I am sitting in a little grove by the Mediterranean Sea. Michał is making breakfast. Our guns are sitting on racks, the troops are resting. An hour ago... We arrived at a tiny station. There the train was unloaded. Our things went to the port by cars. And we are walking. We are very close to the Spanish border. The Pyrenees rise beautifully over our heads, and the sea hums below. Two Italian planes flew overhead. A string of cars moves along the road. I think the French will be loading. We are 8 km from the harbour, waiting for further orders. I think it’ll get hot when we get there.
I made a tent out of my straw mattress and we were to sleep in the woods. All of a sudden, “Get up! We’re off!” We packed up and were at the station by 10 in the evening. We loaded onto cattle cars and at 1 am left again for the unknown. 30 men to a car and loads of luggage.I sat all night, my legs went numb and I couldn’t move. A new day dawned. A great long train, about 1000 men, was tearing west. We are headed for the Atlantic coast. The transport is very slow, the tracks are jammed. One question – can we get there in time?
Wine barrels are lined up, the French have allowed our boys a drink. Imagine, a mob of men with canteens, shoving each other by a wine barrel. Food is our worst problem. All we’ve had since yesterday is some spam – one can for two men – and bread. Chrzanowski is a decent fellow. He’s been feeding his platoon with his own money: today he put in 100 francs for food, and he cares for his men.
I had a slice of bread with left over spam for breakfast, and that’s to last me for the rest of the day. The fat reserves I collected in Toussieu have run out and hunger is tormenting me. We are 50 km from the sea. We’ve passed the town of Lourdes. I saw a chapel by the river near the church. Oh, this France is a lovely place, only the French people are a degenerate nation and worthless. They, unlike the Poles, don’t treasure their country.
Today I will tell you much. So where am I? On a large English vessel, I lie on a mattress on the floor. It’s a miracle I got this spot. Just a moment ago I was getting soaked on the upper deck. A terrible storm is raging. I tried to go up to the upper deck and was nearly blown off by the gale. We have sailed out of the harbour at Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Where to? We do not know. Two large carriers have lifted anchor. We are escorted by 4 English destroyers. Our vessel is overloaded, more than 6000 passengers. Air force and infantry, all ours, many women, English and French.
Oh God, how awful the boarding was, not from a pier but from boats, and the waves were dreadful. 20 at a time approached and up the ladder, without our things, as there was no way. We pulled up the stuff by ropes. Our Arandora Star is a true colossus. One can wander about for hours. Thankfully, there is a storm. Had the weather been any better, we’d be boarding under German bombs. Oh! I write and the ship rocks so. The vessel is like a little nutshell tossed by waves.
And now let me go back a little. At 4 in the morning we got off the train. And we waited to board the ship until 12. Truly London-like traffic. I felt sorry for the Polish women who had come to France. Here, the poor souls, rove about with their children, exhausted, emaciated. A heart-breaking sight. I must note that many Poles would not leave and decided to stay. French people joined us in their place. True Frenchmen want to fight, but they are few. I learned much about the front today, about how the French fought, or rather how they fled. They are the worst cowards, ugh, repulsive spawn. Now all I ask of God is to lead us safely, without accidents, as it does not take much to bomb a colossus like this.
Good morning, Ha! You would not recognize me now. I am on the upper deck, our company is on duty. With guns. We have an HMG and hand rifles. Two are at the stern. Destroyers on either side. A carrier and a destroyer in front of us. Though a submarine or aircraft could approach us and do their job. But I say: it is God’s will, not Hitler’s. France signed peace yesterday and surrendered her fleet to Germany. Oh, she will pay dearly for this. Ah! I am ashamed to say, I couldn’t take yesterday’s waves and tossed my cookies. I wasn’t alone – there was a queue at the shipside. But the ship did sway – water was up to the third deck, it’s no joke. Today it’s died down a bit. We have loads of food, though they do not cook. Only we cannot eat. Cans, coffee, chocolate, fruit. Oh. The English are not like the French. I had a dream that I was in Africa, and where we are going – no-one knows. We are headed north-west.
The convoy is going in a zigzag. The weather has improved. Binoculars are scanning the sky. A magnificent convoy.
Everyone sleeps with a life vest for a pillow. It’s good to have friends. I’m in cabin no. 212. It’s crowded, but warm and merry. Plenty of marmalade and jam. One of the chaps nicked 16 one-kilo cans from the French. We have enough to eat. The preserves made me sick. France had much to offer, but not to us. Many of our boys went hungry on the French soil. It will not be forgotten.
Good morning, It’s a lovely day, though the ship sways a little. We can see land on the starboard side and three sail boats, it must be Ireland or England – who knows, it’s still a far off. I’ve been sitting on the upper deck all day, to stay out of my cabin.
At 4 in the afternoon we had a concert on the upper deck. It was lovely. Sweet violin music drifted through the hum of the wind, the creak of ropes and the rush of waves. “Aircraft overhead!” – and yes, a sea-plane appeared on the horizon. Guns clicked. A moment of anticipation. It’s ours, British. The plane flew low over the chimney, banked and disappeared in the distance.
I had a pleasant encounter. I was standing in the crowd, when I heard someone call, “Wal!” – that’s what they called me in Słonim. I turn around, and there they are, two officers. Włodek Jakimowicz and another one, whose name I can’t remember. My classmates and childhood friends. We had a great few hours. So many memories... and of all places – we meet on the ocean. All the time, wherever I go, I run into people. Tadek Hagenbart – he’s shot down a Heinkel.
Oh, many, but many more France has buried forever. God, so much Polish blood has been shed – for whom? From the armoured brigade, 200 men came back. Of the tank company of 180 men, only four. I am just writing these numbers to give you an idea. Where the Poles were, there was the hardest fight, there Germans were getting beat, and where the English were. But where the French manned a section, there the Fritzes pushed forward without trouble. They threw down their arms and fled. They have thousands of planes, but they did nothing and would not let our boys fly, either.
We are reaching the English coast. We disembark tomorrow, and then?
I was up early to see land ahead. England. A great many ships going to and fro. We’ve been told sensational news. We are all dead, for our vessel, the Arandora Star has been sunk on the Atlantic. Only two Poles survived. The announcement from the German staff was greeted with cascades of laughter.
The Arandora Star reached the port of Liverpool at 8:00 in the morning on 27th June. It’s a beautiful harbour. We are berthed in England. The ship is unloaded. Our company was the last to disembark, at 1600 hours. We marched out of the port in threes, to the train station, which wasn’t far, 1 km. As we went through the city, we were greeted by cheering crowds. And our troops moved through rows of people who had gathered to see us. The soldiers’ tired faces were beaming with joy. We were so kindly received. Oh, this is not France. When we reached the station, a train was already waiting for our group. After going south-west for an hour, we got off to form ranks of three and march for 10 km. Cheerfully and with song on our lips, we started down a pleasant road.
Here I can see the famous English order, here I can see culture, but not in France. It’s heaven and earth. Clean and pleasant homes, lovely little gardens, flowers. Kind, smiling faces. We pass by a school for girls. Oh, what enthusiasm! The song stopped, the company did an “eyes left”. I thought the girls would fall out of the windows. We have gone on quite a distance, but we can still hear their squeals. Private buses have come to fetch us. A little moment more and we get off and enter an old mansion. This place feels like camp, hundreds of tents are lined up, smells from the mess tease the palate. Evening is falling. We will spend this night on English soil, literally – on a blanket under an oak tree.
Oh, what a marvellous night, I slept next to Michał. It was warm. I had a good breakfast, and will now look around for a lake or river. But wait, first we must set up our tent. Oh, and a few words about our vessel. It has been attacked from the air 36 times, once damaged, and it has sunk two German submarines.
I am in the tent now. We’ve put up a pretty little tent and I’ve gathered some grass for a bed, eaten some preserves and have nothing to do now. I must wash my things and myself, and I will go to bed early tonight. It’s a lovely place, but I am unhappy. We won’t stay here long. We, Polish “exiled soldiers”.
I have guard commander duty today. The weather is lovely. Everyone’s sunbathing, the place looks like a beach. There’s been a concert, such beautiful music and singing. The professor, “the Legend”, played marvellously. Today our officer cadets rebelled. I thought we were in for a bit of fun. Our company was resting in front of the tents, armed, when General Ujejski clashed with them by the woods. It’s over now. Oh, those cadets made trouble in France and now they’re starting the same here. They’ll get what they’re asking for. I made friends with a few English boys today, fine chaps, I could go to the front with them. They are not like the French, gutless cowards and scoundrels.
I am in a new place now, 120 km north of the other camp. We are by the sea. I am sitting on my lovely bed and it’s after lunch. It’s a beautiful and clean place. This is a whole other world. Beds, mattresses. Oh, it’s been a long time since I’ve slept like this. What next? I don’t know. I am soon going for a bath and a medical...
The day is filled with administrative affairs. Checking, records, etc. I am sad today, Not many of us have arrived here in England. I am one of a handful of exiles. Men who have not lost hope and decided to fight until the end. Here, work awaits us, but not the kind we had in France. Hitler will strike here any day now. We will go from crater to crater, but we will endure. There will be no cowardice, no flight.
The main announcement of the day, dated 2nd July: Our vessel which brought us here, the Arandora Star, sank on July 2 off of the west coast of Ireland. She carried German and Italian POWs, 1700 men, besides the crew. Of those, 700 were rescued – the others rest at the bottom of the ocean, including the captain. That torpedo was aimed at us. Hitler wanted to sink the Poles – but he sank his own. The ship was headed for Canada. What happened aboard, only he can imagine who has been there and knew that 26,000-ton colossus. And what would have happened to us, had a torpedo hit us? There were almost 6000 of us. And all would have gone down.
Important news.The French fleet has been disbanded. Part of the French fleet did not yield to the government in France and came to England, submitting to her command. The rest rejected the conditions offered by Britain to the French fleet – and they were as follows: either the fleet joins that of the Royal Navy or her vessels will be held in Britain and returned to France after the war, or the French will destroy or sink them immediately. France has rejected those conditions. So it’s done. The English have attacked the French fleet from air and sea, sinking almost all of their vessels. One battleship escaped. The French fleet moored in Alexandria and England has been disarmed and taken over by British crews. Beautifully done, England, bravo.
We are proud of the English, and the English – of us. There aren’t any here that will betray and flee; those who remain are ready to fight, and fight until the end. Our town is called Kirkham. I have been appointed a squad leader. Yesterday we were given 10 shillings each from the King. We are being photographed, listed, etc. So for now we haven’t got much to do. We are resting, eating well, fruit preserves, eggs and other delicious titbits. This isn’t France – each room has a bathroom and lavatories – this is real culture and order. We here on this little island, God with us, will hold fast and win.
We are slowly turning into Englishmen. Oh, those beautiful things we’ve been given. We had a bit of a drill today. We showed the English what we’ve got. They were thrilled. I like those English awfully. So kind, polite, oh, in a word, this is anything but France. We’ve forgotten all about the war. We don’t hear the scream of bombs or see enemy planes. But this will not be much longer. This silence is foreboding.
A lot of our English chaps came yesterday, who have been here for a long time. Many have already been deployed, other live 18 km away, in a seaside resort, in guest houses. They say they’ve never lived so well. We are in barracks, but even our huts are like palaces. England – here is culture, wealth. In France we were always questioned about why we weren’t fighting, but here no one mocks us for having crossed the Romanian border. With these men I would walk through fire.
A great celebration took place in Bergen today. Germans decorated their soldiers for valour in battle. The English took advantage of it. And the RAF very efficiently decorated them with wooden crosses. More than 100 were killed on the spot. The British offensive in Libya. On the first day they advanced 60 km. The Italian fleet on the Red Sea has been destroyed, and on the Mediterranean they’ve hid on the Adriatic. Roosevelt has agreed to run for president. This is the news of the day. Oh, but the most important: every night German cities and factories are set on fire by RAF bombs.
I think I will go to Blackpool today, there’s a camp of ours, our English friends. A whole gang of us are going. I am worried about Piotrek. I haven’t had any news of him. I do hope he gets here safely. I must have caught a cold, but where? When? A bit of a headache and pain in the chest. Just like I had after the journey from Romania.
I went with Michał in a double-decker bus to Blackpool. We spent no more than 3 ½ hoursthere. 3 ½ hours, but filled with excitement, thrill and wonder. First of all, I met Heniek Niemiro and a whole group of friends. French and English soldiers came together. They live by the seaside, in beautiful guest houses, like civilians, only wearing uniforms. The King takes care of their bills. They live beautifully, as if on holiday. I did not speak with them long.
The whole town is packed with airmen, and almost everyone with a girl. Officers lay on beach chairs in front of villas, the sea murmurs and laps at the shore. We went to the funfair. Woo-hoo, all that is there! I tell you, one of the world’s wonders. This is a great big chest that gobbles up pounds. I did not take part in any of the diversions, but I bought 4 postcards. I ordered an English textbook – I will study, I like this language. I have seen many things, but something like this – never. Blackpool is one of the largest sea resorts in Europe and in England. What gardens, flowers, simply a fairy tale. My camera is in Blackpool, at a repair shop. I will go there on Thursday, I think. We had 2 plates each of fish and chips and I was back by 10:00. Today I’m studying English. It’s a busy day, with lectures, briefings, etc.
The weather here is disgusting. England is beautiful, but the weather beastly. Mutual bombardment goes on incessantly. Germany is preparing an offensive against us. We are waiting, day after day, hour after hour. Here is where they will strike the hardest. Churchill said, London will sooner be turned to rubble and the people lost than Britain will surrender to Germany. Here they will have a hard job to do – England is not France.
And here, we cannot get through the street without being swarmed by children with their autograph books and notebooks, begging us to write something for them. It makes me sad. They treat us like heroes. No orders, no badges, just a French air force uniform, the uniform of a disgraced army – no more.
It looks like I might leave here soon. The 4th Air Regiment is organising units. Oh, to get into a unit. Halinka, how terrible this waiting is. But we will have our turn. Hundreds of planes fight in the air every day. Today Hitler was to hold a parade in London. It’s not happening somehow. Well, yesterday was fun enough. 1000 German planes made a sortie over Great Britain. They accomplished nothing, lost 147 machines. We wait, the war dance will begin any day now. I’m on duty today.
I leave for Blackpool in half an hour. I have been detailed. I will be deployed in the first wave. Where and how I am still to find out. I am the only one from photo to go, from this camp. I will be doing something at last. What it will be – is of no consequence to me. Whether I fly in photo missions or work in the lab.
I am in Blackpool now. I am staying on St. Helen St., in a beautiful guest house. Piotruś lives 50 m away. I am so glad. I am with the first bomb squadron. I am glad to be the first to go and to be deployed with the first unit. We leave on Wednesday. Maj Wojda, my chief from Flight 41, is the squadron’s deputy commander, under L/Cpl Biały. Many of our officers are there. Daab, who came with us in a sailboat. Kuszczyński, Cap tStenczuk, Lewandowski. I am in the technical group, under Lt Pianowski, also from Toruń. And most importantly, Piotruś is with me. We were sent out from Kirkham in a ceremony, by the bishop. The bishop said a personal farewell to each one. Then we had a parade and went to the train station.
I have 15 minutes. I’ve had a delicious breakfast, eggs and ham and tea, and we are soon off to be transformed from Frenchmen to Englishmen. We are going to pick up our uniforms. And the day after tomorrow – we go on... Soon our planes will begin carrying pills for the Fritz. We have plenty to talk to them about. Our time is coming. Our fighters have long since joined the British. We are about to start pounding. The English bomb Germany day and night, without stopping.
Well, well, I hardly recognise myself, 100% an Englishman. I wonder if you’d recognize me. We’ve been given first-class equipment. Undergarments, boots, oh, what have we not been given. A whole bagful, I could hardly carry it all. Tomorrow we go for a medical and that’s it.
We leave today. We’ve had roll call, now I wait for 12:00. We are to be at the train station at 2. I had an awful night, kept dreaming of raids and bombings. Well, that is something we will not be short of at the airfield. For that I am ready.
Well, we might be leaving at last. We are to report to roll call at 9:30 to find out. I wish I could run away from people, forget the way they live here. You never see a worried or sad face on an Englishman. The war, the air raids, the bombings are in full swing, but none of it frightens the English. They believe in their ultimate victory and pay no mind to the cost. Yes, this nation can win more than one war. By their common sense, healthy government and lumps of gold. We, on the other hand, came short of all those things.
I am now at the Bramcote airfield near the town of Nuneaton. Last night after dinner we got comfortable and ready to sleep. 11 pm – alarm... Sirens scream – awfully. I ask Piotr, ‘Piotr, do you hear it?’ Some English chaps popped in and told us to go down into the shelter. I dressed slowly and we went down to the cellar, where there is a special shelter. I snuggled up in a corner and dozed off. I don’t know how long I was asleep. The alarm was called off. Cursing Hitler for interrupting our sleep, I got back into bed. Maybe an hour, maybe two hours passed. Same story. But this time we didn’t go to the shelter. I wrapped myself up tightly in blankets so as not to hear the howling of the sirens, and tried to sleep. A German machine began roaring overhead. Searchlights were groping about in the sky. Some of the men ran down to the shelter. I could not sleep. I strained my ears for the familiar scream of bomb. I heard artillery fire twice and that was all. But our night was not over. The same story happened before the break of dawn. Those beasts would not let us sleep.
Last night provided some excitement. The fun started at about 10. Fantastic – with a thrill... Somewhere high overhead, German planes passed over the clear background of the sky. Hundreds of searchlights groped about with their tentacles, painting a lovely web of lights. The artillery roared, and the hollow burst of shells came from somewhere above. It was a beautiful show, Piotr and I stood and admired it. There were quite a few planes. It was late when I went to bed. But the fun was not over. I had just dropped off when a volley hit someplace nearby. One of the bombs burst with a hollow bang, must have been a stray.
Last night brought us new shows. There were a few small clouds. We waited for the alarm, as usual. But it didn’t come. We went to bed. Suddenly, it’s light outside. Hop to the windows. Rockets (tracer bombs).The bastards came over at high altitude, trying to illuminate us. It looked lovely and it was quite bright. Then we waited for explosions. But they didn’t come. Even artillery was silent. We heard a few volleys at 1 am – bombs. You could see the afterglow.
Today I spent the day on preparing the equipment. It is difficult work. I don’t know the equipment, there is an Englishman who teaches me, but he speaks English and I still have a hard time. I must read and write in English and that is very difficult.
Last night was, I believe, the worst so far. It was impossible to sleep and few managed it, I fell asleep after midnight. Once the fun started with nightfall, it went on until morning. A lot of planes played a part. They came at high altitude. They illuminated the area and scattered bombs. Not on us, for now. We waited all night for the bombs to plough our airfield. But they spared us. They only passed over us on their way to pound some industrial towns. They are menacing to look at. This war is terrible. We – I understand, but what have those women and children done to deserve it? ? But this is nothing compared to what happened in Poland. Though night raids are very unpleasant. It seems that we won’t have one quiet night here. We’ll just have to get used to the noise and racket and sleep calmly.
I have guard duty this afternoon. I’ll spend the whole night with the planes in the airfield. I like this sort of thing, as long as it doesn’t rain, but tonight the sky is strewn with clouds.
Oh, but it is the first of September. I forgot... The first anniversary of this dreadful war. Today is a year since we began without arms, without preparation, an uneven fight. Knowing we would lose... The September campaign speaks for itself. Romania – camp, escape. Then vast seas, scorching sands – France. Our time in France, full of hope in a swift victory – desire to fight, dreams of Poland. The fall of France. That was a terrible blow for us. The journey to the sea. That was interesting, too. Boarding the ship – 64 hours on the sea – Britain, Kirkham – Blackpool – Bramcote. This is our vagrant life. Often hungry – cold, barefoot, ah, we have been up and down. But all that can be described, can be told.
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
Special thanks also to Kresy-Siberia who originally translated the documents