BRONISLAW (BRONEK) SOKOLOWSKI

Deported to Siberia, fought at Monte Cassino

Bronislaw was born in the village of Jablonica Polska in the province of Lwow, on 20 Nov 1910.

 

He attended the Adam Mickiewicz School in Sambor from 1922 to 1930, where the classical curriculum included: religion, Polish, Latin, Greek, German, mathematics, Polish history and contemporary Poland, physics, science, introductory philosophy, health and hygiene.

 

He attended Jagiellonian University in Krakow from 1931 to 1935, earning a Master of Philosophy degree.  The curriculum included geography (particularly economic geography), geology, meteorology, climatology, zoology, ethnography, geographical mathematics, general geography, regional and political geography, philosophy, sociology, and statistics.  His Master’s Thesis was: "The distribution and geographical conditioning of several industry branches in the area of the Krakow Chamber of Commerce and Industry."

  

Bronislaw attended the school for Reserve Artillery Officer Cadets, in Wlodzimierz (Wolyn Province) from 21 Sept 1935 to 28 June 1936. He attended summer training in Przemysl in July/August 1937, and advanced to rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 1 January 1938.

 

Bronislaw (Bronek for short) was a High School teacher whose last posting before the war was at the private "Jozef Pilsudski" business school in Drohobycz.

 

He married Halina Szymanska on the 1 August 1939, and less than one month later (on 28 August 1939) Bronek was mobilized.  His unit, the 24th Heavy Artillery Company of the 10th Heavy Artillery Regiment, under the command of Major Ragosz, was shipped to Tarnow to meet the advancing blitzkrieg.  Bronek was in the 2nd battery, commanded by Captain Uznanski, and was himself commander of the 2nd platoon, essentially the crew of one gun. 

 

Fighting defensive actions while awaiting the entry into war of the French and British, the unit withdrew in stages until they had been reduced to remnants. Bronek was captured by the Germans near Lwow but was released shortly thereafter, since the Germans had overshot their pre-arranged border with the Russians and had to withdraw.  The following is his account:

"We loaded onto the trains at the Zurawice railway station near Przemysl on 2 September and unloaded at the front near the town of Tarnow on the 3rd, then withdrew from Pilzno to Przemysl.  On the 16th, after the destruction of our battery by aircraft, I am in retreat. Second Lieutenant Schwarsinger was killed and the other 2nd Lieutenant, whose name I do not remember, was wounded and taken to hospital. On my own initiative I shot all of the heavily wounded horses, took the wagons carrying ammunition and rifles and headed towards Lwow. On the way, the remaining wagons were destroyed by artillery fire. Sergeant Cadet Zajda and I made it to Brzuchowice where I met up with other members of my unit. I received the order to bring the remnants of the unit to another location, where I received the order to surrender.  Rather than do so, Sergeant Cadet Zajda and I headed off toward Zolkiew.  I was captured on the 22nd by the Germans. After half a day as a POW, the Germans ordered us to go home, which I reached on 27 September. I resumed my duties as a teacher at the secondary school in Drohobycz the very next day."   

 

The Germans murdered 40% of the Polish University professors and 50% of the doctors and lawyers in their zone of occupation. 

After the war of September 1939 was over and the Kresy provinces were occupied by the Russians, Poles had to endure ethnic cleansing by area minorities and local communists. This went on for years.

The Russians began to shoot, imprison or deport any Pole whom they felt might be a threat to Communism. After the military, militia, business owners and intellectuals were taken care of, they went after fatherless families and the poor. Once they ran out of capitalists, they went after the very minorities they had originally liberated from the ‘Polish Imperialists’. When they ran out of those, they began to turn on their own.

‘Free’ elections for local officials had only one name on the ballot and, on October 29, 1939, a referendum on becoming Russian citizens was held. There was only one possible answer on the ballot.

Polish communists, initially elated by the arrival of Russian troops and a Communist government, became disillusioned with the reality of the Russian system. Some were driven into such despair that they committed suicide.   

Deported to Siberia

 

On 10 February 1940, Bronek was ‘taken’ by the NKWD from his flat in Drohobycz to be deported to the Russian Union. His wife, Halina, who had witnessed his arrest, joined her husband voluntarily.

On the coldest night in decades, they were taken by horse cart to the train station where, by coincidence, they met Bronek's family (his mother, two sisters and his brother) who were taken from the family farm and were being deported on the same train. They were loaded into cattle cars, and the entire family was sent to a work camp in Siberia (near Omsk) where they suffered until liberation. Their work consisted of tapping pine trees in order to collect the resin, which was shipped to the Russian chemical industry.

That first summer, the work camp suffered an outbreak of typhoid, resulting in many deaths. Many also died of pneumonia as work in the forests was mandatory unless one had very high fever. From February 1940 to August 1941 approximately 25% of the deportees at this camp died. It is believed that this was actually a low death rate, for a Siberian slave labour camp.   

'Amnesty' and the Polish Army

 

From the 4 July 1941 to the 1 December 1941, Bronek languished in prison at Tiumen, despite the ‘amnesty’ for Poles that had already been announced. He was serving a sentence on trumped up charges of "counterrevolutionary activities."

A number of men from his camp had already tried to join the new Polish Army, but found that it was not yet prepared. Accommodations, uniforms and rations were all in short supply, so they had returned to the camp to wait for spring. 

On his release from prison, Bronek took on a job as a bookkeeper in the nearby town of Buczyha, on the condition that he be allowed to leave for the new Army in April 1942.  He made his way to Guzar in Uzbekistan and joined the Polish Army on April 22nd. A few months later, he made his way back to the camp to retrieve his family.  On August 31st they all crossed the border into Persia (Iran). Their route took them by truck from Aschabad in Uzbekistan, to the rail head at Mashhad in Iran. From there they journeyed to Teheran, arriving on September 5th.

 

He then parted with his family again in order to catch up with his unit at Pahlevi. Bronek's brother Wladek, was sent to England to join the RAF. His mother and two sisters were sent to civilian refugee camps in Africa.

Bronek contracted malaria in Pahlevi, and was admitted to hospital on the 28 September 1942 and stayed there until 8 October 1942, when both he and the hospital were shipped to Teheran.  In October, his unit was transferred to Kanaquin in Iraq, where Bronek undertook further training for battery commanders and firing officers. In June, at Quisil-Ribat, he received training on mines and booby traps at the Sappers school, and was promoted to lieutenant on 1 July 1943.  Once again on the move, the Army was transferred to Palestine, then Quassasin in Egypt, were Bronek’s unit was christened the 9th PAL or 9th Field Artillery Regiment. Bronek's regiment was re-equipped late in the war as a heavy artillery unit and was then referred to as the 9th PAC or Heavy Artillery Regiment. It was a part of the 2nd Artillery Group, an independent artillery unit available to support any infantry action within the Polish 2nd Corps.

On 4 February 1944, the unit boarded a ship in Port Said and set sail for Taaranto Italy.  The 55,000 strong Polish 2nd Corps (growing to 80,000 by mid-1945) was about to get some revenge against the Germans.

 

First Actions in Italy

The first gun emplacements were positioned in the area of Castel di Sangro by the River Sangro. Action there was followed by battles at the River Rapido and the southern Appenine mountains, all taking place between February 15th and April 23rd. 

The next three weeks were spent preparing for the major offensive against Monte Cassino and the Hitler and Gustav lines of defence which were stretched across the entire width of the Italian peninsula.  American, French, British, Canadian and Polish forces were set to go. The battle began on May 11th with the Poles tasked with capturing the monastery of Monte Cassino.

 

The Battle for Monte Cassino

Bronek was the C.O. of the 4th battery of the regiment's 2nd company. The battery consisted of 4 guns and Bronek oversaw the firing from his sand-bagged command post nicknamed the "stork's nest." Headquarters would relay target coordinates to his post, and he would then pass this on to his gunners over a one-way phone link up. The gunners would use hand signals to acknowledge receipt of the orders. 

  

The 2 Corps artillery barrage began at 23:00 hours on the evening of May 11th. Shells rained down on the German positions in support of the advancing infantry. Bronek’s battery commenced their fire at 23:05 hours and continued non-stop through the night.

During the morning of the 12th, Bronek had to leave his post to visit one of the gunners who had not heard an order to fire. He had only gone 10 steps when the command post was obliterated by a German shell. That missed communication signal had saved his life.

During battles in the mountains, the positioning of cannon was extremely difficult, with mid-range and short-range guns jammed into gullies and ravines, not always pointed in the perfect direction.

 

 

For Britain, war is over, but what to do with the Poles?

At the beginning of WW2, Poland was Britain's most useful ally; defeated for the moment, but full of fight. This special relationship was cemented during the Battle of Britain when Polish pilots proved their worth in the skies above. In those early days it was clear that the Germans were the enemy. The British, however, took a neutral stance with respect to the Poles' hatred of the Russians, particularly since very little news leaked out of the Russian-occupied Polish territories. The Russian Union did not appear to be such a bad place to live. This view was enhanced by the Communist propaganda machine in Britain.

For the British, Germany was definitely the only enemy, when the Germans attacked the Russians in June 1941. Stalin and the Russian Union suddenly took on the role of victim and became a firm ally of the west. For the Poles, the only good thing about the situation was that some of them were allowed to leave Russian prisons and slave labour camps. After the entry of the United States into the war and the arrival of American troops in Europe, the Polish contingent gradually began to fade in importance. 

From 1943 to 1945 as the Russians gained strength and momentum against the Germans, it became clear that they might defeat the Germans and keep heading west. Similarly, as Japan began to lose ground against the United States, the Russians threatened to involve themselves in Japan as well.  Suddenly, the British and Americans found themselves in a race to conquer Germany and Japan before the Russians did.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the Polish Forces in the west had continued to swell to 250,000 men by September 1945, as new recruits were released from slave labour, concentration camps, or POW camps. Forced conscripts from the German army were also assimilated.   As the war with Germany wound down, Polish commanders were strengthening the Polish Armed Forces in the west in preparation for the war against the Russians which they were certain would soon follow.    

The British and Americans increasingly considered the Russians to be a potential new enemy. However, war weariness forced them to compromise with the Russians. In an attempt to keep world peace, Stalin was given great concessions. One of these concessions was Poland itself (along with other eastern lands). Stalin also wanted the British to abandon the Polish Army in the west, and insisted that the British not allow the Poles to march in London's victory parade.

So, what to do with the Poles? With the fighting in the west winding down, there was no plan to transfer the Polish forces to the Pacific War, and they were considered too angry to serve effectively in a policing role. Churchill refused to forcibly repatriate these honourable Allied soldiers, understanding the danger many of them would face in Russian-occupied territory. The only solution was to demobilize the Poles, and hope they kept quiet.

Pressured by Stalin, the British authorities began to limit the ability of the Polish Army to function. To start, assistance to the Home Army was severely curtailed when all flights from Britain and Italy into Poland were discontinued in December 1944.

Churchill and Roosevelt then agreed to hand over eastern Poland to Stalin at the Yalta conference in February, 1945.  Although the fate of their country was determined at this meeting, Polish representatives had not been invited to attend. In February 1945, the British Foreign Office asked the Polish Government to stop sending radio messages to Poland. A few days later the request was expanded to include a ban on all communication with Poland.

On 15 March 1945, the Polish Commanders were told that their units were to be demobilized and the men were given the choice of returning to Poland, or to remaining in Britain. This was particularly difficult news for the Polish 1st Armoured Division which was heading east through the low countries into Germany and had always assumed that it would go on to liberate Poland. 

The final blow for the exiled Poles came on 30 June 1945, when the British and American governments officially recognized Stalin's Provisional Government of National Unity as the effective government of all of Poland (not just the eastern provinces) until free elections were held. As a result, the Polish Government-in-Exile in London lost all authority over its own country. The Communists managed to delay the elections until 1947, when they were certain that they had destroyed most of the opposition.

The London Poles did not give up easily. Efforts to fight Communist domination in Poland continued, but became increasingly uncoordinated and ineffective. The political and military situations in England and Poland were complex and, without sufficient authority, the exiled Polish leaders could not exert much control. In contrast, the Communist administrative, military and security organs in Poland exerted increasingly-powerful control over the land and population. Moreover, the Polish people themselves were ready for some law and order, no matter who provided it. 

From 1945 to 1947, Polish units in the West were transferred to Britain and, through the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC), were disarmed, demobilized and given aid to leave Britain. Of those who arrived in Britain, approx. 6,800 soldiers returned to Poland, while approx. 160,000 soldiers decided to stay in the west. About 120,000 remained in Britain, while the rest moved on to other countries.  

Bronek boarded the "Sea Perch" in Napoli on 8 August 1946, arriving in Liverpool on the 15th. His destination was the Cannon Hall Camp at Cawthorne, near Barnsley in Yorkshire. Once there, he continued to teach Polish soldiers under the umbrella of the Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain.

He was reunited with his sister Zosia and brother Wladyslaw (Wladek) as well as his cousin Stanislaw (Stach) Pola.

Bronek's father, Wojciech, had been in Canada since 1926 and was now a Canadian citizen. He worked for the Canadian International Paper Company at their Kipawa mill in Temiscaming, Quebec, and sent money home to Poland in order to better the lives of his wife and six children.  Luckily, he missed this war and must have been elated to learn that everyone had survived.

With the inevitable demobilization of Polish troops, Bronek began preparing the necessary paperwork to join his father in Canada. This required a sponsorship application from his father (including an accommodation and asset assessment), applications to the Canadian Government, blood work and chest X-rays.

On the 16 April 1947, he became vice-headmaster of the school.   He was also chairman of the Board of Examiners during the matriculation examinations in September/ October of that year.

On November 15th, Bronek was transferred to the camp for bachelor officers at Bruntingthorpe, near Rugby in Warwickshire, then to the Demobilization Camp Nr. 1 at Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk.

New life in Canada

On 27 November 1947, Bronek boarded the "Aquitania" and set sail for Halifax, arriving on December 2nd, then made his way to Temiscaming for a long overdue reunion with his father whom he had not seen since 1926. 

Bronek began to work at the mill where his father worked, in the "blow pits".  He joined the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers, local 233.  In the spring of 1953, after almost 5 years at the mill, the entire family moved to Toronto where Bronek became heavily involved in the Polish community and worked tirelessly on behalf of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, England.

For many Polish exiles, WW2 had not ended as long as their homeland was occupied by the Russians.  In fact, although demobilized by the British government in England, the soldiers of the Polish Forces in the West were not demobilized by the Polish Government-in-Exile.  Many Polish soldiers, within their veterans' organizations, maintained a combat readiness well into the 1950s. This is not as unreasonable as it may sound. Following the Russian takeover of much of Eastern Europe and the dropping of the Iron Curtain, Russian intentions became painfully clear to Western leaders.  For many years, there was an impending sense that a WW3 was looming just around the corner.

 

Bronek retired in 1975, at the age of 65, and spent his remaining years quietly enjoying life.

 

N.B.  Bronek’s wife, Anna Usowicz, made her way to Canada via a different path. 

You can also read her story in the MEMOIRS section of this website.

Bronislaw's parents and siblings, 1918

Bronislaw in High School in Sambor

Bronislaw at University in Krakow

Bronislaw in the Polish 2nd Coprs

Bronislaw and Anna's wedding in Toronto