RETURN TO GUERRILLA LIFE
On January 13, 1945 the Russians resumed their offensive on the Vistula line. In the next few weeks the German forces were forced from the remaining Polish territory to their positions before the war started. It created some space for many who had to get out of sight. Also the narrow belt of a hundred or so kilometers behind the front line, where we had been crammed since the previous summer together with masses of soldiers and military hardware, finally moved west. The ever present Russian internal security forces 81 were for the most part replaced by their hastily organized local equivalent who, though perhaps less experienced, quickly learned the ways of terror and intimidation.
As an organization we were finished for all practical purposes. We had no instructions, no command higher than the District Commander who was on the run like most of us who were not yet in jail, and no contact with our government in exile in England.
One cold January night I met my Commander Maj. Wolski in a tiny hamlet on the western edge of our district. It was our last encounter; there was nothing more that we could do for the cause, and it was high time for us to leave and stop endangering our friends in our quest for survival. Wolski was about to depart for other parts of the country. I asked him for permission to move to a neighboring district where there existed a well armed guerrilla detachment spontaneously organized by people like ourselves. I had no other place to go, and asking his permission was more out of politeness towards a friend than a military formality. Of course he gave permission and thanked me for faithful service. We shook hands as we had done nearly five years ago when first we met. For a moment I felt a lump in my throat. He was for me a Commander, a model of manliness; at times he had been a father to me 82 and always a friend. I departed into the wintry night.
I had met the guerrillas first during one of our stopovers at Klimowizna Hospital. They had been camping not far from there and Sr. Teobalda, who was always well informed had told me about them, so I went to visit them. They were armed mostly with American submachine guns, parachuted in the year before, which they had managed to keep from Russian hands. There were about thirty men, some from the "People's Army" still wearing their uniforms, a medley of deserters, fugitives, people from different underground groups, peasants, county clerks, workers from a sugar-mill, a high school teacher. They received me with open arms and invited me to join. After saying good-bye to Wolski, and organizing some help for a few men who escaped from a temporary Russian concentration camp in Rembertow (near "liberated" Warsaw) where thousands of political prisoners were waiting for transport to Siberia, my brother and I joined the guerrilla group. We did not have much choice. Some of our people, who anticipated that sooner or later UB would become interested in their "reactionary" past, took precautions by joining the "People's Army" 83 or tried to lose themselves in territories freshly cleared of Germans. However for escaped prisoners like myself who were well known inside the spider web of the Department of Internal Security that was not a solution. There was also an additional reason. There existed a general rule among us that if one escaped the others were free, during their interrogations, to "hang" on him the trespasses they themselves were accused of. I suspected that my account with UB was heavily on the debit side, and Lt. Swiatlo - little as I knew him - struck me as an ambitious fellow who would do his best to take revenge. For all those reasons I knew I would be more likely to survive in an armed group than by myself alone. Besides the war was still continuing and the final chapter was not yet written. We just could not believe in complete betrayal on the part of our Allies.
Life in the guerrilla band of "Marynarz" 84 was not in any way a continuation of the fight for the cause; beyond occasional punitive action for the excesses of the new regime against the local population we were mostly survival oriented. We procured our provisions by requisitioning them from the former landed estates which the Germans had taken away from the rightful owners, and which were now owned by the "People". Anything we took from the peasants we paid for with money or barter. 85 We avoided needless shoot-outs with UB and especially with the Russian military. Once, quite by accident we almost stumbled on a platoon of "Corps of Internal Security" 81 forces that was returning from a field action. Most were asleep on their horse drawn wagons and we could have easily annihilated them. Luckily for them they did not carry any prisoners so we let them pass without revealing our presence. On another occasion we received a desperate dispatch that a train with hundreds of Polish prisoners from the concentration camp in Rembertow would be traveling east on the way to Siberia on the tracks passing our territory, about thirty miles from us.... We had only four saddled horses. With light machine guns in the saddle boots, cartridge belts across our chests, four of us raced like men possessed to reach the tracks and free the prisoners.... Too late... the train had passed just a few hours earlier.
We were constantly on the move to avoid being caught in a round-up. Unlike the Germans, the Russians were not afraid to comb the forests and bushes in their search for enemies of the state. Once in the famous Ruchenski forest we were saved from disaster only because of the extremely dense under-growth in which we spent nearly two days. We could not even dream of fighting our way out; there was at least a battalion of Russian regulars combing the forest in search for us.
Life during those days was not easy; February, March, April were spent mostly under the open sky sleeping often on bare ground around a camp fire, occasionally in an old barn, seldom in a peasant's dwelling. Once, we had to disappear for some time to fool the enemy, so we spent a few days in the dense pine forest inside a shelter made out of pine branches. It was the middle of March and it rained for days without interruption. At first our shelter offered fairly good protection, but after hours of incessant rain the branches became soggy with water and it was worse in the shack than outside it. Lice and scabies were our steady companions. If one managed to get a bit warmer in sleep that double scourge of the unwashed ones made us rake our bodies with our fingernails till they were just a rash of scabs. On bivouacs we would try to kill the boredom by sitting around the fire and catching lice. Once, in the chill of February, in desperation I left the warm woolen sweater that my Mother gave me, hanging on a peasant's picket fence because lice had infested it and even the smell of the horse's sweat - when I stuck it under a saddle and rode on it - failed to force them out. I did not have a chance to take off my boots for weeks at a time. We were dirty, unshaven and stinking.
On one of our stopovers at the home of the friendly forest ranger, I could not stay inside because they were drying pine cones in the bread-oven to get the seed off them, and the heat was oppressive. My clothes were thoroughly rain soaked and I went off to the drafty barn to sleep hoping to find some dry hay there. I was out of luck; there was only some un- threshed straw, nothing to burrow into for warmth. Tired as I was I slept, feeling cold in sleep but unable to wake up. In the morning I had a high fever and was barely conscious. My companions attended to me as best they could trying to cure me with our general medicine, a 90% spirit, and when available, some hot milk. I was semi-conscious for the next few days traveling on my gray, slumped in the saddle over the horse's neck. Perhaps it was pneumonia, but in a week or so I was on my feet again.
Shortly after, on one of our forays, one of our men forgot to secure his hand grenade. The explosion killed Noe - that was what we called the lad - and a piece of shrapnel penetrated the lung of my horse, killing him too. On another occasion I nearly blew myself up with hand grenades. It happened in a dirt farmer's house on the edge of a forest. I was relieved from guarding the perimeter and returned to catch some sleep. It was during the day and there was nobody in the empty room but on the floor where we slept was a soldier's coat. Looking for something to use as a pillow I rolled the coat into a bundle, put it under my head and closed my eyes...In that instant I felt some hardness under my head. I sprang to my feet and carefully unrolled the coat...There were six "defensive" British hand grenades in one of the pockets .... On one of them the split-pin that prevents the grenade from exploding was more than half way out, slotted into only one of the two holes it should hook into, and only the rigidity of the split-pin wire still barely held the detonator spring. It would not have taken much.... Gently I squeezed the detonator handle thus relieving the pressure and preventing an explosion, pushed the pin back through the hole and bent its ends to secure it. 86 After replacing the grenades in the coat pocket I went to sleep this time using my own hand for a pillow. It was one of those things which some people call luck or coincidence.
From time to time my brother and I would manage to drop in to Klimowizna, get a bath, clean underwear, do something about the scabies, and hear news of our Mother. Once I brought one of our wounded to the hospital. I had to hide my horse drawn cart in the bushes and carry the fellow the rest of the way to the rear entrance to Sr. Teobalda's department; no admission papers had to be filled.
That year we spent Easter in Ruchenski
forest. All we had was some salted pork and "medicinal" alcohol - not even
a piece of bread. We roasted pieces of meat over the small
camp fire. It was one of the first sunny spring days and we talked of the
times when we had homes. Next day there was a big round up but thanks to
our familiarity with the territory we escaped again.
82 My father had died when I was nine years old. Wolski was arrested some time later and spent many years in a Communist jail.
83 When the war between Germany and Soviet Russia erupted the Soviets, out of necessity not friendship, sought an alliance with England and USA. A part of the price they had to pay for Western help was to free all the Polish people deported from eastern Poland as well as all the surviving Polish POW's taken in 1939. Thousands of peoples made their way to the evacuation points in southern Siberia in most inhuman conditions and were evacuated to the (then) British Middle East and India. All able bodied men joined the Polish Forces under British command; women and children were sent to refugee camps mostly in East Africa. However many Poles were still left in Russia and they formed the core of "Polish People's Army" under Soviet command.
84 Translates into "Sailor". His only connection with the sea was that before the war he had been a waiter in a seaport town. However the fellow was an exceptionally gifted commander and a decent human being.
85 The basic rule of survival in conditions like ours is to have the confidence and friendship of the rural population. It always was a most generous and dependable part of the society.
86 The common weakness
of the British defensive hand grenade, otherwise a formidable weapon,
was the split pin securing the detonator mechanism. Made of hardened steel
with ends bent for safety about 45 degrees it was very hard to remove for
action and some people would prepare for emergency by straightening the
bent ends and forgetting to secure them back. Repeated a few times the
split-pin ends would break off making the situation even worse.