3rd Carpathian Rifle Brigade at Tobruk
Polish 2nd Corps in the Middle East and Italy
By the end of September 1939, whoever had the chance tried to cross the border to Hungary or Rumania. Soon the Russians sealed the border, and further crossings were impossible. For those who managed to get through, the next step was France. The assembly of Polish Forces in France was underway. We left relatives and friends behind in Poland.
In Hungary, enormous effort was made by British, French and Polish Legations to free as many Poles as possible. Budapest was the main center of recruitment. Spring 1940 was approaching. In April, a group of eighty left Budapest by rail, going towards the Yugoslav border. We were all accommodated in a village, ten miles from our destination. The local people could not do enough for us, and they were well paid for it. Many other groups of Poles passed through that village.
Finally, with a Hungarian guide, our group left the Village. We walked through wilderness, through forests and marshland, avoiding being seen. By nightfall the group reached the Drava River, which is a large river with a strong current.
Row boats immediately appeared from the Yugoslav side of the river. A few of us at a time were picked up. The oarsmen rowed quickly across. The whole group managed to escape. Following country roads, we arrived at Zagreb station. Boarding the train to Belgrade was the first step to freedom. We stayed in Belgrade for three weeks, then the whole group was provided with Yugoslav currency and packs of refreshment. We left Belgrade by train for Greece. The train steaming through the countryside, left behind a trail of black smoke, which eventually disappeared. The heat began to intensify, and when we reached Salonika, it was quite hot.
The next stop was Athens. The hotel accommodation and daily supplement of Greek drachmas were adequate. With a daily trip by train to Pireus and back, the sightseeing of the Acropolis was appreciated.
Meanwhile, further groups of Poles had arrived in Athens. Eventually the Polish ship Warsaw had anchored at Pireus, and hundreds of us boarded it. The circumstances were unpredictable. Leaving the port, the ship set off for Beirut and not to France as expected. We passed Crete and Cyprus and arrived at Beirut on 10 of June 1940.
That day, Italy declared war on England and France. Had our ship sailed towards France, it would have been intercepted by the Italian Navy. The transit camp outside Beirut was temporary. From there we travelled to our new camp, right in the middle of the desert. We shared the camp with the French Foreign Legion. The hard life and the training were beyond average endurance.
In the meantime, in Europe, the German offensive was underway. France capitulated. With French equipment, we arrived in Palestine and stopped near Lake Tiberias. From then we were affiliated with the British Forces as the Polish Brigade Group. At that time, British Forces had only five Brigades in the area. The Polish contingent extended that to six Brigades. Life for us in comparison to life in Syria was easy. A military camp was established at Latru, between Jerusalem and Rehovot. Daily drill took place in the morning and in the afternoon.
Then the Polish Brigade was ordered to move to Egypt. We travelled overnight from Gaza. In the morning we stopped at El-Cantara, and after breakfast we crossed the Suez Canal. In the evening of that day, we arrived outside Alexandria at Dickheilla.
Looking across Alexandria Bay, we could see a concentration of British Navy. Eleven huge warship towers dominated above all the other ships. We had the pleasure of watching and counting them daily. Close to Aghami was a Military Aerodrome. It was very busy. Bombers in large formations used to take off and land for missions. In the sky they looked like silver birds.
Enemy raids on the military installation at Alexandria were carried out at night under a full moon. They never stopped. Each wave of German bombers was confronted with a barrage of shells from the warships and shore batteries. During one raid, the planes released their bombs short of the target. All fell on Aghami. Luckily, the number of casualties suffered was small. As they fell on the ground, the impact bounced us up and down. When the raid was called off, we were absolutely exhausted. The next night and afterwards, when the siren sounded, we grabbed rifles, ammunition, and tin hats, and ran into the open fields. We were now certainly in the war zone. With gradual build-up, troop ships full of Australians and equipment arrived weekly at Alexandria. Eventually, in Autumn 1940, General Wavell launched a major offensive in Cirenaica. Mostly Australian and British troops were engaged.
Meanwhile, the Polish Brigade was brought forward from Alexandria to Mersa Matruch. The 3rd Battalion left Mersa Matruch for Bardia, a large military supply port in Cirenaica. Success in Cirenaica did not last long. General Rommel arrived with the Africa Corps and forced the British troops back to the Egyptian border. In retreat, General Wavell left the garrison in Tobruk in order to delay the German advance.
Once again the front line carne back to Sollum and Sidi Barani. Events were grim and depressing. A defensive position was established at Sidi Barani, deep in the desert. By the end of June 1941, the Polish Brigade was recalled from Mersa Matruch to Alexandria. From the transit camp Al Maria, one by one, Battalion, Artillery, and Support Units, were rushed to reinforce the Garrison at Tobruk. Six Destroyers left the Port at Alexandria at 8 o'clock. The convoy was moving fast.
Twenty five fighter planes provided cover escorting convoy. By nightfall the last fighter plane returned to the Egyptian mainland. We were left alone. German sea planes were waiting and attacked the convoy. Fortunately, the bombs fell wide, and no damage was done. By eleven o'clock at night, we arrived in Tobruk harbour. Nets were dropped on one side of the ship. The Australians climbed up. We, in turn, climbed down to the waiting barges.
The barge full of soldiers quickly moved to the long jetty, where we quickly marched to avoid the long-range artillery fire. We could see in the distance, bright flares along the perimeter. They were used to detect any movement on No Man's Land. Outside the harbour, a waiting lorry picked us up and took us about four miles outside Tobruk.
Where we disembarked, we found ex-Italian stone shelters, above the ground, well camouflaged. Next morning, breakfast was served by an Australian Sergeant. For breakfat we had vegetable soup, baked beans, sausages, bacon, and carrots, all mixed together. It was served from a big petrol can. It was most welcome. We had had hardly anything to eat on the ship the day before.
The anti-tank battery crew were split up. We filled the vacancy in different strongholds. Our gun crew was directed to the El Adam sector. The concrete stronghold built by the Italian forces was not as expected. The machine gun position and anti-tank gun had no protection whatsoever. The gun placed in the middle of a minefield was well camouflaged, outside the stronghold. In the distance, about two hundred yards,
Sappers erected high towers with a dummy dressed as an artillery observer. Those towers were pounded by enemy artillery from early morning until night. The stronghold was reasonably quiet. The inhabitants, after night patrol on No Man’s Land, slept during the day in a massive concrete bunker. After a few weeks we were relieved by an R.H.A. unit.
This time we moved to the Pilastrino sector, right in the middle of the Tobruk perimeter. The Australians were there as well. The next day, early in the morning, I climbed up the steps to the gun post. As I looked around, with my head above the sandbags, there was an enormous explosion. An artillery shell fell nearby There was no time to walk down the steps. I dived in, knocking Australians, and landed at the bottom of the steps. Artillery barrages were frequent, and shells were coming everywhere.
Our next move was to Fort Madauer. The sector was situated on the west side of the Tobruk perimeter. The concrete strongholds had been overrun by the Germans in previous assaults. We had shallow, unprotected trenches. Facing Fort Medauer was Bianca. A man-made hill gave us protection and cut visibility from the Fort. Mortar positions were established there. Howitzers and mortar shells could only penetrate out of sight targets. They tried without success. Shells usually landed further off on the slope of hard rock. Most fearful was the artillery surveillance light plane. As the plane appeared, all stopped dead. That plane could direct artillery fire on any target on the ground.
The antiaircraft batteries were out of reach, too far behind the front line. Allert was at the highest level. General Rommel was concentrating troops for an assault. To prevent this happening, General Auchenlek mounted a large scale offensive from Egypt and liberated Tobruk at the beginning of December 1941.
The corridor established by the spearhead from the Tobruk Garrison, joined the main British Forces. At Sidi Rezeg, part of the German Armoured Division was cut off. The corridor was reinforced by a Squadron of Polish anti-tank units. Five German tanks were destroyed. The British heavy artillery was in action all the time. The Germans managed to escape being trapped.
During the siege, while travelling at night, the driver went by mistake into a minefield. A mine exploded under the front wheel and I suffered a perforated eardrum. I spent the next five weeks in Tobruk Hospital. A convalescing period was arranged in a camp close to the beach. The camp consisted of large tents with Red Cross markings. One morning, long-range artillery shells fell right on the camp. Those who could, ran for
cover on the rocky beach. Casualties were heavy. Sometimes unpredictable things happen.
After a few days of Tobruk being liberated by the British 8th Army, the Polish Brigade had reassembled outside the Tobruk peninsula. Six columns of heavy lorries loaded with troops moved out.
About 100 miles north of Tobruk, an assault took place on the Italian-German position at El Gazala. The battle lasted three days and nights, from 14th to 17th December. We overran the enemy defenses, taking 1,554 prisoners.
British fast-moving units took over and chased the enemy as far as Cirenaica and the Tripolitania border. We had great success and the 8th Army consolidated the whole of Cirenaica. The greatest sight was outside Derna, at 11 Duce Airfield. On the ground were 150 destroyed aircraft. British fighter planes were responsible for that . Huge three-engine Junkers 52 bombers were burned down. All were placed around the aerodrome. On the runway, Messerschmits and Macci Italian fighters were ready for take-off. Fortunately, they did not have enough time. All were burned down. At the hangar there were boxes of spare parts and aircraft engines. But success in Cirenaica did not last long.
In the beginning of February, the Polish Brigade rushed to Mecille, at least a hundred miles from the coast to the middle of the desert. The 8th Army were retreating. Columns of trucks were moving eastward. With our reinforcement, the free French Brigade consisting of Foreign Legion troops, also arrived. The defence of Mecille had been established. A German Panzer column appeared on the outskirts of Mecille and some tanks struck a minefield. In the distance, clouds of dust were visible from the moving tanks.
High British Command changed their mind. Now Polish and French Brigades left the area, moving as fast as possible across the bushy desert. There was no time for hesitation. During the retreat, we stopped at night. By dawn, we started to move again with a changed direction of 90 degrees. That tactic prevented us being encircled by two German Panzer columns. The 8th Army guarded us. By lunch time we arrived safely back at El Gazala. From the trenches, British soldiers stood up and greeted us by throwing their tin hats in the air and shouting Hurrah. That was great. We soon took a defensive position alongside the British Forces. From then on, twice daily at 11.15 a.m. and 4.15 p.m. precisely, dive bombers in formation of nine, bombed selected targets, mostly artillery.
Casualties were high. No Man’s Land was guarded by selected Units, consisting of gun carriers, field artillery batteries, batteries of anti-tank guns and some Infantry Units. The Sappers were useful in locating mines.
The Gerrnans used similar Units. Our anti-tank fire did not have much effect. Shells ricocheted, after hitting tanks, leaving white bright smoke. After a few rounds we had to change our position to the left or right. Now they were attacking us. Both our and the German artillery were engaged. Gradually the fire stopped and both sides retreated to their main defensive positions. The Germans were at Tmimi. During the night the RAF bombed their troops. By the end of April 1942, the Polish Brigade was relieved by a South African Division.
Returning to Egypt, we passed Acroma, the main store centre at Tobruk, Bardia, Fort Cappuzzo, El Halfa, Sollum, Bug Bug, Mersa Matruch and arrived at Alexandria. The Germans now swept right through to El Alernain. Further retreat was not possible. The command was given to General Montgomery and General Alexander.
Under an Agreement between the Polish Government-in-exile in London and Russia, they released 250,000 Polish citizens who had been deported to Russia in 1940 When released, these unfortunate people travelled by ships and barges through the Caspian Sea to Iran. They travelled in difficult conditions, with no food and water and no sanitation whatsoever. On arrival in Iran, many of them died of disease and starvation. Women and children were sent them to different places, like Palestine, Africa, and India.
The existing Carpeti Brigade joined the rest in Iraq, and the Polish 2nd Corps of 116,000 men, was created. As I had necessary education and military service, I was selected for the short and strict Cadet School. The course began in Egypt, then Libya, and finished in Palestine. Now my rank was Corporal Cadet.
Meanwhile, three Infantry Divisions and an Armoured Division of the Polish 2nd Corps were undergoing intensive training. At that time, the British 8th Army launched a major offensive at El Alemain, with great success. The German and Italian troops were retreating. The 5th American Army landed in Morocco. With slow advance and heavy losses, they met the 8th Army Units in Tunisia. General Amin capitulated.
After all that struggles, the gate to Europe was open. British and American troops invaded Pantelaria, Sicily, and landed in Salerno, the southern Italy. Both armies advanced along the coast and central Italy. The 5th American Army stopped for the winter of1943, at Monte Cassino. The 8th Army established a defense line along the Sangro River on the Ortona coast.
Polish 2nd Corps Units boarded a troop ship at Port Said, and landed in Taranta before Christmas 1943. The equipment followed in different convoys and arrived a short time later. The Dutch ship, converted from a Merchant ship, was comfortable, with plenty of food, a cinema and a shop. The sea voyage took ten days from Port Said to Taranta. No interference by submarines or aircraft took place.
Once, three Blenheim Bombers appeared, and combed the sea, flying just above the sea. We had constant protection from four destroyers and one of them was the Kuyawiak, of Polish origin.
Landing in Taranta began a new chapter. We were back in Europe. Soon, heavy transport arrived from Port Said - equipment such as tanks, field and heavy artillery, sixteen and seventeen pounders, anti-tank guns, long-range transport columns, gun carriers, cavalry scout cars and ambulances. It was the winter of 1943. The 3rd Carpathian Anti-tank Regiment was on the road to the North. We left Canosa, heading through country roads. Going through villages, we were greeted by jubilant excited Italians.