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- josef hartley
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- 22 February 2004
This is my WW2 journey from Poland to Britain.
I was born Josef Zachwieja (Hartley was my Scottish wife's family name) in the southern mountain spa village of Szczawnica, near the Slovak border.
I was a soldier for over 8 years (9 months in Polish, 5 months in French & nearly seven years in
Looking at it now, I was very lucky to complete the journey.
On the 6th January, 1939, I volunteered & joined the
Polish Army.My father wanted me to be a farmer, but I was interested in radio communication (the internet\computers\IT of its day). At that time the Polish Army offered such courses to its volunteers as it badly needed more recruits, as talk of war was getting more serious. My unit was 5 Battalion of signals, which was based in the centre of Krakow. After 6 months training in morse code, I was able to take down German army messages at the highest speeds. They were coded & on several frequencies, & we passed them on to headquarters, where they had the experts trying to break them. Polish High Command was obsessed of knowing what the Germans were up to. At the start of August we had a large army manoeuvre, which was suddenly cancelled as general mobilisation was declared.This was only partly achieved before the Germans invaded.
As Krakow is a historic city, it was declared open & the Army had to move out within 24 hours to stop the Luftwaffe bombing it.
Our retreating Army Group was involved in several battles & I took part in most of them. We eventually made our last stand on the 17th & 18th Sept.
I was taken prisoner on the 17th when Germans creapt behind me, but my companion blew up their armored car with them in it & we escaped. It took us all night to rejoin our forces.
Then we were engaged again. I was lying down with my rifle on the fence, when a hand grenade rolled down the roof behind me,blew my boots off, killed 2 companions & wounded several others.
When the German Red Cross man was bandaging my legs, I realised the seriousness of my situation, as I needed hospital treatment which took five days to reach because of delays due to Polish counter attacks.
At the hospital, I had several small operations & injections before my legs were saved from amputation.
By the end of November, I was walking around & used for domestic help around the hospital.News got around, that all fit men like me were to be taken to Germany in the New Year. I knew I had to avoid this. I made an application that my father was a farmer & badly needed me to help him on the farm, but as I was a volunteer to the army, this was rejected.
One day a Red Cross lady asked if I wanted anything. I knew an old school friend lived near to the hospital & asked if she could arrange a visit. One Sunday afternoon he arrived & straight away I asked him to bring me some civilian clothes, so I could get away before New Year. He was terrified, but he did it, by wearing two pairs of trousers, jackets etc. The hospital was a converted school in Krakow, but as the winter was very hard, the guard on the gate never noticed my friend's extra clothes. I hid the clothes in a disused toilet. On the night of the escape, I was to take food from the kitchen to patients in bed upstairs. I said I needed the toilet & was excused. I went to the cellar instead, as I already had my civilian clothes on under my hospital dressing gown, which I then took off & hid under potato peelings. There was an open chute to the long yard, which had a German soldier on patrol. An old street watering cart was parked between the chute & the high wall. This gave me cover from the German & something to climb on, to reach the top of the high wall. It was a long way down, but the soft snow, at least 2" thick, cushioned my fall. I was now free, but had to run half a mile to my friends house without being seen, as it was after curfew. The temperature was about 20 below & I ran most of the way, from one door to another for cover. They were praying for me, as my friend did not tell his family of what I was doing until half an hour before I arrived. They fed me, gave me warm clothes & put me on the train to Novy Sacz, the nearest station to my home. I had a friend there from school, whose father was a train driver. It was early in the morning when I knocked on the door. My friend, Mietek was excited to see me. He was in the army as well, but had managed to avoid being captured. His family moved to Eastern Poland when the war started, but then got cut off by the new border partition between Germany & Russia. He had another friend staying in a similar situation. They made me breakfast & we told each other of our experiences. There was a knock at the door & 2 German soldiers came in. They were interested in the young man next door as they suspected he was in the underground movement. As he was not in, they decided to wait a while. In our panic, we invited them to play a card game called 66 which was very popular in Germany then. It worked, as they did not ask us who we were & besides playing cards, they kept an eye on next door. They did this until they left for lunch. We could not believe our luck & did not wait for them to come back.
The road to my home village was not open to buses as the bridge had been blown up & not yet replaced. I started on foot, taking a shortcut I knew over a mountain pass & it was New Years day, almost a year since I left, that I made it home. There was great excitement, but after lunch, my father started talking seriously that I could not stay at home at night, as the police would soon be looking for me. Our house was the last up a steep hill, so during the day we could see anyone approaching, but at night I crept in the back entrance to the neighbours down the hill. This game of cat & mouse went on for five weeks. Once, a Gestapo man insisted on seeing my papers, so I said they were in a cottage up the hill (empty & not ours). As we got near, there was a steep bank by the side of a river, so I pretended that my shoelaces were undone & from there I could head butt him into the river & make my escape.
My home village, Szczawnica (pronounced strav-neet-tsar), is right on the Polish\Slovak border. From our house window, you could see the border guards walking the ridge about half a mile away. It was one of the few places where ex Polish forces could escape via Hungary to join Gen Sikorski in France. Hungary was still free & if you could get to Budapest, the Polish council there would arrange your passage to France. With my closest five friends we decided to have a go.
On the moonlit night of 8 Feb 1940, we started climbing the steep hill towards the border. We reached a huge, rugged rock formation & hid tightly behind it until the guards with their dogs had passed. Luckily, they did not get our scent & in fifteen minutes we were over the other side. We had about fifteen miles to go to reach our first safe house (a pub) which belonged to the uncle of our best jewish friend from school. We wanted him to come with us, but he would not leave his old mother & father. I had been with him to see his uncle in 1934, when huge floods cut off our village from the rest of Poland & for a few weeks the border was opened to allow in provisions.
During the night of my escape, a snowstorm started making the going very heavy, so it was about 7am when I knocked on the pub door. The uncle opened the door, looked at me & said "not you again". He was terrified, but took us quickly to the cellar as he wanted to know the situation in Poland. We had some dollars & he organised a taxi that evening to take us nearer to the Hungarian border. The snowstorm started again just after half way & the taxi refused to go further, but the driver gave us good advice on where to shelter & how to cross. We struggled all night following his instructions. The snow on the road was 4 foot thick in places. Nothing was moving. At daybreak we reached a sheep station that was run by a Polish man. He could not believe how we made it. He hid us in a disused building & gave us food. At dusk an old man came & said the weather was too bad for him to take us, but he explained how we should get through the border. He said the weather was too our advantage as there were no guards as " even the wolves will stay in tonight". The snow was waist deep & we were exhausted, but dare not stop, got through the woods & over the border. The town of Koszyche was below. We went over the river by the footbridge & in Pocta Ucta 13 (post office street) there was a safe house with at least another twelve men there. It was run by the Polish council & we were taken in groups of 2 ,by 2 young girls who bought our railway tickets to Budapest, kissed us goodbye as if we were their boyfriends & put us on the train to the Polish council in Budapest. We were debriefed, lodged, got photos,passports & visited the Yugoslav & Italian Consils for transit visas. We had to pretend we were under sixteen years of age. My companions got visas , but as I had an army haircut, the Italians refused mine. Back at the Polish council, they said it was a good try , but that I would have to go to Yugoslavia as a political refugee.
I was sent to the Hungarian branch of the British Commercial Bank. They were interested in my escapades,gave me tea & biscuits, then a ticket to Barc on the Serbian border (I still have the ticket).
I lodged with an old lady in a small village outside Barc called Erdecheconia. We had to stay for three weeks as the ice on the border river had started to crack. She asked me when I was going to France. I had been told to say I was going nowhere & was with her til the war ended. She opened a drawer & showed me four letters from previous boys that stayed with her that were now in France. That was the end of my cover.
She owned a vinyard with a large cellar where she kept about 40 oak barrels, which had to be moved every year, from one to another, as she sold old wine. I was happy to help as I got to sample the wine & she had a pretty 18 year old niece, Piroszka. I taught her modern dancing. I was happy, but a message came that I had to go. At the local pub at 6pm there was a bus full of Polish boys that took us to Barc. It parked right by the river & two boats arrived to take us over. In Serbia, we were told to march like soldiers, form a column & head straight to the nearest police station & ask for political asylum. This surprised us, but it was the safest way through Serbia, to avoid being robbed. We reached the town of Virovatica. They put us in the town hall & although we were individually questioned, we all said we wanted to go to France. We were split into groups & I went to Zagreb with mine. We stayed in a small hotel & hospitality was great. We were given free tickets to theatres, swimming pools etc. A pleasant surprise. Then we were given free rail tickets to the town of Split. Another small hotel. Next morning we were surprised by the briefing we went to as it was in a big hall full of young volunteers, regular officers & even generals. We were told we had just missed a ship for France & would have to spend Easter in Split. I sent a postcard to my Hungarian landlady.
After Easter, we boarded an old ship called the Warshawa & off we went. The weather was rough & most of us were seasick.
Before I left Szczawnica, a man had asked me for directions to the border, I pointed & said that if he went now, he would be in a concentration camp by tomorrow, so I took him back to my grandmother & she gave him detailed instructions on how to cross safely. With my adventures, I had forgotten all about him. I was not feeling well so I sat on deck with my back against a fitment. Others were doing the same & I was surprised to hear how one had been helped over the border by a young man who took him to see his grandmother, & wondered what became of the young man. I said he is right behind you. It went quiet, he looked at me, then he leaped up & hugged me.
It took us 6 nights & 7 days to reach Marseille on the 2nd of April.We were taken to a very big camp in the hills above. Gen Sikorski came to welcome us. A few days later we were moved by train to Bressiere where we were separated into different units. At the next town of Parthaney we had medicals & were given uniforms. From there to Versailles, where a French signals regiment had one Polish company attached, including some from my battalion from Krakow.
We went straight to work, but the French equipment was not as good as ours had been. They were expecting new advanced equipment any day.
21st of May arrived, my 21st birthday, our first German air attack, but it did not do much damage. Next day, I was picked with a few of my companions from Krakow to go to Gen Sikorski Headquarters near the front line. It was Neuchato between Nancy & Metz. We had two infantry divisions & a tank brigade. We had to share radio & telephone duties with older men. We did not stay there long before the Germans started with everything they had & after 2 days the Germans broke through. We took heavy losses. Most of the first division managed to escape to Switzerland, half of the tank brigade was destroyed, but most of the rest managed to get to Britain.
Gen Sikorski himself gave us instructions on how to get to La Rochelle where British ships were waiting for us.We had a Peugeot pick up truck with a radio(not much use on the run). We had to go South before we could go West, to avoid being overrun. We had a lot of attacks by Stukas. As soon as we heard them, we stopped and ran for the ditches. Our driver had a narrow escape in one of these attacks, so next time he tried to distance himself further by running towards some woods, but he was killed. We had to bury him quickly & then decide who was going to drive. I had been on a driving course in Poland & again at Versailles. They said I should drive, but I said I did not have a driving licence. They laughed & said who is going to ask you for it?
So off we went with me driving. If it were not so serious it would have been a pantomime. None of them could drive, but they were all advising me. The roads were packed with refugees & pushcarts. We had to push & detour a lot. After 2 days we were near to La Rochelle, but the Germans had got there first, so we were diverted to Bordeaux. We went along the Southern side of the Gironde to Le Verdon where 4 British ships were waiting. It took more than half a day to get loaded. We were attacked by waves of Stukas & while a few boys got hit by machine gun fire, not a single bomb hit the ships. The nearest thing to a miracle I have ever seen. The name of my ship was "Delius". Our ships went West, then North to avoid further attack. That was the 23rd June.
On 26th June we arrived in Liverpool & on my first night in Britain I slept on a bench in Liverpool football stadium. Next morning we were put on the train to Scotland. Mostly Crawford, Biggar, Moffat on the A74 main road to Glasgow.
The area became a tent city over the next three months, as we reorganised, demobbed the French army & uniforms, joined the British Army (Polish section).
With the risk of the Germans invading a soft part of Scotland, the Poles were tasked with defending the seashore from Montrose to Dunbar. Headquarters was in Lord Moncrief House at Bridge of Earn near Perth. My company of signals was stationed here. After a few days, my troop from Gen Sikorski in France was sent to Dundee as a reserve HQ. This was cover, as our main duties were taking down German messages to see if they could be cracked. Two months later, six Polish professors joined us to study the messages. Some high ranking Officers thought we were waisting our time ,but after a year the professors were recalled to Gen Sikorski HQ at Reubens Hotel, Buckingham Palace Rd, London. We heard a rumour that the professors had cracked one code, but that the British had taken the project over. We were no longer needed, so I got my driving licence. Hitler invaded Russia. Scotland's coast was now safe. Our HQ was moved to Kinaird House, Larbert outside Falkirk. Our company was stationed in Carron school. We were given new field radios in motorised vans. We went on excercise with the Scottish army for 2 weeks. In a small village square Tellibody? or Tillicoultry? I cannot remember now, I was chatted up by a young Scottish woman. I declined as I dare not leave the radio. Later that night there was a huge commotion. A Scottish sargeant was dead on a stretcher & a sailor (the husband) was in handcuffs arrested by the Police as he had come home unexpectadly & all hell broke loose. It seemed a crazy way to die. The sailor & the sergeant both had 2 kids.
With more new boys from Eastern Poland arriving, a second Polish army corps was forming. I became an instructor & went on parachute training. After this 5 of us were sent to London to the Rubens hotel. From here they kept contact with the Polish underground. We were interviewed by Polish & British officers. I had to show where I was born on a map. I was out. They kept three , but two of us had to return to Scotland. After the war, I learned that the three had been dropped near my home village but on the wrong side of the border & the Germans killed them.
I had to stand by for the next drop. I was injected & vaccinated, but the Russians got there first & the drop was abandoned.
News arrived that Gen Sikorski had died in a plane crash in Gibraltar. I was chosen, with a few others, to be part of the funeral procession. We stayed in a big house on the Bayswater Rd facing Hyde Park. 6 others were from my town in Poland.
Back in Scotland, I & my whole platoon went to train the Polmont special service unit(S.D.N.W.). My commanding officer was Colonel Bukowski, who I knew from France. After a short speach by the C.O. ,the sargeant split us into two groups which went into two lorries.I was left behind, a few days later I got impatient & asked to see the C.O. I asked him why I was still here. He said I was too old for such missions. I said I was only 25. He said he was joking, but he needed me as an instructor.
However I had one more trip to the Rubens hotel. There was a young French, Pole I recognized from Verseilles. There was a Polish pilot from 309 Sqn. We were going to France with radios & explosives for the Polish Partisans there.My companion was Teddy (Tadeusz) Szynczek or something similar. The trip was top secret.The dates are not in my diary but it must have been early 1944.
We were driven to a small airfield.The Lysander plane was ready & we were off. It was a partly moonlit night & it took most of it to get there.We flew low & landed in a small field.We got our plane undercover & the young French Pole knew the local partisans. I showed them how to use the radio equipment etc. Then it was time to go back. Teddy stayed, but we had another passenger on the way back. I don't know who he was. I had to keep the trip secret.
Back in Polmont, I had to train a group quickly for the Warsaw uprising.Out of 35 only 3 survived.
A few weeks later was D-Day. We got a group from France, young Polish boys the Germans had been using to maintain their defences. This group was lucky as the war was over before they could be used.
My French Pole friend Teddy remembered me, because after the war I got French Resistance medal unexpectedly.
Now in my home village museum in Poland. On my annual trip back, five years ago, the local newspaper editor persuaded me to write a short account of my wartime service & what I knew of others from the town.
There is not room for everything. This is very shortened.
While playing poker, I won a 6x9 Voigtlander camera. This caused a fuss as an ordinary soldier was not supposed to have a camera. The C.O. took pity on me & made me regimental photographer. This is why I am lucky enough to have quite a few photos of these days.
After the war, I was moved down South to Witley Camp, vacated by the Canadians. I left the army, became a British citizen, married my Scottish wife & became an Antique dealer.
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