BILL WILCOCK's WARTIME DIARY
THE POLISH IN IRAQ - APRIL and MAY 1942
Iraq. Tuesday April 7th 1942.
Happy schoolboys we splash around in the warm dense lake water. It is hellish difficult to swim in, but it glorious to dust and sweat soaked bodies. The meals are still smashing although there is always a slight taste of petrol about everything. This causes one wit to say “That’s the worst about transport work. There’s always a taste of petrol. Thank Heaven, I’m not in a Horse Transport Column!” Camps are springing up with Companies helping us to transport the released Poles to Palestine. We learn that the first batch of Poles have arrived and that we have the honour of being first to bring them back from the hardship, filth and squalor of the Russian prison camps to as near civilisation as they are likely to see in the Middle East. We are in great spirits and some guys like are praying for Nurses to be allotted to their trucks.
On maintenance until dusk, brings mosquitoes flocking around in buzzing millions. Back in Sarafand where a “mozzie” bug has never been heard, the lads are traipsing around with shorts ridiculously turned down, whilst here, we walk around merely in shorts and plimsolls. I hope I never return to barrack life and its soul crippling regimentalities. We drink beer at 1/10d per bottle. Brewed in Shanghi by Matheson’s. It must be a year or four old, I guess, but is pretty decent stuff and laid in bed guzzling, I am as happy as ever I shall be in the Army. Four a.m. reveille and away for the Poles and the rough and tumble of the desert again. No war news and better for it.
Landing Ground 5, Iraq. Tuesday/Wednesday April 7th 1942.
A heavy dust storm is raging as we wind through the loose sand to the “Polish Camp”. They are here the Poles. Standing in long ragged lines of British battle dress, the dust whistles amongst them and adds to the grime of their hard recent travelling. Without emotion of any kind, they watch our trucks coming in for them. These are men!! They smell like men and behave like real men!! I like them. There is little culture or finesse about them, and their physique is nothing out of the ordinary, but there’s a look of heavy endurance and disregard of hardships about them. Somehow, I should imagine the English looked like them, when the Feudal system was all the rage. The work “Peasant” is stamped and ingrained in their curiously flat faces. I look at them patiently bearing the choking dust, and I see corn being stacked in quivers. Wheat being reaped and these lads reaping it. They exhale a sense of peasantry even though I should calculate; half of them are from Warsaw, Vilna and other cities. It strikes me how well they look considering they have been in prison two years. A few are wearing slippers through the winter having left them with severe frostbite. Many have impetigo and skin diseases, but the majority are standing there oozing rude health, and I raise my hat to these fellows. I cannot escape feeling that they would die with as little emotion as with which they live.
Equipped in Russia, with all British clothing they have added homemade petrol tin Polish cap badges. They continue to wear our glengarries in the Polish manner. Pulled square over their shaven heads, they bring their kit aboard. Captains, Lieutenants are dressed exactly the same, the only difference being a couple or three tiny stars on their shoulders and hats. All alike they pile into the wagons, six hundred being stowed away and ready for off within twenty minutes.
I see only two Polish girls in A.T.S. uniform. Then a very dark girl joins them, and the three make for my truck. My load comprises entirely of Officers and led by the Lt.Colonel who is riding with me in front, they leap down and solemnly kiss the A.T.S. girls hands. Heel clicking and doing the old Regency stuff to perfection, they hand the girls into the back, and we pull out of Habbaniyah and head for the open desert. I am more than worried about the women in my lorry. Although I know they have lived in Concentration Camps for two years and more, the thoughts of them having to recourse to natures demands in full view of six hundred men in a desert without a single concealing tree, bush, or hill disturbs me no end.
We make twenty miles, and halt for the evacuating spell, and I am sick at the thought of the girls perhaps having to join the men who are squatting in groups all over the desert. In a hundred varying postures, they void their bowels, which unused to any real food for two years, have been sadly overtaxed by the luxuries our Governments are virtually showering upon them Many are suffering from dysentery, but even this, they bear with their customary patience. The first halt, the three girls are alright, and whilst all around them men are urinating and groaning with dysentery, the three of them dance a polka with three Officers. One of them in the back plays an accordion with a masterly touch, speeding up the tempo into a wild Polish dance, smiles flashing from the girl’s faces and sweat pouring down the Officers dials. What people!! The most oppressed nation in today’s world, dance with gay abandon in a wasteland almost as big as their own country!! Surely this spirit cannot stay oppressed. How dearly these people love their independence and how they hate Germany and Russia!!
They regard us as the “chosen people” and are courteous and filled with wonder at the way we are feeding them. They little know that England herself doesn’t feed her peoples on the tinned meat, fruit, cheese and endless variety of other foods, the Poles are thankfully receiving from us. Money too, they are well supplied with, most of them have Russian, Iran, Iraq and Palestinian money in their possession. They view England’s resources as being bottomless and little suspect the true food situation. It is two years since we saw, let alone eat some of the stuff. And yet, it seems right that they should have it. We have failed so miserably in our propaganda in the past two years, and I can see no better propaganda than well feeding blokes who have existed on Russian bread and water. A hundred thousand happy Polish soldiers will make more than an excellent army to replace the Aussies.
The next stop comes and the girls in the back have to face up to it. In full view of us all, they walk a goodish way across the sand, and in turn, two shield the other with their overcoats whilst they perform their toilet. Hell, what War does, and how such incidents like this, bring the futility of it all home to me. I dare not look as she girls come back to my truck. The Colonel looks at me and spreads his hands.
Lunch brings swapping of souvenirs and a get-together by the two nations. Most of the Poles, though just drop out of the wagons and stretch out in the sand and sleep soundly. I look at them, and see the peasant and music of Poland. Richard Boleshwski’s “Polish Lancer” describes these men. I can only say they are earthy, unthinkingly hardworking, and roughly gentle and that they are “men”. Nearing LG5, they sing folk songs full of longing and melody. They have a marvellous sense of tone. I like them more and more.
H.3, Iraq. Thursday April 8th 1942.
A crossing which ends here at dusk. The Polish tumble out choked in yellow dust and grime. But do they mind? Not they!! Not even having to sleep in the open, with a bitterly cold wind blowing the sand into stinging fury. In German, Edgar tries to convey how sorry he is, that no tents are yet available for them. An Officer shows us photos of his wife and three girls butchered in Warsaw, catches on and says “Ah. This is nothing. In Russia we have only bread and water. We sleep in eight feet of snow. Ah. This is nothing!!”
As we are getting the sand out of our hair, the wind is blowing across to our Lorries, and the Poles are singing in unison. Six hundred tuneful voices drift over the wastes to us in the darkness of a soft moonless sky. It is inspiring to think of them singing as they always do each night before going to sleep. A few desert dogs howl after the song is finished. I see them laid in the open, and am a little ashamed of myself. I and my family (touch wood!) have known no real suffering as yet. Kath and I are parted and that makes me feel bad. These Poles have little left to go back to even if they win. And yet they sing!! I must think of them, when I am full of self pity again.
Friday 9th April 1942.
Four a. m. and we are up and away over to the Polish Camp again. It can hardly be called a camp; only one tent graces the hard lightly grassed plain. After yet another night on the cold ground, they are lined up, covered with sand and good nature. “Palestine?” – They point over the Mafraq hills, and grin all over their flat faces. Off we race, to the accompaniments of really exceptional glee singing. I know now why the word “Glee” is used for male voice singing. They are in it high, and Edgar and I are infected and whistle all our favourites, stumbling as usual on the second part of “Magic Flute”. We have just rolled down the first pass after Mafraq and find the convoy halted. We linger without explanation for around forty minutes and then the most ridiculous Order I have ever heard in my Army career, is passed down the line. “Everyone to wash, shave and dress in regulation K.D. Kit!!”
We look at each other all dumbfounded like. My shirt is similar to the Mussolini type. My beard is like the stubble of a newly cut harvest field, and Cherry Blossom have long been a stranger to my boots. Edgar is far worse than I am, water not having been near him for a “coupla” days. Our language is something horrible as we pull the Poles off our water tin and petrol tin wash bowl. The Polish gentlemen cannot understand why we have to wash and shave and spreading their hands, we have twenty mute faces beaming “Whys?” “Bullshit, this”. British Army Bullshit”. Yells Edgar to ‘em. “Ja! Ja! Says a Deutsch speaker, “We could all do with a bullshit”. Cursing fearfully, I am just scrapping away with a pained expression and month old razor blade, when I see the convoy rolling up the hill. The next wagon below us, a tremendous Pole is flashing a cut throat razor around Jack Luke’s mug. He has already shaved Webster in four strokes and is as mad as blazes when Jack jumps up, leaves half his beard still on and cranks up and races after us. “What the hell is this?” we yell, as we struggle into clean shorts. By the time we are ready, the convoy is miles away and McDougal has come looking for us. He howls merrily when we tell him about the order being passed down the line, saying that Jack Pettit did it to smarten up our “blitz kid” who washed and shaved exactly ten days ago! Not seeing the joke on little bit, we come to the seven tiered pass that overlooks the Palestine border, Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee. We halt for a few minutes, point to Galilee, hear the old Captain still mumbling about oranges and low gear our singing load down the hair raising mountain road into the land of milk and honey.
As a gesture we pull in at a Polish settlement, the inhabitants turning out in full force and almost falling upon our passenger’s unwashed necks. Grapefruit and oranges are piled upon them and a fanatical light beams in the face of the Captain as he sees the yellow fruit. Stamping and dancing in the back, he is tearing the skins off madly and making bathroom noises as juice flows freely down his bearded chin. Some of the soldiers recognise old friends and any amount of the old two cheek kissing is going on.
Sat in the lush grass, we whistle “Cradle Song” and sit watching the happy scene. I sort of notice a thin, head cropped soul with an immense bandage draped round his throat watching us intently. In English, he says “You like music, hein?” We go up to him and yarn the old tunes over, and are astounded to hear that he is Henry Reubel, the Polish tenor who recorded in England a good few years back. He pulls out his photo and shows us his brother, who now graces Hollywood’s boulevards and lays claim to having composed “Carioca” and “Lullaby in Blue”. Poor Reubel will sing no more, the bandages testify to severe throat trouble and we feel bad about it as he hums over a few operatic airs he sang all over Europe.
On to Rehovat we speed, the sight of our loads bringing the Jews lining the roadsides. To the Poles, they shower fruit and smiles. To us, they shower the usual “dean pan” and no fruit. In Rehovat, the streets are festooned and we drive slowly up and back the main street. The town is chocked with sight-seers, flowers are being thrown and everybody except us is having a helluva time. We, who have made possible this transportation of so many of their own race, are ignored and treated as though we were lepers. What a different scene greets us at Gardera Camp. Here the Polish soldiery out from England a few months back, line the roadway, salute us, click their heels and say “T’Sawk You” as we drive their comrades into these destinations. Within a few minutes or so, the whole six hundred are lined up orderly and a Polish General has driven up in a Humber and is fervently addressing the men he is to command. We climb on top of the trucks and take photos as he yells to them. Looking remarkably like Marshall Balbo, with his square hat and flowing beard, he is working up to a passion when he calls for cheers for England, America and Australia. The light is a fading of soft sunset red as he screams “England!!” Three full throated “Huzza’s” echo across to us and the scene is vastly moving. Three more for America and the Aussies, then a blood curdling roar of hate for Germany.
There is something great about these Poles. They are soldiers every inch and will be tough and revengeful opponents for Jerry. Russia is not even mentioned in the Generals speech and he sort of echoes the sentiments of most of the Poles, who hate the Russian guts and look back with something akin to hate at their two year bread and water treatments. One bloke gave it as his opinion, that Russia was damned badly fed, but immensely well armed. They must be well armed. They continue to force Jerry away from Moscow, whilst all we do is retreat all along the line and show smug satisfaction about a few Norwegian raids.
We eat bacon and chopped onions with the Poles and later troop along with them to their canteen, where we are more or less their guests. The beer flows copiously and Garwood goes over big with them. Tony is his old self, singing “Old Father Thames” and doing his impersonation will beery skill. With one bloke, he dances the Polka until sweat pours down their faces and the canteen howls with laughter. Everybody is dangling his arms round the other nation’s necks and this is the first time I have actually seen the British mix so freely with any of our allies. All the while the celebrations are in full swing, attendants keep dishing out boxes of immensely thick dog biscuits. Used now, as we are, to our rations, these biscuits would be hard going on a Great Dane let alone us. But the Poles fill their pockets and glengarries and “molar mash” them like they were Carr’s Custard Creams!! Gosh, but these blokes are hard. The strength oozes out of them. With half the lads fetching back the bacon and onion, we stagger back to the trucks and sleep like it cost a pound an hour!! Tomorrow we are away for another six hundred. I don’t know how long the job will last, but I am happy doing it.
My book is finished now and I only wish that Kath and my friends could read the hours I have put into it. More each coming day, my longing for my wife increase and I sincerely hope that my next book is concluded in England. I very much doubt that and as summer nears, I find England looming ever more in my mind. I have been in eleven countries now. April is here. The primroses will be blooming. My wife is starting a new life as Nurse at Warwick, and I wonder how long all this futility is to continue. But it isn’t futility!! It is purely and simply a struggle for existence and as such must be fought for, even if at times my faith is so easily shaken and my longing for home and England makes me forget the real issue. Eight months this book has covered. How much will the next cover and when will I be home?
* * *
5, Iraq. Wednesday 7th May 1942
Reveille reveals a scene that beggars all description. The interior of the truck is positively filled with mosquitoes and greenfly. The canopy is an inch thick green carpet; they crowd in our food, hair and clothing and make us sigh loudly and long for England and its insect less life. Early on I report sick and am dosed at the Polish Camp by an Indian Doctor who can just say “Yes” and “No Please” in English. His diagnoses are a series of gestures and pointing at vital organs. Joe Walker goes for his ear syringing and comes out with his tonsils painted! My abdomen clutching however must have been pretty realistic for his saline settled my stomach immediately.
In the small tent, a Polish girl is tossing around deliriously in a camp bed, whilst a large boned comrade patiently flicks the flies away from her. Over at the Cross the refugees have erected, a crowd are softly singing hymns in the true Polish melodious manner. Two Priests complete with red robes, officiate, and though an altar appears ludicrous built upon a sand bank, there is a curious air of reverence about the scene. Wellingtons and Lockheed’s growling overhead form background music for the favoured chanting below. A strange scene, a curious world.
We ride through the Polish Camp and find it deserted with the exception of the Hospital and a few Polish girls. The peculiar mound of brick the Poles were patting into some sort of shape on Lake Habbaniyah’s shore has now grown into quite a reverent looking altar. Some smart workman has let in a mosaic work on the Cross and whether Poland lives again or not; - they have left their mark in Iraq.
We rest up for the night and lay thinking lowly about our return to Sarafand. This life is hard, but Sarafand, Palestine, injures the soul. Maybe something will turn up.
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