Kowalski's war

Historical Eye

WW2

'At this point the German soldiers began to shout at me to drop my weapon. At first I didn’t understand, then I realised my rifle was still in my hands.'

Kowalski's war

 

In 1939, as the German armies neared Warsaw, the 17-year-old Zbigniew Kowalski* and his father fled their homeland, Poland. He went on to reach the Polish Army being assembled in France only to face another terrifying Blitzkrieg in May and June 1940. Detached from his unit and staring defeat in the face, Kowalski decided to try and reach Britain and carry on his fight. All he had to rely on were his wits, his luck and the kindness of the French people.

*Pictured above far right, helping to lay wire in the defence of Scotland, 1940.

 

He returned to France as part of the Allied army of liberation in 1944. However, the triumph was tinged with sadness: his best friend was killed in combat. Kowalski's war came to an abrupt end not long afterwards when he was shot twice by a sniper and narrowly avoided death. For his refusal to accept defeat, and for his brave escape in 1940, the French nation honoured him just over 50 years later with the Croix de Guerre. Zbigniew Kowalski went on to have long and distinguished career with the petrochemical giant John Brown. I was struck by his phenomenal ability to recall the villages, towns and cities he went through when we talked together. He died several years ago.

 

***

 

My father worked in the finance department from the Polish ministry of defence it was decided all military institutions in Warsaw, including his, were to be evacuated just before 5 September 1939. He decided he would also take my mother, my two sisters and me. I remember my father and I were at the station waiting when my mother arrived with my sisters. Mother was wearing a Red Cross armband and told us she’d been mobilised to work in a hospital and had to stay behind. It would be more than ten years before I was to see her again. The train left Warsaw but was targeted by Ju-87 Stukas soon after leaving the capital; they tried to bomb us but, thankfully, missed the target. We arrived in the Lwow area on 14 September, which is where my aunt lived. My father decided it would be safer for my sisters to stay with her, while he and I continued to the south. Again, it was to be ten years before I saw them.

 

At that stage we had no idea our government was planning an evacuation via Romania, although we soon found ourselves at the border town of Zalishchyky. Before we reached it, the train stopped at a railway junction near a small village to allow passengers to get out and buy some supplies. A captain and I stayed behind to keep an eye on things, and I was given a rifle with five bullets ‘just in case’. Stukas suddenly came roaring overhead and dived down to strafe and bomb us. I remember the rail tracks being blasted into the air and, spinning bent and buckled, coming back down to the earth. Amazingly, none of the bombs damaged the train or the line it was on. Being a silly young teenager, I decided to return fire. The passengers came rushing back after the air strike, concerned the captain and I might have been hurt. Then they noticed my hand was bleeding – like a fool I’d cut it working the rifle’s bolt and I had to keep telling them that I wasn’t hurt and that it was merely a scratch.

 

We retreated into Romania and ended up in a border village that had a large Polish population, which meant the locals were friendly towards us and we stayed here for some time. I remember the day I was asked to join the Polish army clearly because it was November 11. For most people this is Armistice Day, but it is also Independence Day for Poles. My father and I attended a church service and an officer approached me.

‘Don’t you think it’s time you joined the army in France?’ he asked.

Then he looked at my father who bowed his head in agreement. And so that was that: I was told to go to Bucharest and wait for an official call-up from the Polish legation. My father and I travelled to the Romanian capital and I waited for three weeks until my official summons arrived. I then went straight to the legation and was sworn in. I was told the next shipment of Polish volunteers was leaving from Split, in what was then Yugoslavia and our destination would be Marseilles. I was given the appropriate documents and said goodbye to my father, who also went on to serve in the army, working in a Polish military hospital in Britain after the fall of France.

 

Our trip to was uneventful and, at Marseilles, the new recruits were put straight on to a train heading north. They took us to a camp on a mountainside behind the town of Avignon and it wasn’t long before they gave us uniforms, which were the modern French type, by which I mean brown rather than the famous sky-blue of the First World War. However, we wore special brown berets as part 5th Malopolski Regiment of Infantry and we were within the 2nd Polish Division. Our commanding officer, arrived one day and we were all lined up for inspection and he ‘volunteered’ me for the heavy machine gun section. After basic training, our division went north, near to the Alsace region, and my unit was housed in a ramshackle farm that had holes in the roof. We’d sleep on straw and would wake up covered in snow.

 

We were still in the ‘Phoney War’ period and our pay was miserable at one franc a day, which wasn’t much even at that time. However, this region had a large Polish immigrant community who’d come to work in some nearby mines and, at some point, a Polish miner approached me and asked me to write a love letter for him to his sweetheart. In those days many people were still illiterate, so his request wasn't too unusual. He took me to the local café and bought me some warmed wine as a payment. He must have been happy with my effort because he told others and word soon spread that Zbigniew Kowalski wrote the best and most beautiful Polish letters. People would buy me drinks for my writing and the more people who came, the more drinks I had; on some nights I was dragged back to my quarters!

 

Rations were a problem at this time because they were such poor quality and I’ll give you an example of how bad it could be. I was put forward to become a lance corporal and sent to a training centre. There was an occasion there when I was ordered to help unload some rations and, while doing this, I noticed that the loaves were all labelled ‘1918’, while the meat was stamped ‘1915’. The French were supplying us with frozen surplus left over from the Great War. The meat was so tough that we had to cut it up into fine pieces and try to make a kind of goulash out of it.

 

Our sister division, the 1st, was north of Nancy when the Blitzkrieg started in mid-May and the plan was to rush us there so we could fight together in the same theatre. They loaded us onto trains heading north, but a decision was made that we should back-track south to Besançon, a picturesque town in the Franche-Comté region that runs adjacent to the Swiss border. We ended up billeted in an old garrison located close to rail lines fairly near Besançon. Soon enough, a German aircraft flew over on the way to attack a nearby railway station. We had no time to get the machine guns on their supports, so we used a fence; it was overly-optimistic to fire, I suppose, but we were keen to score a victory.

 

Within days our battalion was deployed a little farther to the north and my unit was sent to guard a bridge close to Port-sur-Saône, a small village in a mountain valley. We could see the Germans prowling around on the opposite riverbank even though we’d dug in some way back from the bridge. The next day we received orders to go west to Montbéliard, the main area of operations for our battalion. We could hear lots of firing on our approach, when some Polish motorcyclists suddenly raced towards us and we flagged them down, asking what had happened. ‘Run away!’ they shouted. ‘The battalion has surrendered!’

 

It was decided our unit would retreat with the motorcyclists and then regroup with any surviving remnants of our battalion in some nearby woods. An officer gathered us together here and laid out the facts as he knew them. Losing the battalion was bad enough, but we were really shocked when he told us the Germans were closing-in on Paris. That meant France might fall and we knew nothing of this.

‘From now on you have three options,’ the officer said. ‘Firstly, you can march through the mountains and head into Switzerland. Secondly, you can march back to your homes in Poland.’

That got a laugh, because the prospect of seeing our country now seemed more distant than ever.

‘Thirdly, you can join me and head south,’ he finished.

All of us decided to go with him. Passing back through Besançon, we drove right past some German sentries guarding a bridge and they presented arms to us; I can only assume they had no clue that we were Polish or that our units would still be in the vicinity.

 

Our luck ran out on a mountain road after one of our trucks broke down. On one side of the road there was a steep incline, while the other side had a sharp drop, which meant none of the vehicles behind could pass. Our troops were trying to push the broken-down truck down the escarpment when shots suddenly rang out and all of the men then scattered. I ran into the woods and climbed up a tree, where I waited for the firing to die down. I clambered down when I thought it was safe, but then heard someone walking behind me; I turned around to see a German officer was approaching, with a revolver in one hand and a stick grenade in the other. I walked slowly ahead of him back to the road, where I saw the rest of my unit had been rounded up. The German soldiers began to shout at me to drop my weapon and, at first, I didn’t understand them. Then I realised my rifle was still in my hands and I slowly set it on the ground, joining the others – no longer soldiers but prisoners of war.

 

The Germans were short of transport and drivers, so they made us use our remaining truck and we returned north under the glare of enemy guards. We hadn’t got far when the Germans called a halt in an area that seemed like a good place to try and make an escape. I also noted – and don’t ask me where it had come from – a 5 kg vat of marmalade, the type they used in the canteens. I decided this would offer the perfect distraction if I tipped it over and ran in the other direction. I did this when the Germans became engrossed in conversation and dashed down the roadside slope into some nearby woods. My heart was pounding but nothing happened; either the Germans hadn’t seen me or didn’t care that I’d bolted.

 

After ten or 15 minutes, I heard both captors and captives drive off. I went back up the slope and, back on the road, started walking south. I came across a barn that evening and I decided to stay there overnight. But a dog started barking furiously just after I settled down and this alerted the farmer to my presence; he burst into the barn and demanded to know who I was and I quickly explained. He wanted me to leave straight away.

‘The Germans are near and if they find you here they’ll execute me,’ he said.

I begged him to allow me to stay overnight.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘you can stay here one night and then you leave at 5 am.’

He came in at dawn the next day with some coffee and sandwiches. After I had finished breakfast he said ‘bon voyage’, which was my cue to leave.

 

I continued south and came to a place called Morez and walked up into the hills, inadvertently reaching the Swiss border. I came across a guard post and a Swiss soldier appeared and shouted for me to come over, but the idea of spending the rest of the war stuck in a neutral country appalled me. So I continued down a valley to a small place called Gex. Starving, I found a restaurant and just stood in front of its window looking at the customers eating. A man came out and asked me who I was and I explained. He brought me a meal and took me to a nearby nunnery, where they gave me a bed and I slept for 24 hours straight.

 

My plan now was to head for Marseilles, which I knew had a Polish consulate. I hoped they’d help me get out of France and into British territory somehow. So I continued onward and was lucky enough to get a ride on a truck to Annency, a town next to a large lake. Crowds had gathered in the market square and the French tricolour was being slowly lowered. Many people were openly weeping and I asked what had happened. They explained that Marshal Pétain had agreed to an armistice and that France was now divided into two.* It was alarming news that spurred me on and I was lucky enough to catch a coach at Ugine, a village close to Annecy. The driver allowed me on the bus, despite my not having any money. On board, a Polish immigrant approached and gave me her sandwiches and some cash, which allowed me to pay for a bus ticket to Albertville, where I was arrested almost immediately on arrival.

*Possibly dating this incident to the official armistice of 22 June 1940 or a day or two afterwards.

 

I was taken to a police station where I told them my story. I was wearing civilian clothes at this stage, although I can’t remember who gave them to me or when I had changed into them. The policemen detaining me held an animated discussion, which was followed by a gendarme ordering me up and out of the building. Marching in front of him, I heard his footsteps becoming more and more distant and I suddenly realised that he was purposefully hanging back in order for me to escape. I saw some bushes and darted off through them. From Albertville I continued past Grenoble, down through Sisteron and then to Manosque, a village with a railway junction. It was here that I managed to get on a stationary goods train that was bound Marseilles.

 

Unfortunately, the Polish consulate was shut, complete with a sign that said: ‘closed until victory’. I knew there was a Polish legation in Toulouse and so I decided to get on a train and try my luck there. The carriages were overcrowded, which stopped the inspectors from doing their job. That was good news because I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket. I then noticed an airman talking in broken French about bombing Germans and I shifted up to him, asking if he was Polish.

‘Of course,’ he said, introducing himself as Marian Jakubowski. ‘We’ll travel together and I’ll make sure you’re all right.’

We discovered the Polish legation was still open and its personnel found us a place to stay. They soon supplied us with passports and visas for Dutch Curacao, which was our cover – because we’d head for British territory once we’d left the waters of Vichy France.* The ship was to leave from Port-Vendres, just south of Perpignan, which we reached without any problems. We’d just boarded the vessel when some officials turned up and decided they didn’t like the way we looked and had us thrown off. Despondent, we decided to take the overland route into Spain and try, somehow, to reach Portugal. From there, we hoped to gain assistance in reaching Britain. However, we knew it was going to be risky because the fascist dictator of Spain, General Franco, had no love for the Polish people, many of whom had volunteered to fight for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. This included quite a few Polish communists I might add.

*The rump state established through the armistice and under the control of Marshal Pétain. It was named after the seat of its government, the spa town of Vichy.

 

The terrain wasn’t too harsh where we crossed, which was between the ocean and the Pyrenees foothills. But at one point I took a tumble and cut my leg badly; I hobbled to a stream and tried to stem the bleeding but it didn’t work. Jakubowski then came over and told me to pull down my trousers. I thought that was a very odd request given the circumstances, but I followed his instructions. Then he urinated on my leg, which was very painful but helped stopped the blood flowing. Moving on, we came across a woman washing clothes in the river. Hungry and needing help, we stumbled towards her shouting ‘Mademoiselle!’ At that precise moment three Spanish border guards suddenly appeared.

 

They proved to be pleasant fellows and even invited us to join them for their lunch break! They took us to Figueres after their shift, frog-marching us through the streets up to a castle. I was taken to see a captain and quickly explained who we were. I was then forced to hand over my passport and documents. We were detained with three other prisoners, some foreign legionnaires I think, while they decided what to do with us. Every morning, in the courtyard, they hoisted the Spanish flag and took it down every evening. On each occasion they would perform a small ceremony that we were forced to attend. We all had to shout: ‘Viva España y Viva Franco!’ It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it was deadly serious.

 

After several days, they took us to the nearby station and put us onto a train. Someone told me that we were destined for a concentration camp and that didn’t appeal at all. The train was moving very slowly south through the countryside when, early in the morning at around 4 am, we stopped at a station in Bardalona, a small town close to Barcelona. On one side of the station, where the shadows fell, some soldiers were patrolling. On the lighter side, some workmen were checking the rails with hammers. None of the guards had their eyes on me because it was still so early, so I decided to take a chance and attempt to escape. I slowly climbed down from the carriage and then casually walked past the labourers; I reached the end of the platform and simply walked out of the station.

 

I’d been incredibly lucky and I walked for some time through fields of sugar cane. I then stopped to rest and, after some time, I picked myself up, dusted myself down and got on to the road to Barcelona. Nobody travelling that day seemed to notice me and no-one stopped to ask who I was. On getting to the city, I found out that there was an honorary Polish consul, a Spanish businessman and, on reaching the right address, the chap opened the door and bluntly told me to come back at 3pm. He closed the door on me and so I wandered around and returned at the appropriate hour. This time the Polish wife of the consul opened up and I explained who I was and what had happened to me. She allowed me to stay at their house while documents were obtained that granted me permission to continue on to the Polish legation in Madrid.

 

On arrival in the Spanish capital I went straight to the legation and was interviewed by its head, and was shocked by his attitude.

‘Why did you come?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you know I’ve had all sorts of trouble from the likes of you?’

I couldn’t believe it; I actually thought I’d break down and cry at this point. I later learned he was very pro-Franco and didn’t want to annoy the regime by helping Poles who had fought for the Allies. I spent three weeks waiting, first at the legation and then at a Jesuit castle and abbey on the outskirts of Madrid. Then I was taken back to discover they’d organized documentation and passports for me and, along with a couple of others, I boarded a train bound for Portugal. However, officials took us off at a border station and escorted us to a tavern, where I was able to phone the legation in Madrid and ask for assistance. They told me they’d send help the next day and, sure enough, some policemen and a man from the legation turned up. They stamped our documents and announced we could continue into Portugal.

 

We reached Lisbon without any issues and discovered that the Polish legation there had prepared yet more documents for us. Finally, we boarded a ship that took us to Gibraltar. Once there, we were put on a vessel that joined a convoy that swung out deep into the Atlantic because of the U-boat threat. It was a very circuitous route, taking us up the US eastern seaboard heading northeast to Iceland and then down to Liverpool. It took roughly 21 days and, on arrival, I was posted to Biggar in Scotland, which was where most Polish forces in Britain had been based. My father was stationed at a military hospital close to Biggar and he already knew I was okay because I’d managed to send word to him via the legation in Madrid. I was transferred to the 1st Highland Battalion that had been formed out those units that had seen action in the Norwegian campaign at Narvik and reached Britain soon after the fall of France in 1940. Our duties during this period to watch the Scottish east coast and prepare for a possible German invasion from occupied Norway. We would spend 24 hours on watch and then 24 hours back at our camp.

 

In the summer of 1941, I was asked by my commanding officer to join a recruiting mission to Canada. We were desperate for more men and Canada and northern USA had large Polish communities that were obvious places to seek out new recruits. I stayed out there for a year and we helped get a number of volunteers to join up. I then returned to Britain in summer 1942 and re-joined my unit, which was now incorporated within the Polish 1st Armoured Division. We spent the next two years preparing for the liberation of Europe. We weren’t in the first wave to land in Normandy and our unit was transported over on 31 July 1944, coming under overall command of the Canadians.

 

Our morale was high, and I thought – most of us thought – that we'd drive all the way through Germany and onto Warsaw. However, there was great personal sadness as well; my best friend, Jozef Rudnik, was killed on 8 August. I took part in many of the ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, but also found the time to visit his grave. Mistakes were also made. For example, on 14 August, we were hit from the air by our own side just before an advance. The lead aircraft dropped its bombs on our lines and the following aircraft copied this, their bombs falling into the dust thrown up by the first explosions. The jeep carrying our regimental standard was hit and all that remained of the flag were parts of its pole. I was a non-commissioned officer by now and I was in charge of a 3-inch mortar platoon. On 18 August, our unit was part of a support group that helped with the taking of Hill 262 N, just northeast of Chambois, where the Poles would help close the gap of the Falaise Pocket.*

* It is more likely to have been August 19. On that day, two companies from Highland Battalion were in involved in the starting attack on Point 262 N – the Maczuga, the mace, as the Poles called it. This geographical feature is shaped like a mace on the map and dominates the surrounding countryside. The Poles would field two battle groups on Hill 262 N that became cut off and had to fight waves of attacks as the German 7th Army desperately attempted to extricate most of its forces from what has become known as the Falaise Pocket. Canadian forces linked-up with the Poles on the afternoon/early evening of August 21, closing the Pocket that night.

 

Anyway, my mortars were in a nearby wood and I was giving the order to fire and dropping my arm at the same time. I had just done this, when I heard ‘paf! paf!’. The first sniper’s bullet pierced my helmet and scratched my head, while the second shot went straight through my arm. I was taken to a field hospital where Canadians, Poles and Germans were all being treated and, from there, I was sent back to the UK for a slow recovery. The damage was such that I was declared unfit for frontline duties.

 

I received my commission on 1 November, 1944 and became a 2nd Lieutenant. I was asked to become an instructor, but I was also presented me with an opportunity to focus on my education. In my heart, I knew my war was over; I applied for and was accepted into Oxford University, where I studied law. I then went on to study economics in London. My mother and sisters were eventually allowed to come and visit me, while my father decided to return to Poland permanently in 1966. However, he found it hard to adjust to life under the communists and died shortly afterwards. As for me, I married and settled in Britain, where I took citizenship. Years later, I was awarded the Croix de Guerre from the Republic of France and I spend the annual sum from this award and my French war pension on presents for my grandchildren.

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