A Polish Reunion in Normandy
In the spring of 1984 I received an unexpected letter from London. It came from a veteran of World War II’s Polish 1st Armored Division. (See You Command “Polish Motorized Infantry Attack, 1944” featuring a unit in Polish 1st Armored Division in the November 2013 ACG.) It was an invitation for my wife Shirley and I to attend the fortieth reunion of the division that was to be held in August in Normandy. He had read my book Decision in Normandy, a year earlier and liked it well enough to invite my wife and I to participate in their reunion.
The invitation included a stopover in London at his home, which turned out to be an enormous four-story mansion in the swank Holland Park section of the city.
We were given a private tour where we viewed photos of our new friend’s former ancestral hunting estate in Poland that included swords and artifacts attesting to his membership in the Polish aristocracy. His father had been the Polish ambassador to Greece and he had attended a private school with former Gen. Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski, who was Poland’s communist head of state from 1981 to 1989, and was quick to denounce Jaruzelski’s iron-fisted rule of Poland.
Like a great number of Polish expatriates who fought in World War II on the Allied side, our host had an advanced education and with the exception of Jaruzelski, who was interned by the Russians in the Kazakh Republic during World War II, formed an elite group of wealthy patriots who had been destined for greatness but had lost everything in the War. These were the people we were to meet in Normandy.
During dinner one evening I learned how this Polish exile (who had lived in England since the end of the war) had become wealthy.
In late 1944 Major General Stanislaw Maczek’s Polish 1st Armored was deep into eastern France near Aachen when our new Polish friend, who was an infantryman, literally stumbled upon what, at first glance, appeared to be a dead soldier lying in the mud. However, upon closer examination the soldier was determined to be barely alive and was taken to a nearby aid station. Our friend promptly forgot about what was just another incident of war.
Flash forward to the mid-1950s when he received a telephone call from a gentleman who said he was calling from Canada but would soon be in London and would like to meet at the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane to discuss a business proposition.
Our friend arrived at the appointed hour with no idea why he had been summoned. He soon learned why. The fellow introduced himself as a former member of the Polish 1st Armored Division who had moved to Canada after the war, where he had established a successful business. “You don’t know who I am, do you? But I remember you; you’re the one who saved my life, and I’m here to reward you.” He related that it had taken him a number of years, and the services of private investigators, to determine the name of the soldier who had saved his life, and to track him down.
Turns out he had become very wealthy by becoming the patent holder for gold leaf paint. By way of thanks, he awarded our friend the exclusive rights to market gold leaf paint in the UK – thus making him quite well off, which is how he came to own one of London’s finest homes.
After being wined and dined for several days we took a train from London to Dover and boarded a Channel ferry to Calais on a perfect summer day. In Calais we rented a VW Golf and headed for Normandy.
En route we stopped at a wayside bistro for a light meal. That turned out to be a very big mistake. My wife had a fish soup that, within twenty-four hours, turned into a weeklong serious case of “traveler’s tummy.” At one point I thought we might have to abandon our trip but, good trooper that she was, Shirley made it through our week at a hotel in the Orne River town of Thury-Harcourt, aided by copious quantities of stomach tablets kindly given to her by one of the Polish veterans. What we soon learned was that although it was a British over-the-counter medication, it contains traces of opium. Although this would be unheard of today, it was perfectly legal in 1984. In any event, the pills certainly helped Shirley – in more ways than one!
Many of the Polish veterans were residing at the same hotel and they not only took us under their wing but also treated us to wonderful stories of their experiences and their lives after the war. Most could not return to communist Poland and became stateless persons who were permitted by the British to become permanent residents but not citizens. (The disgraceful treatment of the World War II Polish veterans by the British government is an unhappy story that will be told in a future article.)
One of our newfound friends was Zbigniew Mieczkowski and, after the war, he was one of the many Polish expatriates who established residence in the United Kingdom. Zbig, as he was familiarly known, had become a successful businessman who owned a country home near Oxford where he bred Polish Arabian horses.
During our week in Normandy we attended numerous ceremonies as their guests, some solemn in remembrance of those who perished, while other events were marked by boisterous good times and superb French food.
One of the ceremonies took us to the only Polish military cemetery in Normandy, where a wreath was laid. Located just off the main Caen-Falaise highway it is the final resting place of 696 Polish soldiers. (Thirty-three others are buried in Commonwealth cemeteries in Normandy).
When it came to recognition, the Poles were left behind in many respects after the war, including gaining their own cemetery. It took a great many years before France deeded land to them at Grainville-Langannerie, which is about 12 miles south of Caen. Most of the fallen were originally buried in and around the small towns where they died, their graves dutifully tended year after year by grateful French villagers who remembered their sacrifice in 1944. Despite the opening of the Polish cemetery some of the fallen still remain where they were originally buried, and on several occasions we noted several of their gravesites.
Postwar history has shown that the Norman French hold a particularly strong affection and respect for those who fought there to liberate the province from German occupation in the summer of 1944.
Our first Sunday was highlighted by another memorial ceremony held in the town of Falaise where so much heavy fighting took place. After the ceremony a big reunion luncheon was to be held in the nearby town of Argentan, also the object of considerable fighting in August 1944. We had driven to Falaise in our rental car and at the conclusion of the ceremony Zbig suggested that Shirley ride with him in his Rover automobile to the restaurant in Argentan, while I followed in the VW.
What followed was one of my life’s scarier experiences. Zbig didn’t bother telling me the name of the restaurant in Argentan or where it was located; he simply took off at a very high rate of speed while I frantically attempted to keep him in sight at speeds of up to 80 mph during the thirteen-mile trip from Falaise to Argentan. What went through my mind was that I was either going to die or be pulled over by a gendarme for speeding.
As this was occurring, Shirley was experiencing similar anxious moments, pinned to her seat, with no idea how on earth this was all going to turn out as Zbig sped toward Argentan. She was also wondering if her new husband realized that at this rate of speed they could both be killed during their first trip to Europe as a married couple.
Not surprisingly I eventually lost sight of Zbig as we reached the outskirts of Argentan. It had apparently not occurred to him to pull over and wait for me to catch up. How the heck was I going to find a restaurant whose name I didn’t know in a town I’d never been in before?
Eventually the heavy traffic proved to be my savior. Just ahead I spotted Zbig’s silver Rover at a red light and managed to keep him in sight until he stopped at the restaurant. To say that I breathed a sigh of sheer relief at seeing my wife again and realizing that I had successfully navigated the highway at speeds I had never before driven, in a car I was barely familiar with, might have been the understatement of 1984! It was an experience neither of us has ever forgotten.
Next month the story of a boisterous reunion in Argentan, meeting a French patriot, and a tour of the Polish battlefields that culminated in one of the most desperate battle fought by the Poles in World War II.