KLEMENS RUDNICKI was not only a distinguished soldier of the Second World War, but also a man of such probity and gentleness that he resembled one of those shining icons of Christian knighthood which used to be peddled as examples to the young. The trials and tragedies he lived through seemed to have no effect beyond strengthening his faith and ennobling his personality.
Born in 1897 in the Austrian partition of Poland, he was a product of the slightly naive, deeply religious and chivalrous outlook of the minor Polish gentry. He was drafted into the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914, and, after being wounded on the Italian front, was promoted to lieutenant. In 1918 he joined the newly founded Polish army, and over the next two years commanded a squadron of the 2nd Light Horse regiment in the fierce mounted battles with Budyonny's Red Cavalry Army.
Rudnicki became a professional soldier, and eventually lectured on strategy at the Warsaw Staff College. In 1938 he was given command of the 9th Lancers, the regiment which he took to war the following year. After three weeks of fighting against German armour, he was caught up in the capitulation of Warsaw. He had to march his regiment into German captivity, but not before hiding the colours in a Warsaw church. He escaped at the first opportunity, helped to organise the first resistance networks, and was nominated chief of staff of the Polish underground movement in the zone occupied by the Soviets. This required him to make frequent trips across the German-Soviet demarcation line, and in February 1940 he was arrested by the Soviets while crossing the river San dressed as a peasant.
He was shunted from prison to prison in the company of petty criminals and minor 'enemies of the people', one of whom, a Jewish Communist from Palestine, taught him English. In one of these prisons, he found himself in the same cell as his erstwhile commanding officer, and in order to avoid detection the two had to ignore each other studiously for the duration.
Rudnicki's assumed identity withstood the endless interrogations, and he was therefore not despatched to a gulag or an officers' camp. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years' 'rehabilitation' and assigned as a workman to a brick factory in Kirov.
In 1941, after the signature of the Polish-Soviet pact, he identified himself, and was allowed to join General Anders, who was forming a new Polish Army in Tashkent. This army soon left the Soviet Union, marching through Samarkand, Tehran, Baghdad and Jerusalem. In 1943 it reached Cairo, where it met up with other Polish units. The whole force then took part in the invasion of Italy. Rudnicki took over command of the 5th Division and led the victorious attack on Phantom Ridge at Monte Cassino. He fought at Ancona, after which he was awarded the DSO, and then liberated Bologna. Soon after this, in April 1945, he was transferred to take command of the 1st Polish Armoured Division during the advance into Germany.
In spite of the triumph of finally carrying the war back into Germany, these were bitter times for the Polish soldiers. Having once read out an order of surrender to his regiment in Warsaw in 1939, he now had again to address his men, informing them that their efforts had been in vain.
Like so many others, Rudnicki had to face a life of exile, living in penury as a nobody in London, where he was joined by his wife and two daughters (a third had been killed in the Warsaw Uprising). He did a number of jobs, at one stage running a junk-shop, and ended up restoring antiques. However poor he was, he always managed to look impeccably elegant, even dashing, and good humour was seldom absent from his face. He was immensely popular amongst London Poles, both old and young, partly on account of his charm, partly on account of what he stood for. They don't make them like him any more.Reuse content