Lech Marian ZIOLOWSKI
Lech Marian Ziolowski was born in Pomerania, Poland, on 30 July 1921. He was deported to Siberia during the Russian mass deportations in 1940-41. He survived a horrifying 3-4-week train journey in a cattle car, with little food and no sanitary facilities. He was forced to work in the most inhuman conditions at the work camp, subsisting on a meagre allotment of bread and the occasional bowl of watery soup.
Germany and Russia were allies during the first years of the war. Then Germany attacked Russian-held positions in 1941, and Russia decided to change sides and join the Allies. An agreement between the Polish government-in-exile in London, and the Russian government, led to the declaration of an ‘amnesty’ for Polish citizens held in the USSR and the formation of a Polish army in the USSR.
On the basis of this ‘amnesty’, Lech was able to leave the work camp in Siberia and travelled thousands of miles to join the Polish army in the southern USSR – a trip that took many weeks, in conditions that were even harsher than those he experienced when he was deported from Poland. Along with thousands of other deportees, he arrived there looking like a skeleton in rags.
He arrived at the Polish army camp, eager to recover his strength and join the fight to liberate Europe and his homeland. The army trained in the USSR, but a decision was made to evacuate to Persia (Iran) since the Russians were not providing the soldiers with sufficient food and equipment. Two series of evacuations took place – in the fall of 1941 and the spring of 1942 – before Stalin decided to shut the border and not allow any more evacuations.
Lech was lucky to have been included in one of the evacuations. He crossed the Caspian sea in an over crowded ship that was barely sea worthy, and landed at the port of Pahlavi. He spent some time training in Persia, then in Iraq and Palestine. He then volunteered to join the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade and shipped off to Scotland where he trained intensively and took a pathfinder course. Lech served with HQ Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. He jumped from a C-47 over the Dutch city of Driel during Operation Market Garden on 21 September 1944, having flown from Spanhoe airfield in Lincolnshire with the 309th Troop Carrier Squadron. The goal was to supply support to the British forces that were stationed in Oosterbeek.
The Battle of Arnhem (September 17 - 26, 1944) was the largest airborne invasion in history. It involved dropping 35,000 paratroopers and glider-borne troops up to 60 miles behind enemy lines in Holland to capture several strategic bridges.
Ten thousand members of the British 1st Airborne Division with support from the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade were to capture and hold the furthest point: the bridge at Arnhem. Because of bad planning, intelligence oversights, stronger than expected resistance, and simple bad luck, the operation that should have ended the war quickly turned into one of the war’s most ferocious and bloody battles.
The lightly armed airborne forces held out for over nine days against overwhelming and heavily armed opposition. Their doggedness and bravery earned them a place in military history. By battle’s end, of the 10,000 who went in only just over 2,400 managed to escape back across the river. The rest were killed, captured, or wounded. Five Victoria Crosses were won at Arnhem.
After surviving the battle, many were then packed into cattle trucks and sent to German POW camps where they endured cold, hunger and deprivation until the end of the war in May 1945.
Lech recounted some of what took place during that battle. He said it was a complete mess. There were mortars and tracers flying about in all directions, injured men were screaming, smoke was everywhere, and planes were flying overhead to boot.
One particular incident involved a tank entering Driel, and Lech thinking it is a German tank. He readied a gammon bomb and was waiting for the tank to reach his position. Luckily, he spotted the orange rectangle behind it on the turret and knew that it was a British tank.
In recognition of his service, he was awarded the Bronze Star.
The participation of Polish troops in the conflict and the fact that they were stationed in Driel led to the formation of a friendly relationship between the villagers and the Polish paratroopers. The village square has been renamed Polenplein, and there are monuments and a bust of Stanislaw Franciszek Sosabowski, the commander of the Polish paratroopers, located there as well.
The highest military honour that can be bestowed in Holland - the Military Order of William and the Bronze Lion - were bestowed upon the Polish Brigade. On the Polenplein in Driel in the year 2019, King Charles, who was at the time the crown prince, voiced his gratitude and admiration for the Polish soldiers that had been stationed there.
Polish paratroopers are honored there on the first day of September each and every year, and the ceremony is frequently attended by the veterans who are still alive today. In both 2014 and 2017, Lech Marian Ziolowski was in attendance.
After the war, many Polish veterans chose not to go back to their home country because it had become a communist state under the sway of Joseph Stalin, the leader of Russia at the time. The Polish veterans did not support communism, which is why they were not particularly welcomed in their home country. Moreover, having spent time in the West, they were viewed with suspicion by the communist government.
After the war, Lech married Lillian Crabstick, and settled in Baguley. a suburb of Manchester, where he worked as a Draughtsman. In the late 1950s they moved to Canada. Lillian died on 26 August 2009 in her 83rd year, and Lech Marian Ziółowski passed away on 3 January 2023 in Toronto, at the age of 101.
Source: 2017 interview by KMS