Flashbacks on My Life between the Years 1939 - 1955
by Andrzej Wieslaw Debicki
At the port of Pahlevi, on the Iranian shore of the Caspian Sea, we were expected, not by any high officials, but by ordinary, local people. The shadow cast by the mighty USSR over its neighbours was quite obvious. There was no fanfare. But the people were ever so friendly, perhaps because they expected to sell us a lot of goods. So they peddled their goods, mostly food, knowing how hungry we were. And we did not disappoint them. We behaved like children let loose in a candy store. We ate anything and everything, paying for it with money and with our stomachs, which refused to accept so much food so quickly. But we did not mind, not at all.
Our men, for the first time in long months of involuntary fasting could now indulge in alcohol, disregarding warnings from our medical personnel. The Arab vendors were peddling a poorly purified alcohol drink called arak that, when drunk in excessive quantities, would cause a person to go blind. The degree and duration of the loss of sight was directly proportional to the quantity imbibed. Some of men did go through that experience, and swore off liquor forever. But not for long I would guess, knowing our men's love of alcohol, any alcohol.
All in all, those two or three days on the beach in Pahlevi were very enjoyable. We swam, played games, built sand castles or just did nothing and luxuriated in the feeling of being able to do whatever without anyone objecting.
As usual, the good times did not last long. The transport trucks came and it was time to move on again, to leave the friendly shores of the Pahlevi beaches, with all the hawkers, hookers and thieving children. The pleasant memories followed us around for a while.
The route to Iraq on the first day led through rugged mountains. Kazvin was the first transit camp and we needed the rest badly after the hair raising experience of the descent into the valley. To say "reckless driving" would be an understatement. Some drivers would switch off their engines to save fuel (cheap bastards), thus relying on their poor brakes for speed control, which often meant no control. Two trucks failed to negotiate the curve, lost control altogether, went off the side of the road, and over the precipice, with no survivors. These were Persian transport companies doing business the Persian way. We had no say in the matter. It made no difference to their driving habits if they were carrying, sacks, drums, cattle or people.
The destination of the second leg of the three day drive was Hamadan, where for the last time, we saw Russian border guards with their machine guns, manning the road block marking the southern limits of their territorial dominance in this part of the world. Orders were out to hold our tempers for just one day longer in order to avoid any unwanted incidents involving Poles and Russians. The hotheads were told to keep their lips well buttoned up, or else! I was sure that applied to all of us, including the two chaplains in our convoy!
The third leg ended at a camp near Kermanshah, where we were told to brace ourselves for the fourth and final leg through the desert. "Plenty of water" was the order of the day and was it ever needed. The hot and dusty day taxed our strength to the limit. We got off the trucks at a place with the official postal address of Kizil Rabat, Iraq. The distance covered from Pahlevi was about 500 miles.
Kizil Rabat, Iraq
Here in the Iraqi desert, life began to move at a fast pace, perhaps too fast for some. The desert climate, hot in the daytime, cool at night, was somewhat easier to bear than the one we had endured in Uzbekistan. Here we were looked after by people who cared and understood our situation and the need for good food, proper for the climate and our condition, excellent medical care, with modern equipment and medications in a limitless supply to meet any emergency, proper clothing to suit the climate, and so on. All that made life quite pleasant and worry-free. But despite all of that, it was not the climate for us, malaria-ridden as it was. We needed a complete change, but before that was possible, we had to get fit, be trained in modern warfare and then get shipped off to war, Europe perhaps. And here in the Iraqi desert, malaria not only persisted in bothering us but spread far and wide at an alarming rate. It caught up with me while on a training course at the British base at Basra. Our medics kept pumping Mepacrine tablets into us, to keep us on our feet, but kept losing ground to that cursed sickness. The military hospitals were full of our men who, after their discharge, were directed to special centres for recovery and from there, back to the units, only to find themselves back in hospital felled by renewed attacks of malaria. A truly vicious cycle it was, but training had to go on, and it did at all costs.
The British supplied us with everything we needed, especially in the weapons department. Of course, we had to be trained how to use them properly. With their help, we were making good progress, and our hopes, despite the raging malaria, were high and the troops' morale very high, too.Soon we entered the final stages of our training and the deadline for our total war worthiness was announced; the end of 1943, and we meant to keep to it at all costs.
Meanwhile, on a more personal note, life was becoming fast flowing, exciting and suddenly filled with love. Over the time between Jakobek and Kizil Rabat, my feelings towards Hanka changed from friendly to flaming love. Hanka was now part of the large military organization called the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS), and she posted to the Field Canteen Service, a branch of the ATS. Her camp was quite close to ours, so it was possible for us to meet almost every day. We took walks in the desert and quickly discovered that we were meant for each other and so, began to plan our future life together.
Because of the close proximity of the "Canteens" as we used to call the girls' camp, many of our eligible bachelors (but not necessarily only the bachelors) focused their sights upon the girls of their choice. Many of these acquaintances ended in marriage.
Hanka, like myself, needed a pal she could depend on, someone unlike me, who would be around all the time. She found one in the name of Halina (Halszka to us) Motoszko (later she would become Mrs. B. Olech). They became fast friends, so fast that their friendship, and mine too, has survived to this day (1998).
When Hanka and I could not be together, we would write letters to each other or fill pages and pages in our diaries to be read together, later. These were the happiest days of our lives together.
At about that time, our 6th Division became the 5th Kresowa Division under the command of General Nikodem Sulik. This change doubled our able-bodied strength. And we were in good company since the arrival from the African front of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Brigade of Tobruk and Marsa Matruh fame. This Brigade soon became a Division of equal strength to ours and became known as the 3rd Carpathian Division, General Duch commanding.
While in hospital due to another bout of malaria, I had a surprise reunion with a colleague of mine from the School of Artillery (1938-39), one Tadek Budzich who had seen action in Africa with the 3rd Carpathian. What a pleasant surprise. Tadek, still a Cadet-officer, looked fit as a fiddle, suntanned and smartly dressed in his desert outfit. What a difference in health there was between those of us who had endured Russia and those who had missed it and been in Africa. And from Tadek's tunic hung the medal most coveted by every Polish soldier - the Virtuti Militari Cross! We spent hours shooting the breeze, reminiscing about "old times." After the war, Tadek emigrated from England to the U.S.A. Years later, in civilian life, I found his name on a patent application for an automatic clutch invention.
Soon, our days in Iraq came to an end. We were closer to the "fit to fight" category and were gradually being relocated closer to the jumping-off point, which we learned later would be Italy. But meanwhile, our next move was to cross the Jordanian Black Desert and enter Palestine, with our final destination being an area between Rafah and Gaza.
Now this was what we really needed for the restoration of our health. The Mediterranean climate suited us beautifully, and the speed of recovery was amazingly fast. The land was filled with Arabs and Jews, lovely Sabra girls and their not so friendly boyfriends and we spent our money at the shops. We were surprised by the great number of Jews speaking, or at least understanding Polish - about one in three that we met. We had to remind ourselves that there had been about 3 million of them in Poland in 1939.
Intensive drilling and training in modern mechanized warfare was approaching the final stages. Soon our Army was poised for the jump-off to join the Allied Forces already fighting in Italy. The 2nd Corps was to become a part of the famous British 8th Army under General Harold Alexander, later Lord Alexander of Tunis, and eventually the Governor General of Canada.
With the 2nd Corps about to leave Palestine, every effort was being made to make sure that the younger generation was left in good hands and benefited from it. Education for all age groups was the number one priority. Hanka needed two more years to complete her High School level, so she and hundreds of other boys and girls, were enrolled in Polish schools of various levels throughout Palestine to give them a good education, at pre-war standards, and a fighting chance in their lives later on. Hanka was very anxious to get that diploma and with it be able to enrol at the University of Beyruth in the Dentistry Department. Her dream never came true as she wound up marrying me instead.
So while I was getting ready for war, Hanka went to school at Jenin, later relocated to Nazareth. We reluctantly accepted this new development as inevitable though we resented the separation. It was quite painful, but it had to be so, our only chance of building a solid base for our future together.
Quassasin and Alexandria, Egypt
By December 1943, the 2nd Corps was at full strength. We were ready for action at last. The advance parties were gathered at the port of Alexandria while their mother units were stationed near Quassasin.
My malaria loved me so much that it would not let go of me. I suffered an attack of fever and shakes while awaiting the embarkation of the advance parties I was a part of. But my determination and fistfuls of quinine tablets somehow helped me keep it under control and my condition was not noticed, so when the signal for the embarkation came, I was there, ready to go. I remembered that the best cure for malaria is a change of climate, and I was determined not to allow this opportunity to slip through my fingers. So I sailed for Italy and away from malaria forever. It never hit me again.
Somehow, I went through the whole campaign without suffering any injury, not counting having two teeth extracted by a medical doctor, despite numerous opportunities to get hurt and brushes with the Grim Reaper that were too close for comfort. It was simply not meant to happen.
The campaign began with a small engagement with the enemy at the Sangro River that lasted two or three weeks, after which we went off the line into reserve. By the end of April, we again moved up closer to the front line not very far from Monte Cassino, already famous for hard fighting. There we took over the gun positions from the Free French early in May. It was a very unpleasant place to be, exposed to the enemy observers, and down in the valley with the mountains towering practically all around us, we felt naked. The valley was saturated with Allied artillery of every calibre imaginable, and we knew that the enemy had the coordinates of every battery accurately plotted on his maps.
Our gun positions were carefully camouflaged, the daytime traffic kept to a minimum and so on, as we tried to pretend that we were not there. It didn't work. In one day, my battery received 76, 105 mm calibre shells right smack upon the gun position with the result that three of our four guns were put out of action (but replaced within two days) although no one was hurt thanks to the addition of an extra couple of layers of sandbags over and above what the French gunners had placed upon their dugouts.
The night of the main Allied attack against German positions came on the 11th of May, 1944, and found me on top of Monte Castellone as a forward artillery observer. This experience I will recount in greater detail.
Seven Days on Monte Castellone
Before the Battle: April 22 - 29, 1944
In order not to have any personal things that could identify a soldier if captured, I left my diary at our gun positions (GP). In spite of that, I was somehow able to scribble a few notes about the more thrilling moments to enable me to arrange them in proper sequence in my diary later.
On April 22nd our regiment, the 6th Field Artillery, was to move into the GP vacated that evening by the Free French unit. The road we had to take to reach the destination was bad enough during the day but was a nightmare in the dark. Previous reconnaissance made during the day proved totally useless at night. However, thanks to the Military Police (MP), both Polish and English, we managed to make our GP safely and before daybreak. Failing to do so would have had unimaginable consequences as this was the only road leading to the Cassino area and had to be kept open to keep the heavy traffic moving day and night. Needless to say, the road was shelled frequently and any vehicle that had the misfortune to get hit was immediately pushed off the road and over the precipice. At night the traffic moved slowly, bumper to bumper, but in the daytime the MPs cleverly directed it at varying intervals to enable greater speed to cover the exposed areas which were vulnerable to German observation and shelling.
On the morning of April 23rd my four guns were safely (?) in place, camouflaged, and the men in their dugouts were resting after the harrowing experience on the road the night before.
Later on I had a good chance to look around the valley and what I saw took my breath away. We had heard some horror stories about the exposed GPs and the towering mountains surrounding the valley which gave the enemy a perfect view of our positions. We were the proverbial "sitting ducks" ready for the enemy's pleasure.Soon it had become obvious why we were so crammed in. There in the valley the Allies had assembled over 800 artillery pieces. There was little elbow room left.
The enemy was well dug in, occupying all vantage points, giving them the best possible defence, which so far had proved to be impregnable. The weirdest feeling was the impression that they could see right into our dugouts. We couldn't shake off this feeling no matter how hard we tried, in all the time we were there. To give us some protection from observation a smoke screen had been provided as it had been for the infantry to give it a chance to be resupplied with food, water and ammunition, but it didn't help much. Smoke or no smoke, the Germans had their own systems and timetables for the harassment of our troops down in the valley and on the slopes of the mountains already in our hands. During the battle itself, some 18,000 smoke candles were used.
The dominating mountain was Monte Caira with a number of lesser mountains such as Passo Corno, Monte Castellone and many more in the area. Slightly to the left of our GP was Monte Cassino and the Abbey, or rather a gruesome pile of rubble with one wall still standing, a painful testimony to this senseless barbarism. I could see part of what once used to be the town of Cassino, another pile of rubble, completely destroyed, and around all that devastation were the trees, leafless and burned by shellfire, stretching their stumps skyward as if praying for mercy. My first reaction was to compare it to the picture on the cover of Emily Bronte's book Wuthering Heights. Very eerie.
Our 2nd Battery of four guns, the very popular "25 pounders," had been allotted a very bad location close to a bend in the road. It was bad because the bend is on the map and is thus more easily identified by its coordinates. This road served as a supply route and was very busy, especially at night, attracting enemy fire and interrupting our sleep, not to mention being a dangerous threat to our lives. Soon we found how much the Germans liked this bend in the road. They kept up the shelling day and night, sometimes a single shell, sometimes several. They knew that we were there and it was a matter of time before we caught their attention and got clobbered. Sure enough, they discovered our position on the second day and lobbed one shell which hit our #1 gun, destroying its mechanism but fortunately, hurting no one. But the following day they shortened their range and lobbed a few shells that landed close to where my dugout was, with one shell exploding close to the entrance, throwing a lot of dirt inside. Again, no damage was done. We were beginning to believe we were lucky and hoped that our luck would last. The troops were getting a little cocky, saying "Shucks, I wasn't afraid at all," and getting careless too. That had to be stopped before it went too far.
Meanwhile, the Fire Control Centres (FCC) were very busy checking and rechecking their targets and the timetables to be followed on a signal from the Artillery Group Centre (AGC) on the attack day and hour not yet known to us. From the general plans we knew about a massive artillery barrage to be laid down on the German defence lines prior to the infantry advance, but that was all we knew at the GP level.
On April 29 we were again chosen for target practice by a German howitzer (105mm) battery. Several shells landed in the vicinity of my dugout. My companion and battery commander, Lt. Jan (Janek) Urbanec happened to be playing his little mouth organ and never missed a note. He would later brag that the shelling never bothered him at all. I didn't believe him then, but later had several occasions to change my mind about him. He was a cool one indeed.
During the shelling, I was comfortably stretched out on my camp cot, having placed my helmet over my feet which were closer to the entrance and more exposed to shrapnel. We could feel the earth tremble and hear odd bits and pieces falling on the roof of our dugout. A little too close for comfort for me but because I had ordered extra sandbags placed at every dugout, I felt confident that we had adequate protection against the 105mm shells. The heavier calibres, such as the 155mm, would be another story.
Some of the men had problems with their nerves during and following the shelling. Our GP officer, 2nd Lt. Kazik Baczewski, had a really hard time and soon was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, though he was the one we had expected to be a tower of strength. A whimpering officer is a bad example for the troops. His dugout partner, 2nd Lt. Tosiek Bartoszewicz, took it all rather well. He was quiet and cool and slept a lot (one way of handling fear). Our leader, Lt. Urbanec, kept shooting his mouth off, telling us that he wasn't afraid at all. Bull! I don't believe there was a single one of us who was free of fear, including myself. It was a matter of self-control.
Yesterday, I wrote to Hanka, just a few words to tell her that I loved her very much. I tried to tell her not to worry about me, that I was still all in one piece and was looking forward to seeing her soon. What a miserable little letter but it was all I was able to say, hoping she would understand. And she did. It was a blessing to have a dear person like Hanka to "talk" to, to bolster my spirits in these times of stress and uncertainty.
April 30, 1944
We had beautiful weather those last few days. I was wearing shorts and sunning myself in a sheltered place away from those spying eyes in the mountains all around us. I suspected the Germans were doing the same thing because the daily shelling seemed to have eased up a bit.I was not too happy about things in my unit today due to a falling out with Tosiek. It was bound to happen sooner or later because he was resentful of me due to my background. In spite of the harsh exchange of words, I did hope that it would clear the air and things would come back to normal. There was no room for personal animosities when we had a war to fight. I had the sudden urge to get away for a little while, so I grabbed a motorcycle and went to visit Halszka and Marysia, Hanka's two closest friends, just to talk and maybe get some goodies from them. They had no goodies but we talked a lot. Halszka wanted to know everything about Kazik and Marysia everything about her Czesio, the regimental MD. With empty hands, but otherwise happy, I went back to my unit. Unfortunately, instead of peace and rest back "home," I found Teodor (2nd Lt. Teodor Urbanowicz) waiting for me, anxious to share his worries about his fiancee, Jagoda, who was taking the same course as Hanka in Nazareth. Half listening, half asleep, I wasn't very helpful. He left and I hit the sack.
May 2, 1944
I spent most of the day at the Command Post (CP), going over the targets, timetables, etc. Lots of talk and loud laughter and too much bad language to cover our nervousness before the big event.
May 4, 1944
This was a sad and miserable day. Alone with my thoughts and Hanka's photo in front of me, I was trying very hard to hang on to more cheerful thoughts about our wonderful times together, trying to picture her at school and in the dormitory. But the pictures faded away in the face of the present reality. Truthfully, I felt wretched, even though from my position I had a view of the road, the mountains and the valley. It didn't do anything to make me feel any better. I didn't care anymore that the traffic on the road was being shelled more than usual. I didn't care if they hit me sitting on the slope. I just didn't give a damn! I wished that I could have Hanka by my side. Bloody war!
Today brought a bit more excitement. The finishing touches were added to the general plan for the artillery support in our sector which calls for a six hour barrage, moving left to right, then reversing itself, then moving forward then back again to form a blanket cover over the whole area of the German defences. Six hours! Considering the amount of artillery pieces multiplied by an average firing rate of 2.5 rounds per minute over a period of 360 minutes, one can get a fair idea of the power of the support. That's 800 guns x 2.5 rounds/min x 360 minutes = 720,000 rounds! Could any troops remain battle-fit after that kind of punishment? I hoped that they would either run or surrender and the whole thing would be over. We would know in a few days.
Some more details leaked out of the regimental HQ today. Among them were the names of the two artillery observers who would be supporting the ground troops: they were Lt. Urbanec and myself. I had the feeling that Jan (being of higher rank as I was a 2nd Lt. at the time) would be assigned to the commanding officer of the troops we were supporting and I would be the front line observer at the Observation Post (OP) on the very top of Monte Castellone. Rank has its privileges and always has had.
The OP was on the right flank of our Polish sector. To my left was the 5th Kresowa Division (5KDP) and to its left and facing the Abbey, the 3rd Karpacka Division (3DSK) and to its left, the 13th British Corps. The Polish forces were occupying a sector which was a deep bulge into the front line so we were at risk of not only fire from the flank but also from behind!
Also on this day, three letters came from Hanka, three letters together. Oh what joy! Three letters full of love, hope and more love. She was praying for my safety, assuring me of her firm belief that all would be well, and looking forward to a wonderful future together. With these letters, yesterday's bad mood simply vanished. The magic of love!
Waiting for the Battle to Begin: May 6, 1944
So I'm the one. The top of Monte Castellone will be my home for the next seven days. Jan goes to the infantry unit command as our liaison officer. He seems to be disappointed. There is more glory at the OP but there is also a good chance of getting your arse shot off or getting blown off of the mountain.
I'll be leaving for the OP at 21:30 hours with one radio operator and two telephone operators. We are all excited and nervous. I try to ease the tension by saying silly things to make them laugh. I only partially succeed. Our vehicle, an American Jeep lovingly nick-named "Lazik," takes us to our first telephone exchange. From there we proceed on foot, a steep climb right from the start. There is moderate artillery activity and some machine gun fire, from both sides, just to make things more interesting. In the darkness trigger fingers get very itchy. About half an hour later we reach our second telephone exchange where we pick up a guide to lead us to our final destination, the OP. He's sure of himself, so it seems. In spite of the late hour, we are hot and sweat profusely, especially the guys carrying the heavy radios. Soon we are wet through and through, literally swimming in our own sweat. It's as hot as blazes with no breeze. Nothing is moving. In spite of the heat I feel surprisingly fit and well. Just a few months ago I was popping quinine pills to stave off malaria. This is my first real fitness test. So far, so good, but will it last?
In about 30 minutes we reach the cavalry HQ, the unit we are supporting. Our Captain is there and gives me some very general instructions, bringing me up to date on the local situation and we're off again in the direction of the OP. The path gets steeper and steeper. Climbing gets slower and harder. We are out of breath and have to take frequent breaks. After about ten minutes our guide is obviously and hopelessly lost. Now what? Blundering about might be deadly. There are mines all over. Paths had been cleared of them and marked with white tape for safety but those had been shot up by enemy fire and thrown about, no longer marking clean ground. Luck was with us when we bumped into a corporal who knew the way to the OP and offered to be our new guide. He could not lead us all the way though so eventually he left us to continue the rest of the way on our own. Soon we found ourselves in an area full of our own troops and some of them were able to direct us to our OP where we arrived more than two hours late.
The "resident observer," Cadet-officer Tomasz Plodowski, was impatiently waiting for us. He looked very, very tired after his seven day stint. In the morning he's going to show me the targets and generally introduce me to the routine at the OP. A thought flashed through my mind: will I look like him after my seven days up here? Perhaps. During Tomasz's stint there was no large scale action in this sector, but I'm here for the main event. Right now all we care about is getting some rest, leaving Tomasz in charge until I can take over in the morning. Too tired to do anything, all four new arrivals collapse on the ground of what seems to be a natural cave, cavernous, dark and smelly. Awfully smelly, a stinking hole in fact, but it looks solid and safe. We hope. The entrance to the cave, which serves as a shelter for our team, looks away from the enemy, which I consider an advantage. This is not the actual OP. To get to the actual OP we had to crawl on all fours some 25 metres up the mountain without any natural cover for protection. Before drifting into an uneasy sleep, I made a strong resolution to clean up this pigsty first thing in the morning.
May 7 and 8, 1944
Tomasz and I leave the cave at first light to look over the targets. It's not going to be easy. Thick fog is swirling around and covers the ground down below. I can sense how eager Tomasz is to leave and get off this mountain while it is still safe to do so. He picks up his things, wishes me good luck and is off.
The OP is a small, roofless stone structure like most buildings in Italy. It offers no protection from mortar shells which have high and steep trajectories and are used most successfully in mountainous terrain. When fired at a target, they drop onto it straight from above without warning. Tomasz informed me that he had the misfortune to be shelled twice, the shells falling all around the OP in a ring but not one fell inside. Bloody scary it was. The French, here before us, dug a very narrow slit trench large enough for a single person. This afforded no protection to which the dead body of a French officer still awaiting removal and burial attested. Nice company, thank you. But one gets used to it if one lives long enough.
Because of the morning fog, I have time to think about improving the safety of the OP. As any movements here appear to attract shelling, I decide to rearrange the large stones on the back wall in such a way that it will be difficult to see any movement. I'll do that tonight while the team down in the cave is busy with some serious housecleaning. Right now I have a splendid opportunity to study the prevailing winds, their direction and velocity. My main purpose here is to provide our assault troops with an extra smokescreen to protect their positions. But from what I have seen this morning the task is not going to be easy. There are many small valleys and passes through which the fog constantly moves. The problem is how to judge the air currents and use them effectively to confuse the enemy, but not our own troops, with smoke. I know I'll have to find the right places to lay the smokescreen thus modifying the elaborate plans prepared by Regimental HQ. The plan looks good on paper but will it work in the field? Who knows? If it doesn't, I'll have to improvise somehow. It's not going to be easy. Please God, help me!
May 9, 1944
Cadet-officer Marian Gawiak joins me during the night. I'm very pleased to have him around in situations like this as he is cheerful, courageous and always ready to help. The weather is similar to yesterday's which gives us more opportunities to study the air currents. Slowly I'm beginning to develop a safe way of moving about, keeping low to give the impression that the OP is unmanned and abandoned, but I'm probably not fooling anyone as this is surely the best seat in the house. In any case, I'll continue to do nothing likely to invite mortar fire if at all possible. I am soon to find out how wrong I was. Mindful of my resolution, I move stealthily from one porthole in the stone wall to another, studying the terrain laid out in front of and below me. It appears to be broken up, with steep slopes and lots of small gullies, and is very rocky and rugged. Marian keeps low too. He sits on the ground and entertains me with the latest stories of his exploits with the young Italian girls. They are funny due to the language difficulties for Marian, which obviously presented no obstacles whatsoever. Action was his forte. I only half listen to his stories but they provide a necessary relief and soothe my nerves, helping me to forget the potentially deadly reality of our situation.
From time to time I pick a target from my list of targets and fire a few rounds to determine the air currents. Suddenly we are rudely interrupted. Plop-plop, bang-bang, plop! Mortars! The shells land around but not inside our hut. Thank God! They didn't get us, not this time. We are sitting ducks no matter what we do or think - 5 shells, 3 duds and 2 bursts. So this is what mortar shells sound like. Sneaky things. They come down straight from above without warning. We have no protection against them. I don't like it, not one bit. The thought of one landing inside the hut is downright scary. I must get some sandbags around myself so that if the shells find their way into my "castle," only a direct hit on the top of my head will hurt me. I have to wait for darkness. We'll get bags and fill them with dirt. This week is definitely going to be no picnic.
My knees and elbow begin to object to the rough treatment they get during the crawl from the cave to the OP, with many more trips to go. I must get some rags for cushioning but where from? Off the dead French officer? Not bloody likely! I must remember to take some provisions with me to the OP to reduce the number of trips.
But what about the call of nature? I'll have to train myself for nightly excursions only. But can I last that long? I'll try anyway since my life could depend on it. Daytime relief is out. Too dangerous. This is probably what bothered Tomasz and contributed to his exhaustion. He suffered all day, every day for 7 days. That's no good. I have to find a place to do our "thing" safely for as long as we are up here. I will look for this place at night.
May 10, 1944
We get another taste of mortar shelling today. Fewer duds and more bursts but again, no harm done. With more protection from the sandbags around me, I feel a little better, a little safer. Who am I kidding? Myself, of course. Just trying to shore up my morale, my courage and above all, to save face. I know that I'm being watched by my own men. They expect me to behave like an officer is supposed to behave in the face of danger. It gives them confidence in his leadership and judgement where their very lives are at stake.
We are not alone here. There is also an officer from the infantry in charge of a mortar platoon, 2nd Lt. Cz. K., a P. Eng., a specialist in shipbuilding in peace time. He is exceptionally efficient at his work, cool and cheerful. Unfortunately he's being replaced by another officer, a school teacher in peace time. He doesn't look too hot.
There are some general and unreliable rumours about the "push." It appears that it will take place on the 11th of May. That's tomorrow. I'm glad it will happen while I'm here at the OP. Meanwhile there's another change in my backup. Marian is going down and Cadet-officer Adam Kostecki is joining me. Adam is more mature than Marian, a serious and reliable man. Glad to have him aboard. The tension is building up, one can feel it, and one can see it on the faces of the little group up here. I have received no instructions from my Commanding Officer (CO) but they will come in time, I'm sure.
In the meantime, I'm trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of the spring nights, sitting alone at the OP, thinking of... Hanka. Thinking about those wonderful times with her under the star-filled Iraqi sky relaxes me and takes my mind off of this stressful situation. I hope it will enable me to meet what tomorrow has to throw at me. The stillness of the night is interrupted occasionally by bursts of machine gun fire from both sides and some artillery fire, mostly ours. The Germans must be saving their ammunition for bigger things. Smart.
May 11, 1944
This is it! Today is the day the offensive starts. The exact time I don't know yet; it's kept secret for as long as possible to avoid tipping off the enemy. The main thrust will be to the left of me. The troops on my right will launch a mock attack, creating a diversion with a lot of noise but little artillery support. The cavalry officer is talking about heavy U.S. Air Force involvement along the entire front in support of our advance. It's a very serious moment for me to be involved in such a gigantic effort by the multi-national forces. I hope I'm up to it.
Today is not much different from previous days with its normal artillery and mortar activity. I too am trying to do the usual, calling in for our artillery to send a few shells over to the German mortar positions and other targets. Nothing out of the ordinary all day long. I am anxiously awaiting nightfall and "zero hour," the time the barrage is to begin.
There is some excitement during the day, when a single artillery gun suddenly opens fire on our infantry. I have a hell of a time to even approximate the range and the direction of firing because of the echo effect caused by the surrounding mountains which makes the sound come at you from many directions thus making triangulation difficult, if not impossible. It would be easier to locate at night because the muzzle flashes would give away its position. Later, it did fire many times that night but there were no muzzle flashes! They must be using flashless gunpowder. I am helpless and furious. I want to help the guys under fire and at the same time show them what I can do but, alas, I can't do a thing. Just to have the "last word" I have several likely areas shelled from areas selected from the map. Whether it is effective or not I will never know but we did not here further from them today.
Finally, late in the evening, the word came: "Zero hour is 23:00 tonight." Hurrah! Right away I get busy placing more sandbags around me for better protection against mortar fire, but I am still without overhead protection. I'll have to pray that the mortar rounds land anywhere but on top of my head. If they do, the end of one Polish artillery officer will be quick and painless. So be it. Long live Poland!
Now I think about my boys down in the cave below the OP. Up here I'm relatively safe and protected but they won't enjoy such luxury while they are trying to keep our communication lines open at all costs. That means going out to look for severed telephone lines among the hundreds of identical wires running from the front line to their command posts (CP). We do have a radio inside the cave but it is not the most up-to-date model. Our radio operators are human and can make mistakes so the onus still rests on the good old telephone.
I have company at the OP tonight, a mortar man and also a cavalry officer from the unit my regiment is supporting. My orders are to lay a barrage some 400 metres in front of the cavalry regiment's front lines at 01:00 hours. They are going to fake an attack but are not going to advance. It’s just to keep the Germans occupied and aware that they may be in for a surprise. Personally I'm skeptical, but orders have to be followed regardless. My companions keep asking me if this barrage so close to their positions, with its low-flying shells, will clear our heads safely. I reply that I don't know and we'll have to wait and see. Not too happy with my answer, they stop asking questions.
It is 22:45 hours. Tension is building. Our troops are poised for the attack on the slopes facing the valley. One can feel their presence: a mass of humanity soon to be thrown forward to be shot at, wounded or killed. I feel guilty sitting here relatively well protected but this is my job. In order to do it effectively, I have to be alive.
"Zero hour" arrives at 23:00 and the first to fire their great guns are the heavy artillery from away back behind the smaller calibre guns. A second or two later, pandemonium breaks loose. The valley suddenly fills with light, the air overhead is full of thousands of shells, each with its own characteristic whine, ranging from the piercing high pitched "ppheew" of the smaller calibre to the "shshshwwwshswsh" of the heavy ones. Behind me, a sea of fire, changing night into day. In front of me, a truly spectacular fireworks. What an unbelievable sight! Being in front of over 800 guns, I'm exposed to the continuous booming noise which makes talk impossible. We are reduced to sign language.
I go berserk. I keep egging them on to fire more and more, to sock it to the bloody bastards, to give them Hell! I soon have to give up shouting as I lose my voice and can't hear myself anyway. I must have lost my senses. I find myself out of the OP, next to the the other two. We are all behaving in the same crazy way. For the time being it's safe as there is no answering fire from the Germans. They have taken shelter in their safe dugouts and are likely playing cards, waiting for the barrage to cease. Now it's time to calm down and start behaving like an officer again.
Gradually I simmer down but I continue to egg on our artillery to give the enemy more and more punishment. Now I can safely scan the area in front of me, without being shot at, as well as the terrain to my left where the main action is going to take place. There is actually very little to see due to the smoke from the explosions. Only the peaks of the lower hills are visible. Even the shell bursts are no longer visible, smothered by the smoke. Soon even those that explode closer to my position also become invisible.
The intensity of the fire slowly lessens. The slower rate of fire saves the guns from overheating. They have been firing steadily for over an hour now, at a rate of from four to two and soon down to one round per minute. Some guns are taken out of action to give them a chance to cool down and for the crew to get a little rest. After all, this shelling is scheduled to last until 05:00 hours. Then the bombers are to come in. Will they be accurate enough not to bomb us? From above, with all the smoke, they will be able to see nothing.
Two hours of constant noise makes me tired and sleepy. And bored! Suddenly I can hear German Spandaus (rapid firing machine guns). Are our troops advancing? The firing seems to be coming from the 3 DSK sector facing the Abbey. In this pandemonium, it's hard to tell.
There's a cry for a medic from my left, shortly followed by more cries for help, then several flares light up the sky in the 5 KDP sector. A red flare means "Danger" or a request for an artillery barrage to protect or repel an attack on a predetermined sector of supported troops. This is crazy! Who is attacking? The Germans can't possibly have left their entrenched positions where they are invulnerable. Looking to my left where our troops are supposed to be poised for the attack at 06:00, I can clearly see many shell bursts. By God! They are under enemy fire, either from ahead, from the flank or from behind. From all directions! I don't know. There's so much noise I can't tell. What's happening? What a mess! What a bloody awful mess!
Suddenly a major from one of the units under fire runs up roaring at me: "You s.o.b. you're killing my boys! Stop it! Now! Now!"I manage to answer: "They're not our guns, major sir. They're the Germans'."But he's out of control: "Stop it this instance, you killer!" he yells.
Now I'm getting pissed off: "Sir, I can't do anything to stop it. Our Fire Centres are carefully checking every artillery unit at this very moment, both within our Corps and the British too. This is not our doing. I'm certain of that sir."
May 12, 1944
The red flares keep going up all the time, there are cries for help coming from all directions. I'm not as calm as may have seemed. The major is still raving at me. Now he is pulling a gun on me! Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me! Help comes immediately from the other two OP officers who place themselves between him and me and try to calm him down. Slowly, very slowly, the poor fellow turns away and vanishes into this terrible night. That was too close for comfort. I hope I'll never look down the wrong end of a gun barrel ever again.
I found out later that it was the 14th Infantry Battalion that got clobbered and had to be withdrawn and replaced.
There is still a great deal of machine gun fire on my left from both sides. Our guns are slow with a "clak-clak-clak" sound but the German Spandaus go "prrrrrrrrrrt-prrrrrrrrrrrt-prrrrrrrt." The mortars are busy too, and our artillery is still maintaining the original plan though firing at a slower rate. It seems to me that our troops are advancing or trying to but I thought that they were to advance following the air bombardment after 06:00 hours. What happened? Perhaps the unexpected shelling from the flanks and behind forced the divisional commanders to change plans and give orders to advance. But this is only what I think, sitting on top of the mountain. I'll find out more about what really happened after the action. I hope.
Strangely, I have an uneasy feeling that soon I'm going to get my share of enemy attention, either in the form of mortar or artillery fire. With this premonition in mind, I check carefully how to function best while under fire. Within a quarter of an hour or so it comes, almost from behind me and slightly to my right. It's artillery fire, with its flat trajectory. This I prefer to the mortars with their vertical descent. Now I'm worried about my men in the cave below us where the shells could enter directly since its entrance faces the direction of the incoming fire.
Boom! And another one. This one is almost a bull's eye. The next one was high, two more were very close and the sixth one over my head and into the German positions. Now I have a couple of minutes reprieve before the next series of six rounds. Quickly I make a call to my Regimental HQ to report the situation up here. The CO comes on the line asking me to determine two things - where are they coming from and where are they landing? I report that in the din it's impossible to pick up a single gun report (the explosion as the artillery cannon fires a shell) or even a number of them but that they seem to be coming from behind and from the left of our own gun positions. Before the Colonel can comment on that, the next shelling of my OP begins, some falling below and some flying overhead. The line goes dead. My lineman goes out to repair it. When the connection is restored I talk to the Colonel again. He tells me that in his opinion the enemy is trying to put me out of action or make my job difficult. Difficult, try impossible! All I say is "Yes, sir" to which he replies "Good luck, Lieutenant." After my reply of thanks, he hangs up just before the line is hit again.
Now I know the game and the stakes involved. But I'm stubborn. When there is a chance to get down to the cave safely (?), my two companions head out, while I stay on. "You want to be a dead hero," they say as they leave. Somehow I feel better without them around. I can call aloud to Hanka and no one can hear me. Calling her name gives me strength and courage, soothes my nerves. I can think and function more effectively.
Now I feel a lot better. In between the shelling my thoughts go to my three communication men down in the cave. By superhuman efforts and frequent line repairs, they keep the line open to the Regimental Fire Control Centre. In the last hour or so, the line has gone dead several times and each time, knowing that they will be under fire out there, they never hesitated and took turns at the dangerous work. Russian roulette! What a great sense of duty. If I get back, I will recommend them for medals.
Here I must confess to gross dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy, I dosed off. Most unprofessional but understandable under the circumstances. This bliss lasted about an hour or so, uninterrupted, undisturbed and refreshing.
It's now close to daybreak. The mortar man comes up from the cave and tells me that the barrage will soon stop and at 06:00 hours the bombers are supposed to arrive. But something has gone wrong. When 06:00 hours arrives, our artillery is still maintaining a fairly decent rate of fire. It's 07:00 but still no bombers. At 07:45 there are still no bombers and the artillery fires continuously. What's going on?
My thoughts are on the gun crews. How tired they must be but they have done a magnificent job. Now it's past 08:00 and I am ordered to place a "flat barrage" in front of our cavalry units. I don't know why but I follow orders. It lasts three minutes and as soon as it's over comes the return fire, aimed right at me. This time it's a single, high velocity gun, placing its shells all around me. Some "wheeeeeeeeeets" over my head end up in the valley hitting their own lines. By now I'm getting used to this kind of shelling because, even if it's on target, it explodes on the ground spraying me with dirt and stones. Last night and this morning the mortar fire has shifted away from me, possibly onto the poorly protected infantry. They are even more vulnerable than the OP.
I've been under steady fire since 07:00 hours and now it's close to 09:00. In spite of all this shelling, my telephone lines are still intact. It's a blessed respite for my boys down below. The cavalry boys on the other hand have no relief from the rear shelling. They still blame our own artillery for the short range shelling and for killing and wounding their comrades. I learn to ignore them, tired of repeating that it is not us but the Germans who are firing at them. They just won't listen.
Soon I have another chance to speak to my colonel. I report my practically hopeless situation, that I'm useless to the regiment and so on but what he says renews my spirits, that is, to just hang on and that it can't last forever. And I do keep hanging on, getting tired of the noise, dust and constant explosions around me.
Just as I was starting to feel better about the situation there came a message from the CO of the cavalry requesting me to commence laying a barrage. I look through my peepholes down into the valley where the cavalry want the barrage, all the time wondering why the request hasn't been routed via our liaison officer, Captain M. This request is crazy. I haven't been given their exact positions. I don't know where exactly they want me to lay the barrage. Besides, I can't see a thing in front of me. The valley is filled with swirling fog mixed with gun smoke. Visibility is a big fat zero.
For the first time, I'm really scared. I'm helpless, can see nothing and can't defend myself. The only thing I could consider if the Krauts (slang for Germans) attack in my direction and overrun the OP is to call on my own battery and bring our fire down on myself. It's heroic and has been done before but...
Miraculously, my telephone line is still working. I can hear Teodor and Janek and sometimes Wacek B. All are working feverishly to locate the rogue gun that is making my life so interesting. All in vain. My OP is NOT on anybody's target list; therefore it is not our gun. It is a German gun, most likely the famous 88mm beauty. Meanwhile it is making my life Hell. All of a sudden I can detect a change in the noise pattern. There is a new heavy element, likely caused by German heavy artillery, and the heavy detonations (shell explosions) come from the 5th KDP sector. Poor fellows! Our infantry soldiers are completely in the open and unable to dig in because of the rocky terrain. The heavy boom-boom-boom again comes from behind our positions. Before the battle, air reconnaissance reports located German heavy artillery positions around Biaggio and Belmonte with some lighter artillery units around Terelle. These units are now in action against our troops. What a bloody, bloody mess!
Enemy artillery fire is pouring onto our positions from all directions. It is impossible to distinguish theirs from ours. I feel certain I know where this single high velocity gun is located but is it ours or theirs? Whenever it fires I can, with some degree of certainty, isolate its position by its signature sound. By looking ahead at the area where the shells are landing, I am able to trace their trajectories back to their origin. At one point I become confused as there are, not one, but four shells flying over my head. What are these four guns doing? They seem to be in an area where the cavalry wanted the barrage laid to close the entrance to the gorge right in front of them. Maybe. Why didn't they tell me about it? It's all so confusing. Is this the way battles are fought?
Meanwhile that single gun continues to make my position miserable. It's been going on for almost four hours without let-up. Four hours waiting for a direct hit that will put me out of action for good. Quite a strain on my nerves but so far I've been lucky. The shells have landed either below the OP or over it in the gorge. God only knows why and it's His secret. This reminds me of an old Polish saying when they went into battle against the Tatars or Turks, the infidels: "Fortuna variabilis, Deus miriabilis" freely translated as Luck is changeable, God is inscrutable. Funny the things that come to mind at times like this.Our guns have been firing for the last ten hours straight. What a gigantic effort this is.
News reaches us that the attack has bogged down, that our troops have suffered heavy losses and are unable to advance but are not retreating from what they have gained. They are under constant artillery fire from practically all sides, pinned down and exposed to mortar fire, shot at by those murderous Spandaus whenever they make the slightest move. They are exhausted, thirsty, hungry and low on ammunition. They will have to wait until nightfall for any relief. What a position to be in!
I wish my companion from the mortar platoon could either control his obviously frayed nerves or get the hell out of here. He's cowering in the corner, protecting his head with his arms every time a blasted gun sends a round overhead. I am scared myself but am somehow able to control my own fear. I feel sorry for him at times but now he's getting on my nerves. He must of read my mind because during a break in the shelling he scoots down to the cave. Good. Now I am alone, but not for long. Here comes his replacement, a young cadet officer of course. That's what young men are here for; they have stronger nerves.
A peek at the situation in front of me reveals nothing but smoke and fog swirling around, moving north, being met by easterly currents. I begin to wonder about my role here: to control and direct a smokescreen for the protection of our troops. The plan looked fine on the drawing board at the Fire Control Centre a day earlier.
I have not been informed about the situation in front and to the left of us but I can sense what is going on. For instance, when the cadet officer from the mortar platoon tries to move sandbags, he draws a long blast from a machine gun and barely manages to duck in time to avoid being hit in the head. We haven't been shot at from that direction until now, thus confirming my uneasy feeling that we are being more closely watched by the Krauts.
With the increased shelling of our OP, the telephone lines get hit often and need frequent repairs. The men are almost dead on their feet. To ease the pressure on them, some attempts have been made to send men up from below whenever the lines need repair but when the shelling gets too close, they have to turn back or lose their lives. On top of everything, one of the shells explodes very close to the cave's entrance, filling it with a cloud of dust and dirt and putting the radio out of action. Luckily, no one was hit.
At times I have no communication at all. If I order the men to repair the line as shells are landing near them, it will amount to certain death. I take my time, leaving the decisions to the men themselves. I'm sure they will do the job when conditions improve and they don't let me down. I am very proud of them and tell them so. They are very pleased.
Around noon a miracle happens. THE gun stops shelling us for good. Now that we can breathe more easily, my first thought is: "Thanks Hania, my love, and thanks to you I'm still alive. I love you. Stay with me my darling, you wonderful girl !"
May 13, 1944
Our guns are still firing away. How much longer can they last? How much longer can the men last? No one has answers to these questions, not until we leave the front line and go south for a well deserved rest and to lick our wounds both physical and psychological. Right now I am dead beat and ready to retire down below to the cave for a rest. It has been a long vigil. Adam comes up and I leave the OP. I haven't slept for three nights, not counting that hour on the 11th during the main barrage. I manage to get down safely and immediately fall into a deep sleep, waking up four hours later, fresh as a daisy.
I wake up to a breakfast prepared by Corporal Bronislaw Karalus, the radio operator. After breakfast I slither up to the OP to relieve Adam. Checking the situation in front of me and finding that nothing has changed, I relax.
After a while I'm at the peepholes again. To my great surprise and amazement I see a German soldier coming up over the crest of the hill right in front of me, stopping there, and looking around as if he were checking the weather. Then he unbuttons his pants and relieves himself facing us. The cheek! Is he nuts or something? Then he does up his pants and sticks his behind at us and slowly disappears down the valley. What an amazing spectacle. Surprisingly no one shot at him although, I'm sure, many watched his foolhardy act.
There is less activity on the front now. Both sides are exhausted. There is some activity in the British sector where some air support is visible. There are rumours of hand to hand fighting. The only thing I can testify to is that, judging by the intensity of the enemy fire, there is increased activity in that sector.
Tonight Teodor is coming up to relieve me sometime after 20:00 hours. Our troops try to make some gains. I get busy with some artillery support but due to the darkness I can't see anything. Shortly before midnight, poor Teodor staggers in, his face pale, drained of blood and colour, complaining about his heart being ready to quit on him. Half an hour later my men and I leave the cave. What took us hours to get up, takes under 40 minutes to get down. Sweaty, hot, unshaven and famished, but deliriously happy to be back in one piece. With a happy yodel from me, our band rides in. For us it is over, for now.
After Monte Cassino
We found out later that the awesome, opening, 6 hour artillery barrage through the night of May 11 and 12 (and, for that matter, all of the subsequent shelling), had done little damage to the well dug-in defenders. When our troops went forward to the attack, the Germans and their weapons simply came out of their hiding places and instantly pinned down our troops with murderous machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. Our men stayed pinned down for the rest of that day of the 12th of May, until the closing darkness enabled them to either withdraw or dig in. When the battle ended on the 18th, I had a chance to see the bunkers in which the German defenders had endured the barrages. Nothing short of an atom bomb would have destroyed them. Rocks, sand bags, railroad ties and steel I-beams further protected the bunkers.
After Monte Cassino the character of the war changed. The front line kept moving as we advanced and the Germans and Italians retreated. Fighting was fierce, with the German defences cleverly thought out with the terrain very much in their favour. Endless rivers, canals and mountains made the defence easier, creating many problems for our advancing troops. But advance we did, slowly but surely.
When the hostilities came to a temporary standstill around Christmas, 1944, our regiment dug in in the area of a small town called Brisighella, near Faenza. During this hiatus, an important event in my life took place. Hanka and I were married on January 18, 1945, in a large church, with guns firing a salute (in the general direction of the enemy). The bride, attended by her best and oldest friends as bridesmaids, Halszka Motoszko and Marysia Podobinska, was given away by Col. Obtulewicz. Majors Kikal and Stypulkowski stood by me as ushers. Thanks to Halszka and her mysterious abilities (with help from her future husband, Captain Bronek Olech) around the Divisional HQ, we had the pleasure of listening to some very fine music provided by the Divisional HQ military band. After the ceremony, the newlyweds retired to an upstairs room at the house of a local "contadino" (farmer) for a seven day honeymoon. After that, back to the grindstone.
The spring of 1945 found us near Ancona, fighting the Gothic Line, the last serious German defence line in Italy. Once we overcame that obstacle, the Corps moved on towards the city of Bologna and the canal before it called Gaiano. Here, with help from the British, who provided several of their flame-throwing tanks called crocodiles, our men could more easily flush the defenders out of their holes. The U.S. Airforce meanwhile, dropped hundreds of small anti-personnel bombs on OUR most forward battalions poised for the attack. Nothing boosts one's morale like "friendly fire." The see-saw battle raged for days, no holds barred. It was brutal on both sides until on the fourth day, it was all over, our boys the victors.
My involvement was, as usual, with the front line platoons and our armoured cavalry. "Old Man" Obtulewicz was very pleased with the part I had played in this battle, which turned out to be our last engagement of the war.
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally, and a few weeks later I found myself in front of our chief, General Anders, who pinned a Virtuti Militari Cross to my tunic.
Ravenna, Cervia, Milan and Naples
Our next orders were to perform mopping up duties more in the character of occupational than fighting forces. For example, the area around Bologna was very Communized, and to keep the lid on the Italian Communists our troops, with their known sentiments towards Commies, were kept there in full view.
But something else, more important by far, was heavy in our hearts. In the Yalta and Potsdam Treaties, Britain and the United States, our Allies, gave one half of our country's territory to the USSR to form the new republics of Ukraine and Byelorus. This territory is where our homes lay. It was shocking. It knocked out the Corps and the morale of our men plummeted. Only by superhuman efforts was an open rebellion against the British army averted. We all felt the same. After all that fighting alongside the British and Americans, we were sold into slavery by our own allies. What a tragic situation.
Our 5th Kresowa Division, made up mostly of men from the eastern part of Poland who had barely survived the gulags and prisons of the Soviet Union, almost fell apart in anger and frustration. We officers had nothing, absolutely nothing to offer our troops in terms of regaining their confidence and trust in our Allies.
The weeks spent in Ravenna and Cervia were full of cautious speculations regarding our future. The beautiful, albeit deserted, Adriatic beaches were almost lost on us. Milan offered very little in terms of excitement, except that it was in Milan where the orders came to return the equipment, trucks, guns, etc. to a depot south of Milan to be crushed into scrap. We wept. The feelings of hopelessness deeply penetrated our minds and souls as we came to terms with the fact that, what friends and relatives had survived the war in eastern Poland were now to be lost once again to the Soviet system, and that we would not be able to return home.
In September 1946, we left Milan by rail transport to Naples where we boarded a ship to Southhampton, England and in 1947, Hanka gave birth to a daughter whom we promptly named Barbara after the Patron Saint of Artillery men. We emigrated to Canada in 1955.