1st Polish Armoured Division
The death of the Polish veteran of the 1st Polish Armoured Division, Czesław Kamiński, caused us great sadness. In a short period of time we had to say goodbye to several Polish liberators, soldiers of an army-in-exile that fought for its own freedom ánd ours. We must never forget how heavy the price was they had to pay because access to their own beloved homeland Poland – their great pride – had been taken away from them. We must not forget them, nor Mr. Kamiński, and that is why I want to honour and commemorate him with this article.
In 2005, Stéphane Briere had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Czesław. This material – by means of a Q&A – was the base of this article. It is a deliberate choice to adjust Czesław’s words as little as possible in order to keep his voice in all honesty. His testimony speaks for itself and there is not much that could be added to it, that would not do any justice to his story.
Through this medium I hope we can give Czesław Kamiński a special place in our hearts and memories and that we will never forget him, just like the innumerable other Polish liberators.
You have our attention, 2nd Lieutenant Czesław Kamiński:
My name is Czesław Kamiński. I was born in Nowogrodek (now Belarus) on January 5th 1925. That is why I was too young to take active part in any campaign before joining the 1st Polish Armoured Division.
My father was arrested by the Russians towards the end of 1939. To this day I do not know what happened to him, however, I have no doubt that he was murdered by the NKWD.
In 1940, I was deported together with my mother and sister to the former USSR Republic of Kazachstan, where I had to work as a forced labourer on a Collective Farm.
Under the Sikorski-Majsky agreement of July 30th 1941, I was freed to join the Polish Army on March 22nd 1942. I was originally posted to the 8th Infantry Division. [The 8th Division originated in Chok-Pak in Kazachstan, this new unit was mainly composed of ex-prisoners from the Russian ‘Gulag’ camps. Their commander was Col. Bronisław Rakowski, Ed.] My division – together with other Polish Units – crossed the Caspian Sea to Persia (now Iran) and thereby came under British Command.
I arrived in Scotland October 17th 1942 and was originally assigned to the 1st Polish Reconnaissance Regiment [C.K.M. or swadron Ciezkich Karabinów Maszynowych, Ed.] where I received my full military training. This entailed: radio operator-gunner, which also involved the use of rifles, machine guns, grenades, 2-Pound Mounted Guns and a variety of other equipment.
After six months I was transferred, just before D-Day, to the Divisional H.Q. Signals Squadron as a radiotelegraphist in the Divisional Command Vehicle, CAV1 (Command Armoured Vehicle). This vehicle was the centre of Divisional operations with General Maczek, Chief of Staff, duty officers and five radiotelegraphists.
Of course, the main object was to achieve the highest standard of military training, with – amongst others – learning how to drive different types of vehicles. It is not easy to sum up all aspects and the right chronological order of this training, as I did not keep a diary of events, which I regret now.
I had two postings: the first with the 1st Polish Reconnaissance Regiment [C.K.M., Ed.] and later with the 1st Signals Squadron [1st Signals Squadron–Battalion Łącznośc, Ed.]. My rank at that time was private, now it is 2nd Lieutenant.
My commanding officer in the first instance was 2nd Lieutenant Jankowski and in Signals Squadron 2nd Lieutenant Young.
On July 29th 1944, the Division landed on the beaches of Normandy at Arromanches. During the night of August 7th to 8th 1944, before taking up front line positions, the Division was bombed by Americans [By this Czesław means the B-17 aircraft bombers, Ed.]. There were a few casualties. Our orders were to attack Falaise with the support of 2000 bombers that were sent to soften up German positions. In anticipation of a need for quick action the ACV1 [Armoured Car Vehicle, Ed.] with General Maczek, Command Staff and four radiotelegraphists in the back, were moved forward, closer to the front line. Two radiotelegraphists were engaged operating radios and two coding and decoding incoming messages. The codes were changed every day.
Bombers, in waves of 60 at a time, started the bombardment in the afternoon. Unfortunately, due to pilot errors, they failed to recognize the terrain and dropped their bombs on our and on Canadian positions instead of German.
As the next wave was coming we could see – because they were flying very low – that their bomb bays were opened. The bombs started to fall closer and closer to our positions.
To save the General and Command Staff it was decided to evacuate them to safety leaving captain Czarnecki and myself on duty to keep in radio contact with the units and to pass them on to the Command Staff. The day was very hot and the terrain sandy. Exploding bombs created clouds of dust which other planes took as a sign that they were over the target, hitting German positions.
At that stage our chance of survival was about 40% and going down as there were hundreds more of planes coming to drop their load.
However, thanks to the Canadian pilot who managed – somehow – to take off in his Spotter plane and signal to the oncoming planes the fact that they were bombing their own troops. That, of course, saved us and many troops and possibly the biggest disaster of the WWII.
We survived. I have no doubt that the constant flow of messages and a few drops of brandy from Captain Czarnecki helped to calm my nerves. I must admit that I was scared, as this was my first close encounter and war. I am also certain that because of that first experience I matured as a soldier. When the dust finally settled, I had a chance to talk to Captain Czarnecki and to reflect on what might have happened. Even now it is difficult to express precisely my real feelings at that time.
Next the Division was ordered to attack Chambois/Mont-Ormel to cut off the only remaining route of escape for the trapped German Panzer Corp.
What followed was a pure hell. It was the bloodiest battle in the history of the division, but also the one that trapped the Germans and prevented their escape. The division accomplished its mission with 100% success.
The victory played a vital role that led to the defeat of the Germans in Normandy. Canadian, American and British Generals who saw the battlefield and the carnage, stated that they have never seen anything like it in their lives. The roads were littered with destroyed tanks, vehicles, guns, horse carts and dead horses. The stench was unbearable. For weeks I could not even look at meat. All this left me with a lasting memory of the horrors of war. I accept it was necessary and I have no regrets of having taken part in it. I am certain that it played an important part in my maturity and to certain extent my outlook on the possibility of being killed.
After receiving necessary supplies of food, ammunition and petrol, the division went in pursuit of fast-retreating Germans. During this action two ACV’s (number 1 and 2) stopped for the night in a field. The vehicles were parked alongside each other, with about 10 metres space between them. As I was off duty, I and the dog we had with us – we called him Cygan - Gipsy – retired for safety under ACV1. How long I slept I do not know but I was awoken by a tremendous explosion. For a few moments I was not sure what happened and then I saw the other ACV was on fire. Apparently a German bomb exploded on the other side of ACV2, killing two of our friends. This was my luck, if one can call it that. Had the bomb exploded between our two ACV’s, both of them would have been destroyed and all of us would have been killed.
What followed was a pursuit of escaping Germans with orders to engage and destroy them. There were still many bloody battles, but the Germans were running so fast that it was at times difficult to keep up with them.
The towns we liberated were: Chambois, Rouen, Blangy, Abbeville, Saint-Omer, to name a few.
French people in every town, village or farm greeted us with tears in their eyes, visible happiness and gratitude. There were always bottles of wine or calvados. To see those happy faces of young and old people was the highest reward in itself.
I have been back to France on a number of occasions and every time I met with expressions of appreciation, friendly attitude and hospitality.
We liberated these Belgian towns: Ypres, Tielt, Ghent, Sint-Niklaas, Antwerp, Merksplas, again just a few names only. Here too we were met with grafeful people happy to have been liberated. However, my recollections about Belgium are rather vague. As we have never visited Belgium, never been asked to. You will, no doubt, appreciate that one's memory is jogged when, even on rare occasions, one visits some of those places. Sorry but that is the best I can do in this instance.
The Dutch towns we liberated were: Baarle-Nassau, Breda, Tilburg, Oosterhout, Hertogenbosch, Emmen, Ter Apel, Groningen. Dutch people, as in France and perhaps even more so, greeted us as liberators and their gratitude had – and still has – no limit, especially in Breda. Because of the brilliant move by General Maczek the city was practically undamaged. The Dutch people of Breda have given every soldier from the 1st Armoured Division a freedom of the city and a special medal as a token of their appreciation. We also received a special medal, which says “Thank you Liberators” with national flags of Poland, Canada, USA and UK, at the Dutch Embassy last year. It is impossible to differentiate between French and Dutch hospitality as they are both most generous and – what’s more – genuine. For this I will always remember those visits to France and Holland. There is no more that one can say but to thank you all for your friendship and hospitality. Let all of us remember all that we or our parents went through and hope that nothing like that will happen again.
I would like to add one very painful memory. Whilst Polish soldiers were fighting and dying “For your Freedom and Ours”, Roosevelt and Churchil, to some extent, sold our country to Stalin.
The German cities, taken and later occupied by the division: Haren, Aschendorf, Papenburg, Detern, Westerstede and Wilhelmshaven. Meppen was the place where the divisional headquarters were located.
Despite the overwhelming satisfaction that Polish soldiers had entered Germany as victors there was little joy. We would not return to our Homeland, our families and the future looked bleak and uncertain. Military representatives of the British Government tried to persuade us to return to Poland, stating that the British Government guaranteed safety of those who decided to return. The “irresponsibility and stupidity” of such a statement was beyond belief and comprehension. There is now proof as to what happened to some who decided to return. Some of them were sent straight back to Siberia.
It was obvious that the Polish Army and its Government were now a problem. I served in Germany until 1946 when I was transferred to England to work in the P.R.C. (Polish Resettlement Corps) offices. After almost two years I decided in 1948 to discharge myself from P.R.C. and look for a job as a civilian. The only jobs available at that time were menial ones. I joined Mobile Labour Force as a labourer as I had to earn a living and at the same time try and help my mother who returned from Kazachstan with my sister.
After another two years I decided to try a clerical job in the Civil Service.
Eventually, ater passing an entry exam, I got a job in the Post Office Savings Bank. In order to get a promotion or pesion I had to apply for a British Citizenship. This led to my first promotion to a Clerical Officer. Next I sat a new exam and an interview, and having passed that I was transferred to the Post Office London Headquarters and promoted to Executive Officer. After two years I got through another Board and was promotion to Higher Executive Officer. I eventually retired at the age of sixty.
To keep myself occupied I took up a variety of jobs as at my age there was no choice. Some were paid jobs but mainly it was voluntary work for the Limbless Association, Polish Invalids Association, etc. I also helped elderly people with writing for them Last Wills and Testament, in some cases acting as an Executor, helping to obtain assistance for invalids or incapacitated people. I still continue helping my compatriots.
Here is my last and final comment. At the end of the WWII there was a Victory Parade in London represented by units of the countries that fought Nazi Germany, except for the Polish Forces. I considered this as an insult and still do so, as in my opinion the Polish Forces deserved a better treatment.
In an accompanying letter, Czesław mentions that the education for the Daimler Armoured Car was pretty intense. They had to travel through firing ranges where they had to look for popping up targets and decide quickly whether to use the machine gun or the 2-Pounder gun. In a war situation it amounted to the reality that either you killed first or were killed yourself, he added. Czesław certainly remembered the V1 and V2 bombs very well. The V1’s were terrifying because as soon as the noise cutted off, there was no telling when or where the bloody thing would come down. The V2’s were high altitude flying bombs, more accurate and noiseless. The fact that he took the effort to mention it in this interview, shows that this left a lasting impression.
At last, Czesław asked himself: do you believe in premonition?
I didn’t until one day when we were resting in a field in France and one of our escort soldiers became very agitated mumbling “I am going to be killed, I am going to be killed.” He was taken to a nearby German bunker with an orderly. We were under sporadic shelling by the Germans but nothing of any significance. After about an hour an ambulance arrived to take the poor chap to the hospital. Somehow he ran out of the bunker and had run no more than 20 metres when the Germans fired one of their salvos and one shell explode near him killing him on the spot. The orderly who went after him was slightly injured. From that moment onwards, because I witnessed this incident personally, I too started to believe in premonition.
This account was written by Pieter Dejonghe
Czeslaw on the left (S. Briere collection)
Czeslaw with an ACV (S. Briere collection)
Czeslaw on the left (S. Briere collection)
Czeslaw at Normandy commemoration in 2004 (S. Briere collection)