Chapter 14


It was coming... Two of our traditional enemies, having, not so long ago, co-operated in friendship to tear up Poland were now annihilating each other. The giant struggle rolled over  from the Russian steppes to eastern Poland and for weeks now, during the summer evenings, one could hear a distant rumble like rolling thunder. The storm was approaching, drawing nearer every day.

For us in the Underground it meant a chance for an open fight against the Germans for which we had been waiting and preparing for nearly five years.  But there was much more at stake. Russia being now an ally of our allies Great Britain and the United States, became, at least officially, also our ally. Oh! We were not ecstatic; there were a few small matters begging explanation such as the murder  of nearly five thousand Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, the whereabouts of thousands of other POW's and the forced "resettling" in Siberia of most of the Polish population of the territories taken over by the Soviets in 1939.41

All these however unfriendly feelings could be put aside, at least for the time being, when facing a common enemy, the Germans, who were still far from being defeated. But having suffered five years of German occupation we in Poland were now facing  the same again by Soviet Russia. Our Western Allies, especially the President  of the U.S.A., being preoccupied with the war with Japan and under pressure from Stalin, had agreed for Poland to be, after the war,  in the Soviet sphere of influence, satisfying themselves with Stalin’s promise of free elections once Poland was "liberated" by the Red Army. Free elections notwithstanding,  there was already a Russian made "Polish Government of National Liberation" standing by in Moscow, ready to take over.

Operation Thunderstorm was conceived not only as a military operation  behind German lines but also as a political demonstration of Poles being in charge in their own Country. As our towns and villages would be liberated from German soldiers the legal Polish Administration would take over, if possible before the  arrival of Russians. It may have been a desperate gesture, and we had but few illusions as to the Russian reaction, but our history is full of desperate acts and we had to demonstrate that we could not be sold in this kind of dirty political transaction: the sale of a nation into slavery for the promise  of peace and cooperation.

For  a number of nights in a row, in the back room of a small store, four of us were busy making a supply of an improved version of what became known as a "Molotow's Cocktail”. 42  It took  a  few hundred empty vodka  bottles, gasoline, and some additional  chemicals  to provide ignition when the bottles broke on impact. There was really nothing to it except that  it stank like hell ... In any case one did not have to be more careful than when assembling  home made hand grenades.

The anti-tank bottles,  the hand-grenades, a few hundred pairs of shoes captured from the enemy army stores... all that contraband had to be delivered to a vast forest called  "Ruchenski". Everything was there: most of our  arms, ammunition, explosives, materials captured in countless sabotage actions. Everything was stored in underground hide-outs under constant care of one of the local rangers. All we had to do was to bring the stuff and leave it under a pile of branches and he with his helpers would take care of it . In emergency cases fugitives and wounded would find a safe shelter there. All the rangers  and their boss made sure that their forest was our territory. For many of us it was more than a forest - it was home.

 It was to that forest that I  ordered some of my men to report at daybreak one July morning in 1944. My orders were to collect from our stores arms and equipment for  battalion  “Poraj" 43  which was to operate in the northern part of our military district.  Battalion "Wolski" which had their concentration area on the southern edge of our forest was also procuring their arms  here. To secure  the operation I had to place some of my men, including my younger brother who was good with the "Spandau”, 44  along the perimeter  of the operation because in nearby villages were stationed  large units of Wehrmacht and Waffen SS.45  It took a tremendous amount of work  to degrease all the stored arms, clean and make them ready. Our  gunsmiths and their helpers could not stop for a moment but it seemed likely that we would  get our shipment by the time it was dark. The young officer in charge of organizational matters suddenly realized that he had left some important papers in town and needed the transportation and escort to go and get them. Leaving my men in the charge of my counterpart from the other battalion I took Jozek Skorka, a good man to have around in an emergency, a horse drawn wagon and of course the officer concerned, and we left. I was driving.  The three of us were in civilian clothes, only our riding boots were somewhat out of place. I was sitting on my FN 46 to have it handy. We had barely left the forest and taken  the sandy cart road between the fields of ripening rye when, out of nowhere,  two  German soldiers on horseback were riding  alongside our wagon, their rifles at the ready. For a moment nothing happened; then one of them made a sweeping gesture with his hand obviously indicating that we should abandon our wagon.  When that brought no reaction from us, in a burst of rage he shouted: "Raus"!!! 47 On that command Jozek and I jumped to our feet, our guns blazing...  With the first shot one soldier dove into the rye field and his  escaping horse  shielded him from our gunsights. The other one was not so lucky; he fell from his horse mortally wounded. In no time we had turned our wagon around,  loaded the German on it and, his horse in tow, we  hastily returned  to Ruchenski Forest. We did this to avoid confrontation with  the German army units stationed in the nearby village who would have been  interested to find out what had happened to their colleague. Being  front line troops they would have entered the
forest 48 resulting in a shoot-out with our men.

At our outpost at the edge of the forest we were visited  by a five-man Soviet  military intelligence team operating behind the front. They were well armed with submachine guns, had a short-wave radio transmitter, wore civilian clothes and addressed their leader as major. They were interested in the shot German soldier that we had with us, but he could not give them any information,  he was already dead.  The only thing of value to them was his military ID specifying the unit in which he served. From his sweaty wallet fell some family photos....

Somebody still had to go to town so without losing any more time I took off again, this time on foot and in a westerly direction. Shortly after my departure one of our patrols walked into a platoon of Germans  entering the forest. However a few series from the Spandau persuaded them that they were not welcome. 49

I returned late in the afternoon and immediately had to go to the cottage of the game warden on the southern edge of the forest to meet with District Commander Maj. Wolski.50  My newly acquired horse came in very handy. The Russian patrol was also there; they greeted me like an old acquaintance. I said  good-bye to friends from  our headquarters  group known as "Wolski's Detachment" with whom I had spent  the last several months, and received my marching orders from the major; my assignment  was to the Poraj  battalion.  Back at the northern location, already well into the night, I collected my men and three wagons heavily loaded  with arms and explosives and, in battle readiness, we started on our way. Destination: "Stolyn" forest where the rest of the Company was assembling.

The dirt  road, on which we had our shoot-out  in the morning, led close to a village where the same German unit that had already engaged in a skirmish with us was still stationed. We had to be extra careful to avoid alerting not only the enemy but also all the village dogs. The other danger point would be when crossing the highway which could be crowded with German military traffic. The summer night was quiet but full of tension and we could hear the incessant rumbling noise of the not so distant front. It sounded  as if the fires under  a giant witch’s cauldron were being  stoked by  heavy artillery. Suddenly... the sky on our right exploded in a fiery glow interspersed by radiant geysers of incendiary  bombs. It was the town of Sokolow, some ten kilometers to the east of us, set on fire by a squadron of small Russian planes called kukuruznik. They were capable of approaching glider like, with their engines off. We heard them  almost directly  over us  restarting their engines.

In  Stolyn forest our Company waited for us impatiently. There was some organizational mess - it is not  easy to call to order  a never before assembled company in almost total darkness. It is even more difficult to distribute the armaments. Meanwhile our parish priest Fr. K. Czarkowski, directed by the friendly peasants managed to find our camp: he felt  that it was his priestly duty to provide an opportunity for confession to soldiers going into battle. We stacked some ammo boxes under a pine tree for him to sit on and the men approached,  squad after squad, laying their guns on the ground, preparing, if need be, to meet their Maker. The priest finished, blessed us and went on his way to return home  before daybreak; priest or not, if he had been caught by the Germans he would have been  shot.

The distribution of arms was almost completed; the rest was being reloaded on other wagons in total darkness... when there was a sudden explosion...  screams and groans from the wounded. It was a home made concussion grenade... almost a miracle that the rest of the stuff on the wagon had not also exploded. There were about a dozen wounded, some seriously; our medic,  in civilian life a drug store chemist, did his best to patch them up.  Luckily we were not too far from  the community hospital located three kilometers from town  (a place called Klimowizna) at the edge of the forest. The staff of that hospital,  especially the Sisters of the Sacred Heart who ran it, were always ready to help no matter the risks. Two of our men,  one of them a son of the hospital medical director,  took all the wounded there. That taken care of, our medic called me aside to tell me that he had been hit in the buttocks with a fragment of  exploding grenade. Obviously he could not attend his wound himself and he wanted me to perform the surgery. In no time, with a sharp knife sterilized over the flame of a cigarette lighter  and assisted by a flashlight, my patient  taking a rather disrespectful pose, I  managed to cut out a metal splinter from the place normally used for sitting. Under my patient's direction I dressed his wound.

Without losing more time we set off on the final leg of the night's journey. Our guide led us between German troop positions as we hastened to get off the open terrain before dawn. Somewhere close to the small town of Stoczek we were to meet our Battalion. My task was to secure, with my squad,  the flank of our Battalion which moved overnight to the forests once belonging  to a landed estate called Miednik. We were to stop there for a day to construct a mount for a heavy caliber machine gun removed from a shot down German airplane. We could then use this gun as an infantry weapon. There was a well equipped mechanical workshop on the estate grounds and our gunsmith, Sergeant Lasota, went there with an escort to protect him while at work.

In the late afternoon a dispatch runner brought me the order to abandon our position on the flank and rejoin the main body of the Battalion. We were  not far away when we heard some rifle shots ahead, scattered at first..."On the double," I ordered my men, and we started running while  the fusillade opened in earnest...  There on the edge of a little clearing stood Poraj, our Battalion Commander: Spotting us he  pointed the direction  and shouted, " Charge Radek charge"!!!   "In cluster battle formation  fast march" I ordered without slackening our pace. The shooting  got rapidly closer... others were running on our right...  in a moment we reached a retreating line of outposts desperately trying to hold the enemy..  And again:  “Down and fire!!!"  We could not see very much through the undergrowth but they were there, close and shooting. The rattle of machine gun fire was unearthly; our bren,51 with Janek Basik's  hand at the trigger, almost choked on its deadly cough;  German bullets were splintering chips from the nearby trees. The time almost ceased to exist: the only reality left was the enemy ahead, the faces of men hugging the butts of their rifles, a strangely exciting smell of cordite and that feeling of the summit of life encompassed in an overpowering noise of battle...

At a certain point the German fire stopped. They obviously had not expected to get that kind of reception and had withdrawn. For a while we kept our positions in case they  regrouped and returned but then Poraj ordered disengagement. We would have not stood a chance if the enemy  returned with reinforcements. We had to be mobile - a classic partisan tactic. Platoon after platoon left their positions and got under way. Poraj stopped by my squad and gave me the order which to me was the highest decoration a commander could bestow: "Radek, cover the Battalion's retreat."  I did... and it was a long night. Only the next day I found out that my friend Sgt. Lasota had been killed in a skirmish on the Miednik estate grounds which triggered the whole battle.

The Battalion folded camp in the little hamlet where we had stopped to wash up and have a hot meal, and set off. I was left with my squad to clean up,  remove all traces of our  stop over, and then continue the rear guard duty.  It took some time, and when finally we reached the place where we should have caught up with the main force, there was nobody there. Suspecting that for some reason they had had to move farther we kept on in the same general direction until we reached the edge of the forest. There was a potato field there and a few hundred meters from us, an old barn with a thatched  roof.  Realizing  that we had taken a wrong turn  I was about to enter the forest again when  from behind a small hill there emerged a German cavalry detachment of platoon strength, riding on the trot in our direction. They could not see us yet and my first reaction was to move aside and let them pass. But then I realized that I did not know the position of our Battalion and the Germans could surprise them with tragic consequences. I had to stop them.

Concealed by juniper bushes on the edge of the potato field we laid in wait...  The  mounted troop passed the old barn  and started down hill towards us...  “Gun sight at two hundred yards" I whispered to Janek for his machine gun... a dozen men lay on their bellies, a dozen guns frozen in a  deadly tableau... a bit closer...a nd: "Fire!!!"...

For a few moments there was complete bedlam on the German side... falling men... wildly running horses. But front line soldiers as they were, they recovered fast and returned the fire. There appeared multiple puffs of sand in front of us and smacking sounds behind where enemy bullets hit the trees...A painful hiss escaped the bren munitions loader, struck in the leg. The tracer bullets from our machine gun  were betraying our position. The enemy kept us pinned down while trying to withdraw behind the barn. They had almost succeeded when I told Janek to hit the barn...  For a moment nothing happened... then the whole barn erupted in flames. This time there was no answering fire. The remainder of the German detachment quickly withdrew behind the hill. And a good thing too because we were running short of bren ammunition and the dispatch runner slithering on his belly to our position  had an order for me: "Break contact with the enemy and rejoin the Battalion".  There was no pursuit.

We were literally as well as figuratively sweating it out.  It was a hot August day, not a cloud in sight and we were stuck between  German infantry on the nearby front line and units of their artillery placed a few hundred meters from us and shooting at the Russian positions over our heads. Only the pine thicket in which we were hiding and the fact that the enemy was unaware of our presence in their midst prevented our annihilation.  There was not a chance of us getting out of there  before night fall, but the waiting was not easy.  The heat,  thirst and the nerve wrenching roar of artillery shells traveling overhead seemed endless.

Late that night we managed to slip away unnoticed, but it was a close call. We had to leave all our wagons behind; heavy machine guns and supplies were strapped to the saddles on the backs of our few horses. My Squad was marching  again in front.  It became almost a custom that  the 1st Squad of our Platoon, commanded by Zbyszko (Z. Klem) and the 2nd one commanded by me should alternate in protecting the front and rear of our Battalion on the march. Our people were so tired that most of them slept while walking, stumbling in their  sleep against tree roots and uneven forest ground. My Squad was in no better shape than the rest but  Poraj walked with them while I with two soldiers formed the picket  some distance ahead. It was a hard night; many times I had to  shake  my head and rub  my tired eyes to erase  illusory images, and keep  focused on the road ahead.52  Suddenly I heard the snort of a horse just ahead of us. With a touch of my hand I sent one of my two companions  back to where Poraj was with my Squad, to stop the Battalion until I could investigate ... Moving through the underbrush the two of us reached the edge of a large clearing... There among dozens of unharnessed and foraging horses, on the wagons and on the ground slept  a sizable detachment of "SS Galizien" - Ukrainian  renegades in Nazi service - escaping with their families the wrath of the advancing Soviet forces.  There were some heavy machine guns on their two-wheeled carts but not a soul guarding the whole sleeping camp, and no sound but for an occasional snort of a horse. They must have felt quite safe in the midst of German frontal units. When we returned Poraj was waiting for me. He had the Battalion make a small detour while I with my Squad and our machine gun pointed on the sleeping camp made sure that there would be no interference from them should they wake up too soon.

As per standing orders of Home Army Command that reflected the political realities of the time, 53  all our partisan detachments active in the operation "Storm" were to cross over to the Soviet side as soon as the Front entered the territory on which they were operating.

That night, moving smartly between German Army units in retreat but certainly not defeated, we were nearing the Front.  We were in the forests to the south-west off the town of Stoczek. On that last stretch a Russian lieutenant, and a few soldiers from his platoon formed the picket.  They were Soviet escapees  from German POW camps, who had joined our Battalion some time before.  We were carefully progressing along the edge of a narrow glade,   hugging the trees for cover.  The night was bathed in moonlight, and illuminated by the fires of dozens of burning villages and farms; almost all the horizon around us was on fire. The sky above was streaked by multicolored lines of tracer shells and signal flares.  Occasional bursts of artillery fire combined with the constant rattle of machine guns added to an eerie tableau.

Suddenly a few short series from a nearby machine gun ahead of us ripped through our glade. In an instant everybody hit the ground. For some long seconds time became suspended. I found  myself stretched out between two trees with a limited view of the glade, my Squad just behind me, all their rifles pointed on that narrow space where I was. Luckily nobody pulled the trigger. "Our" Russian lieutenant shouted: "Nie strelaj! Zdie? polskije partyzany!" 54 For a moment nothing happened... then  there was a shouted verbal exchange in Russian; some people crossed to the other side...Perhaps a quarter of an hour passed while we  stayed hidden in the bushes, until at last some of our officers accompanied by their Russian counterparts appeared in the glade.

We slowly crossed over to the Russian positions with our arms in hand. They led us to a clearing a few hundred meters behind the front line. It was dawn by then. The Russian officer  in charge ordered us to lay our arms on the ground. Officers and NCO's were permitted to keep their side-arms.  The driver of a muddy pick-up truck, sent to collect our equipment,  with obvious delight on his smiling face, drove right over it destroying it in front of us. What we had paid for in sweat and blood and human lives was reduced to junk in a few minutes.

The local Russian commander did not have specific instructions on how to deal with us. While the "political" deputy  tried to contact his divisional headquarters, and the real soldiers were busy fighting,  Poraj issued the last whispered order to his Battalion: "Quietly, without attracting attention, disperse"....

41  In the last days of August 1939 Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia signed a secret treaty dividing Poland among themselves. On September 17, 1939, while Poland was in deadly struggle against invading Germans, the Soviet army entered Poland from the East, dealing us a killing blow.

42  Our product would ignite on impact while the original Russian version had to be manually ignited prior to use. Extreme care had to be taken in handling the fragile glass bottles - any spillage or breakage was deadly.

43  All our military units were customarily identified by the code name of their commanders, in this case Lt. W. Razmowski was known as Poraj.

44  Excellent German-made light machine gun.

45  Front line SS military units.

46  Belgian production 9mm 15 rounds semi-automatic pistol.

47  Down with you!  Be gone ! Almost impossible to translate and possibly the most known German word in all occupied countries.

48  Police units would not dare unless in regimental strength.

49  The Germans tried again the next day and were again repulsed by people from battalion "Wolski". One of our officer cadets C. Wieladek was killed in that skirmish.

50  Zygmunt  Maciejowski.

51  Light machine gun of British origin.

52  A prolonged lack of sleep can cause optical illusions espe-cially when surrounded by changing patterns of subdued light and shadows of the forest.

53  The  Soviet Union,  our deadly enemy in 1939 when they helped Germany to tear our country apart, now, by virtue of having been attacked by the Germans themselves, became (at least in theory) our ally.

54  " Don't shoot! We are Polish partisans!".