Clare Hollingworh is the first war correspondent to report the outbreak of World War II, later described as "the scoop of the century".
There were military posts – ‘controls’- at each village, and sometimes where there was no village at all. We began to pass cars again, muddy, camouflaged, some bullet-marked and held together with string; one containing soldiers with bayonets fixed, though I have no idea how it could have got through. Some diplomats were taken out of their cars and walked to the police station for inspection, but we were undisturbed. Only, when we stopped for food or petrol, one question, was invariable: ‘Have you got Roumanian money? We don’t take Polish money’.
I saw an airplane come up against the sky, then another, three, five, eight, like stones thrown against a lighted window. The air force was leaving Poland.
‘Are you expecting many refugees?’ I asked a Roumanian Captain of the Guard.
‘Many of those people have been waiting twelve hours’
After some argument, the Captain allowed us to pass, and we walked on to the bridge, the Dniester like a band of hammered metal under our feet. I wondered how disorganized we should find things on the Polish side; would there be any wild shooting?
As the groups of refugees came by, I noticed that they included Polish soldiers, not in formation, but walking with the blind look of men under orders.
‘What are you leaving Poland for?’
‘I have no idea, Pani. We’ve not fought anyone yet. We are being sent out under orders. I think we’re being made fools and cowards of’
Sleeping in the car in the open air made me wake early. It was a clear morning, already light.
Suddenly, ahead of me, I saw a column of dust. ‘Part of the retreating Polish forces?’ I wondered. I watched until I could see the men marching, with a precision, it seemed to me, that one had not often noticed in the Poles. Then I caught in my breath, with a hollow feeling under my heart. I was sitting looking at a detachment of the German Army. For a moment I was so scared that, instead of turning the car, I shut off the engine and sat there, while the green uniforms got nearer. Then I shook myself, started up, and drove madly across the fields.
In the afternoon I reached Lublin again. It was nearly unrecognizable. The quarter in which we had lived few days before no longer existed. Many people must have been buried alive, in the wreckage of one of the apartment-blocks I saw; but I did not notice any rescue-gangs at work. The town was pitted with desolated areas, as well as with collapsed houses, where only one bomb had struck; but by good fortune the churches seemed to have been missed. Besides the buildings, the drainage system had been destroyed, and in the gutters of the main street, sewage ran. The drinking water must have been infected. I wondered how soon cholera would be breaking out, for it was hot still, and flies almost covered the bodies of horses, dogs and men, lying on the pavement. It is a bad sign when the living are too preoccupied to bury the dead, and I was not surprised to see evidence of looting; shop windows, cracked by explosives, had been pushed in, and part of the contents rifled. The main street had a disheveled look, very different from when I left it, and the people scuttled apprehensively along.
Some thirty airmen came. They arrived with faces black from exposure and petrol fumes, after camouflaging their planes in the woods across the valley.
They would not speak of their air-fighting, but instead they told me of the long caravans, dragging desperately across Central Poland, and how, as they went, the German fighters would dive and machine-gun men, women and children. Very few of the poor, with their slow-going wagons, ever escaped from Poland.
We were out of Piludski republic now. This was the summer residence of a Russian landowner – the Russia of another time – of which the Countess Chodkiewicz was the fitting centre.
The Countess had a stoic dignity. She realized, even then, that she might not live many days. Yet she said only:
‘Mademoiselle, do you know how far it is the Russian frontier? A hundred and fifty kilometres. It is not the Germans whom we think of here’.
Our ignorance was equalled by that of the British Embassy and the rest of the diplomatic corps. Settled at Nałenczow, a spa not far from Lublin, they found themselves cut off from everything. Many of the telegrams they sent, I was told later, never reached the addresses at all. It took them two or three hours to put a telephone call through. No communications reached them in Nałenczow, save perhaps an occasional telegram. Such disorganisation was understandable in Katowice or Cracow, with the Germans a few kilometres away: but hardly so in a town that was the centre of government.
In the morning I felt how things had changed in the city. The German air-offensive was severe now, a raid every few hours, and the townspeople were badly frightened. They grouped in the hallways of apartment blocks and talked. The poorer people collected under archways and looked at the sky. A message was sent up, asking that the Union Jack be removed from our balcony, so as not to ‘attract' raiders. Lublin was going through a process we were to see repeated elsewhere; it was being eaten to the bone. Some food remained in the shops, in the restaurants there was almost none at all. The increasing number of refugees had upset the town's whole economy. I was even more disturbed by the signs of demoralisation among the Polish officers.
As we walked down the stairs the wireless in the crowded foyer was announcing, in Polish. It blared into God Save the King. We stopped, and I steadied myself against the wall. For me it was the worst moment of the war. First reactions are always personal, and I thought of my years on the staff of the League of Nations Union, and the organising of the Peace Ballot. All that we had worked for seemed lost. London would be bombed, and the friends and the buildings that I loved, destroyed. My thought broadened. Would the future of Europe be the future of Wells' Things to Come? Annihilation, with plague and anarchy to follow? Or should we, after all, build a new and better League of Nations? Or a Federation of Europe? Could we establish social democracy if we destroyed this new tyranny, even though we had failed to establish it after destroying the old ones? Meanwhile, the Polish porter ran forward and kissed my hands, while the radio switched into the Marseillaise. I felt a little sick, and recollected that neither Britain nor France could prevent all these people falling into German hands.
Soon after dawn the sound of heavy artillery was plain, and it grew obvious that Cracow would not be secure for long. I took a car out on the Katowice road, but I could not get far, it had become part of the battlefield. This was the only part of my war which looked as war does in books and films and stories. The Poles were concentrated round a cluster of farms by the hamlet of Dolova, and were still busy digging support-trenches in the hard soil. More field telephones were being erected by small parties of soldiers. Overhead, airplanes - mostly bombers - flew incessantly. Horse-drawn field-kitchens, fodder and supply waggons, wheeled equipment of all sorts was being hurried away over fields and rutted lanes to the north-east. I was surprised to see, as I drove by, that both the large barracks and the temporary flying-field used by the air-force were deserted. Ambulances passed me continually, converted motor-buses with their windows whitewashed to conceal the wounded roughly packed on the ordinary seats. Everything showed me that the army was likely to fall back at any hour.
The Poles had always boasted that, in case of invasion, their industry should never fall intact into German hands. In confidence, they had even justified their failure to make the necessary capital improvements in their industrial plant on the ground that they might be forced to destroy it. I was therefore surprised to see foremen and workmen leaving their work without an effort to sabotage the machinery or flood the mines. In one pit they even managed to prevent such measures by a sit-down strike. A French director of the Franco-Polish Zinc Company, who had returned to ensure the flooding of their property, was not allowed to take any action at all.
Just outside Cracow the Poles had lately opened a grand new bridge, to avoid a dangerous level crossing. Near to it large numbers of men were digging away in the hard earth, making trenches for what I reckoned must be the second line of defence. There was no civilian traffic, other than the refugees in their carts; but there were plenty of army lorries, and I could see troop-trains drawn up in the open country, full of men and guns, without an attempt at camouflage. At one point I noticed large numbers of horses, camp kitchens and tents being brought up, with fresh field telephones by the roadside, all evidence of troop-concentrations in the low hills and woods.
I had just returned to the Consulate when everyone ran to the windows. Thirty or forty young men, the oldest not above twenty, were marched by under double guard. All wore swastika arm-bands. Hearing the guns and alarm, they had assumed that the Germans forces were through. Their long-prepared badges on their arms, they had catapulted onto the streets, yelling 'Heil Hitler!' Instead of a popular rising, they had found troops to surround and disarm them. A few minutes after this, we heard two lorries crash by. They were full of workmen, their clothes ripped, smeared with blood and dirt. They were crouching in a ring of soldiers, and every time one raised a head, a rifle-butt drove it down again. These men had been involved in another Nazi revolt. When I drove to lunch I passed a court, behind a new where I had often seen French films; I saw out of the tail of my eye the improvised sheds, the figure with rifles up, and guessed those others against the wall. The volley sounded as my car took the hill beyond.
Slam! Slam! ... a noise like doors banging. I woke up. It could not be later than five in the morning. Next, the roar of airplanes and more doors banging Running to the window I could pick out the planes, riding high, with the guns blowing smoke-rings below them. There was a long flash into the town park, another, another. Incendiary bombs? I wondered.
I had arranged for a car to come on the first hint of alarm, but it did not arrive. We stood, drank coffee, walked about the rooms and waited; I was alternately cursing my driver and wondering whether the Telegraph would produce a Special Edition for my news. The war, as a tragic disaster, was not yet a reality.
Though nothing had yet come into the newspapers, much had been going on. There had been a series of minor bomb explosions, always against property of the German minority and always ineffective. Then serious railway sabotage had been discovered. Following the shooting of a policeman the plot had come out.