August 15, 1944
At five o'clock this morning, the Germans threw in everything they'd got. Wave after wave of Junkers and Stukas flew over, Tiger tanks and Panzers moved to wards us along all the surrounding streets. The din of bombs and shrapnel, the roar of engines, the thunder of hundreds of tons of metal crashing down, all mingled with the rumble of falling walls and roofs, the rattle of machine-guns and the shriek of bullets overhead, like a storm gone mad.
Begrimed runners hurried along in the shelter of walls with messages from officers on the barricades. They all told of what they had seen: In one street tanks had smashed through one of our barricades. Then Captain Proboszcz appeared as though he'd risen out of the ground, he hurled in a grenade at a tank and, immediately after the explosion, he leaped on to the tank, wrenched open the lid and shot the German driver at close range with his revolver: Then he grabbed the German's gun and hurried on. This lad also saw Rola and one of his pals drag out the dead German and get hold of some grenades from inside the tank.
Another runner told us how he'd seen Corporal Iwanski killed by a shell from a tank, which hit him at close range in the stomach. His shattered body fell to the roadway where it was crushed by the tanks that rolled over it and trampled underfoot by his own men. There was nothing left of him for burial.
Four barricades have already fallen to the Germans. Jeremy's unit was sent up as support, but has been driven back, step by step, from Wronia Street towards Zelazna Street. He has lost nineteen of his men, six dead, ten wounded and three badly burned. But Slaz and his lads have burned out three tanks so far with their petrol bottles: All the officers are begging for ammunition:
Just before midday, a messenger ran up, out of breath, asking me to go and see Captain Proboszcz. I found him waiting for me on the corner of our street and Ciepla Street.
“What's going on in your sector?” he shouted as soon as he caught sight of me.
“We're holding all our positions from Rynkowa Street as far as Walicow Street. But things aren't so good beyond Walicow Street. The tanks that got through into our street have got as far as Zelazna Street.”
“What the devil does Jeremy think he's doing You've got two whole companies up there:”
“Jeremy's doing more than we've a right to expect. But he can't fight "Goliaths" with a bottle of petrol: And his men are having to deal with them for the first time. I haven't heard from Janusz. I don't even know if he's still alive. His company are still in the ruins.”
“Let's get over there:”
We could not go along the street as it was under heavy fire from machine-guns. But by going through the Pluton building and across courtyards full of rubble, we were able to get almost as far as Walicow Street. The first German Tiger tank was approaching, without its accompanying ‘Goliath'. In a few minutes it would be able to attack the defenders of the barricade on the other side of the street from the rear:
“Are they deaf or blind or what?” Proboszcz shouted, trying to make his voice heard above the uproar. “Go and liven them up, Lech.”
Proboszcz underlined his order by flourishing a German grenade.
To do so, I had to get obliquely across a fairly wide street. The Tiger tank wasn't more than thirty yards away. It was ploughing up the pavement with bursts of machine-gun fire. In the din, I tried to catch a momentary break between bursts of firing. `Death comes once only,' I thought--and jumped for it. In the middle of the roadway I skidded on something wet and landed head-first on the pavement opposite. A burst of machine-gun fire blazed over my head. I tore on and leaped into the trench behind the barricade: I knew the men holding it. They must have caught sight of the tank and were deliberately letting it come up, for at this moment a fierce burst of air threw me backwards into the trench again. Tongues of flame and thick smoke whirled up round the tank. Three short bursts of firing followed and cut down the Germans as they leapt from it.
Good work, I thought. This will please Proboszcz. I looked round for him and saw the traces of my long skid in the roadway, amidst what I now saw to be scattered human entrails. Near them I saw scraps of human bodies and uniforms, and the heads of two young girls with long curly hair.
“Our ambulance girls,” said one of the lads who was standing by me, as he guessed my thoughts. “If it hadn't been for them, you'd be in heaven by now. They were trying to cross the street with a wounded man on a stretcher.”
“Did you see which way Proboszcz went?”
“He didn't go anywhere. They've just pulled him into that gateway.”
And in the gateway I now saw Proboszcz's driver, kneeling down and unfastening his jacket.
“How did it happen?”
“In the usual way. He followed you, but came out straight along the street. He must have wanted to get to the next gateway. There were two bursts of firing before they got him. Once in the stomach, then higher up, in the chest.”
The rumbling was increasing in the direction of Zelazna Street. Three Panthers were rolling up. A ‘Goliath' preceded the first of them, and I saw it carefully avoiding the larger piles of brick and tangled girders. In the uproar, the sound of bombs falling in the distance was no more than the bursting of puff-balls when you tread on them. The explosions farther away couldn't be heard at all; only reddish brown, sinister plumes of smoke rose above the ruins.
As I went back to my headquarters, I caught sight of a little group of men approaching our street through the ruins. It was the ‘Harnas' group, coming up to lend a hand to the men on the barricade. But I wondered if they could help, after all. Other tanks will move in, and behind the tanks are the German infantry and gendarmes.
Hal reported that he had thrown in everything he had and had no more men. Alexander sent a message to say that he only had one section left in reserve. I still had the assault group under the command of Sergeant Grzes. But how could I expend the rest of my men in a hopeless attempt to resist tanks?
I ran across to the furniture factory. In a big basement room the girls had set up a soldiers' canteen, and the long bare tables were covered with clean white paper. Festoons of leaves had been hung on the walls, with white and red ribbons twined among them. A big eagle, with paper wings outstretched, was hanging on one of the walls. The girls were setting out plates of biscuits: There were some crates of beer. I remembered that it was ‘Soldiers' Da.'
The concert party, consisting of a handful of actors, was sitting about near the windows.
“You're not very hospitable" said one of them, jokingly. "We're here as arranged, but no one's at home. Where are all the men? We can begin the concert as soon as you like.”
Ziuta and Regina stopped me at the exit.
"The stew is getting cold" Ziuta said sadly. "Wouldn't you like just to taste it?”
“Don't bother him with the stew,' Regina broke in. "Don't you understand? Should we get ready to retreat?”
"No, keep calm. I'll send a runner if that becomes necessary. Have you seen Sergeant Grzes ?”
“He's upstairs, in the chapel. The priest is saying Mass for the people who couldn't attend earlier.”
In the ‘chapel' I found everyone kneeling. The Elevation was just being sounded. Grzes was kneeling by the altar, but he caught sight of me at once and nodded to indicate that he understood. Then he gently nudged his neighbours and pointed almost imperceptibly to the door. Singly and in twos the men tiptoed out. As the priest elevated the Host, aircraft came over and the walls shook. Grzes emerged last: The bark of cannon as it drew nearer almost drowned the sound of a silver bell.
Alexander and Tadeusz were waiting at the gate. The barricade on the corner of Krochmalna and Ciepla Streets has fallen to a ‘Goliath'. The tank has broken through. We are about to play our last card.
“Alexander, your last reserves will man the barricade on the corner of our street and Ciepla Street. Tadeusz, you take command. Strengthen the barricade and dig trenches for as long as you can. Take the Caucasians and anyone else you can get hold of from the fire-brigade. Grzes, you take your men to the other side of Ciepla Street, but don't bother about the tanks and don't fire at them. Then attack as far behind the German infantry as you can. Not enough ammo? I'll try to send you some. I'll be waiting for you to report back.”
Barbara and some other girls were sitting in my headquarters. Major Zagonczyk, C.O. of the region, had just telephoned. He wanted to know whether it was true that Proboszcz is dead. He also said he had some ammo for us and had already sent it over.
The tanks in Rynkowa and Ciepla Streets were moving along behind a crowd of civilians, who were being driven ahead to provide cover for the Germans. They were mostly men. I gave the order to fire. Some of the civilians were hit and left lying on the pavement. Then Grzes sent in his first message. He had already come into contact with the enemy in the Krochmalna Street area, and he wanted more ammunition. Fortunately the ammunition sent up by Major Zagonczyk had just come in-four eases altogether. Alexander. is to have one, the other three must somehow be got to Grzes. But German machine-gun fire is coming almost unceasingly from Walicow Street, along our street and from Krochmalna Street along Ciepla.
Who will volunteer to try to get through?
Young Adam was first to step forward. Bent under the weight of two cases, he reached the opposite side of the street before he was hit. Orlinski tried next, with one case, but with only a couple of paces still to go he too fell. Rifleman Lech followed. He lifted the cases and went on. But he didn't make it. The ammunition still had to be got through.
“Next man – Oscar.”
Oscar was fourteen years old. He ran to the far side of the street and dragged the cases lying on the pavement. Good lad! Then he tried to help Adam. By this time both were out of range of the machine-gun fire, but a shell suddenly burst near by. Oscar was covered with blood. Orlinski and Lech slowly dragged themselves towards us, and Marta and Halina went out with stretchers, under fire, to meet them.
The tanks were nearer still. The barricade of Walicow Street has been jettisoned.
The men in their position at No. 13 Krochmalna Street sent a message to say that some women there were trying to persuade the men to change into civilian clothing. The men want to know what to do.
“Don't do it.”
“We know that. But what are we to do with the women? Send them away.”
The tanks moving from Walicowa Street must by now be very close to Tadeusz's barricade, for we can hear the whistle of bullets as they smash into the walls through the open doors of the shop.
“We'd better go over to the other side of the street," Barbara suggested, “otherwise we'll be cut off”
She was right. Two men took the telephone and carried it over, carefully unwinding the cable line. Jadzia and Wanda collected papers and oddments. Basia grabbed the typewriter and hurried across.
It wasn't until this moment that I realised that all the houses in our street were empty. Signs of hasty flight were everywhere. Shells from the cannons of tanks burst against the facade of the furniture factory. The telephone operators reported that they had set up the telephone in the doorway of No. 19 and were in contact with the commanding officer of IV Region. Then Major Zagonczyk asked for me.
“I know you're in trouble. I'll do what I can to help. But you've got to hold your street. You've got to. Can you do it?” “We'll hold out, sir.”
The shells were coming closer. I looked round and saw young Hajtek, one of Alexander's runners, without any weapons. The two telephone operators were unarmed too. I hadn't a single grenade left. When the ammunition arrived from Zagonczyk I'd forgotten to keep any for myself.
Then Ryki spoke up.
“What about your sabre? You've left it in the shop.” “You know what you can do with my sabre!”
I had just reached the gateway of the furniture factory when a powerful blast deafened me. A shower of bricks was falling. A ‘Goliath' had blown up the last of our barricades. What had become of the men who were there?
I ran through the factory. It was deserted. There were still a few plates of cake in the canteen, and the paper claws of the eagle had folded up grotesquely. In the chapel, the chairs and benches were overturned, the walls were spattered with bullet-holes.
I started along the street. The smoke had died down a little. To my left was a deserted barricade; then, immediately below the corner block of flats, the corpse of a tank half buried in a trench was smouldering. The firing had died down. I crossed the street and cautiously went up to the barricade. I looked over the top, and saw a powerful Tiger tank snarling half-way down Ciepla Street.
But I could hardly believe my eyes. It was retreating. Another tank stood near Krochmalna Street, motionless. Its caterpillars had been ripped off And down there, near the barracks, I saw a third tank dead, with its covers open. I looked to the west, along our street. The sun was shining in my eyes as it sank across the distant suburbs enshrouded in red mist. Then I saw that it wasn't mist but a storm of dust. Everything was covered in dust-walls, fences, the heaps of brick and rubble scattered across pavements, the shattered roadway, the motionless iron tanks-all were the same dull reddish colour. Only here and there dim outlines revealed the presence of the dead, lying in this valley of death.
From across the battlefield two of the lads appeared, clumsily scrambling past the smouldering tank. I hardly recognised Tadeusz and Puchacz, for they looked as if they'd dug themselves out of a heap of cement. Somehow they'd survived, hidden by the heavy balustrade of a balcony on the first floor immediately above the barricade. They'd let the tank come up to the barricade so that they couldn't miss, for although they were half buried in rubble their arms were free.
I reported back to Zagonczyk by telephone.
“We've held our street. The Germans are retreating. We ought to send patrols out after them and try to man the barricades again. We ought to bring in the wounded and bury the dead. But there are only six of us left. We haven't a single bullet or grenade. As far as I know, only half of Alexander's company is still holding out in their position between Rynkowa and Ciepla Streets. We must relieve them, or they'll fall asleep at their posts.”
Meanwhile more and more people started to come in. Some began digging in the big factory yard behind my new head-quarters. Women with stretchers appeared in the gateway. Someone brought a bucket of water. Barbara was there too. She told me that the battalion office had been set up in Sienna Street, and that the girls were fixing up a kitchen in the same building. The hospital in Marianska Street has allowed them to make some coffee there. The stores have been transferred. But I still hadn't heard from Janusz or Grzes. Two new telephone operators, girls this time, have been sent to take over night duty. Camp-beds have been set up in the gateway, beside the telephone. Mattresses for runners and the ambulance girls have been laid out along the wall.
It was growing dark when we lowered the first bodies into deep pits. Janka and Alina brought hot coffee and poured it into our mugs. People paused in their work, and leaned on their spades, above the open graves, to drink greedily.
“Please drink this,” said Janka, giving me a mug of coffee. “You ought to eat something too.”
Our spades cut into the ground, and the earth fell softly and very quietly on shattered bodies and bloodstained uniforms.