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Zygmunt Skarbek-Kruszewski. Bellum Vobiscum: WWII Memoirs.
Copyright © 2001-2008 Skarbek Consulting Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.
First Days in 'No Man's Land'
August 1–3, 1944
Warsaw's time had arrived. The army of insurgents came out from the underground. Gates were being locked, shutters let down, no trams were moving, passers-by disappeared from the streets. Houses became fortresses, streets and squares battlegrounds. The block in which we lived also had a gathering point. The block of houses where we stayed was built by a co-operative for treasury employees and was very well suitable for forays by the insurgents. It was a big block of solid brick buildings enclosing a large yard with exits to Rakowiecka Street and the fields of Mokotow. It was surrounded by four streets, two closed iron gates guarding the entrances. In the middle, a rectangular yard the forum for the co-op. members. The fronts of the houses faced the yard. The balconies, overgrown with vines, were facing towards the yard from where the entrances led to the separate flats, each marked with Roman numerals. Aca cia trees provided shelter and, instead of asphalt, there were green lawns with shrubs. Fat rabbits were jumping around playing with children. This was our yard – the arena for future events for people who lived here. There were about one thousand inhabitants in these flats.
When the uprising started there were friends and acquaintances who had come for a visit in our block. Some came from nearby streets, some from further suburbs. All these people were now unable to return to their homes as the streets were covered by crossfire. They all had to stay with us and share our fate until the end. Those from our block who were out had to stay where they were. Most of them never returned, especially those who were caught by the uprising whilst in central Warsaw or the 'Old Town'.
UPRISING .... UPRISING ... the news flew around. The clatter of steps down the stairs and anxious faces peering through the windows. This exceptional news penetrated all floors, attics and basements and the yard. In the yard the insurgents were already gathering into their sections. The last one had just arrived. Where did they come from? Who knows - just out of the ground. There were about thirty of them. Hurriedly they were fastening their insurgent's armbands. Some had helmets, some only hats – there were railway and tram caps and also caps worn by high school students. They were all in civilian clothes. They were a part of the Warsaw crowd which only a short time ago was covering streets, busy with their everyday lives. To the foreground of the group came a solidly built young man with a sub-machine gun in his hand and binoculars hanging from his neck. Hand grenades were distributed and orders issued. He was the leader of this section and allocated each to his post. Some singly, some in pairs were leaving the group taking positions near the gates, in the attic and windows. The remaining few were left as reserves and posted near the entrance to the basement. Our block was closed off. The leader rushed towards the east gate as from this direction intensified shooting was coming. In the other corner of the yard women were organising a first-aid station. Into the basement where the laundry was they brought field beds and tables for operations, medicines, bandages and various containers were placed on the shelves. On the door appeared the sign: First Aid Station. Along the wall stood stretchers and three young nurses were ready to receive the victims.
Evening came. One could hear, somewhere far away, heavy artillery, its thunder reverberating between our walls. In the street the shooting continued without stopping. Rifle bullets were breaking the plaster, grazing the walls and some of the bullets broke the windows entering the rooms.
We were cut off from the rest of the world. Those who at the last minute found shelter here had to stay and those who were away were unable to return.
I went nearer to the group of insurgents who were standing near the basement entrance. The young nurses were just bringing them a hot drink in metal beakers. Some of them were leaving, going towards the south gate. Opening the wrought iron gate carefully, they left in a single file. The street was empty. They were walking close to the walls. Each one of them was holding a hand grenade, or rather a petard, the shape and size of an egg. These were their only arms. Apart from the leader, I had not seen anyone of them with a rifle, revolver or any other firearm. Noticing this fact with astonishment, I went towards one of the youths. He was standing guard at the gate, holding his grenade. He was a young lad without a hat, with hair falling on his forehead, very clean with a well-ironed shirt and a dark jacket. He looked like a matriculation student.
"Did you see something?" he asked, edging outside. "At present it is empty. Do you have some other arms?" I asked him.
"Were you issued with grenades?"
"Only this one," he told me, showing his egg.
"What? Just this one? And with this one you are to..."
He interrupted, "Our section in this suburb will try to capture a munition store. The preparations have already begun – if we succeed we will have arms."
We heard steps on the street. The young boy looked through the gate and immediately opened the gate wide. Two insurgents were holding a third one who was barely moving his feet. When he lifted his head I saw a large bleeding wound just above his eye. He was deathly pale and blood was dripping down his collar. He was the first victim. The young nurses took him under their care.
This was the first August night, full of stars. It was also the first night of the uprising. We did not sleep this night. Under cover of the night the young partisans were storming the arms depot. We could hear the fighting. German searchlights moved over the roofs and dull sounds of the Front came from the outskirts of Warsaw. Only at dawn were we able to get some sleep but were woken suddenly by the sound of anti air raid artillery coming very strongly from the fields of Mokotow. The shooting was so near that one could hear the jarring sound of cannon gunstocks during the recoil. It reminded me of the roar of a hoarse elephant. The nearest guns were about two hundred metres from our house. I rushed to the balcony. Most of the people were standing at the windows and pointing somewhere towards the sky. I looked up. Between the white clouds gleamed white dots in the sky. They were probably Soviet planes. We went down to the basement. The majority of people were already there. Some were sitting on suitcases, some on chairs that they had brought down. A long narrow corridor of red bricks connected all the separate basement rooms. In the corridor, every few steps were numbered doors to the basement cellars of their owners. Some families even brought down their beds and all their belongings. Crowded together we all discussed the last events while waiting for the end of the air raid. I learned here that all partisans had left our block, supposedly to join other groups in our district. We were left to ourselves, a prey to the fancy of future events. Generally, feelings and rumours circulating between the people were quite optimistic. The general opinion was that the uprising would not last more than a few days. With great excitement it was repeated again and again that the Soviet Army was already in Praga (a suburb of Warsaw) and that Radzyn and Rembertow were already re-taken. These rumours were given as facts.
"Don't you hear the Soviet artillery shooting at the last German positions near the town? And these air raids overhead? The German situation is hopeless. This is quite obvious. Warsaw surrounded by the Soviet Army and in the city the uprising. You don't have to know strategy to evaluate the situation. It is critical for the Germans. It is only a matter of days." This was delivered in a booming voice by an evacuee from Lublin - a chemist who lived here with his relatives. Another voice, somewhere among the suitcases, "I have heard that the insurgents already have full control in Stare Miasto (Old Town) and the main railway station. The Germans have lost liaison with other units and are surrendering en masse." This was the 'vox populi' (voice of the people) in the catacombs of our housing block.
In the meantime our observers from the roofs announced that the planes had left. A bit distrustful, the people started to leave the basement. The shooting was less violent than before. Shooting in the streets did not scare us as much as in the first days. Slowly we started to adjust to the situation of the uprising. The high brick walls gave good protection from stray bullets. So far nobody was hammering at the gates. Slowly we began to get used to the atmosphere. The streets remained empty. The inhabitants started to come down to the yard and sit on benches, children played between shrubs with wooden sticks, the game was war... and chasing rabbits which were trying to hide from the screeching warriors. The men were walking along the footpath, commenting on the scanty and infrequent news.
From the moment of the uprising we were quite cut off. The telephones did not work, nobody had a radio, the paper published on the morning of the uprising never reached the streets. As there was no communication between the suburbs, the London bulletin did not reach us either. The news traveling around our block came from some elusive sources. Someone had heard from someone in the next house who had a radio... all our information centres were only of this kind. Standing on the balcony and just looking down I would know when news arrived. Someone would stop somebody and start to talk earnestly, others would join and listen, the group would grow and then disperse. Men would rush home and news would travel through the whole building. The same was happening just now. Amidst the increasing group I saw an unfamiliar face and came down the stairs. For the first time a woman from outside came to our block (from Kielecka Street). Sneaking through parks and backyards, she had reached o ur block. The situation in Kielecka Street was very similar to ours. The partisans had also left. There were also no Germans – they, like us, were in no man's land.
"What is happening in the city? Where are the Russians?" Questions came from all sides.
"The heart of the city is in the hands of the insurgents, our white/red banner is flying on the Town Hall."
"The Russians have already taken Praga and are near Grochow," she continued, proud of her mission.
This news was accepted without criticism – one simply wanted to believe. Nobody even asked where this news came from. Why should one ask? Our banner was flying on the Town Hall... and everyone knows that the German situation is quite hopeless... one does not have to know strategy...
The mood was happy, the August weather was good and the evening quiet. Even the pigeons which disappeared during the noisy first day of the uprising started to come back, circling the roofs and, with friendly cooing, settled on the trees of the yard.
The night of the second day of the uprising passed quietly. At dawn some planes circled over Warsaw. Making large circles, they were flying very high. Even with binoculars I was unable to read the markings. Many people were already in the basements, some standing near open doors scanning the sky with field glasses. Some were certain that the planes were Russian, others just as certain that they were German. Others were ready to take an oath that they were English. From inside the basement, an elderly lady intervened.
"It is unimportant to which side the planes belong – each of them can bomb Warsaw. The Germans will bomb and shoot the Poles. The British and American ones will shoot the Germans. The Soviet planes" – here she hesitated a second – "could shoot one or the others. It is important that the doors of the shelter are closed. I ask you, sirs, please come inside and kindly shut the door."
Shortly after the doors were shut, sounds of shots and hollow drumming came from the street. The vibrations were so strong that the walls of the basement were shaking as if in an earthquake. Our anxiety grew during this unknown trembling. There was no detonation. We started to get up when a man rushed into the basement screaming "Tanks are coming along Rakowiecka Street." Through the open door an ominous sound of grating metal and continuous drumming of cannons reached us. Through the small, dirty basement window I could see the pavement and metal caterpillar tracks of large tanks. They were grinding along the pavement. I could not see their tops but could hear their gunfire as they were firing in front of them. They passed us fairly quickly. The walls stopped trembling. All of us were excited. Could they have been Soviet tanks? Comments, guesses and surmises were coming from all sides.
"Of course they could be Soviet tanks. You heard yourself from the lady in Kielecka Street that already yesterday Praga was in Soviet hands."
"My God, could it really be the end of the uprising" sighed a young woman with a child in her hands. She looked exhausted and depressed, and no wonder. Three days before at half past four she went shopping with the baby, leaving her other girl at home, a few streets from us. The first shots caught her at our gate where she took shelter and here she was to remain. "It is already three days that I have been here with my baby" she was crying "and my little girl is quite alone. Three days and three nights uncared for, unfed. My husband had not returned from work," she continued, sobbing.