Tom’s Story

Flight from Poland in 1939 and eventual arrival in Scotland

(dictated to Christina Dudzińska, annotated and minimally tidied up by George)

“I was living with my family in the centre of Warsaw¹. Hermann Goering’s aircraft began raining bombs down on Warsaw on 1 September 1939.

A few days later, my father decided to take advantage of a train being organised to take the families of service personnel away from the danger area. My mother’s original intention had been that we would travel to Lwów², where my grandparents were living at the time. However, somewhere in mid-journey, my mother must have decided to change the plan and to continue with the train wherever it would take us. In retrospect this seemed an excellent idea, because my grandparents and their entire family had been deported to Siberia by the Soviets, who invaded Poland on 17 September 1939. Although they managed to get out alive and without major damage, I was not sorry to be denied the opportunity of sampling Uncle Joe Stalin’s hospitality.

The southward journey in the train was accomplished entirely in ideal flying and bombing weather, in that there was blue sky and scarcely a cloud throughout. For much of the journey we were travelling through flat, open country and at one point someone noticed a formation of German bombers against the blue sky at a time when we were travelling over an embankment with no place for anybody to hide from the bombers – they might or might not have been coming for us, but would presumably assume that the train was carrying troops and should therefore be attacked rather than left in peace. I sat on my mother’s knees and prayed hard. A moment later we heard the voice of the train commandant shouting “Storks, storks!” On hearing that I had just prayed to God to be kind enough to do something about the planes, he was kind enough to give me the credit for the transfiguration of these German bombers into storks. 

We carried on until we arrived in Zaleszczyki on 17 September 1939. This was a small frontier town on the river dividing Poland and Romania at that point. We got there not long before 2 pm that day and the train was stationary in marshalling yards. We got out of the train and decided to take shelter in large concrete pipes probably intended for sewers. The pipes would indeed provide excellent protection from flying shrapnel and the like, but, unfortunately, were coated on the inside with tar or similar, a fact that we established only on climbing into the pipes. Needless to say, we were a pretty sight when we emerged. The bombers did attack, but if they tried to hit the train they were bad aimers because they hit only a factory on the Romanian side of the border. In due course we crossed the bridge over the river, not knowing that it would be another 27 years before we would again set foot in Poland. 

That evening we heard a lot of bangs, no doubt artillery firing by Soviet troops which had by then reached Zaleszczyki. However, we were by then in Zaleszczyki³, on the Romanian side of the bridge, so not even the Russians wanted to march into Romania as their argument was with Poland. By this time, my father was not far away on the Polish side, having been ordered to go to the south and then to proceed eastwards by car in order to establish whether the Russians had reached a certain town. He travelled ahead in one car… [text missing]. As internees, I suppose that we were expected to sit out the war in Călimănești. My father, however, had other ideas. He had no intention of sitting on his backside when there was a war to be fought and Germans to be attended to. Thus, it was only a fortnight or so later that we were all three on our way to the station in a horse-drawn cab. Half-way there, we were stopped by a policeman. I suppose the fellow’s duty was to prevent us from hopping off somewhere. However, my father crossed his palm with a small quantity of silver, an amount equivalent to less than half a dollar. In return for this small bribe, the man not only allowed us to proceed but in fact escorted us to the station, found us a seat and made sure we were well ensconced therein before he left us.

A short while later we were in Bucharest, the capital. There, my father had no difficulty in obtaining entry visas for France or transit visas for my mother and myself for Italy and Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the Italian consulate would not believe that my father was now called not Zbigniew Dudziński, but Stefan Budkiewicz (occupation: journalist). The result was that my father was unable to obtain a transit visa for Italy and had to go to Athens, where he caught a Polish coal ship bound for Marseilles.

Meanwhile, my mother and I travelled in relative comfort and reasonably swiftly to Paris. Paris was no joy for us because money was so short. How my mother managed to find us a shelter and food I don’t know. All I do know is that we made use of a soup kitchen located in a gymnasium, with birds flying around high under the ceiling. I also know that she sold her wedding ring and for a time wore a curtain-ring instead, but I doubt whether that would have got us many nights’ accommodation. Shortage of money also meant that I personally was thrown on my wits for entertainment because, obviously, we didn’t bring any toys out of Warsaw when we left. I did have one book, James Fenimore Cooper’s “Hawkeye”. I think it had an alternative title, “The Last of the Mohicans”. This I must have read and re-read umpteen times.

The only alternative I had was a map of the Paris metro, on which I rapidly became an expert. I remember I was able to advise visitors about to return home which train they should take and where. I wager there is not a boy alive in Paris today, aged seven, who has half the knowledge of the Paris metro that I had in 1939-40.

After a few months in Paris, along came June, and with it the German invasion of France. My mother and I were sent off to the attractions of Biarritz. In fact, for me this meant school, which was to have started in Poland in September 1939. I don’t remember French school except that I had about 6 weeks at it which wasn’t enough to learn anything permanent. Towards the end of June, the Germans were getting nearer and nearer and so the instruction came for us to proceed to the southernmost port in France, namely Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where we were to pick up a Polish liner that would take us to the United Kingdom.

My father, meanwhile, was able to board a destroyer in La Rochelle, bound for Glasgow. The only difficulty was that the Port Captain felt unhappy at what the Germans would do if they learned that he had willingly allowed French and Polish troops to board a vessel bound for the UK. My father was forced to visit the Port Captain with a friend, the pair armed with a pistol which they placed on his temple explaining that they definitely intended to leave for the UK. The only uncertainty which had to be settled was whether they would leave the Port Captain alive or dead, but that was entirely up to him.

Recently I received a book from a distant Polish relative. The book was a history of the liner in which we travelled from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Plymouth. This describes how we were faced with similar problems in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, problems of which I was at the time unaware. There the problem was that the French authorities wouldn’t make available to us the… [text missing].

By mid-June 1940, the Germans were getting ever-nearer, so my mother and I received instructions to go down to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a little port village just by the Spanish frontier to the south of Biarritz. The problem was that the liner that had come to collect us was fairly large, some fourteen-and-a-half thousand tonnes, and so had to anchor some way out to sea. We needed motorboats to shuttle between shore and ship and help us to board. Apart from the hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian refugees like ourselves, there were troops (Polish, British, French and others) all trying to get to the U.K. I knew that the ship was pretty full. The book tells me that not only was every cabin occupied, but also every corridor, every saloon, indeed the swimming pool was full of sleeping bodies. 

During the voyage, there were a number of U-boat scares, but, fortunately, none of them turned into an actual danger We experienced some very heavy weather in our westward journey along the northern coast of Spain, in the course of which my poor mother was sick virtually without interruption. I was more resistant to the movement of the ship, which was of course constructed at a time when…” [text ends]

  1. ¹ Ulica Sułkowicka 6, Apt. 1, on the southern edge of Łazienki Park. The building still stands, and had clearly recently been smartened up when I first saw it (in July 2009). It survived the wholesale destruction of Warsaw, largely thanks to the fact that – as I was informed – the Gestapo used it as its Warsaw headquarters, and that it lay in a district where senior German military personnel lived.
  • ²  Then an important Polish city, now in Ukraine (Lviv).
  • ³ Formerly a popular Polish spa town and tourist destination on the Dniester River, now in Ukraine (Zalischyky)
  • The story, according to Mamusia, is that she sacrificed some precious butter she’d taken along on the journey and used it to help clean the tar off Tom!
  • Town in southern Romania.
  • ⁶ The M/S. Batory was a Polish ocean liner launched in 1935. In addition to serving as a troop transport and hospital ship throughout WWII, it secretly transported Britain’s gold reserves to Canada, to keep them safe from the Nazis. More importantly, from our point of view, it carried the last remaining Polish refugees to Portsmouth on 24/25 July 1940, saving them from the advancing German army.
  • ⁷  It is unclear exactly when Tatuś arrived in France and was able to join up with his wife and son, but some time in March would be a reasonable guess – that would leave enough time for me to be born in December 1940!