Boleslaw Kozub, soldier and butcher. Born: 13 August 1915 in Raclawice, Poland. Died: 25 November 2016, in Edinburgh, aged 101.
When Boleslaw Kozub proudly donned his army uniform and left a little family farewell party to start his national service he had no idea it would be 21 years before he saw his village again.
It was 1938, tension in Europe was deepening and what followed was an epic journey – emotionally and geographically – as the young Polish butcher found himself caught up in one of the most tumultuous periods in his country’s history.
Escaping the clutches of both the Nazis and the invading Soviet Union he made his way across ten countries to fight with his nation’s army in exile, taking part in one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War, the liberation of France, Belgium and Holland and being decorated for valour.
Just days before the end of the conflict he married his fiancée in Edinburgh and went on to become a naturalised British citizen, returning to Poland for the last time on his 100th birthday – to receive the Freedom of Krakow.
The city is just south of his birthplace, Raclawice, where he grew up the second youngest of seven children. Although ostensibly wealthy compared to the local peasant farmers – the family owned a flour mill – the youngsters had a difficult and impoverished childhood due to their largely absent father. As a result of inadequate nutrition he developed rickets, aged just four, and was not expected to survive.
However, three years later he became the first member of the family to attend school, completing his education in the nearby town of Olkusz at 14 and later gaining an apprenticeship in Krakow as a cooked meats butcher. He loved the city life and dreamed of opening his own shop.
Then in 1938 he signed up for his two years’ national service, planning to return to Krakow on its completion. He was attached to the 1st Railway Engineer battalion, tasked with ensuring the railway lines functioned efficiently during conflict. Battalion recruits were generally well-educated and intelligent and he was swiftly promoted to corporal. But all too soon he would see action.
Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September, 1939 and that day the Luftwaffe attacked his barracks. They returned to do the same the next day and on 3 September – the day that Britain declared war against Germany – the unit was evacuated through Bochnia and Stanisławów in the east of the country. Then, two weeks later the Soviet Union invaded Poland, and the soldiers were evacuated again, this time towards the Romanian border..
After a week-long train journey they arrived in Budapest before going on to Nagykanizsa, not far from the Yugoslav border, where they were interned. Although conditions were difficult they enjoyed a degree of freedom, even leaving the camp under escort. Meanwhile, they were also preparing to escape. The Red Cross had sent shirts and clothing, which turned out to be London Transport drivers’ uniforms, and on 13 April, 1940, Kozub and a large contingent of fellow internees set off for a walk, wearing the civilian clothes under their cloaks. He and a number of others detached from the group and escaped, ending up in a civilian camp where he received new documents and Yugoslavian currency and took the name Ciesielski.
A train was waiting at the border station for the Polish soldiers, who were concealed in a coal cart for the journey into Yugoslavia.
He spent four days in Zagreb before escaping onwards to France via Venice and Turin. Eventually, in Angers, on the edge of the Loire Valley, a sapper unit was formed and he was provided with an old uniform and a single-shot rifle.
Following the German invasion and the fall of France a few weeks later, Polish commanders decided to evacuate some troops to Britain. Kozub walked 40km before managing to get a train to Bordeaux and on to the French Port de Saint-Jean-de-Luz near the Spanish border. There he boarded the Polish transport ship MS Batory, zig-zagging across the sea to avoid U-boats, to Plymouth.
The 1st Polish Corps was formed and he was attached to the 1st Company 1st Battalion of Engineers, established on 30 June, 1940. Soon the Polish army was on the move to Scotland, where he built sea defences and laid minefields. In February 1941 the unit moved to Arbroath, where they installed anti-aircraft artillery and machine gun positions.
By 1943 he had undergone specialist training and was on manoeuvres with the Armoured Division in England where they later joined a Canadian division. In July 1944 they headed for France where, the following month, he took part in the decisive Battle of the Falaise Gap which saw an entire German army surrounded and destroyed. Kozub and his colleagues then made the second Allied crossing of the Seine, in just 28 hours, and Paris was liberated on 25 August.
The 1st Armoured Division took part in the liberation of France, Belgium and Holland where the grateful city of Breda gave all Poles honorary citizenship and Kozub was among those honoured with the Cross of Valour. Led by General Maczek, in April 1945 the division also liberated Obelangen concentration camp where Polish women soldiers of the home army had been incarcerated following the Warsaw Uprising.
Soon afterwards, Kozub was granted leave and returned to the UK in May where he married his sweetheart Catherine Mackenzie. They were on honeymoon when the war in Europe ended but army life continued for the bridegroom, who was stationed in Ashendorf, Germany, until being demobbed in April 1947. He returned to Edinburgh where, as a Pole, work was not easy to find. He was employed in a Fountainbridge rubber factory and in C and J Brown, house furnishers in Newington before returning to his trade as a butcher with Adams in Dalkeith for the remainder of his working life.
In 1959, two years after becoming a British citizen, he finally returned to Poland with his wife and three children.
Back in Scotland, he was an active member of Edinburgh’s Polish community, sang in the Polish Echo choir and, in retirement, began to paint and taught himself to play the clarinet and piano.
Last February he was presented with the Polish Gold Cross of Merit for services to his homeland and six months later his 100th birthday was spent flying to Krakow for a four-day celebration. Already an honorary citizen of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, he was met with a guard of honour and soldiers from his old battalion before a VIP reception, meetings with military officers and a gathering of five generations of his family.
Divorced and predeceased by his youngest son Peter, he is survived by son Richard, daughter Denyse, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.