My grandparents were immigrants. But just as the vast majority of modern immigrants, they were more than worthy of their place in our society.
As with most of our grandparents, they didn’t talk too much of their trials during WWII but this is their tale, as accurate as I can make it.
Dziadek (Polish for grandad) was a young man from Postawy in Eastern Poland.
He joined the army and fled along with thousands of compatriots when Germany annexed the country.
Why did they run? Why didn’t they stop and fight? Sounds familiar huh?
Imagine charging Panzer Divisions on horseback or trying to shoot down Stukas with antiquated rifles…..Damn right you’d run!
Anyway, he eventually made his way across Europe and ended up in Scotland, where the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade was formed.
They were formed intending to drop into Poland and assist in the liberation of their homeland but the British government pressured them into joining Operation Market Garden.
On September 18th 1944 they were due to drop, alongside the gliders of the 1st British Airborne at Arnhem in Holland in an attempt to push German forces south, toward France and the allies advancing from that direction.
Bad weather meant the British gliders were able to deploy but it was too bad to parachute in so the Poles followed three days later, out of position, on the wrong side of the Rhine and where the Germans were waiting.
The battle of Arnhem is widely regarded as one of the biggest mistakes in military history, massive casualties were inflicted on both sides, Dziadek was extremely lucky to survive as many of his countrymen died alongside him and the whole thing ended up in a stalemate over THAT bridge, made famous in A Bridge Too Far
Meanwhile, in Warsaw, Babcia (grandmother) was fighting her own battle alongside the Polish Resistance.
On August 1st 1944 the Russians were advancing from the east and liberation was imminent.
The sound of Chopins Polonaise rang through the streets of Warsaw, signalling the start of what was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The Russians halted outside the city so the Poles were left to battle against a far superior army, with spontaneous help from allied air forces. Over the course of two months around 20,000 Poles were killed, wounded or went missing in action compared with nearly 23,000 German troops. Nearly 200,000 civilians were killed and a further 700,000 were displaced due to the near-total destruction of the city.
15,000 Polish freedom fighters were also captured, Babcia one of them. She took a piece of shrapnel to the leg and spent the rest of the war in the hellhole known as Belsen. After the war she was in a demobilisation camp. One day she was struggling to get her hairdryer to work when a dashing young paratrooper happened to pass and fixed it for her, the rest is history
They spent a brief couple of years in Germany where my father was born and then decided to move to Britain as many Poles who’d fought alongside British forces did. They didn’t have much choice anyway, Dziadek’s hometown was now part of Belarus after the allies carved up much of Poland and Warsaw was all but levelled.
Looking back now I wish I’d questioned them more on their experiences but they were proud, strong people and it didn’t seem right to drag up their past and memories they might not want to recall.
We found out that Dziadek was younger than we thought after he passed, like many of his generation he’d lied about his age to join up (can’t imagine a proud biffer doing that, somehow! )
During one of our family get-togethers, alcohol fuelled, as Poles tend to do, Babcia came into the room with four bottles of homebrew held between the fingers of each of her hands. My brother and I jumped up to help but she shooed us away with, “this is how we carried the petrol bombs in Warsaw!”
A pair of awe inspiring heroes, much loved and sadly missed. I oppose Nazism in honour of their memory xxx
When you buy your poppy this year, wear it proudly and remember those brave poles who sacrificed so much for all of our freedom.
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