A Polish Paratrooper
by his son, A. Szmid
I was born on a farm in Eastern Poland near the town of Nieswiez, where I lived with my father, mother, brother and sisters. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, it did not really affect us much, until two weeks later, when the Russians invaded us and this was to change our lives dramatically. The NKVD arrived and took down all the details of our family and farm. Then on 10 February 1940, at approximately 3:00 in the morning, soldiers arrived with rifles and bayonets and ordered us to pack what belongings we could take and we were escorted on our sledge to the railway station at Baranowicze, twenty kilometres away. All the Polish families in our area were being removed like this. It was Stalin's revenge for Poles having defeated the Bolszevik's in the 1920 war, and we were now to pay a heavy price, by being forcibly deported to God knows where.
We were herded and loaded like animals into cattle cars, and the doors were locked and bolted from the outside. We spent a long time on this train without being allowed out or fed. Sanitation consisted of a hole in a corner, with no privacy. The only time the doors were opened was to allow the bodies of those that had died to be thrown out onto the frozen ground. We couldn't even bury them. Eventually we arrived at Wologodzkaia Oblosc in Siberia. This was to be our new home.
We were put to work in the forests every day and we were expected to produce our norms. If we didn't then it was simple, we wouldn't be fed. We were given warm clothes and boots and it was common to have to work in temperatures of minus 40 centigrade. The forest was a dangerous place, we didn't know what lurked there, and food was minimal. At one point my mother exchanged her wedding ring for some bread. People started to die from disease, exhaustion and malnutrition. Typhus hit the camp and affected the old and weak in particular.
In August 1941, a so-called ‘amnesty’ was declared for the Poles held in the USSR. An NKVD officer came and told us that we were free and could travel where we liked, although we could not travel back to Poland. We learned that a Polish Army was forming in the south of Russia, under the command of General Anders. My brother left to join it with some of his friends, and we followed two weeks later. The trains were totally unreliable. My eldest sister was in a wagon with her friends which became disconnected from ours and we were left behind. This left father, mother, my younger sister and myself in the disconnected wagon. Eventually we were hooked up to another train.
I can't begin to describe the absolute confusion and uncertainty that existed. We were making our way to Tashkent in Samarkand. We didn't have to pay on the trains, but had to wait sometimes days until one stopped and we were allowed to board. In the interim, we had to fend for ourselves. At a place called Kuybyshev, my father and I left to find some food and when we returned the train had departed with my mother and younger sister. We tried to catch them up but this was an impossible task. At this point my father became ill and eventually died, I don't know where. I buried him and was on my own. What I did to survive I would not rather talk about. Words cannot accurately describe what I was going through, and you couldn't begin to visualise it. The hunger was unbearable, and I would lie there thinking what I would give for a piece of bread. I was in rags, with only one boot, the other foot was wrapped in cloth. I joined up with a band of other youths like myself in Urtah. We tried to survive.
I kept being drawn towards the station, I don't know why. Probably in the hope that my mother would be returning to find me. One day I went yet again to the station and happened to be there when a troop train carrying the recently-formed Polish Army was passing. They asked me if I was Polish, then they pulled me on board and gave me some food, and I travelled with them to Jalalabad. There was a recruiting office there and in order to survive I was encouraged by these soldiers of the 5th Kresowa Division to enlist. It was my only hope.
I stood in a line until it was my turn. The recruiter asked me my year of birth and when I told him, he said I was too young and to go away. I left the building and went out to the back where I proceeded to cry my eyes out. At this point a Polish Officer appeared and asked me what the matter was. I informed him that I was on my own and had just been turned down for being too young. It didn't help as at that time I was very small for my age. He told me to get a grip of myself , go into another queue and give a year which would make me old enough. You have to remember that we had no documents. This is what I did, I lied about my age and was accepted into the 5th Kresowa Division in March 1942.
I was in rags when I joined. You could run your hand down any part of my body or clothes and you would have a fistful of lice, they were horrible. I was made to wash myself clean, my hair was shaved, and I was issued with brand new British Army clothes, as well as equipment and weapons. It felt terrific to be clean and freshly clothed again, after all this time. My old clothes were burnt and you could hear the crackling of the lice as they burnt.
Army life was good, I got three meals a day, I took orders, trained hard and became a good shot. At this point I was informed that a woman with a daughter with my surname was living approximately twenty kilometres away. I wrote a letter and sure enough, it was my mother and sister. They arrived on Good Friday. Because I was now a soldier they came under the protection of the Polish Army. My mother was employed in the wash-house.
In April 1942, the army evacuated to Persia (Iran) and came under British Command. We sailed from Krasnovodosk to Pahlevi, on a ship that was completely overloaded, fearing all the time that this rust-bucket would be deliberately sunk by the Russians, our "allies". We disembarked, washed and were issued with new uniforms. My mother and sister followed one week later. We were taken to Iraq, and lived and trained in the desert. It was hard work. At first we were made to eat and build up our strength, as we had come out of the ‘worker's paradise’, as virtual skeletons.
One day when I was peeling potatoes, standing in front of me was my brother who had found me. We embraced each other and when I had finished my duties, went and had a drink. I informed him of father’s death and that mother and our sister were close by. He told me that he was in the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, and that my eldest sister was in the Polish Army Women’s’ Auxiliary as a transport driver.
I then volunteered and was accepted into the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Scotland. A number of us had been accepted. If you ask me why, it was because they paid more. We boarded lorries, which travelled across Transjordan to Haifa on the Red Sea. I think that someone was looking after me because the regiment that I had left suffered big casualties in later battles, especially at Monte Cassino in Italy. In later life, when I visited Monte Cassino Cemetery, I saw the names of many soldiers that I remembered, especially the corporal in charge of my platoon who had been so good to me.
After two months, we boarded the enormous cruise ship “Isle de France”. There were 10,000 soldiers on board, of which 500 were Polish. Before the war, this had been a luxury Trans-Atlantic Liner, which had now been converted into a troopship. Twenty of us were crammed into a cabin with hammocks. We sailed to Madagascar, Durban, Rio de Janeiro, Freetown, and eventually Glasgow. During this time, I crossed the equator twice, and we were frequently concerned about being attacked and sunk by submarines, which fortunately didn't arrive, as we would not have stood a chance.
In the meantime, my mother and younger sister were sent to Uganda, where they lived out the war at a refugee camp in Koja. My brother and older sister were sent to Italy and took part in the Italian Campaign with the Polish 2nd Corps.
In June 1943, I arrived at the Polish Parachute Brigade Training Centre in Leslie, Scotland. This was an elite outfit, formed and trained by Colonel (later Major-General) Sosabowski, whose vision was that it would be specifically dropped onto the capital Warsaw, to assist the planned uprising against the Germans when the time came. It would have been a suicidal mission, with no chance of success, and I was relieved that it never happened.
Our training was intense and, after building up our fitness, we were sent to Ringway Airport, Manchester for two weeks. We had to complete eight jumps, two from a basket, five from a plane, and one by night from a balloon. Then, in September, I qualified as a paratrooper and received my badge. I was very proud of this. We stayed in Leslie until May 1944, and then moved to Stamford in Lincolnshire.
On one occasion, two of our planes collided during practice jumps and we lost twenty six paratroopers, which we could not afford to suffer. We went on more manoeuvres and exercises at Salisbury and were placed under the command of the 1st British Airborne Division, under General Urqhuart, as part of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. We were prepared for several jumps into France and the Low Countries, but as the invasion was moving so quickly, they were cancelled.
We were then informed that we would be taking part in Operation Market-Garden, to be dropped on the third day at Arnhem . This was not to be a rosy experience. Our officers briefed us and prepared us, however the night before I did not sleep at all. At 5.00am we were woken for breakfast, but hardly anyone ate. We gathered our equipment, collected our parachutes, boarded lorries and made our way to the airfields. No one spoke. At the airfields, the weather was poor. There was fog so we could not take off. We sat around all day hoping that it would clear. The flights were cancelled and we returned to barracks, which were not expecting us. Afain, no one slept or ate due to the tension. The same poor weather conditions occurred the next day.
Waiting, waiting, nothing we could do about it, we were so keyed up. Orders to board, travel to the edge of the runway, engines shut off, disembark. I took all of my 500-cigarette allowance and managed to smoke it all whist waiting. In the evening the same order came through, drop postponed, and we stood down. The tension got to one of my comrades, who put his gun to his head and before anyone could stop him, pulled the trigger and blew his head off. Back to barracks, another poor night and return to the airfield the next day.
In the afternoon of the 21st September we finally took off. It was not until we were on the airplane that we were informed that our drop-zone had been changed, and we were to land at the village of Driel. As we approached the target, we flew through a heavy barrages of flak, which threw our aircraft about. Green light, jump, and immediately into a hail of bullets by Germans on the ground who had been forewarned of our approach. I landed luckily unhurt, but the rest of the 1st Battalion to which I belonged had been recalled to England, which we didn't know about until later. In this fluid situation, we were assigned to the 3rd Battalion.
The next morning we were ordered to occupy a house. When we reached it, we opened the door without knocking and walked in. The owners, an elderly couple, were still in bed. Without a word, they quickly gathered their possessions and joined their neighbours leaving Driel. Later, this house was targeted by the Germans in order to provoke a reaction from us. A mortar hit the house and killed one of my mates, and we took casualties. A British Bren Gun Carrier arrived and unloaded a machine gun, which began firing at the German positions. We were then ordered to move to an orchard and dig foxholes. The Germans saw us and fired more shells. We took shelter in the orchard, which was a mistake, as this caused more injuries through splinters. So we returned to our holes and dug more quickly.
Because we were on the south side of the River Rhine and the British were on the north side, we were meant to support them. But we had jumped with no river-crossing equipment. After a few days, we were informed that boats would be arriving that would hold eighteen men each. We organised ourselves into groups and moved down to the water’s edge in the dark. It was pouring rain and we were drenched, huddling in the mud by the side of the dike, but nobody seemed to notice. We waited nervously. For a lot of us, it was our first time in action and a lot of us were very young. When the boats arrived, they were only big enough for twelve people each, and I was pulled out. Another of my mates was killed on the North Bank of the Rhine the next day.
The rest of our battalion was dropped later, and made their way to Driel. We reported to our officers and explained what had happened. Because they were new, we explained that their defensive positions in the trees were unsuitable. Before they were able to reply, shells started to land and some men were killed.
We then supported the British and Polish paratroopers’ withdrawal from the north side. After this was completed, we marched all the way back to Nijmegen. We spent a week guarding airfields and patrolling, until we again marched to Oostend and boarded a ship to return to Stamford in October.
General Sosabowski, who had been very critical of the plan for Market Garden and was not popular with the British higher command, was made a convenient scapegoat of this operation and removed from command of our Brigade. It was difficult to see what else we could have done to assist in this operation. We again departed by ship to the continent in May 1945, VE Day. We took part in occupation duties in Germany, at Kleve and Oosterbruck, with the 1st Polish Armoured Division, as part of the British Occupation of Germany Forces. Nearby was a Polish prisoner of war camp, where they had liberated mostly females. We performed patrol duties and kept the Germans under control.
Now that the war was over, the British did not know what to do with us Poles. bWe were the fourth largest Allied Army after the Russians, Americans and British. We had been fighting the longest, and had never let any of our allies down. In the Polish Army of the West to which I belonged, there were over 250,000 of us. Politics started to play a huge part and everyone was sensitive not to offend the Russians, or start another war against them. It was conveniently forgotten that they had invaded Poland along with Germany.
One thing that really hurt us and really annoyed all of us Poles, was that in 1946 there was a Victory Parade through London, to which every nation sent troops, or representatives, even a lonely policeman from Fiji. Yet we Poles were not invited. Most of us had no homes to go back to, and our families were scattered throughout the world or had been killed. As a result of the Yalta Agreement, Poland came under the sphere of Russian influence and our borders had been moved to the west, so that my home and farm was now in Russia. All her former allies disclaimed the Polish Government-in-Exile, to which we had pledged our allegiance.
Some soldiers returned to Poand, as they still had families and homes there. Many were subsequently arrested, put on trial, deported to be never seen again, imprisoned or executed. Those that returned went to live in the west of Poland. I did not fancy returning and being made a Russian citizen or living in land obtained from Germany.
Our Brigade returned to Britain in May 1947, and I joined the Polish Resettlement Corps. The Brigade was amongst the last Polish soldiers in the UK still with arms. Our standards were deposited in the Sikorski Institute in London. By this time my brother had arrived from Italy, my eldest sister was working here in a Polish hospital, and my mother and younger sister arrived in 1948. After being honourably discharged from the Army in 1948, I became a civilian and put on the Reserve List. I made England my home and became a British citizen.
Source: A. Szmid at BBC website: bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords