September 19th, 1939
We had been watching and tracking their movement over the past two days – maintaining surveillance from a safe distance within the concealment of the forested area on the south side of the valley. I referred to my map. They had entered the small village of Jazowsko and appeared to have halted their progress eastwards.
I sat and made myself comfortable in the shadows of the tall pine trees, rested my elbows on my knees, and with my binoculars slowly panned over the activity below.
“What do you think?” asked Saks beside me, also surveying the proceedings through his binoculars. The other four had taken up defensive positions some distance away on either side of us.
We had been shadowing the force of around three thousand men, we ascertained were part of the 2nd mountain division of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group South. The main body of our Army Karpaty – recently augmented by remnants of Army Kraków – were engaging with the German army further north of our position. The detachment Nowak and I had observed two days earlier, had rejoined this division.
From the information we had received, three recently created divisions of the Slovak Republic also accompanied the Germans. They were occupying the towns of Zakopane and Nowy Targ, fifty kilometres to our west. They were not advancing further. I didn’t respond and continued panning the area below. The villagers appeared unperturbed by the sudden incursion of the large military contingent. Some even came out of their homes to engage with the soldiers as they spread out and ensconced themselves among the buildings.
“It looks like they may be billeting here,” I replied eventually. I noted a few starting to erect tents off the back of a truck, at the west end of the village. A few were sprawled around, either sleeping or soaking up the late morning sun. Others engaged in the usual pass times soldiers did between actions – talking, telling stories, playing cards, or just relaxing on their own away from the crowd.
“Uh-huh,” sounded Saks.
I lowered my binoculars, then unslung the water-bottle off my shoulder and took a sip of the cool spring-water.
“Better let the men know that we’ll be here for a while,” I said, and then added, “You take first watch.” I leant back against the tree and closed my eyes. Sleep had been intermittent over the previous few days.
I woke with a start.
“How long have I been asleep?” The smell of soup cooking was wafting up from below.
“Not long. About an hour,” answered Saks. “They’ve set up a field kitchen. It doesn’t look like they’re leaving anytime soon.”
I sat up slowly, arching my back to relieve the stiffness set in while I napped. We were running low on food – rationing ourselves to one small cold meal a day for the last four days. The soup smelled good.
“You better get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.” I told him.
“I’m fine,” he countered. “I slept while you were on patrol last night.” We turned our attention back to the village. “Hello!” Saks straightened up and angled forward.
“There. To the right. Towards us.”
I scanned to where he was indicating. A squad of men – I counted twelve – had left the village and were headed to the forest in our direction.
“There’s another group going north,” observed Saks.
“Must be scouting patrols,” I declared, then almost immediately. “Let’s get up ahead of them! I’ve got an idea.”
The six of us raced through the trees staying well ahead of the patrol. They entered the forest predictably keeping to the existing, hewn-out trail.
Their unfamiliarity with the area and terrain would be their undoing…, and our opportunity. I knew the route the track took – from our earlier recces – as it wound its way up the mountain slope.
I set the pace as we made headway keeping the pathway in sight, climbing ever higher and gaining distance on them. We moved swiftly and silently. I did not want to alert or spook our intended quarry. We would occasionally stop and look back, ensuring they were still behind us, then continue to press on. Half an hour later I halted the men. We had arrived at the intended venue. Other than the two youngest of our group, we were breathing heavily. Hot and flustered with our hands on hips, we were leaning back and filling our lungs with the fresh forest air.
“I’m getting too old for this,” quipped Saks. The youngsters chuckled while we continued to catch our breaths.
“Okay,” I started, between deep breaths – still recovering from the exertion. I explained my plan to five eager faces. I estimated we had around twenty minutes before they reached our position.
I adjusted my position slightly to relieve the numbness creeping into my left hand. As always, time seemed to pass more slowly.
The spot was perfect.
They would have to come along the wide gully and pass directly below us – exposed and easy targets in our crossfire.
The steep sides would impede a retaliatory threat reducing their larger number to a less significant and manageable strength. Their progress would be further hampered by the small brook running along the rocky pass. The dense undergrowth and closely grown trees also provided us with camouflaged cover.
The German patrol presented the first real opportunity for us to replenish our supplies. We had the advantage, and I deemed it a risk worth taking.
I had deployed the six of us mindful that we were going to be taking on twice our number. Young Lisowski – who had turned out to be a competent marksman – was stationed on the left of the approach, at the far end. His task was to cover the tail-end of the party.
Saks and Zaleski were positioned on the same side, directing their aim into the gully. Corporal Dembny and Nowak were on the opposite side with the same objective. I took up a spot further on and at a slight bend, giving me a field of fire directly down the line of the advancing men.
We were spaced around ten metres apart – an ample spread for the planned salvo. They were given explicit instructions not to open up until I fired the first shot.
Satisfied that we were ready, I lay motionless – waiting. The rustling of leaves from a gentle breeze overlay an eerie silence. It was as if the forest was also waiting with bated breath.
I had covered all the possibilities, but still could not stop myself thinking about worst-case scenarios. I blew out a series of short breaths to control my creeping anxiety. Again, I replayed my plan. I felt a tightening in my chest. My big gamble was that they would not deviate from the trail.
We have come too far for things to go wrong.
It was going to be our first encounter with the enemy since before leaving Kraków. I knew the others were experiencing the same tensions and concerns, but I was confident they would perform well. We were, after all, six angry men who would take any opportunity to exact revenge on the invaders.
The ambush was far enough away to nullify any meaningful response from the main force. By the time support could be on hand, we would be long gone – leaving no clues to follow. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I was ready.
The first sight was the helmeted head of the lead soldier bobbing into view, as the patrol slowly emerged towards us up the track. On they came, each step bringing them closer. I lay rooted to the spot; not moving a muscle; biting on my lower lip; willing them on towards our deadly trap.
A short distance from the entrance to the gully the leader raised his arm indicating for the squad to stop. He stood utterly still, slowly turning his head to one side and then the other – looking and listening. The others behind mimicked his actions.
A screeching sound of a distant bird broke the silence, catching his attention. He gently lowered himself into a crouch, gesturing with his free arm for his charge to follow suit. Slowly and deliberately, he reached for his binoculars hanging around his neck. He steadily scanned the area. All the while, his squad remained still, not making a sound. He abruptly stopped his surveillance, and I was looking directly into the lenses of his field binoculars. I froze. I didn’t dare blink for fear of giving myself away.
Damn, he’s seen me! Have I miscalculated?
After what seemed an eternity, he continued panning around. I closed my eyes and took a deep, calming breath.
Satisfied it was all clear, he raised and signalled for the squad to continue forward. The thick undergrowth had successfully concealed our presence. One by one, they entered the gully.
I held back. I needed them well inside – wholly enclosed in our net.
The last man struggled his way in and stopped at the entrance. He shouldered his rifle, unbuttoned the flies of his trousers, and started urinating against the wall. The rest continued moving through, unaware of their comrade’s need for relief. I had already chosen my point. I couldn’t wait for the man to finish and catch up. I had to trust that Lisowski had him covered.
It was over in less than a minute!
My first shot threw the squad leader back against the wall, blood spreading through his tunic. The bullet caught him in the chest – he was too close for me to miss. He slumped lifelessly onto the ground.
The man following behind was caught momentarily off guard, unsure of what just happened. Before he could unsling his weapon, my second bullet caught him just below the neck, spinning him around viciously and propelling him to the ground – alongside his fallen leader.
Reacting simultaneously to my first discharge, Lisowski took down the last man at near, point-blank range. The German soldier was still urinating as he pitched to the ground. Immediately traversing his rifle to his right, he brought down the next stunned man with two clear shots. The first bullet caught him in the shoulder, the second in the chest.
I managed to get off another two shots into the panicked platoon. Saks and the other three took the rest out in a hail of bullets, throwing them instantly to the ground. Not one shot did they manage to get off.
We ceased our gunfire and got up slowly from our secluded positions. We looked down into the gully, quietly surveying our work. Once again, a deathly hush descended around us.
One of the downed men moved. A single gunshot echoed through the trees. I looked over at Nowak as he lowered his gun and spat into the slaughter. His cold eyes reflected his contempt for the men below – a feeling shared by all of us.
A small act of retributive justice.
I stood up, my rifle still pointing at the bodies below.
“Lisowski!” I called out.
“Stay where you are and keep your eyes peeled. Berek, go down with the rest and check the bodies.”
They descended the steep slopes under our watchful eyes.
“They’re all dead,” confirmed Saks looking up at me.
“Okay, strip them of their weapons, ammunition, rations and anything else that might be of use.”
I took out my map and considered the best route back to our temporary base of operations. By the time the main force reacted and discovered the bodies, we would have disappeared without a trace.
I needed to report what we had learned.
Reviewing the various options, I decided to go back down and cross over the valley, east of the village, into the forest on the north side – a safe distance from the encamped German division. For a moment, I held the compass in my hand before closing it shut – contemplating, remembering.
“All done,” Saks reported.
“Good. I’ll meet you at the other end of the gully,” I replied and waved Lisowski over.
Saks distributed the haul, ensuring everyone would carry an equal amount of weight. We still had a long way to go before we would be able to eat or rest. We also needed to re-organise and get a decent night’s sleep.
I took one final look round.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!”