EASTERN FRONT DRAWING NEAR: OPERATION
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”.
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
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
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"....
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