Home Army & Polish 2nd Corps
MY JOURNEY TO MATERA
The "storm" in the Tarnów Foothills ended in October 1944. I managed to return home from the "forest", after the demobilization of the unit.
I met my mother, who did not recognize me at first. I found my father still in the apartment. He helped me take off my boots, which I couldn't get off by myself, they were so wet. I was terribly lice-ridden and extremely tired. My mother came home and made me a bed. My parents immediately went out on the embankments to help dig trenches. I had to keep quiet because Germans lived below us. After a bath, I threw myself on the bed, covered with a starched white sheet that I had dreamed of for months. I fell asleep like a rock in no time. I slept for 24 hours.
The German-Soviet front was 20 km away at the Wisłoka River for many months. I was soon assigned to radio listening by the Inspectorate. The listening station was located in Tarnów at ul. Szeroka 6 in the office of a deserted shop. Zbyszek Holik and I manned this listening device and we were both armed. The radio was large, multi-tube and very sensitive. In addition to the BBC, we listened to the German "Wanda", broadcasting programs for the soldiers of the II Corps and the Soviet "Kościuszko" radio station from Moscow and dance music from Berlin. Our task was to write down the melodies and numbers broadcast by the BBC after Polish broadcasts. Our reports were received by the liaison officer in the morning and in the evening. I didn't know then that I was listening to messages announcing airdrops. Listening to the radio was punishable by death by the Germans. We made our beds on the tables in the office, and one of us went out to buy groceries in the evening, locking the front door behind him. I was rarely at home, because our apartment was raided by the Gestapo, looking for Jews hiding in the tenement house next door. One of the Gestapo men borrowed "The Diary of a British Agent" from our library. He declared that he intended to return it and continue to use the library.
I listened to the radio until the Soviet troops entered Tarnów. We gave the radio to the Inspectorate on Thursday, January 18, 1945. Thanks to listening to Soviet broadcasts, I had no doubts about what awaited us. In March, I went to Krakow to enroll at the Silesian University of Technology. During my absence my parents were visited by "friends". Impersonating former partisans, they asked about me.
So I came to the conclusion that people like me have no place in People's Poland and I started making plans to escape to the West. Romek Burkiewicz was my younger friend from school and from scout camps. His elder brother Heniek commanded the "Czarna Jedynka" at our middle school. He joined the Carpathian Brigade at the turn of 1939/1940, and after Tobruk he joined the Air Force. He became a pilot in 300 Squadron and died on a Lancaster in June 1944. I served with Romek in the "Barbara" partisan battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the Home Army. Our battalion fought with the Germans in the rear of the front in the Tarnów Foothills, from the end of July to the end of October 1944. I traveled the battalion's combat trail with a machine gun on my shoulder, which weighed more kilograms than I was in years. It was a Browning model 30. The rifle with water weighed 21 kg, and the base for it weighed 28 kg. Together with the second Browning wz. 30 we formed a heavy machine gun team, which was part of the 4th company. Romek served in the 5th company.
Romek and I started to prepare for the trip. We gathered information and collected money. I bought four US dollars on the black market. I got 500 zlotys from my father, and from friends returning from concentration camps I collected some Czech crowns and German marks. I tore a map of Czechoslovakia out of Romer's atlas. Romek enlisted the next two candidates. One of them was Rudek Pączek, who served with me in the 4th company, and the other was a partisan from the Home Army unit in Kielce, whom I did not know and whose name and surname has escaped my memory.
We left Tarnów on Tuesday, July 17, 1945, by freight train to Silesia. From Katowice by passenger train, we headed to the border. Before reaching the last border station, we got out of the car. We continued our journey on foot. The landmark was the tower of the church in Bohumin, visible from afar. Before we reached Olza, which is the Polish-Czechoslovak border, we met an old man who scared us by warning: - Don't go there, because there are mines and they will shoot at you.
With soul in hand, constantly watching the foreground, we reached the bushes by the Olza River. After a long observation of both banks of the river, we forded it one by one, jumping in our boots. The water was up to our knees. At dusk we reached the park in Bohumin. We sat on a bench and lit cigarettes, wondering what to do next. Cigarettes drew the attention of passers - by, apparently there was a lack of them in Bohumin. So we quickly put them out. At some point, Rudek threw himself on the neck of a passing woman. It turned out to be his aunt. So we had a night on the floor in her house. Thanks to it, I exchanged Polish zlotys for Czech crowns and my capital doubled. The next day, friends of Rudek's aunt bought us tickets for the night train to Prague for the exchanged money.
In Bogumin, unlike Polish cities that were decorated with national flags, only red flags were flying. The difference between the two countries was therefore striking. We placed ourselves in a compartment and, covered with newspapers, we reached Prague in the morning without incident. We couldn't buy anything to eat other than soda water. Instead, I found a large map of pre-war Europe, which I bought for a song.
We bought train tickets to Pilsen at the station without any difficulty. We knew that there were Americans in Plzeň, but we had no idea where the demarcation line was. On the train to Pilsen, we sat on different benches in the Pullman, which had no compartments, and we were in eye contact with each other. 15 km before Pilsen, the train stopped at Rokiczany (Rokycany) station. Mixed Soviet-American patrols entered the car from both sides at the same time and began checking passengers' IDs. An American demanded documents from me. I showed him my Kennkarte, so folded that the photograph was visible on the outside, covering with my fingers the place where the Nazi eagle had been cut out (the people's authorities cut it out when changing money), and added in French - Je ne comprends pas anglais, je ne comprends allemand. He took me, presumably, for a Frenchman returning home, waved his hand, and walked over to the next passenger. I was only in the American zone for a short time.
At some point, I noticed that a Soviet soldier was leading three of my friends out of the wagon. From the same platform, a train was moving in the opposite direction, and I saw my colleagues jumping on it. In line with the promise we made to each other when crossing the Olza, that if we cross the border, it's all or no one - I ran out of the Pullman and barely managed to jump into the last car. Then I heard the sound of bullets. A Soviet soldier fired a series of SMGs after me, but the train was already picking up speed.
I ran the whole train from the last car to the locomotive, looking into each toilet several times, but I did not find my friends. Once there, I came across an old conductor. He asked me why I was jumping on the train and why were they shooting after me? I told him a fairy tale that I was going with my friends to Pilsen in search of my parents, who had been deported by the Germans to a concentration camp. The story made no impression on him. He advised me to return to Prague and obtain a pass to Pilsen from the Polish consulate. At one point he asked me for a ticket. When I showed him the ticket from Prague to Pilsen, his attitude towards me changed. He asked me if I was hungry. He advised me not to return to Prague, but to get off at the next station and return to Rokicze, where I would surely meet my friends. Which I did. He got out too, because that was where his duty ended.
I sat on a bench at the station, took a piece of bread from my briefcase and started eating while he went to the station building. The train arrived in half an hour. The conductor then left the building, waved his hand at me, and began to look into the carriages, opening the doors to individual compartments of the suburban train. Once there, he opened the door to the compartment where two elderly ladies were sitting. He began to explain something to them quickly, I did not understand much of it, but from the expressions on the faces of these ladies I guessed that he was telling them a fairy tale he had heard from me. I thanked him and got into that compartment. The train soon left. These ladies gave me biscuits. Talking about my "misfortune" we reached Rokicze. This time Rokiczany was the destination station and the train ended its run there. Americans were standing on the wide platform, identifying passengers boarding the train to Pilsen, standing on the other side of the same platform.
I got off with the Czechs and walked half a step behind them. They showed the American soldier a pass to Pilsen and pointed at me that we were together. As before, I showed him the folded Kennkarte with the photo on the outside, my fingers covering the place where the stamp with the Nazi eagle had been cut out. Together with the Czechs, I got into the wagon. The train soon left. I had the Soviet zone behind me.
We arrived in Pilsen in the evening. There was rubble around the station. I got off the train with the Czechs, thinking that they would put me up for the night. However, they had other plans. After leaving the station, they said goodbye to me, and I thanked them sincerely for their help. At the corner of the street, they turned right and I turned left.
I didn't get a hundred yards before I was sitting in the Jeep of the American Military Police. It turned out that there was a curfew in Plzeň. Two men of the military police in white helmets with the black inscription MP on the forehead took me to the DP camp. This camp, where I spent one night, turned out to be simply a brothel. Throughout the night the bunk beds were moving.
In the morning I reported to the camp command, asking for a pass to Cologne. My destination was England, where I wanted to enlist in the Air Force. An American lieutenant told me that if I was transported to Cologne, he would issue me a pass. I left the office empty-handed and headed for the guardhouse at the main gate. The American soldier had a rifle leaning against the sentry box and was embracing a girl. I took the opportunity and passed through the gate unnoticed.
I returned to the station. There was a freight-passenger train there, commanded by an American officer. I learned from the passengers that they were going to Italy. The passengers were Jews who had survived the extermination camps.
The direction of the train ride did not suit me, but on reflection I concluded that it was necessary to move away from the Soviet zone as soon as possible. I exchanged Czech crowns for German marks. My capital doubled again.
Then I went through the whole train and found a sentry booth in the last car. As the train started to move, I jumped on it and sat in the booth. That's how I got to Nuremberg, from where I intended to go north. The city center was in ruins. Only the streets, along which American military cars were moving, were excavated.
On one of the streets, I met a Polish captain walking with an American. From the crusader badge on his right shoulder, I recognized that he was from the Polish 2nd Corps, because from the radio listening I knew that after the Battle of Monte Cassino, the British badge of the 8th Army had been awarded to the Poles. I reported to him in three steps with a bang: - Captain, Cpl. cadet Kajetan Bieniecki, 16th Infantry Regiment of the Home Army, asking for an interview.
He started talking to me in a very friendly manner. He was a liaison officer of the Polish 2nd Corps, and the American turned out to be a Polish woman who left Poland a month before me and worked in the American City Command. That captain informed me that I had no chance of getting into the Air Force, nor into the 1st Armored Division. He advised me to go to Augsburg, where there are American military warehouses on the outskirts, where Polish trucks from Murnau (an officer camp of Polish German prisoners of war) come for food. A transport company regularly comes to Murnau from Italy for volunteers. A Polish woman in an American uniform, promised me a travel pass from the City Command the next day.
I spent the night in the station's air-raid shelter, where I slept on the floor. The benches were full of German soldiers returning home from prisoner-of-war camps. The next day, Monday, July 23, at the agreed time and place, I received from a kind "American" not only a pass, but also some canned meat and a loaf of bread as white as snow.
I took the train to the vicinity of Regensburg on the Danube, where the railway bridge was broken. A bit on foot, a bit hitchhiking with German soldiers returning home, I reached Augsburg. Here trucks did come for food, but the officer in charge of them was not willing to take me. Instead, I was taken by a chauffeur-corporal, whose car was loaded to the brim with bread. Standing between loaves of bread in the dark car shed, I arrived in Murnau in the late afternoon.
The transport column from the Polish 2nd Corps was to leave the next day. This transport was organized by a former prisoner of war, whose name has escaped my memory. So I applied to him. When I told him that a week ago, I was in Poland, and I am a cadet of the Home Army, he explained to me paternally that there was no room in tomorrow's transport. But in the next one, which will leave in two weeks, he'll put me first on the list. He also advised me to report to the camp command, and from tomorrow I will be provided with provisions.
At the camp headquarters, one of the officers talked to me for a long time and asked me about the situation in Poland. From the conversation I deduced that there were already agents in the camp, and they were persuading the officers to return to Poland, promising them mountains of gold.
He also gave me the address of a radio station in Switzerland, which broadcasts messages in Polish for fellow countrymen looking for each other. I immediately took advantage of the information and sent an encrypted message, understood only by my parents, about the successful crossing of the border.
The next day I got up early in the morning, washed myself under cold water, ate the remains of the provisions given to me by the "American" and started passing through the car column. I put my briefcase on one of the trucks. I only had toiletries and a change of underwear in it.
Officers began coming to the cars, laden with luggage and American packets of provisions for the road. One of them, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, in a borderland accent, pointed out to me that this car, where I put my briefcase is for officers only. Reluctantly, I took my briefcase and left. However, I decided that I would go to Italy with this transport. I was wondering how to do it. After some time, the transport started. Car after car drove toward the gate, and I noticed all the cars at the gate slowing down and making sharp left turns onto the highway. I rushed to the gate, threw my briefcase in the back of the first car that came along, grabbed the tailgate, and jumped up. However, I bounced too weakly and kicking my legs up, I couldn't get on.
One of the officers sitting in the back came to my aid and pulled me by the back of my body into the car saying: "Move over, gentlemen," he said, "we have one more passenger." I thanked him and sat down on someone's luggage. On the open road, the long convoy of cars picked up speed and we drove through the valley at the foot of the Alps in fine weather. After several hours of driving past Innsbruck, the motorcade stopped at a grove near the road. They all got out, opened the American packages, and began to eat.
I was hungry, so I stepped aside so as not to think about food. This was noticed by the officer who pulled me into the car, who approached me and began to offer me his package. I had not eaten such delicacies since the war. We started talking. I told him that I was a "boy from the forest" and I was coming straight from Poland to enlist in the ranks of the Polish 2nd Corps. My interlocutor, as it turned out, was a priest who survived a concentration camp and now wanted to become a chaplain in the 2nd Corps.
Soon we were loaded back into the cars and the transport started. The road began to climbm, and the cars howled in the first gears. The landscape was beautiful - mountains, pine forests and greenery around, with colorful houses on the slopes of the mountains and in the valleys. After reaching the top, the climate suddenly changed. It was hot as hell, and it was hard to breathe. The landscape had also changed. Everything burnt by the sun was grey, only here and there olive trees were green.
Via Brenner, we arrived in the evening to Verona, where we were accommodated for the night in the camp. The next day we traveled by train to Porto San Giorgio, where I parted with my guardian. He was directed to the officers' quarters, and I found myself in a tent in a transit camp for POWs.
In this camp, I received tropical uniforms and, together with other volunteers, I waited impatiently for transport to the Polish 2nd Corps Base. The volunteers were Warsaw insurgents, prisoners of concentration camps, prisoners of war from the September and French campaigns, and a few workers who were sent to forced labor in Germany. The largest group were the Warsaw insurgents.
After two or three weeks, which seemed to last forever, we were sent by car to the south of Italy, several kilometers north of Taranto, to a camp in tents near San Basilio in Puglia. A commission arrived there and started separating us to different units of the 2nd Corps Base. We were all volunteers and had a choice of weapons.
And the choice was. more or less, like this. We were lined up and each of us was approached by a lieutenant colonel with an adjutant. Before the lieutenant colonel approached me, I only heard - to the air force, to the paratroopers, to the commandos, to the armored weapons, Colonel - these were the voices of the Warsaw insurgents. When it was my turn, I stood at attention and recited in a loud voice: - To the air force, Colonel!
He waved his hand, said the Air Force was in England, and walked over to the next volunteer. Gradually someone left the line. The lieutenant colonel approached me about three times. I stubbornly stood in line, and he heard the same thing from me every time. Until finally he stopped in front of me for a long time and began to explain to me in a fatherly way: "Boy, if you want to fly, pick artillery." Artillerymen sometimes, being good shooters, conduct fire while flying the plane. The air force, son, is in England, which I've explained to you about three times.
I was resigned, I only mumbled: - Let there be artillery. I was assigned to PAL 17. On the way to the regiment, there were about twenty of us in the car. We became friends. The regiment to which we were assigned was stationed on the "heel of the Italian boot" in Squinzano. After arriving at the regiment, we were greeted by the commander, Major Jerzy Janasiewicz, who asked us about our past service.
We were all assigned to the school battery. In this battery we found ourselves among the Silesians, trained artillerymen who knew their military craft from frontline service in the German army. On cannons, we couldn't understand at first how you can shoot forwards while aiming backwards. So, we ran with the Silesians around the cannons. Understandably, animosities arose between us. For harmony to reign among us, the education officer suggested to our newly arrived twenty that we organize a soiree for the regiment and perform on stage. We agreed to it and got to work. We chose "The Tempest" and the Warsaw Uprising as the topic of our speech. We presented them with a compere, interspersed with singing, declamation, and music.
After our performance, the regimental commander came behind the curtain and thanked each of us. As a reward, we got a two-week pass to Rome. After the holiday, we were assigned to the Artillery Cadet School in Matera.
On Tuesday, November 20, 1945, I barely had time to get out of the car and enter the school building, when in the corridor Romek Burkiewicz and his friend, whom I had parted with four months ago in Rokiczany, threw themselves at my neck. It turned out that they, in order to free themselves from the Soviet escort, jumped into the departing train and immediately jumped out of it on the other side. They managed to cross the demarcation line only the third time.
Romek and his friend came to the School from the 10th PAC and were assigned to the 2nd heavy battery. I was assigned to the 1st Platoon in the 1st Light Battery. The commander of the 1st battery was Lieutenant Stefan Bakinowski. He commanded us for a short time, because after Christmas he left, like many of the School's faculties, to study, when the gates of Italian universities opened for the soldiers of the 2nd Corps. Lieutenant Bakinowski went through Soviet gulags, served in the 3rd Carpathian PAL, and wore a KW and Monte Cassino ribbon on his chest. It seems to me that before the war he studied Polish philology. After him, the command of the 1st battery was taken over by Lieutenant Henryk Grzyb, a professional officer, soldier of the September Campaign, a prisoner of war, who joined the II Corps after the war and commanded us until the school closed. Also a prisoner of war, was Lt. Benke, from Poznan. He was in one of the DACs because he wore green tabs with red tabs. He taught shooting instruction, a difficult subject he knew perfectly well. We were taught mathematics by Capt. Kazimierz Jasieński, vice-president of the school. I only remember the faces of the other lecturers. Their names have escaped my memory. The chief of our 1st battery was fire chief Antoni Furman, an old man, probably still an instructor from the SPA in Toruń. Skalski; he went through the Soviet gulags and served in one of the Kresowe PALs. The scope of training, apart from artillery, also included infantry tactics, armored weapons (each of us even drove a Sherman), aviation and communication, mining and gas science.
Source: This excerpt is from the original Polish text located at: