Born: 18 August, 1918, in Poland. Died: 22 November, 2013, in Kirkcaldy, aged 95
MICHAEL Czeredrecki was one of the last survivors of an extraordinary band of Polish paratroopers formed in Scotland with the sole aim of liberating their Nazi-occupied homeland.
By the time he reached Scotland, he had already suffered unimaginable hardships – he was orphaned as a five-year-old, commandeered by the Russian army as a young man and exiled to a gulag in Siberia – but there were yet more trials to come.
When the plan to use the Polish Parachute Brigade on operations in Poland failed to materialise, he found himself at the heart of a disastrous mission over the Netherlands and ended up in a German stalag.
However, with the fortitude that proved his lifelong hallmark, Czeredrecki escaped, made his way west and eventually returned to Scotland, where he married his sweetheart and remained for almost 70 years, building a fulfilling life and successful business as a self-taught tailor.
He returned twice to Poland, once walking across the border into Ukraine to greet a long-lost sister, but he regarded Scotland as his home.
Born Michal Czeredrecki, he was the son of Andrzej and Antonina, farmers in the village of Jablovanow, in south-east Poland, near to the Ukrainian border. The baby of the family, he was raised by his five older sisters after the deaths, in quick succession, of his father and mother.
In 1939, just days before the German invasion of Poland heralded the Second World War, eastern Poland became Russian territory under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, a Nazi-Soviet non-aggression agreement in which each side pledged not to attack the other.
Like thousands of other Poles, Czeredrecki was taken from his home by Russian troops and, having refused to join them, was transported to the sub-zero depths of Siberia. It was so cold, he recalled, that people lost fingers and toes, and in some cases their nose.
In June 1941, Germany broke the pact and attacked the Soviet Union, leading to General Władysław Sikorski, prime minister of the Polish government in exile, striking a deal for the release of all Polish soldiers. As a result, Czeredrecki made his way to Persia, joining a new Polish fighting force under the command of General Wadyslav Anders, who had been amassing an army in exile. Czeredrecki spent some time in the Middle East with Anders’ army until being recruited as a paratrooper. He had volunteered, as it meant more money, and was shipped to Scotland where the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade was formed in September 1941.
His journey took him down the coast of Africa and over to South America, avoiding U-boats, to the UK. En route they stopped at Mombasa to refuel and restock. Incredibly, Czeredrecki found one of his sisters Michelina, and her son Jozef, in a refugee camp there.
She broke the news that the family farm had been razed to the ground and all her brothers-in-law killed. Her sisters had gone into hiding in Poland and only she had made her way out. Her brother would later bring her to Scotland where she stayed for a couple of years before moving to England where she married again, to another fellow Pole.
Meanwhile, the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade was training at its headquarters in Largo House, Leven, going through their paces on an assault course and practising jumps from a specially-constructed tower. They also trained at a Manchester aerodrome and by 1944 the brigade was more than 3,000-strong, all hoping to parachute into Warsaw and reclaim their country. But instead of liberating Poland, they were ordered to take part in Operation Market Garden, the bold but doomed airborne offensive to seize strategic bridges around Arnhem in the Netherlands, which Field-Marshal Montgomery hoped would hasten the end of the war. It began on 17 September, 1944, when British paras went in, but they were immediately met with resistance and ultimately failed to capture the bridge at Arnhem.
The Polish Parachute Regiment’s drop, scheduled for 19 September, was delayed by bad weather and when they finally took off on the 21st, it was for a new drop zone at Driel. Czeredrecki’s war effectively ended there when he became tangled in a tree and was injured. The Germans were waiting for him and he was captured and sent to a stalag.
The British 1st Airborne Division lost almost three-quarters of its strength in the operation, the Polish brigade lost almost a quarter. The Battle of Arnhem and Montgomery’s mission were deemed a failure, making little headway into the Netherlands.
Soon after arriving in Scotland, Czeredrecki had met his future wife, May Brooks, and, by another coincidence, ended up being sent to the same prisoner of war camp as her brother Alex. Both men later managed to escape and make it safely to Scotland, though on the way Czeredrecki had met some American troops, who offered to take him to Berlin – a suggestion he politely rejected.
Back in Scotland, he returned to his brigade where among their number was one of the most famous privates of the Second World War – Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear and honorary soldier. Acquired by the army in 1942 as a cub in the mountains of Persi, (now Iran), he lived and fought with the Polish soldiers. He spent two years in the Middle East and joined the push through Italy and the triumph at Monte Cassino where, as a member of 22nd Transport Company of the Artillery section he supplied ammunition and food to the soldiers, carrying boxes of live shells from lorries to gun emplacements.
He boosted their morale, smoked cigarettes and drank beer just like his human comrades. When the soldiers were billeted back in Scotland, Wojtek came too and Czeredrecki recalled how the bear would fish salmon out of the river, wait by the tents of the soldiers for their return and, on occasion, tip his bathwater out in defiance. Wojtek died in Edinburgh Zoo in 1963 and a memorial to him is planned for the capital’s Princes Street Gardens.
After being demobbed, Czeredrecki married May in Cupar in the summer of 1946 and worked initially down the mines in Fife. But, based on his experience of altering uniforms in the army, he decided to become a tailor. He qualified through a correspondence course, making up suits and sending them off on the train to London for his work to be assessed.
He opened a tailor’s, Michael’s, at his home in Leven’s Forth Street and his wife opened a dress shop downstairs. The business operated for more than 30 years until he retired, aged 65.
Work and family were the focus of his life, along with the large Polish community in Fife. Though he never returned to his home village, he visited Poland twice in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was reunited on the Ukrainian border with one sister, who was by then an old woman.
A man who had known terrible hardships, he had adapted easily to life in Scotland and developed an astonishing ability to overcome obstacles, always with a ready smile. When his wife died 12 years ago, he remained stoic, active and independent, travelling to South Africa to visit family and revelling in the company of his grandchildren.
He is survived by his son Stanislaw, daughter Marianna, grandchildren Nadia, Nicola and Nina and grandson Daniel Michael.