It’s been a while since I posted the first part of this long entry for the 10th September in Józef’s diaries. As well as starting to translate some new sections, I have been busy typing up previous work, trying at the same time to correct and improve the translation and fill in some gaps where the handwriting was illegible or very faded. A big thank you to my friend, Ewa, for deciphering so much for me and always being so willing to help.
In the previous entry the extent of the damage and destruction befalling many towns and villages and the consequent devastation for the citizens was becoming evident.
We joined the frenzy of carts heading further along and in fact, right down to the Vistula. We were in a state of immense weakness, both physically and in terms of morale; the feeling of despair was deepening in our souls, bowing our heads and stilling our tongues. That’s why we pushed forward in a silent stupor, fatigued – but not feeling tired; starving – but not hungry; drowsy – but unable to sleep. Something else stirred in us. We became half human. Sensations followed one another so quickly, continuous changes of situation, mental despondency, no place to sleep or rest, nor any meal as such, causing us to continue half asleep.
We heard but didn’t believe each reassurance cast our way, even if supported by news of a counter-attack, a defeat of the Germans at the front, or about fictitious military operations of our allies and so on. It seized us, rousing us from our torpor and into a new shock, a new reaction to the recent deceptions.
The next deception was the widespread rumour that our retreat would end at the Vistula, that the reserves were preparing a defensive line along the other side of the river and that we were joining them there to defend ourselves fiercely until the arrival of help from England and France. There was a particular rumour – quite certain – that General Rydż-Śmigły was coming from north of Warsaw with large forces to help. The ultimate comfort amongst these communications was that at least Gdansk was still ours, that in East Prussia the Germans had been taught a lesson, causing them to retreat temporarily to the Vistula.
Surely an incompetent commander.* These and similar thoughts swirled around my over-fatigued head on the road leading from Połaniec to the north east.
A wide expanse of sand stretched around us to a radius of several kilometres and we had scarcely gone a couple of kilometres when we heard a bomb exploding in Połaniec. More fell, leaving fires, smoke and ruins. The weakened anti-aircraft artillery partially repelled some of the planes which then advanced towards us. This gave us quite a fright as there was nowhere for us to hide, but fortunately they disregarded us and the rest of the supply column. Later, a reconnoitrer flew so low over our heads that we saw the outline of the airman within rifle shot, although this time he didn’t stay to bother us.
Airmen continued to visit us in this deserted expanse. Clearly we were a prime target: a large number of carts advancing on a clear day, a stretch of road at least 4km long, no protection from nearby trees or any kind of cover. Next came a group of six magnificent planes, which the experts declared were Czech – I saw such machines only twice in the duration of the war.
The smooth, streamlined surfaces of the planes glistened beautifully with green hues in the sun. This time nobody ventured to fire so as not to provoke them. The carts came to a standstill but the men didn’t even try to hide underneath them; they only marvelled, open mouthed, at the beautiful manoeuvres of the planes.
The six circled low over our heads, crossing over each other a few times. They made semi-circles and laps, their bodies rolling proudly with their wings leaning down first to one side, then to the other. They would nose-dive then ascend again, with the planes perpendicular. It was a fine demonstration of flying which might have been seen in some kind of peacetime ceremony at our airfields. If you added in the really splendid view of the machines themselves, we had a rare sight.
After about seven minutes of this show, the airmen pulled their machines back into combat formation from the last lap. They flew off in the direction of Połaniec and we followed them with our eyes. With a sigh we hurried the horses on ahead – partly relieved that nothing had happened to us and partly with a certain admiration, forgetting about the airmen’s real intentions.
Since we were on the road, a meal time passed us by yet again, so I bit into some black bread which tasted like the best cake. I ate it with some tinned apple which my driver had found somewhere – a tin of preserve reserved for a “rainy day”.
* It’s not clear from Józef’s words which commander he is referring to – German or Polish, though in the context of this German defeat, possibly the former. References such as ‘Poland 1939’, (pub. Osprey 2002), refer to the excellent training and morale of the Polish cavalry and the victory of the Wolynska Cavalry Brigade at this time, with the temporary stalling of the German army in their push towards Warsaw from the north.