by Zbigniew Pelczynski
I have just turned 83 and am living quietly in a small, pleasant Cotswolds village with my wife and grown-up son. I am a retired Oxford don, a former college fellow and politics tutor, and ostensibly my life is much the same as that of other elderly retirees who surround me.. But things were very different indeed some six decades earlier when as a youth I lived in my native Poland under the rule of Nazi Germany.
This story is a story of survival – in fact at least a triple survival – in the course of 6 weeks during August and September 1944. Its location was a leafy southern suburb of Warsaw called Mokotow , where as a soldier of the wartime underground :”Home Army” I found myself fighting the seasoned German army occupying the city. Together with some 30,000 other conspirators we were ordered on 1 August, by the high command of our “Army”, to launch a surprise attack against the Germans in the hope (futile, as it turned out) of forestalling the arrival of the Soviet Army approaching the city from the east. My ”regiment” was called Baszta , my “company” B1, and my fellow-combatants were mostly the same age as I – around 20. We had had a most elementary military training, conducted mostly in private flats in Warsaw, during the previous eight months, and though I learnt e.g. how to take a rifle apart and put it together again with my eyes shut I had not actually fired a single shot.
Although poorly armed the Polish forces succeeded in clearing a. large part of Mokotow of the Germans, but the victory was limited. They withdrew to their fortified barracks and easily repelled all further attacks .while being reluctant to counterattack themselves. They expected fierce resistance, and probably heavy casualties, although our improvised defence positions were just private houses which the civilians had been made to abandon. So instead the German command resorted in Mokotow and often elsewhere to rather safer, so to speak long-arm, methods of crushing the uprising: aerial bombing and artillery shelling. This knocked out quite a few insurgents, but did what in today’s language is euphemistically called heavy “collateral damage” – destroying vast numbers of houses and killing probably ten times as many civilians as insurgents. (Estimates of overall deaths vary between 150,000 and 250,000.)
The date of my first narrow escape from death, recorded by a friend who kept a sketchy diary of the rising, was 10 August, the day the bombing of Mokotow began. It was usually the work of just three dive- bombers, so-called “Stukas”, operating from a nearby airport at regular intervals, and against whom we had no defence. On that day I got leave from my unit to visit a large hospital, filled with wounded civilians and insurgents (soon to be bombed out of existence). where allegedly my younger brother, separated earlier from our unit, had been seen. Noticing a “Stuka” flying in my direction I took shelter in the basement of the nearest house – a two-storey solid-looking. small apartment block. The basement was divided, on both sides of a central corridor, into lock-up cellars. Descending to the basement from the street I unthinkingly chose the left arm of the corridor. There was almost total darkness, but one could sense from the pressure and whispers of people around one that the basement was packed.
Soon the droning of the bomber got louder, followed by a few seconds of a characteristic whistling or whining sound, then by a second of ominous silence, and WHAM!!! – the bang and shock of explosion and of collapsing masonry. An entire half of the building, just where I was sheltering, crashed down. I found myself trapped under the fallen wreckage, completely immobilised by the rubble, yet feeling virtually no pain. All around me people were retching, moaning or screaming in agony, but all I felt was my mouth and nose clogging up with fine brick dust. After a while it was all still and silent like a tomb, and indeed I was convinced my end had arrived. It was not instantaneous, though. I continued to breathe, but as air was becoming increasingly scarce so breathing became more and more difficult. I was panting, but just inhaling more dust. Eventually I lost consciousness, thinking as I was dropping off, that this must be death.
I was wrong. Some two hours later I woke up hearing at first faint, and then increasingly louder, hammering noises. I realised a search party was looking for survivors. I began shouting to guide them towards me, and though my voice must have been very feeble, they heard me. One final bang, and they got through. A beam of light raptured the darkness and lit up my dusty head, sticking out from the rubble. Then various hands and arms were clearing away the debris around me and gently pulling me out. Next to me, on my right, they uncovered the head of a woman smashed by masonry. I lifted my eyes and in the dim light saw what had happened. By sheer chance I had chosen to stand in a spot directly under an enormous beam that spanned the bottom the building. When the building collapsed it cracked in the middle and formed a kind of “V” letter, but did not break. The beam saved my life. The falling masonry, even the biggest chunks, just bounced off it. Only some rather small pieces managed to hit me, and injure my left wrist. When I got to the surface, saw the sun and the blue sky, I cried like a baby. For the first (and last) time in life I had a palpable, physical, intense feeling of BEING ALIVE.
After less than a week I was released from an improvised basement “hospital” and rejoined B1 company. The only effect of the accident, beside the wobbly wrist, was a traumatic fear of planes which lasted to the end of the rising. Their noise, as it was getting nearer, turned me temporarily into a nervous wreck and almost overwhelmed me with an urge to hide somewhere, anywhere. Otherwise nothing distinguished me from my fellow-insurgents, and I went about my soldierly business as if nothing had happened.
Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I was promoted lance-corporal a few weeks later and promptly put in charge of a small night patrol of three men. I felt proud, especially because as a commander I was able to exchange my old Polish army rifle for a brand-new British “Sten” submachine gun, somehow delivered by the SOE to the Polish resistance before the rising. My orders were to reconnoitre a part of a large allotment field (a prewar race course) which stretched from ours to the Germans’ positions. This no-man’s land was quiet in daytime, but came alive at night when Polish and German patrols scoured the area. Our usual patrol “operation base” was a tiny building, practically one large room, which had served as a shelter for people guarding the allotments. We jokingly called it “gardener’s cottage”. It was completely gutted, roofless and empty except for a macabre pair of burned skeletons lying on an iron bed-stead. They were the occupants whom an SS-unit from the neighbouring barracks disposed of together with their shelter after the rising broke out. The patrol was a routine matter. One tried to get the “gardener’s cottage” as quietly as possible and from there, slowly and cautiously, probed the land nearer the barracks.
This time, no sooner had we reached the “cottage” and I positioned my men at what was left of the door and windows, we became aware that the enemy was extremely near. First, we noticed the glow of two or three cigarettes close to the ground. Then the glow lifted, whispering could be clearly heard, followed by slow but quite loud steps advancing towards us. I signaled to the patrol to get their rifles ready and pointed my “Sten” towards the sound. And then… there was a slightly muffled explosion, flash of light, screams of pain, loud German voices and the noise of several jackboots running away. I guessed that one of the soldiers, getting ready to throw a grenade into the “cottage”, must have accidentally pulled on the ringed string inside the handle of his grenade and blown up himself, and possibly some others. It was another miracle. Had the grenade landed where it was meant to, our small group would have been wiped out or at least terribly injured, leaving it to the attackers to finish us off with individual shots. The friend who kept the diary, and took part in the patrol, recorded the exact date of the incident: 12 September.
As the month advanced it became obvious that the days of our short-lived liberation were drawing to an end. On Sunday, 24 September, about 11 a.m., the Germans let loose an avalanche of bombs, artillery shells and dreaded rocket-fired mortars, which we called “baying cows”, and which could rip a whole building apart. Under cover of darkness a fierce attack by tanks and heavily armed infantry, from three sides of Mokotow at once, began. Half of my B1 company, transferred rapidly to the front, was killed fighting that night. My survival chances were therefore no better than 50:50. But again something extremely fortunate – if not exactly heroic – occurred to save me.
The massive morning bombardment brought to a rapid end the joint Sunday mass attended by the whole company. To avoid the risk of all of us perishing at once, we were ordered to disperse into as many neighbouring houses as possible. Once more I took shelter in a basement, more accurately a large cellar, full of civilians. There was a small upper window facing the street, blocked by a neatly arranged stack of bricks instead of the more usual sandbags, and I stood nearest to them. Less than 5 minutes later there was a terrific explosion in the street. A shell must have landed just outside the window for the whole stack of bricks flew inwards, and I was exactly in its way. One hit the back of my head and cracked the skull; to this day I can feel through the hair a small indentation where the edge of a brick hit me. Had I stood a an inch or two nearer, it would have reached my brain. I suffered a severe concussion, with nausea, vomiting, splitting headache, blurred vision and impaired hearing .There was also some blood on the head . Though alive, I was not in a fit state for military action. Friends carried me to the nearest casualty point in another basement, where the girl nurses could only offer me a camp bed and some aspirins. The same night my company suffered their terrible losses..
The symptoms gradually eased, but lasted till Tuesday night. Meanwhile
the resistance in Mokotow was collapsing and the whole “Baszta” regiment was retreating street by street. There is no guessing how the rising in our suburb might have ended for me; perhaps through another, more lethal bomb; perhaps from a burst of submachine fire from an SS-man barging into the cellar. There had been stories that some Germans did not bother to take wounded insurgents prisoner and just dispatched them where they lay. Fearing this might happen to me, and against orders, a friend came to tell me that the company was being evacuated through the sewers to central Warsaw, which was still resisting. At daybreak of 27 September I climbed down into the sewers with my unit. What soon was to happen there was an inferno of another kind, but that is a different story. Suffice to say that with hundreds of others, insurgents and civilians, I spent hours underneath, creeping in darkness and up to the knees in stinking filth, only to find the passage blocked by a huge German barricade. Chaos and panic ensued, made worse by the Germans throwing grenades down the manholes. Obsessed by the fear that “I would end like a rat, not a soldier” I decided to surrender together with the only two company friends who were still with me. By yet another lucky chance we were taken prisoner by soldiers of the regular army, the Wehrmacht, who generally obeyed the Geneva conventions – unlike the SS and their Asiatic auxiliaries, members of the notorious Soviet renegade army led by General Vlassov, who shot surrendering Poles without scruples. With a head swathed in a blood-soaked bandage I was marched out of Warsaw with what was left of B1 company to a transit camp, and then transported in a goods train to a POW camp near Bremen – the next stage of a long, eventful journey to the west, and to a happy and successful life in Britain.
Dr Zbigniew Pelczynski OBE (“for Anglo-Polish cooperation”) arrived in Britain in January 1946 and after completing university studies at. St. Andrews and Oxford became a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.