Polish 2nd Corps and Virtuti Militari recipient
Zygmunt Piatkiewicz was born in Novogrodek in 1917, a time when Poland did not exist. His father was a General in the Russian Army and was caught and executed in 1919 by the Bolsheviks. His mother had to see Lenin himself to plead for the family to be allowed to return to a newly formed Poland. He agreed, but only if she left her 2 eldest sons in Russia.
Thus Zygmunt settled in Poland with his mother and sister. He was accepted into the Officer Cadet school in Rawicz. Here he learned how to be a soldier. He also learned how to run, becoming a cross-country star at the age of 17. By age 19, he was representing Poland at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished 4th in the 3000m steeplechase and was predicted to win gold in 1940. Sadly, he would never realize this dream. He also excelled in tennis and football, playing against Chelsea and Arsenal who were touring Poland at the time.
He graduated from the Officer Cadet school in Rawicz in 1939. War broke out on 1 September 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland from the west. Zygmunt was sent to fight the Russians who had invaded Poland from the east two weeks later. He fought in the battle of Grodno as a Lieutenant and survived bayonet charges as they fought off the Russians.
Poland would not win the day however, and Zygmunt and his men escaped to Lithuania, where they were interned. He managed to escape but was caught in Poland some weeks later by the NKVD and was shipped to Siberia. He was lucky not to have been shot.
When the Germans attacked the Russians, the Polish and British governments negotiated the release of all Poles who were being held in the USSR. The Poles had to make their way to the south to join the Polish 2nd Corps that was being formed under the command of General Anders. This journey took many weeks, and in some cases months, and many did not make it. They perished from hunger and disease along the way.
The army evacuated to Persia (Iran) and went on to train in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt. Then Zygmunt and the Polish 2nd Corps took part in the Italian Campaign.
He took part in the bloody battle for Monte Cassino in May 1944. It was here that the Poles took the town after months of fighting, when the Germans had repulsed British, American, and New Zealand forces before the Poles won the day.
Wounded in the fighting, Zygmunt recovered and trained with the Polish Commandos.
In August 1944, Zygmunt was awarded Poland's highest military honour, the Virtuti Militari (equivalent of the Victoria Cross), after leading his men through a series of hills outside Andrea Di Suassa on the Gothe Line. His platoon came under intense German artillery fire and many were wounded including Zygmunt. Back at the aid station morphine was in short supply. Zygmunt insisted on having shrapnel removed without any morphine, and insisted on going back up the hill, alone, with a machine gun. He charged up the hills, firing from the hip. The Germans thought they were facing a full platoon and ran away, leaving Zygmunt to take the town single-handed.
He was awarded the Silver Virtuti Militari medal number 10715 in December. The citation read: "whilst himself wounded, without any regard for his own life, he rescued and carried out wounded from under heavy enemy artillery fire, then without regard for his own wounds he ran back into action with a light machine gun to single-handedly repel the enemy attack."
After this, he would take part in the battle for Bologna and Ancona. When the war ended, he refused to return to a communist run Poland and settled with his wife (who had fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944) in England.
Other military decorations include:
Polish Military Cross,
Cross of Valour (x 2)
Italian Military Cross,
Al Merito Militari,
Monte Cassino Cross,
Polish September 1939 Cross,
other British Campaign medals.
He worked in industry until 1982, raising a big happy family. Zygmunt died in 2003, and he had never talked much about his experiences or blown his own trumpet. So many heroes never share their story. It is hoped that this short story pays homage to a very fine man.
Source: Zygmunt Piatkiewicz at BBC website: bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar