NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
Time passed and Christmas came and went. There were rumours reaching us now about the formation of a Polish Army. A woman from our village, Wala Syrokwasz, along with one or two Polish men from elsewhere, bravely or foolhardily went off by train to try and join-up. After some time they returned, starving, lousy and disillusioned. They had found the place where there was the beginnings of preparations for organising the recruitment for an army but it had been chaotic. They realised they had gone too early and as there was no food or shelter for them had decided to return and try again later.
Then one day the postwoman knocked on our door. She had a letter for us. We recognised the writing at once. It was from father! It is too difficult to describe our emotions. We were crying with happiness as this was the first communication we had had from him since he had been taken from Poland. The information he gave us was as astounding as receiving the letter. He had written and sent the letter from Buzułuk which was far, far away from us, west of the Ural Mountains. He wrote that he had already joined the Polish Army which was soon going to move south east to Jangijul close to the Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan border (near Tashkent). Father explained that he had got leave and permission to come to Szczerbakty to collect us so we could all travel to Jangijul together and join the Army. More was to come as he went on to say he had train tickets not only for the five of us but also for our friend Mrs. Ołszewska, her son Josef and daughter Halina. He would be arriving by train within the next ten days and we were to prepare ourselves for moving away. The whole thing seemed unbelievable from suddenly receiving the letter to the sensational plans within. We were up in the clouds and it took a while for us to come down to earth again.
So every day I trudged the six or seven miles into Szczerbakty to meet any trains that might be due. There were hardly any and not reliable. For nine days I made this daily journey but was always disappointed as father never arrived. On the tenth day, for some reason, I didn't go and of course that was when he came. Somehow he managed to get a message to our farm that he had arrived. The manageress of the farm, Bohdanowa, kindly lent me the best sledge and a horse so that I could quickly go and meet him and bring him back. Funnily enough my meeting with father is not crystal clear in my memory. I do recall that I had to go to some house in Szczerbakty where father must have been invited by some Polish people. He was sitting at a table when I entered and of course rose to embrace me. He had aged and was thin and gaunt but he was looking rather smart in a British khaki battle dress, great coat, army boots and cap. We quickly departed and headed for our village.
There had been quite a fall of snow which always got blown about a lot. The road and open flat countryside might not have too thick a covering but of course the windswept snow would always pile up round the walls of the houses, often nearly covering them. As we reached the village I pointed out our house to father but he was puzzled as all he could see was the smoking chimney sticking up out of the snow. On leaving the sledge we walked up to the house. Father was even more surprised at finding steps, hewn out of the packed snow, and leading downwards to the door of our porch.
The reunion between father and the five of us was all you might imagine. It was one of the happiest and most emotional days of our lives. After the first excitement of father's return had died down a little he began to tell us what had happened to him after he had been removed from our home that Christmas Eve in 1939. He had been locked up in our town and accused, along with his friend and fellow stationmaster Mr. Olszewski, of the trumped up charge of spying. The evidence for this was that they had both worked at the same railway station, which was near the Polish – Russian border, for twenty years. Both father and Mr. Olszewski were beaten and kicked in a futile attempt to obtain a confession from them. Father was put "on trial", found guilty and given eight years in a labour camp. When he heard this sentence father laughed out loud. When asked why he laughed he answered, "Because I will not live that long." Father told us that Mr. Olszewski was dead, having died due to the beatings and appalling treatment he had received shortly after his arrest. For example, father told us how forty of them had been locked in a room without enough ventilation. They had had to move round the room slowly so that everyone could pass the single window to get some air. Later father had been sent to a labour camp in the north of Russia in the vicinity of Archangel. He was kept in primitive conditions and worked in a quarry.
After the amnesty father, along with others, were free to make their way south to Buzułuk where he understood the Polish Army was forming. First they travelled by boat along a river and then by train. Arriving at Buzułuk station father's luck was to change dramatically for on stepping off the train who should he meet but Mr. Sanok. Now Mr. Sanok plays a crucial part in this story and if it hadn't been for him things would have probably turned out very differently for us. Firstly, Mr. Sanok had been a town councillor in Mołodeczno and knew father well. He was already in the Polish Army and was on duty at the station to meet and assist Polish prisoners who were arriving to join up. It must have been wonderful for father to meet someone he knew and no doubt Mr. Sanok helped father in his recruitment into the army. Father, being a railway man and not only speaking Russian but able to read and write it as well, was put into the Railway Company of the army. But most importantly of all was the fact that Mr. Sanok knew where we were. All this time from Christmas 1939, father didn't know what had happened to us. We had learned that father was serving an eight year sentence in a labour camp but we had no idea where. Mr Sanok had met me when I went to the forest for wood and he was living in the village there. We had chatted and I had told him I was living with my family in the village of Kus-Kuduk. Of course Mr. Sanok remembered this and was able to tell father all he could about us and our address and thus gave us the miraculous chance to be reunited. And so it was that as soon as he could, father sent that letter off to us and now we were together again.
Now father was thinking that he would have to break the news to Mrs. Olszewska that her husband had died. She was still living in the other room of our two roomed house. However, before he could say anything, she said she didn't want to know if her husband was dead and would prefer to go on living in the hope that her husband would turn up, just like father. And so father said nothing.
Mrs. Olszewska also stated she didn't want to leave the village and join the army. Who could blame her as there was going to be a long journey into the unknown ahead for us. There was the shortage of food to consider and rumours of typhus. What could she do in the army anyway she wanted to know? Father tried to persuade her to join us but she refused. With this decision she was making a mistake but of course we couldn't know this at the time. She said her son, Josef, could come with us but she would keep her daughter, Halina, who was only about sixteen, with her. Two young lads, one my age and the other younger were only too glad to take up the offer of the two spare tickets from father. Now we had to plan our exodus and father said that first he and I must collect some food for the journey. He had a chit from the army which entitled him to pick up supplies for all of us from a depot in Pawûodar, on the river Irtish. We had to take the train there, a distance of roughly fifty miles I think. Father, of course, was wearing his uniform which drew some attention everywhere. People had never seen anything like it. It was much superior in quality to the Russian soldier's uniform and father was regarded with respect which he duly acknowledged. On reaching Pawłodar we were directed to a certain building. We walked into an outer office where some people, perhaps minor officials, were sitting. On seeing father in his uniform, they all sprang to attention much to our amusement. It turned out not to be the right office and we were sent off to another building in a nearby street. The same thing happened again, with people standing up for father when we entered. Once more we were redirected to yet another building where we were at last taken into a huge underground refrigerated store. It was filled with rows and rows of frozen carcasses of sheep, cows, pigs etc. hanging from the ceiling. Also there were lots of smoked sausages.
Father produced his army documents and we left with a sack or two of smoked sausages and loaves of bread. Extremely happy with this bounty we returned to Kus-Kuduk.
In a day or two we were all set to leave and two or three sledges, with drivers, were provided from the farm. They took us to Szczerbakty to catch our train. And what a train it was! Nothing like the cattle wagons we had arrived in from Poland. This train had soft padded seats with plenty of room for everyone and no overcrowding. On the journey the train would stop at different stations and we often jumped off to buy tea or coffee, and even cakes from people offering these things for sale. Father lingered too long over his purchases once then suddenly noticed the train had begun to move away. Dropping everything he had bought he rushed to the train, grabbed a handrail at the rear of a carriage and jumped up as best he could. He landed with his knee on the step and from there managed to pull himself up and enter a door. After that episode father was not allowed to leave the train again at any other stops.
It was a long journey of a good few days. We had to change trains at Novosibirsk where we spent the night in the station. We placed all our belongings together on the floor and lay or huddled round them as we suspected things would be stolen if left unattended. Next day we boarded the train for Tashkent on the Turkestan–Siberia Railway line, always more or less heading in a southerly direction.
Eventually we arrived at Tashkent where we were taken to Jangijul (pronounced yangyool) a smallish place with a large tented camp just outside it. What struck us immediately was the warm pleasant climate and the oriental appearance of the inhabitants. We were fascinated when we saw people travelling on donkeys and camels. At last we had left behind the terrible Siberian winter with it's snow, freezing temperatures and dreadful Buran winds.
The camp was huge and divided into different sections spread over a good few miles. There were a great many people and more arriving every day. After being so recently reunited with father we were now going to be parted again but in happier circumstances. I was put, with other young men, in a camp for potential soldiers, Kazia and Marysia were placed with young women and Zbyszek went with the school aged children. The camp was being run by the new Polish Army and father had work to do. He managed to rent a room in Jangijuland he and mother lived there.
The camp was very basic but there were kitchens with cooks and adequate food. We weren't issued yet with uniforms but we had some kind of daily routine involving drill and marching. It was very important to keep clean and we spent some time each day inspecting our clothes and bodies for lice. These were so easily picked up under the conditions we were living in and with new people arriving every day. We had people in the camp who had picked up typhus on their journey south and a few of them were dying daily. I, along with all the other young men, had no idea what was going to happen to us but presumed we would ultimately be given uniforms and guns and after some training be packed off to fight the Germans on the Russian front.
We did not have to wait long before being issued with British uniforms. We were over the moon at being given these brand new clothes which included not only battle dress but boots socks and underwear. Our spirits soared and we felt we were part of a real army now even although no guns had yet appeared. Soon we were moving from this camp and as we proudly marched through the streets, on the way to the station, people stopped to watch us. We could see by the expression on their faces that they felt sorry for us, no doubt thinking we were on our way to the front lines.
Krasnovodsk and the Caspian Sea crossing
The train filled up until it was packed and then we were off on a journey again. We travelled westwards for about three days, not to the war zone, but to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi), a part of the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (spelling of place names now taken from a British atlas). Somewhere on this journey news had filtered through to us that we were to be sent out of the USSR to another country to continue our military training. Our joy and relief on hearing that at last we were going to escape from the clutches of this vile communist regime knew no bounds. On leaving the train we marched a further few kilometres to the docks where there were a number of ships tied up. One particularly decrepit ship, already nearly full of soldiers, was to be ours. Now we were informed before embarking we must hand over any roubles that we had. It was impressed on us that if we didn't give up all our Russian money and were found still to have some we would be sent back to Siberia. A blanket was spread out on the ground which we had to file past, throwing our roubles into it as we went. I was loathe to give up money that had been so hard to come by but was too frightened to hold on to any of it.
Josef Olszewski was with me at this time and we met, on the quayside, a man we both knew from Poland. His name was Wâoeik (pronounced Vongshik) and he had been the village policeman in Olechnowicze and was now one of the soldiers helping to organise our departure. It was pleasant to meet someone we knew and he gave us some rather dry bread, probably because he had some knowledge of the difficult sea journey that lay ahead for us. As we approached the gangway there were a group of four or five KGB (Soviet secret police) standing. They were having a good look at everyone, scrutinising each face before letting them proceed aboard the ship. Who or what they were looking for I don't know but it was a scary time for all of us. On looking back I think that the explanation for packing so many of us into these ships and sending us off in such poor conditions, without proper food was that everyone was frightened that Stalin might suddenly change his mind and put a stop to this mass exodus of Polish nationals.
Once on board Josef and I found the deck so packed it was difficult to find a place to stand let alone sit down. Below decks was already full up but I don't think we would have fancied going there anyway. This ship could be described as a rust bucket and even in better times was meant for carrying cargoes not people. Round the perimeter of the deck was a puny fence, broken in many places and completely missing in others. That was all there was to stop anyone from falling overboard. After a lot of manoeuvring and squeezing everyone managed to sit on the deck. It wasn't long before we discovered that the only drinking water had to be obtained from a single tap. Soon there was some kind of queue there and later altercations flared up as bad tempered, thi rsty men waited for a drink. Unbelievably, with such a shortage of water, the only food we were given on this three day trip was salted herring. The longing for a drink became almost unbearable. Occasionally a small window on a sailor's cabin on deck would open and a sailor started filling up soldier's hip flasks but as soon as a crowd gathered the window shut again. Some of us were driven to lower an empty tin can over the side of the ship and pull it up full of sea water but it was so salty we were unable to swallow it. Another memorable thing about this ship was the toilet arrangements. For our part of the ship there was a single small wooden shed -like structure perched at the edge of the deck. It was only big enough for one person but it was so filthy with excrement and urine it was horrible to enter and practically impossible to use as it was intended.
No land was visible as we crossed the Caspian Sea until the third day when the coast of Persia (now Iran) came into view. We anchored off shore and soon began disembarking onto a much smaller craft which had come along side. We didn't like the look of this conveyance which resembled a large flat metal box with no portholes or windows. We weren't allowed to stay on the deck of it but had to go below, down the one and only hatchway. We found ourselves in nearly total darkness and so it was an unpleasant and somewhat frightening journey to reach land. However we did not have to suffer this incarceration for long because the craft soon reached the Persian shore at Pahlavi and we scrambled off onto the beach. What a moment it was for all of us! Out of Russia at last.
Practically the first thing that took our attention were the groups of young boys on the shore holding baskets full of goods for sale. There was all kinds of fruits, bread rolls, hard boiled eggs, chocolate, cigarettes and other delicacies but of course our roubles had all been given up back in Russia. Then we were astounded to see that amongst us a few individuals were digging deep into their clothing and producing some old roubles to spend on these luxuries. These men had taken a great risk in hiding this money about their persons but now they were able to purchase things they had not probably seen since leaving Poland. They were very lucky as they could just as easily found themselves back in Siberia if they had been discovered, instead of being free at last.
Our Sergeant gathered us together and checked to see if we were all present and correct. Next he gave us a pep-talk and told us, among other things, that from now on we would be well fed and have "white bread and butter" to eat. Suddenly we heard loud g uffaws and on turning round found a Russian soldier standing a few yards from us. What was going through his mind we wondered? At that point the sergeant lined us up and we thankfully marched away on our new adventure.
Pahlavi to Aqaba
We marched through Pahlavi (currently Bandar-e Anzali) admiring the buildings and the proper asphalt roads but most of all we were amazed at the sight of the shops. We feasted our eyes, as we passed, at the shop windows, filled with all manner of things, bright and beautifully displayed. These were riches we had been starved of for so long. The people living there seemed interested and glad to see us. There was a very noticeable difference between these Persian (now Iranian) people and the poor Russian people we had left behind. They were well dressed and looked happy and were anxious to hear our stories. Some of them spoke Russian and even French.
Preparations had been made for our arrival at a nearby campsite and we were immediately directed to some buildings which turned out to be for delousing and showering. Before entering we had to take off all our clothes and leave them lying to be collected and burned. Inside were showers, soap and towels for thorough washing. Next came the hairdressers who shaved all our hair off, everywhere. Now scrupulously clean we were given a complete set of new clothes - uniform, underwear, everything. After that it wasn't long before we were fed on a plentiful supply of good food.
After a day or two we were loaded onto open lorries which had Persian drivers and headed off to Tehran. The countryside was very mountainous and the road was dangerous with many hairpin bends. One side of the road fell away with nothing to stop us falling down the precipitous drop should the lorry come off the road. A few lorries very nearly did slither over the edge at the sharp corners and other particularly dangerous parts but none of them in our convoy actually crashed and we all arrived safely in Tehran. From there we marched a few kilometres to a railway station where we boarded a train and set off once again.
Travelling south west we passed through Arak, Dezful and on to Ahvaz. Here we stayed for a while in a temporary camp. We passed some time doing physical training but it was too hot in this desert to do much. We were confined to exercising between the hours of 6am to 10am and 4pm to 6pm. We were issued with tropical kit including pith helmets to protect our heads from the sun and which I think have now gone out of fas hion and use. Soon it was time to leave this sandy desert and once more on a train we crossed a rocky desert to the port of Bandar Shahpur (now Bandar Khomeini) on the Persian Gulf. There we boarded a large ship which was comfortable and provided good food. The crew were friendly and it was a completely different experience from the horrific crossing we had to endure on the Caspian Sea. Our journey took us across the Arabian Sea to the port of Aden. We made a short stop and I can remember the small native boats coming to the side of our ship and offering things for sale. From here, in the Gulf of Aden, we entered the Red Sea and sailed northwards right to the top of the Gulf of Aqaba which in all took roughly a week. There were different kinds of sleeping arrangements on board ship and I chose a hammock. I took it to the edge of the deck and fastened it to two perpendicular posts on the very side of the ship so that one side of the hammock was over the deck and the other side over the sea! I slept very soundly and with the motion of the ship my hammock swung gently to and fro, to and fro, over the deck then over the sea. Looking back I am surprised at how foolhardy I was and put it down to my youth. I wonder why the duty officer didn't spot the situation and order me to move and smartly? I seem to remember that after a few nights the absurdity of what I was doing finally hit me and I moved my hammock to somewhere safer.
At Aqaba we disembarked and made our way overland to Palestine (now Israel). Here we were to stay for quite a while in several camps, always under canvas and I really experienced a most enjoyable time. We were able to visit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Gaza. The weather was exceptionally beautiful. We had money in our pockets to spend on so many delicious things. There was such a variety of rich cakes to choose from and all kinds of fresh fruit. In particular there were sweet delicious oranges, tangerines, grapes, figs, dates and bananas. There were beautiful beaches to enjoy, with swimming in the Mediterranean especially at Tel Aviv. It was just a heaven for us.
I would like to mention here just how well organised our journey had been, all the way from when we had arrived in Persia. Presumably this had been the work of the British Military Authorities. We had been very well treated and provided with new clothing, good food, accommodation and all our travelling arrangements had been efficient.
Our stay in Palestine in a way was like a holiday, after all we had been through. The place was full of Allied troops from many countries. The roads were filled with their vehicles and they would willingly stop and give us a lift so we were able to go sight-seeing when we were allowed out of camp.
We were not idle all the time of course but were continuing our army training. Now we had been given guns and had to learn how to use them and take care of them. We went out into the desert sometimes on manoeuvres, often with high ranking officers in attendance.
Once on manoeuvres we had a very nasty accident. I was with the infantry with the artillery behind us. The idea was for the artillery to fire over our heads at the "enemy" beyond so that we could then advance safely. For some reason a shell fell short of its target killing a few infantry soldiers. Such a sad waste and upsetting for everyone.
By this time we had reorganised. Our Polish Army, gathered from the labour camps and other places throughout Russia had been integrated with the existing Polish Army which had been in North Africa for some time and had fought at Tobruk. This army had originated from Poles who had escaped from Poland early in the war to France and other countries. Later it was formed into the 1st Polish Independent Brigade. We now joined with them and were renamed the 3rd Carpathian Division and apart from that a number of different Polish Units formed. The 3rd Carpathian Division was made up of two brigades and I was put into the 3rd Company of the 5th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade.
It was about this time that sport entered my army career. I had always enjoyed games and had taken part in different activities back in Poland, encouraged by my father. I had played volleyball and basketball, had skied and swam and thrown the javelin and discus. Incidentally football was not played at school as it was considered too dangerous for growing children. Of course this didn't stop us kicking a ball about out of school, or even an empty tin can or large mushroom. Anyway, one day back in Palestine, I was walking past some soldiers playing football and was idly thinking of offering my services when I noticed further on other soldiers playing volleyball. Although I didn't know it at the time, these were the best players the sergeant in charge could find and he was now sorting them out into a first and second team. I asked him if I could join in but at first he refused. I was still standing watching when he had a change of heart and said I could play for a bit. He put me with the players he was considering would be in the second team but after watching me for a short while, moved me in with the better players. This was the beginning of my very happy sporting career as a private in the army. Because I played so well I became widely known and popular, with everyone wanting to speak to me. We went on to play matches with other units and I was captain of our team in most of them. I remember, in particular, one match we played against the 4th Battalion where everyone became really worked up and excited. Supporters of both sides were betting on their teams and a big crowd came to watch the match. The standard of play was high and both teams were playing well. With the support I was receiving during the match from my team-mates I was able to smash the ball over the net many times earning many points and so we won the match. At the finish of the game I was carried shoulder high back to a large tent where we celebrated with some food and drink. A lieutenant who was in charge of the sporting activities of the battalion made a short speech praising our prowess and we were heartened to know we were so appreciated.
I also got into the battalions top football team but I must admit, I wasn't nearly as good a football player as I was a volleyball player. Still I must have been better than most because I retained my place in this first team and could play any position. A Free French Army football team came to play a match with us and we beat them 9 - 1. They invited us to Beirut for a return match and beat us 2 - 1. We also had one or two matches with the British Army teams. I came to grief in one practice game when I went to header the ball while another player arrived to kick at it, missed and kicked me full in the mouth instead. My top lip was split open and a front tooth broken off, only leaving the root. My mouth was full of blood and pieces of tooth which I spat out. One of our medical orderlies, Corporal Bruno Kotewa, went with me in an open lorry to a neighbouring camp to see a doctor. By now it was evening and dark. I lay on a wooden table in a tent while Bruno held a paraffin lamp up close to my face to enable the doctor to see clearly. The doctor treated my lip with some yellow powder and then, taking a needle began the intricate task of sewing the torn flesh back together. While endeavouring to do this he lost his grip of my lip which was too much for Bruno who fainted and fell to the ground with the lamp which went out plunging us into darkness. The doctor immediately turned his attention to Bruno, revived him and helped him to his feet. After a few minutes the two of them re-lit the lamp and the operation on my lip resumed. The doctor sewed the tear on my lip together with two stitches and I was able to return to my camp the same evening with a big dressing on my face tied round and secured at the back of my head. I was unable to eat for several weeks and could only take liquids through a straw. During my convalescence a volleyball match came up and some pressure was put on me to play. I didn't want to in case my injured lip received a bump and I was still feeling rather weak. The more I declined, the more pressure was put on me until I gave in. I played in the match and we won and luckily I emerged unscathed.
One day we were assembled outside to hear what a colonel had to say to us. He stood up in front of our company and announced that there was a demand for volunteers to join the navy or air force. Those wishing to take advantage of this opportunity would be sent to Britain for training. He then commanded that those volunteering should now take three steps forward. Out of the approximate hundreds of us about eight stepped forward, including myself as I rather fancied the idea of flying a plane. Right away the colonel noticed me, held up his hand and said "You are too good at playing volleyball. You are going nowhere. Step back in line". Rather disappointed I did as I was told but often wonder how my life might have turned out if I have been allowed to join the air force.
The members of the football and volleyball teams shared two large tents and had certain privileges. We had extra rations of fruit and chocolate and sometimes we were spared from exhausting exercises. For instance, periodically an alarm would go off in the camp during the night when we would normally have to awaken, jump up and dress. Then with full kit, go marching off into the darkness for a few hours. We were often excused from this duty and it was lovely just to turn over and go back to sleep. Army life was good to us at that time. We in return always put our heart into playing our best, hoping to entertain the troops and win our matches.
About this time I was delighted to receive a letter from my sisters which told me all their news. Like me, they had been brought out of Russia and were now also in Palestine in a place called Barbara, a village in the district of Gaza. They too were in the army but employed as teachers in a school set up for Polish children. With them was my cousin Zbyszek, who was a pupil in this school. It wasn't long before I was able to arrange a trip to go and visit my sisters who weren't very far from my camp. Although it was a joyous reunion it was somewhat marred by the shock they received at seeing my injured lip, and worse, my missing front tooth. It wasn't long before my sisters arranged for me to visit a dentist to see what could be done. The dentist opened one of his drawers to show us a selection of single artificial teeth. He picked one out which matched my remaining front tooth and set to work. After preparing the root which was left and then the new tooth, he cemented them together and told me that it should last me ten years, which it did. Marysia paid for this new tooth and the dentist's fee... altogether the princely sum of £2.
Not long afterwards I heard from my parents and was really overjoyed to learn that they too were now out of Russia. They had been separated at one time because father was in the army and mother was a civilian. Mother had caught typhus, like many others, while moving out of Russia and had been looked after in a hospital in Tehran. After her recovery she was actually in the army for a short time before being transferred to a civilian Displaced Persons Camp in Tanganika (now Tanzania), East Africa. When father reached the Middle East the army authorities decided that as he was now in his fifties and his lungs had been weakened by his Russian experiences, he should leave the army and join mother in Tanganika.
It was while we were in Palestine that we at last found out what had happened to my brother Bronek. Through the Red Cross we learned that he was alive but a prisoner of war in Germany. It was a wonderful relief to know that at least he was alive. We were then able to send him letters and some parcels which he received.
We had several serious accidents while carrying out our military training. One was while a group of soldiers were learning about mortar fire. When they dropped one particular shell into the mortar, instead of automatically being fired out, it exploded, killing two soldiers, 2nd Lieutenant Edward Szozda and Private Ignacy Gradowski and wounding others.
While practising driving lorries in the dark, one soldier would stand on the step of the cabin helping to direct the soldier who was actually driving. The idea being that the soldier on the step outside could see more clearly than the driver inside. Unfortunately one lorry came off the road and toppled over, killing the soldier who had been on the step.
Another horrible accident occurred while a platoon of cadet officers were assembled in a room of a hut receiving instructions about hand grenades and land mines. They were all grouped round a table examining these weapons when my friend, Mietek Gigiel, suddenly noticed something amiss with a live grenade. The safety pin had somehow been removed and an explosion was imminent. Grabbing it with the intention of throwing it out of the window, it exploded. I did not witness this accident but have had it described to me by people who were there. Poor Mietek, looking down at his arms he didn't know how he could go on living. Even after all these years it is nearly too distressing to write about it. His two hands had been blown off from the wrists and he also lost an eye. Four or five others were wounded too but not nearly so seriously. Mietek had a good brain and after the war attended Glasgow University where he attained a degree in the Russian Language. At his graduation ceremony, I was told by a friend, who was also graduating that day, that when Mietek's name was called all the graduates and visitors stood up and gave him an ovation. Some years later I met him by chance when we came face to face in Trafalgar square, London. He looked well, smart and cheerful and was working nearby in an office of the Ministry of Defence.
There were other accidents of course but these are the ones I remember clearly. I became a cadet officer and went on several courses, learning to drive a lorry on one of them. Learning to drive became particularly useful to me later in life.
All things considered, the time I spent in and around Palestine was full of mostly happy memories but of course I couldn't stay there forever. There was a war to be won and Poland to be set free. The Germans, after occupying so much of North Africa, had at last been halted as they neared Alexandria, Egypt, at a small place, now famous, named El Alamien. The British General Montgomary decided that this was far enough and the successful German Army should be allowed to go no further. And so the great and decisive
Battle of El Alamien was fought with many losses on both sides. This was one of the turning points of the Second World War because the Germans were defeated and began a retreat which ultimately led them to leave North Africa altogether and return to Europe.
By August 1943 the Allies had prepared themselves and were ready to go after the Germans and attack them through Italy. First they landed on the Island of Sicily and when they had secured it, turned their attention on the Italian mainland. In September landings were made in several places on the southern coast including Taranto and Bari. The Italian government soon capitulated but Italy was still occupied by the German Army who had no intention of surrendering and allowing the Allies free access northwards into the rest of Europe. If the Allies wanted to take that road they would have to fight nearly every inch of