Wspomnienia Franciszka Matysiaka, cz. 3
When I finally stand in front of my home door, Without strength and my hands drooping at my side, And I will be waiting benumbed, For the door to open wide. And if… if, I will see thee, And my life will be restored by the voices I hear – Without words I will read the truth, In silver hairs turned prematurely grey. And I know that no lament will I hear, And no salty tears will I count. And I know that a cry shall welcome me: Oh my son… so famished and so weary. Then I shall drop to my knees, As the one who was graced by the heavens. And I shall beg you my dear mother – Just forgive me. Forgive, forgive… . 15th January 1944 Twelve Hours on the Lines of the “Borderland” From the very moment the assault began – not only on the first day of the strike on German positions, but also every other day, and especially on 17th May, there were days in which the Borderland Division sacrificed in its march to Poland hundreds of the best and most bravest of its soldiers. The twelve hours of that day are a typical example of this terrible fight in which the soldiers of the Borderland not only prevailed and not only defeated the German companies – so that fallen soldiers lay side by side, but also conquered hills that were part of the fortification which the English daily “Eighth Army News” of 13th May called “the strongest defence lines of this war”. It is 5 a.m. Everything is prepared for the next attack on the further objects of the onrush from “Widmo” (trans. note: Specter) as the starting point. Not only the newly conquered “Spectre” but the whole valley in front of it as well as the hills which were the up-till-now position of the Borderland are under constant German mortar and artillery fire coming from three directions. It seems that the Germans were anticipating further attacks of the Borderland or maybe even were counting on weakening our troops following the bloody sacrifice made by them on 12th May 1944. The hour is 5.35 a.m. – the German counter attack begins from two directions; from St. Angelo and Mass Albaneta. It is heading towards the positions where one of the Lvivian battalions has taken its starting base for the attack. The German attack fails under the fire of our artillery, in front of the Lvivians’ position. As soon as the Germans were pushed aside, the Lvivian battalions follow in their footsteps with an attack. They descend the bushy slopes where here and there an l.m.g (light machine gun) spouts rounds from a pillbox that hadn’t been quashed. Passing the gorge between two hills, a row of shrubs at the foot of St. Angelo, they run in an assault to the top of the hill. The Germans lay fire all over the slope from every weapon they have. The German pillboxes thickly arranged on the slope spit lethal fire from slots arranged among the rocks. The slope of St. Angelo under attack is a completely naked rock without any greenery which has to be climbed under continuous fire coming from German snipers and machine guns. At the same time, under continuous fire, the battalion of “Rysie” (trans. note: Lynx battalion) take position at base level; the battalion which only five days ago paid with blood of its very best soldiers the price for breaking to the top of the “Spectre”. One more Lvivian battalion pulls up to the waiting area. It is necessary to once again throw out of every pillbox and slaughter Germans in the battle for St. Angelo. Grenades are thrown into German pillboxes and Thompsons fired, but the ammunition is disappearing fast from the knapsacks, ammunition belts and backpacks of the Lvivians who have to carry everything up the hill, hundreds of meters, not counting a kilometre of crossing. German resistance overcome. It is 7.05 St. Angelo is captured. The soldiers of the Borderland, out of breath and tired of the climb and fight lie among the rocks at the top of the hill. They march small groups of prisoners towards the Brigade. The German artillery gun fire is so heavy that only 14 of the 30 prisoners reach their destination. The rest are killed by German missiles on the way. At 10.00 all hell broke loose with German artillery and mortars covering the conquered hill and the former positions of the Borderland. At the same time other patrols of the Borderland assault the 575 Hill. However, they are pushed off. Our every artillery gun fires in this direction. Quickly ammunition is passed to the Lvivians on St. Angelo. Every crate of ammo has to be carried by ammunition bearers several kilometres up such a steep rocky hill that every few dozen metres it is necessary to literally climb. Not only missiles fly above the heads of the soldiers of Borderland lying under fire. A German plane is throwing leaflets. Not one tough soldier of the Borderland budged. They grasped their Thompsons even harder in the hands and waited for the German attack. A force of two battalions came at them at 12.30. This measures well the Germans’ importance attached to this hill, which blocked the retreat route from Cassino. Once again our every artillery gun fires towards the slope along which the Germans launched their attack. The fierce battle continues for two and a half hours at the top of St. Angelo. It was not until 3.00 p.m. that the Germans, paying the price in huge losses, were able to take over the hill. However, the Germans did not enjoy the victory for long. The same Borderland battalions which just a few days ago bled in the first attack: the “Wilki” (Wolves), now, without their wounded colonel “Ryś” (trans. note: Lynx), without their killed just four hours ago commander, Kamiński, and the Lvivian battalions – all of them for twelve hours under fire and in battle once again move forward. The platoons of the Borderland one after the other once again climb St. Angelo. Once aging they begin to smother Germans in their pillboxes and fight for every rock. Squad leaders keep changing. Major Zychoń takes command over “Lynxes” after Kamiński’s death. He also falls heavily wounded. He dies the next day in hospital. The only captain in the camp that is not wounded, Captain C, takes command. The only thing that does not change is the fierceness, the tenacity and the bravery of the soldiers of the Borderland. When a wounded man is brought down to the dressing station, when an injection helps him to regain consciousness, he asks: Is the Polish flag still flying? Up there, on the Cassino. They have only one desire. That their sacrifice of blood made at the most difficult section of the front line, that their enormous hardship would tomorrow open the way to Rome, just as today it opened the way to Cassino, so that the day after tomorrow it would become a milestone on the way to Lviv and Vilnius. May 1944 Red Poppies Who doesn’t know red poppies, that once amidst wheat fields, amidst various corn fields blushed in crimson. The same poppies today followed us... …innocent hands do not pick them today, to decorate altars, but they grew alone on simple tombs – amongst rocks, on graves of which the whole world speaks. …Through these red poppies, as if upon a fluffy carpet, walks a Polish soldier with a song on his lips about the one that did not die; he walks to battle for a holy cause… Although they are crushed by the steel roller of war, that no one nor anything cannot be protected from – they prevail – invincible. They prevail together with the one that has fallen amongst them, to rest a while... None of us, in fact, like the colour of red, as it strangely rips the heart apart, chills or makes the blood run hot in veins. But, when it concerns poppies, that have settled all around us, everyone smiles upon them, hugs them and speaks sweetly. These poppies flower along the Borderland route, growing on the imprinted footsteps of a soldier that fights his way to his Homeland, who like an enchanted fairytale knight marches towards Lviv, Vilnius, and the rivers Zbrucz, Prypeć and Niemen across seven mountains and seven rivers, where the same poppies grow, but under a thousand times more beautiful sky – because it is their own sky. Passerby, look at these poppies, stay for a while with them, they will tell you the whole truth, as they know everything because they were there – with the soldiers. They saw the pain and the hardship of your friend, your brother, your father, your son as they all walked toward the foot of Cassino, St. Angelo, Spectre. Those poppies grow there, red poppies bedewed with the blood of our soldier. They will be the witnesses of the day of blood and glory. They will lull those that remained amidst them to eternal sleep. Do not look upon them as upon cruel red of the snows and frosts. Remember the other, the one of bright and live days that wrote your history for future generations in golden syllables. Every Spring these poppies will flower for you, not only there in your Country, to which your footsteps lead, but also here upon the banks of Rapido, Liri, at the foot of Monte Cassino, St. Angelo, upon the Spectre, on Monte-Cairo. June 1944 You return unexpectedly And stand at my side. Although I know that you are already gone And all things have changed. Although I know that even if I recover from this grievance. I shall not meet the only one – you. And shall not recover you – never. I walked with you often, During a bright day and in the dark of the night. Not aware, not mine; The luck – followed me. And though from ages past I have lived – just like that – homeless, The most painful of memories Is what is left after you have left. Sleep My Friend in Your Cold Grave I was sitting on ‘706’, in the “bomb-shelter under the dead man” with knees under my chin, covered all in sweat, looking through a pair of field glasses. Every time I wanted to get a better view of the pillboxes on the Spectre or Angelo, I was welcomed with a round fired by Spandaus (trans. note: Spandau gun). The bullets banged with a clatter against the rocks showering us with splinters, forcing us to duck immediately. Sometimes the dust and stench of a mortar missile engulfed us. Apart from this all was quite. The heat poured over our heads from a cloudless sky, a dead man’s body stank. Not for all in the world did the Germans want to show up. “Look – someone is creeping up there…”. Sure enough. Several dozen metres away from the shelter, on the naked slope facing the Spectre, I see a figure, crawling over stones on its belly just like a scout. “They’re gonna kill the guy! They must see him out there in the open!”. We wave our hands. The figure crouches and shouts something to us. We cannot hear because just then the artillery begins a cannonade and 575 is like a volcano. For a moment I forget the intruder and look at the fire. When it stops, he is just a few feet away. He’s not even wearing a helmet. He laughs and continues to crawl. “Hey, mister. God damn you. You’re in the wide open and they can see you perfectly. A Spandau will spit fire any minute now and your done! ” He shouted something back at us, crept up a few more feet and with a single jump of a youngster dropped into our shelter. Without any ceremony he settled himself in (there was not enough space for two, let alone for three), wiped away the sweat from his forehead and introduced himself. “I’m Captain Bączkowski from the DA (trans. note: Division Artillery). My task is to heavily pound the pillboxes on Spectre with British guns.” I recognized him. He was the same chap (only then, he was still a lieutenant) who during the hot Quassasinian (trans. note: orig. Al Quassasin in Egypt) afternoons disturbed our peace with some lectures about “Lightning”, “Thunderbolt” or other “Express” or “ Snail” – types of artillery fire. We cursed him well at that time. He looked quite pleased with himself. “I never wear a helmet. I learned to crawl when I was still a scout, and when it comes to the Spandaus… Well, they didn’t get me in Poland and so they won’t get me her. I believe in my luck”. I kept looking at him from under my brow and wondering if he wasn’t bluffing – but no. His eyes were smiling, his chin aggressively protruded, but no. He was not bluffing. He was a man in his own element. “Come on mister. Stop boasting. They’ll see and immediately start shelling us”. “What the hell! I have to shoot – that’s more important”. “Well, we’ve been here for the past two days and we know something now about them Jerry methods…” “They can’t do anything to us. Shooting is more important than us”. “Well. It’s easy for you to say ‘cause you’ve just arrived. But we value our hides…”. He laughed and continued to lean out of the shelter. Later on the Captain came lumbering down from PAC. Unfortunately, we also had a problem with him as there was no more space and we had to build an extension, whereas Captain Bączkowski once again had a few words with him concerning his competences. He was a DA rep, thus a semi deity along our section. Well, somehow we met no harm. It seems that at that time luck kept following us. I was not with him at the time of the decisive attack on Angelo, 18th May, but then I learnt about all his adventures by way of induction. Captain Bączkowski was a rep of the DA on the Spectre where he was in command of artillery fire. He commanded shooting in all the available regiments bringing down upon himself the curses of all the present division commanders, who had suddenly found themselves playing the roles of minnows forced to listen and obey orders given by “some” young captain. Thus, it was a huge relief when at the moment the attack began, the Captain volunteered, being a spotter in an advance position. He resigned from his function of commanding fire to Captain R and taking a Tommy gun into his hands marched away with the infantry. No one heard of him for a long time. Then, a disturbing report arrived from the telephone operator, who rang to say that he is on Angelo, but alone – without the spotter-officer, who got lost in the commotion of the assault. A search party was sent out – to no avail. And then we received distressing news, that Captain Bączkowski was seen attacking on the right flank with a platoon and that no one from the platoon returned! The DA raised hell as well as the battalion commander. To no avail. Captain Bączkowski was given up and considered for lost. “Such a young and talented man… What a pity!” And suddenly – news. They found Captain Bączkowski. Lightly wounded in the neck. He was attacking the pillboxes and was almost captured. Everybody breathed with easy. And then, it is said, that there was a terrible argument at the DA as he was reprimanded for taking an unnecessary risk, that it is not one of the duties of an artillery spotter to attack pillboxes! Decorations followed from the hands of the Chief-in-Command, the Virtuti Militari, at the Adriatic, where our paths never crossed even once – and finally, 19th October. In my meteor-short career as a correspondent, I found myself at the standing point of the Vilnius Brigade, in some kind of a little house in the mountains along an obviously muddy and blocked road. One of the first persons I met was Captain Bączkowski. “Have you had your breakfast, sir?” he asked smiling (he always smiled). “I see that the Captain’s luck has not run out.” “If you only had known how I was besieged by mortars after you went down 706… …And I was there the next day and they got me too… We talked for several minutes in our spare time. When he was leaving, splashing away in the mud, I noticed he was wearing elegant high boots. “Quite so. A good thing. Quite useful in such terrain”. A day later sitting with Rysiek in Galeata, we were shelled by the Germans. They pounded the town all over, forcing civilians to hide in cellars and as no one else, they cleaned the market place and streets of any unwanted crowds. When the shelling moved towards the nearby Mercatele, we breathed with ease. And at that moment, I didn’t even think of it… Yes. I found out only on the next day when the chief of staff said, that he was going to a funeral. “A funeral? Whose?” Something stung my heart. What the heck? You don’t know? Captain Bączkowski’s! When the Germans began to pound the brigade headquarters in Mercatele, he went off to measure azimuths of fire. He was standing just over there in the doorway when a missile exploded on the other side of the street. It took his leg off and he was badly torn. He died during the night… In my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw the Captain standing tall and smiling in his yellow boots; I remembered the figure crawling up slope ‘706’ and the artillery spotter marching at the Angelo pillboxes with a Tommy gun. Yes. Luck is something of a relative nature. Those who have it will survive – but you never know when you’re lucky! One more Monte Cassino soldier has left us. Young, ambitious, with a very promising future. “Sleep my friend in the cold grave…” We will remember you always. October 1944 “Adriatic Operations of the Borderland” As victors with heads held high coming down the rocky slopes of Cassino, with the soul of a soldier still trembling because of the power of experiences and with pride rising from well fulfilled duty beyond all measure – it seemed to us that our fortunes of war, here on the Italian soil, have been completed and that we, the “soldiers-from-no-land” small in number in comparison with the huge alien forces participating in operations in Italy, will cease to play a dominating role, and from now on, marching modestly at their side, shall reach Poland. It seemed to us that there will be no further opportunities to heave forward using our breasts, like it happened at Monte Cassino, and move the congealed battlefront from its foundations and allow them, the great and mighty, for an assault that gave us the Roman capital and pushed the fate of the Italian campaign in a different direction.