Second Lieutenant of Artillery, Free Polish Forces in WW2
My name is Marta Nordstrom-Bagot and I am today 58 years old. I am living right now in North Sweden. When I was writing those lines I was living in London with my husband, Brian. My girls were back in Sweden and my two grandchildren - Emma, who is now over 4 years old and her younger brother Pontus, were living in Östersund. I remember sitting in our living room in Hatton Cross, surrounded by faded black and white pictures and a bundle of papers that were written in Polish on an old typewriter years ago by my father. He had carefully gathered together a handful of his impressions and memoirs to be remembered, not forgotten or ignored as a record that I could hardly understand. Today when we celebrate memories of D-Day worldwide, I would like to share his past service in World War Two, basically in Scotland, to be a part of your, my and our history.
The Second World War started for Wladyslaw Niedochodowicz on the 1st of September 1939, at 6am, in Krakow in South Poland. He was 31 years old and just about to finish his Master's degree in History at the Jagielonian University in Krakow.
Under a rain of bombs, a small group of young men gathered together and, along with other citizens, commenced their long trek towards the south of Europe. They walked through Rumania and reached Yugoslavia in 1940, then on to Belgrade with the intention of joining up with Polish Forces in France.
After a six-day voyage across the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas, a group of 30 of them reached Marseilles in France. Circumstances were difficult as at the end of February the daily temperatures ranged from +25C during the day to fall to between —3C to —5C during the night. They gathered together in huts, often without windows and doors. Their neighbours were Africans from Senegal who had arrived a few days before them. The young men quickly got used to their situation. There was still eagerness and hope for the future and freedom. The Polish group was quickly organised into a regiment, the 2nd Division of the Infantry Fusiliers. After France capitulated on 17 June 1940, a group from the Division went towards South Loire and on to the English Channel ( la’Manche).
On the 19th of June, thirty-two of them left La Rochelle by boat destined for the UK. On the afternoon of 22 June, after a nightmare journey, Plymouth appeared on the horizon. Their first meeting with Britain and its people was quite a shock to the young men. With tearful eyes, pupils from a local school and a delegation of cheerful men and women met them. Fruit, sandwiches, cakes and of course English tea with milk weighed down huge tables. A short rest and the next part of the voyage took place by train towards the north of the United Kingdom, and the parts of the country that still didn’t see the harms of the war.
On the train, they were told that their new destination was to be Glasgow. Their first night was in Bellahousten Park School with its great park and friendly people who met them everywhere. This was their first time on Scottish soil and my father writes that the meeting was in a really ‘Polish’ way — open-hearted and hospitable.
From young people who assisted them through the days, they soon began to learn their first English words.
The rooms they were given were simple but clean and warm. Outside was summer with its flowers, green carefully-cut grass and fresh air. It was very peaceful. After their terrifying time in France it felt like arriving in a kind of Paradise.
A few days of rest and relaxation and they moved towards Symington, near the town of Biggar. This new camp was warm with friendship and there were already several thousands of Polish soldiers living in the tented camp. Even the rainy Scottish weather didn’t change their cheerful mood of being united.
During the beginning of September, my father’s section was relocated to a larger camp, not far from the village of Douglas in Lanarkshire. Douglas Camp was a gathering of officers and soldiers from different groups and divisions with a Polish background, units from the 10th Cavalry Brigade and the 10th Mounted Rifles Regiment, among others. Within a short time everything began to have a structure.
My father and two of his friends, Bulat and Maniszewski were attached to the 10th Cavalry Brigade. It had the abbreviation “10BK” and combined the motif of leather wings of a Polish Hussar, with an anchor. This was the motif that accompanied them through the war.
Everyone was now getting their equipment and receiving daily training in drill. The Scottish people were curious and tended to gather round the camp in Douglas as friendships grew between the two nations. General Stanislaw Maczek, Commanding Officer of the 10th Brigade, expressed his gratitude for the hospitality and kindness the Polish soldiers had received (October 1940). By the middle of October, following weeks of rain and some night frost, the camp received orders to move north. Their new destination was to be on the coast between Dundee and Aberdeen, near a little town called Monifight.
The unit was based there in case of a German invasion on the Scottish coast, and some soldiers were stationed on the headland of Barry Links where they built shelters and maintained an armed guard. Regular daily training and English language instruction continued.
After some weeks new friendships began to grow between the soldiers and the local people. In spite of negative thoughts the Scottish people showed generosity and friendliness as well as an interest in learning everything about the Poles and their country. During this time there were even some marriages between the soldiers and the local girls.
1940 was passing by, this was their second Christmas abroad, and 1941 began with wind and snow, - typical for this part of the United Kingdom. At the beginning of February my father was sent, together with his friends, to a school for Officer Cadets for Artillery. This was the first school of its kind that started in Scotland. Originally situated in Dundee, the school later moved to a beautiful castle in Lintrose House, under Coupar Angus. Each course had 63 cadets from differing social groups, with different education, jobs and ages. Instruction took place between February and June 1941 and my father was now an Officer Cadet.
Following his commission he was moved through several camps such as Monikie Hall, where they lived in a local church with owls and bats, then later to Kingoldrum near Forfar, Arbroath in Forfarshire, until eventually they arrived at a permanent camp in the grounds of Gosford House north of Edinburgh, at Aberlady in Haddingtonshire. At one stage they were even located in a real Scottish castle belonging to the Baxter family. My father described his time in the Gosford House Camp as one of intense training. From time to time they were sent on manoeuvres down towards the north of England, along with British and Canadian forces. Every day saw the arrival of better-trained drivers, engineers, telegraphers and radio navigators, recruitment being from American and Canadian nationals.
The soldiers were stationed in the castle park where special huts were built for them. The officers stayed within the castle. During August 1942, the 1st Regiment Motor Artillery was formed, which had its own standard (flag). The Regiment was divided into two companies and then into platoons. My father’s platoon, which comprised of 10 soldiers, came under the 1st Company, and he was responsible for this group of men.
Around this time the Regiment was given new heavy armour, vehicles and guns. In the meantime, the soldiers and townsfolk began to get along more and more. A Polish-Scottish Association was started in Edinburgh, as well as a British-Polish Association in Bradford, England. Both these associations were active in organising free time for the soldiers and even vacations together with English families.
At the end of 1942, my father went for his first two weeks' vacation to stay with the Bairstow family in Bradford. The head of the family was a coal merchant and they lived in a nice cottage in a suburb of the city. Christmas and New Year was a time for family traditions and drinking beer in their local public house. But the biggest impression made on my father was drinking huge amounts of tea with milk during those days.
Another thing new to him was the language. Learning and using phrases daily such as ‘how do you do’, greeting people in the morning and wishing them a ‘nice day’ even though it was raining outside, and using the words ‘sweet home’ (which seemed to be a symbol for the English way of life: closed, discreet and intimate), was often really amusing for him.
12 June 1943 saw the beginning of the great march of troops through north and middle England towards Wales, to a place near Brecon, Hereford called Abergavenny. And afterwards through the middle of England to Brandon in the Cambridge district. After some days at the new camp, rumours began circulating about concentrations of troops in preparation for an invasion of the continent.
At the end of October 1943 the Regiment returned to Gosford House in Scotland, and General Montgomery, the Commander-in-Chief, gave orders for short vacations only.
My father and a friend took a short trip in November down to London. They stayed at a Bed & Breakfast in Bedford Way, the owner of which was Swiss. The bombing of London was still continuing almost each night, starting at about 8pm and not stopping until about 2 to 3am. My father writes about the English peoples’ courage and discipline, which he admired during those days.
January 1944 — The Polish 1st Armoured Division is joined with the 21st Army Group under the command of General Montgomery
February 1944 — All permission for vacations was suspended and the word ‘readiness’ became the whisper within the Division. The group received new tanks for their use.
March 1944 — Inspection of the camp by General Eisenhower, who was now the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, and a month later a similar inspection was conducted by General Montgomery. Many years in the future my father still recalled Montgomery’s speech as he stood just yards away from his jeep: "I can’t go there alone - you need to help me. So we can go together killing German Fascists."
Leaving Scotland in the middle of May 1944 was like leaving their friends and families. ‘God bless you’ was said after them. With a song on their lips, the groups left these friendly parts for travels and an unknown future. ‘My Bonnie is over the ocean, my Bonnie is over the sea’ was heard long into the afternoon hours. The first stop was near Scarborough on the East coast and they stayed in the local school as well as some private accommodation. Exercise and drill took place each day, along with General Leclerc’s French Division. During the night hours of the 5th/6th June 1944, the exercises were suddenly stopped and news was distributed by the General in Command that ‘Operation Overlord is started’. The operation for the Division’s part in the invasion was named ‘Neptune’ and was under Commander-in-Chief General Montgomery.
On 6th June, at 12.15 am, the first groups of Allied Forces reached the coast of Normandy, but the Polish Armoured Division remained at readiness until 20th July when the order came from London for them to move towards Aldershot in Hampshire. The Division comprised about 15,210 soldiers and 885 officers. There were about 380 tanks and about 4,430 other motor vehicles. The Commander was General Stanislaw Maczek, his Assistant was Colonel Kazimierz Dworak.
25 July 1944 — The Division was split into smaller groups and made its way towards their embarkation points. TLCs of the variety ‘Liberty’ left Portsmouth harbour during the evening and slowly made their way towards the English Channel. They were leaving an island where a part of them still remained. No one knew their new destination; no one knew their coming future. Self-examination and thoughts about surviving were mixed during those hours, melancholy feelings on the cruelty of those days.
Early morning of 29 July 1944 saw the groups landing on the coast of France. Sitting in their tanks they were driving from the boats into France - driving this time to fight for freedom and for the future.
Second Lieutenant (Artillery) Wladyslaw NIEDOCHODOWICZ served with Polish Forces under British Command from 1 July 1940 to 9 June 1947, when he was honourably discharged. He was awarded the following medals: Polish Army Medal; British 1939-1945 Star; France and Germany Star; Defence Medal.)
Author: Marta Nordström-Bagot, Rätan, Sweden