DRAŻA THE SERBIAN CHETNIK IN THE POLISH UNDERGROUND   3 comments

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What follows is the story of Dragan Mihajlo Sotirović, a figure known little outside Poland and Yugoslavia. A Serbian Captain who made a vital contribution to the efforts of the Polish Home Army in South-Eastern Poland during World War II. There is surprisingly little material available. It was certainly in the interests of the Communist Polish authorities and the Soviet Union to write him out of the history books of the Second World War.  And Tito, whom he met when both were guerilla fighters (and political opponents), would tar all chetniks with the collaborationist brush. There is a cinematic wholesomeness to his character, in the recollections of his friends and soldiers, so much so that I am still searching for Ukrainian, Yugoslav, or Soviet sources which might describe him as an enemy. The information here comes from Polish sources, including Jerzy Węgierski’s histories of Home Army operations in Lwów and Rzeszów, from Draża’s own memoir Europe for Sale (L’Europe aux enchères. Paris. 1952), written in French immediately after the war, as well as the recollections of my father, who fought under his command in the 14th regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers.

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Dragan Mihajlo Sotirović (1912-1987)

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From 1941, “Draża”, as he was known, fought as a chetnik in the Yugoslav Army, in the Ravna Gora Movement, where he served as the adjutant of General Dragoluba Mihalović, the royalist general and staunch enemy of Yugoslavia’s future leader, Joseph Broz Tito. He was captured by the Germans and transferred to a prison in Rawa Ruska, on formerly Polish territory. But his captors would underestimate his love of freedom. Draża was to make of escape a professional art. He escaped once from the Germans, three times from the Soviets, and avoided arrest countless times. Everyone seemed to have had a bounty out on his head at one time or another – Germans, Soviets, and the Ukrainain Insurrectionary Army.

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Draza 6

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ESCAPE No.1

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For his first escape, he pretended to the Germans that he was suffering from severe appendicitis. As he was being transferred to hospital, he broke away from his guards at the train station in Stryj. He threw himself under a slow moving train which was leaving the station, out the other side and ran for his life. He later recounted an armed railway guard tried to apprehend him. He held his gun up but Draża ran into him at full throttle, knocking him to the ground. The photos which remain of him during the war reveal a tall, athletic man. Despite the debilitating effects of guerrilla warfare and imprisonment, he could always muster up his energy for escape. He possessed a somewhat romantic notion of patriotic pride and old-world chivalry which nevertheless won the respect of his subordinates and superiors alike. He would made his way to Lwów, a city, whose language he did not speak, but whose spirit he would come to embrace, a city occupied by a common enemy, and populated by a kindred people. During his imprisonment in Rawa Ruska, some French prisoners had given him the name and address of a compatriot living in Lwów. She operated a safe house and helped escaped French prisoners-of-war. That was how Draża made his way to 31 Kochanowski Street and introduced himself to Mme Ida Thom-Vasseau. From there he got in touch with the Polish underground, and so began his remarkable career as a Polish resistance fighter.

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Draża joined the forest detachments and was made second-in-command of the 14th Regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers (then lead by Stefan Czerwinski) at about the same time my father was beginning his training, in January 1944. He would describe the Serb as an active and charismatic leader; who led from the front, and put the honour and dignity of their campaign on a par with operational successes. He seemed to be from a different age. He spoke Polish badly at first, and even when he learned to speak fluently he spoke with a distinct Serbian accent. This, coupled with his formidable skill as a soldier and a motivator, gave him an exotic allure. He was the foreigner whose presence in the Polish fight instilled in his young soldiers the comforting thought they were supporting a cause which transcended nationality.

My Captain is pure bravery.
No food eats he, and drinks not a drop,
He’s everywhere he’s meant to be.
Draża’s here! The game is up!

-Song of the 14th Regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers

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The Giants

The ‘Giants’ discuss the ‘Pygmies’.

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When the war of the giants is over the wars of the pygmies will begin.

Winston Churchill

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GIANTS AND PYGMIES

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Draża became known to my father and other members of the underground after the attack he led on Szołomyja, a Ukrainian village southeast of Lwów, on the 10th June 1944, six weeks before Operation Tempest would drive the Germans from the city. By 1943, the Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army (UPA), or, at least, certain sections of it, was engaged in an all-out policy of ‘Ukrainianizing’ the countryside of Wołyń, northeast of Lwów. This often meant, in effect, harassing, killing and driving out Poles and any remaining Jews, who weren’t welcome in their hoped-for Ukrainian Republic. The Ukrainian nationalists had few friends by this time. They were hunted by both the Russians and the Germans, or were sometimes politely tolerated if their attacks on Poles were useful to the strategic interests of their erstwhile masters. But when they turned their attention to civilians, they re-opened the old wounds of the past, of the Polish-Ukrainian War, of their betrayal by Piłsudski in the aftermath of the Polish-Soviet War. And the fact that these wounds were opened up in the midst of another great conflict by battle-hardened and desperate men, made the consequences gangrenous and gruesome. And once they started, the cruelty multiplied and mutated into particularly bloody acts. Through 1943 and early 1944, they had moved in a wave across Eastern Poland/Western Ukraine. The pattern was predictably grotesque. Posters would appear at night informing the inhabitants, in Polish, to take their things and move west of the River San. The consequences of not doing so: death. Ukrainian versions also appeared, intended for Ukrainians who had married Poles. ‘Traitors! Pack your bags too or face the same fate as these Poles who occupy Ukrainian land!’ Sometimes there were letters attached by a wire to the necks of the dead, their bodies hung at crossroads, the barbarous aspect of ethnic butchery, ritually carved into flesh and hacked out of bone as a chilling reminder of the unbidden cost of history. Sometimes they came into the villages without warning and launched an attack with guns and knives, setting fire to the wooden houses, rounding up the inhabitants and burning them in their churches or slaughtering them with pikes and scythes, hammers, and sticks. Up to 100,000 Poles were killed and 300,000 made refugees by the Ukrainian nationalists during the conflict. On the other hand, between 10,000 and 20,000 Ukrainians were killed in reprisal by Poles in Wołyn and Eastern Galicia.

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Victims of a village pogrom by Ukrainian nationalists, Lipniki, 26th March 1943

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ROMAN SHUKHEYVICH

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The leader of the Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army (UPA) was a dedicated and unwavering nationalist, Roman Shukhevych, who fought under the name ‘Taras Chuprynka.’ He had been involved in various Ukrainian underground movements since the 1920s, leading an armed struggle against both Poland and the Soviet Union. He had negotiated with the Germans in 1941 to set up and train a SS Ukrainian military unit which was to engage the Soviets. He remains something of a mystery, a Manichean symbol of all that is good or bad, depending on the politics of the perceiver. Because his activities were carried out under the auspices of various underground movements, the full extent and manner of his actions are difficult to establish and corroborate. He had been involved in various assassinations of Polish and Soviet political figures in the 1930’s and, as a leader of the UPA during the war, Poles held him responsible for the vicious nature of their attacks on Polish civilians. He too suffered for his beliefs: on the eve of the German invasion of Lwów, the Soviets murdered his brother, exiled his mother and his wife and sent his children to an orphanage. The Germans, considering his brand of nationalism incompatible with their own, soon arrested him. He escaped in 1943 and resumed his activities with greater determination and ruthlessness. As is the case with so many of the darker figures in this story, he met violence with violence.  For the former Poles of the east, of Wołyn and Galicia, he remains at least partially responsible for the ethnic cleansing that sliced through this already war-torn land. His role as an anti-Soviet fighter has seen him posthumously become a political synonym of a certain brand of Ukrainian patriotism, in which the good and the bad of his personal story are now subsumed in a fiery polemic which is as much mythological as political. In Ukraine, in 2007, he was awarded the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’.

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Roman Shukheyvich 1

Roman Shukhevych AKA Taras Chuprynka (1907-1950)

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OPERATION TEMPEST

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My father’s first military engagement was during Operation Tempest, which saw the successful Polish-Soviet joint offensive to liberate Lwów from German occupation in July 1944. Within a week of the onset of the Lwów uprising, the Germans were on the run. The Poles and the Russians were in full control of the city. Congratulatory telegrams arrived from London and Moscow. The Soviet side praised the contribution of the Home Army. The Soviet Colonel Baranov even recommended Draża, now the brilliant ‘Slavic’ strategist, for the Red Star. The Polish Army awarded Draża the Order of Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration for courage. It was presented to the Serb, in Lwów, by General Filipkowski on 27th July.

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The Home Army itself, by prior agreement with the Soviets, was to be disbanded upon the recapturing of Lwów. Thus, on 28th July, my father and all the other soldiers, save those of higher rank, were thanked for their contribution and told to return to their homes and await further instructions. This was a confidence-building measure in the face of the Soviets who objected to a ‘guerrilla’ army remaining armed and on the ground behind the Russian advance. Wojtek would have to hand back the Mauzer which had both killed and preserved life.

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In any case, even as the last Germans were being chased out of Lwów, on July 26th, the chairman of the Stalin-backed ‘Polish Committee of National Liberation,’ Edward Osóbka-Morawski, signed an agreement with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov. This secret agreement was the template for the ruling pact between Moscow and her new client regime. A few days later Draża was one of those officers invited by Commander-in-Chief General Ivanov to Soviet Headquarters in Lwów’s Biesiadecki Palace. There they were arrested. Even as the Red Army was marching West, they were eradicating their Central European allies who might hinder Stalin’s post-war vision of a constellation of compliant Communist satellite states. As the armies of German expansionism returned withered whence they had emerged so triumphantly just a few years before, a series of power struggles took place country-by-country for the right to rule within the new Europe. Throughout Albania, Yugoslavia, Romania, France, Italy, Greece, and Poland, with Soviet and Western interference, groups battled to gain control of their respective satrapies. Those who won would become the new dictators. The new democrats. Churchill would famously say: When the war of the giants is over, the wars of the pygmies will begin. Draża, the Serbian Captain in the Polish Home Army, was in a better position to see something which Churchill did not then appreciate. Giants are never at peace. His memoir, “Europe for Sale”, written in 1945, opens: On the very day the Armistice was signed, the Third World War began..

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ESCAPE No.2

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Not only had his unit re-assembled after the liberation of Lwów, but Draża had miraculously escaped from the long arms of the NKVD, and had been promoted to sole commander of the 14th Lancers. Immediately after his arrest by the Soviets in Lwów, Draża was interrogated, starved, and finally drugged. He was forced to sign a false confession that he was an enemy of the Soviet Union, who had helped the ‘Polish fascists’. For some weeks he wasted away in an underground prison in the village of Sokolow. A leg wound he had received during Operation Tempest (Soviet ‘friendly-fire’) began to fester and delirium set in. But Draża was no ordinary prisoner. He was a Serb first of all, with influence in the Polish Home Army. If the Soviets could turn him, he would make a useful infiltrator. After all, Colonel Baranov had recommended him for a Red Star. He was now weak but unrepentant. On August 22nd he was flown to Moscow on an American Douglas, and brought to the edifice of Communist terror, the dreaded Lubyanka, to face the NKVD leadership. A Political Commissar offered him a deal. To work as a Soviet spy. He later recounted his interrogation:

“Are you willing to work for the USSR?”

“Of course, I want to continue the fight against the Nazis. I will help the Red Army to defeat them!”

“And are you willing to fight fascist Poles?”

“I am an enemy of all fascists. I make no distinction, be they Polish, Serb or Russian.”

“Are you willing to fight against the Polish Home Army?”

“Are you kidding me? Fight against my own soldiers? Would you fight your own soldiers if the English asked you?”

“You’ve been indoctrinated by the Poles, my friend. We don’t wish to destroy them but simply to make them realize that we must all form a pan-Slavic alliance against imperialism.”

“I too once dreamed of a Pan-Slavic State. For twenty years in Serbia, I dreamed of a state which would not allow our children to die, which would prevent us being dragged off to camps, in Germany, Italy, or Austria. When I saw the Red Army arrive in Poland, I wanted to believe that this too was my dream. But it was all lies. You put your sybaritic communist fanatics in charge, with that sycophant Wanda Wasilewska. If you really want Pan-Slavism, let us elect our own governments!”

“You’ve been turned! Enough philosophy! Will you or will you not work for the Red Army?”

“Yes.”

“Are you willing to be parachuted behind the German lines?”

“Whenever and wherever you like. I’m a guerrilla specialist.”

“Will you tell us where your arms dumps are located?”

“I am a resistance fighter. We have no arsenals.”

“Are you willing to tell us the names of your superiors and subordinates?”

“I only know General Filipkowski and Colonel Czerwinski. As for the rest, I only know their pseudonyms.”

“Are you willing to show us where they live, if we take you back to Lwów?”

“I will do it, but only if you provide me with proof that they did not do their duty against the German occupiers.”

“So you refuse?”

“I am a Serbian officer. I would rather die than betray my men.”

“Did you not sign a verbal confession in Lwów?”

“Whatever it says was written without my consent.”

“You shall have some time to reflect on the best course of action you should take. This is war, after all. We must be prudent with English spies. Take him away!”

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Draża’s attitude was thus not conducive to Soviet needs: he was sentenced to ten years hard labour ‘for leading a terrorist organization on Soviet territory.’ His leg would turn gangrenous and he would die before he even reached the camps. He weighed up his options and played a final throw of the dice. He asked to see the Commissar. He reminded him that he was not only well known in the Yugoslav and Polish Armies, but his brothers were highly placed within the Yugoslav Royalist government in London. In fact, one was a minister, the other military attaché to the USA. He told the Commissar that they had already been informed that he was being held captive by the Soviet Union. Surely Stalin didn’t wish his British Allies to question Soviet honour in their hour of victory?  I am not a tree without roots, Commissar! You will most certainly hear of it, if you destroy me.

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It was a desperate attempt to shake the Soviet judicial line, which rarely accepted reason as evidence. It seemed useless, though it was true what Draża had said. The next day, miraculously, he was told he was being flown back to Lwów, where ‘evidence’ would be gathered for the trial against him. If he was, politically, of some worth, they reasoned that some form of judicial process was in order.

Draża was brought back to Lwów, where he was held under guard and interrogated yet again. They would ask him to name his accomplices, his comrades, to point out their houses and their families. He would decline, they would torture him, and finally they would execute him and he would be another bloody corpse in a world of bloody corpses. But, here, in Lwów, at least he had a chance of escape. In Moscow, he had been alone. Here, he tried to get word out, through the polish gardener, that he was being held prisoner. But no one dared respond to him, believing it to be a Soviet trap. Many presumed that, by now, Draża was dead, another victim of Stalin’s insecurity. In those dire circumstances, on Friday September 15th, 1944, at two in the afternoon, Draża decided to take things into his own hands. He had been pretending to be sicker and weaker than he was, walking slowly, feigning pain and illness. He sat bent over on a bed after yet another interrogation. The lieutenant guarding him had no chance. The guard had put his gun down for a moment to light a cigarette when the Serb pounced. He strangled the guard and finished him off by sending the leg of the bed crashing down upon his head. He felt no guilt, for he knew that his own execution would have been happily carried out by the lieutenant. Draża put on the lieutenant’s coat, pulled his cap down over his face, and, in plain view, walked down two flights of stairs past several armed guards and out the gates of what had been his prison. He was free. Once he had sent the word out to the underground network, his soldiers immediately came to assist him. His agents Belabes and Krystyna arrived at the safe house he was staying in and preparations were made for his escape from Lwów. The Soviets knew his face now. It was on posters all over the city. He was a dangerous terrorist. As an enemy of Communism, the Soviets considered him a fascist of the lowest order. In fact, he was twice-over a fascist. A Serbian fascist and a Polish fascist.  Draża would have to follow his soldiers into the forests.

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1945 Czyszek. Draża after his escape from the NKVD. From left, ‘Krystyna’ Czesława Hnatówna, Draża, Kazimierz Łamasz, Jadwiga Łamasz, Unknown, ‘Lis’ Władysław Pruczkowsk.

 

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‘THE WESTERN BETRAYAL’

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The soldiers had already lost faith in the Allied chiefs. They became more pragmatic after they had heard what had happened in Warsaw, where the Red Army had waited patiently on the eastern bank of the Vistula while the Poles within took on a spiteful Wehrmacht unaided. The Western leaders would stand by and allow Stalin have his Poland, after all. The Communist strategy was already in place. A Soviet-backed interim government and army were already cracking down on Poles with any anti-Soviet or anti-authoritarian leanings. In a practice familiar to empires, the Soviets assembled, trained, ordered and rewarded Poles who were willing to administer a communist project in their own country. Although considerably worse off in terms of numbers, the so called ‘Peoples Army’ and other Communist Poles assigned to the Police and security services had the implicit backing of the Soviets. The Soviets, still feigning benevolence, didn’t wish to enter into direct conflict with former members of the Home Army, but they gave the green light to their proxies to crack down on any ‘fascist terrorists and enemies of the people.’ This became the stirrings of a civil war; and because infiltration becomes much easier when opposing factions are of the same nation, the communists had imprisoned tens of thousands of former Home Army soldiers, many of them handed over to the Soviets and sent to ‘corrective’ labour camps. People were disappearing in droves.  Draża decided to teach the Communists a lesson. He scheduled a series of actions aimed at Polish Communists. He wished to send a message to those who, out of political ideology and personal ambition were willing to scupper Polish freedom. Prime amongst them was the Police Commander from the village of Hiżny. He was a petty tyrant who took Communist money and abused his power over the civilians of the town. He and a handful of other similarly-minded local bosses from various villages were killed in the darkness of night. To allow this the maximum psychological advantage, to advertise the justice meted out to traitors, when they raided the Police Station in Hiżny, they left a message with the bodies: “You have betrayed God and your Country. You have sold out your brothers. Traitors like you shall suffer more of the same.” Draża was satisfied by the fact that, after this incident, out of a population of four hundred thousand in the area the 14th Lancers patrolled, the Polish Communist Army could only get one hundred recruits. However, it was obvious that, as long as Churchill or Roosevelt refused to put their foot down and to set a limit to Stalin’s designs, the Communists would remain in power, a political expediency the Czechoslovaks and the Poles would christen the Western Betrayal. While Draża and his men continued to fight, even the Polish government-in-exile in London seemed to have given up and were encouraging members of the Home Army to revert to civilian status, in an effort to try to save as many Polish lives as possible. But the soldiers of the forest continued to fight.

Draża  carried out an attack on the prison in the town of Brzozów in spring 1945. The Soviets had rounded up a lot of Polish officers, former members of the Home Army. An informant had revealed that the prisoners were soon to be transported for trial in the Soviet Union. A few days before the scheduled transfer, Draża sent his ‘information agent’ to spread the word that the Home Army was planning a major attack upon another building located some distance from the town. The plan was to divert as many troops as possible away from the prison at the time they planned to strike. A small action squad, lead by Driver, pretended they were members of the Polish Communist army who were transporting their ‘prisoners’, supposedly deserters from the self-same army, to the main prison at Rzeszów. They presented themselves at the gates of the prison and asked for lodging for the night. They naturally presented their documents, excellent forgeries which corroborated the Home Army ruse. Once inside, they caught the Communists unawares. They released the prisoners, cleaned out the arsenal and locked the former jailers up in their own cells.

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ESCAPE NO.3

 

In March 1945, Draża was arrested again at a convent in the village of Borek, where, exhausted and weak, he had sought sanctuary for the night. He woke to the shouts of Russian soldiers searching the convent. He tried jumping out the window. He lowered himself down over the window ledge by his hands and fell with a thundering crash. He broke bones in both his feet. The Russians apprehended him and brought him in for interrogation. Although they were searching for, among others, the ‘Serbian fascist’ Draża, they didn’t recognize him straight away. So he pretended he was a French soldier, Jacques Roman, returning home from a prisoner-of-war camp in Odessa. The NKVD weren’t looking for French POWs, who had been given permission to leave ‘Soviet’ territory, so he was transferred under armed guard to a hospital in Rzeszów for treatment of the broken bones in his feet. Once there, he got word out through a sympathetic doctor that the elusive Draża was in hospital. Two days later, two plainclothes policemen came to the hospital with papers authorizing them to take the prisoner-patient for immediate questioning. It was a trick, and the ‘policemen’ bundled him into a car and took him away to safety.

This wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last time that Draża used the name Jacques Roman. The Serb had received some schooling in France before the war, and he spoke French, which helped support his story. The name saved his life on this occasion and, later, Draża would legally change his name to Jacques Roman when he was forced to live in exile in France.

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His men thought he was gone for good this time. His first escape from the NKVD had been unexpected, but few dared to hope that even Draża, that most resourceful and capable of soldiers, would make a second escape. Surely he had been executed. And when he did indeed escape, he stayed out of sight for some time as the bones in his feet were healing. Only certain officers knew of his whereabouts. Meanwhile, the fight continued. Draża had trained his officers well, and, in his absence, they continued the fight. There was Belabes, the French Foreign legion veteran, Tough, who had 104 kills to his credit by the age of twenty-two, and Wildcat, now Wojtek’s indomitable section leader. They kept the Ukrainians at bay and thwarted Soviet attempts to locate and capture them. Finally, one hot day in summer, in a village south of Rzeszów, my father saw Draża once again. He appeared with Belabes, still hobbling on account of his injuries but, otherwise, in excellent spirits. They stood to attention, Tough, Wildcat, and Wojtek, my father. A broad smile illuminated the Serb’s face and he returned the salute.

The only negative aspect of Draża’s return was the fact that, though much beloved, he could be very strict about certain matters. There was even a local anecdote that the villagers told, a conversation between two old farmers, who meet in the forest:

“Hey, how are things?”

“Not so well, my old friend.”

“What’s wrong?”

“All the onions have run out in the village!”

“That couldn’t be! The summer wasn’t that bad.”

“Yes, but Draża’s back.”

“And what! He eats so many onions?”

“No, but his soldiers do. So he won’t find out they’ve been drinking vodka, they try to hide the alcohol on their breath by eating onions whole!”

Vodka aside, everyone was happy to have Draża back. Draża  began working on negotiating a ceasefire with the Ukrainians. The peace conference took place at the village of Siedliska. My father attended both as a member of the security contingent and as a contributor to the regiment’s newspaper, a modest type-written periodical, with the ribald title El Bordello. It was all an extremely cordial affair, with smiles and hand-shakes all around, which left my father scratching his head at times:

“As a lowly lance-corporal observing the strange world of political expediency first-hand, I wondered what we had been fighting for, if we could have had such a meeting long before. I interviewed one of the Ukrainian negotiators and he waxed lyrical about mutual respect and ‘zones of control.’ Those were the times we found ourselves in.”

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A rare photo of the 14th Jazłowiecki Lancers 1st Platoon. Belabas (Józef Szajda), French Foreign Legion veteran and my father’s platoon leader, stands second from right.

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COMMON ENEMY

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It had become clear to the Home Army that the Soviets would do everything in their power to stretch their borders in all directions, as much as they could get away with. They could  see that the fierce fighting that continued between Poles and Ukrainians served only Soviet interests in the long run. It became ever more complicated as the Soviets sought to legitimize a war against the Home Army by creating a provocation. This they did by exploiting the enmity between Poles and Ukrainians. They started to send Soviet troops dressed in Ukrainian uniforms into Polish villages. Thus, they hoped to entice the Home Army out of hiding and into attacking the ‘Ukrainians.’ If they did, then the Soviets would claim that they had opened fire on the Red Army which would give them the justification to launch an all-out purge of non-Communist Poles. And even if, fearing a trap, we didn’t engage the enemy, then the Soviets in their Ukrainian uniforms would set fire to Polish villages, thereby stoking the hatred between Poles and Ukrainians.  It mattered little to the Soviets which of the two would fare better in that embittered conflict; as far as Stalin was concerned, ultimately, they both had to be eradicated or pacified. The Soviets had employed this strategy at Dynów, encouraging Belabas and his men to open fire on the ‘Ukrainians.’ Then they used this attack on the Red Army as an excuse to descend on the town with soldiers and police in order to suppress and occupy it. It was impossible to continue like that. Draża was a pragmatist when it came to protecting his position. If he could find any UPA leaders who would discuss the situation reasonably, he would be happy to discuss terms. There was little love lost between the Polish resistance and UPA, but there was no debate about the fact that a Soviet victory over Poland would be catastrophic for the national aspirations of both groups. In the end, they managed to agree a short-lived ceasefire. They hammered out an agreement which stated that both groups’ only enemy was the Red Army and that they would assist and support each other against Soviet attacks where they could. Unfortunately, it didn’t last that long. But that didn’t even matter so much because, for both the Poles and the Ukrainians, their common enemy had become their most serious Fighting between Poles and Ukrainians slowed down in direct proportion to Soviet pressure and engagement. At Yalta, the Soviets had secured, in principle, control over a great deal of Eastern Europe. Of course, Stalin had sugar-coated his plans with talk of ‘democratic’ governments, ‘fair elections’ and the ‘free will of the peoples’. But time was fast running out for the free armies of Europe. They now saw that the western powers would not protect them, and that soon the Soviet Union would turn upon them in great force. Soon, there would be no Poland and no Ukraine to fight for. Even if they still hoped history would throw them a lifeline.

As 1945 moved on, it became increasingly clear that any hopes of getting Poland’s old borders back were fading. Not only that; but any chance of seeing a democratic government anywhere in Poland was looking decidedly less likely. The Polish pre-war government remained in London. Stalin orchestrated and aided Soviet-trained Polish Communists to secure control over an already economically, politically, and socially scarred country. British and U.S. long-term interests, which were to undergo contrasting fortunes, sought some way of isolating and containing the spread of Communism; and it would come as no surprise to many Poles that they would, at least partially, be the lump of meat tossed eastwards to keep the rabid Soviet dog at bay. That is the fault-line of diplomacy and policy, of vision and reality, of lies and truth. Britain, who had once declared war on Germany, talking of lofty notions of universal democratic values and protecting the interests of ‘small nations,’ now saw the better part of valour in discretion, in ceding Eastern Europe to the colossus they feared most. By the end of the war, Britain, though honourably enthroned in the winners’ enclosure, witnessed the end of it’s dominance in global affairs. The age of colonial empires was over: the age of New World politics had begun. US fortunes rose exponentially with its financing of the war and the ensuing system of international politics, envisaged in the creation of the United Nations. When Roosevelt met Stalin at Yalta, in February 1944, he desperately sought Soviet military assistance in the war against Japan. In return for that promise, he consented to Stalin’s annexation of all territory east of the Curzon Line, including Lwów. In the end, Stalin commenced his invasion of the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo, hours before the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Soviet forces overran the region in a rout which ended in murder, rape, and pillage on an industrial scale.

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Draza and Lamasz Family

From left, Ludwig Łamasz (‘Wich’), Unknown, Fr. Kwaśniak, Draża, Jadwiga Łamasz (‘Wiszka’)-nurse, Czesława Hnatówna (‘Krystyna’) – Draza’s secretary, Antonina Łamasz (‘Stela’) – nurse, Jan Łamasz (‘Zbych’) Photo

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EVACUATION

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It was becoming more and more difficult for the underground soldiers to continue their resistance. In May 1945, Berlin had fallen. The cry of ‘Victory in Europe!’ echoed around the world. But Poland, who had fought longer than many nations in that war, would know only a hollow victory. Poland, whose allies were victors, would become the victim of those allies. The writing was on the wall. Thousands of Polish fighters, fearing Soviet intentions, were leaving the country now. They travelled westwards to Italy, where the Polish II Corp, which had distinguished itself at Monte Cassino, was quartered. The Allies were now faced with the task of dealing with the huge toll of human displacement which the war and its aftermath had produced. Politically, Roosevelt and Churchill had sanctioned surrendering Poland to Stalinism, but there remained both the  logistical and moral problem of what to do with all the Poles who had fought side-by-side with the British Army, who had defended British skies during the Battle of Britain, who had risked their lives under occupation to support the Allies tactically, through sabotage, espionage and warfare, who had fought in foreign theatres of war because they believed they were fighting for a free Poland. Whatever was going to happen, it seemed the safest place for any Poles who had taken an active military role in the war, was far to the west of Poland. And the consensus was that time was running out to make that journey.

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Draża was already preparing for the disbandment and evacuation of the regiment. The plan was to try and outwit the Soviet sentries and cross into Czechoslovakia. They would have to sneak through the lines or use forged documents to avoid arrest and a swift sentence, should the NKVD or the Polish People’s Army catch them at the borders. Once out of Poland, they hoped to travel westwards, through Prague, and onwards to defeated Germany. They would follow the trails of destruction which six years of war had wrought in Europe, destroyed cities and towns, and human deracination. Caravans of refugees, underground armies, political exiles, the starving and the damned now crossed a continent’s smouldering ruins towards fates uncertain.

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But there was time for one last act for the 14th Lancers.  It haapened near the village of Domaradz. Under the command of Belabas, a forest patrol had run into a Soviet supply column: horse-drawn wagons piled high with clothing, food, weapons, and ammunition.  In the end their rag-tag forest detachment succeeded in taking out a  Soviet platoon and capturing enough supplies to last for six months. They marched back to the village where Draża waited. If the Serb had known what had just happened, he wouldn’t have been so worried, when a village sentry came flying into the house where he was having his feet bandaged by one of the regimental nurses, and announced that Soviet cavalry was coming their way. Draża was completely taken by surprise. It seemed like bad luck, especially now that they were about to leave Poland. His feet were still in a bad way and he couldn’t run, so he took out his guns and a bag of grenades and awaited a bloody stand-off. It was only as the ‘Soviets’ drew closer that he saw his own officer, Tough, was astride one of the horses. Beside him, he could make out another of his officers, Knebel, his overcoat breast filled with a line of Soviet medals (it was his custom, whenever he killed an enemy officer, to take his most prestigious decoration). There was Wildcat, smiling like a Cheshire cat. And there was my father, with a newly acquired Soviet PPSh machine gun slung across his shoulder. Tough trotted up to a confused Draża, saluted, and announced:

“Captain, we’ve brought you half of Berlin!”

 

Draża hoped that there wouldn’t be a heavy price to pay for the local villagers when the Soviets began scouring the countryside. One thing was certain, now was the time to make their departure. When the Russians found out what happened, the place would be swarming. Already, in the previous month, the conflict between the NKVD and anti-Communist Polish forces had reached a new level. On May 7th, in the village of Kuryłówka, members of the anti-Communist National Military Alliance were engaged in battle by the NKVD. The skirmish ended in the retreat of the NKVD. In Moscow, the news incurred Stalin’s ire and brought decisive action. The village of Kuryłówka was burned to the ground, while Stalin sent eight additional NKVD regiments to deal a decisive blow to the Polish independence movement.  On May 21st, the Soviets’ were militarily embarrassed once again, when the prison in Rembertów, on the outskirts of Warsaw, formerly the German Stalag 333 and now a holding camp for Polish prisoners on their way to camps in Siberia, was attacked by former Home Army soldiers led by Colonel Edward Wasilewski and hundreds of Polish prisoners released.

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Draża immediately called the headman of the village to spread the word in the surrounding area that no-one had seen or heard of them. Then he gathered his informers and police confidants and instructed them to spread the rumour that a band of deserters from the Polish Communist Army had attacked a Soviet transport and fled in the direction of Krosno, west of their then position. They would instead go north-eastwards and attempt to reach the railway line that would take them to Kraków. First they found a quiet place in the forest and buried their spoils. The prisoners were given to Belabes to dispose of. They would be handed over to resistance leaders in the villages and used later to trade for Polish prisoners captured by the Soviets.

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Draża’s evacuation plan was then set in motion. He sent his soldiers in small groups to the west. The underground resistance movement had contact points throughout the towns and cities of Poland to aid and assist the fleeing soldiers. If all went to plan, they would soon be in Italy with the Polish II Corp. Draża kept a dozen of his men behind, including my father. While they prepared to leave Poland, Draża’s assassins tied up a few loose ends. A small group crept out one morning to kill a butcher in the village of Dynów, a Communist local boss who, knowing the forest detachments were disbanding, had taken the opportunity of arresting any he could find and handing them over to the Russians in return for control over the town. The butcher had police protection, so ‘Granite’ was chosen for that job. His nerves were ice cold. He waited in line at the butcher-shop for his turn at the meat counter. When the butcher was serving the woman in front of him, he took out his revolver, rested it softly on the woman’s shoulder and fired three shots at close range into the butcher’s chest. His accomplices outside the shop took care of the policemen and they all escaped unharmed. A few days later, just as Wojtek and his fellow soldiers arrived at the railway hub in Przeworsk, to make their escape from Poland, several of the men were captured by the local police. Draża would not leave them behind now, on the very point of departure. Intelligence in Przworsk set to work and discovered that the Chief of Police in Przeworsk was to be married within a few days. Draża sent him the following note:

“You have three of my men in your prison. If you do not free them, or if you hand them over to the Soviets, you will be taken down on the day of your marriage. Beware! Don’t play games with your life… – Draża.”

That was all it took. Within a couple of days, the men were released. The Chief of Police knew that Draża meant business.

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Red Cross 1

RED CROSS ESCAPE (No.4)

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Soon, my father received the order to move again. He was to rendez-vous with the last of Draża’s men in the southern city of Katowice. Draża himself had gone to Warsaw to meet the American Ambassador and warn him of the extent of Communist take-over of Poland. He was received there with sympathy, and although the Ambassador expressed shock on learning of the extent of Soviet repression against anti-Communist Poles, he made it clear to Draża that there were ‘higher forces’ at work and now was not the time to argue with Stalin. When he arrived in Katowice, the last of his men, had already gathered before their final departure from Poland. An escape route had been found. The Red Cross was then assisting former French prisoners-of-war, who had spent years in German prisoner-of-war camps in Eastern Europe, to return home. A French officer, sympathetic to Draża’s situation, procured one of the official identity cards necessary to make this journey unmolested. From that, they had their own documents made up by an excellent forger within the underground in Katowice. That was how they left Poland. A French Red Cross worker accompanied them to the train station to put them aboard a carriage specially designated for returning French prisoners-of-war. Besides Draża and Belabas, none of them spoke a word of French. But, luckily for them, neither did the Russian guards who inspected everyone’s paperwork at the station.

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 When they arrived in Prague, a French diplomat was waiting on the platform, expecting to greet ‘returning French prisoners-of-war.’ Soviet soldiers also guarded the station. They were checking all passengers for anti-Soviet agents. Draża took the bull by the horns and approached the diplomat.

“Bonjour!” Draża exclaimed with a brazen confidence as he outstretched both his arms and drew the Frenchman to him.

“Are you French?” The diplomat asked more than a little confused. Draża spoke softly and clearly in simple French.

“Listen, if you support the Communists, please turn us over right now. We are soldiers of the Polish Underground. We are friends of France. God save us!”

A wave of anxiety shot through the diplomat’s face. He looked at the boyish expressions behind Draża. He looked at the Soviet NKVD agents who guarded the gates leading from the platforms. A French woman came up to him in a hurry and spoke to her compatriot.

“What are you waiting for? The Russians are watching us. Put them in the truck and let’s get the hell out of here!”

“Damn! Damn! Damn!” The diplomat whispered under his breath. Even he was nervous about the Soviets. He bit the bullet and signalled to a man to drive up with the truck the French Embassy had arranged to collect ‘her’ soldiers. They piled in one after another and were whisked away from under the Soviet agents’ noses to a Red Cross welcome centre. Draża left them in the capable hands of an Allied officer he knew who was stationed in Prague. He agreed to help get them to Pilsen, which was nearby in the American Zone. There, they would be safe until onward transportation could be arranged. Draża himself was going to fly to France. He knew he could get in touch with the Polish government there and make sure that no Polish escapees, who sought refuge in the American zone would be ‘accidentally’ turned over to the Soviets (as indeed was already happening across Europe, as Allied troops forcibly handed over ‘Soviet citizens’ (a loosely defined term) to the NKVD. When it was time for him to depart, they saluted him. Draża wished them all the best. He promised them they would meet again. He told them we would soon get our chance to go home and topple the Communists. He said that he was always with us in that battle for freedom. Yugoslavia, his own native land, lay in Communist hands now also. They were blood brothers in a common fight.

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FINAL FAREWELL

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In summer 1949, my father, by then a refugee in Ireland, went to London, when his fellow Jazłowiaccy told him Draża was coming for a meeting with members of the Polish Government-in-Exile. Though the government wasn’t recognized officially by the British any longer, it still claimed it’s representative rights and conducted it’s affairs in Britain until the first free Polish elections in 1989. Draża looked hale and hearty and seemed genuinely happy to his young soldiers. They attended an official function and, afterwards, sat around over drinks, reminiscing about their adventures, mourning their fallen comrades. Draża was an exile like them. He could no more return to Tito’s Yugoslavia, than they could to Poland. He lived in France now. He told them to come and visit. He wished them the best of luck. When they talked of returning to fight against the Soviets, their mood was momentarily deflated. The more disturbed the Western Powers seemed by the Soviet threat, the less they wished to confront them. In 1949, the Soviets succeeded in exploding their own Atom bomb, an event which boded ill for future military intervention in Eastern Europe. That would be the end of my father’s military career. Perhaps he didn’t quite realize it then, that there would be no more Poland for him, but he knew that his life had entered another phase. And so did Draża. They all could see he felt sad for them. He had promised they would go back and finish their mission. But that was not his fault. He had given them enough already. He had given them a great many life skills in a short amount of time. The proof of that was quite simple: after all they had gone through, they were still alive.

Draża would never return to Yugoslavia or to Poland. He lived out the remainder of his life in France and Monaco under the name Jacques Roman. He died in 1987 on his annual pilgrimage to Mt.Atos in Greece.

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3 responses to “DRAŻA THE SERBIAN CHETNIK IN THE POLISH UNDERGROUND

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  1. I enjoy reading your posts I find them fascinating. There is much history to learn besides what schools teach here in USA. My ancestors are from Slovakia. The last ones to come here to USA were my great grandparents back in 1949. They were 70 years old and came from a small village in eastern Slovakia called Vysna Mysla. No one is alive to tell me how they made it here and how it was all possible. I know they got some documentation to prove where they lived and they were married and that was in 1946 and 1947,and my grandfathers baptism certificate,I know that because I have all three. But thank you for your post.

    • Thanks! Have you tried tracing your roots in Slovakia. Perhaps you have unknown relatives still alive. It could be a fascinating adventure 🙂

  2. This is another amazing piece! You have the eye of a story teller.

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