Kazimierz Szmid, who has died aged 97, was forced from his home in Poland to Siberia before arriving in England, where he joined the Polish Parachute Brigade. He was one of the last surviving Poles to fight during Operation Market Garden, the Allied attempt to capture the bridge at Arnhem.
Szmid was a member of the First Battalion of the First Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, which had been formed in Scotland in September 1941.
He arrived in England in June 1943 to begin his parachute training at Ringway (now Manchester Airport), which he completed in September. His battalion was based at Leslie in Scotland until May 1944, when it moved to Stamford, Lincs, in preparation for D-Day, coming under the command of the 1st British Airborne Division.
Under its leader, Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski, the Polish Brigade trained on Salisbury Plain in anticipation of operations in Normandy, but it was not required.
During the ill-fated operation at Arnhem, the Poles were due to be dropped on the third day, but bad weather delayed their involvement. In later years Szmid recalled the tension caused by the frequent postponements: “At the airfields the weather was poor – fog, we couldn’t take off – so we sat around all day hoping that it would clear. The flights were cancelled and we returned to barracks which were not expecting us. Nobody … slept or ate due to the tension.
“The next day, the same poor weather conditions. However, our glider element had taken off the previous day from another location. Waiting, waiting, nothing we could do about it; we were so keyed up. Orders to board, travel to the edge of the runway, engines shut off, disembark. I took all of my 500-cigarette allowance and managed to smoke it all whilst waiting. In the evening the same order came through, drop postponed, and we stood down.”
Eventually, Szmid and his colleagues took off on the afternoon of September 21 1944, but poor weather and confusion over radio messages resulted in some of the USAAF transport aircraft returning to base. As the 73 remaining aircraft approached the drop zone east of Driel on the south side of the lower Rhine, they came under heavy anti-aircraft fire and a number were shot down. The paratroopers were fired on as they descended, but 1,003 men landed safely.
On landing, Szmid discovered that most of his battalion were in the aircraft that had turned back. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion and soon came under enemy fire. Lack of boats hindered the Poles’ attempt to cross the river to join up with the beleaguered British units. Once the battle to take the bridge at Arnhem had been lost, the Poles defended the crossing points to allow survivors to escape across the river from the north.
Szmid’s unit marched to Nijmegen, where they spent a week guarding airfields, before boarding a ship in Ostend to return to their base at Stamford. In later life he commented: “It was difficult to see what else we could have done to assist in this operation, landing late and no river crossing equipment.”
Kazimierz Szmid was born on a farm near Nieswiez in eastern Poland (now Nyasvizh, Belarus) on January 18 1925. He attended a local school in Zapole.
During the early hours of February 19 1940, the Soviet secret police arrived in his village and ordered his family to pack a few belongings and walk through the snow to a railway station 12 miles away. There, with most of the villagers, they were herded into cattle trucks and locked in.
Then began a nightmare journey during which many died of starvation, disease and the intense cold. Eventually they arrived in Siberia, where they were put to work in the forests. They toiled in temperatures as low as minus 40 C; food was scarce and Szmid’s mother exchanged her wedding ring for something to eat for her four children.
In August 1941 the Soviets gave the Poles an amnesty against their unspecified “crimes” and they were told they could travel where they liked. A Polish army under General Anders was being formed in south Russia, and the family set off for Tashkent.
But trains were unreliable and the family had to fend for themselves during the frequent stops and delays. While searching for food at one stop, Szmid and his father lost contact with the rest of the family. His father became ill and died shortly afterwards. Alone, the young Szmid buried him.
He kept returning to the railway station in the hope that he would meet up with his mother, but to no avail. Desperately hungry, and in rags, with just one shoe, he saw a troop train carrying recruits for the new Polish Army; he was taken on board and fed.
He travelled with them to Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan, where, despite being too young, he persuaded a Polish officer to let him apply to join the 5th Kresowa Division, which he did in March 1942.
He discovered that his mother and a sister were some 12 miles from his camp, and it became possible for them to work with the Polish army. In due course they left for Uganda, where they spent the rest of the war.
In April 1942, General Anders’s army came under British command and moved to Persia (now Iran). They were taken by train to Iraq, where he was reunited with his brother, who had joined the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, which later fought in Italy. He also discovered that his elder sister was a driver in the Polish Army.
In Iraq he volunteered for the Polish Parachute Brigade, travelled to Haifa in Palestine and boarded a troopship for England before heading for Leslie to begin his training.
In the final weeks of the war in Europe, the Polish Brigade returned to Germany to provide part of the British occupation force, which became the British Army of the Rhine. Szmid and his colleagues were deeply resentful that, having become the fourth largest Allied army, the Poles were not invited to march in the Victory Parade through London, unlike some nations who had made minimal contributions.
He came back to England in 1947 and joined the Polish Resettlement Corps. His brother returned from Italy, his sister reached London, and his mother and younger sister arrived a year later from Uganda. He was discharged from the Army in 1948 and made England his home, becoming a British citizen.
Initially he worked as a coal miner in Mansfield, before spending 32 years working for Brown & Polson, the cornflour manufacturer. In 1990 he became the caretaker of the Polish Catholic Mission in Manchester. He was a member of the Polish Choir of St Moniuszko and the Union of Polish Paratroopers.
Kazimierz Szmid married, in 1952, Kazimiera Wyszynska, who had been deported to Siberia when she was eight and orphaned. She and their son survive him.
Kazimierz Szmid, born January 18 1925, died May 28 2022