ANDERS ODYSSEY

 

 

PART  1          SEPTEMBER 1939 

 

 

At home I grew up in a politically ambivalent atmosphere. My father joined Polish armed forces in Siberia and served under General Anders in Italy – Monte Cassino and Ancona where he was wounded. Much later I realized that my deliverance from Siberia and my being in England I owe in large measure to General Anders. He, better than any other politician or soldier understood Stalin. As a sign of my appreciation and respect for the General the least I can do on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and my 70th birthday, is to retrace the path he and his troops took in those fateful weeks in September 1939. Traversing this route on a bicycle, at least gives a hint of the hardship they faced.

 

 

Some might say I was lucky. But I know I owe a big thank-you to my Sponsor. HE made sure that skies stayed blue, the sun shone bright and the wind was mostly warm and caressing… right up to the moment I reached my final destination: Jasionka Stasiowa, where General Anders was taken by the Soviets on 29th September 1939. And that night it poured - but I was safe and dry in a room in Sambor. And just to remind me how it might have been had HE not been on my side, early next morning, still in total darkness, I was cycling towards the railway station when the rear wheel of my bike dropped into a rain-filled hole in the road – both my panniers came off and landed in the road, but somehow, I stayed upright! Now, had it been my front wheel that dropped into the black hole, I would have gone head first over the handlebars and finished up where and when I know not – another Humpty Dumty perhaps.

 

I also owe a lot of thanks to my second sponsor - IB Sp.z.o.o. - that makes bikes in Poland; it provided the “Caledonia” model for me to cycle in the “Footsteps of General Anders”. Marek Gavel, Sales Director, made sure I had brakes, wheels and tyres appropriate for this trip, especially for roads in Ukraine. IB makes the wheels for their  own bikes and, obviously, makes them good and strong, for even after the “black hole” incident, the rear wheel stayed as true as new! After cycling 880 Kilometres, much of which was on appalling roads full of pot holes, gullies, stones or gravel, all parts of the bike stood up well. I was expecting trouble with bike’s front suspension, particularly on the sandy tracts through the forest near Osieck but, to my relief, suspension remained firm for the entire trip. And not a single puncture! It seems that I always have a personal problem with the chain wheel guard on whatever bike I ride, and on this one too, I finally had to take it off – that was all.

Thank you IB!      http://www.ib.biz.pl


And I would also like to express my thanks to Ms. L.H. Kubica who, setting aside all her reservations about the wisdom of this cycling trek - at my age - donated £1000 pounds towards Our Roots Trust. Many thanks indeed.

 

- 0 -

 

It should have been easy. Just step on the pedal, swing my right leg over and then just push and push for the next 880 kilometres. It was so easy when I was just 5 years old. I made my own one-wheeled “bike” then from a rigid wire rounded into a circle, and another piece of straight wire with a stirrup on one end to push the circle along – I would run and push and run and push bare-foot… and never seem to tire. It was also easy when I was 14 and bought my new bike from my own hard-earned money. I would “bomb” around country lanes in Essex, my head well down, and pushing furiously on the pedals – thank heavens there was so much less traffic on those roads back then. It was still quite easy when I was 18 - I would think nothing of cycling 30-40 miles in the night from Witham in Essex to Hammersmith in London right through the city of London, the rain-wet, slippery cobble stones of Mile End Road, Fleet Street, Piccadilly… and finally reach Hammersmith with my face black from smog! But now? I suppose the real problem and worry is that I am still using my original pair of legs, and they haven’t had any maintenance for the past 70 years! But… sometimes there’s pleasure in possessing antiques, and satisfaction in making them work!

 

- 0 -

“Prosze Pana…”

 

“You know… this is nothing like it was then. These are games; these are toy soldiers…  Just look around you; just look at what God has given us: the woods, the fields and pastures; beautiful autumnal colours, peace and the quiet… and how is man repaying Him? Man can do better – Man can undo what God has given; Man can destroy it all… You know… I was 10-11 then. I was born in Szarowola, just up there, just a few kilometres from Tomaszow Lubelski… I stood in the field and watched in horror at was unfolding right in front of my eyes [and here Jan blows his nose and wipes tears off his cheeks]. There, on that hill, stood two tanks and they were blasting away so their guns where white hot… and down here, on this open ground, Polish cavalry and infantry were trying to cross into the safety of the woods there… They were coming from the North. This whole vast area was strewn with dead and injured bodies of Polish soldiers; horses… everywhere. And then German tanks came in from the woods to the east. It was all armour… hardly any German soldiers fell in the field. And that was the end…”

 

“Then the Germans came to our village… Rounded up all the villagers. Many young and healthy women were taken to work in Germany – including my aunt. Many men were marched off and shot – including three from my family. We tried to escape and kept moving from one village to another but finally returned. And there were traitors! One man came from Silesia… he claimed to have escaped from the Germans on the way to being executed and wanted to join the local Resistance group; he was very convincing; he was accepted; he even participated in sabotage work. And then, one day, all men from our village and the neighbourhood were rounded up, lined up… and paraded in front of this man! He just stood there and pointed out: this one, this one, this and this… They were immediately taken behind the house and shot on the spot…”

 

“And the Ukrainians… Suddenly they were everywhere; they were collaborating with the Germans… Their favourite saying was “now Ukrainians sit at the table and Poles are in the frying pan…”

 

But it’s time for us both to go to the field mass. It’s Sunday, 20th. September 2009 - 70 years, to the day, that intense fighting around Tomaszow Lubelski took place. Many Polish dignitaries are present and a vast crowd has gathered to reflect upon the lives sacrificed here in two major battles fought with the German invader; and not to forget what Mankind can do to Man.

 

True, today’s “battle” is nothing more than a reconstruction, “reinscenizacja”, a visual reminder for the benefit of to-day’s younger generation of the way Germans would typically take and subdue a village; nothing more than “games and toy soldiers” as Jan had said. But as I watch Polish cavalry approaching, a sense of pride enters my heart and tears swell in my eyes – “toy soldiers” maybe today, but when the need arose they readily laid down their lives for their Country, for Freedom. I see a man, just a metre or two away from me, surreptitiously wiping tears from his eyes - what is passing through his mind at a moment like this? Thoughts of his father perhaps executed for belonging to the Resistance, or his mother or aunt never-returned from Germany? I dare not intrude on his private grief… but perhaps, he too, is moved by the sight of our young men looking so splendid in their cavalry uniform sitting on such beautiful horses - man’s most faithful and suffering companion during those awful days.

 

At the end of the reconstruction I ask a group of “our soldiers” resting after the “battle” how does it feel to live the part – “it sends shivers down my spine; you can’t help it; you feel anger swelling within you when you see the grey of German coats, their helmets… and particularly when you see the cannon of a German tank swinging towards your positions. Of course we know they are actors too, our friends, but…” Curiously, the moment the reconstruction is over, I can’t see any “German soldiers” around – their German garb had been immediately cast off  the moment the“battle” was over!

 

The real-life “show” started three weeks earlier - 70 years ago, on 1st. September 1939.

 

- 0 -

 

MLAWA - I cycle up to near the top of a hill and then walk some 100 yards across a ploughed-up field of dry, soft, sandy soil that quickly fills my boots, and the last fifty yards over knee-high grass to the summit. From here I have panoramic views: open ground to the north stretching for perhaps half a mile and young woods all around. In front of me - a concrete bunker. With visions of fierce battles around Mlawa racing In my mind, I am suddenly struck by something incongruous about this bunker. German bunkers in Normandy that I have seen were all partly destroyed, roofs partly bombed in, interiors full of obvious signs of flame or explosions – one could almost smell blood and smoke; bomb or artillery craters all around, and they were all sunk deep in the ground - barely discernible from a distance. This bunker stands some seven or eight feet tall, above ground level, and is plainly visible from air and ground. Its walls are massive, at two feet across; its interior is neat – no rubbish, bottles or other debris such as I had seen in bunkers in Ukraine. It’s in “mint” condition: no significant bullet, shell or bomb damage marks on its exterior, nor its interior; the land around it is as if nothing had ever happened around here…

 

What about the other bunkers? As I consult my map and notes, I see an old man and his son pulling a small cart on wonky wheels full of junk metal - no horses, no harness, just two men on two old bikes and a rope with end hitched to the bikes and the other to the cart, and leg power – “One has to make a living somehow…” says the old man. Perhaps they will know, if and where, any other bunkers still exist. Indeed the old man does – there are many of them around here, but unlike the one on the hill, others are hidden by young woods, self-seeded scrub or in cultivated fields; many are now overgrown. The old man leads me to see two other bunkers, each perhaps half a kilometre, or so, apart but easily accessible on bikes over sandy, rough forest tracts. Remarkably, they are like the first: the same design, the same massive construction; clean inside; no obvious battle scars anywhere. In fact, homeless people used to live in them before new housing was built in villages around here destroyed during fighting. “Here’s a grave of a Polish soldier” – a solitary grave marked by a cross – “You should take a photo of this” says my guide. I do.

 

Other people I ask on the way tell me there are many more bunkers in the woods. I try to find the “there’s one there… and another one just over there” but without a guide I finish up by scratching my bare legs on the undergrowth and not finding any. But if the others are in the same state, as they most probably are… so what does one make of it all?

 

At that time, Mlawa was on the most direct and shortest route from Germany to Warsaw - only 30 kilometres from what was then East Prussia, and 125 kms. to Warsaw

67concrete bunkers were built (some had not yet been finished before the outbreak of the war) on the northern ridges of the high ground in the Mlawa operational sector. They formed the primary line of defence against German attack coming from East Prussia. This sector was defended by the Modlin Army. The Nowogrodzka Brygada Kawalerii (NBK) under General Anders was head-quartered in Lidzbark and formed the western flank of the Modlin Army.

 

Intense fighting took place in the outlying villages to the north of Mlawa:  Mlawka, Piekielko, Uniszki Zawadzkie, Kolakowo and Zaboklik. The village “Piekielko” - that little hell on earth - very appropriately named, as if in anticipation of the bloody fighting that was to take place there, is now incorporated into the town of Mlawa; all its dwellings are post war, its oldest inhabitants mostly in their early fifties don’t seem to know much about what went on here in 1939.

 

While the Germans tried to take Mlawa in a frontal attack, they were looking for points of weakness and, sure enough, they found a gap of several kilometres in Polish defences to the east. In a lightening move overnight, they moved their armoured brigade from the front in the north to the east of Mlawa, broke through Polish lines and entered Grudusk, thus threatening the rear and encirclement of the entire Modlin Army.

 

Much has been written about the fierce fighting around Mlawa, but with that concrete bunker fresh in my mind, and looking at a sketch of fortifications, I have a feeling that here, around Mlawa, we had the Polish equivalent of the Maginot Line in France. The French and the British, and the whole of Europe should have watched more closely the events unfolding here. The French were expecting Germans to attack from across the Rhine – that’s why the “impregnable” Maginot Line was built, but Hitler was looking for points of weakness, and he found it easily. Rather than challenge the Maginot Line fortifications his armies simply trampled over Holland, then Belgium, and were in Paris in no-time. Denmark allowed the Germans to debark in Kopenhagen without firing a shot; Holland fell in three days; the entire armed forces of Belgium-Luxemburg surrendered in 14 days; France fell in 14 days and set up a puppet government… Poland fought on their own soil and alongside the British forces till the very end of the war.
 

With such thoughts racing in my mind I am heading for Lidzbark via Dzialdowo. Beautiful autumnal colours all a round me, young woodland, open fields, overgrown Mlawka river in the distance, now peaceful and sleepy “Piekielko” coming out of the early morning mist… Just a kilometre or two outside Mlawa I am cycling through the village Mlawka when a roadside billboard pulls me up short - “German Military Cemetery - 500 metres”! I cycle up to it - majestic, vast, austere park. The cemetery was established for the German dead of WWI in 1914. By 1945, 1547 German soldiers were buried here and, in the nineties, a large number of German soldiers fallen in the Mlawa region were exhumed and reburied here – 12, 479 lie here now!

 

The historical note on the board in the cemetery ends in these words “THE DEAD ADMONISH TO PEACE”! But what where the now-dead German soldiers thinking when still alive; what were our soldiers thinking when locked in battle? Our soldiers fought for “God, Honour and Country”; they fought for “Your Freedom and Ours” as they  had always done. What did the Germans fight for; die for? For “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles”? Or for Hitler? Or to fulfil the destiny of the German race? To demonstrate German might - how modern wars should be fought and won; German superiority? Indeed, the only thing they feared was the sound of Hurrah… Hurrah!!! coming from Polish lines when Polish cavalrymen, on foot, with bayonets on their rifles charged German positions. It’s the glint in Polish eyes, the cold steel in the gut, the rib cage, the back… they feared. It’s that “ridiculous” Polish cavalry, showing up unexpectedly and, sabres drawn, charging German armour to cut down the accompanying infantry, before being themselves mowed down by machinegun fire… they feared. That’s not the way a modern war should be fought – that’s Polish history. Now, aircraft bombing indiscriminately and intentionally gunning down refugees, civilians, children… burning entire villages and towns… executions, overwhelming armour power… yes, blitzkrieg… that’s the way – the German way. Exterminating the Jews… now, that’s the modern way – the German way. 
 

It’s only 20 kilometres to Dzialdowo, and a further 25 to Lidzbark, but it is proving to be an awful struggle to cycle there. Every now and again I get off the bike just to look back to check why. Indeed, I have been climbing a low gradient all this time, and it just goes on and on for 35 kilometres! And if that’s not bad enough, a very strong westerly wind is blowing straight in my face… and on top of that, the road is very narrow… and on top of that, articulated trucks just whoosh past me and force me off the road, and on top of that, trucks going in the opposite direction suck me in, tear my cap off... and on top of that, trucks on my side of the road make my bike wobble dangerously... and on top of that… and on top of that… How I wish I was cycling in the opposite direction, or had taken the train – but the next train to Lidzbark is at 21 hrs and it’s only 12.00 now…

 

All the way to Lidzbark it’s a bleak, open countryside, corn still not harvested in the fields, scattered woodlands… Nothing pretty about it on this particular day - perhaps it’s just me today. It’s obvious that any troop movements, in this terrain would be very exposed and would suffer heavy casualties from German planes and artillery so it’s not surprising that NBK troops were stationed in the forest to the south of the town.

 

LIDZBARK - at last. General Anders describes it as a pretty, provincial town – well, perhaps it was, perhaps it still is, but I can’t see much prettiness here today. In fact, my introduction to it is not endearing – I stopped for a bowl of hot soup and tea at a bar and had bad soup and, somehow, ended up paying for a beer for one of the young lads already heavily leaning on the counter. The two people I spoke to in town didn’t know much, or care much about 1939, or General Anders.

 

But on DAY 1-2 of that September, the atmosphere in town was very different. “…The people, after the local authorities had already left on 1st. September (the police, teachers, forestry employees), showed worry and disorientation. This was demonstrated by their questions – What should they do? - Should they stay, or evacuate? – What should they do with the harvest and animal husbandry? – Some, seeing our slim forces wanted to help. They asked for arms so as to fight. Others offered our troops provisions, bicycles, motorcycles…. All showed great patriotizm and willingness to help their Country…” (WBL p 42/43)

 

By the end of DAY-3, the 20th and 8th Infantry Division in Mlawa, facing the threat of complete encirclement, received orders to start immediate withdrawal – immediate - in open terrain and in daylight to positions further south. German planes and artillery pounded and bombed retreating forces and turned the retreat into a complete rout. On 4th September General Anders was given command of also these two crushed divisions. In this situation, he pulled back all troops under his command first to the area around Sierpc, then on to Plock to regroup and to ensure that his forces are not cut off in the south by the Germans.

 

Following the path taken by NBK, I now turn south and aim for Lubowidz through the woods of Lidzbarski Park Krajobrazowy. What a relief, what delight to sit on a bike and, for a change, freewheel downhill on a perfectly asphalted road! The westerly wind is still blowing hard, as it had done for the past four days, but it’s not blowing in my face now. So I am pushing the pedals with vigour, and with gears set at 2/6 the speed is exhilarating and rejuvenating. On my right extends the old forest with a good deal of undergrowth so I can’t see far into the wood. This is the place where the NBK stood and where the 91st. light armoured unit hid from German air reconnaissance and bombing.

 

Perhaps a touch disparagingly General Anders refers to his armoured unit: “of what use were my small, light armoured vehicles against massive German tanks…” (BOR p6) But as he had hoped, and asked of his soldiers, the spirit and the sacrifice of men in those light armoured vehicles proved a match for the Germans in many encounters. Right from the start the armoured units went on reconnaissance and took three German prisoners. The next day the armoured unit moved to the nearby Zuromin in preparation for a coordinated move with a unit of the NBK on German positions in Petrykozy. German troops there were thrown back and lost 2 anti-tank guns, two vehicles and forty bicycles. Of course, this  episode is insignificant in the overall context, but it illustrates their fighting spirit. Yes, it’s quite surprising to what extent the military, both Polish and German, still utilized “kolarze” - men mounted on bicycles for messaging and for reconnaissance.

 

[Overnight stop: Lubowidz 28/09/2009]

 

Following the direction of retreat of General’s troops, I head south, south-west, from Lubowidz, on to Zuromin, Biezun, Sierpc and Plock The countryside was not particularly exciting, air was fresh and the westerly wind no longer blew hard in my face; if anything fell from the sky today it was a few drops of light rain. It could have been a happy continuation of my bike ride, just like the afternoon before - it’s just that I knew that it is not how it had been for the retreating troops.

 

In General’s own words:

            “… I am going… by car to Mlawa. I can not get there directly, only from the rear. Along the route I can see burning villages and many civilian dead. The sight of bodies of killed children is particularly depressing…”

          “I can see a German pilot circling above a group of some one hundred small children… Descends to 50 metres, drops bombs and fires from his machine gun. Children scatter like sparrows, but several red blotches remain on the ground. I have a foretaste of what the war will be like…”

          “We are approaching the rear of the 20th Division. The roads are packed with columns of trucks, carts loaded with machine guns and kitchens. Hundreds of enemy planes are bombing not only the columns, but small groups of soldiers retreating through fields. It is no longer an orderly retreat.”

(BOR  p.7)

 

Colonel L. Schweizer describes the situation around Sierpc:

           “And from the direction of Sierpc, bomb explosions could be heard”

            “…Milobedzin, where I was just an hour ago, stood in flames destroyed by a bomb. At the railway station Sierpc, the result of air attack could be seen: destroyed trains and smoke from warehouses. An atmosphere of chaos difficult to describe reigned in town, through which the last remaining troops of the brigade had already passed. All administration had left. People crammed the narrow streets hampering troop movement. They wanted to understand - asked for advice. They were dumbfounded by what was happening. The contrast between what they had been told – and what, as the result, they were expecting – and what they witnessed was so great that they were shocked to the core. From the simple fact that troops were retreating without a fight - even in the absence of the enemy – they felt the seriousness of the situation and the danger to them of being abandoned.

        "… They were dumbfounded. Half-dead, they just looked on the retreating troops, over flying planes in the air, and burning fires marking the progress of war…”

(WBL p44/45)

 

[Overnight stop: Plock 29/09/2009]

  

General Anders reached Plock on the night of DAY-4. On the way, the car he was travelling in was riddled with bullets by an enemy plane and he was injured, but his injury was attended to in Plock and he was able to continue command. All forces under his command reached Plock and safely crossed to the left bank of te river Wisla by the end of DAY-6 with relatively little enemy interference. While regrouping his forces here, he received orders to blow up the bridges in Plock and move the brigade through Puszcza Kampinowska to the right bank of Wisla across the bridges south of Modlin.

 

PLOCK – I had always associated Plock with oil refining, petrochemicals and investment in this sector. I visited Petrochemia Plock quite a few times in the years 1973-83; the rest of Plock was of little interest to me at that time. Those were years when even a very small “fistful of dollars” went a very long way. For a fiver at Pewex you could buy so much the locals could only dream about and never afford; for just a few dollars more, you could buy all the services you shouldn’t.

 

But in my search for access to the bridge across Wisla, I stumbled onto the Old Town – an entirely new town to me. It’s small and compact; its reconstruction after the war damage is almost complete; the architecture of the town hall, the Catholic Cathedral, the Mariawitow Cathedral and other buildings in the centre is wonderfully clean and simple. It’s a little jewel. But even more importantly, Plock was the seat of the Piast dynasty – of the earliest Polish Kings! How shocking on my part to be so ignorant of this town's history! I will certainly have to re-visit Plock - not so much in the footsteps of General Anders, but to look and admire the first footprints of the Polish Nation.

 

As it happens, I am in Plock very early in the morning - 08 hrs approximately – so the Museum is not yet open, nor are any other buildings in the Old Town. A Catholic priest I approached for directions to the bridge invites me for a cup of hot coffee and cake – I am very appreciative of this for it’s surprisingly cold on this bright sunny morning and I am freezing. By 10.0 hrs I am on the bridge – the new steel bridge across Wisla – beautiful views of the river flowing between unregulated banks. Right up to the outbreak of the war in 1939 Wisla was open between Plock and Warsaw and passenger boats and freighters regularly plied this route.

 

But on DAY 4 of September1939, Plock looked rather differently:

 

        “… I arrived in Plock around 17.00 hrs. The town looked dead. Shops closed, offices evacuated – the streets dug up with a labyrinth of trenches. Hardly any civilians were visible in the streets. Instead, many single, armed and helpless soldiers wondered around. These were the remnants of the 20th and the 8th infantry division. They were coming from Drobin, Plonsk, Wyszogrod…” (WBL p 45)

 

      “… Plock is encircled by a ring of German settlers and sabotage, until now concentrating on passing on information and disrupting communications, has come out into the open to the extent that it looks like an uprising… On the horizon, one can see descending parachutes… German planes are targeting bridges… The Cathedral is damaged…”

(WZ p247)

 

On DAY 7- 8-9-10 September 1939 - troops were on the road from Plock to MODLIN marching on the right bank of Wisla and through Puszcza Kampinowska. On Day-8, the two bridges across Wisla in Plock were blown up and the brigade started its march to Modlin. Some went on boats up the river, others marched past Wyszogrod then along Puszcza Kampinowska. Orders and counter orders from the Chief of Staff caused considerable distress and confusion with some of the troops having to cross and re-cross the Puszcza twice. Eventually, the troops reached the designated assembly point in Wiazownia in the triangle: Wawer-Otwock-Minsk Mazowiecki.

 

By then “…Troops were exhausted. It’s impossible to assess their exhaustion by the number of kilometres traversed, but only by the number of hours spent in the saddle. From 22.0 hrs on the 7th to 13.0 hrs on the 10th troops were out of the saddle for 4 hours in the Puszcza and about 2 hrs in Jablonna on the way around Warsaw. That is, out of the 39 hrs on the march – 34 hrs spent in the saddle. In this time they covered a total of 115 kilometres…” (WBL p 54)

 

           “…from Radziwie to Dobrzychow, the road is so difficult that anyone who is not familiar with the sandbanks along Wisla can not even imagine it…” (WBL p 47)

 

            “… members of the air-arm, the military establishments and training centres, police and border guards were moving on the road to Warsaw in hopelessly intermingled columns. In between them, private cars, peasants’ wagons and those of landlords loaded with their belongings, and livestock dropping from exhaustion. Shock was evident on all faces. The appearance of enemy planes created panic among the people. Everyone rushed for safety in the woods or in the open fields …”

 

But for me, the same route presented no such threat or obstacles. It was an easy cycle ride from Plock along the left bank of Wisla, across the bridge over the river Bzura which flows into it at this point, and then across Wisla to Wyszogrod.  Then a further 40 kilometres along the northern periphery of Puszcza Kampinowska, cross the bridge over Wisla to Nowy Dwor Mazowieck, and across the river Narev to Modlin. Not a particularly attractive countryside around me, but a warm, pleasant, quiet day, flat terrain and good road surface. The houses and estates standing in large and well wooded  plots along the northern periphery of Puszcza Kampinowska obviously belong to the well-off in today’s Poland – on this run of 80 kilometres I came across only one “agro turystyka” sign (the equivalent of our bed & breakfast).

 

WYSZOGROD – stands on the high ridge of the right bank of the river Wisla. The spire of the church there is visible from afar and its greyness, contrasting with the surrounding rich greenery and shimmering waters of the river below, gives the town a medieval setting when viewed from the opposite bank, but there is nothing medieval about the town, or particularly attractive.

 

The old bridge across Wisla here was quite remarkable in its time. It was built by Prussians in 1916 from timber cut in Puszcza Kampinowska but required an inordinate amount of constant and costly repairs. By the time NBK reached Plock, the bridge had already been blown up by retreating Polish troops – it was never rebuilt but a stub of the bridge on the side of the town has been preserved to show its construction. The new steel bridge across Wisla here is equally remarkable – it spans Wisla at the point of confluence with Bzura and, at 1200 meters, it must be one of the longest bridges in Poland. Crossing it on my bike, and bouncing dangerously off its steel structure along the narrow section reserved for cycles and pedestrians, I had the feeling that it just went on and on, and prayed that it would end before I lose my balance.

 

MODLIN – Troops commanded by General Anders marched on past Modlin to their regrouping point in Wiazownia, but I couldn’t resist this opportunity to take a quick look around this fort with such a long history of resistance to invading forces from the east and west. It is huge. It was enough to see just the exterior walls of the barracks so heavily pock-marked by shells and bullets, to imagine what the fort must have lived through. At the time the troops were passing through Modlin, the fort itself was preparing for a siege from the Germans and its commanding officer refused to share the provisions held at the fort – General Anders’ troops marched on to Warsaw hungry and exhausted..

 

What a difference in 70 years! Back in 1939, on their way to Wiazownia, troops marched through Legionowo, Jablonna, Grochow, Praga, Wawer, Anin, to Zakret - they were all small towns or villages in their own right then. Today they are all part of the conglomerate of greater Warsaw. Today, the most sensible and practical option for me is to take the local train from Modlin to central Warsaw, then another short hop to Jozefow and pick up the MBK trail at near-by Wiazownia.


[Overnight in Warsaw 30/09/2009]

 

 

DAY 11-12-13  of  September 1939 -  Battle of Minsk Mazowiecki and Kaluszyn.

 

By now, German forces are approaching from the north targeting Deby Wielkie and Minsk Mazowiecki which lie thirty kilometres east of Warsaw. On the 12th, General Anders was ordered to stop the German advance at Minsk Mazowiecki and Kaluszyn. These orders are precipitous but General’s troops started advancing at 05.0 hrs on the 13th September. Wolynska Brygada moveed on Minsk while the 25th and 26 cavalry regiments headed towards Kaluszyn.

 

But how and where will the cavalry find the enemy. They had no detailed maps of the area; they didn’t know where exactly the enemy was, nor its strength and disposition. All they knew is that the enemy was somewhere there, some thirty km in the direction of Minsk and Kaluszyn; whom could they ask when all the villagers were seeking safety in hiding. The region between Wiazownia and Minsk is flat, open, sparsely wooded, light sandy soil that is easily kicked by the hoofs of the cavalry into clouds of dust visible from afar; hardly any landmarks to guide them along the chosen route.

 

The horrendous risk in pressing an attack under such conditions was tragically illustrated by the loss of the entire cavalry squadron led by Lt. Guminski. At one moment he was rapidly advancing on Minsk then, unexpectedly, the squadron had run into a swamp - horses and men were helpless and machinegun fire from inside Minsk simply finished them off. Lt. Guminski managed to extricate himself from the swamp and, when over a field telephone line, he was ordered to withdraw, his answer was “…led the squadron through a bog of which I was not aware… was trapped by machinegun fire and the squadron was destroyed. So I can not fulfil your order… I am staying with them.”  And Lt. Guminski took his own life. (WZ p.254)

 

And yet, General’s troops were on the verge of success. The Wolynska Brigade was on the point of taking Minsk in heavy fighting. NBK regiments were also advancing as planned. And at this critical moment General Anders received orders to immediately brake away from the enemy and withdraw, in full daylight, all his troops to reserve positions in the Parczew region. Anticipating that he will be forced to break through German lines in order to get through to Parczew, General Anders designated the forests south-west of Garwolin as the area for grouping his troops.

 

As the noise of the battle died down, Colonel L. Schweizer, commander of the 26th regiment, was astonished to find that the entire Group under General Anders had gone and he and his troops were left behind on the battlefield with German forces all around them. His 3rd and 4th squadron had disappeared – lost or destroyed. He was now left to seek his own way out. All that people in the villages could say is that troops had moved out – where to, no one knew. 

 

MINSK MAZOWIECKI - To-day, little of the old Minsk remains and the villages along the path of NBK troops on that day are new and prosperous. The new generation of “peasants” plough their fields and gather crops with tractors and meadows are carpeted with grass and flowers so it’s not surprising that their thoughts seldom return to those days in 1939. But to-day is the 13th September 2009 – exactly 70 years after the battle of Minsk – some people still see it and live it through the eyes of their fathers or uncles; a few still remember those days.

 

Commemoration of that day has been set for 14.00 hrs to-day and people gather in the local park to see a Polish reconnaissance tank lovingly restored, and other military vehicles, guns and equipment. It’s a well-spent Sunday afternoon for grown ups and children alike. Here I met Zbigniew Nowosielski, dressed in the uniform of Polish Captain of that time. His father served in the armoured reconnaissance unit of the NBK group and Zbigniew’s passion in life now is the rebuilding of Polish armoured vehicles and the history of armoured vehicle battles in this area.

 

(Overnight in Ptaki/Dluzew 16/09/2009)


DAY 14-15-16th of September 1939 – Troops March South 

 

With the battle for Minsk Mazowiecki and the retreating troops being pounded by German artillery and planes in broad daylight still in my mind, I feel as if I am committing sacrilege when I so freely roam on the same roads here, but cycling to-day is really a pleasure – warm, sunny, autumnal day, yellow and blue flowers by the roadside, a carpet of white, fine sand visible through the swaying grass….

 

I am following the route taken by the NBK: Siennica, Kolbiel, Katy, Zabiezki then through the northern tip of Puszcza Osiecka to Osieck and on to Sobienie Jeziory. I have a map but I wonder just how bad are the roads in Puszcza. Two men sitting at the entrance to Puscza, their noses already as red and coarse as turnips, are trying to help: this way - no that way; through this village – no it’s no longer called by that name, and so it goes on, louder and louder, closer and closer to an exchange of blows… so I better follow my own nose and my map.

 

Only 200 yards into the Puszcza and I hit a forest trail that 4x4s can cope with but it’s not for 2x2 leg-powered bikes. My self-preservation instinct tells me to find a better route, but the thought of our troops, exhausted, hungry, laden with war material, bombed and fired upon… drives me on. Six kilometres of forest track - nothing but soft, fine sand cut up by deep gullies; pine woods all around and rejuvenating fresh air. But to make any progress I have to cycle on grassy verges, or find firmer areas along the track - or walk and push the bike. And just when I thought I was getting good at this, the rear wheel of my bike slued to the right, the front wheel slued to the left and the only option I had was to land flat on my face in the worm, soft, white sand….

 

What an ordeal it must have been for “kolarze” - the bike-mounted units – when moving through these forests. Now I could see and feel the difficulties military vehicles, carts and wagons, even tankets, had to overcome here. It wasn’t so bad in dry weather, but in heavy rain the soft sand and the floor of the forest would have become an impassable quagmire; in many instances whole transport columns got lost or their heavy carts and heavy guns were abandoned. And many have perished here from German bombs and artillery and direct confrontation with German forces. Two large wooden crosses and an obelisk standing at an intersection of two forest tracts commemorate their sacrifice.

 

Colonel Shweizer writes:

 

            “Destruction was evident everywhere along the route”.

“… Garwolin (town on the Warsaw-Lublin road) was wiped out. Only chimney stacks silhouetted against the dark sky showed where a dwelling or a multi-storied house once stood. Still smouldering ruins showed how recently the tragedy had overtaken this town. There were no people around…” (WBL p.67)

“…Near Kobyla Wola we emerged onto the road. Marching south, we came across a horrendous battlefield, near Potasznik, striven with remnants of a supply column massacred by German armour. Horrible sight. Putrefying bodies of men and horses, some crushed by tanks, others shot through by bullets, carts broken up, even some damaged guns – here and there a suitcase with its contents spilling out…” (WBL p.67)

 

I am continuing south from Sobienie Jeziory via Wilga, Deblin to Pulawy. It’s a good secondary road, but back in 1939 it was nothing more than a country track. In places, the road runs along the eastern bank of the river Wisla - the view is arresting and so I take a lunch-break. A vast expanse of water stretches in front of me shimmering in the mid-day sun, but here at my feet it’s not clean enough for a swim or washing of hands. Then it’s back on the bike.

Good, easy cycling on a perfect day – too easy in fact! I am suddenly aware that I don’t have my rucksack on my back! Surely it couldn’t have fallen off my back – even if one strap had snapped the other would have held; surely, I couldn’t have left it behind – it was always at me feet… I just couldn’t believe that I could have cycled 20 kilometres without realizing that I didn’t have the rucksack with me. Perhaps that little ditty that’s been going round and round in my head distracted me:

 

            … Jasne sloneczko pozno dzis wstalo

            I wysuszyc me laszki calkiem zapomnialo

            Wiec jada powiewajac na mym bagazniku

Moze wyschna na cieplym miekim wietrzyku…

 

Or perhaps it’s the wayside shrines that, in this part of the country, stand every kilometre or so along the road; perhaps it was to punish me for not showing them due respect – but how could I cross my myself with one hand every time I passed them and still hold onto the bike? Or perhaps it’s the huge billboards of “Radio Maryja” on the approach and exit of every, even the smallest village, along the road here; perhaps I was trying too hard to memorise the telephone number to salvation of my soul?


Whatever the reason, I had to go back, fast. I ask the driver of a car parked by the road whether she had, perhaps, seen a rucksack somewhere along the route. “A black and red one? Oh yes. I saw one abandoned at a bus stop on the other side of the road, but it’s quite some way back” Black and red - that’s mine! So I pedal furiously…but it’s not at this bus stop; not at the next; and not at the next… Here’s a group of women sitting by the roadside selling mushrooms… I wonder. “Oh yes, we saw you and your fluttering flag… but, no, we can’t remember whether you had a rucksack on your back…” Well, perhaps at the next bust stop... Ah, here’s another group of mushroom sellers. “Oh yes we saw you, we remember well your little flag. No, no you definitely didn’t have a rucksack on your back…” So I pedal even more furiously! Ah… here’s the place where I stopped for my snack and admired the river Wisla… and I don’t believe it! There’s my rucksack sitting like a cute little baby under the bush smiling back at me! It must have been happy too to see me, for as I swing it back onto my back, the first of the regulars, with a bottle of vodka in his hand is staggering onto the scene… Only five minutes later and it would have been good-by to my rucksack, to my documents, cameras, mobile phone, note book… by-by to my bread, sausage, tomatoes, pears.

That 20 km race for the rucksack put an end to any more cycling that day and the soft, warm evening presented an open invitation to spend the night in the open, in the forest. I spread out my possessions at a lovely spot with a grand view of the big sky and the soft green meadow at my feet; nothing but a distant sound of a tractor… It’s remarkable how easy it is to switch off the sound of traffic just 20 yards behind me on the highway! And what else can one desire when you have slices of (razowy) bread, butter, sausage and delicious tomatoes purchased at a road stall, all washed down with bottled water. If only our troops treading this ground 70 years earlier had the same!

 

As I look up in awe at the sky above, I wonder why astronomers have to make such heavy going of the firmament. A black hole, indeed! I am looking into a huge black sack full of sparkling, tantalizing stars ready for the final Christmas. Why can’t they just look at the sky, admire it, love it? One bright star had settled on the tip of a leaf just above my toes but, when I woke up later in the night to move that nuisance stone from one place to another under my back, my star was off its perch and had already moved 30o clockwise. So who is right – Kopernikus? Is our globe spinning anticlockwise? With my mind stuck on these fundamentals, and on the purpose of stones, I managed a good night’s sleep.

 

Back on the road first thing in the morning, the road looked very familiar – of course it would! Just a hint of mist above dew-covered fields brings out the beauty of the browns, greens, and yellowish hues of the freshly ploughed fields, pastures and the woods all around me. Maciejowice! I came upon this town quite unexpectedly; I didn’t know that Maciejowice – the Maciejowice – were here. You can’t miss the cemetery – it’s huge, it’s the first thing you see, and the information board under the emblem of the town reminds you of what had happened here back in 1794. And you wonder – is Kosciuszko buried here; where and how were his and Tsarist troops positioned. To the left lies vast open ground and woods in the distance – perfect arena for the battle that took place here. Imagine the “kosynierzy” and their scythes at work on Russian troops, cutting them down like grass for hey; imagine the dark blue uniforms and the glint of the morning sun on the drawn sabres of Russian cavalry… and those Russian guns just blazing away… and the final rout that spelt the end of the first Polish insurrection against the Russian Tsar.

 

Then on to Demblin, across the bridge on river Wieprz and on to Pulawy. It’s not a big river, Wieprz, nor very long but it seems to have been always in the path of the retreating troops and quite an obstacle as most of the bridges on it had been destroyed early in September. First, troops had to divert their march to the bridge in Baranow, then again cross the river on the way to Lubartow, and once again at the battle of Kransnobrod.

 

Pulawy – like Plock, I had always associated with petrochemical industry. And, indeed, there is no mistaking it – that faint odour of nitric oxides is in the air. But the town and its smells are of little interest to me at the moment – I am anxious not to miss the reconstruction of the battle of Tomaszow Lubelski. This is set for Sunday 20th September and the only way I can get there in time is to take a train from Pulawy to Lublin and then another short hop on a train to pick up the Anders trail in Rejowiec – some 70 kilometres to the south east.

 

On the section from Lublin to Rejowiec I am travelling in the tail-end wagon reserved for large baggage (my bike) and, unofficially, for those that can’t do without a drink or smoke. All its occupants side with me and they would not let the conductor charge me for the ticket – after all I am doing the “Anders Trail” – and on a bike, at 70! And here a discussion erupts about Anders. They all know of him; know about him; have strong views… but they are utterly confused between the Anders Army and the “other” Army of General Berling also recruited from Polish prisoners in Siberia and serving under Russian overall command, but they all know about Italy, about Monte Cassino… and are proud of the achievement of Polish troops. Curiously, a feeling of some kind of solidarity seems to bond people travelling in these luggage wagon; they are mostly strangers to each other, but conversation is free and easy, never aggressive, almost personal; each new entrant shakes hands on entering the wagon and again on leaving. In a nice friendly way this place is out of bounds to the conductor; he comes of course but just to say hello – he doesn’t quite have the guts to ask them to see their tickets. What bonds them – a boyish wish to hoodwink the authorities; to have a smoke or beer in spite of the regulations?

 

For me, it’s a quick, short hop by train from Pulawy to Rejowiec but for our troops the hop from Baranow on the river Wieprz to Rejowiec is nothing like a “hop” – 4 days and nights of marching through forests, scrub and open fields with the enemy constantly stepping on their heels; four days of total exhaustion followed by dreadful events that shocked and hurt to the core their heart and guts.

 

DAY 17 of September 1939 started well for the troops. The 26th regiment under Colonel L. Schweizer caught up with his brigade in Baranow; he also found the missing 3rd and 4th regiment that had lost their way in the battle around Minsk. All other troops under General Anders also reached Baranow where the bridge across river Wieprz was still intact. But Germans had just taken Lublin so it was essential for the Group to move fast in order to cross the road between Lublin and Chelm and to avoid having their path south cut off.

 

Troops were ready to start marching during the night of 17th-18th in the general direction of Rejowiec aiming to join Polish forces defending Lwow, but over the radio that evening came the most shocking news of the war:

                    ……THE RED ARMY HAS CROSSED THE POLISH BORDER………

 

This was terrible news for all. Until this moment troops could hope that the forces being assembled and regrouped on the orders of the Chief of Staff may well have a chance to deal a decisive blow to the enemy, and perhaps move to recapture Lwow, but all such hopes had now evaporated. It became obvious to all that defeat is total and catastrophic. The only salvation lay in fighting their way south through the German cordon to the border with Romania or Hungary. No one knew exactly what the Soviets had in mind. Some were taken in by Soviet propaganda and believed that the Red Army is here to help the Poles – they soon discovered Soviet’s true intentions. The implications of the Ribbentrop-Molotow Agreement between the Germans and Soviets now became clear: German forces were moving west to the stipulated demarcation line; the Red Army is moving in to take the eastern half of Poland.

 

On DAY 18 came the final humiliation. The Germans made sure every soldier knew. Instead of bombs they were dropping leaflets; instead of booming guns they turned on loudspeakers - that Polish Government, the President and the Chief of Staff of the Polish armed forces have abandoned their troops - they “run away” to Romania. Why fight now? Surrender! The Red Army was blaring: there’s no government in Poland now; we are coming to provide one for you! Why fight – lay down your arms!

 

General Anders knew the communists; he knew the “red peril”, had fought them in 1918- 1920; knew what to expect of them. The only hope for his troops was to slip through the corridor opening up between the withdrawing Germans and advancing Soviets and enter Romania or Hungary. From there they could somehow filter through to the Allies and fight another battle another day – a dispiriting shift in objectives for troops only too willing to give their lives for their country: no longer to fight and destroy the enemy, but avoid it and slink away to safety. Now, time was of the essence if his troops were not to be ground into the earth by our enemies.

 

On DAY 19-20, troops continued their march south. In REJOWIEC they came under heavy bombardment and strafing by German planes but, fortunately, troops had been dispersed in the woods and losses were not as great as they could have been otherwise. But the inability of the troops to defend themselves against air attack was demoralizing; they were like sitting ducks - just hiding and hoping.

 

(Overnight in Zulin nr. Rejowiec 18/09/2009)

 

After a good night’s rest in the village of Zelun I am back on the bike heading for Zamosc via Krasnystaw and then on to Zamosc – the road is straight as an arrow. Someone told me in Zelun that I will have a hill to climb - and they were right. Just south of Zamosc I find myself in a different world. The road is still straight as an arrow but it goes up down like the Sussex roads in England, and to my left and right stretch the famous Zamojskie Lasy – forests. The first hill was not a problem, nor the next, but… the fifth… the tenth – now that was nearly too much. Even with gears set at 1:1 my knees begun to complain. But, at least, the road surface is good and I know it will take me directly to Tomaszow Lubelski.

 

It wasn’t like that for the General's troops although they were heading in the same direction. On DAY 21-22-23 troops had to stay well clear of roads for they would have been destroyed by bombardment from German planes and artillery. So they marched along a route a few kilometres to the east through forests, scrub, fields and tracks in the night and fought off Germans in daytime. They were utterly exhausted; if they stopped for any length of time – they fell asleep in their saddles; if they dismounted – they dropped asleep like a log. Only the adrenalin of battle still kept them awake. They had long ago abandoned their field kitchens and provision wagons, now they had to live off what the local population could provide but, even though the villagers welcomed them, they often had to move on before the bread was out of the ovens.

 

Our paths met again at Majdan Krynicki, a village some 20 km south of Zamosc. All Polish troops in this region under the overall command of General Dab-Biernacki were readying for a major battle here aiming to clear the Zamosc-Tomaszow road of all German forces. General Anders’ Operational Group was to clear the section of road between Majdan Krynicki and Krynice, move west to clear Suchowola, take Krasnobrod and clear the ford across river Wieprz to open the way south. The battle erupted before daybreak on 23rd September. By the end of the day, NBK cleared Krasnobrod, forded river Wieprz and started regrouping in the area of Majdan Sopocki/Nowiny south of Krasnobrod but other units in General’s Operational Group didn’t reach the opening in time and were cut off. The Wolynska Brigade and the Zakrzewski Regiment were routed at Jacnia and of General’s own 4th Mounted Fusiliers only one platoon survived.

 

How different the battlefield looks to-day. Now, it forms the Krasnobrodzki Park Krajobrazowy – a nature park reserve. Peace reigns in this area: green woodland around; open fields of ripening corn and broad beans on the higher ground; one or two cars pass me by; a woman pedalling with difficulty up the hill; the sun shines and a dreamy peace and quiet reigns around me. As I cycle in the Park, signposts direct to villages still bearing the same old names: Suchowola, Szarowola, Krasnobrod, Jacnia… Ciotusza, Wolka Husinska with its church perched on top of a very steep hill…These are all sleepy, peaceful villages now. It’s hard to imagine that it was ever different and yet, I know from first hand witnesses just how bloody and awful those days had been.

 

KRASNOBROD was completely burned out in the course of the battle and the other villages in the area showed signs of rapid and disorderly German retreat. To-day, Krasnobrod is a lovely little town where one may want to spend a week’s holiday. It extends along one through-road with recently-built houses on each side, all with pretty, fenced-in plots around them. A magnificent church - that has survived the war, stands at one end of the town and the bridge across river Wieprz at the other end. The land on the east side of the river rises very steeply and it’s unlikely that General’s troops would have come down it to ford the river. Mistakenly, I take a turning off the main road and find myself by the river with low-laying banks on both sides; here the river is only one metre wide and could easily have been forded.

 

At the summit of hill 318 I stop to read a roadside board commemorating the battle which took place here on 17-20th September 1939, now generally referred to as the 1st Battle for Tomszow Lubelski - just three days before Anders arrived here. Polish troops were under the command of General Piskor and they were trying to break through German forces in Tomaszow Lubelski and reinforce Polish forces defending Lwow. But here, they were encircled and would have been wiped out, so after heavy fighting and heavy losses, General Piskor surrendered. Unfortunately, by this time, communications between the remnants of Polish armies have long broken down and neither General Anders nor General Piskor knew of the other’s whereabouts.

 

An old woman sits on the bench by the tourist centre in Krasnobrod – no she doesn’t remember those days, but ask Radio Maryja(!) An old man stands idly nearby – oh yes he was in the partizans then… but he is 90 now and that’s about all he can tell me – pity. A woman on a bike tells me to see Mr Nowicki – he is eighty, he knows all about Anders. Indeed, Mr Nowicki knows about Anders – he is 85 now, he and his family were deported to Siberia, his brother joined the Anders Army, fought and was killed at Monte Cassino, but he eventually returned to Krasnobrod, his birthplace. Now he is the honorary keeper of the town’s memorial to all soldiers perished fighting in those distant lands. As we drink tea and share our biscuits, the sound of Radio Maryja fills the house – it’s on all the time; it keeps Mr Nowicki company; it fills out the void when he’s on his own.

 

And while my bike leans on a bench, I pop into the tourist office for a minute or two; meanwhile a bus-load of school children arrives and, oops, my small Union Jack attached to the bike – disappears! It was so useful - fluttering happily in the air it drew attention to the biker on the road and I felt safer when big trucks and speeding cars were passing me from behind.

 

Back on the road from Zamosc to Tomaszow, just before, Tarnawatka, I come upon another roadside board commemorating the battle that took place here on the 19th September – part of the 1st battle for Tomaszow Lubelski. Polish forces took the hill after heavy losses but German reinforces drove them back. The summit of hill 318 is just to my right. Szarowola is just on the other side… It’s so easy to visualize what Jan had so vividly described: tanks and machine gun nests on the summit just blazing away and raining death and destruction on Polish troops charging uphill. Germans guessed right. They anticipated that Polish troops will be trying to fight their way past Tomaszow Lubelski on their way east to reinforce Polish forces defending Lwow. Germans occupied Tomaszow on the 13th and prepared their defences well – they were ready and waiting with heavy artillery, tanks and men.

 

20th September 2009 - I am in time for the reconstruction of the battle of Tomaszow Lubelski but the town commemorates the 70th anniversary on a much grander and sombre scale over several days. But those tears in the eyes of an 80 year-old man, Jan, will stay with me for a long time: “…guns blazing away so they are white hot… field striven with bodies of Polish soldiers and horses… then German armour comes in from the east…  and that’s the end…” I am standing on that hill now!

 

(Overnight at  “Stadnina”  Laki Tarnawatka      20th and 21st September 2009)

 

On DAY 24-25-26 September 1939 Genral’s troops marched south from Kransnobrod heading for Jawor, then Sambor. They kept to the forests and avoided larger villages on the way - it was central Poland then but many villages in their path were partly, or even totally, Ukrainian. In to-day’s Poland the path they followed is cut by the border with Ukraine – now Jawor and Sambor lie on the other side so I have to cross the border somewhere. The crossing at Rawa Ruska is convenient but it is closed to pedestrians including cyclists. I take that risk.

 

(Overnight on the Polish side of the border       21st September 2009)

 

My luck holds. Polish border guards let me through and wish me luck on the Anders Trail. On the other side they look at my bike, play with the bell; a fresh-faced Captain takes my passport, looks at the 20 kilos loaded on my bike, looks at my DOB and… O.K. go through – but, remember, only this once!

 

Jubilant, I pedal away but not very far before it becomes obvious that I am entering a different world. The road to and through the town of Rawa is awful: potholes everywhere, crumbling road surface, crumbling pavements. The roads in town are so bad that cars and trucks drive slowly so I don’t feel threatened by traffic - I probably run a greater risk by being distracted by numerous horse-drawn wagons an the roads. The street is lined with shops or workshops for other non-descript use; only beer holes are clearly discernible. Just outside the town an eye-catching Orthodox church by the roadside; a nun dressed in black with a high black headdress quickly walks, almost runs, from somewhere to the church. Unlike Russian Orthodox churches with their blue and gold copulas, this one is all grey and, yet, it cuts beautifully against blue sky.

 

Surprisingly, once I am out of town, the road surface is much better and cycling is easy. One can go on writing about the beauty of autumnal colours, freshly ploughed fields, the sound of a tractor in the distance, but truly, this is God’s country – if only Man looked. It’s potato gathering season. A young man ploughing potatoes in his fields is happy to stop and chat and lines up his horses for a photograph. Would I like to take some with me - he asks? He was offering me potatoes!They were precious, perhaps even more than gold - frozen, black, rotten, often scavenged or stolen from kolkhoz fields at risk of severe punishment - potatoes made the difference between life and death in those cruel winters in the steppes of Kazakhstan.  And I had no need of them! For in the year 2009 I have white bread, sausage, bananas... I have all!

 

 Past Jaworow, turn west onto the Krakowiec road and I am approaching Broszki. There was a church and a mill here back in 1939 but to-day I can’t see any trace of the village amongst heavy shrubbery and the forest. But a little further down the road towards the village Morance, remnants of fortifications are still there. Is this the place where General’s troops had run into Germans? Is this the bunker that stopped and badly mauled the charge of the 27th Cavalry Regiment? The bunker was well placed, on slightly elevated ground it had a panoramic view of the area and unobstructed fire line all the way to the forest from whence our troops came.

 

It was on the morning of DAY 26 that General’s troops emerged from the forest into the open scrubland and quite unexpectedly found themselves facing German defence positions in Broszki. The 26th cavalry regiment dismounted and, on foot, quickly cleared Broszki and started advancing on Morance suffering only light casualties. Meanwhile the 27th and 25th cavalry regiments charged Morance where Germans were in strength and suffered very heavy casualties without taking the village. This episode appears to be the first serious rift between Colonel Schweizer of the 26th Regiment and Colonel Zelislawski, at the time the commanding officer of NBK in General Anders’ Operations Group. A rift between caution on the one hand, and the perception of utmost urgency to advance at all cost on the other.

 

In the course of the battle for Morance, and to General’s great surprize, Germans despatched their parliamentarian waving a white flag – his message for the General was simple: you are trapped by overwhelming German forces to the west, and by the advancing Red Army in the east. Why fight then – surrender. General Anders refused but agreed to a “gentleman’s agreement confirmed by Germans on paper: German forces will not seek to attack Polish forces moving south towards Romania in exchange for all German prisoners held by the General. Both sides are satisfied – German forces can withdraw west without loosing any more men in the battle for Morance, and for General’s troops there is fresh hope - the border with Romania looks much closer now -  only the Red Army is the threat now. Only speed could save them from being trapped by the Red Army.

 

From Broszki/Morance General’s troops are heading for Sambor through forests and minor roads. But to-day’s country road from Morance heading south is so bad that I dare not take my heavily-laden bike onto it. So I turn back on the main road and head for Jawor. It’s already late-afternoon and a warm and welcoming night is ahead so I am on the lookout for a good place in the forest to spend the night, but when I suddenly see a placard displaying a bed… suddenly, my hidden yearning for a comfortable bed, shower and breakfast resurfaces; I can’t resist it; I will spend the night indoors.

 

(Overnight in Nakonieczne       22/09/2009)

 

Up very early in the morning, I am on the bike and speeding to Jawor, then south towards Sadowa Wisznia. On my left is open country with gentle undulations – any troops venturing out here would have been sitting ducks for German or Soviet planes and artillery. On my right, Dernaki forest – the beginning of the end.

 

Indeed, for the General and his troops, speed was of the essence. Troops were split into two columns to facilitate their movement through the forests and marched along parallel paths to rendezvous in Dernaki. But for the column to the east, commanded by Colonel Grobicki, it was already too late. The Red Army was there first and waiting for them; they were trapped; they had to fight their way out as best they could. Meanwhile, alerted to the presence of the Red Army in Dernaki, General quickly moved his column out of the area and headed south for Sambor.  

 

The column under General Anders made their way through forests in the direction of Sambor. Time was of the essence and again haste gave way to caution, and here, for the second time conflict sparked between Colonel Schweizer and Colonel Zelislawski. Refusing to proceed forward at greater haste than, in his view,  the situation and risks warranted, Colonel Schweizer was relieved of his duty. And so on DAY 27 the column advanced abandoning all precautions and run straight into superior Red Army forces in Wladypol. The Soviets had no interest in a truce such as was had with the Germans. They attacked the column in force scattering and destroying it. The General and the remnants of the column withdrew deep into the forest. Men were utterly exhausted, ammunition was at an end, it became obvious that troops had no chance of breaking through the massed Red Army surrounding them. This was the end for NBK – the only hope now was to split up into small groups and independently try to get to Hungary. General Anders disbanded the Brigade; men were released to return to their homes if so they wished; officers were ordered to find their own way to Hungary. General Anders and several other officers continued south to Sambor moving at night. The country was inundated with Russian forces and Ukrainian partizans

I am heading south too. I nearly missed a large bunker at the intersection with the main road to Mostiska. The spot lies on somewhat higher ground than the surrounding area and the bunker is well camouflaged by grassy banks and a few self-seeded shrubs. What a commanding position! To the south I can see the entire irregular silhouette of Sadowa Wisznia in the distance still hidden in the morning mist; to the west, a perfect view for miles of the open country and the road to Mostiska - no one could cross the road undetected – not in daylight. Inside, the bunker was full of bottles, cans and other junk which put me off exploring it any further but, from just a glance inside it’s evident that this was a very robust fortification. Was the bunker here when the General was crossing this road? Or was it built by the Russians to face the invading Germans in 1941? There was no one to ask. But on DAY 27 General’s column did cross the road in the night and further to the west on their way south..

 

From Sadowa Wisznia I am heading west to Mostiska to pick up a secondary road to Sambor that intersects further south in Wladypol with the path taken by the General and his troops.

 

Half way down to Sambor I come across a road block – a mass of people ahead black the road; I get off my bike; a car travelling in my direction tried to overtake the crowd but then stopped. All men, women and the few children in the crowd are well dressed – well, that is, for the Ukraine – and walk slowly, talking freely but in hushed voices. This must be some kind of a religious procession. All men are bare-headed so I take my bright red cap off and at a quicker pace move towards the head of the crowd. One or two cars travelling from the opposite direction were stationary by the roadside and there, ahead of me, I could see priests in flowing golden robes. What’s going on – I ask a man. It’s a funeral procession… But before I could reach the head of the crowd, the priests turn off the road towards a chapel and I lose sight of them behind shrubbery. As I linger on to take a photo, a man comes up to me and with an animated face says – we noticed you; people are  saying that a stranger pulled up on a bike, he got off and walked… and he took his cap off. Judging by the look on his face, I must have been a good omen on this occasion. But who died? Whose burial is it? It’s a man from the village.

 

"A man from the village…" and the whole village comes out to bury him! And seventy years ago? Who buried the dead around here then? The bodies in the fields by the road, their faces blown off, their arms, legs, intestines strewn amongst the shrubbery, all shot up by German machine gun fire or blown up by German bombs…? Who buried or mourned them then? First the human hyenas would come out from the woods and the villages – they searched the dead, they scavenged for food, they pulled the boots off the dead, took belts and other usable clothing; left them naked… Only later - sometimes days later – what was left of the dead would be dragged into a pit and covered over with earth. No cross, no flowers. Who would remember them, pray for their souls, take their hats off...? What were the thoughts of a Polish officer who kept the last bullet for himself rather than be taken prisoner? Would he be saying: God have mercy on my soul; would his last thought be of his family, of his dearest, or would his last moments be spent in pain and oblivion..?

 

I must cut it out; get on my bike; pedal harder, go faster; leave all such thoughts behind in the fields, woods, meadows…

The day is hot; it’s steeply uphill now; I have been living on kefir all day; I am absolutely drenched in sweat - just how long can one cycle in awe of the beauty of God’s creation all around! More and more often I stop… take a sip of kefir… straighten my back… adjust the panniers… redo my shoe laces… inspect the roadside flowers… count the number of blades of grass/square inch… Yes, I know these signs; I have been here before; I know my end is nearing, but one final effort just might get me to the summit… But this time I made a fatal mistake – I looked up at the brow of the hill… and IT was scorning me; goading me on; laughing at me! That was just too much! I surrendered. I got off the bike, straightened my back and as I looked up, IT’s final insult hit me – I was only fifty steps from the summit! If only I hadn’t looked up; if only I had pushed a little harder on the pedals, if only I was a little stronger, a little younger; if only… I would have squelched that laughing brow under my tires! Perhaps one day, when I am a little younger, a little stronger, I will challenge IT again. Perhaps in my own small way I was beginning to understand how General Piskor must have felt when, finally, he surrendered his decimated troops to the overwhelming German war machine in Tomaszow Lubelski.

 

Unlike General Piskor, I was compensated for my surrender to that dreadful hill – from IT’s summit it was downhill all the way to Sambor. My final destination is Jasionka Stasiowa – where General Anders was taken by the Russians.  I still had further nineteen kilometres of good road to Stary Sambor but I couldn’t face another “brow” and there were so many more of them on the way to Turka. So logisitics and topography south of Sambor dictated the best option – take a bus from Sambor to Turka. From Turka to Jasionka, there’s no other way really – take a taxi, or walk thirty kilometres – the secondary road is bad enough, but once off it, it’s too much for my type of a bike. And so taxi it was.

 

(Overnight in Sambor 24th and 25th September 2009)

 

I am here in Jasionka Stasiowa three days ahead of General Anders and the small group of officers with him. They arrived on DAY 28 of September 1939…

 

            “…Our march the night of 28/29th September was exceptionally difficult in this forested and mountainous terrain.

We stopped in the forest to give our exhausted horses some rest intending to continue in the evening. Shortly, we noticed Russian troops from all sides moving in our direction. They must have known in advance and were prepared to catch any straggling Polish troops. Seeing how dense and difficult the forest was for horses, and the impassable bogs, we abandoned them and hid in the thicket. A cordon of Russian troops passed us just a few steps away. I had to make sure that no one in this tense moment will fire off a gun.

At dusk we continued south. When we were passing by village Zastowka we were attacked by a band apparently composed of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian partizans. Gunfire erupted, even had-to-hand fight. How wonderful this small  group of Poles turned out to be at this moment.

I was wounded, once then again. I felt pain in my spine. The wound in my hip was bleeding profusely. Not wanting to hamper my colleagues, I asked them to leave me behind. I was decided not to give myself up to the invaders. But my men-at-arms wouldn’t even listen. With great difficulty, sacrifice really, they carried me in their arms. I started haemorrhaging once, then again. I gave them a firm order to go on to Hungary. Goodbye my splendid soldiers."

 

"On the morning of the 29th September I decided to drag myself to the nearest village, Jasionka Stasiowa. I will trust my luck. Disregarding my orders, rtm. Kuczynski and uhlan Tomczyk stayed with me. When we reached the village, one of the villagers immediately called the police and the Russian troops which were quartered everywhere. They took us under armoured escort via Turka to their HQ in Old Sambor.”

(BOR p.17-18, p21)

And so, the General - and I seventy years later - leave Jasionka Stasiowa. General Anders, wounded and taken prisoner, is taken first to the prison hospital in Lwow and then, later, to rot in the Lubianka jail in Moscow but, eventually, he goes on to recoup the honour and the glory of Polish Arms in the sands of Babylon and in Italy... I leave Jasionka Stasiowa in a taxi, a free man to make my way back home. My driver wants to know why I came all this way form England - and on bicycle at that - to a place as remote as Jasionka? What shall I say? The tragedy of WW2… the “red peril” that engulfed both his and my country until so recently… the destruction of Polish armed forces… Siberia and General Anders? Should I perhaps ask him why the Ukrainians harboured such hatred of Poles? It’s easier to speak to him of “God’s country” where he now lives, and of the beauty of its forests, fields, blue skies and fresh air… On reflection, I know this is true. I know - I hope - I will come here again to walk those last 50 kilometres; to see whether 70 years had changed anything in Mankind’s attitude to Man.

 

But right now, I am in Lwow. I am sitting on a bench near the railway station, my bike leaning on some fencing, my small Union Jack quite visible. A man comes up and sits down next to me. How old are you he asks -70. And how old am I – 70?, I hazard a guess. No, no, I am 85… You know, I am an old “Banderowiec”; I was with Bandera. Oh... the things we did… Horrible! Horrible… He looks at the Union Jack… I have been to so many countries, I have seen so much… Russia, France, Germany… it was horrible… Of, course, I knew who Bandera was; I have read and heard of what the Ukrainian partisans did to Polish settlers; I tried to elicit more from his memories of those years but they were firmly locked-in in his brain - only the pain of his memories was visible in his face and in tears welling up in his eyes. More people were crowding in; it was time for me to go - home.

 

 
Bibliography.

(BOR) Bez Ostaniego Rozdzialu

by General Wladyslaw Anders

Grey Publishers Ltd. (3rd Ed. 1959)

 

(WBL) Wojna Bez Legend

Ludwik Schweizer

 

(WZ) Wrzesien Zagwiacy

Melchior Wankowicz

Wyadwnictwo Polonia 1990

 
 

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