The Liberation of Warsaw

The line of four Willys jeeps was waiting at the edge of the snow- covered river. Between the breaking clouds, scraps of black sky and a sliver of metallic moon. Franek, Misha’s driver and self-appointed guide and counsellor, was at the wheel of the first jeep, the flaps of his sheepskin hat pulled down over his ears.

‘Hurry up, man, before we freeze to death,’ he yelled. ‘We want to get across before there’s any light.’ Warsaw was still held by night but at their backs, dawn was already a pale red line. Their brief was to send back a wireless message on the situation before the Polish infantry began to cross on foot at dawn.

Misha hauled up alongside Franek and pulled the door shut, but the cold wind still managed to whistle in through the gaps, the jeep rocking with its blows. He took his pistol from its holster. In front of them, the river shone white, a long and meandering plain of snow, far brighter than the wadding of clouds above.

His breath fogging and rising in front of his face, Franek leaned forward as the wheels bumped down onto the snow-covered surface of the river. Misha felt his muscles tense but the ice held, half a winter in thickness. Sliding and jolting, they began to track across the rutted surface, four black shapes, no headlights, driving slowly, the engines’ noise low. Snow had softened the shapes of burned-out army trucks and the frozen bodies of dead horses and other debris, casting long shadows in the ghostly light. To their right, the broken girders of the Poniatowski Bridge rose up out of the ice at drunken angles.

‘Hard to believe,’ said Misha. ‘Here we are, the first to liberate Warsaw. Going home.’

‘Do you mean liberate in the Russian sense? Sit on the opposite bank saying you’re waiting for supplies for six months until the Wehrmacht has crushed the Polish resistance into the dust, wait until the Germans have pulled out, and then roll in? A nice clean slate for Russian occupation.’

‘Have you heard any more from your brothers?’
Franek shook his head.
‘I’m sorry, Franek,’ said Misha.
Franek had heard through intelligence that one of his brothers had died during the Warsaw uprising. Another had died in the unauthorized breakout of the Polish army in an attempt to cross the river and come to the aid of besieged Warsaw a few weeks after they arrived.

The jeep banged down into a deep rut in the ice and Misha’s free hand flew out to grip onto the dashboard. The dark shapes behind braked. Franek spun the wheel, gained purchase again and drove carefully around the rutted area. Misha looked back. The others were following. He unpeeled his hand from the cold metal and rubbed his frozen cheeks. His skin prickled with a naked feeling, waiting to hear a shot ring out from the opposite bank. 

They were now more than halfway across the ice. For years, Misha had crossed the Vistula back home into Warsaw, taking for granted the town’s long silhouette floating between the sky and the wide river, its elegant steeples and church towers, the bulk of the palace fortress.

All that was gone. As he trained his binoculars on the approaching bank and the bridgehead up on their right, he scanned nothing but empty spaces and eroded stumps in the toneless light. Rising smoke drifted against a dirty sky. He swung the binoculars round to the head of the broken bridge.

‘Stop, Franek. Stop. Up there, I can see a sentry.’

Franek braked sharply. Misha heard the jeep behind squeal to a halt.

Misha passed him the glasses, and pointed to a red-and-white box just visible on the bank. ‘No cover out here if he fires.’

‘He’s not moving. Can’t have seen us.’ Opening the window flap, Franek clicked the gun catch, sighted and fired. The noise of the shot ricocheted across the plain.

‘Shit. Missed.’ Franek reloaded hurriedly, waiting for the sentry to return fire. He quickly took a second shot. The guard shuddered, a spray of matter from a direct hit, but the man remained leaning rigidly against the wooden box.

Misha took the glasses back.
‘There’s snow on his shoulders.’
‘My God, frozen at his post.’
Approaching the bank cautiously, Franek pulled up alongside the sentry box. Light was beginning to gather in the sky, and the snow cast an eerie light up on the dead man’s grey face. A rime of frost dusted his helmet and the wool of his coat. A second sentry was leaning inside the box like a toppled skittle, a rifle slung across his front. 

‘Warsaw’s being guarded by corpses,’ said Franek.

The small convoy of jeeps carried on up the slipway alongside the smashed bridge piers. At the top, Franek stopped the engine.

In front of them lay a sight that defied words in the cold half- light, nothing but long vistas open to the livid sky, miles of ruins and rubble blanketed with snow. Not a single building intact, chimney stacks left like broken trees. Here and there ragged remains of walls stuck up with gaps for windows, black against the luminous snow. They listened tensely for the click of a gun, a lone sniper watching them, but there was nothing. A deep silence, even the air frozen and dead.

‘Which way?’ said Franek.