quantity was inadequate.
The only fairly good thing that the Russians supplied for the mess was about three dozen reasonably pleasant and efficient waitresses, who served us until our own auxiliary services took over.
Food had to be supplemented for both officers and men by hook or by crook. Therefore private enterprise flourished — mostly legitimate buying.
An old lt. colonel of the former Russian army, pensioned in Poland (so we thought), was appointed mess president. He didn’t do much to improve our food, but there was an ample supply of vodka. Unfortunately, Moskovskaya, which was a good white, normal drink, was almost unavailable; what he did obtain in quantity was cheap, not properly refined, yellow stuff, that smelled like methylated alcohol. Most men could drink it, but for me it was poison. After one drink one night in the mess I was so ill the next day, that I thought I would lose my stomach.
Incidentally, the ‘lt. col.’, the mess president, was later found to be a lance corporal. (How he managed to get by the verification commission, I don’t know; they probably took his word for it.)
At his court martial, when asked why he pretended to be a lt. colonel, not just lieutenant (the most popular rank), he answered: “As lieutenant I would have to know something to prove myself, but as lt. col. I could just yell.”
Men and some women arrived almost daily, although most female personnel were directed (whenever that was possible) to the Army H.Q., where the bulk of Auxiliary Services were organized. Our Division had one A.T.S. company (some 120 strong).
The conditions of some men were appalling. Their clothes — they had to be seen to be believed. Many had pieces of automobile tires on their feet wrapped up with sacking and string. Some had no shirts at all. Those who did, were infested with lice. If you have heard of items of clothing ‘moving by themselves’ and think that it is a figure of speech, you have another lesson to learn. Many shirts were thrown outside in 40 degrees of frost to kill lice overnight and they literally looked like moving, living flesh; you couldn’t see cloth for insects; and you would find the thing in a different spot than you had left it. Among the chores featured in daily programs was an hour of lice killing. Men sat around the iron stoves picking the lice off their clothing and dropping them sizzling on the hot metal.
We were allotted time in the town disinfecting station called voshoboynia (a lice-killing establishment), which was part of a public bath house. While men showered, their clothing were deloused. For a long time we were plagued by disease resulting from the conditions of life. Mostly dysentery and typhoid fever. Other divisions fared even worse than we did and thousands of graves were left behind in Russia.
On the 2nd of November the regiment received the first 900 pairs of boots. I was able to secure a pair of my own, returning the borrowed one. We began preparations for a great parade of the whole force on 11th November. The troops proved equal to the task, or better, and the showing of all units was impressive.
Winter was setting in. As temperatures were low and clothing inadequate, training and exercises were designed to last 20-30 minutes, then similar periods warming up in the dugouts, and so on.
The division C.O. organized expeditions for wood to Idolga by large units, every day a different regiment or battalion. The 13th regiment was first to go and the weather was really bad. That the temperature was some 30-odd below wouldn’t be too bad by itself, but that day there was a very strong wind blowing, at times reaching gale force. On return the regiment suffered 30 per cent frostbites.
Our turn came on the 15th of November. The number fit to do the trip (for health and clothing reasons) out of the strength of the regiment was 590.
Gen. Boruta came with our regiment, and led the way on horseback; on return he carried timber on foot like the rest of us. We brought 325 planks. Mostly, trees were carried by two men on their shoulders, smaller ones by a single man. They were mainly used for building purposes, to complete and strengthen our dugouts; some, of poorer quality, for heating.
One day, on meeting the C.O. Col. Szymanski in the mess, I was asked if I would like a transfer to the 6th division, as my uncle, Col. Szafranowski, who commanded the 16th regiment, requested my transfer to him.
“Think it over and let me know by tonight, as I must give your answer to the division commander,” said the colonel.
That was an awkward and disturbing thought. I wanted to go to my uncle very much (families were scarce those days). On the other hand, I didn’t want to leave the regiment and the division; most of my close friends were here and I had the new company to break in.
So I told the colonel that as much as I would like to be with my uncle, I didn’t want to leave the regiment and the division; most of my close friends were here and I had the new company to break in.
So I told the colonel that as much as I would like to be with my uncle, I didn’t want to leave here.
The Colonel said: “That’s good, because the question was a rhetorical one. Gen. Boruta-Spiechowicz said that he wouldn’t let you go. ‘I have one mortar specialist in the division, so cannot part with him.’” Well, that was that! However, I wasn’t the only specialist; I knew several officers who were as well qualified, though I might have had a little more experience.
Totskoye, where the 6th division was stationed, was not very far to the east from Buzuluk, the army H.Q. (We were about 300 miles west from Buzuluk). The place was a hamlet of several wooden and one brick houses, a few miles from the station of the same name. There were 17,000 men in tents on an open field among the bush land.
The so-called Reserve Regiment was in Koltubanka in the forests to the south of Buzuluk in deep snow.
We were separated hundreds of miles from the H.Q. and from one another.
The Russians purposely kept us in the steppes and forests far apart, so that encountering great difficulties, i.e. shortages, and unable to go to assist one another, we would become discouraged, lose heart and disintegrate as one Force. Those expectations were never fulfilled. On the contrary we became more determined and united.
The force originally was to be 44,000 but many more people found their way to the Army despite obstacles made by the Bolsheviks and to the latter’s dismay.
Whilst in Tatishchevo I made three weekend trips to Saratov between October and December and they were made memorable by unusual happenings.
As we were now ‘treasured’ allies and free foreign people, Polish rules applied to us. If one wanted to go anywhere, normal procedure of leaves and passes was observed; it was a matter for our command and our regulations. Therefore, officers and men were able to visit the city.
A friend of mine bought for me a photo camera in Saratov in a N.K.V.D. store for 450 roubles. It was a ‘FED’, a copy of a Leica (as Russians do not conform to patents and copyrights); exactly like the latter, except for Russian inscriptions and quality.
So, I decided to go and see the life in the city for myself.
On a Friday evening with another officer I arrived in Saratov and from the station we went to the opera house, which was reputed to be quite good. The theatre was packed, a great proportion of the spectators were Russians in uniforms. The show was good and the voices surprised me. The first tenor sang very well indeed, except for one hilarious moment (not for the poor singer) when his voice broke down and he croaked like a cock.
At the interval we met two young ladies, who smiled at foreign uniformed men. One of them, a cheerful looking girl had ‘cheerful’ hair — ‘two tone’. Exactly half of its shoulder length was blond, the other — scalp end — dark. We agreed to meet after the show in the hall.
The ‘two tone’ girl, whose name was Vera, invited me to stay in her flat. She was married. Her husband was a lieutenant somewhere at the front. She worked as a factory worker (unequalled) for 140 roubles per month.
The flat — half of a small wooden bungalow with a separate shed-like entrance — consisted of a large kitchen and a medium-size room. Vera and her mother, a charming old lady in her sixties, occupied the kitchen and the room was rented to an actor in the children’s theatre.
Bedding for me was made on a mattress on the floor in the actor’s room.
Vera’s father had died during the revolution; he had been one of the Czar’s senior army officers, or a civil servant (I don’t quite remember which). They had corner ikons in their flat with little oil lights burning in front of them according to orthodox custom. They were the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.
I was received by both mother and daughter with extreme courtesy and kindness. My three weekends spent there were most gratifying. Later on a neighbour, the mother’s friend, a lady 85 years of age, was invited to meet me.
They admired my medallion of the Blessed Mary, being devout, religious ladies themselves. They told me that the Bolsheviks had closed the last church in the city the previous year, converting it into a flour warehouse. It was perhaps strange, yet gratifying to hear one of them say: “God, we have never dreamt that we would see and host a real officer, as our commanders now are more like stable boys.” Or: “We pray for the Germans to come, because it cannot be worse!”
I was to learn many interesting and unbelievable things from the civilian population we met.
I don’t remember what we had for supper that first night I arrived, but it was so scant, so inadequate — unbelievable. Next morning Vera and I went shopping. The meat market was housed in a huge and very high-ceilinged hall, undoubtedly a former church. The stalls were long, but the queues in front of them much longer.
Fortunately, for military men — no queueing. Notices were displayed in every store and market: “Voyennym nie v ocheredie” (For military — no queueing). This served well normally, but sometimes it could land a too-enterprising man in a spot of bother.
Therefore, I marched to the head of a queue with Vera beside me and bought the allowable quantity of meat, which was one and a half or two kilograms (with bones). One kg. was then 60 roubles. Then we bought some cabbage and potatoes and went home for a feast. Naturally, I paid for the food, or it would have been much beyond her pocket.
On Sunday Vera went to work and I took an early afternoon train back to camp. The train was full, but not overcrowded. On a hard wooden bench beside me sat a Russian boyetz (private). Opposite and across the passage were an army captain and a number of civilians. We didn’t speak. I looked out of the window at the bleak country-side, trying, towards the end of the journey, to recognize the ‘home grounds’ in order to disembark.
Not knowing where we were, all little stations looking alike, I asked the soldier beside me if he knew Tatischevo and where to get off for it. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I must have seemed a dummy. The captain from across addressed me in perfect Polish: “Pan porucznik z piątej dywizji?” (Sir lieutenant, are you from the 5th Division?)
When I affirmed, he got up and again in perfect Polish introduced himself as Capt. Andreyev, a liaison officer to the 5th Division and going there now; he would tell me when to get off. Of course, I rose and introduced myself.
We didn’t talk much, but from our limited conversation one could deduce that he was well educated and a gentleman.
Shortly after my retime to camp I found some lice in my shirt. So I sat on my bed naked under blankets whilst my batman took everything, except boots, to the delousing station.
This happened every time I travelled on a public train.
* * *
A few weeks later I made a second trip to Saratov and dropped on my friends unexpectedly, at suppertime. Of course, I was unable to bring any food from the camp. It had to be the other way round: food to be brought into the camp; the rations had begun to deteriorate, as the number of men increased.
The following supper was prepared by the two women: a small saucer, but really small (used in Europe for confiture as dessert with tea) of cubed marrow (vegetable) baked in the oven — no fat or any dressing, just warmed up; four or five square slices of black bread, the size one and three quarters inches sides and one quarter of an inch thick and tea (no milk, of course). For me sugar was offered — half a dozen cubes, the size of a quarter of regular cubes, as we know them.
Vera was going to work next morning for 7 o’clock, I think, and offered to go to the meat market before that. I gave her some money for the purchases. She went at 5 a.m. I was still asleep.
Before noon I went to town to ‘explore’ and to have something to eat. I was surprised to see many queues for ice cream in spite of temperatures of about minus 30 degrees centigrade. The product was uniform everywhere; it was pink in colour, no cream, just frozen lemonade presumably, or so it seemed. The joke was, that the production of ice cream (marozne — frozen) was very much increased in winter, as no trouble or energy was required to make it: just stick some coloured and flavoured liquid outside for half an hour and you have solid ice.
On my previous visit, before I took the train back I had my meal in town, in a stolovaya for junior personnel and everyone. It was not any better than those we attended on the way to our military units. Now, having time on my hands I went about looking for something better. Knowing that there were special stores for foreigners and N.K.V.D., I hoped to find such a restaurant. I don’t think that there were foreign establishments in Saratov.
However, I found a restaurant for N.K.V.D. and senior personnel, so joined the queue, which extended some yards onto the pavement. There were Russian colonels, majors, N.K.V.D. people; the lowest rank I noticed was that of captain.
After a few moments of waiting at the end of the queue the door opened and an old doorman came out to admit somebody in. He was a really old man with a long, white beard in resplendent livery looking like an admiral of the fleet in full gala uniform. He noticed me and walked to me saying that I should not stand in the queue, but follow him. Inside he halted and apologised that all seats were taken.
Approaching one table for four, he spoke something to two men who had about finished their meal, and they promptly left. There remained two female occupants in captain’s uniforms of the medical corps.
The old gentleman came back to me and asked if: ‘Vashe Vysokie Blahorodye’ wouldn’t mind if the two ladies finished their meal at the table with me.
‘Blahorodye’, which roughly translated is ‘Your Worship’, was the title given to all Czarist officers, when addressed by Juniors.
‘Vysokie Blahorodye’ was given to one’s personal superiors (company commanders) and to officers of the rank of at least major. ‘Vysokie’ means ‘high’ — ‘Your High Worship’.
Of course I didn’t mind. Actually, I was even pleased with the company of two pretty women.
The old gentleman undoubtedly was a survivor of the pre-revolutionary era. I was duly installed at the table, being addressed all the time as ‘Vashe Vysokie Blahorodye’. I introduced myself to the two doctors. The doorman, who was more than just that (he must have been the head waiter, or maître d’hôtel), took my order and, between seating people at the tables, supervised everything for me. I felt a little uncomfortable, like a sudden celebrity, self-conscious.
When the doctors had finished their meal and were preparing to leave, I asked if they would like some coffee and cognac or vodka. They accepted and, as my meal was nearly finished, I ordered the same for the three of us. We spent maybe half-an-hour in pleasant conversation and they departed. Now, I don’t remember how much my bill had been, but it was worth every kopek. The food was fair, the company — pleasant though casual.
I left 100 roubles on the table. When the old man saw it, I thought the dear old soul would kill himself running to the door for my coat, pushing aside anyone in the way and escorting me to the street. I was sorry for the old man, who must have been a butler, a senior servant, or an N.C.O. of the Czarist times. That’s why I left him such a large tip.
They still liked titles.
Although the day was cold, the sun shone brightly, so I went for a pleasant walk around the town. Strolling slowly along a wide boulevard away from the centre of the city, I was approached by a small, elderly man. He apologised for stopping me and asked if a private Polish soldier would obey me. Surprised, I said, of course he would. “Because,” continued the man, “there is a Polish soldier around that corner drunk and creating some disturbance.”
My confidence dropped somewhat. Dealing with drunks is almost like dealing with lunatics, not exactly my cup of tea, especially in these hostile surroundings. Well, the word had been spoken; also I could not deliberately leave one of our soldiers in trouble, even that of his own making.
He snapped to attention when I approached. I asked what the problem was. Swaying on his unsteady legs he said that he had made up his mind to kill the Bolsheviks, especially the Jews. Bolsheviks, because they were the worst; he had just started to look for them. An ‘additional weapon’ he had was a full bottle of vodka bulging from his pocket. As a good soldier he gave me his name and his unit (stationed in Tatishchevo).
I said that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish much alone; that it would be much better to go back to camp, report to his commanding officer after a good rest and ask for the regiment’s participation; then the whole division would join him and we all would be able to do a thorough job and get them all. He agreed. Pressing home the advantage, I said that he should go straight to the station and to camp to get ready. Pointing to his pocket I asked him to give me his word of honour not to drink anymore until he got to his quarters. He gave me his word and I believed him. I was quite sure that there would be no problem now.
Unsteadily, but otherwise harmlessly, he lurched towards the station. He arrived ‘home’ without incident and slept it off.
* * *
We spent the evening ‘at home’ talking. The old lady was very interested in Poland and Europe.
Next morning Vera suggest an ‘expedition’ for good vodka. She said she knew a couple of places where one could obtain some. We went to both places, no luck, both out of stock. I was wondering: how could our boy of yesterday have better connections than the natives?
On that Sunday evening I waited for my train at the Saratov railway station. The waiting room was not crowded. I was walking up and down. There was still half-an-hour till train time.
Suddenly, from the corridor opposite me, a group of people emerged, five to be exact: three women and two men. The group looked like a bunch of beggars, especially the men. The women wore familiar winter overcoats — like those worn by ladies in Poland; the remainder of their attire left much to be desired. The men, however, looked really terrible. Fufajka (padded) jackets and similar trousers. One man had a beret on his head, one — a big padded winter cap; both had rugs and pieces of cut tires fastened with strings on their feet.
Two of the group seemed familiar: one woman and one man. The latter stopped in his tracks looking at me. Then he spoke: “Edward, is it you, or a ghost?”
“l am no ghost. Come and touch me.”
Who could be calling me by my first name?
“But we had reports that you had been killed in September.” (1939). Now I recognised him. “Renek?” One of my colleagues and friends, an artillery sub-lieutenant. And, unbelievingly, I recognised one woman — “Mary?!” — my high school colleague from Grodno and later — wife of a fellow officer.
“Do you know where the Polish Army is? We have been travelling for weeks from Siberia by guesswork. Nobody would tell us where to go,” my friends said.
“Of course I know. I am from the 5th Division and will take you there,“ I answered. “You have only 45 km. to go.”
They introduced the other three people to me; a married couple and a young woman (widow) alone. They bought the tickets and, when the train arrived, I escorted them to it. An hour later I took them to the duty officer at the H.Q. for accommodation and enlistment. I felt very happy to be able to have helped them, especially the two friends from my home town.
Strange, small world. They ran into me in the middle of Russia, returning from labour camps in Siberia. They were freed as a result of the Russo-Polish agreement previously described.
And they were so close, yet unaware of the location of our troops. Certainly, Russian officials were not helpful — quite the contrary, as it proved to be in reality.
Now, being free and meeting people — our own and the Russians — we really began to learn about our ‘hosts’.
Poles released from prisons, concentration and labour camps (mostly through pressure applied by General Anders) were usually given some money (a small amount) and let go without being told where to go. When questioned, the answer usually was: “Don’t know.”
In many instances they were deliberately misdirected and sent to south-west Siberia, Kirgiz Land and Uzbekstan in the hope that they would lose themselves.
Why would that be? A reasonable question. However, it is easy to understand it once we realise that the Russians have never been sincere in their agreement, nor as allies. In reality, they wanted all the Polish intelligentsia and people with national awareness to be dispersed and destroyed (which proved a correct assessment after the discovery of the Katyń murder).
We also found out that we were freer than Russian citizens! E.g., I could go anywhere I wanted (just having leave of absence), but Russians couldn’t go further than a 50 km. radius from their place of living without the permission of the N.K.V.D. Neither could they go to Moscow without such permission.
Again the reader may ask “Why?” It’s quite simple. If you were making intensive propaganda about a Russian paradise, you wouldn’t want the foreign tourists and diplomats to meet filthy fyfajka clad people with tires on their feet as an example of ‘happy land’.
We had one real ‘capitalist’ in the third battalion of our regiment. A private soldier, who came from his Siberian trip unlike all others, who were bedraggled and half starved; he was warmly clad, reasonably well fed with 10,000 roubles in cash. His story was most enlightening.
His original travel money had run out quickly. Most of the travelling had been done as a stowaway, but obtaining food was something else. In Russia even money would not always help, if you didn’t have an ‘issue’ of rations. He had just a few roubles left and was so hungry, but no other food was available on the market except soda sweets (candy). He thought he would eat some of those and then let be what might be. He bought some of those with all his money. After unwrapping and eating some, he noticed that the colourful wrapping paper had a big figure “1” on it and underneath written in the Russian alphabet the word “dollar”.
He had a brain storm. He smoothed several of those wrappers and put them in his pocket, hiding the rest of the sweets in the bag. Some time later and further down the line, before boarding the train he approached the engine driver asking: “Do you want to buy some American dollars?” and showed him the wrapper. The man looked and read: “‘One dollar’ — American?”
“Yes, American dollar.”
The driver said he didn’t have much money, but could give half of his dinner: some bread, and about one-half pound of salo (salted pork fat — good to eat raw with black bread) and a little vodka. He said that the conductor, his friend, might want to buy some, if he had any more. The conductor gave him 50 roubles and a free ride on the train.
This was how our friend’s fortunes came about. He was selling those wrappers from central Siberia onwards for food, clothing and money.
Strange, it didn’t occur to anybody to ask why American dollars should have Russian lettering on them. They were fascinated by ‘Dollar’. And the dollar must be American.
When next I arrived at Saratov, winter held a grip on the countryside and meat was 80 roubles per kilogram. The same queues for ice cream. It sent shivers down my spine to see people licking the pink stuff in 30 below zero — anything to put in the mouth.
On Saturday morning, when Vera and the actor left for their respective work places, I stayed at home. The neighbour came and I spent most of the day with the old ladies. They were very kind and blessed me like mothers would their son going to war.
Vera returned and brought provisions she purchased with the money I gave her. We had a good supper and the two of us decided to go to the movies. On the way Vera promised to visit me in Tatishchevo later on.
Unfortunately, we arrived at the cinema in the middle of the show and people were only admitted at the beginning. Because there was a hard frost outside, foolishly we decided to wait in the lobby till the end of the first show to be admitted to the next.
After about 20 minutes a cinema attendant approached us and asked Vera to follow him to the office. She went out of the lobby into a corridor at the side. The attendant returned and went behind his counter.
I waited maybe half an hour. The movie ended. The spectators filed out and the next house went in. I was left alone in the lobby across from the attendant. So I asked him where my friend was. He answered that she was occupied for the moment, but would be out soon.
After several minutes I got up and went into the corridor, into which Vera had been escorted. Walking along by one open door I saw her sitting in front of a desk, behind which sat a man in a soft cloth peaked cap. Her identity and other documents were on the desk. Ah, doprosy (interrogation), because of me, no doubt. I went back to the waiting room. Soon Vera returned. She was visibly shaken. We were admitted to the movies. However, we missed quite a bit and we didn’t enjoy it at all. So, we left before the end.
On the way home Vera told me that she was called and questioned by a N.K.V.D. agent about me, her association with me, etc.
Those idiots were paranoid and had sinister activities on their brains.
She asked if it were not allowed to meet and go out with friendly soldiers. He, of course, answered: “Yes, go out, enjoy yourselves.” Yet he held her for possibly 45 min., drilled her about our meetings and me. A real spy story interrogation. And he told her to tell me that an acquaintance cinema manager wanted to see her.
She was really disturbed being now placed on the N.K.V.D. suspects list. We returned home speculating. Naturally, it would be folly for her to visit our camp. She was going to write me of future developments and I thought that I should not endanger them with my visits, although they were putting the best face on it.
For a short time I forgot that we were living in anything but a normal country. Ordinary human relations had been distorted, ascribed sinister meaning, everything made suspect.
Next morning, Sunday, before Vera went to work, I said good-bye to her, as I intended to remove myself from the scene.
The old ladies cried and invoked the Lord’s protection for me.
I went to town looking for supplies to take with me to camp. The meat market had nothing to offer (only big bones, which were no good to me). In the business section, a very busy place, I found a store which sold rolls, buns, white bread and cheese.
The line was long, mainly women, but I went to the head and was served immediately. I purchased the allowable single transaction quantities (I don’t remember now what they were), probably something like one quarter kilogram of cheese and ten or a dozen rolls and buns.
I was just making my way out of doors when a young Russian lejtenant (sub-lieutenant) approached. Seeing me he came forward, grabbed my hand, shook it, then embraced me exclaiming how good it was to run into a “brother officer of the allied army.” I saw that he was well inebriated. He was a sapper on leave from the front, enjoying his freedom and privileges. Now, he was happy that soon he and I would be killing Germans again, side by side. He swore his friendship to me, his ‘pal’. Then he decided that, as a host in his country, he should help me with provisioning. I said that I had purchased my ration, but he insisted that I accompany him to the store again.
Inside, he went straight to the counter and having bought his due, handed it over to me. No one said anything. It was his right to go in front of all and then do with his purchases what he wanted. But, when he let three women go forward and stepped into the queue in the fourth spot, urging me to join him, women started to protest loudly.
I refused to join him and stood by the door wishing to be able to disappear without offending my newly found friend. Again he bought his goods, pressing them on me. Now, I had my briefcase full of rolls and cheese plus a paper parcel.
However, that was not the end. My friend again let two or three people go forward and stepped in for the third turn. That was too much for most of the people standing far at the rear. Women started yelling and calling him names. I felt guilty indirectly, but nobody seemed to blame me.
When our hero faced the seller, the latter refused to serve him.
My benefactor answered with his charges and demanded to see the manager, claiming his right to buy as many times as he pleased. Then he went behind the counter and to the back room to argue with the manager. The premises were hot, especially at the back. Shortly, the voices became quieter and quieter. My friend was overcome by heat and alcoholic fumes, tipped over behind the counter there and fell asleep. The manager came out and said, it would be best to let him sleep it out on the floor.
I was free to leave for the station.
I did not see Vera nor her mother again. As expected, the former didn’t come to Tatishchevo, nor did she write a letter. However, I had a short message that she had not been questioned nor molested by the N.K.V.D., which offered some reassurance.
Nevertheless, I was apprehensive for my Russian friends, fearing that the Bolsheviks might harass them after we left.
This was a lesson we began to learn, a lesson in private relations in the the light of public policies and attitudes, in the light of the lack of sincerity.
Incidentally, the fears proved to be justified in general terms (although I didn’t learn anything of my friends), as all women who had associated with Polish soldiers were rounded up and sent to labour camps immediately after we left Russia.
Existence in the camp was hungry and cold. Supplies were hard to obtain, wood was needed mainly for heating our quarters as the frost seldom eased off. The supply of wood from the Idolga forest was scant and unreliable due to distance and conditions, so most of it had to be obtained from ‘local sources’, of course, ‘unofficially’.
Training was very slow. I had to instruct the officers and the N.C.O.s first, then supervise every single step in instruction. Every man was to be familiar with the weapon and able to carry out simple firing techniques. Consequently, I did only basics for a long time.
At he end of October a convoy company from the division left for Arkhangelsk and Murmansk to receive and transport uniforms and personal equipment for 100,000 men of the Polish Army (and some supplies for the civilian population), which were arriving from Great Britain by sea.
Some officers returned bringing ‘a few samples’ with a promise of equipment to come.
However, so far nothing else had arrived.
The five people I conducted to our H.Q. from Saratov were all taken care of. The two men joined artillery regiments and the women were enlisted in the A.T.S. The married couple detached themselves somewhat, the other three integrated into our community and formed a circle of close friends. Mary would often come to rest and sleep in comfort in my dugout, when we were away on some task, or with men on exercises, lectures etc. It was a bit like home.
On one of the first few days of December the long-awaited uniforms and personal supplies arrived from Murmansk. In the first instance, every soldier received a greatcoat, a wooden blanket, a pair of woollen socks, woollen gloves, woollen underwear and a belt. Subsequently, the change of underwear and socks, a battle dress, forage cap, boots and shaving equipment were issued.
This was a real and uplifting change: warm, clean clothing — distinctive uniforms — a bridge to Great Britain, our real allies. Some people found little greeting notes in their coats, or battle dress; some found coins; one of my colleagues had a half-a-crown, which with a short note had been placed in a pocket by the hand of a kind woman in a factory somewhere in England for an unknown soldier.
We began to feel really soldiers, really moving ahead towards great things.
Then, unexpected, unbelievable news reached us: General Władysław Sikorski, the Supreme Commander and the Prime Minister of the Polish government was coming from London to talk to Stalin and to visit us. Preparations and drills began. The atmosphere of expectation and elation reigned. We were going to show him that we had not decayed in various camps and places of enslavement, but were ready for all his orders.
By then (mid December, 1941) the Regiment numbered: 99 officers, 581 N.C.O.s (including 310 corporals) and 1,352 troopers for a total strength of 2,032.
General Sikorski actually arrived at Kuibyshev (in Russia), where the Polish embassy was located, on the 30th of November. He was met before that date by Gen. Anders and Gen. Bohusz-Szyszko in Teheran and transported further in a Soviet Douglas aircraft (given for Gen. Anders’ use). His British aircraft followed carrying the General’s party consisting of Gen. T. Klimecki, chief of Gen. Staff; Mr. Gazalet, a British M.P.; Dr. Retinger, liaison with Churchill, and several officers.
Gen. Sikorski and Gen. Anders flew to Moscow on the 2nd of December and on the 3rd and 4th held talks with Stalin in the Kremlin.
It was just as well and in the nick of time. We learnt subsequently, what the Army Command had known all the time, that the Russians did not want our Army to expand beyond the original 44,000; on the contrary, they were pressing for a reduction to 30,000 men. Of course, it would mean starvation for the remainder.
Stalin apparently was very cordial, especially to General Anders, and promised much assistance, e.g., the transfer of the Army to the South.
The new agreement was signed on the 4th increasing the Army to 100,000 — 7 divisions. It was then for the first time that Gen. Sikorski (at the previous suggestion of Gen. Anders) mentioned to Stalin the possibility of the evacuation of the Army to Persia. However, the mystery of the vanishing of 14,500 men, mostly officers, remained unresolved.
The 14th of December dawned. The news and orders flew by that Gen. Sikorski’s special train was on the way to us from Totskoye and the 6th Division.
Then the word became flesh. In the General’s party, apart from the already mentioned people, were: Vice-commissar Wyszyński (deputy foreign minister), Gen. Żukow, Gen. Pavlov, deputy chief of staff, a number of western and Soviet correspondents, including the well-known writer, Ilia Erenburg.
The whole division assembled for a field mass in spite of frost of some -30 degrees centigrade. There was nobody who would utter one word of complaint. Gen. Sikorski spoke warmly to the troops and later took the salute of those parading, with full armament, ‘5th’. The sight was impressive. All dressed in the newly acquired British uniforms, carrying Russian weapons.
In the afternoon the General with his party walked through the camp from end to end stopping here and there to talk to men. Before the evening set in, Gen. Sikorski left for Saratov to spend a night there before departing next day for Teheran and Britain.
We were told that during his train journey he signed promotion lists of officers — prepared beforehand by division commanders. Next day the personnel order was published.
At the same time regiments (brigades) issued promotion orders for other ranks; therefore, all units and sub-units had a good reason for ‘universal’ celebrations, which took place that evening.
The officers mess was packed with a full complement of officers of the division and the merriment was in progress, although food according to normal standards left much to be desired. A great feast or not, drinks were plentiful. Unfortunately, it wasn’t white vodka. It was that yellow, 2nd (or 3rd) grade stuff, which smelt like methylated alcohol. We had no glasses, or course, so we drank from cups.
As I was elected a speaker for the newly promoted, I didn’t drink much. I just had one serving of 1, or may be one-and-a-half ounces. And it was just as well. I was alright for the time being; but when I got back to my quarters, I felt sick. The remainder of the night and all the next day, I thought I would die; the retching and contractions of the stomach were dreadful. That was the first and the last time I tried the ‘yellow’ vodka.
Promotion, desirable as it may be, had some minor drawbacks. As a brigade support company commander, I was not ordered for duty in the regimental H.Q.; only junior officers were obliged to perform such duty. For garrison (divisional) inspection officer I had been too junior in rank, as a 2nd. Lt. Now, as a full lieutenant, I acquired the required seniority and soon landed 24 hour garrison duty. Of course, it wasn’t a great hardship, only a minor diversion from the regular duties.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I was on duty in the garrison inspecting officer’s room (division H.Q.). There was a knock on the door and the duty sergeant entered and reported that somebody wanted to see me. A person dressed in a Soviet uniform of the medical corps appeared. Grey greatcoat and fur winter cap in ‘mint condition’ and all. Only the red star and rank insignia were removed. It was a woman. Surprised, I was about to ask the purpose of the visit, when she spoke in perfect Polish and asked me to enlist her in the Army.
“Aren’t you in the Russian army?” I asked.
“I have been released,” she said.
I asked her what she was doing in the outfit she was wearing. She gave her name and said that she had been a medical student in Lwow and was mobilised into the Russian army. I rose to greet her and she started to peel off her glove.
According to Polish regulations, gloves are part of the uniforms and officers are obliged to wear same when fully dressed. Regulations are quite clear on this point: gloves are not to be taken off for a handshake, neither caps at greetings.
I snapped: “Don’t take off your glove! It’s a Russian custom.”
She looked at me, taken aback. Of course, civilians in Poland didn’t know military regulations and officers were sometimes guilty of transgressing those rules. But, I didn’t quite like it. Was she too much russified?
I explained that I was not a recruiting officer and couldn’t enlist her. Further, I told her that she would have to report to the commanding officer of the women’s auxiliary services, who in turn would recommend (or not) such enlistment to the personnel director at the divisional staff. She said she wanted to report and I pointed out that it was Sunday, but was sure she would find accommodation in female quarters. Then, I instructed the sergeant to conduct the newcomer to the women’s barrack and deliver her into the hands of the commanding, or duty officer.
Later, I learnt that she had been turned down and was located among the civilian population of displaced Poles (looked after by us).
Maybe my instincts were right, as the appropriate authorities didn’t like something about the lady.
Life continued in hunger and cold. Training was minimal. The stadium fence and bleachers — all disappeared, as if they had never existed. A little, civilian, wooden house just outside the camp burned down in the night. We ran down to see if we could help, or save some timber. But the fire was too far gone and the heat combined with the lack of water prevented saving even a matchstick. How the fire started was a mystery. Fortunately no one was hurt.
Christmas Eve approached and with it nostalgic, meagre preparations for Christmas Eve Supper, the most important family event of the whole Season.
With the first star in the sky, companies, battalions and regimental delegations sat at their tables in larger, or smaller accommodations allocated to them.
It was a sad, humble and almost hungry supper. The third Christmas away from our families. The atmosphere was poignant with the power of thought and feelings, the air full with pregnant stillness. There was not much of the merry-making usual for this occasion. The C.O. made a short speech extending greetings to his command. The general breaking of bread with wishes to one another and to oneself followed. A few carols were sung half-heartedly. Some men went to the stables to see their horses and give them a piece of bread, a lump of sugar, a handful of oats, or an extra portion of hay saved for the purpose.
At midnight we went to Holy Mass. There were several celebrated in the camp, in the regimental chapels. Ours was located in a frame summer house in the centre of the regimental tents — probably used by Russian commanders, or for stores.
Fully packed with men it was almost warm inside. We had two civilian visitors from the local population. A middle-aged woman and a boy about 15. They spent the whole service on their knees in front of the altar crossing themselves in the orthodox fashion.
On Christmas morning we had a field mass. The troops marched in ranks. In near-knee-deep snow we celebrated again the birth of Christ in this godless land.
Again we had a Russian civilian visitor from town. An old man, whose white hair, as white as the snow around, tossed in the fresh breeze, knelt throughout the service and received Holy Communion. Asked afterwards why he participated in the Roman Catholic communion whilst obviously being Orthodox, he answered: “God is One!”
* * *
Colonel Szymanski looked at the assembled officers. It was a briefing of battalion and special unit commanders.
“Gentlemen, the Russian authorities complain that Polish soldiers cut trees in the woods below the camp (about 3 km. distant), which is not permitted. Idolga, you all know well enough, is for our use. The division commander said that he had had unpleasant complaints and that the Bolsheviks confiscate tools and demand punishment for the guilty. The stories have it that even junior officers take part in these ‘expeditions’. Many a haystack has disappeared without a trace.”
The colonel paused for a moment, then continued.
“All of you, gentlemen, as commanders with administrative punishment powers, which applies to all company commanders, must not, for obvious reasons, take part in such hunts. In addition, please inform all your officers and men, that of those caught, the guilty ones will have to be punished; you will also lose your saws and axes.” The brigadier smiled knowingly. “Make sure, gentlemen, that no one is complained about again.” His face expressed what his words could not state. The murmur went round the hall. I looked around, all eyes signified relief. We understood.
Without that neighbourhood forest we would not be able to survive. Considering frost and deep snow now covered the ground, the forest was definitely too far for exploitation. The dramatic march of the division by regiments, with the general himself leading, was helpful at the beginning with the initial stage of building the dugouts, and increased morale much more than the stock of wood.
On return to my company I issued instructions. “If they catch you, you will be punished, besides what will you do without axes and saws?”
It was Sunday, some days after the briefing. The sun was shining. The day beautiful though cold. The whole camp covered in a deep, white blanket of snow looked like an enchanted land. Through the window of the warm dugout, of course
The knock on the door. Officer cadet Sobolewski entered and reported that a Soviet patrol had caught two of my privates with an axe and a saw in the ‘forbidden forest’; they would write a report to the division commander. The report was, of course, small potatoes, but the loss of an axe and a saw — that was a tragedy.
Immediately I sent sub-lieutenant Klimcewicz and cadet Sobolewski (both spoke Russian well) to the Soviet command to try to recover the tools. We were lucky. After giving the Russians some hard luck, soapy story and a promise of punishment, my two messengers brought the axe and the saw back.
A few days later an order came from divisional H.Q. to our regiment instructing us to punish the guilty and to report. The latter task fell on me.
The sergeant major brought the two ‘offenders’ before me.
“What have you to say for yourselves?”
“Nothing, sir. Guilty,” both replied.
“You know that I must report your punishment to the regiment command, to go all the way to the Bolsheviks. A severe reprimand for both! Sergeant major, do not enter them into the records!”
The latter smiled. “Yes, sir.”
Now, the official part over, I turned to the troopers: “Listen, Joseph and Francis, if they catch you again, I’ll break your heads (privately, of course). or anyone else’s for that matter.”
They grinned showing their teeth and I continued: “To let yourselves be caught — Is this your field training for future battles? How do you expect to cut wood in the future without an axe! Your fault is letting yourselves be caught! Well, you may go.” Francis and Joseph seemed saddened. “They won’t catch us again sir.” I said, “Good, I don’t want to know anything about it anymore,” and closed the conversation.
We wrote a report about the ‘severe reprimand’. The Russian authorities were satisfied. With us it didn’t count, the records didn’t disclose anything.
And we had quite an adequate supply of wood. How? I didn’t know officially. One thing was very clear, however. It was the brotherhood of all, the caring among all ranks, the highest morale in an united Army ever achieved before (or, for that matter, after).
The expected transfer to the south of Russia was being delayed.
Our conditions did not improve. Keeping stomach pangs at bay and keeping warm were the main problems. Frost was increasing. The temperatures were dropping as low as -52 degrees centigrade (below).
When the sun was shining the world looked bright, though hostile, on the outdoors. But when heavy snowfalls happened and gale-strong winds, then the world looked really black.
There was a bit of horror and excitement. A young solider, a lad of about 17, recognised in one of the enlisted men a Ukrainian bandit who had murdered his whole family in 1939. After the Bolsheviks invaded Poland in September many Ukrainian chauvinists — bandits in the south eastern part of the country — formed armed bands, sometimes to help the Russians, often just to rob and murder Poles, as there was no army to give protection. So it was in this case. The young lad survived, because the bandit couldn’t find him when he shot the rest of his family. Later on the Russians indiscriminately deported them both to Siberia.
The court martial found him guilty of multiple murders and condemned him to death. The young surviving member of that family, now a soldier in the resurrected army, was the first volunteer for a firing squad.
Men still came. So did dysentery and typhoid fever. And started to take their toll. The influx of men turned into a trickle. If the Russians were sincere a strong, big army, double the size of the existing one, could have been formed. However, they did not want that. (It became quite clear after the discovery of graves in the Katyń forest and bodies in the White Sea; the destruction of Warsaw in 1944, when the Russians just stood watching and refused permission for the allied aircraft making drops to the city to land on the Russian-held airfields to refuel before returning).
Our authorities endeavored to find out the extent of the seizure of Polish people. Pressed by Gen. Anders, Fiedotov of the N.K.V.D. admitted to the deportation of 475,000 Poles. But it turned out that in this figure he didn’t count those caught crossing the border, neither soldiers taken prisoners, nor those arrested for political reasons. Further, excluded from the count were Ukrainians, Byelorussians (white), Lithuanians and Jews, all of whom the Russians regarded as their own (although they were Polish citizens).
After many months of intensive investigations and interviews the number of deported Polish citizens was established at 1,500,000.
This was confirmed subsequently by the intelligence service from Poland itself.
* * *
At last the orders came to prepare for the journey. The regiment was to be moved in three transport trains. Supplies for the troops were issued for 10 days and for the horses for 5 days.
My company was to go in the third echelon with the III battalion and special units.
The first transport started loading in the late evening of 22nd January, 1942, with temperatures down to -46 centigrade below, and left Tatishchevo on the next morning.
About five days later the second echelon departed and our turn came on the 2nd of February. The frost held all the time, although the sun shone brightly, when we marched to the station. The train consisted of some 50 box cars and their metal parts and our own weapons and equipment were a real problem for hands, so much so, that several fingers had to be amputated.
I remember I had come upon a small accident. One man trying to close doors with numb hands smashed the heavy portals on two of his fingers. The first joints were as flat as paper. I took him to the doctor, who had already held his surgery in one of the box cars. He just cut those crushed bones off with scissors.
The loading of men, horses and equipment completed, the numbers were as follows: 38 officers, 891 other ranks, 250 horses.
After five months we were leaving Tatischevo for the last time. The train was taking us east. Having enough room in the car and a good company of friends with a certain feeling of elation and expectation, the journey was quite pleasant.
Soon we were crossing the river Ural, the geographic boundary of Europe. Asian, west Siberian steppes replaced the similar-looking steppes of eastern Europe.
We stopped for our first cooked meal at Aktyubinsk and from there we swung east for Chelkar (the second meal stop), followed by Korabinsk, Kryl, Orla and Turkestan, all of the enormous Kazakh S.S.R.
It was interesting to watch those hundreds after hundreds of miles of nothingness. Just long dried, yellow grass in places protruding through snow, in most areas now with no snow at all. Occasionally, we passed some hamlets and people, but between major stations, there was little to see. Sometimes the train halted in an open steppe for 20-30 minutes so that we could pay tribute to natural needs.
At one such stop I noticed some people working in the fields several hundred metres apart and about one half km. from the line. There was no trace of snow. I walked from our group to one figure some 300 metres distant. It was a fairly young woman. I greeted her and we started talking. I was interested in her work, conditions and pay. She looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot. I told her briefly about us and she said she worked for the local kolhoz (collective farming establishment), which could not be seen from that spot, preparing the soil and planting. Her daily wages were three quarters kilogram of bread, about 40 grams of salt, one onion and 36 kopeks. Salt was often in arrears, bread was often stale, even mouldy.
* * *
The journey was rather slow; apart from stops, the train was not very fast. Sometimes it moved so slowly that men would jump out and run beside it for exercise and to keep warm.
This had another good effect. Often along the rail line, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but frequently outside a settlement or at the stations, Polish civilians waited for their chance. Men, women and children were pulled into the slowly running train; or at the station officially, or unofficially, incorporated into our transport.
Although the civilian population were to be looked after by the Polish embassy with its scattered posts and the Russian authorities, their fate was very sorrowful and the army tried to help as much as physically possible.
Officially, according to the agreement Gen. Anders forced upon the Russians, soldiers’ families were to go with the army; lists of these people were given to them. There were cases of instant, non-consummated ‘marriages’.
Normally, battalion or special unit commanders were empowered to enter names on such lists. There had to be some evidence or acknowledgement of relationship.
At one of the stations, where civilians were looking for their soldier relatives and the latter for the members of their families, a trooper ran to the train calling to his friend, Kowalski: “John, there is Mrs. Kowalski looking for her husband.”
Though Kowalski is a popular name, John ran out, his hopes awakened. However, one glance at the woman was sufficient to shatter his hopes. She was a wife of some other Kowalski. He stood there looking at her, his eyes filling with tears.
Lt. F. Chyczewski, in charge of a special unit, was there preparing an official list of relatives. He asked: “Well, Kowalski, speak up; is this your wife?”
The man turned briefly to the officer and said: “Yes, sir, — wife.” Then without another glance, he turned and strolled away crying. This, of course, was done so that the poor woman could be placed on the list and become eligible for evacuation.
Naturally, official placement or not, great numbers of people were taken onto the train and later the troops looked after them, soldiers willingly donating parts of their rations, clothing and money for their upkeep.
Our transport swelled. Box cars were emptied to make room for these poor people. Soldiers had to squeeze in their bunks.
At one such stop I conducted three young women, who had no relatives, with two children about 9-10 years old to our train and admitted to one box car already filled to capacity with civilians. We had ‘some problems’ with our own politicians and diplomats, with the Russians and even our own general staff (as we learnt later) but thanks to the greatness of such a man as General Anders, truly the man of the hour, most or our ‘transgressions’ bore good fruit and most of these people were saved. And God knows, they were a drop in the ocean.
The next stop was Tashkent, a big city over the Uzbekistan border, or Uzbek S.S.R. We stopped on the outskirts of the station in the goods and siding area of this huge railway junction. We didn’t see anything of the city, only miles upon square miles of the tracks and some distant station buildings.
It was announced that the stop would be a lengthy one, about five hours or so. As it was around noon we didn’t expect to be on the move before 5 p.m. Further, the liaison officers (who travelled in the transport command car) found out that food (for the soldiers only) would be served several times in rotation for so many cars each turn.
A number of people went to town in search of liquid refreshments and to see the sights (in that order). Most of us, who stayed behind, chipped in with roubles, so that we expected our ‘entrepreneurs’ to return with heavy loads.
We were in good spirits. The world began to look bright. The sun was shining. It was warm. One walked outside without an overcoat. All car doors and windows were open.
Yes, that was the reason our authorities pressed the Russians for the transfer of the army to the south. Climate. What a difference to what we had had just a week ago. Yes, there was some snow and frost at night, but quite bearable.
In the afternoon the ‘expeditions’ began to return. Our hopes and faith in them were justified. They brought a variety of good drinks: vodka, cognac, Russian wines and spirit — 95 percent (190 proof). We made some jolly potent and tasty mixtures and most of us really ‘had a ball’.
However, there was one sad note as a result of the merriment, I suppose. One soldier, as a matter fact my artillery friend’s batman, returning along the track from a visit to another car, walked into a shunting locomotive and was killed instantly.
It wasn’t far from our car and we heard the commotion. However, nothing could have been done for him and the surgeon pronounced him dead. The Russian authorities took the body to the city morgue before we left in the early evening.
The last meal stop on the road was Kokand and then just over the border into Kirgiz S.S.R. — Dzhalal Abad, our destination.
We arrived there before sunset in mid-February. There was light frost and some snow on the the ground. We were met at the station by our C.O., our own staff officers from the division H.Q. and some Russian liaison and local officers.
We learnt that the first transport of the regiment had two accidents. First, the train parted, the couplings breaking; second, a collision with a coal train. Although 11 cars were damaged, 4 heavily, miraculously there were no casualties.
Then we were assembled around the receiving officers on the platform and informed about the conditions. We were told that the local population consisting of Kirgiz and Uzbeks were half-wild and hostile. Officers must always carry revolvers, other ranks in no less than two carrying at least bayonets, if not rifles, and never to walk at night.
For the night we were conducted to some barns; the occupation of quarters to be on the next morning, as they required preparation. I don’t remember the exact arrangements that were made for our provisioning that night and for the next breakfast.
In the morning guides arrived and lead various units to their respective areas. When we came to ours, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A part of a huge, flat, open field outside a village with nothing. It was covered with a thin layer of snow, through which lumps of black soil protruded. A pile of tent canvas and poles was dumped on the ground, which started to become soggy with melting snow as the temperature rose in the sunshine. The ground on which we started to erect tents soon became very muddied. (Of course, winter was not yet through with us, as we still had many cold, frosty nights with snow to come).
I and the officers of my company were allotted quarters in the village itself, in a house of an Ukrainian settler family. The sergeant major with the office of the company and a few senior N.C.O.s also moved into a permanent house in the village. The rest of the company — in tents.
We had a nice, clean and spacious room. Our hosts, a middle-aged woman, her daughter of about twenty, and a boy of 12-13 years were very nice and obliging. The father was somewhere serving in the Russian army.
They came from the Ukraine, deported from there in 1929 during the massacres and ‘clean up’ operations following Ukraine’s acts of defiance, conducted by the Bolsheviks under Kruschev’s supervision and chairmanship.
Dzhalal Abad, a city of medium size, sprawling but otherwise nondescript, was the seat of a shire in Kirgiz S.S.R. just a few miles east of the Uzbek S.S.R. border.
It wasn’t a city as we know cities, with life, hustle and bustle, noise and movement. It looked sleepy, as if time stood still; rather like a huge village. Most of its houses were wooden, single story, lining both sides of wide streets. A few higher brick or stone buildings belonged to officialdom.
Our 5th division H.Q. was situated midtown in a complex of stone buildings surrounded by a high stone wall with a big iron gate leading to the courtyard. Another large complex of buildings at the outskirts of town was given to the division to house a hospital.
The latter came more and more in use, since epidemics of dysentery and typhoid fever started to increase. The Women’s Auxiliary Services company was stationed by the H.Q., and there were also several special Units.
Infantry regiments were scattered in a large area around the city and to the south-west of the town all divisional artillery and the regimental field batteries were concentrated in a large camp, under canvas.
* * *
We built our tents in a shallow sea of mud, which during the night would harden, to become slush in the warm sunshine again. It was dismal.
However, if you managed to extricate yourself mentally from your miseries and a spirit of adventure and travel possessed you, you could see beauty in the surroundings as well.
The village to the north, though comfortable looking, was nothing remarkable, but the view to the east, the grandeur of the open plain and the distant mountains, was something else. The plain stretched for about 50 kilometers in its white, sparkling vastness, darkened here and there by now-flowing streams, or a clump of vegetation; or, as I was looking this time, a single elk gazing miles and miles away. At the other end of the plains the foothills start rising, till the horizon was closed with the snowy chain of high Tien Shan mountains, 80 km. distant. The air being so clear and visibility so good, you wouldn’t judge them 30 km. away.
People — some Europeans, like Ukrainians, but mostly Kirgiz, rather somber-looking individuals, men carrying long, curved sheathed knives in their belts. However, we had no problems with them at all.
I asked my landlady if they were satisfied being here, or would like to go back home. She said that they were resigned and living from day to day as in expectation. Of course, they would like to return, but they were permanently resettled and were not allowed to move. They were free, but only where they were; for any travel further than 50 kilometers special permission of the N.K.V.D. was required. Although the boy did not remember the Ukraine, he said he felt as his mother did.
I went to see my friend Mary and some of her colleagues with whom we had formed a small circle of close friends. She had joined the nursing service and was taking a course, doing practical duties in the hospital, which was now full.
Medical and nursing staffs were overworked, but didn’t spare themselves in their effort to save lives under difficult conditions and shortage of medications. People continued to die. Typhoid fever was the killer.
I was told an absolutely incredible story, a true story, hard to believe. One physician, a young doctor, whom I had known from prison camp times, fell stricken by diseases, three of them at once: typhoid fever, dysentery and pneumonia. He was for a few days quite unconscious. His colleagues had given him up, but didn’t stop trying, neither did the devoted nurses. Doctors said: “He won’t survive, it’s only a matter of time.” Nurses said: “Maybe. We shall see if God helps us.” They stayed around the clock for two weeks and more.
It was a wonder, maybe a miracle, this man who didn’t spare himself before, was spared by Him, Who rules the destiny of man. He recovered.
* * *
We established our daily routine of clean up, exercises, dissemination of news regarding forces, the war in general and the participation of the Polish army, navy and airforce in the fighting in the West. There was one briefing of all officers of the division conducted outdoors by its commander in Dzhalal Abad.
We were clothed well now. In British uniforms we looked prosperous in comparison with the not-so-distant past. Food, however, was a different and depressing problem. It became scarcer all the time and the expected British supplies hadn’t reached the division.
We could buy a little bread in the town or villages from unofficial vendors, some seeds or nuts. So in that respect, we were a little better off.
* * *
A pleasant diversion, compatible with our calling, was gunnery, the firing of rifles and mortars at the ranges. They were improvised by various units, often to please themselves in the vast predominantly empty terrain. This, apart from the great plains and valleys, was hilly, generally rising to the east. Before it reached the actual foothills of high mountains, it displayed a variety of hilly and mountainous terrain in all directions. Therefore, there was no problem to find a place for a rifle range. We had even no trouble at all finding firing ranges for mortars a few miles from the village.
Once we went out into the mountains to do some training with live ammunition and fire a few rounds of mortar ‘mines’. There was no snow in the hills, the ground was covered with some thick, low vegetation like sage and grass. We found a nice spot of three elevations. We were on one, where the mortars were positioned, then a gentle rise and a long, some 1,000-1,200 meters of level ground; this was followed by a decline into a very gentle valley and a rise to a flat hill some 2,000 meters distant. Nobody in sight. Perfect.
The crews were just ‘cutting their teeth’ on live ammunition shooting, therefore it was a very simple, one gun, single point firing on that hill 2,000 m. away.
We had a break for lunch and, when we resumed our exercises, we found that a flock of sheep, probably 20-30 had wandered (as from nowhere) grazing on to our flat ground, some 800-900 metres away from us. We looked for a shepherd to tell him to get out of the firing range. But there was no human in sight. The sheep seemed determined to remain.
In these circumstances I decided to resume firing over the sheep. The distances were absolutely safe. Safe, if the equipment were faultless. One of the shells landed squarely in the middle of the flock. Oh! First, a thought of trouble about killed or wounded animals, the unpleasantness. Now, check the gun setting, the elevation, then the charge. Everything correctly done, yet the shell fell half-way short. Next thought, nobody in sight, we may have some free meat. I sent several men and went there myself to see the damage. Well, except that the sheep were a little more scattered, there was no dead, no wounded animal; in fact, there was not a single drop of blood on the ground anywhere. That was that! No trouble, but no meat either. Nevertheless, incredible! A 82mm. piece, larger than field artillery — and nothing; maybe thick, woolly coats helped somewhat and hid the marks, but that’s no protection. Strange.
* * *
On my next visit to the hospital I was told that Mary was now among the patients. She was stricken by typhoid fever and was in the infectious diseases ward she had been serving.
I persuaded the ward and room sisters to let me in to see her.
I was wondering about her hair, because typhoid patients’ hair was cut off to the skin to prevent it from falling out.
She had beautiful long, black, strong hair, reaching, when loosened on her back and shoulders, to the knees. She still had a knot tightly made by her nursing friends.
I visited her several times, often ‘unofficially’ through the back of the fence that separated isolation wards from ‘clean’ areas.
She recovered fairly quickly and during her convalescence the hair (which weakened considerably) had to be cut short (not completely off as usual) to the shoulders in order to reduce the strain on the roots.
* * *
Once a week the company went to a bath house in town for showers and disinfection of clothing. It was a two-hour march each way, so a day or a night was taken by this. The facilities operated 24 hours a day, so one’s turn could come at any time.
On February 24th, after early breakfast, the company left for town, for ‘clean up’ operations under a junior officer. Most officers availed themselves of the opportunity, but usually one was designated to lead.
As the regiment’s quarters were scattered over a radius of 25 kilometers and the companies had no telephones, communications were slow and somewhat awkward. It was especially detrimental to separated small units, as ours was.
The regiment was ordered into the field on four days divisional manoeuvres. It was, with divisional support units (strengthened brigade), to conduct operations and several attacks with all live ammunition shooting.
We were not aware of it all. The orders reached me at mid-day (H.Q. knew of our showering in town) to catch up with the regiment, as soon as I assembled my company. I was to come with full armament, and live ammunition for all guns. A number of wagons (with horses) were left behind for transportation. I was given rough directions to the first objective in the region of the ‘Eagles’s Roost’ at the other side of town, perhaps 10 miles into the mountains.
The sun was on its way down, when fully loaded we started nearly a day late after the regiment.
The weather was kind throughout and, although there was frost and 2 to 2-and-a-half feet of snow in the mountains, the winds had died down and it was possible to spend nights under the sky without too much hardship.
Most of the night and the next day we plodded forward resting sporadically. Since on the other side of town we came across the track cleared by several thousand people, the going was safer and a little faster. On the night of 25/26th we slept among the rear echelons of the advancing troops and the spectators.
* * *
Now, the regiment advanced on a 2 km. front and I had to find the route taken by the C.O. to report. By the evening (26th) I caught up with supporting artillery, from whom I learnt the troop disposition before the main objective and the whereabouts of the H.Q.
It was still some miles to go, now across the terrain. I left my company in the valley instructing my 2nd I.C. to rest the men for an hour or so, then leave the horses and wagons below to carry the mortars and ammunition into the high terrain and to follow me. Taking only my batman, corporal observer and a runner with me, I set off to find the colonel and to report our arrival.
I found him around midnight. He was pleased to see me and asked about the men. There was going to be briefing and final disposition of forces after sunrise. So I had enough time to do the preliminary survey of the terrain for dispersal of my platoons and for a rest. I sent the runner back to the company to guide them here to us.
Just before dawn Lt. Zajdowski reported the arrival of my company. I instructed them to disperse into platoon preliminary areas and to rest awaiting further orders after the briefing.
After dawn hot food arrived. We were supplied by the regimental quartermaster, which at this time was a most welcome change.
Shortly after that orders came to report for briefing to the C.O.’s observation point. There was the colonel commanding artillery with his staff officers, battalion commanders, myself and some other special detachment commanders.
The infantry battalions received their orders first as to the positions, sectors and objectives, enemy, etc. Then the C.O. asked the artillery commander what support could they provide and, after receiving their replies, he gave final instructions to them and also to me, designating targets he wanted covered by my platoons. Timing and other signals settled, we dispersed to carry out our orders.
First I surveyed the targets and the positions of my own troops, then went to my platoons in turn, giving the exact orders for positions, sectors of fire and targets.
The platoons were placed on the back slope of the ridge, where observation points were located. First platoon: on the right flank. Second and third: in the centre behind the H.Q. Fourth: on the left, at a lower level. At any one time I could see three platoons at once.
Forward battalions moved to their attack position a few hundred metres before and below us. Then the third battalion advancing in reserve, moved in on the left flank and took positions with the first line. That caused congestion.
I issued orders to the platoon commanders to have all mortars sighted onto their targets and have directions and distances verified by practice single firing. For safety reasons I instructed them to fire not only a leading mortar in each platoon but all guns — at least one shell. And I saw them do just that. So, all twelve mortars were set verified correct. Of course, each battalion had two mortars. Therefore I couldn’t answer for those six.
All was set and we all awaited an order to commence firing. The barrage of heavy weapons, artillery medium mortars and heavy (had we any of them) and medium machine guns was to last some minutes, before the infantry would attack.
At last a green rocket went up. The order to fire. Artillery roared behind us and a great swoosh of shells overhead. My order was to all platoons: “Three shells per gun, rapid fire. Fire!”
At a long distance, with rapid firing one can easily have three shells per gun in the air one after another; it would even be possible to get four, before they started landing and one could observe the result.
Well, it was noisy: 36 artillery pieces in the first salvo alone, my 36 shells in three salvos, 12 or 18 battalion mortar shells and some 20 machine guns.
All first salvos landed on targets. The second mortar allotment, one shell, landed squarely among the left wing troops congested on the starting position, where two battalions overlapped. The third, which, of course, could not have been stopped, was all on target again.
Immediately red rockets from the H.Q.’s advanced post and from the stricken troops went up, also orders by telephone and by word of mouth were given. ‘Cease fire!’ the high efficiency of the whole brigade group was shown by the cessation of all firing in less than three minutes.
Surgeons and stretcher bearers converged on the area of the accident. A stray, short shell — 18 wounded, 3 seriously.
The wounded were evacuated a few miles by stretcher, then by machine gun horse-driven carriers about 10 miles along a mountain road to the hospital in Dzhalal Abad.
The infantry units were ready and awaiting orders for the assault. However, the exercise was not continued any further, as it was in the final stage anyway and the objects of the lesson had been achieved.
The manoeuvres were being observed by Gen. Anders, all officers of the entire division and some officers of the Soviet general staff with the Gen. of the N.K.V.D., Zukov, who arrived for the purpose.
All officers were called to the last observation point for briefing and appraisal of the exercises. The troops were withdrawn and sent with one officer per battalion to the quarters for a well-earned rest.
First, Gen. Boruta-Spiechowicz commented on the exercises and the accident. Then, one Soviet colonel was so extravagant in praise, not finding one single thing to criticise in this ‘perfection’, that it was a bit embarrassing to listen. Gen. Zukov was more restrained, he had good words to say about the troops and the commanders, but he also pointed out an obvious mistake: too great a congestion of troops, two battalions occupying a position of one; this resulted in heavy casualties. Gen. Anders recognised good and weak points, the need for the dispersal of troops in the face of enemy fire; but on the whole he was pleased with the state of preparedness and the spirit of the 5th.
Fortunately all wounded recovered completely, even the serious cases, although it was touch and go in one instance. An eighteen-year-old soldier was badly hurt and Gen. Boruta provided him with special food rations and fruits out of his own pocket to build the boy’s strength up (as the hospital didn’t have proper supplies).
* * *
Subsequently there was an inquiry into the accident. It was a mortar ‘mine’ all right, just as in the case of the sheep incident, only how much more dramatic.
I gave written testimony specifying the ring sectors. It looked that the accidental shell came from beyond my platoons’ boundaries and from a left wing battalion. But, be as it may, nobody was found guilty of negligence. All my crews and commanders were without a fault, so were, I presumed, the other crews. Faulty charges, where powder sacks obviously had not burnt thoroughly. In my experience with Russian mortars, there were two cases.
We returned to our quarters tired, but well satisfied, though saddened by the accident.
At this time there happened an amusing and rather pleasant incident, which could be, I suppose, classed under the heading: “He, who laughs last!”
My sergeant major celebrated his birthday. Or rather it was his name-day. We celebrate the day of a saint — your patron by name.
He decided to give a big party, to which I was invited, as most of the N.C.O.s of the company were, but not any of my officers.
The party was held in the living quarter next to the company office. The hosts acquired a large quantity of spirit, out of which numerous bottles of coffee vodka was prepared. The food, as for those hungry days, was magnificent and plentiful. I marvelled that they managed to get it. Of course, it must have taken quite a time to accumulate those various ingredients.
Now, I don’t remember all the dishes. The main course, however, was an excellent Lithuanian bigos (sour cabbage dish with a lot of meats in it, cooked together for a long time — preferably over the space of three days).
The cook of all those delicacies was a woman, one of the Polish displaced persons living in the same house. Naturally, she was invited to the party and served the food. The sergeant major supervised his bar ‘crew’ and glasses were never empty. He would himself keep my glass refilled, proclaiming that its bottom must never be seen and drank to me time after time.
Staff sergeant Grybel (next in line in seniority) was a middle-aged man. He was a reservist and didn’t know one proper command, but he had a knack in leading the men and an ability to get things done. Altogether a splendid and valuable man.
He laughed and said to the sergeant major: “Watch it, the time will come when our C.O. will ask for more drink and there won’t be any.” I didn’t quite, at the time, understand the meaning. I had a strong head and could ‘put away’ quite a bit. True, between me and my pen and paper now, I cheated a bit and disposed of two or three glasses under the table, when nobody was watching (and by then no one had good vision); but I drank a lot feeling quite all right.
Soon there were only two sober heads at the table — Sergeant Grybel and myself. The lady had departed to bed. One fellow snoozed under the table, some on the table, two or three on their bunks. The sergeant major staggered glassy-eyed with the empty bottle in hand. Seeing him I asked, “Chief, pour me another drink.” He went in search of another bottle, but all were empty.
Later I learnt that my sergeant major “wanted to see how the C.O. would look drunk.” Poor soul, he was disappointed. However, it helped, I think, to further cement the relationship between us.
The feast which a few of us had just enjoyed notwithstanding, the daily diet was meagre. The rations were quite inadequate and we were constantly hungry. Yet men willingly gave some of their food to our civilians in the area.
Russians were in difficulties, it was true. Food wise, they always were, because of huge land masses lying idle. Their production was too small, due to the economic system, non-conducive to effort. Then, the tremendous distances and the inability (proverbial outside Russia) to organize. They received not only munitions, but food supplies from the U.K. (I have seen a Russian soldier opening a can of English bacon). What was more important, the Soviet authorities did not really want to help us. After all, they had always wanted Poland conquered.
Due to a staggering number of deaths the strength of the army decreased, and at the beginning of March was about 70,000 men. Yet the chief quartermaster of the Red Army reduced the rations for the Polish Forces to 26,000. It is also important to stress that calorie-wise a Soviet ration equalled about one third of the British one. That meant starvation.
Gen. Anders sent telegrams to both Stalin and to Gen. Sikorski, we learnt later. Stalin replied promising 30,000 rations after 20th March and invited Gen. Anders to a conference. Gen. Sikorski notified our H.Q. of the dispatch of 2 million rations for us from Britain.
The conference in Moscow produced some results: Rations for full strength (which began to increase again) to the 20th of March, after that — 40,000.
The General asked again for the missing 15,000 officers. Stalin said he had no knowledge of their whereabouts.
One more positive note for us was the laying of the foundations for our evacuation to the Middle East and Stalin’s initial orders. This we learnt in due course.
The Army was scattered over a very large area, bigger than previously in European Russia. The roads were partly serviceable and highways did not exist. For long distance transportation only railways could serve. This, of course, did not connect all localities, which had to be supplemented by local roads.
The army H.Q. was situated in Yanghi Yul, about 6 miles from Tashkent, Uzbek S.S.R. Other army units were located as follows:
5th Division — in Dzhalal Abad area in Kirgiz and partly Uzbek S.S.R.;
6th Division — in Shachrizyabs near Samarkand, South Uzbek S.S.R.;
7th Division — in Kermine, north of Bukhara, Central Uzbek S.S.R.;
8th Division — in Czok-Pak in Western Kirgiz S.S.R.;
9th Division — near Ferghana in Uzbek S.S.R.;
10th Division — in Lugovoye. South Kazak S.S.R.;
Artillery Centre — in Karasu, Tadzhik S.S.R.;
Army Training Centre and Engineers — Vrevskoye, East Uzbek S.S.R.;
Centre of Armoured Forces — in Otar, West Kirgiz S.S.R.;
Army Depot — in Guzar, South Uzbek S.S.R.
We were 100 miles from the Chinese border and some 600 miles from our Army H.Q., which, with the exception of Vrevskoye, was separated from the component troop centres about 400 miles (to Shachrizyabs) and 600 and more to others. The closest to us was the 9th Division in the Ferghana area some 100 miles distant. The furthest — the 7th in Kermine, well over 1,000 miles.
In the meantime our regiment received orders to change quarters. Hitherto, the regiment was scattered within a radius of 25 kilometers, which was most inconvenient. The new location was a big village. Suzak (must be distinguished from the town of Suzak in Kazak S.S.R.), on the other side of Dzhalal Abad and just across the Uzbek border.
The whole regiment moved into the village grounds and the surrounding fields. The anti-aircraft battalion (divisional) was posted on the other side of the same village; but most of it and the nearest side to Dzhalal Abad was occupied by us. Now, the whole regiment was together. All its units could be reached by a runner in a few minutes. The Division was 10 km. away by a good, crushed stone road, though dusty in summer.
The local population was almost entirely Uzbek. Moslems. The men — hard and silent, the women — most of them had their faces covered with a sort of a shield of horse hair made into a fine net hanging from their foreheads to the waist in front. Not all of them covered their faces, though. They were very good-looking people and some women (if you could see them) quite beautiful.
My company was situated in a sort of orchard in pleasant terrain on the very edge of the village along the road leading towards the mountains. The foothills started just a short march away and were utilised for exercises and relaxation.
The company’s tents were arranged in a circle. I occupied one at the edge of bushes with two of my officers.
At the same time I was given five double-harness wagons. They were meant for supplies, but we used them to transport the mortars, as gun carriers had never been issued. I received also 40 artillery-class horses. They were partly my company’s and partly the anti-tank company’s horses (the latter had no guns, nor carriers), but they were all my responsibility and were stabled in some sheds in the village under the care of my men.
The snow was gone and the large plain between the village and the hills was green and the latter began to take on that colour. There was not much of a problem with horses now as they were driven every morning to graze and to run on that plain. I could not use all the horses at once. At the most, only ten might be used, so their lot improved considerably. The official supplies of forage were inadequate, that’s true; but the increased abundance of grass and the ability of my chief stableman to ‘supplement’ the issues of oats were all-important. The head man in the stables, a volunteer, was a lance-corporal, a barber from Warsaw, but he had a natural affinity for horses and was the man for the job. I don’t remember him bringing only officially alloted issues of oats. He would go with a wagon and a couple of men to the Russian forage depot, receive one or two sacks (80 kilograms each) and bring one or two extra. Once they gave him one sack and he brought three.
Now our horses began to look like show animals and pictures of health. (This did not apply to the men).
Incidentally, our passage from Tatishchevo to Dzhalal Abad resulted in not only an increase in the human population, which was most natural, but also in horse flesh. On arrival at Dzhalal Abad the regiment had 10 more horses that when it started. And there were no newborn colts. Magic. For that our brigadier received from his equals the nickname ‘horse-thief’. And even he was as much surprised at the count as they were, quite innocent (personally).
As all company commanders were issued a saddle horse, one was sent to me a few days after the initial allotment. He was a nice looking animal, golden brown, tall, but otherwise quite useless. You couldn’t make him gallop, whatever you tried. If you spurred and whipped him much, he would start walking backwards. I wondered what made him like that. We couldn’t do anything about it, so I relegated him to the cart and chose one myself out of the artillery group. She was somewhat more delicate than most, seven years old and her name was Java. Lovely creature, a good jumper and a willing runner. The problem was to prevent her from galloping too much, rather than encouraging.
All special brigade support units were located in the vicinity of our end of the village (except the battery of field artillery, which was with the divisional group). Instead of dealing with each commander separately, our C.O. decided to combine all into one unit like a fourth, special battalion and appointed a commander. (There was one major ‘to spare’, so he became it.)
In this connection a bothersome new task fell on me. My company became the supply, provisioning and cooking unit for the whole new group. Field kitchens and a special tent for storage were delivered to us, some cooks reported for duty and we began feeding the new battalion.
I had my hands full, more than most company commanders. Apart from normal training and administration, there was an added burden of my own stables and a large number of horses and now the supervision of cooks, cooking, food, etc. I had my brush with the higher authorities regarding some ‘misdemeanours’ of mine or my subordinates in the course of the next few months, but on the whole we all ‘survived’ it well.
Local collective farms lacked tractors and horses in sufficient quantities to do their spring work, so they asked our Command to rent our teams for pay.
The pay agreed upon by one of my sergeants with the kolhoz manager was in kind, not in money. This was convenient to both parties. Money for us was no good, because there was nothing to buy in quantities for entire companies; food we needed and that was scarce.
Money was all right for individuals to buy small items like fruit and vegetables (later on), booze or lepioshki. The latter was white wheat bread, thin like a pancake, only not fried but baked. Most of our pocket money went to buy those lepioshki. They were in three sizes: small like a saucer costing 3 roubles, medium — the size of a dessert plate — 5 roubles, and large like a main course plate — 10 roubles.
Our private ‘fortunes’ we could save through the paymaster. They were deposited in England with the British Post Office Savings Bank at the rate of 64 roubles to one pound sterling. (After the war I found in my account in London 78 pounds).
Mary came on the initial outing after her illness with two of her friends. That’s when I saw her for the first time with her hair cut above the shoulders. It was considerably thinner, but still all right and strengthening. She was lucky because normally hair had to be shaved off. They brought some food and we had a little party.
The 28th of March was a sad day for us. Our beloved brigadier Colonel Szymanski together with Gen. Boruta-Spiechwicz were recalled to Teheran and to Great Britain for duties over there. That was the day to say good-bye to him.
Before leaving, Colonel Szymanski, who lately performed the duties of the chief of staff of the Division as well, informed the officers that the I Corps of the Army (5th, 6th, and 7th divisions) would remain in Russia, but the rest of the Force would be transferred to Persia.
As the evacuation of the soldiers’ families, other civilians and children had started about a week ago, our spirits rose. Something positive was happening. However, on the negative side the food situation didn’t look good, as the rations per man were further reduced to: 600 grams of bread, 25 gr. of sugar, and into the cooking pot went: 110 grams of meat, 50 gr. of oats, 75 gr. of rye four, 75 gr. of beets, 25 gr. of carrots, 30 gr. of salt, 10 gr. of onions, 1 gr. of pepper, 1 gr. of tea.
The colonel left. The 2nd I.C. took over for a while, the new C.O. was to arrive in a few days.
Now, we were extremely pleased with our contracted work at the collective farms. Men liked a change, horses had useful exercise and we were looking forward to the pay. Food!
Horses, which didn’t go to the farm, had to be driven into the valley and run there by the stable men, so that they did get their exercise. Therefore, it was no hardship on anyone, men or animals.
And the weather was glorious now. Sunny, warm, but not too hot — yet. Unfortunately, scorpions, tarantulas and the worst of them all, the black widow spider put in an appearance.
* * *
Before Easter my sergeant went to the kolhoz, where my horses (and men) worked and brought the agreed-upon payment: 80 kilograms of white flour, 80 eggs, 15 kg. of sugar, 10 kg. of butter, some raisins and 10 litres of spirit (95 percent). The latter was alright for 20 litres of vodka, so it was not such a great quantity considering that our group numbered some 400 mouths. Therefore, it was distributed to officers and N.C.O.s of the company and some ‘guests’ or otherwise ‘merited’ people. (E.g. those who actually worked).
The sergeant major volunteered to go with the supplies to the village we quartered in previously and have Easter cakes and buns and Easter eggs prepared by the Polish lady, his friend.
Indeed, after four or five days he returned on Holy Saturday with everything as promised.
Easter Sunday was a beautiful, sunny morning. Tables for some 400 men were laid under the skies.
Some 30 or 40 eggs were used to make the cakes with butter and raisins. The remainder — hard boiled and Easter painted — were placed on the tables in front of each platoon’s seats, so that men could share. There were probably a dozen big cakes and each man had a little Easter bun placed on the table in front of his seat.
When all were assembled, the chaplain and brigadier arrived. Easter tables were blessed and there was a nip of vodka for the guests, to whom our C.O. and the unit commanders drank.
Greetings were exchanged all around by each man partaking of a small piece of blessed egg. Then we had a fair meal prepared by the cooks, who managed to save some extra supplies. At the end the civilians, whom we fed every day, came to receive a little bit extra.
An event worthy of note, which took place that spring, was a visit by Bishop Gawlina, the chief chaplain of the Polish Armed Forces. The bishop arrived in a general’s uniform, but for pastoral duties he put on his purple cossack and the vestments. It was wonderful to see the prelate of the church ministering to these ‘lost’ people, who, however, had never lost their souls in the ungodly land. Even some Uzbeks, though Moslems, would come and ask for a blessing. He saw the troops and the civilians living around Suzak, spoke to people, performed services and confirmations. Whilst in Russia he visited all regiments before returning to Rome and London.
The Russian liaison officer to the regiment was Major G... (I forgot his name) and he wanted to see our men in training. To keep him amused and ‘happy’ the colonel gave him a horse to ride around the terrain. “Don’t give any real secrets away, nor disclose any confidential matter of our own, but let him see ordinary training and exercises,” said the C.O.
* * *
Maj. G... came to my company for the first time, when we were practicing digging anti-tank trenches for infantry men. He asked me what we were doing. I said, “Digging...,” but left off saying ‘what’, as if searching for a word (I didn’t want to be specific). He said “A shelter?” I affirmed. So, he advised to give ‘norms’ to the men; to set efficiency standards. This we didn’t do in our army; the effect on our men would be the reverse — detrimental; because highly motivated as our troops were, they needed no such inducement.
* * *
One of my men acquired somewhere a pair of Polish high boots which he offered for sale. I bought them for 100 roubles, so I had a decent riding outfit, as I already had an excellent pair of British britches. The boots weren’t of the best quality and make according to Polish standards, but classy compared to the Russian issue.
My gunsmith presented me with a lovely pair of spurs he made out of old steel scraps, which became the envy of my colleagues. (I still have them).
* * *
The new commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jan (John) Lachowicz was quite a different personality than our first brigadier. Although he was just and caring, he appeared to be on the tougher side and rather demanding. The company commanders especially were hard pressed, as naturally they had a lot of direct responsibility.
I had several areas with many pitfalls, such as: personnel generally, training, administration, quarters, stables and horses, cooks and kitchens. It was certainly much easier to be a subaltern in a company than its C.O.
Many a time I had to explain (a rhetorical expression), why a belt was found lying on a stableman’s bunk, or a cook’s apron was not quite clean enough, or some trooper’s bed not made up to regulations.
Once, my man on sentry duty stricken with diarrhoea was caught by the inspecting officer literally with his pants down. He was actually emptying his trousers after the ‘accident’. I was called before the C.O. and didn’t I get a ‘dressing’. Cheekily I said: ‘Should I have corked his rear end?” The colonel answered: “Corking or not, your fault was that you didn’t impress upon him enough that a sentry must not attend to his needs on duty.” Of course, the colonel was right. The crime was not relieving himself, but pulling his pants down to clean up! But I got off scot-free. It was up to me to discipline the man.
However, after all the trials and tribulations I was one of the two company commanders (along with Lt. Półkowski) out of the total of 20 plus 4 special platoons that were not penalised by the brigade commander. Shortly, I was to acquire ‘fame’ in unexpected quarters.
Maj. G..., the liaison officer, came to me again, when I was conducting rifle shooting on an improvised range in the valley. He watched the firing quietly, then in a break asked if he could go to the targets to see the results. I said, of course. After inspecting all targets, he came back filled with disbelief and declared he had not seen shooting like that: “Our boys don’t shoot like that. How do you do it!” Yes, it was good, but still I had seen better scores. I told some kind of cock-and-bull story (quite untrue), how we twisted and turned the sights and altered the normal aiming processes.
He said: “These are our rifles and we didn’t know about it!” Of course, if he tried to do that, he would ruin them. 2nd Lt. Klincewicz, who spoke Russian very well and who could make fun of most situations and people, contributed a lot to our amusement at the expense of our visitor. The boys standing around were laughing their heads off. The latter was so taken by our ‘sincerity and friendship’ that he stayed with us all morning, told us his life story, produced a packet of tobacco and a newspaper and offered them to the men standing around. They were rolling cigarettes and the last man took a piece of newspaper and handed the rest back to the major, who with a lordly gesture said: “Keep it, I have a lot of it at home.”
A few days later, at a briefing of officers (without the presence of Maj. G...) the colonel said to me: “Dzierżek, what did you do to Maj. G...? he told me that you and Lt. Żurawski are the two best company commanders in the regiment.” Lt. Żurawski, who commanded the 2nd machine gun company, had an even greater ability to make fun than 2nd Lt. Klincewicz. So I told the colonel about the ‘stories’ we told and heard. The colonel chuckled.
At that time the supplies dispatched from the U.K. for the Polish Army in the Soviet Union arrived and, whilst the reserve rations (condensed milk, ‘K’ rations — a specially prepared chocolate and other canned products) were kept in the army and divisional quartermasters’ stores, the daily use products were distributed down to the cookhouses.
The Russians insisted, however, on supplying and maintaining the officers’ messes.
Now, men began to receive good nourishing food (even after giving some portions to civilians; my cooks dished out to them about 40 rations, which was about 10 percent) and officers hungered.
It was easy to find officers for duty because inspecting and duty officers were obliged to taste food (and report, if bad). So tasting was done not by spoon, but by a big, heaping dishful.
As specialists in mortars and especially in machine guns were needed (and the courses were heavy physical work), there were more volunteers than required, because officers on courses were transferred from the messes to men’s rations.
My batman, lance-corporal Paul Falkiewicz, a wonderful man and friend, saw to it that I wouldn’t completely starve. He would often go for his dinner and bring me a huge ‘sample,’ as “it was my duty to taste the food.”
* * *
With late spring the temperatures were changing. 40 degrees centigrade was low now. It was rising day by day up to well over 60 degrees centigrade (closer to 70 degrees) in July. Heat became a problem now; not cold, as it had been not too many months ago.
The Suzak area was rather nice, green and picturesque. At the same time it was dry. Our regiment was lucky, as the spring and the oncoming summer brought with them some new tropical and local diseases. Places on rivers with irrigation canals and otherwise stored water for agricultural purposes were less healthy than ours and the troops there suffered more. In addition to all familiar diseases we now had typhus, heat jaundice (non-infectious hepatitis), sleeping sickness and later on swarms of mosquitoes inflicted malaria.
Scorpion stings and tarantula bites could be fatal and there were cases of both death and recovery. There was no help, however, against the ‘black widow’ bite. I have heard of three bites and three deaths in the Army. (There could have been more.)
Some enterprising officers of the regimental transport company ‘appropriated’ an old, broken down Russian (2 or 3 ton) truck. They found it abandoned somewhere and hauled it to their quarters. They stripped it down and dismantled it completely to the last parts. Officially there were two reasons for doing so: to see the condition of same and repair, if necessary; to display to the learners at a driving course, which had just started. Unofficially (the 3rd reason), and I suspect more importantly, that the Russians, if they came looking for their truck, wouldn’t find it.
After a while, when nobody enquired about a missing truck, it was reassembled. I was invited for the first run. We were going to Dzhalal Abad to see some friends at the H.Q. There were about half-a-dozen of us and we went at night for ‘security’ reasons. The truck had no lights, no horn and no brakes, so we stood on the platform, on the running boards peering into the darkness. Luckily the road was empty; but, when we got to the outskirts of the town, we decided (sanity prevailing) that it was too dangerous with such a vehicle to enter the streets and we turned back. The return was uneventful.
Next day I took my first one-half hour driving lesson in that truck.
* * *
A great friend of mine, Lt. Parchamowicz from the Supply company, went with a wagon in search of food, as a private purchase for the regiment, to local villages and collective farms. The route he covered might differ from trip to trip, but basically he was in the same territory and familiar with re-visited places.
Arriving at one mountain village about 10 miles from us, he found new troops in the area — Russians. They weren’t there before. He asked the Uzbeks about it. A division had arrived in the area and taken quarters not so long ago.
On returning to Suzak, he reported the news to the C.O. Checks were sought, confirmations and intelligence reports received. Our Division was surronded by 5 Russian divisions.
Undoubtedly our showing at the big exercise in February, and all the praises bestowed upon us, resulted in this ‘guard’ over us. Why? Wouldn’t those divisions be more useful somewhere else? But more about that later.
Almost every weekend either I went to Dzhalal Abad, or Mary came (often with her friends) to spend a day or two in Suzak. In most cases I sent Paul and a driver with a team of horses and wagon to bring them. When I went myself, I rode on horseback.
Several times, on Saturdays I would meet a N.K.V.D. major walking from Dzhalal Abad to Suzak. He would glare at me hatefully, as we passed one another, presumably because he had to cover this 10 km. distance on foot whilst I, a former prisoner, rode on horseback in style. If his eyes could kill, I would have died many times. He had his revolver, but so had I.
To make his life more miserable, when I saw him at a distance I would spur my horse and pass him at a full gallop leaving behind massive clouds of dust. I probably wouldn’t have done that if he were an army major, but N.K.V.D. — that’s a different kettle of fish.
* * *
A few miles’ walk in a northerly direction from the city into the mountains would bring you to a nice area with a little mineral water pool.
The pool was obviously man-made in its precise, rectangular shape, about 7 feet by 5 feet and chest deep. It was carved out of rock over, what must have been, a little spring, because the pool was always full. No matter how much liquid we would splash out, the next day it was full again.
The water was the colour of blue-black ink, but not staining and had very pleasant, soothing properties. Rheumatism, arthritis and such complaints were relieved by a dip in the water. Mary and other girls would bring their bathing costumes (which they had made themselves) and sandwiches; we would have perhaps a can of meat or fish and bread, but the four, six, seven or eight of us would have a day there. We visited the area several times. Mostly it was deserted. Only once or twice we found some people (local) there, who soon departed.
One late afternoon a colleague of mine, 2nd Lt. L...., took his Russian girl friend for a walk in the direction of ‘our spa’. Still in town, he spotted a man in a cloth cap following them. Now they were out of town on a country and mountain road. The man followed them. Reaching the foothills, they crossed a little bridge over a small river flowing in the valley. The man still followed them. My friend said to the girl: “Let’s go back and ask what he wants.” She answered him: “It’s probably a man from the N.K.V.D. checking up on us and me in particular, because I go out with you.”
They turned back, the man halted on the bridge waiting for them “What do you want, why are following us?” Asked Lt. L....
The man turned to the girl, “Your papers!”
My friend asked: “Why, what business is it of yours?”
“I want to see her papers and yours,” said the individual reaching for his pocket. Revolver? My friend, who was a big, tall man, didn’t wait to find out, but delivered such a devastating uppercut, that the force of it threw the man over the railing and into the the river below.
My friend didn’t touch his own gun at the belt, just walked to town with his lady. Looking back they saw the N.K.V.D. goon scrambling out of the water.
This was one of the examples, as to why we had to carry weapons.
* * *
Another friend, 2nd Lt. Mark S.…, who was billeted in a civilian house in the village, not far from our quarters, informed me that there was a spare bed in his room, as his previous roommate had moved out. It was a good opportunity and a pleasant change.
The house, made chiefly of clay, stood in a small quadrangle in an orchard, forming one arm of the border of the quadrangle; the next arm was another house (of the landlord) and the remaining two were fences and stone-clay walls.
The room we had was big, but cool. It contained two beds, one large table, two benches and two chairs. The window sill was wide — good for repose. Light from the open window and the door was rather subdued in the far corners of the room, so one could always find some shade. All openings lead directly into the quadrangle with the roof over the door.
One morning, when Mark had already left, my batman came bringing breakfast and to see me off on my way.
I had just got up, and was washing and shaving. My shirt was hanging on a chair. I said “Paul, will you attach my shoulder straps to it?”
He lifted the shirt and was about to proceed with attachments, when a huge, almost black scorpion fell out of the sleeve. We both froze. My God! had I not asked for the shoulder straps, but put my arm in that sleeve. We had seldom seen a creature of such size and colour. It started to run on the floor and Paul, of course, stepped on it with his heavy army boot. After that we both just stood there for a while in silence.
* * *
The training proceeded well now. Men were capable and units knit. However, our situation vis-à-vis the Russians became more precarious than ever.
At this time we began to make economies in the use of various supplies (and a pitiful exercise it was regarding food) and to preserve ammunition and horses.
In connection with the preservation of horses, I once got into trouble with the brigadier, perhaps deservedly, but unjustly. Somebody else’s cart with one horse was caught by the M.P.s in town without proper authorization. Well, at the same time I sent my wagon on a private errand.
After being yelled at for some time in spite of my explanations that I did not possess a one-horse cart, so couldn’t have sent it, I was ‘for the high-jump’.
Preferring to be rather ‘hanged for a sheep than a lamb’. I stopped the brigadier almost in mid-sentence by reporting: “Sir, I did not send a one-horse buggy, but a two-horse wagon!” He stopped yelling at me and said: “I will check it.”
He did check, I was telling the truth. So, nothing more was said about it. My horses were not caught by the divisional M.P.s.
I did face a silly problem. Having 40 horses, I could employ at most 10 for actual work and the veterinary officer ordered the remainder to be chased around the steppe. He said that a horse must run at least seven kilometres daily for his health. Therefore, I considered a run to town of 10 km. and a return after a rest rather beneficial.
Anyway, the little incident illustrated our H.Q.’s concern about our capabilities.
About a week later I wanted to send horses for Mary and other visitors. For that purpose I obtained an official quartermaster’s pass. The latter, however, asked me not to use it without the colonel’s consent, as it was a private matter, not an official supply.
Walking out of church on Sunday I caught up with the colonel and asked him for permission. He smiled: “You want to bring your friend in?” I affirmed, adding the quartermaster’s request.
“Alright,” he said, “but see to it that the M.P.s don’t bother us. Especially that the female Commandant doesn’t know anything, because they are jealous of one another and cause trouble.”
He must have had some encounters with the ‘dragon’.
Then we met Maj. G...., the liaison officer, running perturbed and harassed.
“What is the matter, Major?”
“They cut my telephone line again, these Uzbeks. More than 100 metres of it is missing!”
I remembered that the major had been regularly, every couple of weeks, in this predicament.
* * *
Since the first evacuation in March, when the 8th, 9th an 10th divisions with some civilian population from around them left for the Middle East, we lived with a certain air of expectation. Of what, we probably couldn’t be able to say. It was a relief that some of our families left, but still not all, and we had as many civilians around us as before. These people did not belong directly to the soldiers’ families. Yet, of course, we were not going to abandon them. Therefore, nothing had changed, we still looked after and fed them.
In July the orders came to our Division to ready itself for the evacuation from Russia. (General Anders had received a cable from Moscow in the early hours on the 8th of July, that the Russians had acceded to his request for total evacuation of the Army).
In this connection minor re-organizational changes took place. My company was dissolved and men attached to battalions to strengthen their direct mortar support, more in accordance with British organization. Restrictions on the use of ammunition were removed and, prior to the posting off of my platoons, a mortar shooting competition was organized by the brigade staff.
One of my crew was chosen at random by officers of H.Q. and one crew from each battalion.
I was not present at the shooting; having been posted to the I battalion I was taking over a second rifle company there. The event was later related to me by some of my friends (junior officers) there.
I am afraid I had not been on very friendly terms with the senior members of staff (except the quartermaster). I had often fought with them for my men, for the benefit of my company. Three majors wanted me to conduct the training their way, but they did not know anything about the mortars and sometimes talked sheer technical nonsense. Politely enough, I had to remind them that I was the specialist and in command. Fortunately, the colonel was on my side in this respect.
When all crews were firing, one sequence of shells fell quite far from their target. One of the majors turned to the colonel and said: “That must be Dzierżek’s crew.” The colonel answered: “Why do you prejudge not knowing any facts? Look, it may be that one — on the target.” This was relayed to me by my friend on the staff.
And so it happened as the colonel said. My crew had the first place with one direct hit and several within feet away.
Now, we started to give our weapons up. Only officers retained side arms, and rifles enough for guard duty were kept.
* * *
On the 7th August, 1942 the whole regiment was lined up on the square in front of H.Q. and the Polish flag was lowered for the last time in Suzak.
The next day, the 8th, the companies and battalions started loading up and marching off to the railway junction near Dzhalal Abad.
It was early afternoon when I came with my company to H.Q. for loading and falling into marching columns. There were a number of wagons (horse-drawn) with civilian population. Our charges: old men, women and children.
The duty officer that day was Lt. Henryk Bartosik, my friend and the commander of another rifle company (later Lt. Colonel, a gallant officer and a true friend.). He was standing in front of H.Q. supervising the loading of civilians.
Suddenly, Maj. G..., the Russian liaison officer, appeared on the scene. He started yelling at the civilians to get off the wagons and go to their quarters. As they didn’t comply with his order, he shouted: “I arrest you, get down!”
I was standing nearby, observing the happenings. Lt. Bartosik, hearing the major and seeing the perplexity of our people, called to them: “Stay where you are, don’t pay any attention to him! You’ll soon move with the troops!”
Maj. G... whirled around, ran towards Lt. Bartosik and, grabbing his revolver holster, screamed: “I arrest you too!” I was just moving towards them, when Lt. Bartosik closed upon the major and, wagging his finger two inches in front of Maj. G...’s nose, said: “Etoy nomier nie praydiot!” (this number won’t succeed) and tapped his gun.
Startled, Maj.G... looked around, turned away and ran off somewhere. This was the last we saw of him.
Soon we mustered the column and together with our civilians left Suzak to board one of the trains for Krasnovodsk.
During the next few days we travelled through some interesting and awe-inspiring country. We crossed Syr Darya, a monster river, into the Kizyl-Kum desert in Uzbekstan; then at the other end, across Amu Darya, a sister river, to the Kara-Kum desert in Turkestan.
Of the places we passed through were such ancient, historic and rather romantic ones as Samarkan, Bukhara and Ashkhabad. Only there was nothing romantic about them; drab and dilapidated, places of yesteryears’ glory falling into ruin and baking in the scorching sun.
On the 12th we arrived at Krasnovodsk. Having surrendered all our spare pocket roubles and side arms at a field depot, we marched to the docks and boarded the Zdanov, a ship which was to take us across the Caspian Sea.
I hadn’t seen crowds like that before. There were 5,000 people aboard. Our entire regiment (brigade), divisional women’s, anti-aircraft units, civilians we brought with us, plus some children found and rescued from starvation camps. All packed below and on every square foot of decks and passages. People were everywhere. Some children were dying and looked exactly like those victims in Auschwitz and Belsen.
While we were waiting on board two events, possibly worth mentioning, took place: one serious, one hilarious.
Shortly after embarkation Lt. X., the information officer, ran up the ship’s gangway very perturbed. Finding the colonel he asked:
“Sir, please hide me. The Russians are after me. They are calling for me to report to their port H.Q., supposedly to settle something official. But I have nothing to settle!”
He was a regimental staff officer, nothing really to do with the evacuation of personnel, as there was a Polish permanent official base for evacuation purposes in the city. Therefore, there was no possible bona fide reason for him to be needed by the Russians. He must have been on their black list.
“Go down below,” the colonel said, “and hide; and if I call you, do not answer, no matter how loudly I call.”
And so it happened, some 10 minutes later, several N.K.V.D. men arrived and asked the colonel to send Lt. X. to them. The colonel said that the lieutenant was not there, presumably still in town. They replied that he had not reported to their office and must be on board. The colonel called for him, yelling his name all over the ship. After a long period of futile waiting the N.K.V.D. men left.
This is how Lt. X. is alive and free today in North America.
A group of soldiers were lining up at a railing along the main deck of the Zdanov, looking at the quay alongside, where a number of Soviet soldiers milled around. As the emergency ‘K’ rations were de-restricted upon departure from Russia, they were eating the chocolate from its flat tin box. The box was of white metal inside and yellow (golden) outside with imprinted, embossed lettering on the top lid.
When our men finished consuming the contents, one of them threw the empty box onto the stone quayside. Its two halves parted with a clang and rested a few feet apart. Immediately the Soviet soldiers descended upon the spot, diving for the spoils. The melée lasted for a few moments and then two men emerged holding one piece of the box each.
As one part was useless on its own, they immediately held a communal council and soon the majority judgement, which we heard on board, was rendered: “Polagayetsia mayoru” (It should be rendered to the major), “because he holds the top and it is more important than the bottom part.” And so the private, who had caught the bottom part, had to surrender it to the major with the top part.
Our men were bursting with laughter at the railing. I looked at the scene in amazement. An officer, and a major at that, competing, fighting with enlisted men for a discarded tin! It would be inconceivable, unthinkable in our army and, I dare say, in other armies we know.
We sailed at sunset. The Caspian Sea is really a salt water lake surrounded almost entirely, with the exception of its most southerly part, by Russian territory. These southern waters wash the shores of Persia, or Iran.
The beginning of the voyage was like sailing on a mill pond. I was tired and went to sleep on a ‘catwalk’, a companion-way, maybe twenty feet by three feet, above the deck connecting some two superstructures. When I woke up, it was fully daylight and the sea was calm, although a fresh breeze was blowing. It surprised me greatly to learn that during the night we had experienced quite a heavy buffeting and heaving of the vessel to the distress of many people; and I slept through all of it.
In the mid-afternoon we entered Persian waters and soon the ship dropped anchor off Pahlavi beaches. Big barges delivered us from the ship to dry land and a free nation.
As our lungs filled with this ‘free’ air, it was with exaltation that we raised our thoughts to God, thanking Him that we were sustained in faith till deliverance.
“Before Thy altars we raise our plea:
Freedom for our homeland we beg of Thee!’
At first the Uzbeks received us with reserve. They regarded us as Bolsheviks and probably Russians. Therefore they were very cool. Soon, however, they found out that we were not Russians, and decidedly not communists. Our distinctive uniforms and insignia testified to the first and our conduct and deportment to the second.
We became the good people from Bolonia (they meant: ‘from Polonia’, but there is no letter, nor sound ‘P’ in Uzbek, hence — Bolonia). Alternatively, we were known as soldiers from Lechistan (an ancient term for Poland).
Their attitude changed and that change was probably enhanced by an idea they conceived out of the blue, that we had come to abolish Kolhozes and Sovhozes, their collective farming.
Anyway, they became friendly and, if we had to carry our side arms, it was certainly not against the natives. Many a time, walking from one end of the village to the other by a short cut across the fields at night, I would meet a group of bayans (men) and receive a friendly greeting of “Salem aleycum”, to which I replied: “Alyecum Salem.” There was nothing to fear from them.
Men often wore colourful robes and always a small cap (a large skullcap), some beautifully embroidered works of art. Marzias (girls) wore knee-length gowns and trousers made of thin materials tied at the ankles, ornamented trinkets on their heads and necks and carsafs (long head scarves). Some of them covered their faces — mostly the older women.
The Uzbeks have had hard times throughout history, though not without glory, and they were able to understand our plight. However, there was more to it than that.
Surprising to us all was the discovery of a shared legend with them, a legend going back to the Middle Ages, the Uzbek version going even further than ours.
In accordance with tradition, every hour on the hour, a heynal (a fanfare) is sounded from one of the spires of St. Mary’s Church in Cracow to the four corners of the world. The heynal is always broadcast (it was before the war and still is today) throughout the country by the Polish Radio at noon, directly after the strike of twelve. This fanfare in interrupted every time in mid-note.
The legend states that, when Genghis Khan’s avant garde comprised of Uzbek cavalry reached Cracow at midnight, the trumpeter guard sounded an alarm and was shot with an arrow through the throat, thus interrupting the tune. The Tartars didn’t do well and were chased off back to Asia.
Now, the Uzbek part of the legend continues (we heard it in disbelief): A Lechistan priest was playing a holy tune to the Christian God whilst the whole town prayed. He was killed by an Uzbek’s arrow. Therefore, Uzbeks were cursed and would go into slavery, from which they would not emerge, until a trumpeter from Lechistan plays among them, in their holy city, this holy tune, so infamously interrupted by their arrows.
The inhabitants of Samarkand asked for the playing of the fanfare. My uncle, Col. Szafranowski, who commanded the 16th Regiment (brigade) in the area of Samarkand, complied with their request. On the market square of the city, to the great joy of its citizens, the regimental trumpeter sounded the ‘holy tune’.
This, undoubtedly, was the reason for their friendliness to us. The same could be said of Kirgiz and other central Asiatic peoples. They believed that their freedom would now come.
There was a secret and mystical bond between us. They looked at our activities with a sort of subdued and joyous expectation; we were bound by a common legend through many centuries and over a distance of thousands of miles.
I have not heard of any unpleasant incidents between our personnel and the natives anywhere, although they were surprised that we were helping the Bolsheviks in the fight against the Germans.
In our backyard, the Russian liaison officer, Maj. G..., had his telephone line cut regularly every other week. And it wasn’t just cut; every time 100-150 metres were taken out, so that you couldn’t just splice it easily. Our line had never been cut.
The Uzbeks and other similar natives of Central Asia were subjugated by Tartars, subsequently by Czars of Russia and lastly by the Soviets. They did rise from time to time, but without lasting success and with more and more subjugation. The Emirate of Bukhara lost its independence in 1922. This to be followed by the general uprising of Uzbeks in 1924. It was bloodily put down by Budionnyj in the ‘pacification’, in which his armies destroyed old mosques dating back to Tamerlain times and other monuments to Uzbek national greatness. This again was repeated in 1932. The tribes coming down the mountains into Samarkand region killed off aliens (Russians), being in turn bloodily subdued.
Small towns or villages had nothing to offer. One could notice misery and destitution most everywhere. Some old cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Shachrizyabs had traces of the old glory, ruins of castles and mosques, once impressive and beautiful. Tashkent, a huge city, was partly modernized by a number of modern buildings, presumably blocks of offices. The attempt was a failure. It didn’t have the ancient charm, nor modern atmosphere. The Uzbek part was in ruin.
Interesting were bazaars along the streets, where vendors sold hot shashlyk (fat mutton roasted on irons). kyshmysh (raisins and walnuts), uruk (small fruit like olives) and, of course, lepioshki (pancake-like bread). People riding ishaks (little donkeys) brought baskets of melons, cavons (water melons), grapes and nuts. One could also find little caps and homespun silks, bracelets, earrings, etc.
Sometimes caravans of camels carrying cotton would wind their way through narrow streets lined with numerous cafes.
If you were invited to an unsophisticated country tribesman’s home for a meal, you might encounter some strange hospitality customs. Rice is a staple food and a main dish and mutton, possibly chicken. The pot of rice is placed in the centre of the table and everyone helps themselves scooping it with hands into their mouths. If you are an honoured guest and as a mark of special respect, the head of the household would reach for the pot before anyone else is allowed to do so, take some rice, make a little ball of it, place it on his thumb and bring it to your mouth. Refusal to accept such a service is almost tantamount to a mortal insult. After that everybody eats in the usual way.
When I was in my room in Suzak, I was often visited by a young Uzbek woman. She was the sister of the man who owned the orchard and the two little houses. She was 24 years old, was married, had four children, and lived at the other end of the village. She was really beautiful, cleanly dressed in light pastel-coloured attire.
She would come and stand in the open doorway and mostly look. As her Russian was very limited indeed and my Uzbek was nil, conversation was limited. Sometimes it was bothersome if I wanted to wash, or change.
Once I was sitting at the table and doing some paperwork, she came as usual and after a greeting remained standing. She said she was tired. I asked her to sit down at the table, or on my bed by the window. She said she couldn’t do that, because, if her brother saw her and thought she was doing something wrong, he would make ‘muklash, muklash’ (kill) her; she showed that he had a foot-long knife. However, she would meet me in the afternoon at her end of the village in a cornfield, where nobody would see us. It was difficult to decline without offending her feelings.
A few days later I received a really startling proposition. She came again and said that she wanted to marry me and go with me to ‘Bolonia,’ of which she had heard as a distant and a good country.
Dumbfounded, I said: “ But you have a husband and four children.” She replied simply: “I’ll leave them.”
That was a difficult situation to extricate myself from. Fortunately Paul came.
I didn’t want to hurt the girl unkindly, but a situation arose that helped us without so many words.
One day Mary came to spend a day in Suzak. It was lunch time. Paul had just brought our food and we were sitting at the table eating our lunch. My Uzbek friend came and stopped at the door as usual. After a few moments, indicating Mary she asked: “Zena?” (wife) Seizing the golden opportunity and avoiding complicated explanations, I said “Yes.” She remained for a few moments, then turned around and left. She didn’t come anymore.
The desire on her part to go to Poland was nothing unique. Both marzias and bayans were known to ask our men to facilitate one way or another their departure from their homeland with us.
Lechistan, or Bolonia (as Poland was called by them) was for the simple people in that part of Asia a powerful country, well to do and a happy land, the land of plenty. They didn’t know much of present day Poland or even her modern history. The gap of centuries to the present was simply bridged by our appearance on their scene. We shared some part of history and we were sharing a legend.
Who knows, maybe in the not too distant future the ancient curse from their land will be lifted. Maybe the modern curse from our land will be removed too!
One thing we learnt ‘for sure’ throughout the eleven months’ period of association with Russians (our stay as an allied army: from September, 1941 to August, 1942) was that co-operation with the Soviets was not possible, it couldn’t be accomplished. There were only two other alternatives: either you surrender and then promptly lose your identity, or you fight. The Czechs experienced the same situation in 1918, when their First Corps was forced to fight its way through Siberia to Vladivostok, despite numerous agreements (which were made to be broken, some openly, some clandestinely).
This co-operation is equally impossible today.
The Bolsheviks didn’t want us as an army, they didn’t want us to succeed and stooped to all sorts of nasty tricks, like kidnapping people they had something against; holding back much of the canned foodstuffs sent to us from the U.K., supposedly for emergencies (Whose?). Most of our food reserves were appropriated by them. Warehouses full of our supplies were left behind when we left Russia.
Monthly rations supplied by the local army or civilian (Kolhoz) depots were often short of required items; those goods not issued one month could not be collected the following month. (Their rationale was: if you survived without it yesterday, you don’t need it now).
At one time they arrested some of our Embassy people, allegedly for spying.
From the number of prisoners of war, and deported people from occupied Polish territory, it was evident that we could have raised an army of 300,000 - 400,000 strong. Yet we struggled at between 70,000 and 100,000. Most volunteers had to find their own way without any help from the Soviets. On the contrary, in spite of them.
Contrary to a general ‘amnesty’ to all Polish citizens, the release from prisons and from labour camps did not change for the better. Only General Anders’ direct, personal intervention with the district N.K.V.D. ‘masters’ in known cases of detentions produced results. Staffs compiled lists of still detained people from witnesses. That, however, was a drop in the bucket.
The railway stations on the Buzuluk line (where the Army H.Q. was originally situated) received secret instructions to bypass the arriving Polish newcomers and direct them South. There, in Tadzhik, Turkmen and the Uzbek Republics they found kolhozes instead of an Army. This is how we encountered some of those poor souls living in the streets of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. The latter was the worst of the centres, where thousands upon thousands so lived for weeks.
The Polish civilian regional Delegation (in Tashkent) endeavoured to take care of them, but the Army did the most. The 6th Division had the greatest numbers to look after — 10,000 civilians — almost as many as its own strength.
The duplicity and bad faith on the part of Soviet authorities showed itself from the very moment ‘go’ of Polish-Soviet agreement.
Some officers and men had been pressured, blackmailed into signing a commitment to report to the N.K.V.D. in secret all observed occurrences of criticism, or non-enthusiasm ‘Towards The Polish and Soviet Governments’. The word ‘Polish’ was, of course, a placebo. In other words, to become informers and spies.
Some people did sign such documents and were set upon later by the Bolsheviks. They tried to hide, ‘fade into the woodwork’; but a number of them disappeared, never to be heard of again.
An officer walking along a street in Dzhalal Abad (the H.Q. of the 5th Division) noticed three men in civilian clothes following him. He turned into the street where the H.Q. was situated increasing his pace. The three men did so too and started closing in on him. He started to run in the middle of the road (as traffic there was nil), and the three burst into a run after him.
Fortunately he reached the gate with the armed sentry there. As it happened, the corporal, the guard commander was standing outside too. The officer ran into the gate shouting: “The N.K.V.D. is after me. Help!”
The corporal, a very smart man, immediately called: “Guard, fall out, line up!” The boys emerged instantly and a troop of armed men blocked the entrance. The three secret N.K.V.D.s approached. “Halt!” the guard commander ordered. They slowed down, but did not stop.
“Guard, aim!” was the next order. The goons stopped and said they wanted that officer.
“You can’t have him,” the corporal answered. “He is not yours and this is Polish territory. Look at the flag. Or I’ll order to fire!
One man was saved. Maybe he was one of those who signed the informers’ undertaking and did not deliver, I don’t know.
Then, there was the incident in Krasnovodsk, as previously described, where the N.K.V.D. agents tried to lure Lt. X. into their trap.
The Soviets must have suffered from nation-wide paranoia persecuting their own people and seeing spies everywhere. Vera in Saratov was questioned for nearly an hour, because they saw her, a young woman going to the movies with a young soldier, although allied.
Also Lt. L...’s affair, or rather his Russian girlfriend’s, on the mountain road outside Dzhalal Abad. (Described in Chapter XII).
The above are only a few examples coming easily to mind. There were many more, not related here. Thousands if we count Russian women rounded up after our departure and sent to labour camps for association with Polish soldiers. Why?!
Where Polish units were located, there was a marked increase in N.K.V.D. functionaries to keep an eye on us and on their own people. Can one blame factory workers in that area, whose daily ration for a day’s work was 600 grams (in theory) of bread and that’s about all, for trying to ‘scrounge’ some food from the soldiers? Especially women. They liked Poles. Much more refined than their own males, and also getting a chance of an extra meal, as their 600 gr. of bread was often unavailable. People survived by making soups of leaves or stolen fruit.
I have seen with my own eyes in Suzak a group of recruits going to ‘zashchyshchac rodinu’ (to defend the motherland).
I was standing maybe 50 paces from the road leading from the back country when I observed a group of people approaching from the mountains towards us. I stood and watched.
When they passed in front of me. I was stunned by what I saw. About 20-odd Uzbek males were walking along the road to be drafted into the army. They were surrounded by uniformed N.K.V.D., two on horseback — one in front and one at the rear — and four on foot — two on each side, marching. All of them held in one hand a drawn revolver, in the other a long bull whip.
My memory flashed back to 1939, when our called-up reservists came; when trains packed with freely travelling men were resounding with military soldiers’ songs. What a comparison!
Of course, all perfectly understandable. What Uzbek would want to go willingly and fight for Russia? What Pole would not fight for Poland?!
* * *
Sociologists and politicians in the western world often speculate about the Russian people, whose patience with the regime, they perceive, must be wearing thin and that people will get rid of the bad rulers.
Well, they are making the fatal mistake of judging others by their own standards. The Russian people are very passive. They have been taught obedience and acceptance of their fate in centuries-long subjugations by the Tartars, then by their own czars. (The exceptions are probably those south-central Asiatic peoples described in the previous chapter).
Through association with them we developed this view. Orders strongly given will often be obeyed, even if not authorized. The letter of the law or rule seems to be more telling than the spirit. I observed an interesting example in this respect.
On the outskirts of Dzhalal Abad, riding my horse, I came to a railway level crossing. The barrier was down, but the footpaths over the line bypassed the barrier. There were a number of Russian women (not Uzbek or Kirgiz) standing at the barrier waiting. I stopped. Having waited for a few moments I discovered that a train was nowhere near. In both directions visibility was good and unobscured for a long way. There was no sound. There was no train anywhere near. So I moved my horse on to the footpath and started to cross.
The women behind me began to call nasty comments after me for my breaking the rule and disobeying the signal of the lowered barrier. After I had crossed and was far away from the crossing the train still had not come, but the women still did not cross.
* * *
We did try sincerely to be true to our agreement, to work for true alliance, to fight our common enemy, to ‘forgive and forget’. But it was not to be. We were finding out that our ‘partner’ was anything but sincere. Our 5th Division was surrounded by five Russian divisions. Why would any ally do that? They wanted us weak, they wanted us wasted.
In the summer of 1942 we were faced with the possibility of fighting our way through to China (other divisions had their own plans), and secret orders were issued accordingly. The situation was discussed at regimental briefings, when our ‘friend’ (the liaison officer) was not present. We were ordered to stop all live ammunition shooting and to conserve our horses.
In the view of the Russians, not all Polish citizens were eligible for service in the Polish Army. Similarly they didn’t want them considered for evacuation with the Army. They rejected minorities such as Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Jews. Gen. Anders fought them on both counts and won freedom for many of non-Polish stock.
The Soviets lied brazenly to the Jewish delegation that it was the Poles who didn’t want them along. Learning about this, the General conferred with the Jewish representatives and leaders making it clear that such had not been the case. The Jews who had already been under our jurisdiction were protected as much as anybody else. He protested to the Soviet authorities, stating that all citizens were the same under (our) law and had the same rights and duties. Many Jewish soldiers and their families were evacuated. The Prime Minister of Israel, Monachim Begin, as a corporal in the Polish Army was one of them.
That was an ‘eleventh hour’ for us; a few months later and we would have not got out, but perished in Siberian labour camps. As it was, 118,000 left that terrible land for freedom: the Army and civilians — men, women and children — many, many sick. The civilians numbering over 30,000.
Why had Stalin let us leave Russia, contrary to all previous experiences and their modus operandi? Was it because of our tough stand and high morale, our will to resist? Possibly there was something in it.
But Stalin was in enough trouble. Military difficulties, pressure from the Western Powers and a desperate need of supplies from them were the deciding factors of his acquiescence.
While in Russia and upon our departure therefrom we didn’t know the horrible truth about the fate of our brother officers and N.C.O.s from the three camps: Koziesk (I), Starobielsk and Ostashkov. We only knew that they were missing from our ranks and that all efforts to locate them and all enquiries proved futile. Nearly 15,000 (about 11,000 officers) prisoners of war vanished like a proverbial stone in the water.
We felt there was some terrible mystery. I had been a prisoner in Kozielsk (II) and had read the inscriptions on walls dating from April and May 1940. After May of that year all communications from anywhere and from any of those prisoners ceased.
Before the official formation of the Polish Army a few of our officers were recruited by the Soviets (and trained) to do their work and to be their agents. One of the active ‘reds’, Lt. Col. Zygmunt Berling (who subsequently deserted in Krasnovodsk and became a Russian general), when interviewed by the Soviets about army personnel, heard a remarkable statement. He said that there were enough officers in the three known prisoner of war camps. One of the Soviets let it slip: “They are not available. We have made a mistake.”
Maybe they were not too discrete in front of ‘their men’.
Whether Berling knew more or not, it remained with him (very likely — not).
Then, in mid April 1943 (the 13th, to be exact), this dreadful word ‘KATYŃ’ was uttered.
The bodies of 4,200 Polish officers from Kozielsk (I) were found in mass graves in Katyń forest near Smolensk. This ignominious crime, without parallel in history, committed by the Soviets, came to light. Of the whereabouts of the graves of the remaining over 10,000 prisoners nothing definite is known. There is some partial evidence of drownings in the White Sea.
As our Army was not convertible to communism, the Soviets applied a deliberate policy of keeping our divisions as non-fighting units (except one — the 5th).
As they couldn’t resolve the ‘Polish problem’ in the Katyń manner, they wanted to liquidate us by sending individual divisions to the front — not even armed — one after another, so that they would perish.
Murders and lies — these have been the Soviets’ standard proceedings. Their obvious aim — to liquidate the intelligentsia, people with national awareness, patriotism and leadership qualities. The Soviets, like the Nazis, wanted robots — bodies, but no brains, no souls.
According to the Soviet constitution a death sentence is not the highest penalty. The severest one is banishment from the Soviet Union. The courts, however, are ‘merciful’ and almost never apply it; they impose the second highest — death.
Katyń, a symbol of martyrdom — martyrdom of not only 4,200 officers, not only 15,000, but hundreds of thousands who perished simply because they loved their country, because they stood in the way of a gangster state set upon enslavement of the world.
Katyń — a symbol of all that is hideous and despicable in human nature.
The Nuremburg trials did only half a job.
Subsequently the Army became the famous Second Polish Corps in the British 8th Army in Italy.
In the great battle it took the fortress of Monte Cassino, thus opening the road to Rome. Later, advancing with their allies, the troops of the 2nd Corps captured the port of Ancona, and fought notable battles along the Adriatic coast and finally captured Bologna before the German Army surrendered. The valor, extensive casualties, and accomplishments of the 2nd Corps are a matter of record.
The Command of the Polish Armed Forces in U.S.S.R.
- By the authority of the agreement made by the Government of the Republic of Poland in London on 30. 7. 1941 and the agreement arrived at by the representatives of both sides in Moscow on 14. 8. 1941 the Sovereign Polish Armed Forces are to be formed in U.S.S.R.
- By Order of the Supreme Commander of the Polish Forces No. 4118 of 14. 8. 1941, I was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces in U.S.S.R.
- Our task is, together with the Forces of the U.S.S R., Great Britain and other Allies to fight until final victory against our eternal enemy — the Germans.
- I am calling upon all citizens of the Republic of Poland able to carry arms to fulfill their duty towards the Country and to join the ranks under the White Eagle.
Remember, that the victory of the Germans is not only the irreversible loss of Poland, but also the total annihilation of the Polish Nation.
Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces in the U.S.S.R.
(-) Anders Władysław