Return to England
Excerpt from By Parachute to Warsaw by Marek Celt, published by Dorothy Crisp and Co., London 1945. The author is describing the circumstances of his return to England from occupied Poland on July 26th, 1944. It is now known that this was Operation Wildhorn III, and that the "mail" that was flown back to England included the key parts of a German V-2 rocket, which had been recovered unexploded by the Polish underground.
In the middle of June, 1944, when I had been in Poland four months, I was summoned suddenly one day to the Chief Delegate.
"It must be something very special, and quite short," the liaison-woman told me, "because he only wants to see you for fifteen minutes, and it's not in any of his usual rooms. It's in the street, probably on the way from one meeting to another."
With the ease of habit I was memorising all the details of the rendezvous.
"What on earth can it be?" I wondered aloud.
The liaison-woman smiled,
"Most probably you've blotted your copy-book, sir! You'd better tell him straight out! It does happen -- even to 'jumpers.'"
From a long way off, as I approached our meeting place, I could make out the familiar figure of "the Doctor," as we called the Chief Delegate. (Note: His name was Jan Stanislaw Jankowski. ) He was walking among the numerous passers-by, not distinguished by anything at all. He was poorly dressed, with a worn old hat pulled hard down on to his forehead.
How strange, I thought, how wonderful! People don't recognise him; they don't imagine that here, close beside them he is rubbing shoulders with two S.S. officers standing on the pavement -- the head of the Underground State.
Usually "the Doctor" would start our conversations by asking me about my private life in Warsaw, how I was getting on, and how my work was going. His warm, fatherly voice would let fall one or two scraps of advice. And only then would he start on the topic which we had met to discuss.
This time there was no introduction. We shook hands, and "the Doctor" asked in a low voice:
"How much longer do you need to finish your work for the Prime Minister and myself?"
"Three weeks, Sir."
"Good. Finish it; and at the same time prepare yourself to leave. You will have a whole fourth week, in addition, to spend entirely on collecting and packing the material which you must take with you. The Head Archivist and my photographer will help you. All the reports will be photographed. The most important will be cyphered. The press you will take in the original."
"I've got a lot of newspapers prepared already."
"Good. Well, bring them up to date -- everything that has not been sent till now. And you will take the film, one or two books and some pieces of music composed under the occupation." (Note: These photographed documents have survived. The musical compositions were attributed to fictional composers with the last names of trees, i.e., Maple, Chestnut, etc. -- to wit, Klon, Kasztan, Jawor, Modrzew.)
"Yes, Sir. You know we lost the reel showing the festival? But I've got one of the ruins of the Ghetto, small sabotage, and so on."
"Next time you see my secretary he will give you dates and addresses, and the names of people you ought to meet again before you go. The liaison-officer with the Home Army will fix you a meeting with the members of the Higher Command. He will give you money for the journey, too, and all the details. You'll be in charge, and you'll have several important people going with you. You know them. You ought to speak to the heads of all the administrative departments, and the representatives of the churches and the youth organisations, too; but I think you have your own contacts with these. In any case, that lot is too expensive for me. If you can't let me have it cheaper, I can't take it -- that's all!"
Only for a fraction of a second was I puzzled by this concluding digresion. Someone was approaching us from behind. We could not stop our conversation, because that in itself, if it were the Gestapo just coming into earshot -- would look suspicious. The normal procedure of the Germans, when they think persons in the street look suspicious, is to lead them a little way apart and question them on the spot as to what they were talking about. If you cannot make your answers tally, you have two alternatives: to make a dash for it straightaway, hoping that, firing hurriedly, they will miss you; or else -- to Aleja Szucha. (Note: the dreaded prison and interrogation centre.)
In this case I had been fully instructed by the liaison-women, and I answered at once:
"Why can't you listen? I've told you already that you can have it cheaper, so long as you take the whole load."
The figure, apparently innocent, had passed us quickly and was already moving out of earshot. In a minute "the Doctor" said:
"Well, good-bye, Celt. Our next meeting will be as usual. You'll bring that report about the Youth Organisation?"
"I've got it here to-day, Sir."
"Yes, but I can't take it with me now. Bring it next time. You'll be ready to leave on the 15th of July."
We parted. For a few minutes I still saw the figure of "the Doctor." Then he was lost in the crowd.
I left Warsaw in the second half of July, accompanied by the same friend who had jumped with me in April. (Note: that was Joseph Retinger ) But he, during his four months' stay, had grown terribly ill and was now paralysed, with no strength in his hands or his legs. (Note: It is now known that Dr. Retinger was paralysed as a result of being poisoned by a nurse soldier of the AK, who had orders to kill him with an injection. Her name is Izabela Horodecka. For some reason, she only gave him half the intended dose and he survived ) He was one of the important passengers that I was to accompany on the return flight.
After two days of dangerous and very tiring travelling we arrived safely at a small town. Placing my friend on a bench in the public park, I made my way to a shop in a side street; and as soon as I entered I recognised two people who had been described to me in Warsaw -- a man and a girl.
"Can I speak to Mr. Krzysztof?"
"Yes. I am he."
"Ah, good morning. I have brought the bouquet for Miss Sophie."
"Are there violets in it?"
"No, but there are roses."
I was invited into the room behind the shop, and in this way my friend and I passed into the hands of the local branch of the Home Army which was organising our departure from Poland.
That same evening we were already far from the town, in a small village lying only a few miles from the intended scene of the picking-up operation. For this journey to London was to be made by plane. (Note: The author's return to London from his first parachute mission into occupied Poland in December of 1941 was an arduous overland journey involving numerous outrageous disguises and several months in a Spanish prison and concentration camp. ) The next day I was told that my great bag of mail was already in the village. It had come by another route. Our other companion on the journey was living in a neighbouring village.
Now, apart from eating, sleeping and getting sunburned, I had absolutely nothing to do. I rested for two days. Then I began to get bored. Lying in the sun, hidden from any eyes except those of our host and my friend, I had ample time to arrange my thoughts. I remembered all that I had to say when I came to the end of my journey; and really it was a lot of information. And I thought about the journey itself. I was glad -- and I was not. Of course, I was nervous of the risks. But on the other hand, I felt a deep sense of relaxation in the knowledge that within a few days, probably, I should be able to sleep safely, to walk safely on the streets, to wash with real soap; that I was going to be free. I was happy that I was to carry out my courier's task to the end. I was happy to be making so many people happy. But, more than either fear or joy, I felt sorrow: a terrible sorrow at leaving Poland, at leaving these splendid people, my people, who would be still fighting as bravely as before, when I was in safety, far away and unable to help them.
Each day, in the afternoon, I went and asked the same question, and each day was given the same answer: the "operation" was off. Sometimes it was bad weather in Poland, or on the route, or at the base.
And our situation was beginning to get complicated locally. The eastern front was rapidly approaching this part of Poland. There were always more and more German troops in the neighbourhood. There were enormous round-ups for forced labour on fortifications. Some four miles from the spot where the "operation" was to take place the Germans started to make a new military airfield. It was finished in less than two days. Every hour German planes landed and took off. They were in the air constantly, mostly transport planes, but also -- what mattered more -- a few fighters. Then a regiment of German cavalry was quartered in two villages close by. The police posts were strengthened, and the Gestapo cars were always busy on the roads.
On the 25th of July, I got a different answer.
"To-night it's on. Everything is fixed. The passengers must be ready at eight o'clock."
With hands shaking from emotion, I packed my few things, one or two souvenirs from relatives and friends, a few books, and some German newspapers. Then I went out again.
In the quiet, empty country church full of flowers and greenery and lit by the beams of the setting sun which slanted through the stained glass windows, I made my confession to the village priest. He also was a member of the Underground, and he was more moved even than I. As he left the church,
"God bless you, my son," he said to me; and his voice shook.
With his fingers he made the sign of the cross on my forehead. I kissed his hand. And I was left alone. I prayed for a moment, thanking God that the "operation" was to come off at last and asking that it might be successful.
I did not know how to pass the time till evening. Sitting down at the small harmonium I played quietly, my thoughts gradually farther and farther away. The clanging cow-bells as the herd came in from the fields reminded me of the passing of time. Slipping discreetly along the field paths I came home.
Presently, two officers of the Home Army arrived.
"Good evening." My friend and I both smiled. "We're quite ready."
They did not say anything. Their faces were horribly serious. They closed the door and windows carefully and sat down at the table. Then the senior started to speak.
"The situation is practically impossible. I am very sorry. And the plane is already on its way. But I see no chance of carrying out the operation successfully. Never mind about the aerodrome; we can deal with that. It is much more serious. This afternoon a German plane landed on the reception field, stood there for about ten minutes and then took off again. Four hundred Luftwaffe soldiers have been quartered in a village about a mile from the field. They have about forty heavy machine-guns, twenty lorries and a few smaller cars. The sentries on the outskirts of the village aren't three quarters of a mile from the field. They couldn't conceivably fail to miss the plane, even if they didn't notice our lights. The cavalry is only two miles away on the other side."
"What do you suggest, then?" my friend asked.
My throat was so constricted I could not get a word out.
I felt something like resentment against God. I had been so sure, in the church. Now -- would the next chance ever come? The mail, and the other, more important travellers -- would they ever reach London?
"I can't take the decision," the officer said. "I can risk my soldeirs' lives and my own. But I have no right to risk yours, or the fate of the mail. If there is a fight, and it looks inevitable, I am positive that we shall lose. Each of you must decide for himself. And quickly -- if you don't mind. If the operation is on, I must start in half an hour to give my last orders. That is why I came."
I was desperate. How could I say "Yes?" If I did, my two fellow passengers might lose their lives -- and their lives mattered much more than mine -- many soldiers would be killed and the mail might fall into the hands of the Gestapo. I was savagely angry with the officer for throwing the responsibility on to us.
I had not the slightest idea, at that moment, what to do.
My friend said nothing.
Night came slowly nearer. The two officers sat drumming with their fingers on the table and looking at us in silence. Our host came in. He brought the paraffin lamp and placed it on the table, cut the wick and lighted it. He drew the curtains and looking all around the room went slowly out again.
Suddenly my friend spoke.
"There are two questions: if they catch us, shall we have time to destroy the mail? If there is a fight, will the neighbourhood suffer for it later?"
The senior officer answered instantly.
"Yes -- to your first question -- quite sufficient. We can hold them off for twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour. To your second -- one can never say for certain. I should not anticipate anything very serious. But in any case, there is a clear rule of the Underground that if work which has to be done involves risk to some civilians -- it must be done nevertheless."
My friend said, "Carry on."
Now both officers looked at me.
While they had been speaking a vague recollection had come into my mind, and now, I caught it clearly. It was the priest's words:
"God bless you, my son."
I found myself speaking:
"My answer, too, is -- carry on with the operation. If the terrain allows it you can change the reception field; there is still time. If not -- in the old place. The worst danger is the Luftwaffe soldiers. Put most of your men that side. I feel sure the Germans landing there was an accident. The cavalry on the other side of the wood won't find us in time. If the operation goes through quickly we shall be in the air within a few moments. Then you can fight and run in the dark."
My friend nodded, without a word; and the officers rose.
"Don't worry about us," they said. "We shall be all right. We must ask the other passenger. He matters most. (Note: That would be Tomasz Arciszewski (1877-1955) who was about to take office as the Premier of the Gov't in Exile ) If he agrees, we shall proceed. In that case the horses will come for you at ten o'clock."
I put out the lamp and opened the window. Lying in my clothes on the sofa I waited in the darkness. Somewhere far away a rifle shot rang out, then a second. The deep bass voice of artillery rolled occasionally in the far distance, as it had been doing all through the last few days. Once I heard the sound of a plane's engines and jumped to my feet.
Ten o'clock came and passed. I could no longer stay still. I started to walk about the room, stumbling against the furniture. I was trembling from the chilly night air and from nerves. At about a quarter to eleven we heard the noise of wheels. We went out. In the cart we found one fellow passenger and an escort of the Home Army. We exchanged a few words, our hearts filled with joy and hope. Good-bye to our host, and then the road in the dark.
It was a difficult journey, over rutted tracks and roads full of potholes. Several times we avoided the ditch by inches. Several times we were stopped by Home Army guards. We took a complicated and twisting route to keep clear of all villages and German positions.
Gathered in a close group on the huge field we whispered together with the Commanding Officer of the "reception committee." It was a quarter to twelve.
"We're less than a mile from the Germans," he said. "We couldn't change the field. The ground is too wet, and there are ditches. The guards are all right. But be as quick as possible getting into the plane. We shan't get away without a fight."
I looked round in the darkness. The carts had been left near the wood. Near us several sinister shadows appeared and disappeared. I made sure that the mail was there. And my two important companions for the journey, and also two young officers of the Home Army who were going with us, were ready. One, my friend, was hanging on my arm. We had carried him from the cart.
The night was perfectly silent -- no sound from the Germans, no sound from the sky. Our words were but short whispers. I seemed to live only in my ears.
"Here he comes!"
The little flock of watchers stirred.
The sound of engines was soft, and so distant. It grew and shrank, approached and withdrew. It was lost. And then it came again. I could not tell which was the noise of the wind-stirred trees and which of the plane. Then it came close again, and closer. It increased, increased, and roared.
The whistle of the Commanding Officer sounded precisely, and on the field around us lights sprang out like glow-worms. They ringed us in a wide-flung wreath, and across the centre they drew a path for the landing.
The luminous hands of my watch stood at five minutes to twelve.
We were all shaking with emotion. The sound circled above us.
"He's seen us."
"There. He's coming in. He's landing!"
I, too, could make out the plane's shape. And then the two giant searchlights went on.
But he is not following the lighted path. He is coming straight for us. In a second he is going to smash the whole group into the ground.
The man at my side was powerless to move, and I could not leave him. But the others did not stir either. It was all too quick. We seemed struck by a general paralysis of the will. Blinded by the searchlights, deafened by the sound of the motors, fastened to the earth like a field of corn beneath a hailstorm, we remained there. Some of us were lying on the wet grass. It cannot have been more than twenty yards from us that the plane touched the ground. Before my eyes the glancing propellers whirled in the silver searchlights. I could not think. This was the end.
But it was not. The pilot saw us. The engines bellowed. The wheels did not touch the earth a second time. With astounding noise the black monster swept up and over our heads.
The searchlights went off, and he started to circle again.
In loud, rather unnatural voices, we talked of death, which had brushed us so closely. Then.
"He's trying again."
"Better this time."
"Not so much to the right. Yes -- left more, left, left!"
Involuntarily the second-in-command of the "committee" shouted directions.
The machine touched down, taxied along the grass, turned full circle and stood still at the far end of the lighted run-way. Its searchlights went off. We ran towards it.
A soldier of the Home Army helped me to carry the sick man. As we passed behind the tail, we felt the violence of the slip-stream. The door of the plane was open, and the passengers of the outward trip were emerging. The crew and the Home Army men unloaded the material, passing it from hand to hand and into the carts.
The engines were still running. We, the new passengers, waited for the order to climb in. One of the crew brushed past me. Yes, I remembered his face from the journey out. In one hand he carried a trowel, and, bending down, he dug with a swift urgent movement at the earth, thrust several clods into an empty mail-bag and with it jumped back into the plane.
"Passengers and mail embark!"
Once inside, I relaxed. The passengers in my charge were safely there. The mail was all lying on the floor. From outside, through the noise of the motors, came the shouts of "Farewell." I distinguished the voice of the "reception committee's" commander.
"Au revoir, in free Poland. And, remember, send us more arms!"
The door closed violently. The crew passed us and disappeared one after the other into the pilot's cabin. One of them was a New Zealander, and there were two Englishmen and one Pole. As the last went into the cabin he shouted:
"Hold tight, and don't forget your belts! We're taking off in a moment."
The motors roared with mounting volume again. The whole plane seemed to be in motion. In a minute it would rush forward and leap into the air. Through the window beside me I watched a soldier of the Home Army standing near the wing with a green torch shining in his hand. I saw the tall grass bending beneath the slip-stream. After a while the light would grow distant and vanish.
What was happening? The engines were slackening.
The door of the pilot's cabin was wrenched open. Bounding past us the pilot yelled at the top of his voice:
"All out! We're going to fire the plane!" (Note: The pilot was F/Lt S.G. Culliford, a New Zealander )
As we struggled to the door I dragged at the mails, and then thrust out my helpless friend, almost throwing him into the arms of the Home Army soldier below.
"Passengers and mails to the carts."
We went, walking slowly over the wet grass. From time to time I turned my head to see if they had started to burn the machine. For a moment I was just curious. How would it look? Then I felt plain fear. What were we going to do with ourselves now? If the Germans had not noticed us up till now, or had not guessed what was going on, the blazing plane would certainly fetch them. We ought to fly at top speed. But my companions could not. One was sick and powerless and the other very old.
The engines went off. I was praying feverishly, my mouth dry. I did not know for what I was praying: whether to get the mail and my friends away safely into the woods; to take off after all; or to have a machine-gun; but at last it seemed for nothing in particular, only repeating
" ... but deliver us from evil ... deliver us from evil ..."
From the plane someone was shouting. For a moment I did not understand. Then I heard exactly --
"Passengers and mail back!"
We ran. A soldier and myself dragged the invalid. The others were behind us.
"What is it? What's happening?"
"Get in! We're taking off!"
"The wheels were bogged. We've got some planks and straw down. It may go."
We were inside again, and the door was shut. The engines screamed into lif -- first one and then the other. They ran for a moment.
Are we moving? But the green light is motionless. Oh God! The same thing again.
The cabin door opened; but I did not wait for the pilot's words. I was already at the door when they reached me.
"We're going to fire the machine!"
This time we did not move far from the plane. They told us to wait. The engines fell silent. Somewhere above us I heard another engine. Drenched with dew and sweat we waited. In front of the wheels, still sunk in the mud, they were digging two narrow ditches.
"Back! We'll try again."
I heard the pilot say: "Well, I've cut off the brakes altogether. That may do it."
Again the door slammed. The commander of the "Committee" shouted once more, as he had already shouted twice,
"Au revoir, in free Poland! And remember, send us more arms!"
What is he screaming for, the fool? Must he shout it every time -- if we don't move, anyway? I was so indifferent. I was past caring.
But when I sat once more on the bench and looked once more through the window at the green light, I was caught suddenly by the excitement of a gambler -- should we move, or not? I was emptied by exhaustion, and yet my emotion grew terrible. It seemed to me that my heart was rising in my throat. My face burned and throbbed. It was a dream! I was mad! I was falling off a precipice! Where was the green light? It was going -- it was farther, farther! ...
"It's moved!" I shouted.
The plane lurched. It gathered strength. It strained, reached forward and -- with a great sigh stretched itself on the air.
I looked at my watch. It was half-past one o'clock on the 26th of July, 1944.
For nearly an hour and a half our machine had stood on the ground. It had raped the silence with its roaring motors, and fallen quiet, torn the night with the flaming bands of its searchlights, and grown blind. How had it happened that the Germans had not attacked us? I did not know. I do not know. But this I did know. Without any doubt at all they had seen us, and heard us.
Yet until the very moment of our taking off, not one shot had sounded. Not one threatening torch had gleamed in the distance. Perhaps the fight was just starting. This I did not know either. And I do not know now.
I looked through the window. Below us it was black. Nothing, absolutely nothing was to be seen. Only darkness.
So we tore ourselves away from the soil of Poland, and so I looked my last moments upon it. Darkness -- that was all. But there were people left down there, men and women who, in spite of this darkness would live and fight, waiting for the dawn.
We had the wind behind us, and we flew fast. The night around us thinned, grew grey and paled at last. The stars went out like candles in church, one by one. And then the lovely golden sun came up out of the waves of the Adriatic Sea, defeating the darkness. (Note: They were flying to Bari.)
This was freedom. The power of our great plane carried us forward into it; but those, left behind, they can only wait and shed their blood. We must hurry, for we are short of petrol. And they must hurry also, before too much blood is shed.
We were nearing the base. I was glad and I thanked God. I felt so happy, and so strong. Fool! I did not know then that within a few days I should bite my fingers until they bled so as not to burst into tears in pulic, that I should spend sleepless nights in a torture of powerlessness and regret, because there, far away, Warsaw rose and fought. And I could not help her. And I saw so many who could not help. And so many who could help but would not. Until at last, one September night, a good voice whispered to my troubled heart,
"Do not lose hope. Be strong again. No sacrifice can be in vain -- and surely so great a one must triumph!"
Excerpt 1: Arrival By Parachute
Excerpt 2: The Tragedy of the Jews
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Updated March 30th, 2007 by Jan Chciuk-Celt