Stanislaw J. KOWALSKI
The most glorious and gratifying military success, in which I actively participated, was the famous closing of the Falaise Gap. After breaking at Trun we moved for three days through enemy territory - sometimes fighting and sometimes avoiding German troops. Our goal was to reach the narrowing gap in the allied ring of fire through which Germans were making their last escape.
As we reached the strategic point at the Hill Mont Ormel and village of Chambois we met on our south flank with the extended arm of Gen. Patton's advance unit. There, jointly we formed a line to block the enemy’s escape route. For two days we were under constant enemy attack and constant bombardment of their mortars and artillery to which the Canadian "AGRA" (heavy artillery unit) added their "friendly" fire. At the most critical moment, when Canadian shells were falling around us, I hid under one of the tanks and wondered when the shell meant for me would come. At that point the German infantry came close enough to us to throw grenades, all the time blasting at us with machine guns. We did not spare our fire in return. There were some moments that we were not sure we could hold our positions against these desperately fierce attacks. The battle turned into a fight of wills - in the end theirs gave out first. Some 100,000 soldiers of the German Army were eliminated from the war, which meant the end to the their domination of Normandy. This battle also secured the liberation of the whole of France. The site of the bitter fighting was later named by the Canadians "The Polish Battlefield" and became the focal point of visiting generals and war correspondents.
Today, a massive monument with a Polish tank in front of it and a museum inside Mont Ormel hill commemorates the men of all nations that took part in this great allied victory. As I recall those days I mention them with pride as a great Polish military achievement and my personal accomplishment as a soldier who fought there and survived.
Soon after the Battle of Falaise, we moved further to liberate several French towns and cities, being everywhere greeted by enthusiastic crowds who lined the streets. All along the roadside the French people presented us with flowers and wine, and some pretty female faces treated us with hugs and kisses. In this victory parade, as it appeared to me, there were also some tears for those who died and the suffering that was over.
There was one day that was especially painful to me. After moving smoothly for some days we encountered some enemy opposition at the French town of St. Omer. Following the order to attack a hill on the periphery of the town I met with heavy German machine gun fire. In front of my eyes two of my men fell dead, neither of them was older than twenty. Somehow I escaped their fate although my position was more exposed to enemy fire than theirs. We got their bodies and our equipment out of the fire but psychologically I agonized over their deaths for quite some time.
Today one can read their names on a monument erected by the citizens in a prominent part of the town. In this way the city St.Omer showed its gratitude to the soldiers of my unit who gave their lives on foreign soil for the freedom of another nation. One who witnessed the incident may derive some personal pride, but for posterity it is yet another small memorial to the war.
The victorious route led us through the rest of France and the southern provinces of Belgium. Everywhere we met with the joy and happiness of liberated people. Again these congratulations and thankful celebrations lasted only up to a point. The smooth sailing ended abruptly as we entered the Dutch province of Zealand.
Heavy fighting erupted on the Axel-Huilts Canal. Our goal was to secure the land that controlled the entrance to the strategic Belgian port, Antwerp. Our big problem was that much of the Zealand territory had been flooded by the Germans, who blew up dikes to render the area inaccessible to Allies. Our slow and difficult fighting followed raised roads that were easy for the enemy to defend but almost impossible for us to advance on. Our losses were staggering. My regiment alone lost 125 men, killed, wounded, and missing in one day's battle. At some point I carried on a duel with a German tank shelling the trenches in which our troops sought shelter. Unfortunately, having my anti-tank gun set insecurely on the top of the dike I missed twice. The German tank then withdrew. Eventually we secured the land two days later.
If one visits the town of Axel today, one would find a piece of Poland there. Some town streets bear such names as Pilsudski, Sikorski, Paderewski, Chopin, and Gen. Maczek; there is also a Szydlowski bus terminal and a monument to us in the main square; and on the dike where many of my colleagues died the Dragoon Cross stands tall and high over the battlefield.
The fallen men were buried in the local cemetery, the wounded were removed to military hospitals and we, the able and alive moved further to liberate the other provinces of Holland. On the way we had quite a few encounters with retreating Germans. The biggest and most important was the strategic battle for the city of Breda. There, on the Dutch southern border, German put up stiff resistance to our attacking units. We, the Poles, had them facing us at the port of Baarle Nassau, Alphen woods, and village of Dorst.
In one powerful push we broke the first lines of German defense and by the third day reached the outskirts of Breda. The city came out of this action almost without a scar for the price of some 800 Polish men killed and wounded, including seven men of my platoon. The people of Breda showed their gratitude to us in many ways. As we entered the city the joyous people greeted us with welcoming signs, with flowers, and with unmatched friendliness. Now, one may find there streets bearing Polish names, a monument to us in a prominent place, the Polish Veterans Museum, and all of us who fought there were awarded the city's honorary citizenship. In the village of Dorst two of my men have streets named after them for giving their lives fighting for that place.
The allied success forced the Germans to withdraw behind the River Mass, a natural line of defense in the land that was criss-crossed with many natural and man-made waterways. We spent the whole winter of 1944/1945 along the southern bank of the river in stationary action. The danger of wartime action extended in some cases further than the river line. I became subject to one in an incident that had almost nothing to do with the front line.
After my turn at an outpost was over, I took a short leave that was due to me. I visited some Belgian friends and relaxed in the officers’ hotel in Antwerp.
That important allied port was then under siege by German flying bombs, called "V2" rockets. As I stopped at the military café, I suddenly heard a huge explosion and saw everything around me falling to pieces. The bomb exploded on the main thoroughfare to Brussels and did a lot of damage to the city's property. I walked out of the building through a blown out window, helped a wounded woman on the street, and went from the city to the nearby place of Schilde to seek some rest with a Belgian family whom I befriended few months earlier.
In March 1945, we moved to the eastern territories of Holland; again liberating cities, towns, and villages and losing men and equipment in battles that came our way. Among them there was one that I am unlikely ever to forget.
On April the 10th the regiment in which I served reached the Oranie Canal in the Dutch province of Drenthe. At this point we were given quite a task. In the first stage we were to secure the bridgehead on the canal and to take the city of Emmen. Further north there was a battalion of French paratroopers surrounded by a large German force. To free them from the siege was the second goal of our operation, which was in fact the true goal of the whole operation.
My platoon was to cross the canal and establish a bridgehead at the ruins of a lesser bridge on the right flank of the attack. With the help of our tanks we achieved that goal and took some German prisoners in the process. While still at the bridgehead I moved to the front to rescue a wounded Dutch woman. Unexpectedly, I found myself facing three German soldiers, trying to escape. They fired at me with three of their machine guns. They missed me by inches - again I survived. I presume it was a lucky escape for me as much as for them.
Shortly before dusk I got the order to move to the horizon and watch for enemy movements in and around the town. As darkness came I got my next order - to enter the town and set up a post at the main crossroads and wait for the arrival of the main force. This was to take place after our engineers completed the bridge on the canal.
The place was dead silent as I marched with my platoon down the main street. I had a suspicion, though, that many curious eyes, looking into darkness through their windows, tried to find out who was walking their street at that late hour of the night. The next morning the rest of our troops arrived and for me there was another spectacle to see. People of the city went wild with joy. There was an outpouring of happiness by the citizens of the town freed barely a few hours earlier.
These people did not forget us. Today one can find Polish Street there and a monument of gratitude erected at a square close to the main railway station. There was also a piece of glory for me as well - I was recognized as the first allied soldier who entered the city on that memorable spring night. But my fighting days were numbered. Soon after crossing the German western border I met with a sniper's bullet at a place called Borsum while I was leading my platoon against the enemy stronghold. At the start of the action the fire was rather light and it appeared to me that the fighting would be over in no time. Some shrapnel were exploding above us, some mortar and artillery shells were bursting in front of us, and a reconnaissance platoon gave us its machine gun support on the right flank. We moved slowly but steadily towards the edge of the woods on the hill without receiving direct fire from the enemy. Then suddenly the first bullet that came from the other side hit me in the face.
By some miracle I managed to get out of the fire, which rapidly intensified. I reached the nearest carrier of the reconnaissance platoon and, unconscious, I was delivered to the first aid point. As I was told later, the doctor declared me a fatality and did not even bother to dress my wound. The chaplain being of the same mind said the last rites over me. I was placed in the ambulance with another wounded man and sent to the field hospital in Nijmegen. The wounded man died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The original doctor's prognosis with regard to me proved to be incorrect. My wound was not a life threatening injury, although it was very painful and terrifying at the time.
The sight of the field hospital opened before me another very tragic side of the war. I became witness to many dying and suffering casualties of the war. Even to me, who had seen the misery of Kolyma and dead and wounded on battlefields, this place was a sorry and depressing sight. Men wounded with bullet holes, burned in tanks, and hit by shrapnel lay in rows on the floor or stretchers, all suffering and moaning. Here I saw the worst victims of the war. As I looked at the hall filled with pained bodies I imagined that this was the way that purgatory would look; that was the way the suffering sinners must suffer in hell. But, these men who were suffering excruciating pain were no sinners - they were the victims of the insane world created by ambitious, confused, and callous minds. I suffered with those men on the floor, and with some of them I was taken by train to a military hospital in Belgium.
While I was recovering from my wound, the armistice was loudly announced through hospital wards on May 7th, 1945. Bottles of champagne appeared from nowhere, nurses provided cups and glasses and my English and Canadian companions drank, sang, and rejoiced. I understood their reason for the celebration - for them the war was over and soon they were to go back home to enjoy a peaceful civilian life. I could not share with them their exultation. At the back of my mind was the Yalta agreement, which gave half of Poland to the Soviet Union, including my hometown. This practically barred me from returning to my country, even to the part that was not annexed by the Soviets. The new Poland was under communist rule and I, as a former Soviet prisoner, could not expect decent treatment from the new system. That was my dilemma and I had to live with it.
So the victorious war ended for me and many Poles on a very sad and sour note. For us there was no victory in the Allied triumph. We, who had fought the Nazis from the very first day of the conflict, became victims of underhanded political manipulations and illegal treaties. At this point I also parted with history. The chapter had closed abruptly and left me alone and bitter at a crossroads of my life.
There was an emptiness around me on which I was to build another life in another country that would be prepared to give me a home and some means of living. The question was what country would it be and what means would be open to me. Considering all this I opted for green and friendly England, where I expected my wartime English friends to make my adjustment easier.
My hopes returned to schooling, where I expected to find within the walls of one of the many institutions of higher learning in London. My conviction was that there had to be a place for me where I could acquire knowledge, so much needed by me on this new path of life.
Before I took my uniform off I found my new Alma Mater in the business school affiliated with the famous London School of Economics. There, helped with a government scholarship, I went digging for knowledge that would provide me with a reasonable profession. In the end I left the school with several certificates of which the one in accounting proved to be the most useful. In fact, it gave rise to my lifelong profession.
Accounting being a subject of international nature seemed to have an application in every country, except where special conditions made it irrelevant. The post-war law in England officially did not bar any foreigner from taking employment in any profession, provided that no Englishman applied for such a post at the same time or earlier. In practice, it meant that there would be no employment for me in any business in England. Among Englishmen there were many demobilized men looking for jobs and the openings were few. However, I found a way that made me a useful and productive person within English society.
After having finished school I joined a friend of mine in a photography business, putting all my savings as an investment into this one-man enterprise. For a long time it was a hard struggle to make ends meet. Then turning to a simple idea of taking children's pictures at home, we stepped upon a fairly profitable venture. In a short time we gave employment to some sixty men - agents, photographers, salesmen, and deliverymen. Our operation covered the whole of England, Wales, and was reaching into southern towns of Scotland.
At that point everything looked good, except that photography had no aspects of permanency and stability. My next idea was to go into a more stable line that would secure our future business operation. My friend, the major partner, was in full agreement with my reasoning, but was too much sold on photography and some pleasures of life to make a change. Hence, we never moved towards something more secure.
In between there were some developments in my life of more personal nature. My parents and my brothers came back from Siberia and settled down in the western part of Poland. Through some relatives I established contact with them. By sending parcels with food and clothing I tried to make their living conditions easier. There was no way to visit them, because the Iron Curtain would not allow it. Frequent exchanges of letters made up to some extent for the separation. Their living in Poland was not easy but much better than they had in the wide steppe of Kazakhstan. Whatever they had was definitely better than utter misery in the Soviet land.
On the English front I met an attractive young English lady, while vacationing in a holiday resort in Brighton. Our closer relationship developed almost outright. She happened to live only few streets away from me in the southern part of London. By profession she was a dress designer, which was quite a profitable profession. A few years later we married and started a family in our own home, which was located in the London district called Ladywell.
Within first four years we were blessed with three lovely children - two girls and a boy, whom we named Alexandra, Victoria and Wladyslaw, respectively. On this side everything so far looked good. With my income better than average I could manage to meet my family obligations on my own. My wife's income was temporarily suspended, as she had to perform the function of mother and lady of the house.
As I predicted earlier, photography was gradually becoming a less profitable business. Some differences between me and my friend led to my departure from our joint venture. Instead, I started a business of my own in the line of my wife's profession. Putting our heads and our resources together we started a dress manufacturing company in the London district called Cotford Hill. As always is the case, the beginning was difficult and it was a big strain on both of us. It took quite some time and a lot of our effort before some results were visible.
At the end of the third year the business progressed. We increased our staff to 26 people. Encouraged by this we aimed even further. With several dress samples accepted by a well-known West End fashion house prospects looked bright. Unfortunately, our best intentions met with adversities, which were not of our making and which were beyond our control.
While busy with organizing the business and personal life we hardly noticed the outside culprit that stepped in and undermined our effort. The culprit was international politics, which brought England into the Suez Canal conflict. The result of the military intervention was a general depression in the country to which our business fell victim. For lack of orders we had to close the shop and suspend the operation. Temporarily, I went back to photography to secure the income needed to maintain the family.
One day, while reading a newspaper report of wonderful opportunities in the countries across the ocean, my wife and I decided to seek our chances in a new and dynamic country like Canada. Soon I was off to Toronto to prepare grounds for the family who were to follow me later. Relying on information that was reaching us in England I was absolutely convinced that I had taken the right road to our future.
On arrival in Toronto I found that there was much exaggeration in all the glossy and promising reports. The country was in recession, like England, employment was hard to find, and to start a dressmaking business would have been suicidal. That section of the industry belonged to New York and a Canadian entrepreneur would have little chance to succeed. However, once on the new road of life I did not feel like turning back. Fortunately my wife was of the same opinion.
After some searching and many telephone calls I secured employment with a construction company as its general and cost accountant. The overall business position of the company was rather shaky. Building projects were few to bid and competition did its best to undercut them to the point that they were becoming a losing proposition. Fortunately the company had some of its side resources like two apartment buildings, a medical clinic, and an old rental unit; all of them together kept the business alive. Business was getting worse and even the income generated by the sidelines did not provide sufficient funds to cover construction losses. Debts were piling up and loans from banks growing.
In the midst of it my family arrived from England. By then I had a house ready for them with some furniture in to make their conditions livable. My wife, an English woman to the bone, although impressed in the beginning by the new way of life, lost interest in Canada after seeing the lesser side of it. She wanted to go back to the old country where life was slower but more secure; I still lived with the hope that everything would turn out for the best. While we were weighing our ideas an accident happened that involved my younger daughter. The legal side of the incident forced all of us to stay longer in Canada. We had to resolve this problem before making the next move.
By the time the legal suit was over we changed our mind and decided to try our luck in USA. Since my wife was British there was no problem with getting permanent visa or acquiring the so-called green card. On my fortieth birthday, June lst, 1960, we crossed the American border at Sarnia and entered another land of great expectations.
Our intended place of stay was Chicago where some of our friends lived and where, on account of the large Polish population, I expected to get some employment with ease. A day later, driving a second-hand car which I bought in Canada, I followed La Salle Street to turn at some point towards Humboldt Park, where wartime my friends lived. After staying a day or two with them I rented an apartment in the same neighborhood and bought some furniture to start new life in this country that had inspired some hopes in my wife and me.
When we arrived in USA the economic situation of the country was not at its best. This period later became known to its citizens as Eisenhower's recession. My experience in Canada taught me that finding employment is difficult when the economy is down. For me as a newcomer it would be even harder to secure a position within my qualifications. Again I started writing resumes, making calls, and visiting places with no success for quite a few weeks.
Eventually, with the help of an employment agency I secured an accounting position in a department store on the south side of Chicago. It was not a job I would want to stay in for life. Six working days a week, unpaid overtime, and a long way to commute was no bargain for a family man. I knew from the very beginning that I could not carry on like this for long. The good side of this employment was my friendly relationship with the employer, whose Jewish family had come from Poland a generation ago.
One day my employment agent called me and presented me with an offer of another job. It was an accounting position in a welfare agency, located in Hyde Park, where I, as he said, would meet nice and influential people and where conditions of employment were rather good. A day or two later I called at the agency's address for an interview. A week later I received a letter of acceptance.
There were some special points included in the terms of employment, which made me sure that I had made a good move. Most appreciated were a five-day week and a better salary. The latter improved considerably after less than a year when the institution moved into a new office building. At that point I was offered the position of business manager and comptroller. That was quite a boost to my ego and to the economics side of my family.
With this new employment I had more time for myself, my wife, and my children. I also had time to give some attention to the betterment of our living conditions. I already had a house in Logan Square, which needed some renovation and I bought some acreage with an old house on it in Michigan, planning to make it our summer home. Gradually, I improved both places and my life became safe, secure, and most of all, stabilized.
At the beginning, unrecognized by me then, there was another good point in terms of this employment - within term of it there was the medical coverage for me and my family. That proved to be important, which saved many of my financial problems in the near future. My wife developed a serious illness against which there was no recourse. There was nothing one could do except to wait and hope for a miracle to happen. The miracle cure never materialized. After three years of doctors, hospitals, operations, and endless medication the agony of death entered our home.
In the past I had witnessed death many times, but having it in the family makes a man feel it so much deeper and in a much more painful way. The loss of my companion hit me hard and left big scars on the children and me. At the time the oldest of them was hardly ten and the youngest only six years old. In my life of ups and down this was a very bitter point. Parting for good with a very close person is never easy and it was not easy for me.
I thought then how lucky I was in changing my employment just before illness entered my home. Without extra free time, without better income, and without sufficient medical coverage I would have been sunk deep in all kinds of financial obligations. They surely would have made my life difficult for quite some time to come. I got through the hardship with my material resources almost intact. That enabled me to proceed with the education of my children by sending them to private high schools and colleges. Being away from home, apart from acquiring knowledge, they got a taste of personal independence for which many young people of the time seemed to be yearning.
In time I entered into a new marriage - this time with a Polish lady, who was a great help to me in starting another life. To arrange a better future for us we bought a better house in Chicago and few years later a better one in suburban Morton Grove before going into retirement. Also together we put some effort and money into the place in Michigan, making it a real retreat for us and our children. It proved quite a blessing to us in our senior years for it provided us with many little projects and interests that kept our bodies and minds active.
The marriage this time is more Polish than English, but it does not really matter as long as it makes sense. There were some difficult times, which growing children always provide but eventually everything evened up for them and us. To see the children getting educated, settled in employment, married and having their own families seemed to make sense to all of us. Within this there was some satisfaction that creates good feelings to all members of the family.
There is also much sense and pleasure in having the third generation around us, coming for Christmas, Easter, and vacation in our summer home. There were nine of them, all of different characters, and all needing different kinds of attention and guidance. In that respect grandparents seem to be very useful. Unfortunately, the number of our grandchildren decreased to eight. The oldest of our grandsons died tragically in a road accident on New Year's Eve soon after his eighteenth birthday.
Once my personal life got settled, I turned attention to the deep past - to my parents and brothers. Soon after I entered into the new marriage I made my first trip to Poland to visit my aging parents and the rest of the family on the Polish side. The parents looked old and tired but still in good spirit. Their life was less than what they had enjoyed in pre-war Poland but, better than what the Soviet Union had to offer. My brothers were married, had their homes and families and lived lives typical of average citizens in post-war Poland. It was quite an experience for me to finally visit with my family after 35 years of separation, and it was quite a memorable event for all my relatives also.
Now, after retirement, I find enough time to write about my past experiences - something I always wanted to do. Whatever I put on the paper may have more value personally than the history in which I participated. Still, there are some episodes of my past that were recognized by Polish newspapers, and my wartime memoirs, written soon after the war ended, are being used by some historians in Poland and Holland. In all my retirement activities my basic intention is to live the uneventful life of a senior citizen with the young spirit of a man rich in life’s experience.