Awarded the Virtuti Militari medal
Polish 2nd Corps (3DSK)
I was born on 31 January 1924, in Przemysl, and was exactly 15 years old, when the NKVD arrested me and my mother Anna. My father, Michał Gondek, who was a senior constable in the police force, had been arrested two weeks earlier. I never saw him again. I was already living in Canada, when I learned that he had been killed in May of that year. He was murdered by the NKVD as part of what is referred to as the KATYN massacres.
On 10 February 1940, we were forcibly removed from our home and crowded into cattle cars. In the dead of winter, the train took us to the other side of the Ural Mountains, to the Kustanaj Region of Kazakhstan. There, they scattered us among the locals. Mother and I lived with the family of the Debinski brothers – one was a General and the other a Colonel. I had to work from sunrise to sundown, just so that we could have a bed to sleep on and some meagre food. The work consisted of farming and tending livestock.
During this time, our thoughts went no further than living through to the next day. We did not think about whether it will end soon. No one had a radio, so we knew nothing of the Sikorski-Majski agreement. I’m not sure how we learned of the Polish Army – perhaps one of the Russians told us. When I did hear about it, I decided that I had to go. I left by myself. I could not risk taking my mother into the unknown, so she stayed behind and was later repatriated to Pryemysl.
The nearest assembly point was in Lugowo, which I reached on 2 Feb 1942. They gave us some sort of uniform, housed us in tents, and told us to wait. I remember the triangular shape of those tents. It was unbelievably cold; we slept on hay on the ground. Those among us who had longer legs often found them resting in mud or snow. We also had daily fights with the infestation of fleas.
I waited there for about 2 weeks. Then I was sent by train to the port of Krasnowodsk, and across the Caspian Sea to the port of Pahlevi, in Persia. This was an entirely different world. They burned our old, flea-infested clothing; we were bathed, disinfected, shaved, properly fed, and given proper uniforms. However, not everyone survived. Many of the soldiers died from typhoid, digestive problems, and dysentery.
A week later we were transported to Idjut in Palestine. I was assigned to the 27th Infantry Regiment, 10th Infantry Division. We underwent training in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I finished Officer Cadet School in Syria, not far from Damascus. This training lasted through to the end of 1942 and nearly the entire year in 1943. We left for Italy in December 1943, where I was re-assigned to the 6th Rifle Battalion, 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division.
We landed in southern Italy, directly at the front line, near Taranto. About a week later we reached the Sangro River, and came under fire by German artillery. We certainly got our fill of breathing dust during the battles. We took part in night patrols, going over to the German line. This all happened in an area called “no man’s land”; they would come to our side and we would go over to theirs. We would fire at each other and throw grenades.
Every evening, we would each receive a glass of rum to warm us, as it was pretty cold by then. Ensign Blachut was my platoon Commander. He was part of my platoon until I was injured, and then I don’t know what happened to him, or whether he survived the war. He was an extraordinarily courageous fellow. He was always the first to volunteer, particularly for those patrols, and he was twice decorated with the Virtuti Militari medal.
The 6th Rifle Battalion received orders to relieve the Americans at Monte Cassino. This happened during the night, and we were fired upon while we were still down in the valley. The Germans were positioned in such a way that they dominated the entire valley. Every soldier was heavily loaded down with equipment as he climbed; the mules carried the ammunition and were led by Hindus.
When we arrived at Monte Cassino, the battle had raged for nearly 7 months. I remember hearing about the Americans who had been there before us and how they had been careless when they smoked cigarettes. The Germans would pluck them off one by one.
We had our first casualties before we were even fully deployed. We were not familiar with the terrain, we could not see in the dark, yet we had to find a spot in which to take refuge. I managed to find a soft spot, and it wasn’t until morning that I realized that I was sitting on a corpse that had been covered with a thin layer of soil.
Finding shelter was not easy, as this was a rocky mountainside, and we had to find a hole in which to spend our days. During the nights, we were frequently on patrol, so we had to divest ourselves of anything that could identify us, and we even wore sneakers instead of boots.
We had a number of skirmishes, frequently meeting German patrols half-way. They were so close that we could hear their conversations. We once ended up in the house of a doctor, and were shot at by both the Germans and our own troops. I jumped into a hole in the rock face, and landed on top of my Ensign! We hid inside this cavity, protecting our heads and avoiding being shot.
The nighttime battles defy description, as do the bombing raids where our aircraft dropped a thousand bombs! Spectacular is a word that does not begin to describe it. Unfortunately, all this bombing did not do very much damage to the German positions.
At one point, we were ordered to attack the monastery from the side, and were assured that the German position on Hill 593 had been seized. However, the Germans were still there, and we were suddenly fired on from the rear! We could see the Germans some 20 meters from us but we could not fire on them because we would have received the full brunt of their artillery and that would have been the end of us.
We lost the Company commander and the Platoon commander so, as corporal, I was the highest ranking survivor, and I had to take command. I told the others that we had to keep going forward, firing on the retreating Germans, and throwing grenades. It was extremely dangerous, as we were exposed, and there were many mines on our route. We lost a lot of our comrades that day. Of 75 soldiers, only 17 of us survived.
I’ll never forget Wladek Czapora, who was injured, and was sitting and eating an apple. I told him not to worry, it would soon be over and we would return for him. When we did return several hours later and found him, he was still sitting there, the apple still in his hand, but there was a bullet hole in his forehead.
Another time, I desperately searched for my friend Mietek Laszewski, turning over every corpse in the area, while Mietek was hiding under a Canadian tank, healthy and untouched.
Thinking of those days, I cannot remember when or how we rested, ate or slept. I imagine that we had to eat, so there must have been provisions supplied to us, but I no longer remember any of that.
I did not fear dying, because I simply did not believe that I would die. Rather, I was afraid of being injured. Some of my fellow soldiers had premonitions. One of my friends, moments before an attack, removed the signet ring from his finger and told me to take it, because he would not leave this place alive. And he really did not survive. I, on the other hand, never had such premonitions – not even when I was injured. The thing that affected me the most in these battles was the sight of the decomposing corpses. No one was collecting them because there was no cease fire.
The thoughts that were continually in my mind were that the war would soon be over, that I would be reunited with my family, and we would all go home to Poland.
Monte Cassino was captured during the day and a short while later we saw two flags hoisted on top of the ruins: the Polish flag and the British flag. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion and, when the smoke cleared, only the Polish flag was still flying. I have no idea what had occurred.
At this point, we were hoping for a prolonged vacation, maybe even a trip to Egypt, but this did not happen. We had a few days off on the Adriatic, and then were thrown back into the thick of the action. This time the action was different, in that we were pursuing and the Germans were retreating. Psychologically this position was easier on us than sitting in a hole and being fired upon.
We captured Loretto and pursued the Germans from there. At Massa Albanetta, we had to force their hand. We had no artillery fire to back us, and their machine guns were firing on us. I decided to eliminate them, even though I had no orders to do so. I threw a grenade, which allowed me to get closer, and then with more grenades I managed to eliminate two machine gun positions. Things went quiet for a time, and then they started firing mortars in our direction.
I ended up in the line of ‘friendly fire’ – something that often happens in such close-combat situations, when the enemy crosses over into your territory. I was lying on my stomach, with my tommy-gun in my left hand, and I was waiting for the firing to cease. I remember the incredible noise and the smell of smoke and dust, and then I realized that I no longer held my weapon. Where my weapon used to be, there was only the shreds of my arm. The others had to continue the advance, so they all passed me. I remained behind with a slightly wounded fellow from my platoon, whom the lieutenant had ordered to stay with me. The medics arrived about 15 minutes later.
I did not feel anything. I thought I must be dying, because my whole life passed before my eyes. I felt sorry that my Mother would never know where I had died. It was only when the medics lifted me that I finally felt the pain. It turned out that I had a massive wound in my thigh, where some 30 mortar fragments were lodged. I screamed from the pain. The medics took me to a nearby Italian home, where the woman cried hysterically at the sight of me. I then experienced a nightmare journey to the field hospital on the back of a jeep that was evading enemy fire, and at each explosion I felt indescribable pain. I was seen by a priest who gave me the last rites, and then I was flown to a proper hospital. I was very conscious of the fact that I was seriously injured, and may not survive.
I never went back to the front lines - I spent the next 5 months in hospital. I was on a ward that was called the exercise ward, because the patient in each bed was attached to a series of ropes and pulleys. Thanks to the penicillin and the fabulous work of the surgeon – Colonel Soltysik –my leg was saved. This Polish Hospital was called Casamassina. One of my fellow-patients was Tadek Szopian, who entertained us by singing and playing the guitar.
LIFE in SCOTLAND and CANADA
I was awarded the Virtuti Militari medal, in Scotland, in 1944. I had been invited to the offices of Colonel Patek, and told to come in full uniform. I found myself in the company of a number of officers, and the Colonel pinned the medal on me. I received the medal, but to this day, I have never received the certificate that should accompany it. The Battalion Orders refer to my being awarded the medal for going “above and beyond the call of duty”, which I can only assume refers to the fact that I destroyed the two machine gun positions, thereby allowing the Company and Platoon to move forward.
Life in Scotland was not too difficult at the time. I received my wages as Corporal, which amounted to 19 pounds, and the cost of my lodgings and my studies were covered by the military. Over the next four years, I studied Economics, Commercial Law, etc. at the Commercial College.
I never considered returning to Poland. I was afraid to go back - we heard too many stories about those who went back and were never heard from again. Basically, I had left Poland when I was 15, and much had happened since. My outlook at the time was that I had to move forward from this point, and accept the changes that had transpired. I met my future wife, Margaret, who was a Scot, and that had a big influence on my way of thinking.
Margaret was at University at the same time as I was attending College. There was a joint dance between the two institutions, and I approached her with great trepidation, and asked her to dance. After all, I had lost part of my left arm, and I did not know how she would react. (For a long time, I had a real complex about this, and never appeared in public without my prosthetic arm.) Sparks flew between Margaret and myself, and she did not react negatively to my arm. As a matter of fact, we were married 8 months later, and were married for 40 years before she died in 1994.
At the time, she had a lot of problems with her family as a result of our marriage. After all, I was a foreigner, who had only one good arm, and no job! Who can blame her family for trying to dissuade her from marrying me? Her father was an elder at his church, but Margaret converted to Catholicism, and we were married in the Catholic Church.
Life in Scotland had a number of limitations back then. Even though I was working as a bookkeeper, the hope of someday buying a house or an automobile was only a pipe dream. Consequently, I applied for emigration to Canada. Being an invalid, I really did not have much hope of success. To my amazement, we were immediately accepted, and we arrived in Toronto in 1954.
It took us a few years to really get ourselves settled. My wife quickly secured a great job at the Scotia Bank, while I had to work at everything and anything, including delivering flyers. There were times when I did not even have the 10 cents needed to take a tram. But things got a little better year after year. When I landed a civil service job, things really improved. After 16 years in that position, I applied to be the new Director of the War Amps, and got the position. I worked there for the next 15 years, until my retirement.
I was involved with the War Amps almost from my arrival here, and I continue to volunteer my time with them. I held the position of President of the Toronto Branch on two occasions, and continue to be a National Director.
I have been back to Monte Cassino for some anniversary celebrations, and each time I go, I particularly remember the friends who died in Italy. I also relive the moments I spent climbing that mountain, and can almost see the German positions firing down on us. These images come to mind automatically, and they can never be erased from my psyche. But in the end, I have to say that there were also many moments that I can look back on and smile about. I guess I am a born soldier; I like the army, the uniforms, and the discipline. Deep inside, I will always be a soldier.
Over the years, I have been very involved with the Polish Veterans Association, and attend all their commemoration ceremonies. I am very proud to have been recently promoted to the rank of Capitan, by the Polish Ministry of Veterans Affairs. I am also proud to have been awarded the following medals: (Polish): Virtuti Militari, Cross for Valour, Monte Cassino Cross, Siberian Cross; (British): 1939-45 Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal, The War Medal 1939-45.
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords