Jan Adam Bednarski
For Your Freedom and Ours
The outbreak of the Second World War inexorably altered the promising career of twenty-eight-years-old Jan Bednarski. At the age of eighteen, Jan became the legal guardian of his family, after his father had died in hunting accident three years earlier. Jan completed military service with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, earned a Master’s degree in Agriculture from Jagiellonian University in Cracow, and was managing the family estate and stud farm at Stadniki. Appointment to the past of commissioner of the Ministry of Agriculture for Podhale region in 1938 was a distinction for Jan, which he owned to the recommendations of his university professors. The tough highland villagers, the górale were fond of him because of his honesty, directness, helpfulness, and ability to talk with them in their dialect.
On September 1, 1939, he was called to the army, took part in the campaign against the Germans (under General Antoni Szylling), and was shot through the chest. Jan was taken captive in the city of Lwów by the Soviet Army that invaded eastern Poland on September 17, 1939. The Soviet separated all Polish officers from the ranks and shipped them eastward for execution. Jan managed to escape from the train and thus from fate 15,000 Polish officers, who were murdered in 1940 in Katyń, Starobielsk and Ostaszków.
When he reached home, he found the once flourishing estate devastated by the German Army. Everything worth having, whether animate or inanimate, had been stolen. Jan than became one of the initiators of underground resistance in Poland’s sub-Carpathian region. He stockpiled weapons and organized the transfer of people from Poland to Hungary en route to France. The Germans sought him and put up a reward for his capture. Eventually, he decided that he could fight the Germans best in the regular Polish army in the West. In May of 1940, Jan his younger brother Michał, and three others escaped through German cordons into Hungary and began a 2,000 kilometre journey to the Middle East, to French-held Syria. Two of Jan’s companions were shot as they swam a river in Yugoslavia and the third later died a soldier’s dead at Tobruk.
Eventually, on June 6, 1940, Jan and Michał were in the Polish uniforms of the Carpathian Brigade in British-controlled Palestine. At the end of 1940, in Alexandria, Egypt, Jan was posted as an observer for the anti-aircraft defence of the airport. He recalled:
There was a night bombing, as every night. I came out of the bunker to do observation. Hell in heaven and on earth, cannon and machine gun fire, search light beams and explosions. Pain woke me…my left clavicle was sticking out of my shoulder straight up in front of my face. I could not move. Eventually an English tank passed by, they noticed my eyes, pulled me up on deck, and continued on. The tank rocked on the rubble, what pain! I was carried into and underground hospital. Somehow my brother was brought to me and we waited together in a row of stretchers. At last the operating table, washing, sewing, and bandaging. They carried me out into a hallway passage. Minutes later, the operating room took a direct hit. The ceiling fell. Dust, no air, we were choking. No one inside the operating room survived.
In 1941, Jan fought at Marsa Matruth, Bardia, and Cyrenaica. At the Tobruk Fortress, in the Libyan Desert, he became famous for his daring raids under enemy fire to nearby oasis to supply water. It was there that Jan Bednarski was given the nickname “Jasiek-Góral” [Johnny the Mountaineer]. In charge of military vehicles in the battalion, he managed to reassemble and repair many abandoned or captured pieces of equipment. His engineering skills were notices by the British command and after a course for officers of the 8th Army, he was assigned to train Polish soldiers at General Anders’s 2nd Corps training Centre in Palestine. In 1943, he commanded reconnaissance units in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Later that year, with the 2nd Corps, Jan Bednarski was transferred to southern Italy. In May 1944, he took part in the heroic battle of the 2nd Corps for Monte Cassino. He served in the front-line military transport unit. Utilizing his acrobatic driving skills, he supplied ammunition to the fighting positions situated high in the mountains. Only a narrow, step, winding trail connected the “Valley of Death” close to the munition dump, with the “Big Bowl”. It was the life for the soldiers at the front. Long lines of mules loaded with supplies and ammunition would head up the road, dangerously exposed to artillery and mortar fire. There were heavy casualties. Rocks had to be removed or carved away along the path to allow a jeep to pass and Jan’s was one of the very few motorized vehicles ever to get through to the front positions. He recalled:
Every night, when the mules were no longer used, I commuted up and down his road hauling ammunitions and supplies and returning with the wounded. I would start my camouflaged jeep, loaded with one and half tonnes of ammunition, and crawl like turtle up the mule trail. At times, the wheels on one side were half-hanging over the abyss. I travelled this route many times every night and only stopped when I dropped from exhaustion and tension… I became very familiar with this trail and, being perfectly aware of the directions of the enemy fire, I was like a good pianist who would always know how to hit the keys, be it piano, pianissimo or forte. I was surrounded by gunfire but the shells missed me and I survived. I had the instinct of a wild animal but, above all, the remote prayers of my mother and godmother and Providence got me through.
In action against the “Gothic” Line (September 2, 1944) I commended an armoured reconnaissance unit of the 3rd Battalion. Our task was to break through this line of defence, the strongest after Monte Cassino. I had the privilege of supporting Canadian armour, acting on its right wing, from the side of the sea. We lucked out and captured two motorcycles with side cars: couriers dispatched to the command of the Gothic Line. Of the four Germans two were dead but the other two were intact and from them we obtained the location of their Headquarters. Directing in an artillery pounding on those coordinates we made like the wind toward the sea. We burst onto an unbelievable scene. Concrete pill boxes as big as houses bristling with guns of every calibre, bodies strewn about burning “Tiger” tanks. We pushed right to the cliff’s edge; it was about 100 rocky meters down to the water.
The enemy command had been secreted in tunnels in the cliff face below, and the high command staff were just pulling out in a huge motorized boat, crowded and uncovered. They were a few hundred meters off when I gave an order for warning shots to persuade the boat to turn around. One shot fore and one aft, no reaction. “Sink it” I ordered. My anti-tank gunner caught them amid ship. In a few minutes there were not even ripples left on the surface of the sea. High above tiny Spitfires and tiny Messerschmidts fought it out. That evening, the London BBC transmitted the news about the breaking of the Gothic Line and the sinking of its Command. We took 700 prisoners from the tunnels…
After Monte Cassino we chased the Germans along Adriatic, from Ancona and Falconara and into the Apennine Mountains. Here our Carpathian Division ground to halt. The Germans had dug into the previously fortified mountain tops. Our advance broke down with heavy losses. It was November 1944 and the conditions with sleet and snow were terrible. Air reconnaissance discovered the single route that supplied the Germans, and General Bolesław Duch and his staff asked me to slip behind the enemy lines and cut that supply line….
Of the volunteers, I picked sixty-four, and very heavy armed, we set out at dark, creeping along as sly as cats through the fog all night, liquidating entirely and silently and enemy supply column we came across just before our destination: a sharp ridge just above the river Sintria. I choose a section of the top and we dug in.
For four days, Capitan Bednarski “Jasiek-Góral” – and his men held out against all attacks letting no German convoys by, keeping the supply route under barrage and directing in artillery and air strikes. Finally, the German forces were pushed out of their positions by the Polish assault. Capitan Bednarski lost only two men. For this action he was awarded the Virtuti Militari Cross, Poland’s highest military decoration. (In total he had eighteen decorations – Polish, English, French and Italian – and was wounded seven times.)
On the April 13, 1945, in the Battle of Bologna, three weeks before the end of the war, Jan Bednarski fought a German soldier with his bare hands, trying to push the muzzle of the German’s Schmeisser machine gun away from himself. The bullets passed through his left hand, arm, and chest, sawing the limb off above the elbow. Four weeks he passed in and out of consciousness, surviving amputation, gangrene, and more amputation. He spent one year in military hospitals in Italy and Scotland. Upon leaving a Polish Military hospital in Taymouth Castle, Scotland, Jan received an artificial arm from King George VI:
Following the fitting, I had to leave wearing the prosthesis, so in my dress uniform with “Poland” emblazoned on my shoulders, I headed for the train station. A tall fellow looked at my insignia, suddenly grabbed me and shoved me against the wall, shouting, “You bloody Pole! Go back to Poland!” With extraordinary agility His Majesty’s Royal Appendage came down onto the man’s head and he went flat onto the sidewalk. “It makes a good hammer!” I thought. We were obviously no longer the “inspiration of the nations” as Mr. Churchill had called the Polish during the Battle of Britain.
The prospect of living without an arm was deeply distressing to a man who had been an accomplished athlete, horseman, and skier. The difficult adjustment was compounded by bitter grief at the Yalta betrayal. Almost half of Jan’s country was annexed by the Soviet Union. Thirteen of his family members had been murdered by the German and Soviets. Jan decided not to return to the country he had fought to free. In London, he was reunited with his sister Giga who had survived four years in German prisons and concentration camps. A double wedding took place. Jan married Giga’s friend Hanna Borkowska and Giga married Hanna’s friend Bohdan Możdżeński. The “extended family” immigrated to Edmonton.
Jan was a determined spirit; one-arm, he drove only standard transmission cars and even motorcycles. He repaired machines from car engines to wrist watches; build houses, furniture, and children’s toys; and made wood carvings. He began to make his living by painting homes for construction companies, later worked for the City of Edmonton Parks, and then moved to Universal Construction Co. Ltd (later BACM Ltd) where he stayed until his retirement in 1976. Meanwhile, Hanna worked as Reserve Librarian at the University of Alberta. They had two sons, Jan and Andrzej.
Jan Bednarski was an active member of the Polish Combatant’s Association, Edmonton Branch no.6. For some time he represented this organization at the Canadian Polish Congress. He also hosted some distinguished visitors, such as General Stanisław Kopański. For many years he was the commanding officer for the Polish Combatant’s in Remembrance Day parades in Edmonton. He was the only Polish member of the Canadian War Amputee Association of Alberta. Both Hanna and Jan Bednarski contributed to many good causes. When Major Jan Bednarski died on May 12, 1989, the Polish community paid its last respect to a war hero, a man for whom honour was more important than life. He was buried in the family tomb in Gdów, near his grandparents’ estate, where he was born on May 11, 1911. He is remembered by many.
Danek Możdżeński and Joanna Matejko
Source: Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995
- 2nd Lieutenant Jan Bednarski, 1941; part of his driving licence issued by the Polish Carpathian Brigade
- The ruins of Monte Cassino Abby. Photo taken by Jan Bednarski on May 18, 1944 just after the capture of Abby by the Polish 2nd Corps, Above the ruins the Polish national flag has been drawn in by Jan Bednarski
- A farewell conversation between Capitan Jan Bednarski and a nurse in front of the Polish Hospital in Casa Massina Italy, in 1945, just before Capitan Bednarski’s evacuation to England
- Capitan Jan Bednarski certificate of the Virtuti Militari, the highest Polish decoration for valour in combat
- Major Jan Bednarski in Mansfield, UK on April 10, 1950, two years before leaving for Canada
- Jan Bednarski as commanding officer of Polish Combatant’s in Remembrance Day parade in Edmonton on November 11, 1971