Polish 2nd Corps
I come from the Eastern Borderlands of Poland. I was born in the Podole region, 18th of June, 1920, in the village of Szulchanówka in Czortków County. I spent my childhood and youth in that part of the old country. My father, who had a degree in agriculture, was at that time administrator and manager of the landholding Jagielnica, which belonged to the Lanckoroński family. It was an extensive property, consisting of close to twenty farms.
Both of my parents grew up in Lwów. My father had a degree in agriculture from the Higher School of Agriculture at Dublany, which was affiliated with the Lwów Institute of Technology - hence his Engineer of Agriculture diploma – as well as law, which in those times gave him the diploma of Doctor in Law. Both my mother and father belonged to old gentry families.
My Garlicki great-grandparents were large landowners in the vicinity of Charków. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 my grandparents moved to Poland and settled in Złoczów, where my grandfather was a high school principal. In those times it was a very prestigious position.
In the Polish Armorial, edited by H. Stupnicki and published by Kornel Piffer in Lwów in 1855, under the name GARLICKI it is stated: „GARLICKI, coat of arms Stirrup; an ancient house in Poland, of whom Krzysztof, a royal commander, was killed in the Swedish wars, and another, Aleksander, in the battle of Vienna.”
The family coat of arms is described in the Polish Armorial in the following way: „On a red shield there is a yellow stirrup and a helmet with five ostrich feathers. King Bolesław the Valiant (Chrobry) gave it to one of his cavalrymen who, during a war with Russia, pinned under his fallen horse and unable to get to the sword to attack the approaching enemy, tore off a stirrup and wielded it so bravely, that one of the attackers was killed and another, grievously wounded in the face, surrendered and was taken prisoner. Which prisoner being presented to the king, the monarch justly rewarded the warrior and his successors by putting a stirrup on their coat of arms as an eternal memento of that deed.”
My mother’s maiden name was DOBIECKI, coat of arms Grzymała. This coat of arms was given to the family in the 12th century, in 1129, for the defense of a fortified town against an invasion from the North. In 1309, during a period of interregnum, Piotr Dobiecki was the leader of the gentry of the region of Greater Poland. The Dobiecki family produced many high ranking figures, both in the civil service and in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but we can trace an uninterrupted family line only from the times of the Swedish Wars of the 17th century. Adam Dobiecki, married to Katarzyna Urbańska and bearing an ancient title of miecznik („keeper of swords”), had the honour of pronouncing Jan Sobieski king of Poland in the name of the electoral convocation of the Parliament,. Among the Dobieckis there were many illustrious and distinguished citizens and the family name has survived up to present time.
My mother was educated at a private school – a boarding school girls kept by Mrs. Zagórska; then she attended the College of Rural Housekeeping in Snopków, so she was known as a Snopkowianka (a Snopków girl).
My parents married immediately after the First World War, in 1918, when my father returned from the Italian front. He was a captain in the Austrian army. The ceremony took place in the church of the order of St. Bernard in Lwów, and after the wedding my parents left Lwów for Podole. I was born there on June 18, 1920, so the beginnings of my life are associated with that region.
In 1925 my father became an administrator at the estate of prince Sapieha in Oleszyce near Lwów. After a year there, he took by lease Nowiki near Zbaraż, in the province of Tarnopol. The famous siege of Zbaraż is known from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel „By Fire and Sword”.
Years before the First World War Nowiki, like other neighbouring farm properties, belonged to various descendants of the Dobiecki family. Over time those properties had passed into other hands or were divided up among different owners. My parents lived there for almost nine years. These were relatively hard times for them. The estate, consisting of over 1000 hectares of fields and meadows, was in poor condition due to improper farming methods; the fields were rendered almost infertile. My father had to put in a lot of work to make them bear crop again. Both of my parents embarked on the project with a lot of enthusiasm. Father repaired the buildings, stables, barns, pigsties and improved the livestock, while Mother took care of the house, the vegetable garden and the orchard of over 30 fruit trees. It took several years before the results of all this work were felt.
My parents made some very close and valued acquaintances with their neighbours and Mother became well-known as a model housekeeper. When we came to Nowiki, I was about 6 and my brother was 3. My parents decided that I was not to be sent to the local school and Mother took it upon herself to home school us. She created a plan for every day of the week and stuck to it quite religiously. It included, of course, free play time, which we spent mostly out of doors. Every year we took exams at the county school in Zbaraż, and usually got very good marks.
The village of Nowiki consisted of about eighty farms and 300 to 400 inhabitants. I remember that sometimes village children came to play with us. When I was older I would go out into the fields with my father to watch the work there. We had village men working for us – they were called fornale; also some village women took care of our cows. There were several servants at home and a cook; they did everything under Mother’s supervision.
We had dogs, a shaggy sheepdog and a German shepherd, kept on chains in the courtyard. At night, their chains were hooked to long wires stretched across the road close to the entrance to the house, so they were real guard dogs, who kept strangers away. Very rarely were they released from their chains. They lived in their doghouses and during hot summer days my parents paid special attention to their always having fresh water in their bowls. One of the kitchen maids was responsible for feeding them. All the animals (there were also cats) were treated humanely, but they had their tasks to do - guarding the home or hunting mice - and were not admitted into the house as pets are nowadays.
When we moved to Lwów, my parents wanted to take our German shepherd Hektor with them, but grandfather Stanisław didn’t allow it, since my grandmother was mortally afraid of dogs. Hektor was given to my parents’ friends, who had a big garden in Lwów and agreed to keep him there. The dog always recognised us when we came to visit. The other dog was left in Nowiki with the people who took over the management of the property after my parents. I have no idea whether the dogs survived the war.
In those times, of course, there were no tractors or other agricultural machines. Everything in Nowiki was done by hand or there were some simple machines pulled by horses. Father had his own riding horse, which he used to get to more distant fields (some of them were several kilometers away).
I remember an excursion from Nowiki to Dubno, where Uncle Jerzy Bonkowicz-Sittauer was the head of the county government (starosta). We went in a big horse cart, lined for comfort with straw, and had a great time and lots of adventures. We passed through such historical places as Wiśniowiec and Krzemieniec. I was highly impressed by the castle in Dubno, newly rebuilt by Uncle Jerzy. I remember the splendid apartment his family had there, especially the big dining room with a huge table, round which we ran while playing… What a lot of time has passed since then.
There was no electricity in Nowiki and we had no radio. The telephone was installed during the last year of our stay there. I remember the old-fashioned contraption with a crank on its side, the kind you now see in museums, mounted on the wall. In Nowiki, like in other country houses, there was no plumbing. We had a well with a pump in the courtyard, where water for household use was pumped. In front of the well there was a big trough, from which water was taken for the poultry or for the watering of the garden. Other farm animals, like horses and cows, used the nearby pool for drinking. There were several other pumps next to other buildings*, to use as needed. Water was brought into the house in big buckets and in every bedroom there was a washstand with a washbowl and a slop bucket. A servant had to remember to keep the jug always full of clean water and to haul the grey water away.Baths were a complicated affair. Next to my parents’ bedroom was a little room called a nysza; there was an iron bathtub with white porcelain finish standing there. At bath time, water was heated in huge pots in the kitchen and poured into the tub. Usually the small children were bathed first and the adults took their baths afterwards, in the same water. The dirty water was carried out after the bath and disposed of in the garden. Such a bath took a long time, so every day we just washed at the wash stands, and the bathing in the tub was performed once a week, on Saturdays (since on Sundays we went to church). Cleanliness was important to my parents, and we had to wash our hands before every meal.
Doing laundry was also completely different from the way it is done now. Soap was expensive. The laundry was first soaked for several hours and then boiled in a lye solution (lye was made from ashes). It was then rinsed in water and hung out to dry out of doors in the summer, and in the attic in winter. It was hard work, done mostly by women. Very much like that in the movies about pioneer times in America. I also remember a creek flowing through the village, which formed a little pool close to the manor house. There was a water mill there and I liked going to the mill and watching the millers work very much.
During the summer holidays family from all parts of Poland came to visit us. For me, these were the beautiful years of my childhood.
When I was older I went to school in Lwów. My high school was Stefan Batory Gimnazjum, which both my father and my grandfather Dobiecki had also attended. For some time I boarded in a dorm (called Abrachamowicz), but this didn’t last long, since I got sick and was sent back home to Nowiki. I was very active in all school organizations, such as Scouts, the Sodality of Mary and various sports teams; my parents highly encouraged my participation.
Our family, both on Mother’s and on Father’s side, lived in Lwów. Grandfather Dobiecki was, almost until the beginning of the Second World War, the director of the Savings of Galicia – the second biggest bank in Lwów. All this made the town very dear to me and it is always close to my heart.My ancestors’ graves remain in the Łyczakowski Cemetery in Lwów.
In 1934, Father got a position in Lwów. He was made an inspector of the Provincial (Wojewódzka) Commission of Land Classification. All land in Poland was supposed to be divided into certain categories, according to which the landowners’ new taxes were calculated. Father’s office was in Lwów and he was responsible for all of Lwów province (województwo).
In my high school, the „professors”, as high school teachers were called at that time in Poland, were an enlightened and highly educated group. They had a real calling for their profession and dedicated a lot of their private time to us. I remember that the principal’s name was Bednarowski, and the Polish language teacher was Professor Skulski. I still remember by heart some parts of „Pan Tadeusz”, the great epic poem. There was a lot of rote learning. During geography classes we had to recite the names of the European capitals and draw maps from memory. There was also an emphasis on science. I remember the names of my schoolmates more than of my teachers; there were Niementowski, Cieszyński, Urbański and also Ingarden, who is now a full professor at the Copernicus University in Toruń.
We were brought up in a patriotic and Catholic atmosphere. National holidays were celebrated in a very solemn way. On Constitution Day (May 3rd), Independence Day (November 11), and Soldier’s Day (August 15) there were military parades, in which Boy and Girl Scouts also participated, as well as members of the Sokół sports organization, paramilitary troops and militias. Every parade in Lwów began with the Cadet Corps and closed with the 14th regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers and their band, mounted on white horses.During religious festivals, like Corpus Christi, there were processions outside the churches. All Souls’ Day, Zaduszki, was also duly celebrated. On that day, at the Eaglets Cemetery, the scouts and paramilitary organizations, together with the regular Army guard of honor, staged a roll call of the fallen defenders of Lwów, in memory of the Boy Scouts (eaglets) who fought off the besieging Ukrainian troops in 1919). I always participated in such celebrations.
My parents had numerous friends and acquaintances in Lwów. In many of those families there were young people my age. School was not coeducational, but I knew a number of girls. During the Carnival, it was customary to host private dances at home, called prywatki. These were wonderful parties. What a lot of cherished memories…
At the beginning of the Second World War – September 1st, 1939 – I was in Lwów. I had just returned from a boy scouts trip to Romania and Turkey. A general mobilization was proclaimed all over Poland. The city was full of military personnel and soon the Germans began their bombing raids. I participated in the defense of Lwów, joining the citizens’ anti-aircraft troops. It was soon over. On September 17th the Soviets, without a formal war declaration, crossed the borders and invaded Polish territory. It was the end of our independence. The government, with the president of the Polish Republic Professor Ignacy Mościcki and the Commander in Chief General Rydz Śmigły evacuated to Romania, where they were temporarily interned.
The Soviet army entered Lwów on September 22, 1939. That period, so short in time, left an indelible mark on me. Nobody in Poland was prepared for this, nobody expected such a turn of events.A few days after the army arrived in Lwów all the administration of the area was taken over by the NKVD (the famous Soviet security forces) and Soviet civil authorities.
The first arrests were made in the beginning of October 1939. NKVD forces came to our appartment and took my Father away. This happened late at night. We were all ordered to sit down on my mother’s bed and a soldier with a rifle aimed at us stood guard. There was quite a number of people at home: my mother, my younger brother Andrzej and I, two gentlemen friends of my Father, who had taken refuge with us, and a nun disguised as a housemaid (the Soviets persecuted nuns).
A search was performed throughout the house; everything in the wardrobes and chests of drawers was thrown out onto the floor. The agents were supposedly looking for guns, but there were none. The only thing they found was my scout knife, which they confiscated as a „dangerous weapon”.It was a horrible, unforgettable moment. They said they were taking Father away to interrogate him and then he would be released. It was only after a couple of months that my mother found out that Father was being kept in Zamarstynów prison.We never saw him again. He was sent to Starobielsk and, probably sometime in 1941, died of emaciation while being transported to a prison camp in the vicinity of Omsk. Such was the official information that Mother received through the International Red Cross in Geneva, when she searched for news of Father after the war.He is included in the Katyń list, among the prisoners of Starobielsk, under the heading „Captain Tadeusz Garlicki”.
A few days after Father’s arrest, a schoolmate of mine, a Jew – I can’t remember his name now – came to see me at my parents’. He stopped at the door, red band on his left arm, said: „Janek, don’t you sleep at home” and left immediately. It was a warning that my name was also on the list of people to detain. He probably worked with the police and had access to such information. From that time, I stopped sleeping at home. Seeing that there was nothing I could do in Lwów, I decided, after a family council, to leave my beloved town, cross the border to Romania or Hungary and from there travel further west, to join the Polish army in France, at that time already being organized by general Sikorski.
The visit of my schoolmate and his warning precipitated that decision. Getting across the border was not an easy task. From the very beginning it was closely guarded by the special forces of the Soviet Army, so called border troops, helped, alas, by local villagers, since in such circumstances there are always willing volunteers, counting on personal gain. After two failed attempts, we tried to cross at Nadwórna at the end of November 1939. The first attempt to enter Romania had been in Kuty; where we were caught by local Hucul people, but managed to buy our freedom. The second time was at Worochta, with the same outcome. On the third attempt we were going in a big group, about 90 persons, mostly from the military and the police, as well as young people like me.
After a night of marching along mountain trails we were almost at the border posts of Rafajłowska Pass, when sudden machine gun fire stopped us in our tracks. We were trapped.Escape was nearly impossible. Most of us were surrounded and detained. Many were wounded, myself included.Rafajłowska Pass was well known to us from history.
We were imprisoned in Nadwórna and, by the end of December, taken to Stanisławów. The very day of Christmas Eve, after a strict personal search, we were loaded into railway cattle cars and the journey East began.The train had about 40 cars, some 50 – 60 prisoners to a car. The misery of the cramped conditions was heightened by the constant checking of our numbers and banging on the car bottoms with huge hammers, to make sure that nobody was preparing to escape. One day the train was stopped between stations, on a side track, and a few cars were thoroughly searched. I have to say that the NKVD had its own, reliable methods for such operations. We were taken outside into the snowy field, ordered to strip and the agents searched through our clothes and the cars’ interiors. Armed soldiers kept us at the tips of their bayonets while this was going on. It took quite a long time, since our health was not their concern. Many of us got sick after that and died of pneumonia.
After ten days the train reached Odessa. Under the cover of night – of course! – the guards transferred us to a jail. We were the first group of prisoners brought from occupied Polish territories. spent 18 months in the Odessa prison. It was a horrible time, since the conditions there were so dismal. We were depressed by idleness and the uncertainty of how long the imprisonment would last was unbearable.
We were totally cut off from life outside and no contact with families was allowed. In spite of this, we were convinced that all this must somehow end, since we knew that the war was not finished as long as Finland bravely resisted the Soviets. Finland, a small Baltic state with a population of five million, courageously stood up to the Soviet invasion and, in 1941, took Germany’s side in the war against the Soviet Union.
Interrogations were our worst nightmare. I myself was interrogated three times. Every time the interrogator was different and invariably he began in the same manner: father’s name, mother’s name, grandfather’s, grandmother’s names, what were their occupations, their livelihood, to what organizations did they belong etc. etc. They had a list of such questions and kept strictly to it. After each session they wanted me to sign a record. I refused, since the facts in the record were always inaccurate, falsified and untrue. I was accused of counterrevolutionary activities (scouting) and participation in a violent organization (Sodality of Mary), whose goal was, supposedly, counterrevolution.
In order to force people into confession various methods were used, including torture, like smashing fingernails, forcing wood chips under them or impaling on a stool leg. After such an „operation” I fainted and then bled for a few weeks, before my wounds healed. I couldn’t walk and thought my life was coming to an end. What helped me survive those horrors was my strong faith and the help of my fellow prisoners.
I could write a whole book about those 18 months in the Odessa prison. Almost every day brought unpleasant surprises. Discipline was very brutal and strictly enforced by all the guards. For any trifling misdemeanor, like talking during walking time or not keeping one’s hands behind one’s back, prisoners were punished with detention in a karcer. These were special dungeon cells, completely empty, without a bunk to lie or sit on, and flooded on purpose with water, so that one had to stand for days. When, after a couple of days, the prisoner got feverish, he was sent back to his cell or sometimes to the prison infirmary. While in karcer, he got half of his daily food portion. Bedbugs were a plague in their own right, which I suspect were especially raised and encouraged to breed there. They lived in the crevices of the walls and ceiling; the moment the prisoner leaned against the wall, they crawled onto him and bit, and there were also still more beastly ones that dropped on him from the ceiling. You were put into such cell for three to five days, depending on the severity of your „crime”.
According to the regulations, a prisoner had the right to take a bath at least once a week. In practice, we were granted this privilege once a month, and towards the end of my stay much less frequently than that. In the bathhouse our hair was cut, we were shaved and our clothes were deloused, which meant that they were put into hot ovens, where all the lice were supposed to perish. Unfortunately, the lice in Soviet prisons had adjusted to this treatment and survived high temperatures. The baths were serviced by Soviet women prisoners, usually rather young, who piled verbal abuse on the older men among us. These women were serving minor sentences for petty crimes; many of them were vulgar prostitutes.
Towards the end of my period the Soviet-German war began and there were air raids on the city and port of Odessa. We started having hopes of soon being free again.Then one day I was summoned from my cell and read a sentence of the Soviet court, given in absentia. Based on paragraph 56 and 64, which meant counterrevolutionary activities and an attempt to cross the border illegally, I was sentenced to eight years of slave work in prison camps (gulag). I was told that I was being treated unusually leniently, since I should have gotten a much harsher sentence, maybe even a bullet through my brains. After the reading of the verdict I didn’t return to my cell. The next day, together with a number of other inmates, we were transferred to another prison, in Charków.
At that very time the executions of the Starobielsk prisoners were taking place there. Night after night we heard shots; these were the executions being carried out in the basements of the prison. Only after many years, having studied the story of the Starobielsk prisoners (for me especially painful, since Father was among them), I associated in my mind those shots during the night with the death sentences being carried out. After a couple of weeks in the Charków prison, there came another round of thorough searches and we were herded into railway cars. The train went north; asked where we were going, the guards answered: „You’ll see” (ovidish). The journey lasted several days; we were given almost no water and half a salted herring per person to eat.
One day during this trip the train stopped at a station near Moscow. Next to our car a steam engine came to a stop and we saw an engineer reading a newspaper. He asked who we were; we said „Poles”. On hearing this, he rolled up the newspaper, looked around to check where the guards were and slipped the newspaper through the window into our car. In this way we learned the news that there were talks going on between Sikorski and Malski, that the Soviet Union was willing to recognize the exiled government of Poland and that an agreement regarding the creation of a Polish Army on Soviet territory was to be signed by Stalin. This scrap of Moscow Truth with a photograph of Sikorski and Stalin on the first page and an article about the establishment of the Polish Army was a treasure cherished beyond anything else. It is hard to describe the enthusiasm we felt…The NKVD, however, had no new orders, so according to their previous instructions they escorted us to camp Vorkuta #2. Freedom was not yet for us.
Vorkuta was a huge agglomeration of camps which few prisoners ever survived. There were thousands of inmates there of all nationalities and races. I lived for three months in Vorkuta, though it seemed like ages. The work was extremely hard, beyond the physical capabilities of a human being. We worked in teams, from dawn till late night, and were fed in proportion to the amount of work we did. Usually none of the teams were able to fulfill the imposed daily norm, so nobody got full rations. In the morning we were given a piece of bread, a lump of sugar and „kipiatok” (hot water). The main meal was eaten in the evening; it consisted of thin soup and a bit of cereal. Meat or vegetables were unknown, so most of the people got sick due to lack of vitamins and died of general exhaustion. The death rate in the camps was unbelievably high. Almost every night somebody died in the hut and his bunk was immediately taken, since the upper ones were much warmer and gave a better chance of survival.
There was a stove in the middle of the hut, where a fire was kept day and night. We dried our clothes in front of it and whatever „life” there was after work happened there. The plank beds were piled in three tiers; the best were the upper ones, for which fights took place. It was a fight for life, a fight for survival.
When I arrived, I was ordered to join a team which hauled timber out of the water. It was a very hard work, since it had to be done in a very primitive way, using only ropes and manpower, at temperatures of between minus 10 and minus 20 Centigrade. I was quite emaciated after my long imprisonment. The foreman looked at me and asked who I was. I told him I was a student. We talked and he assigned me to collecting firewood and keeping the fire going, since every hour people came to the fire to dry themselves. If it were not for him, the work there would have been the end of me. This man enabled me survive. He was a Russian who had been sent there for Trotskyism. He had been in Vorkuta for ten years and had no hope of ever walking free again.
I could write volumes about Vorkuta. When later I told people what I had gone through, my army colleagues who hadn’t survived the gulags and prisons of Russia reacted with disbelief. The British, for instance, were quite convinced we were lying, and accused us of spreading vicious propaganda against their allies. Therefore, I became cautious and rarely talked about my ordeal. The world only came to believe when Solzhenitsyn’s books were published and translated into virtually all languages. The books by Józef Czapski and the memoirs of General Anders were only translated later.
Every day in the Vorkuta camps the prisoners had to participate in a rally with a political officer (politruk), who announced the news and gave indoctrinating lectures that the inmates had to listen to. For us, Poles, these political meetings were especially humiliating, since the politruk piled abuse on the Polish nation, made fun of us in an insulting manner, criticized everything Polish and praised only the Soviet nation and its leaders. One day, the same politruk began the meeting with the following invocation: „I appeal to you, Poles, you, heroic soldiers, who were the first to stand up to the aggressor in defense of freedom and fought against our common enemy – Germany, with whom the invincible Soviet Union is at war today.”Our surprise was boundless; it was something totally unexpected. We never thought our release might look like this! That day, at the close of the meeting, nobody sang the International; instead, we Poles sang our national anthem Poland has not perished yet. It was the joyous day of our release from camp Vorkuta #2.
The next morning we were not sent to work, but were summoned to the office and each issued a udostavirenya – an ID in the Russian language. We were told to take all our personal belongings and (without an escort!) we walked to the railway station, where there was a special train waiting for us. The cars were similar to those in which we travelled to the Odessa prison. We were given food rations, the portions of bread being somewhat bigger than what we had received in prison. We were instructed to choose car overseers from among ourselves; they were summoned to report during the trip, received our dry food rations, etc. The commander of the train was an NKVD officer. Our train stopped – sometimes even twice a day – at stations where there were special canteens that served hot meals. We were fed the same way as the Soviet troops when they were transported towards the front. Our train fell under the category of voyenniy zastav – war transport.
Our journey south began. It is difficult to describe the mood that reigned among us; we were enjoying our freedom, singing military and patriotic songs. The doors to the cars were open; the only hard thing was to get used to the idea that so few of us survived to see this moment.The estimation goes that there had been about three thousand Polish citizens in that one camp, and the handful who were released numbered 296 persons. The train grew larger, as cars from other camps were added to it. After a couple of weeks we reached Buzuluk, where General Anders, just released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, had established the Polish Army headquarters. Buzuluk was packed full of people. In the beginning, the Soviets had agreed only to the formation of one Polish division – 15,000 men - but the politicians hadn’t yet set the numbers of the army being organized now.
A Polish communication officer didn’t let us leave our cars and the whole train was directed further south.After several days, we passed Tashkent, Samarkanda, and reached the town of Farab, on the banks of the Amu-Darya river. We were ordered to board the barges; the idea was to get us temporarily quartered in various collective farms, until more units of the Polish Army were formed.
Our barges sailed down the Amu-Darya to a place called Nukus, in the estuary of the river, where it flows into the Aral Sea. Winter came with freezing temperatures and we were still in the rags we had been wearing when leaving the camps. We were also starving. Our rations were a small piece of bread and a modest meal in the canteen once a day.
Our main occupation was killing lice, which we couldn’t get rid of. Getting hold of any additional food was not an easy task, since we had no money of any kind. In a few days all the stray cats and dogs in Nukus disappeared.
We spent the Christmas holidays there and after a few weeks, by mid-February, the authorities from the War Committee (voyenkomat) organized our transport back on the Amu-Darya. Then, by train, we reached the town of Kermine. We passed through the draft board and a special intelligence interrogation. We reported the first and last names of people with whom we had served time in prisons and camps, and also of those who we knew had died or been executed.
The road to the army was long, but at last we were wearing uniforms: British battle-dress, overcoat, hat and boots. It was March 1942.
In Kermine, typhoid fever spread like fire among the troops, killing many people. I was not spared. One day I got a high fever and was taken to the military hospital, set up in an old school building. After a few days I lost consciousness. The doctor on duty Thought I was ready for the morgue and ordered me out to make room for other patients. And so I was taken on a stretcher to an unheated barrack and, as a dead person, put on top of a pile of bodies. After some time, another body was brought in; the stretcher bearers saw me move and I was taken back to my hospital room. After a few hours, I regained consciousness.
All this was told to me by the Polish nurses, who took very good care of me.
After ten days I left the hospital and was sent to a so called collecting station, from where I was to join my army unit. That same night, we boarded a train and, as usual in strict military secret, were taken to Krasnovodsk, a port on the Caspian Sea. A tanker ship was waiting for us there; we boarded it and after a few days arrived in Pahlevi – a port in northern Persia.
So ended my sojourn in Russia.I owe my survival to Providence, and to the special protection of the Holy Mother, who has always extended her care over me throughout my life.
The Polish Army Under British Command
My service in the army under British command began the day I came to Pahlevi. Before going anywhere, we had to undergo a ten day quarantine, which was spent in a camp set up on the sandy beaches of Pahlevi. It was there that, out of the blue, I met with my brother Andrzej. A sudden change in food and climate had made many of us sick with stomach ailments. The remedy was to go to the medical office in a big tent. There the names of the patients were called out. Among those waiting was one of my brother’s friends. He was surprised to hear his last name and mentioned it to my brother. Andrzej hurried to that tent right away and found out where I belonged. Then he spent an entire day searching for my unit. Finally we stood face to face and - we didn’t recognize each other. I must explain that my weight at that time was 45 kilograms (100 lb).
It is time to add here what happened to my mother and brother. In March of 1940 they were sent to the Semipalatynsk oblast in Kazakhstan, as part of the so called „free transport”. Mother left Russia with a group of other civilians attached to the Polish Army, and ended up in Tehran in the civilians camp. From there the elderly persons and children evacuated from Russia were sent to temporary accommodations in India and Africa. Mother went to Nairobi, Kenya. We finally met again in 1946, in England.
After the ten days of quarantine, we were deloused again, issued new uniforms and thoroughly examined by doctors. Then the troops were moved to Palestine. The first leg of the journey took us to Baghdad. The drivers were Persians. During the second part of the trip, British Transportation Troops took over the convoy. It was an arduous journey. We disembarked in what was virtually a desert, although the tents had already been put up. Our regular military routine began. On May 3, 1942, we took the soldier’s vows.
In Palestine we met the famous Carpathian Brigade, which, having finished their fighting in Northern Africa, withdrew from Libya to get a well-deserved rest. After several months in Palestine, around December 1942, we were transferred to Iraq, where we joined other Polish troops, brought there during the second evacuation from Russia. At this time the army was reorganized and all the various troops were joined together into the II Polish Corps under the command of General Władysław Anders.
During military training in the Middle East, I took various courses and graduated from podchorążówka, our military college, where very quickly I became acquainted with the art of war. In February of 1943, I graduated from the military academy and was assigned to the Seventh Regiment of Mounted Artillery. It was a light artillery regiment. The Corps had four artillery units at that time: the 10th and 11th Regiments of Heavy Artillery, the 7th Regiment of Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery and our 7th Regiment. After a few days of leave, during which I said good-bye to my friends, I was sent to a transition camp in Egypt.
The transition camp was close to Cairo, so our free time was spent exploring that exotic city. The excursion to see the pyramids and the Sphinx was extremely interesting. Unfortunately, our time there was very short. After a few days we boarded a ship in Port Said and under cover of night, in a complete black-out, set out to sea. When dawn came, we saw we were part of a convoy of about forty ships, guarded by men-of-war. Four counter-torpedo craft, a hospital ship and other armored vessels were the shield of the convoy. All the ships were going at the same speed, keeping their distance like figures on a chessboard.
Our ship, the S.S.Batory, was the flagship, which meant it gave orders to the others when we changed course by 120 degrees. We were travelling in zigzags in order to mislead the enemy submarines. German submarines diligently patrolled the Mediterranean, having their bases on Crete and in the ports of northern Italy and southern France. As an artillery cadet, I was given a post at the anti-aircraft gun. On every ship there were four medium caliber guns mounted on raised platforms; each had a crew of five people. We usually had duty twice within 24 hours, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. At the very beginning of the journey there were exercises and alarm drills in order to familiarize the crews with the routine of working together. We even used live ammunition, but I never saw German planes.
After a few days, while I was on duty at the gun, the alarm sounded and all the troops lined up on the upper decks, wearing life vests. The anti-aircraft guns began shooting and the escorting ships dropped depth charges. The view of high fountains of water erupting around our ships was quite splendid; I had never seen anything like it before. These exercises did not last long. It was only at the end of our trip that we were told that a German submarine had been detected nearby at that time and promptly forced to flee.
The sea passage was on the whole quite monotonous, with capricious weather, a lot of rain and fog, and at night complete black outs; it was forbidden even to light a cigarette on deck. Add to this the fear of enemy submarines and it’s clear that we couldn’t be in a very upbeat mood. One night, towards the end of the trip, there was a great jolt. The troops sleeping in their hammocks were thrown out on the floor, the engines stopped working and the alarm sounded automatically. We knew that something must have happened. Everybody quickly put on his life vest and we rushed out to the pre-established sites on deck. It was dark and we were forbidden to move. After some time (every minute seemed extremely long) the officers from the ship’s crew got into a lifeboat and examined the outside of the ship. It all took a long time; after a few hours the alarm was cancelled and we returned to our quarters below deck. One engine started working and the ship continued on its way, somewhat leaning to one side.
With daylight, we saw that we were alone in the open sea, with just one escorting man-of-war. It was a very unpleasant feeling, to be left behind by our convoy. We sailed in this way for three days before arriving in Taranto, a port in southern Italy. The convoy reached it much earlier. After disembarking we saw the damage to the ship, caused by a collision during the trip. The bows of our ship had been knocked in and a storage compartment, containing the soldiers’ kits, had been flooded with water. We found out that our ship had run into the side of one of its companions, smashing it about two meters deep. In that very spot there had been a platform with a gun, which fell into the sea with its crew. No one had been saved. There were no casualties onboard our ship. I had survived a sea catastrophe.
From the port we set out to our units. My 7th Regiment camped in the olive orchards close to the town. There were 5 cadets ( podchorąży), and each of us was assigned to a different unit. Mine was the third battery* (dywizjon).The regiment was preparing to move towards the front, and the actual move happened a few days later. Only at that moment did we realize that we were leaving for the front lines. We started early in the morning in a long column. Driving through the towns and villages of southern Italy we saw destruction similar to what we remembered from our country. The local people were almost nowhere to be seen, since we were approaching the front.
At certain moment the column stopped. We were close to the front and the road was under German observation. Soon we were showered with artillery salvos, several dozens of them. Everybody jumped out of the cars and found shelter wherever they could; the moment the bombardment stopped, the column went on. This was my first taste of battle. In our battery, a few soldiers were slightly wounded. They were immediately taken away to a medical post.
We reached our destination late at night. Right away we had to camouflage our positions, since we were officially part of the front. From that moment my frontline service began, which lasted with a few interruptions till the end of the war.
We spent a couple of weeks at the foot of Monte Marone – such was the name of the mountain at which we stopped. It was a period of getting used to life at the front. Nobody among us knew how long it would last or what kind of future awaited us. We didn’t think about it, everybody was just doing his duty. On Easter Sunday the Germans attacked our infantry positions. Immediately, we started barrier fire, artillery fire delivered in front of your own troops in order to stop the enemy attack. The Germans retreated.
We didn’t stay long in this location, since we were there just to get acquainted with battle conditions – most of our troops were new to the war scene. After a few weeks an order came for us to change positions. As is usual in the army, everything was top secret and we didn’t know where we were going and what awaited us in the next place.
Changing positions in mountainous terrain can be very difficult for artillery. It is routinely done at night, in a complete blackout, since the enemy is trying to watch your movements. We entered a very narrow valley in the mountains, where we could quite frequently hear artillery fire. In many spots there were camouflaging nets spread overhead. It was a hard and arduous trip, since in places we had to pull the cannons over the obstacles by hand. Close to dawn we reached our new position. The next day the preparation work started; we had to dig in, make platforms for our cannons, and stock huge amounts of ammunition. All of this pointed to some kind of big battle or major offensive. I don’t remember the exact number of shells stocked for each cannon, but it must have been a three-digit number. Command posts at the Regiment and lower levels started calculating hundreds of enemy targets according to the data sent to us by our superiors. We then realized that we had moved into the valley of the Liria River, at the foot of Monte Cassino and Monte Carlo, which were heavily fortified by the Germans. The front had stalled there during the long winter months. The valley was constantly filled with smoke, so that the enemy couldn’t observe the movements of the troops. All the Second Corps, under the command of General Władysław Anders, was concentrated in this area. The preparations lasted several weeks. The Germans kept firing all the time, trying to wear us down. Our artillery was mostly silent, so as not to reveal its positions.
May 12 arrived and the observers were sent out, one group from each battery. My function was that of a scouting petty officer*, so I was employed at the command posts of the battery. Orders came indicating “zero hour” – the time of attack. This was the beginning of the great offensive along the whole length of the Italian front. should add that on our left wing was the 5th American army, which became famous for taking the bridgehead at Anzio. The French Expedition Corps was positioned on our right wing, and then the units of the British 8th Army, which contained our Corps. The 8th British Army was at that time under the command of General Alexander, who became the Governor of Canada after the war. The Battle of Monte Cassino began with artillery fire, four hours prior to the attack by our infantry. A hundred cannons began firing almost within a second, aiming at previously established targets. The targets were chosen very carefully, since not only the trajectory of the missile, but also the terrain and atmospheric conditions were taken into account. When the artillery began firing, it made the night seem as light as day, since all the regiments of the Second Corps were participating, and they were fourteen of them, including special regiments of heavy artillery and the cannons of anti-aircraft artillery, which were used here for a land action.
The first attack of our infantry was, unfortunately, not successful and our troops suffered heavy losses. We had to regroup and introduce armored weapons, which was very difficult due to the mountainous terrain. After heavy fighting, on May 18th, the Polish flag was raised on the ruins of the fortifications at Monte Cassino, indicating our victory. The Polish troops had fulfilled their task, broken the German defenses and opened up the road to Rome (the famous Via Appia) to the allied armies. We were then unaware of the human cost of the victory; only years after the war we learned that almost one thousand Polish soldiers had died at Monte Cassino and close to two thousand had been wounded.
After the battle we were moved to the rear to rest. It was a time to do laundry, to clean the equipment and, first of all, to take respite from the sleepless nights and days of hard soldier’s work. Then orders came and we were transferred to new positions. This time all our units - and our regiment first of all - were brought to the eastern side of the Italian peninsula, where the front was close to the town of Pescara. We relieved British regiments there, and were soon in pursuit of the enemy, who was quickly retreating to the north all across the peninsula. The front was changing swiftly, moving a few to a dozen kilometers per 24 hours. The Germans, while retreating, were mining everything diligently, in order to make it more difficult for our troops to overtake them. We had to deal with all kinds of traps that the enemy had prepared for us. Not only every road and path was mined, but also the perimeter of the buildings and the inside of them was full of mines. The engineer (sapper) units had their hands full and were unable to disarm every single mine, so one had to be very careful when moving ahead. For instance, one of the infantry units came to a country house where there was a piano in the living room. One of my fellow cadets from the military academy could play and sat at it, but the moment he hit the first keys a mine exploded and destroyed the piano, wounding him badly. Another case involved a farm where a soldier went to the outhouse and a mine exploded there, wounding his backside dangerously. I myself also had an adventure with an exploding mine, when we were going to scout our new positions. I was in the second of two pick-up trucks, and our driver was following the tracks of the first one exactly, when an explosion flipped our vehicle upside down and I landed in a ditch ten meters away. We were lucky, since apart from one soldier who suffered a slight face injury, nobody was really harmed.
The fighting along the Adriatic coast was a quickly changing scene. The enemy was retreating fairly speedily, and the attacking forces had to secure terrain that was often treacherous, including mountains, rivers and frequent surprises of the kind I described above. A pursuit group was created, consisting of three armored cavalry* regiments plus our artillery regiment as a supporting unit. When we reached the town of Loreto our regiment commander got an order to install an observation point in the town. A group of soldiers left to secure it, but met resistance. A sniper with an automatic weapon killed the commanding officer, Lieutenant Sikorski. When the tragic news reached our commander by radio, I was given the post of my dead colleague. There was no more resistance when I reached my group of soldiers, since in the meantime infantry units had swept through the place and cleared it, so I could secure the observation point without further difficulties. For the next few days I commanded the firing from our post, cooperating with the supporting unit commander.
In a dozen weeks we were close to the big port of Ancona. The front stalled there, for the Germans were keen on evacuating as much of the equipment stored in the port as possible and were putting up a fierce defense. During the next stage we moved to the area of Ancona and prepared for another – after Monte Cassino - big battle that our troops fought in Italy. I participated in it as an artillery observer attached to the 6th Armored Regiment of the 2nd Tank Brigade, called the Regiment of the Lwów Children. During the action I met a schoolmate of mine, Janek Kochanowski, who was a commander of a tank platoon.
The details of our campaign could fill a sizeable book. In general, I must say I count my frontline service as one of the harder times in my life. One was never sure what might happen at any given moment and the constantly changing circumstances stressed one’s nerves, however, having others under my command, I couldn’t show any nervousness.
After six months, our regiment retreated from the frontline and we enjoyed several weeks of much needed rest. We spent this time in a little mountain village close to Assisi. After that, our units underwent a reorganization and we were given another task. The Corps moved into the mountainous terrain near Predapio, where the ex-dictator of Italy, Mussolini, was born. He had a palace in that town. It is there, in November 1944, that I was given a promotion. Just when I was leaving for an observation point as a scouting commander* of the 6th battery of the third dywizjon*, I received an un-coded telegram by phone. By order of the Commander-in-Chief, I had been promoted, for my battle deeds, to the rank of artillery sub lieutenant. It was a great honor for me, as well as proof of recognition of my service.
In the spring campaign our regiment supported the units of the 5th and 3rd infantry divisions until the attack on Bologna. The Battle of Bologna is the third in which I took an active part in Italy, and that’s why on my Polish Army medal there are engraved the names of these three battles. Our campaign ended when we reached the town of Senigallia in Northern Italy; the Polish troops didn’t participate in the further pursuit of the enemy.
Several weeks later we learned that the war was over, but there was no great joy in our regiments. We knew that the road back to our country wouldn’t be the same for everyone. The Soviet army was occupying Poland and we were aware that returning there would be a very complicated matter. However, we were still in the army; everyone was happy that the hard work of fighting was over, but we still obeyed the orders of our superiors.
In 1946 we received orders to turn in all our equipment and prepare for a transfer from Italy to Great Britain. I was among the first to go. In October 1946 we left Naples on board the Mauritannia and landed in Liverpool. From there we went by train to Mortpeth in northern England. The British authorities assigned us one of the military camps where the RAF had its airport during the war. This is how my English sojourn began. I tried to complete my education, but in spite of passing entrance exams I could not study at the school of engineering, since the financial aid scholarships were very limited in number. Instead I chose the best of the available possibilities and took various courses organized by the PKPR , the Polish Transitional Corps. I also attended classes at a Manchester technical school, where I graduated as a radio engineer.
In 1948 I married Ziuta (Józefa) Boraczyńska, whom I met while visiting Mother at an RAF base where she was staying. Very soon we decided to emigrate to Argentina, since the economic situation of Britain at that time gave us no chances of settling down and building a life there. The British offered us, veterans, only jobs in agriculture or in coal mines. We were disappointed in how the British dealt with their allies and so most of the younger among us left to look for happiness somewhere else.
In the spring of 1948 I met Ziuta Boraczyńska, who had served with Mother in one unit. They had known each other before enlisting. Ziuta was born in Rudki near Lwów. When the war began, she joined her younger sister, Stacha, who was already married at that time and had a little daughter, Ewunia. She was staying with them when the deportations began and they were all sent, together with 18 month old Ewunia, to Semipalatinsk. When amnesty for Poles was announced, Ziuta and her older sister traveled south to join the army, but Stacha, afraid of another journey with a small child, stayed in Semipalatinsk. She returned to Poland four years later, with the first post-war wave of repatriation from the Soviet Union of those forcibly deported to the interior of the country.
Ziuta and Marysia left the Soviet Union together with the group of civilian families. They stayed first in Tehran, and then were taken to Africa (Kenya and Uganda), where Ziuta succeeded in joining the army and was sent to Britain to serve in the Women’s Auxiliary Forces affiliated with the RAF.
Our marriage ceremony was celebrated on July 26, 1948, in my camp near the town of Lutherworth. My regiment friends, together with our former commander, Colonel Świerczyński, organized the wedding reception. We procured a passage on a ship full of military families and on October 6th we left from Southampton to Buenos Aires. There began for us a life of emigrants, in completely alien surroundings, among strangers. Our social life consisted mainly of meetings within our circle of acquaintances from the army. On May 14, 1949, our first daughter was born; we named her Marysia. We stayed in Buenos Aires for five years. Then, due to our doctor’s recommendations and to my brother’s persuasions, we sold everything we had in Argentina and moved to Canada, where Andrzej and Mother had already been established for some time.
My brother Andrzej, who had succeeded in getting a college education, graduated as an engineer from the PUC (Polish University College) in London, which was part of the University of London. In 1952 he emigrated to Canada with our mother; they began their life there in Galt. We, on the other hand, stayed first with Ziuta’s cousins, Zosia and Bronek Kłodniccy, who owned a farm near Hamilton. Our first steps in Canada were difficult, since we had to start everything anew once more. After two years during which I worked for nine different electrical firms, I got a job at Chrysler Corporation, where I stayed for 31 years, having various positions, but always within the maintenance department.
On November 10, 1954 Anusia was born, a great joy for the whole family, but especially for Marysia, who had had to wait for a baby sister five long years. Ziuta had been forced to do very hard physical work when she was in Russia. She had to work, or she wouldn’t have gotten her food rations. Her brigade dug peat moss in very primitive conditions. The heavy physical labor considerably weakened her heart, which had a congenital condition (faulty valves). When we were still in Argentina, our doctor advocated a change of climate, since her health was steadily deteriorating there. After we moved to Canada, she fell ill in her late fifties and her heart condition suddenly worsened. She underwent various tests and doctors recommended a stress-free lifestyle and an urgent move to a one-story house. We built a one-story house on McKay Street. Alas, she didn’t enjoy it long. After a number of hospitalizations, she died in February of 1964. The period of her illness was a difficult time for all of us. Marysia and Anusia were especially hard hit by their mother’s death, even though I strove to supply them at home with everything they needed. My Mother helped me a lot during that time, living with us and doing the housekeeping for my family. All of our friends and acquaintances showed their sympathy and support in those difficult moments.
A few years after Ziuta’s death I met Irena Mydlak, who was at that time visiting with her sister, Mrs. Mazur, in Windsor. We married in 1967; unfortunately, it was a precipitate decision. Our son, Janek, was born on May 9, 1968. A strong incompatibility between Irena and me led to the complete break-up of our marriage. After two years, Irena left my home and moved to Toronto, taking Janek with her. Marysia studied at Windsor University, where she was a math major. After four years of college she went on to study computer science and graduated with honors. Anusia went to Saint Claire College, graduating after two years. Then she began working for an insurance company.
In January 1976 I married Krystyna (Krysia) Messinger, whose married name was Ochocka. I met her first in 1948, when I visited her and her husband in Edinburgh, Scotland. We met again completely by chance in 1955, at a New Year’s Eve party in Windsor. I knew Krysia’s husband, Jurek Ochocki, during my school years in Lwów. We became friends because our parents had known each other since right after the First World War. Jurek wasn’t in the same school with me, but we met frequently. We were thrown together again in Kinross, Scotland, in 1946. Jurek was taking draftsmanship courses there, while I took courses in electricity in order to become an electrical and radio engineer. After Ziuta’s death I was a frequent guest in their home, since our families were very close. I owe a lot to Krysia; it is due to her that our two families live in harmony till the present day.
This is just a brief summary of my emigration years.