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Franciszek SZMUNIEWSKI

Franciszek Szmuniewski was born on 3rd April 1909 in Trzebieszow, Poland. He graduated from the Central Military Academy in Lukow in 1933.  The Germans invaded Poland from the west on 1 September 1939, and the Russians invaded from the east on 17 September 1939. They divided Poland between them.

 

Franciszek fought the Germans in the Polish Army during the September Campaign. He was then captured by the Russians and sent to Soviet POW camps in Siberia. When they reached the camp in Siberia, they were told that this is where they would eventually die, but in the meantime, they had to work in order to earn their daily ration of bread.

Aside from the extreme cold in winter, and extreme heat in summer, they had to contend with hordes of mosquitoes and black flies, as well as infestations of bed bugs in the barracks. There were no medical facilities in these camps, and diseases ran rampant, leading to a high death toll.

In June 1941, Germany turned on its ally, Russia. Stalin then quickly changed tactics and allied himself with the west so that the allies could help him defeat the Germans. This led to the signing of the Sikorski-Majewski agreement that called for the freeing of Poles imprisoned in POW camps and labour camps in the USSR, and the formation of a Polish Army in the southern USSR.

The news of this ‘amnesty’ did not reach every camp, but where it did become known, the men and boys soon made plans to make their way south to join the army. For most, this meant walking thousands of kilometres and only occasionally getting on a train for part of the journey.  Many did not make it, and those who did were emaciated skeletons by the time they got there. Franciszek undertook this perilous journey to reach the Polish army in the southern USSR.

Travelling through Siberia, Franciszek managed to locate his wife who had also been deported. On reaching the Polish army, they evacuated to Persia (Iran), where his wife stayed in a field hospital to recover, while Franciszek joined his unit as a Warrant Officer.  As Warrant Officer First Class, he was a sapper - an elite combat engineer - skilled in a variety of military duties, such as, laying of minefields and clearing them, demolition, field defences, road, bridge and airfield construction.

He trained in Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt, fought at Tobruk in North Africa, and then sailed to Italy with the 2nd Corps, where he fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino. During the Italian Campaign, he was part of the 10th Battalion Sappers Corps.

 

His Service # was: 1909/137.    His Monte Cassino Cross # was: 39537.

Franciszek eventually ended up in the UK at Keele Hall, the Polish Officers Headquarters. After Iran, his wife made it to Beirut and worked for the Americans but eventually joined Franciszek in Keele.

After the war, he would often explain that sapper duties were very special. “You cannot be carried away by the chaos of the battlefield. You need complete concentration and internal peace of mind. Often you have to act alone, recognizing the danger spots that could be lurking, perhaps by a river, a road, on a hill. One error, one loss of concentration, can mean the end for your fellow soldiers”.

“Others soon began to understand the sappers! They understood that our mines and traps ensured a good night’s sleep for the infantry. We are the ones who provide the artillery with access to posts located in difficult terrain, who take apart enemy traps and clear the routes for them”.

Franciszek never returned to his beloved Poland. He died in 1991 at the age of 82 years, and his ashes are buried in Leek cemetery in the UK.

Copyright: Szmuniewski family

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