Leon Dopke with his friend and girlfriend in London, England, 1945.Leon Dopke
Official portrait of Leon Dopke taken in England after the war in 1945.Leon Dopke
Leon Dopke (second from left) stands next to the unit's chef while stationed in Italy, 1944.Leon Dopke
Leon Dopke's Soldier's Service and Pay Book from 1944 to 1946.Leon Dopke
On April 21, 1945, the city of Bologna, Italy issued a certificate to those soldiers from the 3rd Polish Brigade who were the first to liberate the city.Leon Dopke
"War was a war, you know, as a kid, you don’t care much until you grow up in war occupied country and see what the enemy can do to you."
When the war started, I was working on a farm. At 6:00 am, the German airplane came down and flew over my village to a town called Puck [in northwest Poland], like you spell it like Puck. There was a Polish air force standing there or stationed in there; and they wanted to destroy the Polish air force, which they did. And then about eight hours after, because I lived close to the German border, about eight hours after, we see the German army marching in to my village. That was my first contact with the Germans. Being a young kid, 14, 15 years old, I didn’t put much interest in it, well, war was a war, you know, as a kid, you don’t care much until you grow up in war occupied country and see what the enemy can do to you.
I was lucky enough to manage to escape to Germany, to France, to join the Polish army in the west. When Allied forces landed in Normandy, I surrendered to the Canadian army and say, I’m a Polish guy, so they moved me right away to the Polish headquarters in England. And there was about 2,000 of us, so they shipped us to the Canadian Polish Corps in Italy. That was in November 1944.
We were going by boat and it took us nine days and ten nights to go to Italy from England. They gave us training for two or three weeks training and they said, now, you’re going to go to certain units. So we all going to certain units … as supplies [replacements]. So I was there for about three weeks and then they shipped us to North Apennines [mountain range in Italy], Apennine Mountains, on the front.
So on the fifteenth of March, there was as everywhere, the American airmen was bombing the German line, heavy artillery, tanks units, was coming to the front line. And on the fifteenth, we are start breaking through the German line. And from that day on, we were almost marching every day forward, until we were in the city of Bologna. So around 6:00 in the morning, it was kind of daylight, so we advanced to the centre of the city. There wasn’t much of a German defense because I think they must have known that the war was coming to an end.
We were more scared of the people that came in to surrender than the soldiers because there was so many of them and there was so few of us, we didn’t know what to do with them, you know. So that was a very scary moment. And in one point, there was an Italian citizen run to me and said to me, Tedeschi, Tedeschi, Tedeschi, that means in Italian, German, German. So I’m asking him where and he’s telling me there’s a nice villa, so there was an SS [Schutzstaffeln: German paramilitary organization] group of Germans, 12 of them there. So I asked my company commander if I could go and liberate that, take over that thing. And he said, yes.
So we went down there and lucky, but I don’t know if it was luck or what, but a friend of mine said, Leo, Leo, Leo, look out, look out, he’s got you on a, ready to shoot you. I had tommy gun [Thompson submachine gun], so I did fire the tommy gun anyway, so I just fire the tommy gun. It must have scared the guy because he was in a tree. And he fell off a tree, [laughs] so that saved me. So that was kind of, you have to laugh at it. But the death was always looking at your eyes, you know. It always says, hey, buddy, don’t get, be too careful, I’m always there.
Interview date: 17 November 2010