Saturday, 8 April 2017


He came. It was dark – we left the room. Sneaking through the gardens, wading in the mud, we made our way to the Russian’s (Romanian’s) hut. Luckily, no one saw us. The Russian knew why we’d come. I gave him 200 lei, we talked over the plan and sat waiting for a train. I wanted to get into the little cab at the cistern car, but he talked me out of it. The locomotive would be a better bet.

Time dragged on slowly, lazily. Long after clocks had stricken midnight, still there was no train in sight... It might not come... The tracks might be damaged or something else happened. Another hour passed. It was no use waiting any longer. We must try again tomorrow. We sneaked out of the hut and went back to my quarters the same way we had come. I was asleep in no time.

We woke up at 1:00 the next afternoon, famished. I fried some eggs and so strengthened, we waited for dusk. Night came quickly. We were on our way and soon arrived at the Russian’s hut. I have got to get out of here tonight, no matter how. The first train has to take us.

Again, the wait. The silence was broken by a faint distant whistle. I held my breath, listening. Again, the same but clearer sound.“Train,” I thought and woke the old man. He got up lazily, we walked outside. The night was dark; to the right, the rumble of the train now came clearly out of the black abyss of the night. We were not happy; it was going in the wrong direction. Never mind. I’m out of here! We put on our coats and went out, taking the luggage. Something drove me on – we are over the fence.

‘Go,’ said the Russian.

We ran across the street. In a flash, I was over a pretty high fence, my companion followed. The old man was having a hard time, stuck at the top he couldn’t get down. Then – voices. Several men talking, the flash of a torch, and five figures turned the corner. They walked straight toward us, lighting their way with torches. I saw them... gendarmes. I pulled the Russian off the fence. Hush! Silently, I pointed through cracks in the fence. The gendarmes must have heard the thump when the old man hit the ground, for they stopped, listening, and looking round. Three men lay like corpses, glued to the fence. I was clutching my stick. Three on five is a fair fight. Seconds turned to eternity. The group of soldiers moved and started on, passing right by us. A sigh of relief escaped my chest. Silently, we got up and crossed the garden. Another fence and then the platform. By then, you could see the engine. The station is full of light and on the platform those five gendarmes were standing, about 50 metres from us. How do we climb over the fence now and get on the train? But we were in luck. A second later, the engine rolled into the station shrouded in thick steam and stopped right in front of us. Billows of steam covered us like smoke screen – over the fence, across the tracks and we were crouching next to the engine. The Russian went in for a little chat.

The driver was a good chap. Offered us bread and cheese, we washed it down with some water. We were on our way again. I noticed a few sentries by the tracks and on station platforms, but wasn’t afraid.

It began to dawn. We were nearing Ploesti at 8:00am. Before we reached the town, I paid the driver, he slowed down the engine and signalled for us to jump. One hop and my friend was off the train, I was right behind him, my luggage got in the way and I was on the ground before I knew it. We waved to the driver and walked to town. After lunch and a visit to the barber, we headed for the train station.

We’re on the train, going to Bucharest.

It was warm at Bucharest train station. Some suspicious blokes were going between the compartments, watching us closely, but soon they were gone.  At 7:00 pm, we got off in Constanta and headed for the Consulate. Here we were given a slip of paper for the hotel: The Cochino.

We are in Constanta at last, the place of our departure.  Long days of waiting began. We had to be on guard always, at any time, ready to leave. Time was dragging on. We were expecting our real passports to arrive at any moment – the ones we had were false. We had 40 lei a day to live on, hotel charges were covered. Still, it was hard to make it last. Dinner was 20 lei. We ate twice a day until we found a Polish place ran by an engineer.  For security reasons, the Consul told us not to go to town at night. The Gestapo was everywhere.

Our time in Romania was coming to an end. Let me describe Romania in a few words. Romania is a country of prostitution and corruption.

The date 31st November came at last and the Consul told us to make ready. By evening, we had blended in with the crowd at the sea port. One more test. A moment of uncertainty – search and passport inspection.  All went well - the customs officers had been bribed. Soon the dock –gangplank – and we are aboard. At 9:00 I took my place in the A cabin, third class, on the steamer Carol. A few suspicious-looking blokes nosed about in the hallways, but they, too, disappeared with the bell that signalled our departure. Anchor chains rattled, the ship rolled gently and the tug boat grunted as it hauled to turn us around.

Last night I barely had two hours of sleep. We entered the Bosporus at dawn. Sights of wonder opened to our eyes as land emerged out of the morning fog – Turkey. Mysterious, hidden from Europeans, cities of mosques – Turkey. We progressed through the strait – quite broad, 2-3 kilometres in places. Charming Turkish towns on either side, with slender minaret towers bursting upward; a fortress, too, stands guard of the country.  After a while, a great port city came up out of the fog: Istanbul.

We reached harbour at 10:00 am on 1st December. Evening came. At 11:00 pm we left the harbour and sailed out to the Marmara Sea. Time passed, the Dardanelles disappeared. The Carol cut through the Aegean Sea. At 10:00, a tiny wisp of smoke appeared on the horizon. All binoculars turned toward it. It glided gently across the water on the clear background of the sky. An English destroyer. As we came closer, she motioned us to stop. The Carol slowed down, stopped. A boat peeled off that other ship and approached us. The ladder was lowered, English officers came aboard. After an inspection, the two vessels each went its own way.

Night fell. We passed a largish island on the port side and I saw land on the starboard – it was Greece. We entered the Greek port of Piraeus near Athens, at 11 pm.

The Carol cast anchor at 7 am in the port of Alexandria. Egypt. Two pretty motorboats approached us and the Egyptian princess went ashore. This is Africa – she speaks for herself: the air is as hot as it is back home in the summer.

I see land ahead. Yes, yes. This is Palestine. There is no harbour, just a dock. Two cities lie by the coast. This is Tel Aviv, a thoroughly Jewish town and that – Jaffa, thoroughly Arabic. The two cities are joined; today Arabs and Jews live in peace, and all live under the British mandate.

After five hours we arrived in Beirut – Syria. A French colony. Docked in the harbour are French navy ships and an enormous two-chimney ship, full of people – I can tell they are Polish, waving their handkerchiefs and shouting. We pass it and enter a second basin. Chains grind, anchor’s down.

I’m no longer aboard the ship, I had lunch in the barracks of the Foreign Legion and now I’m sitting in the courtyard. We came ashore at 6:45 this morning and were brought in cars into the barracks. They received us very kindly. I can finally boldly say I am a Pole – it is allowed here. This isn’t back-stabbing Romania, this is our true ally – France. We will stay here a few days, the Polish consul told us.

We are coming into Alexandria. I know this port. The anchors are down – the Patria has moored at the pier. Again the shouting, the merchandise, the loud black crowd dressed in white shirts. I was awakened by noise and rattle coming from the upper deck. Cranes roared and hundreds of people bustled about the Patria. At 12:00 the anchor was raised. The Patria peacefully sailed in a north-western direction.

A grey, gloomy day. Heavy clouds plod across the sky over a slightly rippled sea. I’m going up on deck. We should see land. Yes, we’re passing the island of Crete now. It’s terribly mountainous; there is even snow on top of the ridge. It will soon disappear and we’ll be back to nothing but sky and sea.

It’s five o’clock, and the lines of a distant land have come into sight. We can see Italy and Sicily. We will cross the strait between the island and Italy.

I lost, it got me. How the Patria is dancing in every direction. The stormy sea roars furiously. I’ve been on deck – it is terrifying to see this colossal vessel be tossed about like a nutshell. The bow dives down seven, eight metres and we are tossed now to one side now to the other. You have to cling to the walls. My Halinka would never guess that her Waldy is now out on a stormy sea, aboard a great ship, in danger from enemy submarines and magnetic mines.

The sea has calmed down, and a cheerful sun rose today. The waves are deep, but without foaming crests. The Patria has not yet settled from her dance and shivers a little. We are approaching the coast of France. Her rocky shores have appeared on the horizon; Toulon looms in a distance, combat ships glide across the sea. Oh! And there is Marseilles. Beautiful: the largest harbour of southern shores. It looks lovely, the railway meanders just by the sea, tunnels, bridges, what a charming place. We have entered the harbour. The anchors are lowered. We have arrived. We are to disembark at 4pm. In a few minutes our passports will be checked and soon we will leave the vessel.

On the same day, large buses took us in an unknown direction. We pass Marseilles, a great and lovely city, and enter a road that climbs in a wonderful serpentine up into mountains. We pass a small town of miniature houses. French women wave their handkerchiefs. We pass anti-aircraft batteries. We have reached the top. On one side is the sea and a sliver of the setting sun – oh, it’s gone – and on the other mountains and mountains, bare, rocky, without vegetation.

The cars turned and entered a small valley surrounded by rocks. Buildings, barracks, huts, we get off. Carpiagne Camp.  After dinner we found our bunks in one of the huts and went to sleep. The night was cold, my ears and feet were cold. It passed. I was appointed team commander and deputy chief of an air force group.  The living conditions are poor, 800 men packed into summer huts. This used to be a prisoner of war camp for Germans. We have no water, no place to wash. But all this is nothing, we are happy to know we will soon be deployed.

Today, on 21st December we received General Sikorski’s first orders to the air force. We are lying around, idling away our time in boredom and apathy. My boots fell apart after the hike today. I tied them together with a wire.

Today is a better day. Kazik Skowroński, Mielczarek and Gumowski are here. Kazik told me how my little hero lay in a trench in the airfield during a raid. And how bravely she did. I was proud of you, my Halutka.

A new page in my journal, a new set on the stage of my life.  Only a few days ago, we were among hills, enjoying warm sunshine. Today things are different. The air is frosty, snow, cold I am sitting in the dark mess hall at the Lyon-Bron airfield, 8 kilometres from Lyon.  But let me go back a few hours. From Carpiani (Carpiagne) we marched over the mountains to Cassis. At two o’clock after midnight, a steam-shrouded train with frozen windows raced into Lyon station. Here buses waited for us. They took us to the airfield.

I go to the next hut... I stop – and look: All of our boys, all my friends but Tadek. Our officers, commanders, heads of units. Joy lit up my face. The sight of friends, of the flight, fills one with hope. Who knows where we’ll be deployed – England, Finland or Syria. Every front leads to Poland.

I was dreadfully cold today. It’s freezing outside.  We sleep on straw pallets on the floor. Blankets and pillows froze to the walls, which are damp and the dampness freezes on them. I have no warm clothing and wear borrowed rubber shoes. We are still in the distribution unit. Some of the boys are going to England today, 400 men. Who knows if I won’t go there, too?

Ah, what is happening to our hall: they’ve hauled in enormous logs and are hacking them with stones, as we have no axes.  It seems stones are superb for chopping wood, and I didn’t know. One more thing, we have no water – so instead of washing, we wipe our plates and spoons with bread. It’s horrible. The French are a shiftless people, unintelligent and creatures as lazy as mules. And on top of all that, terrible slobs.

A new transport arrived yesterday. 300 men.  Many friends.  There is Lemański, who lives upstairs from us. A lucky man, he’s got a letter from his wife. She is alive and well, and lives at home. And I?  I suffer, I’ve got nothing.

I was very busy yesterday, and ran a high fever last night, I don’t know what from. Well, it should be expected, in these living conditions everyone has a cold. We are freezing cold 24 hours a day. 80 men sleep in the same room, one straw pallet next to another, dirt, dust and bad air. I’m afraid to get chinch, some already have them. Suddenly, a blanket starts walking or a shirt put down on a bed travels to the other end of the room.

I got pretty shoes and a uniform yesterday. I am dressed up all soldierly now. They want to detail us to Lyon.

I went to the Base in the morning to nose around a little. So Capt. Wojda told me not to apply anywhere, that I had a place in France, in a line squadron. The English recruit a lot. They have their pick.

We have a visitation from General Zając today. The camp is abuzz. Cleaning and tidying. At last the French have started tidying up. Oh, how I wish I could knock their heads together, those lazy mules.

Here in the barracks water is hard to come by – even just to brush teeth. Oh, the Frenchies – the Frenchies. No Frenchman holds a candle to a Pole. The weather is nasty, it’s raining incessantly. Terrible muddy. Our sleeping quarters are dirty, messy, filled with smoke. When 80 gobs spew the shag, who can bear it? I will soon be smoker without taking a puff.

And now I will tell you where I am. Not at the airfield any more. Last night, after bath and disinfection, we were transferred to the city of Lyon.  Food was better at Bron. Here the French serve raw meat. I cut it into small pieces and swallow like a turkey.

A big group left for Bron – the airfield – yesterday. I am leaving, too, tomorrow or the day after, I have been detailed to No. 1 Line Squadron. Almost the entire flight 41 is together. Almost everyone’s been transferred to Bron by now.

Today is Sunday. Our flight is on duty. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as much. After mass the British commission came – it’s recruitment again. But no, the English are not in a hurry. They have bombed a German base. Maybe now it will begin.

I was in Bron today to fetch a prisoner. It is a cold day. The weather keeps changing. A little sunshine, a little snow.I am so sad today. Many went to England last night. Few of us are still here. I will move to stay with our squadron at Bron, but not for another couple of weeks.

10th May 1940. This is a date to be remembered. This morning we shot out of our beds, awakened by the rumble of cannons. It was dawn, 4 o’clock. Quick as lightning, I dressed and leaped behind the hut.  Against the sky, still grey, three Dorniers moved, low – no more than 1000 metres, maybe lower. The artillery boomed, filling the sky with tiny black clouds. Machine guns flashed and we were showered with a storm of bullets. Into the trenches!!! I jumped into a trench 50 metres from the hut. It was filled with water up to our ankles. Splash in – I felt nothing. The boys heaped up on top of each other. We watched. A Bloch came at them – but a far off. Nothing happened. Our artillery kept on firing – nothing still. The shriek of shrapnels and shells, smoke – din. A volley... – and another... we clung to the water. The three were coming our way now. “It’s over” – someone shouted. A volley... at us. God! Jesus! Mother! Bam-bam-bam-bam. A storm of stones, sand fell on our heads and backs. Smoke covered the trenches; silence – long, an eternity. ...Knee!... a quiet groan... I leaped out of the trench, over the fence – and into the fields. Dropping to the ground when the shriek of bullets broke the silence, up and on again. I got out of the airfield and stood against a wall. The artillery was at it still. Zing! Something wheezed at my feet. A shrapnel of an AA round. The raid lasted over an hour. Siren... All clear. The aftermath is sad. Bombs were dropped on trenches and living quarters. About 20 killed, French and Poles fallen together. One bomb hit a pit – 6 men down. A few huts were turned to debris. This is just the beginning. What’s next? God only knows. They probably attacked Belgium and Holland. We are here with no masks and no helmets. Ready – to die. Our pilots have no aircraft, we have no weapons. Some training. 30 pilots to 1 banged-up Potez. The Finnish squadron is ready – but without aircraft.

Lunch passed quietly. I went back to my hut, packed my things into a sack and a case. Our hut looks pretty good – not a pane left in the windows, walls peppered with shrapnel and shells. I am writing a request for a sergeant. Alarm!!! Sirens. I dropped everything and took off. Over trenches, fences, the field, to the city. Everyone bolted, none stayedin the airfield. Ah-hah! Here comes one. AA pounds at him... he’s gone into the clouds. Wheez – bam bam, burst. He’s gone... well-well, I think, this isn’t a good place, time to go. I went to the cinema – it’s got thick walls. A pretty big group of the polonaise was there already. We stayed a while until “all clear” was sounded. I walked slowly back to the airfield. Ambulances carried away the wounded. There were 6. One died. The poor fellows had been out in the field and there they were hit.

14th June 1940 - The Germans have reached the outskirts of Paris.

17th June 1940 - The situation changes from one hour to the next. The Germans have broken through the front and are pushing south, towards Lyon, they are 180 km north of us. A new government in France.  Marshal Pétain has become the dictator and Weygand his deputy. Everyone has received orders: to stay where they are and defend themselves. Our training group is in a jam. We are just a handful, 280 men. We’ve been organised into companies, platoons, teams.

In the afternoon we prepare arms and ammunition and are to take positions by the river. Capt Chrzanowski is my platoon commander and I have a team of 12 men. Good men. We are ready for anything. To stop tanks without cannons is a difficult task. One disaster is followed by another. At 1400 hours we heard: France asks Hitler for peace. At 1600 we received orders to get ready to leave. I am ready. Where to? In what direction?  Time will tell. This morning, we were in splendid spirits, when we knew we would finally take up arms and stand up to fight. And now? we are in despair. I hate the French for this.

Oh, last night was awful. I went to sleep early, since we were to be up at three. Then there was a change. We were at the train station at ten.  We waited until midnight. Then we were allowed to sleep, wherever everyone could, since we might have to pick up and go any time.

Now, when I write this, I am on the train. It’s pouring cats and dogs and the train is stopped in St. Etienne. Where are they taking us? We know nothing. Last night there was talk that the Germans had taken Lyon.  We’ve been given guns. The French are not fighting. Hitler ordered for France to be disarmed. I have a feeling that France will wake up from her sleep and start acting. She will die if she does not wake up. We passed a few trainloads of French troops. They have no guns, but barrels of wine are everywhere. The more wealthy ones load their things onto cars and flee.

The train is moving now, I am terribly sad. What’s next? God knows. Our train is speeding along full steam. We are going blindfolded, as Michał says. For now, we are headed for Lyon. We are 25 km from Lyon. Trains filled with the French, women, children, soldiers and nuns, pass by going south, and we are going north. The French wave to us enthusiastically. We have turned south.

It is now 5 in the afternoon. We are stopped at a crossroads. A black cloud over Lyon, there must be a fire. When will we move? No-one knows. 3 Junkers bombers have just flown overhead, but did not engage us.

I slept quite well last night – on the floor in the hallway. We are now going west, having left behind mountains and tunnels and entered a land of beautiful vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. War is absent from this part of France. People work in the fields as if nothing has happened. A funny sight – women dressed in trousers, carrying some apparatus on their backs and walking between the vines and ridding them of pest. I am well today, only terribly hungry. It is 12:00 and I’ve had nothing to eat since this morning. We are now stopped in Montpellier, maybe we’ll get something to eat here. We have passed through a great number of towns, travelled alongside the sea shore, and now our train is pushing west, with the Pyrenees passing us on the left. People wave to us, girls blow kisses. And the landscape is beautiful. Little old towns buried in the midst of vineyards. I bought a card at the station in Béziers, where we were served broth by nurses of the Red Cross.

I am sitting under one of the train cars, it’s so hot. Oh, ours is the fate of true exiles. Last night we arrived here – this is a mountain town, a small town in the mountains. We spent the night on the train. Reveille at 4 am. A chunk of bread with meat paste and a blind wait.

They’ve begun unloading the train and billeting. A colonel came at 11 and says, “The situation is bad. If we don’t get a train, boys, we’ll have to take to the road.” On that account, Michał talked me into a glass of wine. Five of us went, all from Vilnius, out for a glass of wine. The situation is bad, but the main thing is to keep our sense of humour. We’ve come up with a plan. We are 80km from the sea in a straight line. I have a map. We will be given guns and then it’s up on our feet again. We must stick together. Oh, here comes the colonel. Let me hear what he’s got to say. All right, we’re leaving at 1400 hrs. But he says to pack for a march.

The Germans are already where we were yesterday, they are there already. In St. Etienne. But there’s no wonder. Since the French give them way. They lay mines on bridges, but don’t detonate, and their roads are excellent, so the Germans can speed along. No one has stopped them yet. The main thing for them is to have food and wine. They have not a worry in the world. Well, we’ll see what happens. They won’t give us weapons. We wanted to be armed and go as infantry. But they won’t have that, either. Well, never mind. We keep waiting... it’s 1:30 in the afternoon, we leave in half an hour.

We are on the train again. I have a gun and 150 rounds... Colonel Iwaszkiewicz of central command and a French colonel have arrived. There was a brief farewell. The French colonel wanted to come with us, but could not. He bid us a warm farewell and wept, the poor fellow. I’ve packed some food, I’ve got ammunition, we wait. We will move on soon, we’re to get to the sea shore somewhere and board ships. Such are our orders. To leave France, since France has failed and surrendered to Germany.

We might encounter some surprises on land and on sea. Hitler is sure to try and hunt us down. Will France care at all if a few thousand Poles are killed? Not in the least. We could have boarded yesterday. Now it’ll be difficult, indeed, difficult!

Many thanks to Barbara Poulter for access to her father's documents and photos
Special thanks also to Kresy-Siberia who originally translated the documents

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