Caspian Sea Crossing, 1942
by A. Chrocielewski
(Translated by John Halucha)
A. Chroscielewski of the Polish 10th Division formed in the USSR,
describes his April 1942 crossing of the Caspian Sea to Persia
and from there his journey to Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.
We came to Krasnovodsk by train, directly to the port. Before we were boarded onto the ship we were given soup that was very salty because it was made from dried salt fish. But everyone was hungry and there was no choice, so everyone ate what he was given. Before boarding, everyone was also given a crust of black bread and two salt herrings from barrels. The ship was some kind of a tanker, not a passenger ship, where about 4,000 to 5,000 people were packed onto the top deck, one beside another.
It was a beautiful day, at the start, and everyone was ecstatic to at last be escaping that hell. The ship departed about 2 p.m. The sea was very calm, but after awhile there were gentle long swells that you couldn't see, but we could begin to feel. Then fog arrived, and a storm followed. Many people started to get sick. It turned out that there was no drinking water on the ship. After that salty soup and salted fish, after those herrings, there was no water. It was a tragedy, truly. The storm was so huge on this Caspian Sea, that it was literally throwing the ship around. Green water was flowing over the decks, where people were, and several were probably washed overboard without anyone knowing about it. I had to run to the side every so often to be sick. If the ship had tilted and a wave came, I also would have been washed overboard, since there was no way I could hold onto the barriers there. Unfortunately, the ship was damaged during the night, during the storm. The rudder appeared to be ripped off or damaged. We drifted on the Caspian Sea for about three days, without water, without anything. I had to endure the sun because there was no shade on the ship’s decks; you just had to stay out in the sun. By the third day you didn't care if the ship would sink or not, a person was so exhausted. We even tried to haul up some water from the sea, but that made for an even worse effect. It was not until the fourth day that another ship drew up alongside and we transferred to it - on the sea.
We arrived at Pahlavi, Iran, on April 1, 1942. We disembarked at the port and had to walk a few kilometers to get to a camp that the British had set up on the Caspian Sea beach. Walking through the town we saw stores full of fruit and produce. Our legs, our knees were virtually giving up; just seeing all that and at the same time being totally exhausted. Well, we arrived at the camp and there we immediately removed all our clothing. Those new uniforms we had received in Olguwajew (?), in Russia, were discarded. A new life began at that moment, a totally new life. We got a little money. It was even possible to buy from vendors in the vicinity - eggs, fish, and different things. But a lot of individuals lost their lives, because their bodies were not accustomed to such fatty food, or to food so rich in proteins. Many people got ill. I was on that beach, not to exaggerate, maybe a week, maybe 10 days.
From there, we were transported by heavy trucks; we travelled though mountains, actually, incredibly beautiful mountains....our hair was standing on end along those serpentine switchbacks, worried about going into the ravines. But there were incidents where some of the heavy trucks, loaded with people, drove off the road, shall we say, and usually everyone perished. There were accidents. But we made it. Actually, from there they took us to Iraq, past Baghdad to a Habbaniyah. Some 50 kilometers from Baghdad, in the desert, there is a lake called Habbaniyah, actually on the Euphrates River, where the English built a dam, literally in the desert where there was no blade of grass or shrub, and created a lake. On that lake a camp was built, and there we stayed perhaps three or four weeks. Of course, it was sweltering because it was already April and very hot. The water in that lake was already quite warm, and there each of us started to come back into our own because the food was adequate, regular and there was a bit of a change in the attitude of the professional cadre, the regular officers and non-commissioned officers, towards the recruits or soldiers. The British way of doing things had begun. It was no longer the army, shall I say, we had had on the Russian side - it was different. From this camp at Habbaniyah, we again were taken by heavy transport seven days through the desert, through Iraq and Jordan to Palestine.
I remember exactly it was May 1, 1942, when we crossed the border into Palestine riding in the convoy of heavy transports. There were no established camp sites in the desert; we had to bivouac on the sand. The transport column would stop where there was water or some kind of cistern with water. A makeshift kitchen was established, we ate and then had to catch some sleep. We usually slept on the sand, but there were lots of scorpions and different kinds of spiders - black widows, tarantulas. Truly, this was a nightmare for us. But from there we came to Palestine. I remember how we were greeted by Jewish women. Already by that time, there were Jewish kibbutz's and, as our column drove down the road, they stood on the side of the road and threw oranges to us. It was spring there, the season for oranges. The heavy trucks were going at 50 miles per hour, so the oranges that were thrown in the other direction were all smashed up, but it was something different, absolutely wonderful. The people were already dressed differently, looking good, you couldn't see any poverty.
My regiment (of the 10th Division) was assigned to the anti-aircraft artillery, where they put all the young people they didn't know what to do with along with older men such as professors and teachers, making it an interesting group. We were stationed just to the north of Gaza, and around that time the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade arrived from Libya, near Tobruk, and the 3rd Carpathian Division was officially formed on May 3, 1942.