The Last Transport from the USSR to Iran

Konstanty Buda

Original Polish Version

In September 1942, just before the evacuation of the 5th Frontier Infantry Division from the Dzhalal Abad region [of Turkmenistan] to Iran, I was transferred from the 14th Infantry Regiment HQ to the Liquidation Commission of that division, and carried out the duties of chief of staff, in addition to coordinating the evacuation of Polish civilians from that region.

The main remit of the Liquidation Commission was the handing over of all arms, materiel, and horses to the Soviet authorities. We were deeply disturbed by the manner in which the Soviet armourers went about receiving our arms. For example, for the first few days they inspected the barrel of every single rifle and machine gun. We began to worry that we would not complete the hand-over of the division's arms and materiel within the time allocated, and we would be unable to reach Krasnovodsk before the departure of the last ship to Iran.

We decided to do something to expedite the acceptance of our arms. First of all, I asked Col. K. Dudziński, our commandant, to send a radiotelegram to our army HQ in Buzuluk, asking for intervention with the Soviet authorities. Next we tried "buying" the Soviet officers who were receiving our materiel by inviting them to our mess-room for supper. We succeeded in obtaining extra rations of vodka for our reception. At first, the atmosphere at the tables was very formal. But when one of our officers, who spoke excellent Russian and was known among us as something of a comedian, started telling our guests old 'tsarist' jokes, they soon felt completely at home. And when that officer, asked where he had learnt such good Russian, replied without hesitation that he was born in Georgia and went to the same high school as Stalin, there was no end to the congratulations and good cheer. Our guests enjoyed themselves so much that they stayed until the late hours.

I do not know if it was thanks to our little supper, or to the intervention of the commander of our army, but from the next day the acceptance of our arms was carried out in a markedly faster manner, and all the members of our Liquidation Commission were able to leave for Krasnovodsk by the scheduled date. Either way, I am sure the jokes of our "Georgian" helped us greatly.

After the handing over of our arms and materiel, and the signing of the appropriate protocols, the liaison officer for our division, NKVD Col. Siergienko, invited Col. Dudziński and me to his mess-room for dinner. Present at the dinner were the liaison officers for each regiment of our division. All of them were members of the NKVD with the exception of Major Pomenarov, the liaison officer for the 14th Infantry Regiment. He was probably assigned to the event because he spoke some Polish. In private conversations he always insisted: "You can talk freely with me. I'm not NKVD." During the dinner, after a short official speech by Col. Siergienko, Maj. Pomenarov got up to speak. Among other things, he said that it was with great sadness that he was taking his leave of us, and that if he could, he would gladly accompany us to Iran. Hearing this, Col. Siergienko scowled at him with such ferocity that the poor Major stopped speaking and sat down, clearly cowed. When I asked him later whether he had experienced any unpleasantness because of his candour, he replied: "With us, anything is possible."

In my capacity of adjutant to the 14th Infantry Regiment, I grew close to the major, maintaining daily contact with him in the discharge of various duties. In our negotiations with civilian authorities — especially in the procurement of feed for our regimental horses — he always did his best to help us. It was for that reason that Col. Dudziński, the commander of our regiment, invited him to a small reception in celebration of his name-day on 4 March 1942. Maj. Pomenarov decided to return the kindness, and on 1 May he invited the colonel, his chief of staff, and me to dinner at his private house. I shall remember that dinner for a long time. It was an unbearably hot day. The major's wife was able to serve only hard-boiled eggs and cold fried fish from our mess-room, fish that none of us had previously cared to eat. Apart from rye bread there was nothing else to eat. (Our officers in Russia were able to do far better for themselves in similar circumstances.) On the other hand, there was plenty of pure spirits. As guests, we were obliged to follow our host's lead and drink the spirits neat, undiluted with water. It was for that reason that after two glasses, imbibed without any accompanying snacks, my head began to spin dreadfully. I had to find a pretext for excusing myself from that May Day party. I apologized to the major and told him that I had to return to the regimental HQ in order to send an important telegram. I was still suffering from the effects of those Soviet spirits one day later. I told myself that I would never again attend such a party.

On the day before our departure Col. Siergienko summoned me and handed over a document detailing the effect of the Polish-Soviet Agreement on the departure from Russia of the families of our soldiers. He warned me that if a single civilian, not closely related to a soldier of the Polish Army in the USSR, were to be found in the transport, the entire transport could be stopped. You can thus imagine my consternation when, soon after the train began to move out of the station, our soldiers commenced pulling into their carriages the Russian "girl friends" who had been waiting by the tracks. The Soviet commander of our transport, a captain of the NKVD, ordered the engineer to stop the train and all the girls to get off. When the train started again, history repeated itself and all the girls found themselves once more on the train. Fortunately, this time the Soviet officer noticed nothing, and our illegal passengers made it as far as Krasnovodsk, where they quickly disappeared into the throng of Polish civilians. I do not know their subsequent fate. Probably some of them managed to get as far as Teheran.

On the second day of our journey to Krasnovodsk the Soviet "guardian" of our transport noticed that we were carrying a quantity of English preserves — dry provisions for the journey. He came up to me with obvious embarrassment and asked: "Do you have any food or preserves to spare?" He added that he had been sent out on the road without any rations. After receiving from me several tins of corned beef, he lost all interest in the composition of the train and its passengers. He had no idea that at one of the stations along the route two carriages of Polish Jews were coupled to the train. I myself had noticed this but pretended I knew nothing — especially as the coupling was carried out at night when everyone was asleep.

This lack of vigilance or interest in the composition of the train was to cause our NKVD guardian serious problems. During a stop at one of the larger stations he and I were summoned by the military station master — a colonel of the NKVD. As our captain was unable to give a factual report on the composition of the train, the colonel flew into a rage and, in my presence, berated him mercilessly. After we had once again boarded the train, he begged me to keep him informed of all changes in our transport, not wanting a repetition of this unpleasantness.

Approaching Tashkent, he told me that he was very familiar with the city and its more interesting "haunts". He said he wanted to repay me for giving him food on the journey by buying me some fine Caucasian wine. Immediately after our arrival at the station, he disappeared somewhere, and after about an hour returned carrying a huge charred kettle. I was sure he was carrying a "kipiatok" of hot tea but, to my great surprise, I soon discovered that the kettle contained the Caucasian wine he had promised. It turned out that our NKVD friend had kept his word. During our stop at the station, an exceptionally friendly Soviet colonel got into our compartment, and the three of us drank the wine with great pleasure. It was from that colonel that I heard for the first time of the huge losses of the Red Army on the Western front.

Arriving in Krasnovodsk, we were informed that there was no ship for us and no one knew when one would arrive. We had, therefore, to wait on the beach — fortunately in tents. The commandant of our transport, Col. Dudziński, went off to spend the night with Col. Berling, the base commander. The two colonels knew each other well, belonging as they did to a group of Polish officers who, in 1940, had been targeted by Russia as core members of a future Soviet-controlled Polish Army. As we know, the Polish-Soviet agreement of 1941 put a temporary stop to those plans.

After a few days of waiting in the sand, we were relieved when our ship finally arrived. I ran to Berling's home to tell the colonel that a ship had come for us and that he had to pack quickly. As this was the last ship allocated for the evacuation of our army by sea, I was convinced that Berling and everyone on the base would sail with us. When I expressed my bewilderment that neither he nor his housekeeper (later his wife) had made any preparations, he explained to me that he had to remain in port for a while longer, to oversee the closing of the evacuation camp. He said he would catch up with us later by the land route. At that time I had no idea of his real plans for the future.

[Translator's Note: Berling did not accompany the Polish Army to Iran and was subsequently court-martialled, in absentia, for desertion. For details see the Wikipedia article.]

Loading the small ship with several hundred of our soldiers and civilians was a major problem. Dozens of Polish women surrounded me and begged me to take them to Iran. They said they had arrived in Krasnovodsk at the last moment and had no papers to prove they were either the wives or the mothers of our soldiers. Some of them even threatened that if I did not take them on the ship, they would complain about me to General Anders(!) The real tragedy, however, began after loading only half the passengers, when it became clear that the ship was already full. The situation on deck was such that people had to stand pressed one against another. There was no way that anyone could sit down on their bundle of baggage.

Such being the case, I went to the Soviet port master and explained the situation. I told him that we needed room for at least another hundred passengers. His reply was brief: "If they can't board the ship, they have to stay in the USSR. I have no second ship for them." Receiving this response, I told myself that there was no other option but "squeezing" people onto the ship by force. This squeezing took about an hour but, to my great joy and relief, no one on the list was left on shore.

As commandant of the transport, Col. Dudziński had a small cabin to himself, but for me and the other officers there was no room on deck. Fortunately the captain of the ship took pity on us. He told me, in private, that as soon as dusk had fallen, we could sleep on the captain's bridge. This we did, on bare planks, but at least we were able to get some sleep that night. The next day he woke us at dawn and ordered us to leave immediately, as he did not want any of his crew to see us: all access to the captain's bridge being strictly forbidden to unauthorized personnel. There was no need for us to again trouble him for a place to sleep, as the next night we were able to sleep in tents on Persian soil. When we bade farewell to the captain and went down onto the deck, we could not believe our eyes. On the previous night the crowding on deck was such that everyone had to remain standing, but now everyone was sitting on their bundles of baggage. How was this possible? It turned out that people, seeking more room for themselves, had spread out into every nook and cranny of the ship. As a result the situation on deck was vastly improved.

That morning we caught our first glimpse of the longed-for shore of Iran and we were filled with great joy. This joy was briefly tempered by the sight of Soviet soldiers standing on the pier, as if waiting for us. Later it turned out that, luckily, they were only a patrol of the "allied" army of occupation in Iran. I shall never forget the sight of our women coming down from the ship, falling on their knees, and kissing Persian soil.

Before being appointed commandant of the Evacuation Base, Berling was the chief of staff of the 5th Infantry Division. At that time we enjoyed close relations. As adjutant of the 14th Infantry Regiment I had to maintain constant contact with him. In his private conversations with Col. Dudziński and myself he insisted that Poland, having two enemies — Germany and Russia — could not afford to fight with both at the same time. The Polish soldier, finding himself in Russia, had no choice — he had to fight on the side of the Red Army. Listening to him, I had no idea that Stalin already had his eye on Berling as the future commander of a new "democratic" Polish Army in the USSR.

I never imagined that I would see him again after the war. In 1978, during a vacation in Warsaw, I met with him by accident. He recognized me at once and when I told him that I was now living in England, he invited me to his villa near Warsaw for a chat. During this meeting he asked for a detailed report on the living conditions of our soldiers in Great Britain. After listening to me, he remarked: "I know that many of them returned to Poland after the war, but to this day most of them regret doing so." At that moment our conversation was interrupted by his wife offering me a second cup of coffee. As he was clearly reluctant to continue our conversation in the presence of his wife, and even more in the presence of his former secretary, who had brought me from Warsaw by taxi, I decided not to prolong my visit and after half an hour of conversation I said goodbye.