OTTAWA -- Henryk Jedwab and his machine-gun crew looked through the mist at the killing ground beyond their defensive position. It was 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, and 62 German divisions -- one million soldiers -- were poised to attack an apprehensive yet defiant Poland.
Suddenly, Mr. Jedwab, an officer cadet with the 84th Polesie Rifles, saw enemy soldiers running toward him. He and his men were dug in on the River Warta, near Wielen, in southwestern Poland.
"Here [came] the mighty Germans in a moment that will be long in my memory as Henryk Jedwab, looking at the enemy, forgot he had a tongue in his mouth. [My soldiers] looked at me and finally, almost [at] the last moment, I got one word out: Fire!" wrote Mr. Jedwab 60 years later.
"I think the most surprised were the Germans, but it was too late for them. My machine gun fired and did a very good job. Ammunition was not wasted. When I met with my commanding officer [later] and was highly [praised] for 'coolness under fire,' I answered only, 'Sir, to the glory of the country.' It was the biggest lie of my life. Could I tell him I was so scared that I was speechless? Never again in my life [was] I so scared. Once you start the killing, you realize that it's either you or him so you decide to be fast and shoot first -- that is the secret of survival."
After his dramatic baptism of fire, things went rapidly from bad to worse for Mr. Jedwab and the Polish army. The Germans were vastly superior in both numbers and firepower -- the Poles had only 40 divisions, including 100 antiquated tanks -- but Mr. Jedwab and his regiment kept fighting, suffering heavy losses during the 30-day war.
To support Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, but, by Sept. 9, Mr. Jedwab and the 30th Division was finished. Ten days later, he arrived at the Romanian border and made for France with little or no food, papers or money. On May 10, 1940, he found himself fighting the German army a second time. After shooting down a Stuka dive-bomber and winning a Croix de Guerre with two stars, Mr. Jedwab was in Paris when the Germans entered it on June 13, "they as conquerors and me again as a 'Polish tourist,' trying my luck somewhere else and wondering when the tide will turn, how long you may run and where to."
Mr. Jedwab made his way over the Pyrenees to Spain, where he was beaten by police; he then returned to France. He and some friends tried again. Their goal was to reach Britain and continue to fight. "This time, we decided to ride to Madrid by train, but hiding underneath it on the axles. Not very comfortable, but free and safe, with the exception of the inconvenience that over the axles are the toilets and they are used, and unpaying passengers have no right to complain."
After arriving in Britain, Mr. Jedwab spent a few months drilling on the parade square and languished in an army prison for hitting a superior officer. He then volunteered for the Special Operations Executive, which was parachuting agents into German-occupied France to create havoc. For a year, he worked behind enemy lines and then escaped back to England and joined a commando force in early 1942.
Arek Bandzierz of Ottawa trained for almost a year with Mr. Jedwab. "You couldn't miss him; he was boisterous, quite self-assured. You notice people like that. He was a good soldier, people looked up to him. He was bursting with all kinds of knowledge, but he couldn't talk about his exploits with SOE."
Despite his overwhelming love for his country, Mr. Jedwab often thought he was fighting not just the Germans, but Polish anti-Semitism as well. As a Polish citizen who happened to be Jewish -- his well-to-do family had lived in Poland for 200 years -- he suffered insults and fights on a regular basis.
After intensive training, his commando unit, which was completely Polish, was sent to Italy to join the British 8th Army in December of 1943. On Jan. 17-18, 1944, they attacked across the Garigliano River. A few hours later, during a German counterattack, Mr. Jedwab displayed characteristic leadership and valour when he grabbed a Bren gun and drove off the enemy, "managing to kill all the attacking Germans, including their sergeant, who, however, prior to dying, [threw] a grenade, which wounded me. My head wound is not too deep but caused a lot of bleeding."
For that action, Mr. Jedwab received Poland's Cross of Valour.
On May 17, 1944, Mr. Jedwab and his commandos, now part of the 2nd Polish Corps, were thrown into a five-month battle for Monte Cassino, a mountainous stronghold that dominated Highway 6 to Rome. The Poles were ordered to attack the adjacent Colle San Angelo, which had to be taken before the Allies could assault Monte Cassino itself.
Climbing up and down rocky ridges under fierce artillery and mortar fire, Mr. Jedwab took command after his section suffered four casualties. The Germans counterattacked and regained the Colle, but the Poles took it back, except the summit. Two days later, the Germans finally withdrew.
Mr. Jedwab never forgot Monte Cassino, one of the fiercest campaigns of the war. "[Bodies] were entangled in a deadly embrace everywhere. The air was full of the stench of rotting bodies. That was Monte Cassino, where today visitors have not the slightest idea of the feelings or thoughts or terror of those who lived through it."
During the Italian campaign, his troop lost 18 killed and 70 wounded, an 80-per-cent casualty rate. For their heroism, its soldiers were awarded 114 Polish decorations. Over all, nearly 200,000 Poles fought in the Polish armed forces in the West. But their enormous contribution to the war effort did not spare them from a cruel snub: No Polish representatives were invited to the victory parade held in London after the war in Europe ended.
In June of 1945, Mr. Jedwab met his first wife, Irena, in Italy, where she was a Polish officer in the 317th Transport Company. They were married five months later after a "stormy" courtship. "Somehow, a bond developed instantly. I found that I am happy to be in her company. We lived . . . as the most happy couple," Mr. Jedwab said. Irena died on Aug. 9, 1978.
After earning a degree in textile engineering, Mr. Jebwab brought his family to Canada from Britain in 1950. Over the next five decades, he became a prominent executive in the textile industry.
Henryk Jedwab was born on April 15, 1918, in Kalisz, Poland. He died of a heart attack on Sept. 14, 2005, in Ottawa. He was 87. He leaves his daughter Elizabeth and his second wife, Bozena. He was predeceased by his first wife, Irena, and his brother Jakob.