HE RODE WITH THE COSSACKS
Cyril Rofé seldom feels strange in strange countries. Born
in Cairo on April 11, 1916, he was educated at Clifton and Chillon
College, trained for the hotel business at the Swiss Hotel School in
Lausanne and, after a period at the May Fair Hotel in London, went to
the Bristol, in Vienna, where he acquired a love of opera and skiing.
He got out ten days after Hitler marched into Austria, and on the
outbreak of war volunteered for aircrew. While waiting for training
he joined the Scots Guards special ski battalion, which was intended
for Norway, and when this was disbanded went into the Air Force and
trained as an observer (navigator and bomb aimer). Short, wiry and
always determined, he was in the crew of a Wellington bomber of No.40
Squadron which was shot down into the Maas Estuary on, June 11,
Authentic Stories of
The R.A.F. Escaping Society
The Escape of Cyril Rofé
Cyril Rofé, This picture was taken just after he reached freedom wearing the uniform the Russians gave him.
HE RODE WITH THE COSSACKS
The first time he escaped Cyril Rofé tried walking to Switzerland, where his mother was living, but after ten days' tramping through woods and hills towards Czechoslovakia some week end blackberry pickers pointed him out to a forester armed with a shotgun. Back in the cells at Lamsdorf, the Germans regarded him with the customary distaste shown to Palestinian soldiers in the British Army, unaware that the Jewish private whose name he had assumed was fraudulently bearing Rofé's name, rank and status as a flight sergeant navigator in the well guarded R.A.F. compound. Rofé of course, like James Dowd, welcomed the soldier's obligation of going out on the lightly guarded working parties.
His friends considered that, if he was so keen to escape by walking through Germany, it was asking for trouble to go as a Jewish soldier, but Rofé's attitude was a kind of stubborn loyalty to his race. He himself was an English Jew, though his small, wiry frame and broken nose looked untypical.
After the cells he went out with another working party to a Polish coal mine, where, as a most reluctant miner, he took to absenteeism and headed on foot for Danzig to stow away on a boat for Sweden. Half way to Danzig a Polish collaborator gave him away and, back in the Lamsdorf cells, the Germans said that if he made any more trouble he was liable to find himself next time in one of the special camps for Jews. Enough rumours had come out of Auschwitz to make their meaning clear. A couple of guards hinted with satisfaction that all Jewish prisoners would finish up in the special camps anyway.
The winter stopped escape activities for a while, and in the spring of 1944 the arm that was badly broken when he was shot down gave him more trouble, so that it was summer before he went out on another working party, this time to help build wooden barracks near Schomberg and Kattowitz, in the far east of Germany, the so called "Little Ruhr " where the borders of Poland and Czechoslovakia ran down towards the Tatra Mountains.
It was a long way from either Switzerland or Sweden, and he was wryly pondering that point when it occurred to him that only two hundred miles to the east was the advancing Russian Army, and that this distance was liable to be less before long. He had been caught twice trying to escape in the obvious direction; why not, he thought, go the unexpected way? The longest way round might be the quickest way home. He asked Karl Hillebrand, a thin, studious looking Palestinian corporal on the working party, if he would like to try it with him. "Might be Auschwitz if we're caught," Hillebrand said. "It might be Auschwitz anyway," Rofé answered. "The only way we can make sure of never seeing Auschwitz is to get away from the Huns."
"What about getting through the German lines?" "Well, the whole area's chaotic. Even if we can't get through we can hide up somewhere and wait till the Russians bust through." "O.K.," Hillebrand said, "I'm game."
By August 20, through exercising P.O.W. talents for bribery, ingenuity and theft, they each had forged papers showing them to be Belgian electrical workers with permits to travel to Saybusch, a hundred marks and a store of chocolate, biscuits and cigarettes. Rofé had an old grey suit, grey trilby and a brief case, and Hillebrand had a black jacket, grey trousers and also a trilby.
At 5.30 a.m. on that day the German guard clumped through the barracks yelling, "Raus! Raus! " and as soon as he had gone they pulled their civilian clothes from under the wood-wool palliasses, put them on, pulled borrowed overalls over them and straggled out with the other hundred or so prisoners to the untidy patch where they had been (not very efficiently) putting up the prefabricated huts.
The others, well briefed, started milling around in confusion and Rofé and Hillebrand slipped into one of the finished huts, where they tore off the overalls, put on their hats and walked out of the hut like honest Germans. A couple of the prisoners winked, though most of them were clustering round the guards asking silly questions and diverting their attention. Rofé passed, poker faced, within five yards of one of the guards, forcing himself to walk naturally, but the guard did not even look at him, and then he and Hillebrand had turned the corner of the last but and were away.
They waited in the silent streets of Schomberg for the cross country tram to Beuthen, and as a man walked down the street towards them Hillebrand quietly swore, grabbed Rofé's arm and swung him so that they both faced away. "He was working on the wiring at the huts the other day," Hillebrand hissed. "He would remember me."
The man stopped just behind them, and they stayed looking nervously and self consciously the other way till the tram arrived and the man climbed into the front compartment. They got into the rear, and the man never glanced round all the way to Beuthen.
In Beuthen they were waiting for another tram to Kattowitz, and a policeman stopped and eyed them speculatively. Rofé turned half away and out of the corner of his eye saw the policeman walking towards him. Sometimes dread is paralysing and nauseous. The policeman was standing by his elbow and said something in German, evidently a question. Rofé's German was not very good and he did not understand it. He looked dumbly.
The German spoke again, more slowly.
Ah, the time Rofé looked at his watch and said, with an attempt at a smile, "Sechs Uhr and Halb."
The policeman smiled; he spoke slowly again and Rofé incredulous, understood that he was apologising for not speaking German properly. He was Ukrainian; the policeman was saying, not German. It seemed to give him an inferiority complex. Hillebrand, who's German was faultless, had moved to the rescue and was telling the policeman kindly that everyone could not be German. They chatted amiably until the tram arrived and the policeman got in with them and talked all the way to Kattowitz, which was reassuring when two more police got in at a little village and looked arrogantly round the tram.
At Kattowitz they boarded a train for Saybusch, and a woman in the opposite seat insisted on telling them about the time she was bombed out of Berlin and what she would do to any R.A.F. airman she got her hands on. Rofé left most of the talking to Hillebrand, bracing himself to agree with the woman now and then.
He thought they were getting away with it nicely, but that made the shock all the worse when a railway policeman swung through the far door and moved from person to person, examining travel permits. There was no escape and their papers were not expert; when the man stood by the seat Rofé handed over the two permits, not bringing himself to look directly at him. The man looked and said something, and as Rofé lifted his eyes fearfully he vanished behind the seat with the papers.
They heard him in amazement talking to the people behind, explaining that these were the sort of papers they must have to travel, and they had better have them next time. And then the policeman was back, handing them their passes with a polite smile, and moving on. At Saybusch they walked briskly east out of the town and not till they were out of sight of the houses did Rofé feel confidence seeping back into him.
At dusk they slept in a small wood and at dawn walked again, cutting across fields towards the peak of Rabingora that rose out of the flat, Silesian plain miles ahead. Somewhere near Rabingora Germany ended, though their home made map did not indicate exactly where. Skirting fields where peasants worked, they came at night to the foot of the mountain and rested.
At midnight Rofé woke Hillebrand; a hush lay over the country and a thin slice of moon shed just enough light to outline the black tree trunks. Hillebrand pulled on his boots and they walked up the mountain. At first light they climbed over a saddleback and came to a swathe about five yards wide cut through the forest; a few yards along it lay a white stone shaped like a tiny pyramid. They could see the letter "D" on the side facing them.
"This is it," Rofé said excitedly. He ran up to the stone and saw on another side the letter "S," felt a momentary dismay, and on the last side was "P." "Polska," he said, as though he had found a gold mine. The "S," he guessed, was for Slowakei (Slovakia). They must be a little south of course at the point where Germany, Slovakia and Poland met. He kicked some dirt over the letter "D," said " Good bye, Deutschland" with great feeling and they walked east through the trees into Poland. Poland was thickly occupied by Germans and the "Quisling" Polish police, but that could not damp the joy of being out of Germany.
The next eight days were remarkable not for narrow escapes, but for swift progress and lack of drama. They walked by day along dusty roads, across fields, through woods and sometimes, boldly, through primitive little villages, and nothing went wrong. They tramped steadily south east through the foothills of the Tatra Range, avoiding the main roads to the north on the plain where the Germans were, and in the quiet valleys behind the first ridges made good time along the rough cart tracks, averaging nearly fifteen miles a day.
At night they slept, sometimes in woods and sometimes in peasant barns and hayricks. Every day they walked boldly up to lonely farmhouses and asked for food, finding the peasants simple and friendly. After a day or two Rofé felt it was safe enough to tell them that he was R.A.F. and the effect was invariably gratifying. The peasants almost worshipped him. They gave him and Hillebrand what food they could, but that was not much; they had so little themselves. Usually it was a few potatoes and some milk; sometimes a little bread. Rofé had never seen such poor people. Their houses were of baked mud, brick and thatch, usually divided into two rooms with hard earth floors, and the women went barefoot, dressed in shawls and simple homespun dresses that hung on them like sugar bags.
The market town of Markowa straddled a valley road they were following and rather than climb out of the deep valley to go round it, Rofé suggested they walk straight through. It was the last time they made that mistake. Coming up to the town they saw an S.S. officer standing by the roadside. It was too late to turn back without looking guilty; they walked on, passing within two yards of him and felt his eyes following them. For a terrifying moment he looked as though he were going to challenge them, and then he seemed to relax and they walked thankfully on through the town.
On the other side they were dismayed to see a line of German soldiers supervising gangs of Poles digging trenches obviously a new defence line. Veering away from the road they found more Germans and Poles stretched across the valley and had to climb for two hours over the hills to the side before they struck a clear path through.
Some of the peasants spoke a little German and Rofé and Hillebrand had learned a few pat Polish phrases for asking food and shelter. Isolated in the valleys the farms were self contained little units of life and in the first farm they tried after Markowa the peasant wife was sitting at a spinning wheel producing thread from flax grown by her husband; she also weaved the thread herself and dyed it with home made dyes. The husband grew his own tobacco and wore home made slippers. Rofé and Hillebrand dined with this family, sitting round a big bowl of mashed potato. Each had a spoon and cup of milk, and dinner consisted of dipping the spoon in the communal bowl of potato and then dipping it again in one's own milk.
On the eighth morning, ambling casually through a wood, they heard voices through the trees over to the left and stopped abruptly, hunting for cover, but saw only the thin trunks of the pines where a cat could hardly have hidden. Through the trees three men in dark clothes filed into sight; two of them carried rifles.
"Polish police," Rofé whispered in alarm. He grabbed Hillebrand and as they turned to run one of the men shouted. Two rifles were pointing at them and the third man with a revolver in his hand was running to cut them off.
"Take it easy. Don't run," Hillebrand said. Rofé hesitated a moment and then it was too late.
The one with the revolver, a tall man in his middle thirties, said something sharply in Polish. Rofé and Hillebrand shook their heads. Hillebrand said something in German and the man demanded (also in German), "Who are you?" Hillebrand said frankly, "Escaping British prisoners" and Rofé wanted to strangle him. He had braced himself to bluff it out and now, he thought bitterly, it was all over in a moment without even a show of fight. Hillebrand and the Pole were talking in German but it was too fast for Rofé to follow.
Hillebrand handed over his P.O.W. identity disc; the Pole looked at it and spoke again, and this time Rofé understood "We will help you all we can," the Pole said, and Rofé gaped at him and turned to Hillebrand: "They're going to help us?" "Of course," Hillebrand said, puzzled. "We always thought the partisans would."
"Police have uniforms," Hillebrand said patiently. "These chaps don't. It's the first thing I noticed." He told the Pole with the revolver that Rofé had thought they were pro German police and the Pole nearly wept with laughter, then shook his big fist at Rofé and said slowly in German that he was mortally offended. He introduced himself as Tadek and said he would lead them to a partisan hide out. As they wound through the trees Tadek said they were lucky he had found them; a mile further on lay the wide Poprad River, swarming with Germans building a new defence line.
The hide out was a small clearing where the partisans had built a wooden hut. Sentries were posted around in the woods and about six more men and a girl were in the hut. Rofé as a member of the famous R.A.F. was given a hero's welcome ; Tadek brought out a bottle of brandy and they all drank individual toasts to the R.A.F. and themselves till the bottle was empty. The front line, according to Tadek, was about sixty kilometres away.
"We will try and get you across the Poprad," he said, " but it will be dangerous to try and get through the front. Why do you not stay with us till the battle goes past? "
Neither Rofé nor Hillebrand would think about it. Having come more than a hundred miles in eight days they were too full of confidence, so Tadek shrugged and started telling them about a man called Kmicic who had a partisan band on a mountain called Jaworze, miles across the river.
At midnight, two nights later, he gave them a letter to Kmicic and led them through the woods to the river. The moon was like a cheddar cheese behind a veil of wispy cloud and they lay in the trees and watched a German patrol march along the river bank.
"Now," whispered Tadek, and they ran crouching through undergrowth, across newly dug trenches, down to the water and into a punt. Tadek poled them across while others of his band watched over the gunwales with rifles at the ready. On the far bank Tadek briefly wished them luck and poled the punt back.
The first day was easy walking and that night the wind came from the east and they heard the rumble of guns. In the morning on a dust laden road just below the foothills something stirred in the long grass beside the road and two German policemen rose up out of it, blinking sleep from their eyes. One of them called sharply and Rofé and Hillebrand stopped. There was no option. The police, suspicious from the start, demanded to know who they were, where they had come from, where going, what for, where they had slept the previous night and so on. They snapped the questions one after the other and Hillebrand, impassive but pale, was struggling to answer them. After seeing their papers the police wanted to know what two Belgians were doing so close to the East Front.
By some miracle Hillebrand knew the name of the next village and said they were detailed for work in Binczarowa. At that moment three Poles came along the road; the police stopped them and asked if there was any work for electricians in Binczarowa and the Poles, after hesitating, said "Yes." God, the relief as the police sourly waved them all on.
For days the two of them tramped around Jaworze mountain, and one night, at a friendly farm, they came face to face with Kmicic, an elusive, blue eyed, dynamic young man who was the hero of the district. Hearing that they wanted to get through to the Russians, he frowned and said they should wait till the Russian lines over ran them. Only when both Rofé and Hillebrand insisted they were going through did he admit that there was, perhaps, one way.
Both armies, he said, were massing for a battle round Tarnów, to the north, and due east of Jaworze was a hilly, wooded area where the front seemed to be fluid. One of his band, a Russian soldier called Achmetow who had escaped from the Germans, might be able to lead them through.
In another hut in the woods he introduced them to Achmetow, a cherubic little man in remnants of tattered Russian uniform. Achmetow spoke a little German and his round apple of a face grinned obligingly at the risky prospect of rejoining his own troops. Kmicic drew them a map and on the morning of September 17 Rofé Hillebrand and Achmetow, keyed up, started east. The guns were thumping louder at night now but still sounded far away.
All the first day they kept asking peasants where the line was, but the peasants shook their heads vaguely until a farmer who had lived years in America and spoke fluent English with an American accent, said, shrugging and throwing his hands out expressively, that there was no line. Some Russians had broken through not far away and scattered patrols of both sides were ranging over the country. Two days ago some Russians had been reported only three kilometres away. Rofé said, when they had left the farmer, "I don't like this. There must be a line somewhere."
"It can't be very near or we'd be seeing Germans," Hillebrand answered. "The guns must have been a good ten miles away last night."
A small river meandered across their path the Visloka, according to the map and they were walking along the winding bank when, a hundred yards ahead,
three men stepped out of the shade of some trees and stared at them.
Rofe had stopped dead. "What sort of uniform is that?" he asked. It was just too far to pick out the details.
"I don't know," Hillebrand said uncertainly.
Achmetow, very excited, swung round to them and said, "Russki! Russki! "
"They can't be," Rofe said, but Achmetow was running madly ahead. They watched him talking excitedly to the three men and then he turned and beckoned wildly. As he went cautiously forward Rofe could see that the three men had medals on both sides of their chests, black fur caps and dark uniforms with rather full cut trousers tucked into riding boots.
"My God, they are Russians," he yelled, and broke into a run. He could make out the officer's tabs on their shoulders and as he came up to them one of them, a middle aged man, said in German: "You are British?"
"Royal Air Force," Rofe announced.
"We are the Red Army," declared the officer and Rofe said breathlessly, "Deutschland kaput! Deutschland kaput! "It was all he could think of to say.
He was grinning and shaking hands and he and Hillebrand were both talking at once while the Russians regarded them tolerantly.
"I can't understand it," Rofe marvelled when things were a little quieter. "We've come right through the German lines and not seen a German. I thought it was terrible fighting on this front."
"This is not the front," said the middle aged officer, shaking his head. "There are plenty of Germans back there." He turned and pointed behind, east, and added soberly, "We have been cut off for three weeks. The Germans are behind us trying to ... "He pulled a finger across his throat, and Rofe felt as though he had been hit in the stomach. The Russian sensed the shock he had delivered and said cheerfully, "It is not the first time we have been cut off. The Cossacks are used to it."
"You are Cossacks?" Hillebrand asked, and the Russian nodded and took off his black fur cap, showing the red top and the crossed gold braid over it.
Waving his hand behind, he said that the rest of the Cossacks were camped in the fields and suggested they go back with Achmetow to join them. Rofé and Hillebrand said a wry farewell and walked off with Achmetow.
"No peace in this bloody war," Hillebrand said disconsolately and Rofé had to laugh at the unconscious humour. Half a mile on they came to the first Cossack units, scores of men in dark, coarse uniforms, lounging on the ground, nearly all with tommy guns beside them; nearby were horse lines and narrow farm type waggons with sloping sides. Achmetow spoke to some of the men and they pointed down a cart track that cut between the fields.
For two hours they followed the track, staggered at the thousands of Russians camped in the fields. They looked so peaceful, as though no war existed and no enemy encircled them. Achmetow said they were a division of the Fourth Cossack Corps and he was trying to find division headquarters.
At a field kitchen a grinning Russian soldier with a threedays' beard stubble gave them hunks of bread and a plate of meat, and it occurred to Rofé that he, himself, must look even worse. He suggested to Hillebrand that they freshen up to meet the general and a little later, when they came to a stream, he made Achmetow wait while they stripped and swam and shaved.
In the shelter of a fringe of wood they came to a low, white farmhouse; Achmetow vanished inside and a minute later Rofé was startled to see a girl coming out. She was about twenty three, rather heavily built and dressed in the olive green officer's uniform, including riding boots, though instead of trousers she wore a neat pleated skirt. Walking straight up to them she introduced herself briskly in English as a headquarters' interpreter and asked, politely, if they would wait till the colonel was ready to see them.
Rofé mumbled facetiously about having nowhere else to go, but she did not seem to think that was particularly amusing. Rofé trying hard, said he was surprised to see such a pretty girl in such a dangerous position in the front line of a war, but she took that solemnly, too, saying disconcertingly, "I am not pretty and I do not think it unusual that a Russian girl should be in the front line. There are many of us here. It is our duty." She wanted to know if they were "workers" and when Rofé virtuously said they were she smiled for the first time.
They waited a long time for the colonel. Dusk settled over the fields and they were still waiting when they heard the drone of aircraft, growing louder.
The dark shape of what looked like a Dakota slid over the trees towards them and over the field a cloud of parachutes broke from the plane and floated down. A dozen more planes came over and dropped more supplies and then several antiquated single engined biplanes puttered over the field. Someone flashed a torch at them and one by one they switched on landing lights, sideslipped steeply and made miraculous uphill dusk landings in the field. Under the wings on each side were little nacelles like overload tanks and Cossacks went up with stretchers of wounded men and loaded them into the nacelles like mummies. One by one the planes turned, roared over the field and lifted into the darkness. It was unbelievably quick and efficient.
The girl came out and led them into the house, and, in a low ceilinged room, a dark, heavily built colonel greeted them with grave friendliness. The girl interpreted while they told him of their trip, and in particular of the work of the partisans and the lack of Germans they had encountered. They talked for an hour before the colonel said, "Now you must eat." He called a soldier and they followed the soldier into the woods, coming after a while to another farmhouse. In a warm living room a dozen Russian officers crowded round them with dazzling smiles of welcome. Most were be-medalled and looking very spruce. One produced a bottle of schnapps and while they were drinking another officer brought in two plates of fresh meat and eggs, and bread and butter, and made Rofé and Hillebrand sit at the table and start eating. Rofé thought it was the best food he had eaten since he was shot down but one of the officers, a major called Fyodor, who spoke some German, apologised that it was the best they could do.
They talked for a couple of hours about their adventures and afterwards the major said, "Well, you are all right now. Enjoy yourselves."
"But we are cut off," Rofé said. "We can't very well relax yet, can we?"
"Nichevo," said Major Fyodor explosively, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. He translated Rofé's words to the others and they laughed gaily. "We have been surrounded before," Fyodor said. "We will fight our way back."
"When? " Rofé wanted to know and the major shrugged and said, "Soon. Very soon."
There were two small double beds in the house and around midnight Fyodor bowed Rofé and Hillebrand towards one of them. They both protested strongly, having seen two Russian officers lying on the bed before and guessing that the two usually slept there, but Fyodor insisted. He kept saying,
"You are our guests. We will look after you."
Rofé and Hillebrand got on to the bed, almost purring with the luxury of it and thinking that the Russians would find a bed elsewhere. Again they were shaken to see the two displaced officers take off their boots, stretch out on the hard floor and pull blankets over themselves.
Hillebrand, the humble corporal, whispered to Rofé: "I was just trying to imagine a couple of Russian soldiers as grubby as us going up to a British officers' mess and getting this sort of thing."
In the morning an orderly brought them eggs and meat soup for breakfast. Another orderly came in with letters from home and newspapers for the Russians, dropped by the planes the previous night; Rofé was most intrigued when the Russians, instead of reading the papers, tore them into strips, brought out tobacco pouches and began rolling cigarettes in the newsprint. One of them explained that they had already heard all the news on the radio.
Rofé and Hillebrand had many surprises in the next few days. After breakfast they went for a walk among the troops in the fields with a German speaking Russian and gazed fascinated at the number of girl soldiers who had been lying down on their groundsheets to sleep among the other soldiers in the night.
They watched curiously, but apparently nothing questionable went on. Nothing came off either. The Russians explained that no one ever took their clothes off in the battle line. When they fought their way back, he said, they would all hand their clothes in to a depot, have a bath and be given new uniforms.
"The girls they fight too?" Rofé asked.
The Russian laughed and shook his head, explaining that they were headquarters' secretaries, nurses, interpreters and traffic controllers.
"No trouble among the men?" Rofé persisted, and the Russian said solemnly: "There is no sex in battle. Russian girls in battle are comrades." He added, a little sadly, that things had not always been quite the same since the advance because the Russian girls had seen Polish girls with waved hair and cosmetics. "It has disturbed them a little," he lamented, and added gravely, "Some of them have been buying dresses."
Relations between the soldiers and the girls seemed completely impersonal. The girls never tried to be coquettish and the soldiers virtually ignored them.
When Nature called, the girls went behind a hedge like the soldiers (though not the same hedge). Apart from the skirts they acted and looked just like the men; like the men, too, some of them had lice, though there was nothing remarkable in that. They had not been able to take their clothes off for three weeks. Rofé had lice himself; it was part of the life.
The whole scene seemed so strange and peaceful he could hardly believe they were surrounded by enemies until, on the way back to the farmhouse, heavy guns opened up somewhere across the woods and shells screamed overhead. The Russians paid no attention whatsoever.
More meat for lunch, more meat for supper and they were just finishing when a tall Cossack officer wearing a beautifully cut astrakhan fur coat, sword and spurs clumped into the house and said that everyone must prepare to move.
They slept that night in their boots and at 5 a.m. Fyodor, unshaven and brisk, woke them and said, "We are going to break through."
Outside the door a convoy of waggons was assembling and Rofé and Hillebrand, tense and tingling, climbed into one of them. There was a lot of shouting and bustle and they were jolting over the fields on to a dirt road. Once they stopped and a patrol ran past carrying long, anti tank rifles. Later, explosions and machine gun fire sounded about a mile ahead and after a while the waggons moved on again. In the afternoon they sheltered in a wood and at darkness moved out along a road down into a valley. The moon was thin but bright and a mile or two away in front and on each side flares were bursting in the sky and distant thumps and the rattle of machine guns reached them.
A quarter of a mile ahead a brilliant flash lit the darkness; there was a heavy explosion and then more flashes and explosions. The drivers yelled and whipped at the horses and in a few seconds they were galloping; Rofé crouched against the side of the waggon, clinging grimly as the waggon bucked on the rutted surface. He had a terrifying impression of flashes .and explosions, shouts and hoof beats and the clattering of wheels and then the convoy was slowing up; the waggon stopped and the driver screamed at them to jump off. They did not know what he meant till they saw officers jumping off the other waggons and running up the hill towards the woods. They jumped off and ran after them, and in the cover of the trees found Fyodor, some of the other headquarters' men and several girl officers. In a long line they filed among the trunks up the steep side of the valley until the crashes of the shells sounded fainter and well below. Rofé was breathless and quiet but all the Russians, girls included seemed to be in wonderful spirits, laughing and joking, straggling along as if they were on a midnight picnic.
Without warning, flashes winked a hundred yards ahead and a machine gun rattled terrifyingly. Red streaks of tracer darted at them, the air was full of angry "zips" and Rofé instinctively dived to the side and went rolling down an embankment with the Russians. They lay in a huddle at the bottom.
Fyodor was shouting and some Russians ran off into the trees.
A little later they heard a quick burst from the machine gun and then cracks of rifle fire and some sharp explosions. Someone shouted from above and they were climbing back up the embankment. All the Russians were laughing cheerfully again (including the girl officers) and Rofé gathered that an isolated German machine gun post ahead had been wiped out. A little later more machine gun fire rattled well ahead and Fyodor said they would lie down in the woods where they were and sleep.
Dawn broke grey and wet and they climbed to the heights over the valley and walked east for several miles till they reached a clear saddleback where a road ran just below. Almost immediately machine gun bullets came at them from across the far heights and they scuttled over the saddleback and went on walking east. Rofé could not get over the attitude of the girls they seemed as cheerful as ever and utterly oblivious of their danger. Tired and edgy, he found himself wishing he had their outlook.
At dusk they came down from the ridge to a farmhouse in the valley and there, unbelievably, were the waggons they had left the previous day. A field kitchen served meat stew; they slept again in the woods and stayed there all the next day. Confused as to what was happening, Rofé could not shake off the fear that the purposeful Germans were closing in all round them.
They were. The attack came an hour after darkness. First there were some dull thumps a few hundred yards away. In a few seconds mortar bombs were bursting among the trees; then the machine guns started. Rofé heard shouting and the skin on the back of his neck crawled as he recognised German words. All round in the darkness the Cossacks were screeching. A bullet smacked into a tree trunk two yards from his head. It seemed to go on unnervingly for a long time, and then gradually the firing and the shouting died away. He lay down to sleep but at midnight a Russian roused him and he and Hillebrand followed the others into the waggons which jolted off into the darkness.
At dawn they were sheltering on the edge of a birch wood when the Germans attacked again. First they were shelled, then mortared and then the machine guns and shouting again. The shouts died away and some scattered German JU88's screamed over and the bombs fell. Most were wide but one exploded deafeningly fifty yards away and the blast knocked Rofé off his feet.
With a stub of pencil he noted on a scrappy diary he had started a few days before: "It is terrible being so helpless. I'm unarmed and don't understand a word that's being said so I don't know where we are or where we're going or whether we'll ever get there. I do know that we're nearly out of ammunition."
He and Hillebrand spent another miserable wet and wakeful night among the birch trees and in the morning he could have wept with joy when a bloodstained and bandaged Achmetow walked up to them. They had not seen him for days and he said, not grinning quite so much now and so tired he could hardly stand, that he had been helping to man machine guns. There were so many wounded now, he said, that the wounded had to fight too. Rofé could have guessed that; he had watched the wounded being brought in and loaded into the waggons till the waggons were full. Achmetow said that the doctors had run out of medical supplies.
They moved off at noon, cramming into the waggons among the wounded and breaking out of the wood at a crazy gallop along a valley road. Machine guns spat at them from the heights but the range was too far to be effective and the sweating horses dragged most of the waggons to a pine wooded ridge where they huddled again during the night.
It rained all night and Rofé lay awake the whole time, a groundsheet wrapped tightly round him like a shroud, but the rain soaked through so that he was lying in a puddle, shivering with cold. In the dawn he was stiff and muzzy with tiredness. A Russian gave him a piece of bread it was the first food he had had for twenty four hours. Chewing at the bread he walked briskly around with Achmetow to get warm; Hilllebrand brand said he was too exhausted to walk so they left him propped against a tree trunk.
The earth in the woods was churned into mud by the rain, the waggons and the horses, and they slogged around the confused scene till they came to the fringe of the trees where the hillside sloped gently away to a broad meadowland, grey under mist. Achmetow pointed to a vague line of trees far across the fields and said, " Red Army there." About a mile on each side the woods straggled down into broken ground, framing the meadows in a wide, shallow saucer. Achmetow waved vaguely from side to side, shrugged and said, "Germans" It looked deserted and peaceful. "We will know very soon," he added. "Perhaps by noon" He spoke stolidly but Rofé became conscious that the hollow feeling in his stomach was not only hunger. They turned back into the woods
Shouts and the jingle of harness sounded through the trees; they started running and saw officers cantering about yelling at the soldiers scattered thickly for hundreds of yards through the woods. Some of the waggons were already lurching through the mud, straggling into line and moving parallel to the edge of the woods. Rofé could not find the tree where he had left Hillebrand and ran anxiously through the mud looking for him, but Hillebrand had vanished.
He met Fyodor who pointed ahead at the waggons and said he had seen Hillebrand moving up. Rofé ran along looking in the waggons and suddenly there was a tremendous explosion off to the right followed by the tearing sound of falling trees.
More shells came crashing into the woods and some of the horses were plunging about whinnying with fear. A wagon turned over, spilling the wounded into the mud; the next two waggons picked them up. Rofé ran past two horses lying dead with their bellies ripped open, and then the pines opened into a small gully where a troop of about a hundred Cossacks sat quietly on their horses under the wet trees. On one of the horses Rofé recognised the tall officer in the astrakhan coat. who had come into the divisional mess days ago. He ran across and asked if he had seen Hillebrand. The officer, who could apparently just understand the German, shook his head and as Rofé turned to follow the waggons the officer reached out of the saddle and grabbed his shoulder. He shouted something in Russian and one of the Cossacks walked his horse towards them, leading a brown mare with an empty saddle. The officer grinned gaily at Rofé and jerked his thumb towards the mare. He said in rough German, "Sic kommen mit uns."
Rofé tried to get his foot into the stirrup and a burly Cossack leaned over, grabbed his belt and hoisted him into the saddle. He grinned back at the Cossacks around him, trying to remember how long it was since he had last sat on a horse. They waited while the waggons went crashing past the gully and it must have been half an hour after the last one had gone that the officer stood up in his stirrups, raised his fist and waved it forward, and the troop moved off in single file through the trees.
They were heading a different way from the waggons and Rofé realised with a flutter round his heart that they were moving towards the fringe of the forest. The wet trees pressed all round and no one spoke. The mare seemed to sense the tension; she was whinnying a little, pricking her ears and then laying them back .
They were moving downhill, the horses slithering on the slimy earth. Shots sounded in the distance. Some bodies of men and dead horses lay scattered among the trees and the, mare shied nervously. The trees were thinning and the Cossacks started to fan out on each side. Rofé saw the officer ahead with his fist raised, motionless; he veered to one side reined in alongside the others and saw drat they were lining up on the edge of the trees. Now the mist was gone and two miles across the sunlit meadows he saw clearly the trees where the Red Army was and liberty. Over the flat fields there was no shred of cover. The horses were flank to flank, bobbing their heads nervously so that the harness jingled, and he had the weird feeling that he was in a Hollywood film that had suddenly become real.
Over to the left the tall officer had drawn his sabre; he was waving it round his head so that the blade glinted in the sun and then with a wild yell he slashed it forward and spurred his horse. Wild shouts broke from the line and the horses surged forward, plunged out of the trees in a ragged line and galloped down the slope.
They rode like demons, yelling, spreading out in a long line. Rofé sensed the brutal strength of the mare's shoulders flexing under him, felt gladly that he was firm in the saddle and became conscious of his own yells in the wild chorus that mingled with the drumming of the hooves. Exhilaration swept him.
A horse went down a few yards to one side and he saw fleetingly the rider rolling over and over.
Somewhere, heavy explosions were thumping and he bent lower in the saddle. Puffs of dirt spurted out of the ground and once he heard a "zip" past his ear. The Cossacks were waving their arms and the officer, drawn a little ahead on a beautiful black horse, slashed his sword in a circle over his head. They were pounding over the flat meadows full of fierce joy. The head of a Cossack in front seemed to split and his hat spun crazily back. A fleeting glimpse.
Bullet or shell. He rolled sideways off the horse and the horse was galloping riderless with them. Two more horses went down and Rofé crazily thought he was part of a film again; they were Red Indians, the Light Brigade, the gallant Six Hundred charging into the cannons and the cameras. And yet the taste of reality like iron on the tongue: an R.A.F. Sergeant in a Cossack cavalry charge. Confusion, but madly, madly exciting. Something buzzed sharply by his ear; another horse and rider were down. The mare was blowing hard but still stretched out in the mad gallop. Now only a spasmodic cry sounded and the rest was the thunder of hooves. He heard more bangs and was shocked to see a tank crawling over the grass ahead. Beyond it more tanks were crawling and beside him a Cossack was screaming: "Nasha! Nasha! "The shouting spread along the line and Rofé saw the big red stars on the side of the tanks. They raced straight for them and then they were past the first tank, weaving past the others and dunning up to the trees.
He was reining back and the half crazed mare was breaking the gallop reluctantly, pulling iron mouthed and slowly dropping to a canter while he dragged savagely on the reins. She broke down to a trot as she took him into the trees and he pulled her up and found he was perspiring and shaking. The Cossacks were milling around, laughing and shouting at Russian soldiers spread out in the woods. Rofé saw the slit trenches, a big mortar half hidden by branches, knew he was free, and felt warm joy soaking quietly through him.
An hour later he was drinking vodka with the riotously happy Cossacks in a large tent near a headquarters outside a village, and there, a couple of days later, he met Hillebrand, who had come through on the waggons.
Ten weeks later he was still waiting at another village a few miles back feeling he would go mad soon if something did not happen. The Russians kept saying, "Nichevo," claiming they must wait for orders from Moscow, and one day in December the orders came. A Russian Dakota flew them to Moscow; they went on by train to Murmansk and sailed aboard an aircraft carrier in a convoy. That was almost the worst part; aircraft bombed them and then they ran into a U boat pack and lost several ships. On Christmas Eve Rofé reached London and an intelligence officer, welcoming him with admirable detachment and no interest whatsoever, asked, "Have you come from the other side?"
It sounded for a moment like "The Other Side," and Rofé said dryly, "Yes, I feel in a way I have."
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