An Eerie Journey

This is the final part of the entry Józef recorded describing the events of 10th September 1939 – a day which as he wrote, remained deep in his memories.

Having passed Luszyca and left Okrągla behind, we reached the forest and breathed in the fresh air, feeling a sense of protection against the German airmen’s operations.

We arrived at some crossroads where a scowling major was standing, having arranged a supply column in the right direction. He gave us a dressing down:

Where were we heading? Where was our squadron? We were heading straight for the enemy.

In the end he advised us to go to the right, following the flow of the Vistula. He assured us that the infantry battalion would be ahead of us, clearing the way and that this would keep us close to communications and in the right direction. So we went.

Sgt Major Mazański had got down from the cart just before the major’s orders, escorted by his inseparable little dog (still alive and in good shape). * He went straight down the road without looking at us or at which way we were going before he disappeared out of sight. I took over command of the supply column and kept the corporal from the kitchen as reserve.

After a kilometre we had to stop and hide ourselves in the forest as quietly as possible. A few hundred metres in front of us, the infantry battalion lay stretched out in readiness. From then on we slowly advanced about one or two hundred metres every fifteen to thirty minutes or so. The driver of the cart was asleep holding the reins in his hand. I was next to him, dozing from time to time. The horses too were lifeless and very tired. They pushed on ahead independently whenever the cart in front moved.

The string of supply columns continued driving automatically through the day, through the night, and almost without a break. I don’t know how long all this went on. I do know that we were still in this unfamiliar forest when night fell, and one could smell the enemy. We didn’t know where they were approaching from, since reconnaissance was already beginning to fail and communications were poor.

Sometime – maybe around midnight – a communications officer approached the cart and notified us that we were to leave, forcing our way along the road through the forest whilst avoiding both our own and the enemy’s positions if necessary.

I roused the sleeping company, caught hold of the reins of our horse and went deep into the forest with the first cart. Someone kept hold of my horse’s bridle at times. The horses often moved forward independently, led by their own instinct; they turned to the left or the right to avoid chasms. Once they went along a steep area on an embankment then down in a hollow. It was so dark that I couldn’t see the horses’ tails. I couldn’t lead them because I could see nothing. All I could hear was the creak of the carts, quiet whispers – who, I don’t know. I was aware only that we were in hilly, uneven and difficult terrain. Everything was so unfamiliar making us agitated and keeping us awake – fighting against sleep.

This journey lasted about forty five minutes. I don’t know how many times we stopped, how many times we turned to one side or the other, until at last we got a glimpse of the stars in the sky and a more deserted area on a hill. The horses moved on at a livelier, unconstrained pace then stood again for an hour on the hill.

There was something so eerie about this journey, that it became one of the most unforgettable of my memories of the war: that I had led the horses while not giving them any directions; the dismal gloomy silence, interrupted only by barely audible murmurs of people I couldn’t see; this darkness in which I couldn’t even see myself and could only feel my existence; this strange journey, in unfamiliar twisting terrain in which I didn’t lose my way, nor at the same time, lose even a little of my resolve. Everything was full of emotion, mystery, indescribable feelings – it all remains deep in my memory.

It was already noisy on the hill when we reached it and the shadows of people, horses, carts and cars were visible. About one hundred metres further on, a white band of sandy road could be seen cutting across the forest as if hanging on the steep wooded slope of the hill. In front of the forest entrance a whirl of carts and cars could be felt rather than seen, blocking up the road.  Raised voices and unfamiliar, flashing lights came from the dark clustered mass at the entrance to the forest where they had come to a standstill.

By now I had pulled out another can of food from the “rainy day” allocation in order to satisfy the demands of my stomach for something substantial – I had put two and two together and it seemed to me that this was a rainy day!

I couldn’t get to sleep. After an hour, something moved ahead of us, the horses jolted and we moved on. I prodded the driver and told him to find out as we went along, if the others had also moved on. He caught up with me after a couple of hundred metres, saying that he had had to look for the men because the carts were standing without their drivers. As it turned out later, the rest of the company had got out of the carts at the roadside ditch and everyone was fast asleep.

This is what was missing after this stop: two carts which hadn’t joined us, the corporal from the kitchen who was asleep in the ditch, all the platoon of cyclists and some of the kitchen staff. The remaining carts joined us a couple of hours later but the cyclists and the corporal didn’t reappear for some time. So I remained ‘in charge’ on my own.

The subsequent journey continued on for another few kilometres across the forest and over steep tracks. After this we rode over flat, sandy terrain and eventually came to a beaten track, as dawn was breaking.

*Readers may recall an earlier encounter with this dog on 30/08. See “Character Studies at the Brink of War” posted 4 July 2018

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