The Holy Cross Mountains Brigade (Polish: Brygada Świętokrzyska) - National Armed Forces (pol. Narodowe Siły Zbrojne)
"For years we have been walking under the veil of night, as doomed soldiers". Their walk is not over yet...
It's the 5th of May 1945. The soldiers of the Holy Cross Brigade (Polish: NSZ), the only formation of the national underground, which managed to break through the German-Soviet front line, are lying low on the outskirts of a forest, somewhere in the western part of the Czech Republic, on territory still occupied by the Third Reich. They are waiting for an order to attack Holiszow, the German Nazi concentration camp.
The entire operation was agreed between the Brigade's commanding officers and the approaching Americans by liaison officers. Two days earlier, the Americans bombed the munitions plant in Holiszow.
The boys from the Brigade are already aware that Berlin is close to falling, and in Prague there is an uprising underway led by the Communists. They live in hope, that the Americans will arrive first - as in front of them, they are facing the relentless power of the Red Army, while behind they left many weeks of superhuman effort to break out from their homeland, before it was to be overtaken fully by the Soviet onslaught of steel and savagery.
Breaking through to the West
The formation consisted of those soldiers of the National Armed Forces (NSZ), who did not wish to conform to the rule of the Home Army (AK). Nine months earlier, in August 1944, they formed the Holy Cross Brigade, with over one thousand members, under the command of Colonel Antoni Szacki (nom de guerre - "Dąbrowski", "Bohun"). Unlike the AK, they adopted the principle of fighting both enemies, the Germans and the Soviets. The Brigade's wrath was felt by the latter, when the Soviet sponsored bandit People’s Army (AL) and Polish Worker’s Party (PPR) structures were getting eradicated.
These groups were pilfering and murdering people of the Kielce district. The approaching Soviets had their own grudge against the Brigade for breaking the large AL grouping led by Tadeusz Grochal (nom de guerre "Tadek Biały"), accompanied by a Soviet military reconnaissance group led by Iwan Karawajew in the autumn of 1944. NSZ patrols were also responsible for capturing and eliminating members of various communist groups, for intercepting in the planned fate of communist prison-held Polish underground soldiers, who were tortured and beaten, for intercepting and freeing hostages from villages and manor houses and finally, for eliminating the Soviet-installed radio station in the Częstochowa province in October 1944.
When a great Soviet offensive started unexpectedly in January 1945, the NSZ Commander-in-Chief, Colonel Zygmunt Broniewski, gave an order: "The Brigade is to retreat to Silesia (Śląsk). We cannot assist you with any help. You are on your own."
On your own.... while all the time dodging and weaving in a fast pace between loaded transports of massive German formations retreating westward, and endlessly hearing the Soviet artillery’s onslaught behind one’s back.
Only a madman could believe that the operation to break into territory gradually being occupied by the Americans would be successful, especially that they didn't have many weapons - many treasuring only an old grenade under their belts. But they had no choice; the plan to retreat to the West was in line with the directive of the Chief Commander-in-Exile, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, who in the summer of 1944 wrote to the AK commander: "In case of absolute necessity, I authorize you to withdraw [...] the most vulnerable AK units, most of all the youth (to the West towards the Slovak-Hungarian border). In extremis, I authorize to withdraw those units outside the borders of our country, with the order of getting them through to our armed forces in exile".
The Brigade, although not under AK command, was in extremis...
Since it was created, the Brigade had many encounters and battles with the Germans, including a major encounter in September 1944, near Cacow, where it defended itself against a 400-man strong pilots' unit and hundreds of gendarmes with machine guns. Although the Germans were frantically retreating, they were nonetheless still a serious threat to the NSZ soldiers.
In the grip of two enemies
On the 15th of January, two days after receiving an order to get through to the Allies, they reached the banks of the Pilica River, which were filled with strong German defenses. Closely behind them, the Wehrmacht was attempting a futile defense against the Soviets. The enemy’s grip was tightening by the hour.
Lady Luck smiled upon the Poles; they captured a few hostages, whom the Brigade's Commander sent back to their troops with an ultimatum: either the Germans will allow the squad over the bridge near Żarnowiec, or the Poles will strike them with all their forces. There was no other alternative than this desperate one, because, after breaking through the military front, Soviet tanks were speeding towards the river. Without waiting for the Germans to reply, Colonel Szacki ordered a move across the bridge. When all the units crossed to the other side, Soviet fire caught the tail end of the convoy, and the Brigade escaped the deadly trap at the very last moment.
On the other bank of the river, in Żarnowiec, they ran right into the German tanks. "We were moving forward with our weapons ready to open fire”, Wiesław Widloch recalls. There were three Germans on the pavement aiming their machine guns at us. One of them started to approach, but when he saw our gun barrels, he stopped. And so we stood there for about half an hour, facing each other and pointing our guns at each other, ready for anything. Suddenly, we moved, and “fast". More vehicles were leaving the town into open area, into the fields. Similarly to the Pilica River crossing, they crossed the Oder River, without fighting any Germans, but with the Soviet army not far behind.
Colonel Szacki's orders from the 19th of January explained the incomprehensible, yielding stance of the Germans to his soldiers: "To save the Brigade, I entered into an agreement with the leaders of the German positions, in order to pass through their lines to the West. Ipso facto, we entered into a ceasing of hostilities agreement with the Germans until further notice. I hope, that the rapidly occurring war events will allow us to report to the Chief Commander in the near future.”
"I breathed a sigh of relief...Americans"
Keeping up the "ceased hostilities" agreement required a lot of diplomacy from the Polish leaders; they had to accept the marching directions to the Czech Republic, as ordered by the Germans, but at the same time, they had to draw the Germans away from the idea of incorporating the Brigade into the Waffen SS or using it for partisan fighting at their rear of the rapidly shifting war front. Using a multitude of arguments, Colonel Szacki protected his soldiers from fulfilling the role of allies of the Third Reich.
In the meantime, in accordance with the Germans’ demands, the Brigade was to endure a winter pass through the Sudeten Mountains - in the freezing cold, through deep snow, wearing old worn clothes, and on the verge of their physical endurance. They endured all, as long as it kept them as far from the Reds as possible and closer to freedom. After further lengthy discussions, the Germans agreed to allow their crossing to the West, through Czechoslovakia. So they carried on towards Pilzen, regularly dodging German units. The chaos at the front lines, intensified by the variety of retreating German troops and Ostlegions, was creating increasingly advantageous conditions for the Poles; in times of general turmoil it was easier to disappear, without drawing attention.
While moving forward, the Brigade kept growing in size. It took under its wings former Polish prisoners captured during the Warsaw Uprising; it also accepted Poles who were taken as prisoners to compulsory work camps, those freed from prisons and concentration camps, and those who didn't want to return to a Communist Poland.
The Command was urgently trying to make contact with the 3rd American Army, under the command of General George Patton - that was the primary goal of the strenuous march, and also, in the current situation, it was a condition for the Polish unit to survive and escape from under the burden of German control. Due to political reasons, it was also imperative to contact the Polish Government-in-Exile and the 2nd Corps led by General Anders, so that the legitimate Polish authorities could be made aware of the grouping that was nearly 2,000 strong by now.
On the 30th of April, the Americans were greeted by the group led by Captain Stefan Celichowski (nom de guerre - "Skalski"). Facing hostile tanks and patrols in the dark, the group was moving cautiously in the area of the front, as they were imperiled by Allied fire. “We are moving towards the American troops, whose presence you can increasingly hear more clearly”, recalls Captain Celichowski. “It’s dawn; the woods were ending, a hundred meters of clearing, followed by village buildings. Opposite us, there are two soldiers on the roof. I'm thinking to myself, ”I'm eighty percent sure those are Americans, but if this is some SS division ....”. They gave a warning shot, and we had to show ourselves". Waving a white flag, we kept close to the woodland wall, while the foreign soldiers were running towards us. “I can hear some shouting and ... I don't understand a single word. I sighed with relief... it’s the Americans".
They were taken to the division's Command, where they were greeted with a surprised, but also a friendly manner: “I felt I was an equal Allied soldier and officer to the person across from me. The higher ranked American officers were reiterating that sense at every opportunity" , wrote Captain Celichowski.
"Will anyone ever believe me?"
No time was wasted to agree to a plan of action by the NSZ to liberate the women’s camp in Holiszow. Every minute counted, as the SS group was given an order to liquidate the camp.
At dawn, on the 5th of May 1945, from a distance of several hundred meters, the Brigade’s soldiers are intently looking at the barbed wire fencing surrounding the camp. One of them, Wieslaw Wieloch, remembers a thought going through his mind: "If I survive, will anyone believe me that I liberated a German concentration camp?" An order is given in the afternoon: "Charge !"
Surprised SS soldiers put up a short fight, the gate gives way under the charge of the Polish soldiers, who entered the camp and opened up the barracks packed tightly with female prisoners: French, Polish, Czech, Romanian... 200 SS soldiers and 15 female wardens are captured.
Colonel Szacki's attention is drawn by two barracks, surrounded by electrically charged barbed wire fencing and starved faces peeking through tiny windows. Jewish women ....Locked up, destined to be burned alive. “I wanted to go inside, but the shocking view stopped me at the door - admits the officer, who saw many things in his life. - A horrible smell of decomposing corpses was wafting from the darkness of the buildings. The women that were still alive were crawling into the daylight out of those jaws of darkness".
It was also our task to stop those starving women from charging down towards the raw potato mounds. And also to deliver the prisoners to the Americans, who suddenly became very submissive. "It turned out that everyone was innocent - remembers one of the Polish soldiers - and everything happened by itself - the barracks, the corpses, those running skeletons. One of the captives went down on his knees, crawled to my feet and started kissing my boots. I felt really stupid. It's strange, but I felt ashamed. I stepped back and pushed him back into the line with my gun barrel".
"What a strange army"
A few short glory days started for the Brigade: fighting alongside the Americans, as equals, finished with capturing the XIII Army's staff officers, including two generals; a visit from the Commander-in-chief’s envoy and his words: "You were and you are Polish soldiers, and your actions will make history". Next, a meeting with the delegation of officers sent by General Anders.
In the eyes of the Polish Government-in-Exile, the Holy Cross Brigade is still an NSZ squad, which refused to join ranks with the AK. At the same time, the Soviets are starting to call for the "fascist" soldiers and a few are kidnapped by the NKVD.
"London had a score to settle with them, which was going back to the times of the Home Army. The communications officers put a lot of effort into explaining to the Americans, that those boys, who were crying when handing back the weapons they acquired resourcefully and with bloody effort - were not indeed soldiers, but some civilian chaff brought to Germany by the whirlwind of the war" - wrote Melchior Wańkowicz, who visited the Brigade in the autumn of 1945, after it was moved to Marsfeld in Germany and transformed into a Guard. "It was difficult to get off scot-free from the combined attacks coming from Warsaw, Russia, and London, but the Americans felt, that these attacks are pushing them towards something dishonest. They took their weapons away, they took their soldier status away, but they did not give the Brigade away, and didn't scatter its soldiers around civilian camps". This army "suspended in a void - with President Arciszewski’s portraits on the walls - seemed odd to Wańkowicz, who knew the realities of Monte Cassino's regular army like the back of his hand. A passionate worship of the 2nd Corps and its leader. Without modern training - with an accentuated soldiers’ stance. Without any possibility of promotion and award - with a strong sense of hierarchy of its own ranks".
Hunted after the war by Soviet agents, even in France, where a lot of them settled, they started leaving across the Atlantic. Deprived of honor by Communist propaganda in the new People’s Republic of Poland, they were turned into "German collaborators" and were finding out about new convictions against their old companions-in-arms from the NSZ. They knew that there wouldn't be a place for them in their homeland, other than a grave - the last soldiers, doomed soldiers by the Communist conspirators and their ideological successors, still ruling Poland today. There are words written down in the book of the Brigade: "For years we have been walking under the veil of night, as doomed soldiers". Their walk is not over yet...
Written by Anna Zechenter, IPN Kraków
Translation by Anna Zatorska-Batt
Proofing by Jan Czarniecki