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Back button | Home | Saltaire History | Saltaire people | Feliks Czenkusz | page 2
Added to website: 14 January 2015
AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY TO FIND WORK IN SALTS MILL, SALTAIRE

THE STORY OF FELIKS CZENKUSZ
1920 to 22 August 2013

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We reached our camp which was situated by a fiord that joined Murmansk and Polarnote. One day we were given food from the kitchen – I felt very lucky that day as my bowl had a piece of meat in it, by accident. Most of the talk on that day was about imminent war between Russia and Germany. We found out that Russia was mobilising their reservists – some of whom were housed in the camp we were taken to.

We had a chat with our fellow Russian prisoners and as we were discussing the war I remember a professor from Leningrad and when we were discussing the war coming between Russia and Germany we did ask him if he would fight for Stalin. He answered us in Latin with a saying that ‘ all rulers are mortal but nations are eternal’ he did not like Stalin. Shortly afterwards, some aeroplanes coming from the direction of Finland flew over the Fiord, the Russians raised the alarm but before the Russians could organise their defences the aeroplanes had gone.

Then came the day when we were told it was time for us to be moved again and we were marched to the port of Murmansk. The ship we boarded was called the Clara Zetkin – the name of a famous communist. Again, we were boarded but not told where we were going. We could only guess that our destination would be one of the sub arctic islands.

The Clara Zetkin stopped when we were 1 day at sea – this was the day that Germany invaded Russia, the 22nd/23rd June. Of course we prisoners had no concrete information but the whole ship was ‘shaking’ with rumours.
We knew that the Russian officers were getting official instructions from Moscow. After one day of the ship standing we sailed again and soon arrived at the mouth of the river Panoy and were stationary for a few hours due to a choppy sea.

Here there were barracks for a group of Russian soldiers. There was no road from where we were moored and we were marched 2 to 3 km to a camp that had 2 large marquees. These were already occupied by other Polish soldiers who had arrived by earlier transports.

When we arrived, the Russians threw out the older reservist soldiers to sleep in the open on the ground and housed us in the Marquees. We were a few hundred yards from the river and soon aeroplanes were flying over the camp. The Russian soldiers opened fire on the aeroplanes and after that they admitted that Russia was at war with Germany.

A lot of our men were sleeping but the Russians woke us up, telling us to leave the Marquees, and then Russian political police started to speak to us. They informed us that Hitler had invaded Russia and was being supported in the invasion by Mussolini. They urged us to work hard for them.

We were given work about 9 miles inland and we were sleeping on the land. The work we were set to do was to build an aerodrome and we worked on this for a few weeks. Then the younger men were moved nearer to the sea. We began to hear that Polish people in exile had agreed to support Russia.
One day another ship arrived and unloaded Russian prisoners to continue the work we were doing. We were asked to prepare to leave on the same ship and we still did not know where we would be going. They gave us food for 3 days rations – some bread and some very nice ham. I was so hungry that I ate all of my ration during the first day. I was very hungry again after that.

We sailed to the White Sea to a port called Archangel. When we arrived there it was warm but its winters were very cold and the land had no trees. We disembarked and were taken to a ‘prisoners’ camp. We were mixed in with Russian prisoners. These prisoners were housed in cages and these people looked as if they were in a zoo.

We remained there for a few days and then we were put on a train and we began to travel south. We did not know it at the time but this was the first step to our becoming free men again. We travelled by train for a few days and eventually we unloaded in the fields of a collective farm. We were very hungry and thirsty. Soon another train picked us up and we travelled further on.
We were still prisoners and we passed a train carrying many Russian casualties. Finally the train stopped at Tatiszczewo and outside this town was a prepared army camp waiting for us. At this point we knew that we were to be in the army once more. We were housed in tents and some of our officers were given buildings within the camp.

We realised that now we were in the Polish army and more Polish officers arrived in camp. We were loosely organised at first but were gradually allocated to units and regiments such as the infantry or engineers. I found myself placed in a reconnaissance unit - a poor choice as I was short-sighted and wore glasses. Then a General Anders arrived in camp to take a look at his future soldiers. He walked with sticks, a reminder of his recent imprisonment, and he took charge of us but we had not been issued with arms at this point. We were drilled and full army life began.

Shortly afterwards, the Russians supplied us with arms. My division was supplied with semi-automatic rifles, mortars and some field artillery.
By this time it was winter and snow fell heavily but this was to prove to be a critical moment for Russia as the German army was marching through Russia and getting near to Moscow. There was a high level of tension in the camp.
We were not yet deployed in a war area and I was afraid that in the case of a Russian Army collapse that we would be abandoned deep inside Russia as had happened in the First World War.

Eventually we were told that the Germans had had to retreat due to the Russian winter. On December 7th it was announced in camp that a Polish Supreme Commander of troops based in London – a General Sikorski was going to visit our troops. We got that news at the same time as we learnt that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbour, bringing America into the war. I was very glad to hear this.

General Sikorski announced that we would be moved further south soon. One month later we were placed on trains and we then travelled for 12 days through Kazakistan and Turkmenistan and at one point we were only 90km from the Chinese border. It was very warm during the day and cold at night. It was interesting for us as was the sight of camels grazing.

Spring came and our men began to die of diseases such as Typhoid and Cholera. We were disembarked in Dzhalal Abad in Russian Turkistan and we camped there and underwent more military training. We learnt that we were to be evacuated from the area and that we would be placed under British Command in the Middle East.

At the beginning of August in 1942 we learnt that our army was leaving the Soviet Union and were busy packing our things. We had to return all the equipment that had been supplied to us by the Russians, firstly our arms then all other equipment the Russians had supplied. On August 5 we marched to the railway station and started our journey, stopping first at Krasnowods on the Caspian Sea.

There we boarded Russian ships sailing to Persia (now Iran). We landed in Pahlevi in Iran and were put in a primitive camp along the beach by the Caspian Sea for a few days. Then lorries came to transport us to Iraq. After 3 days travel we arrived in Iraq and were dropped on an empty desert area to build ourselves a camp. This was August, unbearably hot but with a few weeks of hard work and extreme discomfort, the camp was in existence – of course British experience and supplies were essential.

We spent a year in Iraq. Firstly we had a reorganisation of our army on British lines, with our numbers now at nearly 100,000 soldiers. The task was not simple and we were training to use new weapons. I was transferred to the Signal Battalion to learn wireless servicing and learning the Morse code.
Now, gradually we were supplied with British arms and eventually we were transported to Port Said Zone in Egypt with some of our men sent to Lebanon for their final mountain combat training. General Sikorski paid us a second visit but on his return flight to London he perished in an aircraft tragedy in Gibraltar.

After a Christmas spent in Egypt, we were then shipped to the front in the south of Italy. We landed in Tarranto and this port held a huge convoy of ships. There were many Polish soldiers amongst the troops disembarking there.

It was early spring in the south of Italy but full winter and deep snow in the mountains. We began to meet soldiers who had been fighting during the winter months and had seen, whilst travelling in a small van, a small cemetery for our men who had been killed, had already sprung up. The mountains still had snow on them and we were housed in tents set up in olive groves. Rumours started spreading that we were going to Monte Cassino to fight the Germans who held this high ground. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling – we knew that the British and American Forces had been engaged in a bloody battle there from our radio messages. We didn’t want to die but we had to go where we were sent. Before the battle that involved our troops we saw many mule trains taking supplies to the front line. Supplies were brought up as high as possible, initially by lorries driven by our Polish female soldiers.

On the evening of May 11 at 11pm, our Polish Troops joined in opening artillery fire with British troops on the fortified German bunkers on the heights. The artillery fire lasted until 1am and then the infantry moved forward. We were able to capture some positions but had to withdraw from some shortly afterward due to German counter attacks.

I was in the ‘Wireless Van’ working to keep communications open between the front line and our battalions. From my own experience, radio communication at the beginning was useless due to too much noise. Our wireless station was to serve the 5th Engineers Battalion. I remember well that it consisted of 5 radio receivers and senders with 2 men to each receiver. One of the receivers had the role of ‘control station’ and the others were attached to different companies.

I mostly served at 5 company station and if, for example, I had a message for 3rd company I had to first report this to the control station and wait to be given a green light before this could be sent to 3rd station. We were forbidden from corresponding with stations outside our group 5. Our role as wireless communicators worked less well than the use of despatch riders on motorbikes.

On the morning of May 12, one of our sergeants came and told us that we had suffered heavy casualties. In his opinion, the most deadly problem was when shells hit the rocks – splintering these over a wide area – many of our men had been killed by rock splinters. Our own subaltern had been killed in the first hours of battle and was the first casualty we were aware of. Many other casualties were to follow from our ranks.

The fighting for Monte Cassino continued for a week, until May 18. On May 18, the Monastery of Monte Cassino was captured - during the week it had become a symbol for the Polish troops because once this was captured we could hold onto the heights. After this victory, the Germans withdrew but dug in and kept fighting at Piedimonte to allow many of their units time to evacuate the area. Once we had all reached the heights we could see across a flat plain all the way to Rome.

The American Troops marshalled on the flat plain with tanks with the task of crushing the enemy forces in this area. But the Germans were too clever for that and after their delaying action they withdrew to the North of Rome. The American General Clark was to blame for this.

The Germans withdrew to Rome. The Commander of the American forces was General Clark who was determined to capture Rome and become the first allied Commander to capture a European Capital. Later in my life I saw photographs of General Clark next to road signs that pointed to Rome.
The Polish Second Corps troops were able to rest a little near Campobasso. We were there for 3 weeks and whilst we were travelling, at our stops, many Italian Civilians approached to look at us. They were quite friendly. One of our transport drivers was a boy called Radon who, although he was 17yrs of age, looked much younger. The Italian women cried when they saw him as they thought a child is already fighting in war.

When our rest period was over we were called back to the front because the German troops were massing along the Adriatic Sea. We soon came into contact with enemy forces again, capturing town after town with heavy and prolonged fighting. The Italian Port Ancome fell into our hands. We fought our way to Rimini where the Germans had heavy fortifications. British troops brought their heavy artillery and they bombarded the area and took control. It was the first time I had seen such large artillery.

We were again allowed to rest a Porto Son Elpidio. It was the summer of 1944 and the Polish troops were beginning to believe that the war was finally coming to an end as the Germans continued to surrender or withdraw.
After the longest rest period we had at Porto Son Elpidio, we were moved inland and Polish troops were then ordered to march in the direction of the Apennines’. It had begun to rain heavily so we marched in mud for much of the time. We reached Piero di San Bgno and we captured this town. We went on to capture Santa Sofia then Predappio – the birthplace of Mussolini. We learnt that Mussolini’s father had been a blacksmith and I saw the smithy where he had worked.


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