Antoni Piechota's medals (from left to right): Polish Cross of Valour, Polish 1939-1945 War Medal, British 1939-1945 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, 1939-1945 MedalAntoni Piechota
Antoni Piechota (front row, centre) with other Polish Prisoners of War at the Colditz POW camp in 1939.Antoni Piechota
A photograph of Antoni Piechota taken in 1939.Antoni Piechota
Antoni Piechota with family in Southern Poland, shortly after graduating from Military College in 1939.Antoni Piechota
A modern map retracing the escape route Antoni Piechota used.Antoni Piechota
"But of course, then we were surrounded by Germans and the Russians, so he decided rather than surrender, they have to surrender, but they didn’t want to surrender to the Russians so they surrendered to Germans."
So of course, the Germans invaded from the west and on 17th of September, the Russians invaded from the east. So our unit [Independent Group "Polesie"] was commanded by General Franciszek Kleeberg, who was you know, there was disintegrated people who was the all over the place, so they all joined together so you had the army, we didn’t have ammunition but we have a lot of people and of course, going south towards Romania. But of course, then we were surrounded by Germans and the Russians, so he decided rather than surrender, they have to surrender, but they didn’t want to surrender to the Russians so they surrendered to Germans.
So we surrendered and we sent the first [prisoner of war] camp was Colditz. Now, Colditz is a big officer’s camp and of course, it’s a book written about Colditz. Now, in this camp, there was 17 Polish generals. One of the generals was commanding officer of the head of this camp, German, in First World War. So we had a pretty good combination arrangement militarily. We had Red Cross connection, we’re sending home parcels and we even, they allowed us to have a priest to come here to say the mass. It’s unbelievable. And of course, we organized because it’s a lot of the army at that time, it was a lot of professional people so we organized courses, all kinds of stuff, whatever you want. And it was really great but that lasted only for about a year, finally Gestapo [German secret police] got a hold of it and they fired all the crew and they put new arrangement and things changed quite completely. There was waking up, passing in the middle and counting and so on. It was absolutely impossible to escape from this camp because that was big surrounding wall from the old historical site.
But so after the year, they decided the young people like myself should really work. It’s no use keeping us in this camp. So finally, when the German decided that we leave this camp, we said “well, that’s against Geneva convention” and so on and the general say, "oh yeah, we know that, but it’s better for you if you go". And they were right because if I was at Colditz, I would never escape but when they sent me to working in 1942, I decided to escape.
What did we think, when we were going back from the work, we were going through some sort of buildings or little trees, little woods. So the idea was the German, one German was in front, one German was behind, as a column. So we thought, well, the thing we should really try is to when you reach this area, just jump out of it from the column and then the German hopefully not notice us. And that’s what happened. But of course, so we jump in, it was a sort of garden, so we went to this garden under the trees and the column, the column went through so that was sort of successful.
But then of course, we have to cross the Rhine [river] and that was a big object. I think we spent about one day at the Rhine and you know, at night […], I think we jumped in camp, which was German camp. And then of course, we jump out again. What we were looking for is to get, to find a boat somewhere, we hope we will find one. And we did. There was a pier and the boat was chained to the pier and they had a little hand saw. We prepared for this. I think it took us about two hours to cut the chain, one chain on this thing.
Well anyway, we managed to get to the other side of the Rhine. It’s very dangerous because the Gestapo, because France was occupied at that time. And of course, so he said that the only thing we can really do is make some, we should stay here for a while, we make arrangement to get some documents for you because we didn’t have any documents. And he said, the best way, you can go to Grenoble. Grenoble, that was the part of course in France which was something Vichy government, it was sort of liberal [compared to the rest of occupied Europe] and Grenoble there was Polish camp. So we probably go there and see what happens. That’s what happened and finally we went to Grenoble, get in touch with those people over there and tell them who we are.
And of course, the idea was from, forget about Switzerland, it’s dangerous over there, there is, you know, when you get there, it’s not much you have to get. So we’re going to Spain. From Spain to Portugal officially. And from Portugal of course, we went to Gibraltar, this British boat came to Portugal took us to Gibraltar finally. Now we are in British colony and in Gibraltar, they said, first of all, that I think I have a picture actually of Gibraltar with the army and he said, they said, well, do you want to join British army or Polish army because at that time, there was the First Polish armoured division formed in Scotland. So I said, well, I’m still in Polish army so I don’t want to join British armies. So that was the end. So we sent to Scotland and of course Scotland, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was there, so that’s what I joined. Well, I joined the Polish Army. And that of course, that’s a beginning that was still 1943 and it was in 1944, was invasion of Normandy. So we went again fighting.
And of course, in Normandy, we liberated France, we liberated Belgium and then we liberated Holland. And then of course in Holland, our division liberated Breda, which is one of the biggest city over in Holland and of course, after liberating Breda, we stayed there for a while and then I was leading company to the bath. I was on the motorbike and the people were walking, it was a steam bath and so on. Unfortunately, the car, ambulance, from the side was going right and hit me on the motor[cycle], so I landed on the cobblestones, on the street. It happened in front of the hospital. So I landed over there and of course, I wasn’t sure what had happened.