HONOURED MEMORIES

War Thriller

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Like most sons, I looked up to my father as a hero figure. Little did I realise, as I was growing up, how real my regard for him was. My intrigue into my father’s past was aroused during my spell in the British Army and grew more over the ensuing years. Before I reveal the impulse in writing the story, I have taken the liberty of providing a little background. 

In brief, my father was born in 1908 in a part of Prussia which, following the Versailles treaty in 1918, was reinstated as Polish territory. Until the end of World War 1, the country had been partitioned since 1795 between the Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy.

He enjoyed a privileged upbringing and grew up speaking three languages, fluent in both Polish and German and with passable French. After completing two years as a navy conscript, he enrolled in the Police Officer’s Academy. Following a period of duty in uniform, he was transferred to the Second Department of Polish General Staff responsible for military intelligence, counterintelligence and cryptography - colloquially known as Dwójka (Two).

On September 1st, 1939 – the day that marked the beginning of the Second World War – my father was in command of a border crossing in the south-west of Poland. For him, the war started in the early hours of that infamous day and was, as for so many, to change his life forever.

I have deliberately excluded mention of the series or sequence of events in his ensuing chronicle so as not to pre-empt the reader’s enjoyment of the story and so moved this account to the day he left mainland Europe.

My father was among the last few to be evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches on June 4th, 1940. Once in England, he joined the Polish Armoured Brigade based in Scotland. His entry in the Brigade’s records, refer to him as ‘the noble Przemysław Kamiński’.

    Like all of his freedom-loving, Polish compatriots, he held an unwavering belief that he would one day return to his beloved country once it had been liberated. His hopes, however, were crushed with the annexation after the war by the Soviet Union. Fearing imprisonment or worse, if he were to return to Poland - due to his pre-war profession as a Police Officer and role in Polish intelligence - he settled in England with his new bride.

For his contributions he was awarded a total of eight medals, although he placed little importance on them, believing that others who had lost their lives deserved them more than him.

He met and married my mother during the Allied Forces’ occupation of Germany. She had been taken out of Poland during the early years of the war at the tender age of thirteen - one of the many thousands of forced-labourers. An unbelievable number of some eleven-million foreigners, categorised as Displaced Persons were liberated in 1945.

He was eventually reunited with his brother and sisters in the mid 1960s after he became a naturalised British citizen. His parents had died during the war years.

Sadly my father passed away shortly before he could witness the return of the crown to the Eagle in the Polish coat of arms (removed during the communist era) and the re-emergence of the Third Republic in 1989, following the fall of the Soviet Union. As an aside, I was surprised to learn through my research that the current graphic form of the crowned eagle was designed in 1927 by a family namesake, a professor Zygmunt Kamiński.

Like most men who had lived through the tragedy of the war, my father was reluctant to talk about his experiences, however, through my constant bullying he eventually started to open up and relate the odd event and exploit. Over the years I was able to glean a great deal about his life from before and after the outbreak of the war. The more he revealed, the more insight I gained, and the more I realised how much he had endured, and how much he had lost.

Regretfully his deeds and sacrifices, like so many others - unless made known - would have vapourised into oblivion, never to be told or heard.

I continually tried to coerce him into writing his memoirs but to no avail. Unfortunately, I do not possess sufficient detail and documentation to have compiled a worthy biography, and so, with the encouragement of my family, I set out instead to create a work of fiction. The tale has been inspired by a number of his accounts, expanded and hyperbolised as must be the prerogative of a story teller. I unashamedly admit that in moments of a child’s invention, I imagined my father as the main character, Markus.

I have dedicated this story not only to him, but also to the countless men and women who risked, and in many cases gave their lives, in defence of their homeland and their freedom during this diabolical chapter in our history.

 

Finally, it was not my intention to overwhelm¸ or bore the reader. However, I have included snippets of historical facts (bold italics) where I deemed it of particular interest and relevance and also to provide a background to the story and a greater sense of context.

It was sudden and it was explosive. Captain Markus Kazanowski was abruptly awoken from a much-needed sleep in the early hours of September 1st, 1939, and without warning, thrown into a desperate defence against the murderous invasion by a hostile nation. Isolated at his border post and unable to connect with his Command Centre, he undertakes a daring plan. Together with his 2IC, Lieutenant Piotr Bułkowski, his trusted Sergeant, Berek Saks, and the other members of his command, he is determined to hold the enemy, even if only for a short while. Vowing never to surrender, Markus is thrown into an odyssey of conflict, comradeship, tragedy, love and compassion in his resolve to continue the fight, in the vain hope of liberation. …I was breathing heavily, my heart pounding. The acrid smell of gun-smoke hung in the still night air. I surveyed the dark-grey lumps lying on the sides and across the railway track. The absence of colour in the darkness of the night gave the scene an eerie strangeness. Other shadowy shapes were struggling to retreat and stumbled over dead comrades in their eagerness to escape the same fate. Cries for help went unheeded. I loosened my grip on the stock and let my arm drop to my side. The weapon felt lighter - its heat warming my thigh…

Preface

September 1st, 1939

Southern Poland

We had been watching and tracking their movement over the past two days – maintaining surveillance from a safe distance within the concealment of the forested area on the south side of the valley. I referred to my map. They had entered the small village of Jazowsko and appeared to have halted their progress eastwards.

I sat and made myself comfortable in the shadows of the tall pine trees, rested my elbows on my knees, and with my binoculars slowly panned over the activity below.

“What do you think?” asked Saks beside me, also surveying the proceedings through his binoculars. The other four had taken up defensive positions some distance away on either side of us.

We had been shadowing the force of around three thousand men, we ascertained were part of the 2nd mountain division of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group South. The main body of our Army Karpaty – recently augmented by remnants of Army Kraków – were engaging with the German army further north of our position. The detachment Nowak and I had observed two days earlier, had rejoined this division.

From the information we had received, three recently created divisions of the Slovak Republic also accompanied the Germans. They were occupying the towns of Zakopane and Nowy Targ, fifty kilometres to our west. They were not advancing further. I didn’t respond and continued panning the area below. The villagers appeared unperturbed by the sudden incursion of the large military contingent. Some even came out of their homes to engage with the soldiers as they spread out and ensconced themselves among the buildings.

“It looks like they may be billeting here,” I replied eventually. I noted a few starting to erect tents off the back of a truck, at the west end of the village. A few were sprawled around, either sleeping or soaking up the late morning sun. Others engaged in the usual pass times soldiers did between actions – talking, telling stories, playing cards, or just relaxing on their own away from the crowd.

“Uh-huh,” sounded Saks.

I lowered my binoculars, then unslung the water-bottle off my shoulder and took a sip of the cool spring-water.

“Better let the men know that we’ll be here for a while,” I said, and then added, “You take first watch.” I leant back against the tree and closed my eyes. Sleep had been intermittent over the previous few days.

I woke with a start.

“How long have I been asleep?” The smell of soup cooking was wafting up from below.

“Not long. About an hour,” answered Saks. “They’ve set up a field kitchen. It doesn’t look like they’re leaving anytime soon.”

I sat up slowly, arching my back to relieve the stiffness set in while I napped. We were running low on food – rationing ourselves to one small cold meal a day for the last four days. The soup smelled good.

“You better get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.” I told him.

“I’m fine,” he countered. “I slept while you were on patrol last night.” We turned our attention back to the village. “Hello!” Saks straightened up and angled forward.

“What’s up?”

“There. To the right. Towards us.”

I scanned to where he was indicating. A squad of men – I counted twelve – had left the village and were headed to the forest in our direction.

“There’s another group going north,” observed Saks.

“Must be scouting patrols,” I declared, then almost immediately. “Let’s get up ahead of them! I’ve got an idea.”

The six of us raced through the trees staying well ahead of the patrol. They entered the forest predictably keeping to the existing, hewn-out trail.

Their unfamiliarity with the area and terrain would be their undoing…, and our opportunity. I knew the route the track took – from our earlier recces – as it wound its way up the mountain slope.

I set the pace as we made headway keeping the pathway in sight, climbing ever higher and gaining distance on them. We moved swiftly and silently. I did not want to alert or spook our intended quarry. We would occasionally stop and look back, ensuring they were still behind us, then continue to press on. Half an hour later I halted the men. We had arrived at the intended venue. Other than the two youngest of our group, we were breathing heavily. Hot and flustered with our hands on hips, we were leaning back and filling our lungs with the fresh forest air.

“I’m getting too old for this,” quipped Saks. The youngsters chuckled while we continued to catch our breaths.

“Okay,” I started, between deep breaths – still recovering from the exertion. I explained my plan to five eager faces. I estimated we had around twenty minutes before they reached our position.

I adjusted my position slightly to relieve the numbness creeping into my left hand. As always, time seemed to pass more slowly.

The spot was perfect.

They would have to come along the wide gully and pass directly below us – exposed and easy targets in our crossfire.

The steep sides would impede a retaliatory threat reducing their larger number to a less significant and manageable strength. Their progress would be further hampered by the small brook running along the rocky pass. The dense undergrowth and closely grown trees also provided us with camouflaged cover.

The German patrol presented the first real opportunity for us to replenish our supplies. We had the advantage, and I deemed it a risk worth taking.

I had deployed the six of us mindful that we were going to be taking on twice our number. Young Lisowski – who had turned out to be a competent marksman – was stationed on the left of the approach, at the far end. His task was to cover the tail-end of the party.

Saks and Zaleski were positioned on the same side, directing their aim into the gully. Corporal Dembny and Nowak were on the opposite side with the same objective. I took up a spot further on and at a slight bend, giving me a field of fire directly down the line of the advancing men.

We were spaced around ten metres apart – an ample spread for the planned salvo. They were given explicit instructions not to open up until I fired the first shot.

Satisfied that we were ready, I lay motionless – waiting. The rustling of leaves from a gentle breeze overlay an eerie silence. It was as if the forest was also waiting with bated breath.

I had covered all the possibilities, but still could not stop myself thinking about worst-case scenarios. I blew out a series of short breaths to control my creeping anxiety. Again, I replayed my plan. I felt a tightening in my chest. My big gamble was that they would not deviate from the trail.

We have come too far for things to go wrong.

It was going to be our first encounter with the enemy since before leaving Kraków. I knew the others were experiencing the same tensions and concerns, but I was confident they would perform well. We were, after all, six angry men who would take any opportunity to exact revenge on the invaders.

The ambush was far enough away to nullify any meaningful response from the main force. By the time support could be on hand, we would be long gone – leaving no clues to follow. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I was ready.

The first sight was the helmeted head of the lead soldier bobbing into view, as the patrol slowly emerged towards us up the track. On they came, each step bringing them closer. I lay rooted to the spot; not moving a muscle; biting on my lower lip; willing them on towards our deadly trap.

A short distance from the entrance to the gully the leader raised his arm indicating for the squad to stop. He stood utterly still, slowly turning his head to one side and then the other – looking and listening. The others behind mimicked his actions.

A screeching sound of a distant bird broke the silence, catching his attention. He gently lowered himself into a crouch, gesturing with his free arm for his charge to follow suit. Slowly and deliberately, he reached for his binoculars hanging around his neck. He steadily scanned the area. All the while, his squad remained still, not making a sound. He abruptly stopped his surveillance, and I was looking directly into the lenses of his field binoculars. I froze. I didn’t dare blink for fear of giving myself away.

Damn, he’s seen me! Have I miscalculated?

After what seemed an eternity, he continued panning around. I closed my eyes and took a deep, calming breath.

Satisfied it was all clear, he raised and signalled for the squad to continue forward. The thick undergrowth had successfully concealed our presence. One by one, they entered the gully.

I held back. I needed them well inside – wholly enclosed in our net.

The last man struggled his way in and stopped at the entrance. He shouldered his rifle, unbuttoned the flies of his trousers, and started urinating against the wall. The rest continued moving through, unaware of their comrade’s need for relief. I had already chosen my point. I couldn’t wait for the man to finish and catch up. I had to trust that Lisowski had him covered.

It was over in less than a minute!

My first shot threw the squad leader back against the wall, blood spreading through his tunic. The bullet caught him in the chest – he was too close for me to miss. He slumped lifelessly onto the ground.

The man following behind was caught momentarily off guard, unsure of what just happened. Before he could unsling his weapon, my second bullet caught him just below the neck, spinning him around viciously and propelling him to the ground – alongside his fallen leader.

Reacting simultaneously to my first discharge, Lisowski took down the last man at near, point-blank range. The German soldier was still urinating as he pitched to the ground. Immediately traversing his rifle to his right, he brought down the next stunned man with two clear shots. The first bullet caught him in the shoulder, the second in the chest.

I managed to get off another two shots into the panicked platoon. Saks and the other three took the rest out in a hail of bullets, throwing them instantly to the ground. Not one shot did they manage to get off.

We ceased our gunfire and got up slowly from our secluded positions. We looked down into the gully, quietly surveying our work. Once again, a deathly hush descended around us.

One of the downed men moved. A single gunshot echoed through the trees. I looked over at Nowak as he lowered his gun and spat into the slaughter. His cold eyes reflected his contempt for the men below – a feeling shared by all of us.

A small act of retributive justice.

I stood up, my rifle still pointing at the bodies below.

“Lisowski!” I called out.

“Sir!”

“Stay where you are and keep your eyes peeled. Berek, go down with the rest and check the bodies.”

They descended the steep slopes under our watchful eyes.

“They’re all dead,” confirmed Saks looking up at me.

“Okay, strip them of their weapons, ammunition, rations and anything else that might be of use.”

I took out my map and considered the best route back to our temporary base of operations. By the time the main force reacted and discovered the bodies, we would have disappeared without a trace.

I needed to report what we had learned.

Reviewing the various options, I decided to go back down and cross over the valley, east of the village, into the forest on the north side – a safe distance from the encamped German division. For a moment, I held the compass in my hand before closing it shut – contemplating, remembering.

“All done,” Saks reported.

“Good. I’ll meet you at the other end of the gully,” I replied and waved Lisowski over.

Saks distributed the haul, ensuring everyone would carry an equal amount of weight. We still had a long way to go before we would be able to eat or rest. We also needed to re-organise and get a decent night’s sleep.

I took one final look round.

 

“Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Excerpt