Kowalski's war

Historical Eye

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.


Historical Eye: You were lucky enough to escape Warsaw before the Germans arrived. How did this happen?


Zbigniew Kowalski: My father worked in the finance department from the Polish ministry of defence. Just before 5 September 1939, it was decided all military institutions in Warsaw, including my father’s, were to be evacuated. He decided to also take my mother, my two sisters and me. 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 that she’d been mobilised to work in a hospital and had to stay behind. It was over ten years before I was to see her again.


What was the rail journey south like?


Soon after leaving Warsaw Ju-87 Stukas flew over and tried to bomb our train. Thankfully, they missed the target. On 14 September, we arrived in the Lwow area, 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 into Romania, but we soon found ourselves heading for 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. After the Stukas left, the passengers came rushing back, concerned that 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 had to keep telling them that I wasn’t hurt and that it was merely a scratch.


Having escaped Poland, you joined the Polish army assembling in France. How did that happen?


We got into Romania and ended up in a border village with a large Polish population, which meant the locals were friendly towards us. We stayed here for some time. I clearly remember the day I was asked to join the army: it was November 11. For most people this is the date of the First World War Armistice, but for Poles it is our Independence Day. My father and I attended a church service and a Polish 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 the official call up from the Polish legation.


My father and I travelled to the Romanian capital where I waited for three weeks until my official summons arrived. I then headed 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. 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.


What was life like as a new soldier in the Polish army in France during the ‘Phoney War’?


On arrival in 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 of the modern French type, although we wore special brown berets. Our unit was the 5th Malopolski Regiment of Infantry and we were part of the 2nd Polish Division. Our commanding officer, Major Allinger, arrived one day and we were all lined up for inspection. 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 with holes in the roof. We’d sleep on straw and would wake up covered in snow.


So it was a tough time?


Well the pay was miserable at one franc a day, which wasn't much even at that time. But this region had a large Polish immigrant community who’d come to work in the nearby mines. At some point a Polish miner approached me and asked if I could 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 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 they had to drag me back to my quarters!


Rations were a problem at this time because they were such poor quality. 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 when I was ordered to help unload some rations and, while doing this, noticed that the loaves were all labelled ‘1918’ and that 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.


What happened to your unit once the Germans launched the blitzkrieg on France?


In May 1940, our sister division, the 1st, was north of Nancy and the plan was to rush us there so we could fight together in the same theatre. We were loaded onto trains heading north but a decision was then taken for us to back-track south to Besançon, in the Franche-Comté region that lies close to the Swiss border. We ended up billeted in an old garrison located close to rail lines fairly near Besancon. 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 a few 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 as we approached. Suddenly, some Polish motorcyclists raced towards us and we flagged them down, asking what had happened. ‘Run away!’ they shouted. ‘The battalion has surrendered!’


At that point it was decided our unit would retreat with the motorcyclists and then regroup with any surviving remnants of our battalion in some nearby woods. Here an officer gathered us together and laid out the facts as he knew them. Losing the battalion was bad enough, but we were really shocked when he told us that 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. ‘One: you can march through the mountains and head into Switzerland. Two: you can march back to your homes in Poland’ – which got a laugh, as that prospect was more impossible than ever – ‘Three: join me and head south.’ 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.


When did you come face-to-face with the Germans?


We were captured 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 our vehicles could pass. Our troops started to push the broken-down truck into the escarpment in order to clear the road, but shots rang out as they were doing this. The men all scattered and 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; he had 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 by the enemy. At this point the German soldiers began to shout at me to drop my weapon. At first I didn’t understand them, until I realised that my rifle was still in my hands. I slowly set it on the ground and joined my comrades – no longer soldiers but prisoners of war.


The Germans were short of transport and drivers, so they made us use our remaining truck. We drove back to the north under the glare of enemy guards. But we hadn’t got far when the Germans called a halt in area that seemed 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.


What did you do next?


After ten or fifteen minutes I heard both captors and captives drive off. Back on the road, I started walking southwards and came across a barn that evening and I decided to stay there overnight. But just as I’d settled down a dog started barking furiously and alerted the farmer to my presence. He burst into the barn and demanded who I was. I quickly explained but he wanted me to leave anyway:

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

I begged him to allow me to stay overnight.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘you can stay, but 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 at 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. I explained and he brought me a meal and took me to a nearby nunnery, where they gave me a bed. I slept for 24 hours straight.


Did you have a plan for getting out of France at this stage?


I had decided 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 hitchhike a ride on a truck to Annency, a picturesque town next to a large lake. In the market square crowds had gathered 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.

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


This was alarming news that spurred me on. 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.


They took me to a police station where I told them my story. By this stage I was wearing civilian clothes, 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 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 then headed off to Marseilles.


Reaching Marseilles must have been a relief?


Not really. The Polish consulate was shut with a sign that said: ‘closed until victory’. Fortunately, I knew there was a legation in Toulouse and so I decided to get on a train and try my luck there. Thankfully, the carriages were overcrowded, which stopped the ticket inspectors from doing their job. It was at this point I noticed an airman talking in broken French about bombing Germans. I shifted up to him and asked if he was Polish. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We’ll travel together and I’ll make sure you’re all right.’ His name was Marian Jakubowski.


At Toulouse, the Polish legation was still open and its personnel found a place for us to stay. They soon supplied us with passports and visas for Dutch Curacao, which was our cover – for as soon as we left the waters of Vichy France* we’d head for British territory. The ship was to leave from Port-Vendres, just south of Perpignan, which we reached without any problems. We'd just boarded the ship when some officials turned up and decided they didn’t like the look of us. They threw us off. Despondent, we decided to take the overland route into Spain and try, somehow, to reach Portugal. From there we’d hopefully be able to get assistance in reaching Britain. But 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 some Polish communists I might add.

*The rump French State established under the control of Marshal Pétain and named after the seat of government, the spa town of Vichy.


Were there any difficulties at the Spanish border?


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 said: ‘Pull down your trousers.’ I thought that a very odd request given the circumstances, but I followed his instructions. Then he urinated on my leg! It was very painful but it 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.


That must have been a shock; how did they treat you?


Actually they were very pleasant and invited us to join them for their lunch break! After their shift they took us to Figueres, 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 every evening took it down. 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. The train was moving 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, workmen were checking the rails with hammers. None of the guards had their eyes on me because it was so early still, so I decided to take a chance and attempt an escape. I slowly climbed down from the carriage and then casually walked past the labourers. I reached the end of the platform and then walked out of the station.


It seems amazing none of the guards saw you leave.


Yes I was lucky; I walked into some fields of sugar cane and then stopped to rest. After a lengthy nap, 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. On reaching the right address, the chap opened the door and bluntly said: ‘We open at three.’ He then closed the door on me and so I wandered about and returned at the appropriate hour. This time the Polish wife of the Spaniard 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. ‘Why did you come?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you know I’ve had all sorts of trouble from the likes of you?’ Well I couldn’t believe it; I actually thought I’d break down and cry at this point. Later I learned that 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.


Were they more helpful this time?


Yes. They’d organised 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 station on the border. They 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 that we could continue into Portugal.


We reached Lisbon without any issues and discovered that the Polish legation had prepared yet more documents for us. Finally, we boarded a ship heading to Gibraltar and, from there, took a vessel that joined a convoy. We 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 before back-tracking to Iceland and then down to Liverpool. It took roughly 21 days.


Where did you go after you arrived in Liverpool?


I was posted to Biggar, Scotland, where most Polish forces in Britain were based. Nearby was a military hospital where my father was stationed; he knew I was okay because I’d sent word to him via the legation in Madrid. I was transferred to a new unit, a Highland battalion that had seen action in the Norwegian campaign at Narvik.* Our duties were to watch the Scottish coast and prepare for a possible German invasion from occupied Norway. We would spend 24 hours on watch and then have 24 hours in camp.

*See the Poles at Narvik in this section for an in-depth analysis of this fascinating unit and its campaign – also the first major Allied land victory.


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 returned to Britain in summer 1942 and re-joined my unit, which was now attached to the Polish 1st Armoured Division. We spent the next two years preparing for the liberation of Europe. However, we were’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.


How did it feel to come back to Europe as part of a victorious army?


Well I thought – most of us thought – that we'd drive all the way through Germany and onto Warsaw. My morale was high, although there was great personal sadness too: my best friend, Jozef Rudnik, was killed on August 8. 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.


On August 14, we were advancing when we were hit from the air by our own side. 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. By now I was a non-commissioned officer and I was in charge of a 3-inch mortar platoon. On August 18 my men were part of a special formation of infantry and support units that was ordered to assist in the taking of Hill 262, northeast of Chambois, where the Poles would close the Falaise Gap.*

*From Kowalski’s account it is much 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 north, commonly called Hill 262. The Poles also called it Maczuga, the mace, which it resembles on the map. This geographical feature dominates the surrounding countryside. Kowalski makes no reference to being on Hill 262. no doubt because he was wounded and casualty cleared to the rear lines before the main fighting started on and around Maczuga. Once the bulk of Polish units from 1st Armoured Division reached Hill 262 they became cut off, making it impossible to evacuate the wounded until after re-linking with Canadian forces in the afternoon/early evening of August 21.


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. The second shot went straight through my arm and I was taken to a field hospital where Canadians, Poles and Germans were all being treated. 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.


On 1 November, 1944, I received my commission and became a 2nd Lieutenant. I was asked to become an instructor, but there was also the opportunity to focus on my education if I wished. It was obvious really that my war was over, so 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. My father decided to return to Poland permanently in 1966 but found it hard to adjust to life under the communists and he 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 spend the annual sum from this award and my French war pension on presents for my grandchildren.


'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.'

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