Walking with Shadows (Polish Paratrooper at Arnhem) - Josef Tarnowski

Walking with Shadows Book Cover

Walking with Shadows

Josef Tarnowski

ISBN 9780956175809
Kirkcudbright, Scotland: Glen Murray Publishing



94 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

In the autumn of 1939 Poland was invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Josef Tarnowski was 17 and living in Luck in eastern Poland. The Soviets occupied Luck and life for the 33,000 residents changed:

  • All food and goods disappeared from the shops - confiscated by the Soviets.
  • You had to queue for hours for essential foods.
  • There was no longer private property.
  • Priests were arrested and jailed or deported.
  • Luck Cathedral became the Museum of Atheism.

Many young men and women joined the resistance - the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). After witnessing the Soviet deportation of 250,00 Poles to Siberia in February 1940 Jozef also joined the Polish underground. His main tasks were to :

  • gather intelligence
  • find and store weapons
  • await orders from the Polish Government in Exile in London

He and other Home Army members observed the movements of railway trains.

Every day we saw heavy goods trains passing through from the Ukraine heading for Nazi Germany openly hauling iron ore and coal...[also] oil...ammunition as well as grain...It was obvious to us...that the USSR was supplying Germany with stock and material for war with France and Britain. (p. 24)

Arrest by the Soviets

In July 1940 Josef Tarnowski was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD).

  • He was told that they wanted names and weapons.
  • He was interrogated for four days and nights.
  • They wanted him to sign a confession that he was a counter-revolutionary.

Josef signed the confession and was taken to a nearby convent which had been converted into a prison. Five months later on Christmas Eve 1940 he was put on trial. The prosecutor called for the death sentence but under Soviet law someone under 18 when the crimes were committed could not be shot. He was sentenced instead to 10 years in the Gulag.

Journey to Vorkuta

The journey to the labour camp at Vorkuta in Siberia took one month. The trip was made by train in cattle trucks. Jozef made stops on the way in various prisons at Lwow, Kiev, Dniepropietrowsk and Kharkow before travelling onwards into Siberia. Eventually he arrived at the camp in the frozen tundra. The task of the camp inmates was the construction of a rail link.

...our daily and nightly task of digging the cutting for the rails to be laid. It was impossible to dig through the permafrost which was a metre deep. It had to be blown up...It took strength and stamina and keeping up both was the problem...People became walking shadows. Every morning a roll call of shadowy figures with rags for clothing reinforced the idea that this was your life until death. (pp. 47-50)

In the camp people died every day. Jozef began to develop open sores on his legs - scurvy was setting in. He knew if things continued as they were that his time left was limited.

Release from the Gulag

In June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The following month the Soviets signed an agreement with General Sikorski in London. This agreement led to the release from captivity of members of the Polish Armed Forces in the Soviet Union.

Our camp had a radio which brought the news of the German invasion and of Sikorski's demands for our freedom. Some isolated camps lacked even this contact. In them many Poles died before the word reached them... (p. 52)

Jozef and his fellow Poles were released from the camp and given an official document explaining who they were. They travelled by train, in cattle trucks, but this time without NKVD guards. They eventually arrived at Buzuluk where the Polish Army was being formed but there was so many people waiting to be processed that they were sent on to Uzbek villages. Later in the autumn of 1942 Jozef took part in the evacuation of the Polish Armed Forces from the Soviet Union to Persia.

Journey to Britain

In Persia he was taken to a hospital in Teheran for treatment for malaria. He was then sent to Iraq to take part in Officer Training. After completion of his training he applied to join the Polish Parachute Brigade. The Parachute training was to take place in Great Britain.

Jozef made his way from Iraq, through Syria to Palestine and then across the Sinai desert to the port of Suez. There he boarded the ship Isle de France for the long sea journey to Britain. The ship sailed south through the Indian Ocean to the South African port of Durban. After two weeks in South Africa the ship travelled into the Atlantic and eventually arrived in Gourock, Scotland. Jozef then reported to the 3rd Battalion Parachute Brigade based in Fife.

Airborne Assault at Arnhem

On 6 June 1944 (D-Day) the Allies landed on the beaches at Normandy in France. By September the British had reached the Albert Canal in Belgium. An airborne assault, Operation Market Garden, to capture the bridges over the Rhine involving American, British and Polish paratroopers was now planned. The operation would be in stages:

  • 1st day - the British and American parachute regiments would go in.
  • 2nd day - the heavy weapons would be dropped.
  • 3rd day - the Poles would go in.

The objective for Jozef's Polish company of Paratroopers was to capture a military radio installation south of the River Rhine. The pre-drop briefing had assured them of only light resistance.

The briefing was totally, absolutely and completely wrong...there were two SS Panzer Divisions in the area...unknown to the Allies, Arnhem was now the HQ of Marshall Walter Model, a very experienced veteran of the Eastern Front and a Nazi fanatic, who had been sent there to bolster defences. (p. 76)

The Polish paratroopers were delayed in taking off for two days because of fog. On the third day the 1,700 paratroopers departed in 114 planes. Only about 1,000 soldiers dropped as the rest of the planes turned back due to fog.

...the Germans immediately threw five SS Battalions supported by tanks against us...[They] were desperate to dislodge us because we now held the only escape route for the British 1st Airborne Division...[British] General Urquhart ordered the Polish Parachute Brigade to cross to the north side which the British were still holding...200 did cross under severe fire...On the 26th we were ordered south to defend other bridges. A week or two later we were withdrawn by sea to England. Of the Poles dropped one third were now dead, wounded or captured. (pp. 79-80)

In 2006 the government of the Netherlands awarded the Polish Brigade the highest military decoration and British veterans of the 1st Airborne division commemorated General Sosabowski, commander of the Polish parachute brigade, with a monument in the Dutch town of Driel.

At the end of the war Josef Tarnowski decided to remain in Britain rather than return to Soviet dominated Poland. He married a Scottish woman in August 1947 in Fife and then spent most of his working life as an engineer in England. They retired to St Andrews, Scotland, in 1983. Josef Tarnowski died in 2010 aged 88.